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Weldon, Fay (1931-)


Main image of Weldon, Fay (1931-)

When Fay Weldon dramatised Pride and Prejudice for the BBC in 1980, she was best known as a feminist novelist. But she was also already a TV veteran with over 30 drama scripts to her name, including the very first episode of the landmark series Upstairs, Downstairs (ITV, 1971-75), which won her a Writers Guild award. She would continue to write for the series throughout the 1970s and contribute to many others, while becoming a well-known face and voice on the BBC. By 1980, Weldon had become famous enough to be the subject of a South Bank Show ('Fay Weldon: Writing Woman's Life', ITV, tx. 24/2/1980).

Her comparatively unconventional background had already set the scene for her life. Born Franklin Birkinshaw on 22 September 1931 in Worcestershire to a literary family, she spent her childhood in Auckland, New Zealand, returning to England in her early teens, following her parents' divorce. She was already a single mother when she married her first, much older husband. The marriage didn't last, and to support herself and her son she worked as an advertising copy writer, which included TV commercials such as the famous 'Go to work on an egg' campaign. She remarried and began writing for radio and television in the 1960s, while bringing up her new family, contributing scripts to series such as Armchair Theatre (ITV, 1956-74), Plays of Married Life (ITV, 1966) and The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70). Alongside her novel writing, she continued to be a prolific scriptwriter throughout the 1980s, usually writing from the female viewpoint; another of her notable screenplays was the true story of a 15 year-old girl's life imprisonment, Life for Christine (ITV, tx. 2/12/1980). Always witty, provocative and mischievous, she reinvented herself in late middle-age as a glamorous blonde - and also seemed to overhaul some of her thinking on gender issues, enraging many feminists by 'changing sides' and championing men.

In 1986, her ninth novel - and one of her most popular - was made into a TV series, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (BBC), although Weldon didn't write the scripts herself, that task falling to Ted Whitehead. The drama was acclaimed for its brilliance and outrageousness, especially its acidic commentary on sexual politics - abandoned ugly wife Ruth wreaks a terrible revenge upon her erring husband and his beautiful novelist mistress. It was an ironic and very modern fairy tale. The four-part Heart of the Country (BBC, 1987) was based on her own experience of life in the country (she had moved to Somerset) as being inconvenient, a place with no jobs and no husbands. Her heroine, Nathalie (Susan Penhaligon), a devoted wife and mother of two, bred, said the critic Amy Taubin "for dependence and domesticity", is abandoned by her husband and left with months of unpaid taxes, mortgage, school fees and grocery bills. She finds that in order to survive in her new circumstances she must either live off the state or live off men. It was Weldon's first original TV serial.

She-Devil (US, 1989) was a Hollywood feature film version of Weldon's novel, again scripted by another, starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr. In 1992 Weldon turned her hand to a six-part supernatural drama, Growing Rich (ITV), and tackled science fiction with The Cloning of Joanna May (BBC, 1992). Big Women (Channel 4, 1998) satirised the feminist publishing house Virago, and the feature film Puffball (UK/Canada, d. Nicolas Roeg, 2006) was another supernatural tale, involving rural witchcraft, scripted by Weldon and her son Dan.

Although Weldon threatened at the end of the 1990s to write a contemporary version of Pride and Prejudice, in which the Bennet sisters became the unemployed Bennet brothers, sponging off their middle-class parents in south London, the series has yet to appear in production. Now living with her third husband in Dorset and working as a professor of creative writing at Brunel University, Weldon continues to appear occasionally in the media, most recently in 2006 to announce a belief in God after a lifetime's atheism.

Janet Moat

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Thumbnail image of Life and Loves of a She-Devil, The (1986)Life and Loves of a She-Devil, The (1986)

Witty supernatural feminist revenge thriller by Fay Weldon

Thumbnail image of Pride and Prejudice (1980)Pride and Prejudice (1980)

Surprisingly faithful Austen adaptation by Fay Weldon

Thumbnail image of Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)

Hugely popular drama about life in an early 20th Century London household

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