PUBLISHED: 17:25 11 August 2019
Confessions of a former post-lady. PLUS: Hear a clip from the Suffolk comedy series she’s written
Julie Abbott is surprised no-one has ever based a comedy series on the life of a postman (as far as she can tell) and you can see her point. Her own 20 years as a postie provided as much potential material as you could wish for – from the man who relieved a scarecrow of its jacket, because it was better than his own, to the two elderly brothers whose kitchen “wallpaper” consisted of “page threes” from The Sun.
Then there was a day she went out on a “second delivery” (something only those of a certain vintage will remember).
“I don’t think this man was expecting anybody when I called at the house, because he was sunbathing naked in the grass. I was like ‘Well, good afternoon’, and looked away, and posted the letter through the door.”
Then there was an old boy in a village near Framlingham who fed blue tits… by putting cheese in his mouth and letting the birds nibble at it. “Which is really bizarre, isn’t it, but he’d built up this trust. He was like a Percy Edwards character.” (Percy was an Ipswich-born animal impersonator, ornithologist and entertainer who became a household name and appeared on TV shows such as Morecambe and Wise.)
Throw in an elderly lady named Flossie, who would open the window of her bungalow and offer Julie a handful of Penguin biscuits whenever she was on her deliveries, and rounding up stray horses, and the case is overwhelming. There ARE laughs to be found among the letters.
‘How do you write a joke?’
Fast-forward to recent times. Julie has hung up her postlady’s bag but is still thinking about all those quirky moments. “Every day (when she was delivering letters) I just wrote it all down and thought ‘Somebody should write a comedy about postmen’.”
She mentioned it to producer, presenter, historian, actor and writer John West, whom she’d met first at Woodbridge Oxfam, “and he said ‘Show me the script.’ I hadn’t actually got a script!
“I’ve not done classes in creative writing, or anything like that. Really, I just thought someone would take the idea off me and it might be passed on to somebody in the business.”
But then she mused, “Maybe I could write the script…” And has.
Lift the Flap is the 48-year-old’s emerging radio comedy. It’s a work-in-progress, though an episode has been recorded in Felixstowe by Mark Beuchet. It’s being submitted to BBC Radio 4 for consideration.
Clips were aired recently on a BBC Radio Suffolk Tuesday Takeover show hosted by John West, her partner. (It also featured Suffolk-based Peter Purves, the former Blue Peter presenter; ex-Saint actor Ian Ogilvy and comedy actress Diane Keen.)
Excerpts from Lift the Flap are also due to be broadcast as part of the BBC Voices new-comedy workshop when it returns to BBC Radio Norfolk later in the year, John reports.
Early days, then, but full of hope.
“Somebody said to me ‘How do you write a joke?’ It’s hard to answer, isn’t it? Things just come into your head and I just hope people get my humour,” says Julie.
“I’m just having a go. You never know. You just have to have a go, don’t you?”
Still a bit foxy
Family-friendly Lift the Flap is written in “mockumentary” style. Radio reporter Lucy joins postman Eric on his rounds and meets the quirky characters en route.
There’s Doreen, who takes advantage of good-listener Eric by phoning him often and going on and on about nothing of note.
Householder Gordon is pompous and belligerent. Edna is in her 70s but in her head still thinks she’s 30. Hanging out the washing, she sings songs you might not expect her to know. Like The Pussycat Dolls’ tunes. “She was in a dance troupe in her younger days and is still a bit foxy.”
Postman Eric is in his mid-40s. He used to be in the army. The joke is that he nearly killed someone… by giving them food-poisoning. For Eric was an army chef.
He’s interested in history and basically lives in the past. (There are lots of references to the 1970s.) And he has a bad case of unrequited love for much-younger Kate, who’s not interested.
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“Most of it is about ‘trivial things’, but there is humour in the everyday,” reckons Julie. “I love people-watching. When I’m on the bus, I’m always listening. It’s where I get ideas. It’s a sort of celebration of quirky Britishness and the people you meet.”
Julie’s even voicing a couple of the characters at the moment: Edna – and Geordie Jim!
Up with the sunrise
Julie was born in Ipswich, off Nacton Road, and attended Nacton Heath secondary modern.
Always outdoorsy, she went on the Youth Training Scheme as a stablegirl, and at 17 joined the Royal Mail as a postal cadet. She remembers her early rounds in Ipswich – one of a number of “posties” who’d be taken out in a big windowless van “and then, a bit like the Parachute Regiment, you’d be dropped off out the back door!”
Julie was with Royal Mail for about two decades, with a break when she had her two children, now teenagers.
She relished getting up early and getting on with things. Sometimes she’d travel in a Bedford Rascal van “that threatened to tip over if you went round a roundabout in anything higher than second gear”. Sometimes she’d have a bike, “which I loved”.
“There’s no greater feeling than when you’ve finished your round and freewheel down the hill (to Ipswich town centre). And sometimes you’d go on the bus, because you’d have a pass. One of my colleagues fell asleep and ended up back where he’d got on!”
In her early 20s Julie bought a cottage in Woodbridge and her rounds became more bucolic (though it often meant rising at 3am for a 4am start!)
Being outdoors was energising, though. “I delivered round Butley and all these lovely little villages. I’d be up with the sunrise and see deer in the forest in Rendlesham.”
She met lots of lovely people, and some who were arrogant or impatient.
There was, for instance, the man who had to sign for his mail on a hot day and wanted her to hurry up… so the ice he was holding for his gin and tonic didn’t melt.
There were also people who wanted her to use what, in a bygone age, we’d have called the tradesmen’s entrance.
“You meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds. One minute you can be at this big house with a sweeping gravel drive and an avenue of trees; the next house you’re at, there’s an old mattress and bath in the garden.”
‘I’m very tenacious’
Julie has watched a lot of comedy – particularly when her children were young. Shows she’s enjoyed include Hi-de-Hi, Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served?, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies, Carry On films and Benny Hill.
Steve Coogan and Victoria Wood are favourites, and she’s a big fan of Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. “My heroes. One of the things I like about this style of comedy is that it finds humour in the mundane and trivial. How clever that in the Tony Hancock episode Sunday Afternoon at Home, the storyline centres around the fact that everyone is bored and nothing happens. Genius!”
The gender balance in comedy, she notes, tilts heavily in favour of men. Perhaps, she wonders, women feel a little intimidated because it’s traditionally been a male-dominated environment.
It was an issue explored on that BBC Radio Suffolk Tuesday Takeover show. Involved in a debate about women in comedy were Scottish actress Jane McCarry and Suffolk-based Jan Etherington.
Jane was in TV sitcom Still Game. Jan and husband Gavin Petrie won the Radio Times Comedy award in 1987 and went on to create comedy series on TV and radio.
These included Second Thoughts (five TV series, starring James Bolam and Lynda Bellingham), Next of Kin (on BBC TV, with Penelope Keith), and Duck Patrol on LWT with Richard Wilson.
Julie’s hoping to meet up with Jan (who has long run comedy-writing workshops) to get some tips.
She’d also like to hook up with someone experienced, who could be a writing partner and mentor. “At the moment, it’s just little old me. What I’d like is someone, with some expertise, to come on board and steer the ship, so to speak.
“Radio comedy is in some ways more difficult than TV, because you have to be really descriptive so people are able to follow what you’re trying to explain. It’s quite a challenge, but one I’m up for.
“I don’t give up easily,” she laughs. “I’m very tenacious.”