Michael Aitkens’ sitcom is still waiting for God
The baby boomer generation is one of regional theatre’s biggest demographics so it made perfect sense for writer Michael Aitkens to adapt his 1990s TV sitcom Waiting for God for the stage. In the years to come its care home setting may well become a reality for much of its audience.
When the five series of Waiting for God went out, between 1990 and 1994, Aitkens was in his mid-40s and recently returned from Australia where he had lived for 16 years.
“My first choice of title was Talking Heads, but Alan -Bennett got there first,” says 69-year-old Aitkens, a baby boomer himself, who now lives in Jersey. “I did some research at the Bay View Retirement Village near where I was living in Australia, and some of the staff there referred to it as God’s waiting room, so that’s where the title came from.”
Aitkens relocated the Bay View Retirement Village to Bournemouth and pitted a cynical, cantankerous, unmarried ex-photojournalist, Diana, played by Stephanie Cole, against a jovial and optimistic ex-accountant, Tom (Graham Crowden), in the cause of disrupting the oppressive management of the home. Growing old disgracefully was the name of the game, as the couple systematically undermined the jumped-up manager of the home.
Diana was the character Aitkens most identified with: “She saw things from the bleakest possible position, but was funny with it,” as he puts it. “Stephanie Cole used to see me mouthing her lines when the show was being recorded,” he recalls. “She said to me once, ‘I’m just you in drag, aren’t I?’, which was on the button. With someone as hard-bitten as Diana I had to counteract her with someone so upbeat you wanted to hit him.”
The characters were not based on people the writer knew, although he says he used to incorporate things that happened to his elderly stepmother into the mix. “If she broke her hip it would inevitably find its way into the script, likewise with any issues concerning senior concessions. It enabled me to rant about the indignities and injustices of getting old.”
The series would regularly notch up viewing figures in excess of 10 million even when it was competing against Top Gear on BBC2. “You’d be thrilled with half that number now,” observes Aitkens, who went on to be one of the main scriptwriters of Midsomer Murders.
A stage version of Waiting for God has been floating around for a while, beginning, of all places, in Hawaii. “I was contacted by someone there asking if there was a stage version of the TV show. He wanted to put it on with Patty Duke as Diana. We also did a stage version at the Arts Centre in Jersey, which went very well.
“When James Seabright [producer] and David Grindley [director] contacted me about doing a UK tour, I knew I wanted to rewrite it as a proper play, tracing the relationship of Tom and Diana, from the time of their meeting, through getting to know each other, to some kind of conclusion. I’ve used bits and pieces from the series, and obviously it is the same characters, updated a little, but it is very much a play in its own right, not a rehashed sitcom. You wouldn’t need to see the TV version at all to enjoy the play.”
Did he have any misgivings about recasting the roles of Tom and Diana after they’d become so inextricably linked to Stephanie Cole and Graham Crowden?
“Not at all, I’m actually looking forward to a re-interpretation of the characters by Roy Hudd and Nichola McAuliffe. I didn’t have those actors in mind when I wrote it. They are universal characters with universal problems. That’s why the TV shows did so well in America, Australia and Germany. There was even a website in the States dedicated to some of the best lines. I used to look it up to see if there were any jokes I could recycle.”
Roy Hudd has a very specific reason for liking the TV show. He says: “My gran, who brought me up, was just like Diana. She was an old bugger and I loved her to death. She would have a go at everything and everybody.”
Is Aitkens hoping Waiting for God will have a second TV coming, like Birds of a Feather, which was revived after a UK stage tour proved so successful?
“I’d prefer to put my energy into creating something new for TV – I’m working on a new series with Jed Mercurio at the moment – but yes, it would be nice if it was revived for TV. I’m always open to offers. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll go for a walk on the beach.”
Meanwhile, Aitkens is looking forward to the play’s premiere at the newly opened Broadway Theatre, Letchworth (see Backstage, p40). “I’d love it to be translated into umpteen different languages so that it is always being produced somewhere in the world. There is nothing better than knowing you are making money while you sleep.”
Waiting for God premieres at the Broadway, Letchworth, on April 20 and tours until July 8
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