Writer, theatre-maker and storyteller John Osborne, creator of cult-hit John Peel’s Shed and Sky 1’s After Hours, is bringing new show, Norwich: A Love Story to the Playhouse in April. Here he explains how, after spending two decades in a city, it’s somewhere worth celebrating
If you had to describe your life in one paragraph, what would you say?
I’m John, I make theatre shows, listen to the cricket on the radio and walk around with my shoelaces undone.
What brought you to Norwich two decades ago and what is it about the city that you love?
I came to Norwich to start university when I was 18. I had no real interest in going to university, but my dad was taking my twin sister to a UEA open day, and my mum persuaded me to get in the car and join them to see what it was like. I didn’t want to go because I had so little interest in going to university. From the moment I stepped on campus I knew with absolute certainty that I had to be here. I don’t know where that certainty came from, or what that feeling was, I just knew Norwich was where I was meant to be.
You are known for being the creator of John Peel’s Shed – what, in your opinion, made it such a cult-hit?
It’s a celebration of radio. Obviously having the name of someone who means so much to people in the title was a help, but it’s a show about the role radio plays in people’s lives. I had no idea it would be as popular as it was. It started as a radio show for Future Radio a community station in Norwich. Someone I vaguely knew who produces theatre and comedy shows got in touch and said, ‘You have to do this as a theatre show.’ It hadn’t occurred to me at all. We ended up developing it together, we took it up to the Edinburgh festival and it sold out its entire run and was broadcast on Radio 4. I still perform it now as part of rural touring schemes and it still has the same appeal that it did in 2011 when I first started putting the show together. Hopefully it’s something I’ll always be able to perform.
What do you do when you’re not writing theatre shows, for example?
I teach in a primary school. I did my PGCE during the lockdown when all my theatre work had stopped and looked precarious about whether it would ever be the same again. It’s been a huge life change, exhausting and tricky, but having my own class is a brand-new challenge. It’s not easy finding time to write and perform, but that just makes the times that I do get to be at my desk or in a café with a notebook much more special.
What can people expect on the night of April 11 at The Playhouse? Who else will be making an appearance?
It’s a show called Norwich: A Love Story. It started out after realising how many of the poems I’ve written are set in Norwich, or about places specific to Norwich – Anglia Windows, Olives café, The Fat Cat, UEA. The more time I spent putting the show together, a story started to emerge based on the first job I ever had in Norwich, in a hotel. A love story with a slight edge to it. The first half of the show will be poems about Norwich and the second half will be the story, the main part of the night, a 40 minute love story set in Norwich. Most excitingly there will be a performance from one of my favourite performers, singer-songwriter-poet-storyteller Jess Morgan and I can’t wait to see her on the beautiful Playhouse stage.
How did the collaboration with artist Pinch come about?
Like most good collaborations it started in the pub. I was in the Plasterers Arms, one of my favourite pubs in Norwich and there was a painting on the wall; the Quayside by the Cathedral. It was so immediately one of the most special paintings I’d ever seen. Initially I found their website, got in touch and ordered a print of that same painting. When I started to put Norwich: A Love Story together I’d look at it up on my wall occasionally and I was desperate for Pinch’s work to be part of the night. Pinch created the poster for the show, and hopefully there will be more ways to work together again. I’d urge anyone remotely interested in either Norwich or art to have a look at Pinch’s work.
You are coming to Glemsford Village Hall next month, with Circled in the Radio Times – what is it about the everyday that appeals, as a writer?
Circled in the Radio Times is a show about TV and magazines. It’s all about a collection of old copies of the Radio Times that used to belong to my grandad, and the shows he used to circle with his Bic biro. It’s possibly the show I’m proudest of, because I sat down one night and thought I wonder what it would look like if I tried to write a story all about that collection of old copies of the Radio Times – the shows that had been circled, the scribblings in the margins, the half-completed crosswords. A few hours later I had a very patchy full show. I’ve never put one story together so quickly and fluently. Once I started writing it I couldn’t stop, and I think it’s exactly because of how simple the story is; that spending time comfortable on our armchairs and settees watching shows we love is something that can define our lives and that’s a reassuringly simple thing to think about. I spend a lot of time touring with rural touring schemes, and just like John Peel’s Shed and hopefully Norwich: A Love Story it’s a show I’d be happy to perform many more times in the future.
What are you working on next?
I’ve loved absorbing myself with the history and stories of the people of Norwich while researching Norwich: A Love Story, so I’d like to create a brand-new show about something related to one of the incredible people I’ve discovered while making my show for the Playhouse. It’s been incredible to read so many stories about people from this city who have done exceptional things. I have an idea about who the story will be about. It’s interesting how making a new show always leads to future projects…
Norwich – A Love Story | Norwich Theatre on April 11, 2024. The show features artwork by Norwich painter Pinch, which depicts some of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. Visit norwichtheatre.org. John Osborne presents: Circled in the Radio Times at Glemsford Village Hall on Saturday February 24. This event has been organised in collaboration with the Friends of Glemsford Library and Creative Arts East. Visit Eventbrite. Also, visit johnosborne.co.uk.
Featured image of John Osborne by Steph Potts