Everything is all write as actress pens hits galore

VANESSA Rosenthal has worked in theatres up and down the country as well as in radio drama, film and television.

Acclaimed for roles in Alan Bennett's The Lady In The Van at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and on a National Tour of The Importance Of Being Earnest in which she played Miss Prism, this multi-talented artist has appeared in the YTV soap The Royal Today, adapted Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings for BBC Radio 4 and dramatised Jane Austen for BBC Woman's Hour.

Born and brought up in Manchester, her critically acclaimed writing has been described as funny, angry and very recognisable, and an original play, Exchanges in Bialystok, was chosen to represent the BBC at the European Script Broadcasting Union in Helsinki, Finland.

Next year, Vanessa appears in a double bill of one-act plays in a Jewish-themed programme titled Dough, which is based in a bakery.

Opening in Leeds, the production by David Ian Neville transfers to Brian Daniels' New End Theatre in Hampstead.

And Vanessa hopes it signals the beginning of an exciting new partnership between Leeds and London that will bring diversity and artistic enterprise to both places.

Her early years were spent growing up in Jackson's Row Reform Synagogue, Manchester, and the world of theatre was a central part of her childhood.

"My father, Leonard Rosenthal, was a GP, while my mother Hilda, who was a senior lecturer at what is now Manchester Metropolitan University, was a great lover of literature," recalled Vanessa, who now lives in Leeds.

"She read poetry and classics to me and my sister Judith.

"I went to Manchester High School, but by the time I was 11 knew I wanted to be an actress.

"I was a theatregoer from an early age and trained at the Central School of Drama. But you don't shape your career - you respond to the next job.

"I was not a singer, so mine was not a musical-comedy route. In 1965, I left drama school and there were many more towns that had rep theatre.

"It was the swinging 60s and London was just happening. There was a great culture shock, but you did not let on you were from Manchester, which was the provinces and at 21 I found it all rather startling.

"I was told boys in a flat above us were in a pop group and were going to gatecrash a party. They were the Rolling Stones. We had joint parties and I was shocked at what went on, but you never let on. You just had to play it cool."

There were many opportunities for budding actors, recalled Vanessa.

"Every large town had rep, so I had continuous work for two-and-half years," she said.

"For a young actor nowadays that is unheard of. But we got a contract for 40 weeks, so on the day I started work I knew I'd be paid for 40 weeks. It was tough but it was fortnightly rep.

"The biggest change four decades on is that there is much less live theatre, which is sad.

"I don't know where young audiences are going to come from. Young people have not got that theatregoing tradition.

"I respect that for them it's film, but I still think most actors learn their craft on the stage, so it's worrying.

"There will be work for actors coming up through digital, but talented youngsters on television have no idea how to reach out to an audience on a stage.

"Mentally, when you are acting on stage, you push out your voice. With television, the camera comes right into your face."

Finishing runner-up for the Constable Trophy fiction prize, Vanessa failed to get two books published so turned to writing for radio - and her career took off in a new direction.

"My first play aired 11 years ago," said Vanessa.

"Twenty-two commissions later I'm still going and I've found it's a medium that I love writing for. Some is regional work and I do a lot of dramatisations."

To date, Vanessa has penned six of 10 editions of BBC Radio 4 series Writing the Century on Woman's Hour, which explores the 20th century through real correspondence and diaries from a broad mix of society.

"The concept was devised and originated by BBC drama producer Polly Thomas and myself," said Vanessa.

"The Paston Letters was the first and is the oldest collection of domestic letters in English, covering the fate and fortunes of a Norfolk family from around 1400 to 1520.

"Fundamental is a need to understand the world and society from which the diarist or correspondent springs, through wide reading of the social and political history of the period.

"The language is tricky so I go into little scenes and dramatise them. There is now an archive of material cross-referenced by a part-time researcher that lists each decade from roughly the 1930s onwards with details of who sent it in and an outline of the scope of its contents.

"Writing The Century is on a roll and the richness of the stories brought to life has proved that there is no such thing as an ordinary life."

Week 10 is based on her own diaries of the mid-1960s and opens with her stay on a kibbutz in 1964.

"It somewhat bravely, I think, charts my marrying-out," she commented.

Vanessa added: "I love writing for radio but still love live theatre. There is nothing like it as you have that response from an audience."

She is adept in various accents including Yorkshire, Lancashire, London, Cockney, American and Irish. TV credits include Emmerdale, Heartbeat and The Royal, based on a hospital in Scarborough. On the next generation of budding stars, she said: "Very few make it.

"There are too many places saying, 'We do drama, we'll train you as an actor' and sadly kids see stardom. But anything that makes a young person feel disappointed is just awful.

"When Equity was a closed shop, when we had to be members, on any day less than five per cent of the profession would be in work. I'd imagine that figure has gone down. My advice is have a second string."

Vanessa lost her husband, Dr James Walsh, who was emeritus registrar of Leeds University last year, after 41 years marriage.

She is a member of Sinai Synagogue and has two married daughters and five grandsons.

Looking back on her 40-plus years in the industry, Vanessa has no regrets.

"I've had a very good marriage and have been very lucky," she said.

© 2009 Jewish Telegraph