“You invent a world in your head and you make it all up, and then it suddenly becomes real. There’s something alchemical about it, isn’t there? Like you’ve made something happen.”
Tracy-Ann Oberman is talking about the writing of Rock and Doris and Elizabeth, her second play for BBC Radio 4. Like her first, it has been produced by radio veteran Liz Anstee at CPL Productions – and also like her first, it deals with an iconic moment of Hollywood history. Where 2010’s Bette and Joan and Baby Jane dealt with two monstrous personalities, those of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and their behaviour on the set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, her new play deals with a more intimate, but no less public, part of Hollywood history – the discovery that Rock Hudson had Aids.
The idea for the play, says Oberman, started by once again looking at the difference between appearance and reality, “the appearance of the American sweetheart and the all-American heterosexual”.
The idea that anyone you knew could have Aids, let alone an American heart-throb… It was an absolutely pivotal moment
“[Doris Day] was this sweet, blonde virgin, and he was all beefcake. But behind the scenes was so different. It was such a massive contrast,” she says. “The assumption I came to was that Doris was a little bit in love with Rock, so then the story that I wanted to write was basically a woman who’s in love with her gay best friend. I was talking to friends of mine who weren’t gay, and the only thing they could remember about Rock Hudson was, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who had Aids’.”
After becoming ill, Hudson’s first public appearance in many years was at a press call that had been initiated to promote Day’s new cable television show on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“It was on Doris Day’s anodyne, sweet little pet show, and this network – very right wing and, one might say, homophobic – said, ‘You’ve got to have guests on this show. We’d love you to have Rock Hudson as your first guest’,” Oberman explains. “She hadn’t seen him for ten years, and he turned up at the press call weighing practically nothing, covered in sarcomas and a month away from dying from Aids. The 48 hours from when he was on that show changed everything. I suddenly realised that was the story that I wanted to tell – the birth of the Aids movement and the death of Hollywood.”
Frances Barber and Jonathan Hyde play the central couple, but a pivotal character in the drama is Elizabeth Taylor, who Oberman herself plays, and who became one of the most high-profile fundraisers for HIV/Aids research. “She was very aware of it. But for others, and this is a line from the play, the attitude was, ‘My God. Only bums and weirdos get Aids’,” Oberman says.
“The idea that anyone you knew could have Aids, let alone an American heart-throb… It was an absolutely pivotal moment, and it was when suddenly Aids went from the thing that happened to the weirdo and the drug addict in the street, to happening to the number one iconic heterosexual of all time.”
But it wasn’t only Hudson whose public persona was at odds with his private life. Doris Day had become a byword for clean-cut American values, but, says Oberman, she had a terrible life. Oberman calls her “a complete victim”.
“Her first husband, when she was pregnant, tried to shoot her in the stomach to abort the child and kill her,” she says. “Her second husband beat her. Her third husband, who was her agent, basically mentally and physically abused her, stole all her money. Her whole life is one catalogue of disaster after another.”
While she is carving a niche for herself as a radio dramatist, Oberman has no plans to turn away from her primary career as an actor. Having recently appeared in BBC2’s drama about the birth of the Paralympic movement, The Best of Men, opposite Eddie Marsan and Rob Brydon, she will shortly be seen reprising the role of Aunty Val in Robert Popper’s Channel 4 comedy, Friday Night Dinner.
Oberman also recently joined the regular cast of ITV1 medical drama Monroe, and it was during the filming of that series that she wrote her radio play.
On top of this she has been working in film and later this year, Oberman will return to the stage, opposite Maureen Lipman in a new play by Sarah Wooley for Hampstead Theatre. Old Money is, she says, “a dark comedy – a dark little social observation about the generational differences and expectations, with a nasty little sting in the tail”.
Having notched up so much experience in broadcast, film and theatre, Oberman seems well placed to comment on what opportunities there are for female actors, and older ones in particular.
There are a lot more women writing their own stuff, which I think is great
“I think there are archetypes in any story that is told,” she says. “The archetype for women is child, juvenile, romantic heroine, girlfriend, mistress, wife, mother, and then ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. But I think in recent years, particularly in television, there have been much better opportunities for women than there were in previous times – just look at [recent ITV1 series] The Bletchley Circle.”
And the growth in roles for women extends beyond drama, she says, adding that for female-led comedy, “Sky is doing great things”.
“I think there are a lot more opportunities than when I started writing and trying to get comedy stuff commissioned ten years ago,” she reveals. “You just have to look at Sharon Horgan, Catherine Tate, Ruth Jones and Julia Davis. There are a lot more women writing their own stuff, which I think is great.”
Regardless of the gender of the writer, though, Oberman is insistent that commissioners need to “stop thinking of female comedy or male comedy”.
“You just want to make good comedy with good, believable characters and not get caught up in ages and not get caught up in sex and gender,” she says. “You just want to tell a good story that represents life.”
Rock and Doris and Elizabeth will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on October 16