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Thunder Girl: in conversation with Melanie Blake

This is an exclusive interview with best-selling author, playwright and producer Melanie Blake.

We first met Blake at the Press Night for her show, The Thunder Girls, which broke all box office records for a new play at The Lowry. The Thunder Girls will tour nationally from September.

It was lovely for us to catch-up for a 90-minute interview, which included an exclusive revelation about the tour.

Critics praised Blake’s knowledge of The Thunder Girls‘ subject matter – revenge, rivalry and betrayal behind-the-scenes in the music industry. They say write about what you know, and it is clear this was a show written from experience.

Blake’s first break in showbiz was landing an assistant role at Top Of The Pops, where she was up close and personal with the world’s biggest stars, including the Spice Girls, Madonna and Mariah Carey. That access behind ‘the velvet rope’ inspired her the first draft of her novel, The Thunder Girls, at 19, after realising all that glitters in the world of showbiz wasn’t golden. Unfortunately ahead of her time, her book was turned down by several publishers who said the story’s focus on a middle-aged female pop group’s attempts to reunite after decades apart was not ‘commercially viable’.

Determined to stay in the game, she focused on a career as a talent agent, and ended up representing the very pop stars who inspired her to write. The agency she founded and still runs, Urban Associates, went on to turn over £30 million, so life was sweet for Blake and she’d abandoned all intentions of writing again until the shock death of her mother at Christmas at the age of 52.

It was then Blake felt compelled to ‘do something for herself’ and revisited and revised The Thunder Girls and took it back to market. Luckily, by 2019, attitudes towards older women had changed; she found her book at the centre of a bidding war. The novel that had spent nearly twenty years gathering dust in a cupboard became a number 1 best-seller, which she quickly adapted for the stage, where it equalled the book’s success.

But it still wasn’t plain sailing. Blake found the publishing process was not “a happy experience”. Once again, surrounded by men telling her how the women in her novel should look like and behave.

“By now I’m the exactly the same age as my characters, and had also lived in their world, and here I was being told by men half my age what was and wasn’t realistic! I was not afraid to use my voice and argue back – I am a woman, and I know better than any man what a woman thinks or feels – so I held to my guns when editors wanted to change a story that, in truth, they had no real idea about.”

But this sort of issue was nothing new to her. Blake’s voice had been dismissed in both her childhood and early career. Although Thunder is a best-selling novel and career highlight – she considers the reworked theatre script her best work – she asserts the novel’s success is “not a victory for me, but for we”.

Indeed, the unprecedented success has paved way for the signing of “new middle-aged female authors” to find themselves with first-time deals; it might not have been a smooth walkway, but at least she’s cleared a path for others, and this means more to Blake than being a best-selling author herself.

The best part of the latter is the recognition it gives, so that she can bring more attention to middle-aged women, who she enjoys mentoring. There are numerous schemes for young people but little help for older creatives. Blake, herself did not get her “voice” as a writer until she was older and still comes up against ageism every day.

“I became the first TV columnist for The Mirror and The Sunday People when I was 36 – it had been 25 years since a woman had held that title; that was quite shocking to me,” she recalls.

And even with all the success a #1 brings, when The Thunder Girls play was first pitched, it was the same old story: nearly all the male promoters in the businesses who hold the keys to most theatres were uninterested in staging the play adaptation, even though she already had a cast of stars most theatres would kill to secure.

Melanie Blake and Beverley Callard. Photo: Melanie Blake.

Blake’s first casting was acting legend Beverley Callard, and just like her Corrie character, Callard is blunt: she told Blake she wouldn’t sugar-coat it if she didn’t like the script.

But after reading it, her exact words were: “Nobody’s every playing that part but me – I’m in”.

Coleen Nolan (Loose Women) has worked extensively with Blake, who was responsible for the 2009 Nolans’ reunion tour, which took £2 million at the box office and won a string of industry awards. But like Callard, she is a television legend and had repeatedly rejected major West End and touring roles, including Matron Mama Morton in Chicago, because she doesn’t like being away from home. But after reading the script, she too signed on the dotted line, because she’s “lived this story; I just had to do it”.

Eastenders star Carol Harrison was Blake’s first choice for the show’s antagonist, Chrissie Martin, the former lead singer of the band, who is the hostess of the reunion dinner designed to get them back on speaking terms so they can reform for the pay check of a lifetime. Harisson had retired from acting and was a successful producer and writer herself – but Blake knew she had exactly the right fire to bring to the party, so when she said yes, they had their lead trio complete.

Claire Richards (Steps), Melanie Blake and Coleen Nolan. Photo: Melanie Blake.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that with a cast of household names and an adaptation from a best-selling book, Blake would have been inundated with theatres wanting to take the show. But she found herself hearing the same old story.

‘How many men are in it?’ promoters questioned. When told there were no men, they asked: “Well, do they get their clothes off, like in Calendar Girls or Full Monty?”

“I really was shocked,” says Blake in her soft northern accent. “It was like being stuck in the 80s.”

Finally, Steven Cowton at The Lowry threw Blake a lifeline, offering them a week’s preview in September of last year. By the time Sandra Marvin (Emmerdale) joined, tickets had already sold-out. Two extra shows had to be added due to demand, resulting in a 9-show week and people queuing round the block to see the show twice in the same day.

Yet, despite the whole of UK now clamouring for her tour, Blake’s humbleness, modesty and appreciation for others is evident in her continued use of “we”/“ours”, instead of “me”/“mine”.

It’s a mystery why she found it so hard to get it off the ground because, having seen the show, it was clear the audiences absolutely adored it.

As soon as Callard entered the set, looking for another character, and called out “Hello?”, the audience responded with “hello” – which was not supposed to happen, yet this happened every single night. The breaking-of-the-fourth-wall, audience-participation and adlibbing was, visibly, one of the audiences’ favourite parts and puts The Thunder Girls up there with The Rocky Horror show, which Jay reviewed last year (and also starred Callard), for audience-participation.

Photo: Nicky Johnston.

Whilst Blake’s life appears perfect, she suffered immensely before being rewarded for her pain, patience and perseverance. Due to an extremely religious upbringing, everything she has achieved is considered sinful by the extreme church upbringing she escaped from.

But her “sins of success” have hardly lead her to Hell; she’s living her dream, by her rules, and loving every aspect of it. So, if she’s a “sinner”, I guess the Devil does wear Prada, after all.

Success has not changed her, though –  if you follow her on social media, it’s easy to see she spends thousands of pounds on designer clothes and accessories but would complain about paying £1 for a Mars Bar in a corner-shop. Whilst her lifestyle has changed, her values haven’t. She told us working-class women who find success are “supposed” to become My Fair Lady and suddenly adopt all sorts of airs, graces and lose their accents – she’s the same person, just in expensive heels.

The show’s unprecedented success inevitably resulted in a West End offer, but Blake refused to sell tickets for £90. She wanted to keep the show grassroots so decided to keep it on the road, reaching people who would not usually go to the theatre and show them that theatre is for them, too.

Amazingly, 83% of the Lowry audience had never seen a play before, which reflects the show’s accessibility in both price and content. For the tour’s northern return, Blake could have chosen a more traditional venue like the Royal Exchange, or somewhere in Cheshire, but she opted for the Stockport Plaza, which is where she spent much of her teens.

And the 2020 tour is priced well below the average for stars such as Callard, Nolan, Harrison and Webster: all tickets are £29.50 no matter where you sit.

“Theatre should not be elitist,” Blake said, proud of their strategy, so “all kinds of people” can see it. “We never want to price anyone out of being able to see our show”.

Blake values diversity, which is reflected in the script. “Different is the same – everyone is normal,” and “diversity should be normal,” she said, reminding us of a line in the script: “clothes have labels – people don’t need to.”

Photo: Nicky Johnston.

Whilst the original show was fantastic, Blake asserted it was just a preview. If it was a “glass of champagne and a shot,” this new production is “a case and a whole bottle.”

Unsurprisingly, loads of actresses are after these roles, because, unfortunately, good roles for middle-aged women are uncommon, but the cast are going nowhere. “You’ll get this role out of my cold, dead hands,” Callard said.

Marvin is the only original cast-member not yet set to return, but talks are still in place.

We can also exclusively reveal Blake is directing the tour herself!

The cast all hoped she would, and she has brought along a “brilliant” assistant director. The preview was directed by Joyce Branagh (yes, Ken’s sister), who did a brilliant job. But that was just a preview; which is where you test it on the audience, find out what works and what needs to be changed and then finesse it until it’s perfect.

“I’m delighted to be taking the reins for the national tour, because The Thunder Girls is my baby, and after a twenty year labour, I’m not going to hand it over to someone else to look after! I know exactly what it needs now to take it to the next level. I’m confident that even those who have already seen it and loved it are going to love it even more – this time, we’re hitting a whole new level. I hope audiences will be talking about our show long after the curtain comes down.”

Despite all her success and power in the entertainment industry, Blake is still grounded and wants The Thunder Girls to be a night of pure escapism. She really cares about her audience, and just like at the the Lowry, she’ll be at every single show, signing copies of her novel in the intervals and chatting to fans.

Broadway World described The Thunder Girls as “Dynasty meets Dinner Ladies,” whereas Blake calls it more like the Christmas Day episode of your favourite soap that you wait all year for – but bigger, bolder and wilder. It’s basically the ultimate girls’ night out watching The Reunion Dinner From Hell that you’d hate to be a guest at – but that you will have a riot eves-dropping on!

The Thunder Girls begins its 13-week UK tour at Dartford Orchard Theatre on 1st September and plays at Stockport Plaza from 8th until 12th September. Go to the Thundergirls  website to see trailers and booking info. You can find Melanie on Instagram and Twitter, @melanieblakeuk.

Tags: Lowry, lowry theatre, Manchester, Melanie Blake, sexism, The Lowry, The Thunder Girls, Thunder Girls

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. BBC logger. Politics and IR Student. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Snapchat: theonlywayisjam. To write for theatre, email [email protected]
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