Rosemary Anne Sisson (13 October 1923 – 28 July 2017) was an English television dramatist and novelist. She was described by playwright Simon Farquhar in 2014 as being “one of television’s finest period storytellers”, and in 2017 fellow dramatist Ian Curteis referred to her as “the Miss Marple of British playwriting”.
I interview her in 1987. Here is the substance of what she told me.
THE EARLY INFLUENCES
Rosemary Anne Sisson: My father was a scholar, a philosopher, and even when we were little, he would talk to us as if we were at table. Our opinions were welcome so long as they were sensibly held, and then he would challenge our opinion. So every opinion we held we had to be prepared to defend. That was a great intellectual exercise for little children. It was a strict upbringing though it was so full of love that we didn’t realize it, but my parents set very high standards and if we came home and said: I was second in my class, they always said, who was top? I don’t think I ever wanted to be competitive. I don’t think my sister did, but our parents were competitive on our behalf, and my mother still is. I suppose I am competitive, but not against other people. I always want to be perfect, which is a terrible thing to try to be all the time, but that was really what was asked of us. That we should always do the very best we could whatever we were doing. My sister and I always took it for granted that we would go to a good school and go to a university, and then marry. In fact I always planned to be married. The only thing I wanted was to be married and to go on the stage. I wanted to have children. And it was my sister who married and had five children; and I never went on the stage. Yet I’m a remarkably happy woman, so it’s a good example of not getting what you want but getting what, in the end, is best for you.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
Rosemary Anne Sisson: I went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which is, of course, a girls’ school that believed in intelligence in women, so all my friends were delightful and intelligent girls. I was happy there, and at home we were treated with great respect – our minds, as well as our personalities, so I never felt the slightest inhibition and we had a lot of pleasant friends. Those were the days when the boys who were your neighbours were also your friends, and you played golf and tennis together, and you went exploring the fields together, and sex didn’t enter into it. They were your friends, different, more interesting friends, but still just your friends, so I never felt any inhibitions because I was a girl.
Once I started writing, then I did feel that women writers were not treated with the respect men writers were. Certainly, when I wrote my first play after the war, it was much harder to break into the world of the theatre and critics tended not to treat you with the same respect. My first play was an historical play. The men took it for granted it was a woman’s play, and the fact that it was a very funny play and the audience adored it, and it was very exciting – none of that made any difference. I was a woman writer and therefore they judged it. It’s a very subjective, difficult thing to put your finger on, but this – Miss Sisson’s play – somehow the attitude to it was different.
Certainly in my world it was very hard to get to the top, much harder to get to the top for a woman, but once you get to the top, there are only about half a dozen of us, so it’s an enormous advantage, because everyone knows my name in the business. If they’re looking for a woman writer, I’m one of the first names they try.
There is no discrimination moneywise at all, partly because of the Writer’s Guild. I’m one of the highest-paid writers in the television business; I am in the very top bracket.
I did find when I was chairman of the Writers’ Guild that I had to be aggressive, but that was because they were a rowdy lot round the table, and, unfortunately, if you were going to keep control, like Mrs Thatcher in Parliament, you had to shout a bit and be rather ferocious. And the men didn’t like it; they would have accepted it from a man, but didn’t like it from a woman. That’s the only time I’ve had to behave like a man. I’m glad I’m not in politics.
I use every advantage a woman has. For example, very often it was difficult to get rehearsals in the early days. Directors didn’t like you there. So, instead of saying, as perhaps a man would, listen, I’d like to come to rehearsals if I may, I would always say, would you mind very much if I came to rehearsals? I’ll sit very quietly. So I’d use my woman’s charm. It was a great advantage – I didn’t threaten them in that way.
No one could have had more encouragement than I had in my private life, in our family life, and among my friends; no one could have been more lovingly encouraged and praised, and yet, still, one bad notice or adverse comment and I am knocked off my perch and have to struggle back on to it again. I find it hard to disregard.
Rosemary Anne Sisson: I’m definitely not a feminist in the sense of thinking there is no difference between men and women. I love being a woman, and I wouldn’t be anything but a woman for all the world. I’m only a feminist when my professional standing is not treated with the respect it deserves because I’m a woman. Women should get respect for being what they are. When they do work equal to men, they should get equal pay. But also they should accept their responsibilities as mother of the family and expect the father to accept his responsibilities as father of the family. Some feminists would claim that is an old-fashioned view, but I think it’s a natural view, and when you depart from Nature you get into trouble, physical, moral, and spiritual. And I’m also a Christian, so that conditions me to some extent. I do think the last shall be first and the first shall be last. I think the more you try to assert yourself and be aggressive as a woman, the less respect you will get.
Mrs Thatcher expects women to get on with it, which is certainly what would have been said in our household. You know, if you can’t manage children and a job, then don’t have children or don’t have a job, otherwise get on with it and find a way. It’s very hard, but it’s realistic. They’re asking now for nursery schools from the age of three – well, that is exactly what used to happen: people used to have nannies. So they very people who say, what a shocking thing to put your child into the care of a nanny, still want to have the child and have the job, not because they need the money, but because they want to have both. Nothing is for nothing in this hard world, I think Mrs Thatcher has said, and those of us who were brought up in that same hard school know that’s true.
Rosemary Anne Sisson: I was brought up to think that love and sex went together and I can’t imagine anything else. I cannot imagine going to bed with a man I didn’t love and want to spend my life with and have children with. I don’t think its conditioning, it is part of the feminine nature. It’s Nature making sure that a lot of little animals are not scattered about the place with no father.
I’ve had a very long and happy life without sex. I know many women can live without it. Obviously some women can’t. But this great need for sexual fulfilment is rather like compulsive over-eating or compulsive alcoholism. I wonder whether it’s a compensation for lack of love in their lives, whether it isn’t, in a way, a sign of insecurity for a woman to need it so continually. As if she is always trying to prove she is immensely successful because she is successful in bed.
These programmes on Woman’s Hour and television, discussing sex publicly and continually, I find very distasteful. I feel that I’m a voyeur when I’m invited to attend someone else’s sexual experiences. I wouldn’t stand on Wimbledon Common peering down at them, I don’t really want to read about it unless it’s wonderfully well done in novels, and I certainly don’t want to see it on television or films.
Rosemary Anne Sisson: I don’t know what else you can call abortion but murder. It’s a crime, it’s murder. I really don’t think that just because of my religious opinions, funnily enough, though obviously that would start me off from a certain position. Women have always been able to have contraceptives. Jane Austen said, why doesn’t she practise the simple regimen of separate rooms? when a woman had another baby. But now, when contraception is so safe and so natural, to have an unwanted baby and murder it – I see it as infanticide. There is no other word – it’s infanticide.
Rosemary Anne Sisson: One is always a tiny bit on show to men, and that is part of the pleasure. That’s probably why I enjoy the company of men, that there is a certain feminine standard which I ask of myself when I’m with men. I’m sure this is why there’s this little extra pleasure both for me and for them.
I must have a dozen at least, if not two dozen men friends, who are either fellow-writers or actors. A good example is Edward Woodward, whom I’ve known since he was in my first play. He’s one of the most attractive and sexily attractive men I’ve ever known, and I found it a great mercy I never fell in love with him. I can’t think why I didn’t except that he was married and so something in my mind forbade it. So I love him dearly, but he’s like a brother to me, like a dear, dear brother.
I didn’t meet the man I loved enough to marry. If I had, I would not have written until the children were grown up. So I have absolutely no sympathy with people who marry and have children and then grumble that they’re not their own person any more. When you marry and have children, that’s a marvellous, wonderful thing, and I’ve never had it, but I’ve had great compensations. I didn’t meet any eligible men because of the war breaking out. All the boys I knew and who might well have been the ones I would marry, went off to war. Some were killed – at least three of our close friends were killed – and two lost legs. And after the war, then, in a way, it was beginning to be too late; I was very choosy by then. I was still marriageable, but I wasn’t prepared to marry just for the sake of marrying. I had about five proposals, and one I came quite close to – he was going to be a vicar, a minister, and absolutely delightful when he was courting me, writing lovely letters every day. Then, unfortunately, he sent me one of his sermons, and it was dreadful. I thought, he’s not as clever as I am, and if I’m going to marry a man, he’s got to be cleverer, stronger, wiser, better than I am. I couldn’t bear to be married to a fool.
I like men who are strong and kind, but also very intelligent, and if I can get that combination, I do find that quire irresistible. I really don’t think I am at all seduced by power, because I’ve known some cowboys who didn’t have nine dollars in their pockets and who were strong and kind and funny, and I found them very very attractive indeed. The man I don’t like is the little man who tried to assert his strength. That was another proposal I turned down, and I said, no, I couldn’t marry you, you’re not as strong as I am. And he took hold of me and said, yes, I am, I’m just as strong as you are; and I kicked him on the shins and said if you don’t let go of me I’ll scream. This was in the middle of Knightsbridge. I kicked him on this shins and screamed at the top of my voice and he let me go very quickly.
People are really, truly, dreadfully self-indulgent. They’ve been brought up to think there is a cure for everything, and they don’t believe in death. I think it’s most extraordinary. As soon as a marriage gets difficult, they think, oh, I don’t like this, this is getting difficult. Whereas I think once you marry, you marry until death do you part. All marriages go through bad stages, and you have to thole it, as my parents used to say. Thole it. My parents lived to a Golden Wedding through obviously very difficult times, and times when they almost hated each other. But they were married and loved each other, too; and to see that, to reach that, is what marriage is all about.
Rosemary Anne Sisson: I think women remain faithful for longer than men, even when all hope is gone. I’ve watched my friends go through break-up of marriages and that is very upsetting. I wrote a play about Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, and to the very end of her days Catherine could not believe that her husband would not come back to her. She loved him to the end, and the more she loved him, the more angry it made him, because he wanted to be free. And I watched that played out with my married friends. So I think what Jane Austen claimed in Persuasion, that it is the gift of women to be faithful when all hope is gone, and to be loving when all hope is gone, is a feminine trait.