One of the most successful television writers of her generation and the first woman to create popular and innovative situation comedies, Carla Lane was awarded the OBE in 1989. In a career spanning three decades, Lane created some of television's most memorable comic characters: the two young flat sharers Sandra (Nerys Hughes) and Beryl (Polly James) in The Liver Birds (BBC, 1969-78; 1996), frustrated housewife Ria (Wendy Craig) and her butterfly collector husband Ben (Geoffrey Palmer) in Butterflies (BBC, 1978-80; 1983) and Nelly Boswell (Jean Boht) the working-class matriarch in Bread (BBC, 1986-91).
Lane started writing when she was a child, winning her first award for a poem published in the Liverpool Echo when she was seven. As a young married mother in the 1960s, she wrote short stories for local newspapers and radio scripts. She met Myra Taylor, co-creator of The Liver Birds, at a writer's workshop in Liverpool; they decided to write a television comedy script together and sent it to Michael Mills, then head of comedy at the BBC. Mills told them to write something 'more realistic' such as a sitcom based around two girls sharing a flat. Lane and Taylor developed a pilot around this theme with the aid of veteran scriptwriter Lew Schwarz for Comedy Playhouse, and The Liver Birds was born. Renowned for its display of 1970s fashion and often seen as a female version of The Likely Lads (BBC, 1964-66), The Liver Birds became one of the BBC's most popular comedies. Nerys Hughes replaced Pauline Collins (Dawn) at the end of the first series, her character Sandra staying with the series' for most of its ten-year run.
At the end of the third series, Lane and Taylor went their separate ways; Lane continued to write the series, as well as contributing to Bless This House (ITV, 1971-76), the first British comedy to be written by an American-style team of writers. It was while working on And Mother Makes Five (BBC, 1974-76) that she met Wendy Craig, the actress destined to become the star of one of Lane's best-loved comedies and her first solo authored work, Butterflies. In spite of her known track record as a comedy writer, it took Lane three years to convince the BBC that the theme of marital boredom and potential adultery explored in Butterflies might be remotely funny.
Butterflies signalled a change of direction for Lane towards more serious themes; she wrote it, she claims, for women who, like her, grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and were "galloping towards forty with so much to do, so little time to do it". The first of her attempts to explore the more difficult emotional terrain of divorce and living alone was Going, Going, Gone... Free?, a pilot screened on BBC1 in 1975. Subsequent series such as Solo (BBC, 1981-82) and The Mistress (BBC2, 1985-87) - both starring Felicity Kendal - and Leaving (BBC, 1984-85) - with Susan Hampshire - continued to explore this complicated aspect of women's lives, their leading characters often struggling to find a balance between personal commitments and their working lives.
In these comedy dramas Lane depicts women emotionally torn apart by conflicting desires and needs, duties and expectations. To prove that she was not just a 'women's writer', she also wrote a couple of series focused on male characters facing similar points of crisis in their lives; The Last Song (BBC, 1981-83) starred Geoffrey Palmer as Leo Bannister, a man engulfed in a disintegrating marriage, while I Woke Up One Morning (BBC, 1985-86) featured four recovering alcoholics who meet while undergoing therapy. These attempts to break new ground thematically and generically often met with a frosty critical reception and were condemned for their inconsistent mix of comedy and drama. Lane dubbed them 'situation tragedies', explorations of distressing situations where pathos was enlivened by humour.
Bread (BBC, 1986-91) was regarded by some critics as a return to form; drawing once again on her home city of Liverpool for its inspiration, Bread explores the hopes and dreams of a working-class Catholic family as they try to make ends meet amidst the poverty and unemployment that all but swamped the city in the late 1980s. Initially slow to gather an audience, Bread became one of the UK's most popular sitcoms, competing with soap opera at the top of the ratings by 1988.
Lane wrote three further series following Bread, two of which, Luv (BBC, 1993-94) and Screaming (BBC, 1992), continued to combine comedy with drama to explore serious aspects of women's lives and relationships. The third was a reprisal of her early success The Liver Birds, starring the two key characters from the series' most successful years, Sandra and Beryl. Now in their early forties, with failed marriages and relationships behind them, the two women re-embark on their single lives. Unfortunately for Lane, the series was not a great success and was quickly dropped. Subsequently, she has devoted her time and energy to campaigning passionately for animal rights.