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Celebrity Interview: Emma Kennedy

PUBLISHED: 12:03 14 December 2015 | UPDATED: 12:03 14 December 2015

Emma Kennedy

Emma Kennedy

Emma Kennedy

With a six-part BBC1 comedy series based on her account of growing up in Stevenage in the 70s and her latest novel getting star reviews, Emma Kennedy is riding high. She talks to Louise McEvoy about her madcap childhood, writing, and how she’ll always let dad cook Christmas dinner

The Kennedys, Emma's BBC sitcom about growing up on a Stevenage council estate in the 1970s (C) BBC - Photographer: Adam LawrenceThe Kennedys, Emma's BBC sitcom about growing up on a Stevenage council estate in the 1970s (C) BBC - Photographer: Adam Lawrence

‘Absolute joy’ is how actress, author and presenter Emma Kennedy describes growing up on a council estate in Stevenage in the 70s.

In her matter-of-fact style, she explains, ‘Back then council estates were aspirational places to live, especially in a New Town. Social housing nowadays has gone up the swanny.’

Born in Corby in Northamptonshire, Emma moved to Stevenage when she was one and lived in the town until she was seven, when she and her family moved to Hitchin.

She says, ‘My fondest memories of Stevenage are living in Jessop Road and the sense that I could go out of the front door first thing in the morning and play outside all day long without an adult. That was how it was with all the children there.

‘Our neighbours came from all different backgrounds. Some had been cleared out from slums in East London, others were professionals. Everyone had come from a working class background and was working towards becoming middle class.

‘Getting a council house in a New Town was like living on the moon. It was amazing. I felt safe and never felt as if I was in any danger.’

Emma, now 48, went to Roebuck Primary School in Stevenage, where her teacher Mrs Flick was considered cool because she had her pet dog in the classroom. Looking back on her school days, Emma says, ‘I remember the first time I ever felt scammed. I was aged five. The Wombles were coming to school and it turned out it was just three blokes in handmade outfits. How disappointing.’

Emma began her acting career at the tender age of six when she played the Angel Gabriel in the Christmas nativity at Hitchin’s Whitehill Junior School. She says, ‘I have no recollection of this performance or whether I was any good, but I do remember repeating the words ‘fear not’ ad nauseam whilst in the bath.’

It was in 1997 that Emma landed her first job in television – a part in sci-fi series Planet Mirth at ‘an ungodly hour’ on ITV – sparking a career which spans film, television, theatre and radio, with Emma as accomplished at writing scripts and books as she is at acting in front of camera.

While in her self-depricating manner she maintains she is ‘a jack of all trades and a master of none’, her CV is impressive. Appearing in shows such as Goodness Gracious Me and Jonathan Creek, presenting The Real Holiday Show and writing scripts for the revival of 80s TV hit Danger Mouse – she can turn her hand to pretty much anything.

Her latest book, Shoes for Anthony, is her first adult fiction - a Second World War thriller set in the small South Wales mining village of Treherbert a month before the D-Day landings. But it is a book published in 2009; The Tent, The Bucket and Me, which led to The Kennedys being commissioned as a six-part series on BBC1 from October.

The book depicts her family’s disastrous, and continual, attempts to go camping in the 70s, while the series was adapted to incorporate Emma’s fabulously comic childhood growing up in Stevenage.

She says, ‘I wrote The Tent, The Bucket and Me eight years ago and I never thought anybody would be interested in it, let alone interested in making it into a television series.

‘It obviously struck a chord with people and, in retrospect, it’s no surprise because everybody has experiences of going on family holidays, and the only difference is I wrote mine down.

‘At the age of six we had just completed our first trip on a cross-channel ferry. We drove off the ferry, my dad stopped at a lay-by with a toilet block and my mother and I went in. Stumbling around in the pitch black, I fell into a hole in the ground. It was the toilet and I was covered. My father put me in a bin bag, tied it under my neck, and drove me to the nearest garage where I was hosed down on the forecourt.’

The mishaps and misadventure of Emma’s unorthodox childhood are comedy gold, and it is this that prompted her to write The Tent, The Bucket and Me in the first place. ‘I was at my parents’ house talking about childhood family holidays and we were crying with laughter over it,’ she explains.

Emma, who has written all the scripts for The Kennedys and was on set every day for filming – incidentally in Byfleet, Surrey, because Stevenage was too expensive – says the television series is very close to real life. However, some anecdotes, all true, were considered too far-fetched to make the cut.

‘I was blessed with an eccentric mother,’ Emma explains. ‘My father went into hospital for a week when I was 11 and my mother was left to fend for me. She was a feminist and had never cooked me a meal in her life. I told her this was her chance. She put in front of me a pot of cockles, but we couldn’t get the lid off.

‘So every day she got me to ring a friend – a different friend each time - and ask if I could go for dinner while nudging me and whispering, “And me! And me!” I would then have to ask if my mother could come too. We would go to the friend’s house and I would insist on doing the washing-up. One time, I turned to my mother, who was having a great time, and asked her to help me. She replied, “Emma, I can’t lift a pan. My womb will drop out”.’

Asked if it feels strange seeing her childhood depicted on TV, she says, ‘There comes a moment when you give the scripts to the actors and those characters become their characters and you start writing to accommodate the strengths of the actors.

‘I was very careful not to make them do impressions of my family members, but Lucy, who plays me, very definitely picked up my mannerisms. I think Lucy is amazing and we were absolutely blessed to have got her.’

Emma, who went on to be a pupil at Hitchin Girls’ School, returned to Jessop Road a couple of years ago and was surprised by what she discovered. ‘In my mind I imagined the square as being absolutely enormous because I had spent all day every day cycling round it, but it’s actually quite small. It was the first place I learned to ride a bike. Big milestone memories were made in this road.’

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