By Brian Jarman
Some people start writing to follow a dream. For Juliet Ace, who went on to write for such national treasures as EastEnders and The Archers, it was to escape a nightmare.
‘When my mother died, I helped lay her out,’ says Juliet, who lives in Hanson Street. ‘My father wanted me to, but I shouldn’t have done it. I had nightmares.
‘I wrote it down – it was a cry from the heart. It came out in dialogue. Before that I’d barely written a letter.’
Someone took it to a BBC reader, who told Juliet she should write. It became a TV play called The Captain’s Wife starring Patricia Hodge. After that she went on a writing course which changed her life. But it wasn’t to be a fast change.
‘After about three years I had enough rejections to paper a lavatory,’ says Juliet. ‘But gradually the rejection slips changed to letters and the letters became longer. I never gave up.’
The road from her upbringing in Llanelli in South Wales had already been a long and winding one. She describes her background as odd and schizophrenic. Her father was middle-class, public school and English-speaking, and her mother’s family were ‘sort of peasants’ and Welsh-speaking from a little village.
‘On my father’s side they used the right cutlery and had melon forks, on my mother’s side it was toasted cheese on a fork in front of the fire.’
So right from the start, Juliet was used to different voices. She had older sisters and was regarded as the dumb one of the family. She used to spend a lot of time in the attic telling stories to her dolls and acting them out. And it was acting that first attracted Juliet. Her mother was adamant that they should all have ‘something solid’ behind them, and so she went to teacher’s training college in Coventry, specialising in music and drama.
From there she got a scholarship to the Rose Bruford acting school, spent three years teaching to ‘give something back’ for her training, took a deep breath, and decided to give acting a go.
‘I didn’t have the temperament,’ says Juliet. ‘The only time I got work was when people happened to see me perform. I was hopeless in auditions – wracked with nerves.’
She got some walk-on parts, children’s productions and two seasons at The Grand in Swansea, where she nursed her ailing mother. Then she came back to London, and got a job in a school for teenage boys with special needs.
It was a stressful, at times dangerous, job and here again her sense of drama stood her in good stead.
‘I wore tight black trousers tucked into knee boots, black jumpers and put my hair up,’ says Juliet. ‘They thought I was Honor Blackman from The Avengers and could do judo.’
It was at this time she got an evening job as an usherette that would introduce her to the world of actors and writers where she would eventually find her home. Her flatmate was understudying Joan Sims and they all used to go a club called Buxton’s behind the Haymarket Theatre.
Then came marriage, a move to Dartmouth where her husband lectured at the Naval College, and two children. Gradually the writing took off.
She was asked to write for The Archers and inject some humour into it. Keen to do her own research, she befriended a local farmer. He said he’d show her tupping, which Juliet thought was rams having their tails docked, rather than being introduced to ewes.
Juliet wanted him to spare no details, so somewhat forensically the farmer pointed out that a ram’s testicles, unlike a man’s, hang equally.
‘What about that funny little one over there?’ asked Juliet.
‘Oh, that’s Malcolm,’ said the farmer. ‘He’s what we call a teaser. We send him in first to get the ewes warmed up.’
Needless to say, Malcolm soon made an appearance in The Archers.
Juliet’s next big break came in the early 1980s when she was asked to write for The District Nurse starring Nerys Hughes and filmed in her native Wales. It was here she teamed up with the famous editor and producer duo Tony Holland and the notoriously forthright Julia Smith (they’d worked on Z Cars together).
Two years later they went on to create EastEnders, and took Juliet with them. She wrote three episodes in the first year, got a contract to write six in the second year, and stayed with it for nine years. It brought a new reality to the world of soaps.
From the start, Tony wanted it to be as authentic as possible. The writers read as much as they could about life in the East End.
‘In Neighbours or something you could have someone having a brain tumour one week and running a marathon the next,’ says Juliet.
The EastEnders team wanted to give issues proper weight, to ensure that they were character-led. One storyline about cot death spanned two years.
The episode that Juliet remembers having the most impact was when Michelle told her grandmother she was pregnant, and asked her what women did in her day.
‘In the same episode, Sharon is in the pub chatting up Lofty, really flirting with him. Den overhears and slaps her face, just as Angie comes in. Angie slaps Den’s face and he slaps hers.’
Mary Whitehouse complained about the violence. But they were just trying to reflect real life. Angie and Den became the most famous husband and wife in the history of soaps.
At the age of 72, Juliet is still writing – compiling the memoirs of actor Terence Rigby, who died two years ago. She met him in Buxton’s all those years ago, and ‘walked out’ with him for a while.
She moved to Fitzrovia four years ago from Camden. She loves the fact that it’s home to many writers, actors and producers she knows, and old boyfriends used to live here so she felt a certain nostalgia for it.
Her career has encompassed award-winning soap and drama for TV, radio and film, in both English and Welsh.
But ask Juliet about her proudest achievement, and she tells about a carpenter she taught to read and write in Dartmouth, before literacy programmes were common. Years later, she was walking past a building site and someone came out of a portakabin, whistling and waving at her. It was her carpenter, who’d become site manager. His literacy had opened doors for him.
‘It spurred me on to think I could also break out and keep at it like he had, and become a writer,’ she says.