UNDER normal circumstances it would seem inappropriate to highlight a lady’s age, but it’s worth pointing out that Louise Rennison recently turned 60.
Why? Because the author looks a decade younger, feels like a 40-year-old and acts like someone half her age. So imagining her writing a teen blockbuster like Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging isn’t quite the leap of imagination you might expect it to be.
“I’ve still got a bit of the teenager in me too,” she insists. “Hasn’t everyone, really?”
Rennison giggles mischievously while sitting in the cafe of West Yorkshire Playhouse where the latest incarnation of her award-winning, best-selling mega-franchise is about to be born.
Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging opens on Quarry Hill next month and comes 12 years after she penned the book which made her famous.
Millions of copies, a movie and numerous plaudits later, the author finds herself back in her home city 40 years after she left Leeds for London to pursue a creative career working in theatre and writing.
“Coming back has been much stranger for me than I thought it would be’” she says. “On the way home last night I was feeling nostalgic so I went up one of the backstreets up near Mount St Mary’s Church on Richmond Hill and went into this pub that my grandmother used to go into.
“And when I walked through the doors the whole place just seemed to stop, but the minute I mentioned that my grandmother used to go in there that was it – it was drinks all round all night, you know.”
Raised in Seacroft, Rennison’s background is about as Leeds as it gets. Though she has a mix of Jewish and Irish blood, it was always the latter that dominated her early years.
She says: “I always used to think ‘why is our house full of bearded drunken blokes? and why was there all this dancing ?’ I swear to God it was like The Dubliners.
“All my Irish forbearers started out up on Richmond Hill, raised in poverty and hardly any of them could read or write, but within a generation it started to change for them.”
Rennison’s family plays an important, albeit surprising, part in creating the culture surrounding the Angus, Thongs... phenomenon. Her quirky family helped shape the girl, and it was the girl which provided much of the material for the stories which catapulted her into the premier league of children’s authors.
The central character in her books, Georgia Nicolson, is basically Rennison when she was an adolescent at Parklands Girls High School in east Leeds, from the subtle nuances right down to some of the more memorable instances including the most famous where she turned up to a party dressed as a stuffed olive.
“That actually happened,” Rennison guffaws. “And it never occurred to me that this wasn’t normal, I just thought it was hilarious. But back then girls weren’t meant to be funny, you know. All the other girls were at this party dressed as catwoman, or whatever, and there I was as this bloody olive.
“I think I was just a bit too much for people. As my grandfather used to say ‘You’re a good turn love but you’re on too long’. I used to have a best friend at school and then it got too a stage when she suddenly stopped being my friend and, years later, I asked her why and she basically said the same thing: that I was too much. I think I would have taken her to places she wouldn’t have been comfortable being in.”
Rennison was always a girl who had something of a wild side. After emigrating to New Zealand with her parents (“It was just something a lot of people did then,” she explains), she fell pregnant at 17 and gave her daughter up for adoption (since then they’ve been back in touch and have developed a relationship).
By the age of 20 she was back in Blighty and living the high life in London, sharing a flat owned by Roxy Music and, through a mutual friend, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Led Zeppelin.
“Actually, Leeds was exciting then,” she says. “And though there was change in the air, it just wasn’t exciting enough for me.”
She never married or had any more children and has recently moved back to London from Brighton after ending a rather passionate affair with a toyboy.
Although she doesn’t seem to be considering moving back permanently to her home city, there is a sense that she has come full circle. The memories come thick and fast, the most intriguing her mother’s affair with a young Frankie Vaughn. And some of the anecdotes are hilarious, as you might expect.
“I remember one of us injured ourselves in some way,” she laughs. “And my aunt wouldn’t let us go to St James’s Hospital because Jimmy Savile was working up there and he’d just died his hair tartan at the time – somehow she felt it was unhygienic.”
But her presence in Leeds is purposeful, not just nostalgic. Alongside writer Mark Catley, she’s ensuring the story – which started out as a book and morphed into a movie – now makes a safe transition onto the stage.
“I’m very personally involved,” she says. “Because the story is essentially autobiographical, even though it’s written from an adult perspective, really.
“But it’s been very good to work with Mark because my books are, I must admit, a bit rambling, you know, and it’s useful to develop some kind of narrative arc for the stage. I think you need that.
“And because Mark has written for EastEnders and because he’s a man, he feels the need for that in particular. But that’s been very good for me. Not only have I come round to the changes, I’ve embraced them and I’m really pleased with the results so far.”
Rennison seems particularly conscious about the weight of expectation surrounding this cult story of teenage love, angst and amusement which has been an inspiration for a whole generation, namely a generation of girls.
She is quick to acknowledge this and to reassure the stalwarts that many of the key characteristics will be in the theatre version. And, yes, the infamous Viking Disco Inferno dance is alive and well. After all, Rennison was never going to ignore her prize creation.
“It’s hilarious,” she laughs once again. “I mean, apparently girls actually go out in clubs and bars doing the bloody Viking Disco Inferno dance. And just to illustrate how well known it is with girls the minute we mentioned doing it in rehearsals the female cast members were like: ‘Oh right, yeah, ok, no problem’. Whereas all the guys in the cast were like: ‘What the hell is that!?’”
From February 10 to March 3, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, £17 to £27, 7.30pm, Thu mats 1.30pm, Sat mats 2pm. Tel: 0113 2137700. www.wyp.org.uk Suitable for audiences aged 10+