Viv Hardwick talks to top scriptwriters Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran about a decade of Dreamboats and keeping Birds of a Feather flying high

DREAMBOATS and Petticoats The Musical may have achieved stage success thanks to being based on the multi-million selling albums of 1950s and 1960s songs that started appearing ten years ago, but its longevity as more than a jukebox show is down to the clever script of Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran.

With a tour heading back to York Grand Opera House next week and Sunderland Empire in June, the pair best-known for TV’s Birds of a Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart and The New Statesman provided the inspiration for the Olivier Award-nominated musical.

Although the initial idea for a plot was based on Marks and Gran’s knowledge of Finsbury Park’s youth club in North London, the two decided to set the action about young love flourishing during a songwriting contest in Hornchurch, Essex.

“We wanted the kids to be slightly more innocent and parochial and be somewhere where the youth club is everything apart from the cinema and Wimpy Bar,” says Gran, who labels the albums as the CD industries last great sale.

“We didn’t consciously write ourselves into the cast, except that Laurence and I were both besotted with music and both of us were in groups. Everyone was in a group in the mid-Sixties, but people have asked us, ‘Is that you?’ We were a bit younger than the kids growing up in 1959-60 and started mooning over girls from about 1963.

“When we sat down we listened to a hell of a lot of music from that period and we, to some degree, re-discovered the music and heard some afresh. When you’ve listened to the Stones and the Beatles you tend to feel that songs by Paul Anka and Andy Williams are rubbish. When I was a kid I didn’t like Roy Orbison or Dell Shannon, but now I really do like them. We had the first album to choose from, but we were allowed to select others from the era and they were put on Volume 2.”

Songs like Bobby’s Girl, one of the central characters, were an obvious choice and the pair felt that Orbison’s Only The Lonely would work well.

On providing a narrative with quality and humour, Gran says: “We like to think we know what we’re doing. Laurie Mansfield our agent told us that the book is everything and more important than the score and that gave us confidence. I’d like to think that this is the secret of this show’s longevity. We didn’t know we knew how to write a musical book until we did one. Then we found out we knew.”

Although the scriptwriters have produced the sequel of Dreamboats and Miniskirts and the spin-off Save The Last Dance For Me, which both did well, Gran feels neither had the great, good fortune to be coupled with a massive CD phenomenon.

“Historians will look back and say that the last great supermarket CD was Dreamboats and Petticoats which was selling four million CDs at a time when the market had moved to downloads,” he adds.

Gran points out that linking a stage musical to a successful TV show or record doesn’t always work. “Look at the X Factor musical... it crashed and burned, even though the set cost £2m allegedly,” he says.

Set in 1961,the stage show has emotions are running high as young musicians Norman (Alistair Hill) and Bobby (Alistair Higgins) compete to win a national song writing competition – and, more importantly, the attention of the gorgeous Sue (Laura Darton). But when Bobby discovers that shy Laura (Washington-born actress Elizabeth Carter) is no slouch on the piano, love and rock‘n’roll fame beckons.

Laurence Marks reveals that he and Gran are considering a Christmas special on ITV for Birds of a Feather which seemed a nailed-on BBC ratings hit for years. Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph were comedy gold from 1989 to 1998, until ITV took over the franchise in 2014.

How did the pair make writing for women so successful? “I ‘d think I’d find it more difficult writing for a Syrian refugee than I would for an English woman. I think we think the same and I feel that all you have to do is think that these three are blokes. It’s true, we’ve always written for women, particularly well-defined women, and it was never something we thought about until someone asked us. Our heroes, Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, found it so difficult to write for women and you wouldn’t have thought that those two men, of all men, would have been like that. That’s why all their shows involve men. We never had that problem... perhaps it’s because we both had strong mothers,” says Marks.

He thinks that it’s more class than gender that creates the humour between Sharon, Tracey and Dorien. “That’s where we scored because we knew girls like Sharon and Tracey and, eventually, met a woman like Dorien. We pitched up on ITV because the BBC didn’t think there was any life left in it, quite frankly, and it was wrong... and we knew it was wrong. And then the BBC knew it was wrong. I think this was something to do with the BBC wanting to avoid re-visiting former hits at that point and yet it had already re-visited Doctor Who, which gave it a big hit, and then went back to whatever it could lay its hands on such as Poldark and, now Porridge. The BBC obviously thought if Birds of a Feather could do it, then why not these other shows,” he says.

Marks felt that ITV would always take the show “the moment we walked out of the BBC, and it’s all about politics and the fact that the man running ITV wanted it as part of his schedules while another man might not have wanted it”.

He doesn’t think there is enough material for another series, but there might be a Christmas special. “I don’t know yet and we haven’t really discussed it yet and if we can’t find anything original to say then we won’t say anything at all. We always look for something that excites us and do it from there, but we’re not going to regurgitate the best of the past 25 years. That isn’t worth doing.”

  • Runs Tuesday, April 18 to Saturday, April 22, Grand Opera House York, Box Office: 0844-871-3024 or atgtickets/york
  • Then June 19 to 24, Sunderland Empire Theatre, 0844-871-3022 or