A life story, letter by letter, on stage and on the radio
YOU COULD very accurately describe Vanessa Rosenthal as a lady of letters. Not just because as an actress she is currently playing Doreen in Lady of Letters, one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
However it’s her own work that qualifies her for that title. Of the 28 plays she’s written for BBC radio, several are adaptations of letters, including those of Jane Austen. She was also the co creator of the iconic Writing The Century, a dramatisation of the history of the 20th Century told through unpublished letters, diaries and memoirs for Woman’s Hour between 2007 and 2014.
Her work has been nominated for BAFTA awards and one play, set during the Holocaust, Exchanges in Bialstock, starring David Horovitch, was chosen to represent the BBC at the European Broadcasting Union Conference, Helsinki 2003. She’s particularly proud of that, she tells me, because it came from her own family’s story.
“My grandfather Eleazer Rozental arrived here in 1887 aged 21 from Bialystok. I had gone there in search of my ancestor Herschel Rozental. My father spoke of him as a student and as a brave young man who played his part in the Bialystok ghetto uprising. Later, much later, after my father had died, I found out that Hershel was a prominent activist in a Zionist Youth Group and when the Germans took over the city he fled to the forests with the other partisans.”
Yet her writing career was down to chance; her first dream was to be an actress.
“My mother, Hilda, was very briefly a professional actress. She was working at Rusholme Rep company but met my father, Leonard, who was a GP and quite traditional; he didn’t want his wife to be an actress. It was sad in a way because she was about to be the lead in a new play, and adaptation of Walter Greenwood’s book, Love On The Dole.” The part went to a complete unknown, the company’s assistant stage manager in the company, one Wendy Hiller who took it to the West End and became a star.
Her mothers’ love of theatre never waned and she took her children, Vanessa and Judith to plays, surrounding them with literature.
Now a young-looking septuagenarian, grandmother of five, Rosenthal was born and brought up in Manchester but now lives in Leeds. When she declared her intention to be an actress, she met with stiff opposition from her father, who insisted she get a teaching certificate when she went to drama school. After training she did two years in rep in Surrey.
She had to stand up to her family again when she married. Her Vanessa Rosenthal in husband, Dr James Walsh, who died ten years ago, was without doubt the love of her life but, she says “There was huge opposition. Jim was 13 years older than me, divorced without any children, and had been very prominent in the Communist Party as a young man. It couldn’t have been worse! They had every reason to not want us to be together. We did get married though. We had a very small Registry Office wedding.”
When Jim became the Deputy Registrar of Leeds University, in 1971, the couple moved to the city with their two young daughters, Nerissa and Emilia. She became a member of the Sinai Reform synagogue, and contributes to the synagogue newsletter.
Being Jewish is important to her; “I’ve found a way of expressing my Judaism through my writing. A little ambiguous, considering I led a secular life. I was never anything other than proud to say ‘I’m Jewish.’”
Rosenthal continued working in the theatre, staying local whilst her daughters were small. On TV she made guest appearances in shows like Heartbeat and The Royal. As her daughters grew up, she wrote two novels, the second of which was runner up for the Constable Trophy Fiction Prize.
It was whilst sitting in the green room at the BBC in 1998 that an accidental conversation changed the direction of her work. “A number of friends knew I was writing and someone asked ‘how is your writing going’?
“A producer, Nandita Ghose, overheard and asked why I hadn’t written for radio. I said ‘I can’t’. She said, ‘nonsense, go away and write a play for radio.’ That was how I wrote my first play for Radio 4 Jerusalem North West”
Thus began her career as a major contributor to radio drama. I ask her about the particular challenges of writing for radio bearing in mind you can’t have long pauses and meaningful looks?
“Radio is much nearer to the novel,” says Rosenthal, “If you work in radio as an actor, you realise you can tell an enormous amount of story with sound effects: sleigh bells in the snow, a crack of the whip, whoa whoa, someone coming down stone steps in Russia 1910. You can do this without a visual picture, you create a sound picture.”
There were many times that her private life crossed with her theatrical one. For example when she and Polly Thomas created Writing For The Century, Rosenthal called on one of her own exchanges of letters for an episode; “In 1964 I went on a kibbutz but had met Jim by then and we wrote lots of letters to each other, long before the days of Skype!” she laughs.
These days she rarely acts but the lure of Alan Bennett led her to agree to revisit Talking Heads. She had played Doreen before, four years ago as well as tackling Bennett’s Lady In the Van at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
“Irene Ruddock is a working class single woman who is not afraid to speak, or rather write, her mind: she writes letters to her MP, the police, the chemist — everyone she can, to remedy the social ills she sees around her.” So it’s back to letters again? “Yes” she laughs, “They’ve rather been my life!”
I’m secular, but was always proud to say ‘I’m Jewish’
Talking Heads is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, June 14 to 23