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A tribute to Olwen Wymark
David James remembers writer Olwen Wymark who died last week
Olwen was extraordinary. Vibrantly alive and present, raffishly glamourous, fiercely intelligent, often maddening, and with great human fragility. She was a real dame (in the American sense) and the full deal.
Olwen loved writing and writers, and one of her greatest passions was championing writing as a viable profession that would pay the bills. On the Theatre Committee, we always spoke of the ‘career playwright’ and their need for support (she had little truck with funding initiatives aimed at the likes of ‘Mrs. Ding-dong’s Bell-ringing School’). Olwen was chair of the Theatre Committee from 1989 through 1999. She worked closely with David Edgar on drawing the Theatre Writers’ Union into the Guild, was tirelessly involved in endless Arts Council dialogs as a member of their now-gone Drama Panel and through meetings with New Writing officer Charles Hart. She deeply mourned – as did all of us on the Theatre Committee -- the losses over a decade ago of ring-fencing for new writing and of blue-sky bursaries, which gave writers the chance to freely explore new ideas and themes. Often together or with others like Neil Duffield, we trawled the regional ACE offices, talking to Drama Officers, some of whom, like Alison Gagen at West Midlands and Ian Tabron in Manchester were cherished allies, and some of whom felt like a total waste of space. But we kept at it. It was a time when regional new writing policy very much depended on the commitment of the officer in place. She was always in a dialog with SOMEBODY.
Olwen’s own writing was very precious to her. Although I can’t speak fully about her writing credits, her most prominent play was certainly Find Me (1977), which is still often a set text on UK school syllabi, and she would glow with pride when receiving a letter from a student, about how the play remained relevant. She approached every project, from the smallest to the biggest (which included a massive – and brilliant – adaptation of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, with her old friend Paul Schofield) with equal commitment. She would go to the British Library day after day in her little car to write SOMETHING on a yellow pad in her great, scrawling hand; and – as for all of us – it pained her deeply how difficult it was to actually get something commissioned and produced. I remember a late reading at John Calder’s bookstore (John was another old friend) when she spoke so movingly about how she always struggled with her writing.
Born in Oakland, California, she moved to London in 1951, married the actor Patrick Wymark, raised four children – Jane, Rowan, Dominic and Tristram – and had several grandchildren as well. She took great pride in being the granddaughter of W.W.Jacobs, the author of the classic horror story, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. It seemed she knew EVERYBODY – and had a wicked story about many of them (although she was rigorously polite on public occasions – you ever knew when you might offend someone and put off a potential commission!)
After she inveigled me into taking over the chair of the Theatre Committee in 1999 (‘Something wonderful is going to happen to you, and you just have to let it.’), she remained deeply involved and we became great friends as well as allies. Many, many, many Sunday afternoons I would take my dog on the bus to her flat and we would sit over tea and biscuits at the kitchen table discussing writing and theatre and politics (I introduced her to ‘The International Herald Tribune’, and as ex-pats, we were both deeply interested in American issues) and love and sex and men. (On one visit, she would be adamant that I should be looking for a younger man. On the next visit, she would argue what a terrible idea that would be.) She was the only person I know who could match me in the frequency with which we could use the ‘F’ word in casual conversation. And then, often, extending the visit, she would drive the dog and me home again in the current little car.
She often drove me crazy. And I loved her. And all of us in the Guild have been very fortunate to have had her in our corner.
Former Guild President David Edgar adds:
My sadness at the news of Olwen Wymark's death - on the day of the Writers' Guild AGM - was quickly overtaken by the wit and wonder of David James's tribute, bringing back the best of memories of the wonderfully vibrant woman we both knew. Olwen was an early member of the Theatre Writers' Union, and was instrumental in giving the union a legal status which allowed it to enter into agreements. As such, she became a steely battler with the various factions who wanted to keep the union in a state of impotent purity. She was crucial in bringing the long campaign for TWU to enter the Guild to a successful conclusion. She chaired the Guild theatre committee - and led its negotiations with the Arts Council - over many years. Her knowledge of the legal and contractual architecture within which playwrights operate - and her willingness to devote gargantuan amounts of labour to improving it- was second to none. She made a unique contribution to the betterment of the pay and condition of playwrights over the last 30 years.
In addition to knowing her quirky, absurdist original plays, and her magnificent adaptations for stage and radio, I knew Olwen as a teacher. I managed to persuade her to get the train to Birmingham once a week to tutor students on Britain's first masters' course in playwriting studies, a job custom-built for someone with her insights as a playwright and her no-nonsense attitude to that craft. With Clare McIntyre and Bryony Lavery, she was part of a trio of brilliant women writers who helped to invent a new academic discipline, as well as arming many new playwrights to make their own careers.
In that, as in her union work, Olwen made a real difference. As David wrote, she was a great person to have in your corner. All playwrights are in her debt.