Heaven & Hell: John Osborne
- Credit: Steph Potts
John is an East Anglian writer and theatre maker. His first show, John Peel's Shed, was a sell out at Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, and was adapted for BBC Radio 4. After Hours, the sitcom he created and wrote with Molly Naylor and directed by Craig Cash (The Royle Family) was broadcast on Sky. His first book Radio Head was broadcast as Radio 4's Book of the Week. His new theatre show My Car Plays Tapes is currently on tour and can be seen at Norwich Arts Centre on November 24. Here he speaks to Gina Long
What is your connection to East Anglia?
I came here for university in 2000 and am still here now, living in Norwich. It was never my plan to come to UEA. I’ve moved away a couple of times, but have always come back. Even if I do ever live anywhere else, Norwich will always have that special, homely feeling.
What is your East Anglian heaven?
I love the pubs and the ale. I feel I could tell my life story by the pubs of East Anglia, from the Norwich Playhouse beer garden to the Green Dragon in Bungay, so many of my happy memories come from the beautiful pubs in our area. I don’t think there are many cities in the UK that would beat Norwich when it comes to a pub crawl.
What is your East Anglian hell?
I do sometimes feel far away from a lot of people who are close to me. My sister lives in Switzerland and had a baby last year, and I haven’t been able to visit there since before the lockdown. You do sometimes feel far away from places in East Anglia. That’s not always a bad thing though.
What’s your favourite East Anglian landmark?
I had a day in Cromer in the summer. Seeing the sea and the beach gave me such a good feeling. So I’d say maybe my favourite East Anglian landmark is Cromer pier.
What’s the best thing that happens in East Anglia every year?
My friend Yanny has run a conkers competition at Geldeston Locks every September for over 10 years now. The first year there were about six of us (and I won) and now there are regularly crowds of 60, with different competitions for under 18s and adults, as well as best-dressed-conker, all raising money for charity. Conkers is surprisingly great fun as a spectator sport.
What is your favourite restaurant?
I love Saporita, a little family run Italian place in the centre of Norwich. It has everything you want from a rustic Italian restaurant without any hint of pretentiousness. Tasty food with affectionate staff in a cosy front room. I like it there a lot.
What your specialist Mastermind subject?
I could answer any question about Blur, the life and loves of Steve McDonald in Coronation Street or cricketers of the 1990s.
What is always in your fridge?
The only consistent thing is probably fruit juice. I’m a Tropicana guy.
What’s your simple philosophy of life?
When you are worried or sad, write things down. It helps that the words aren’t inside you anymore.
What’s your favourite film?
I remember watching The Lobster at Cinema City in Norwich and being absolutely in awe of every moment of every scene. The last film I saw before the lockdown was Armando Iannucci’s David Copperfield, which is one of the most astonishingly joyous films I’ve ever seen. When I was growing up I loved the Naked Gun films. I’ve seen each of them at least 20 times.
What was your first job?
In a supermarket! I worked at Safeway while I was at sixth form. I was on the fruit and veg aisle for my first year and then in the cash office for my second year. I remember being on £3.02 an hour. It was a friendly, cosy, eight aisle supermarket but it closed down when a massive Tesco was built across the road. I’ve still got my Safeway name badge.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’ve got an armchair that belonged to my grandad. It was his most treasured possession, no one else was allowed to even touch his armchair. I don’t sit on it often, but occasionally I think of the days when he’d sit there, watching TV and think how much he’d like that it’s in the corner of my front room now. It must be at least 60 years old now but it’s still comfy. They knew how to make things back then.
Who do you admire most?
Creatively my hero has always been Damon Albarn. I was a huge Blur fan when I was a teenager and I’ve followed his career more closely than anyone else’s. He’s a phenomenal writer and performer and his work rate is something that often makes me remember if you want to achieve things you need to work really hard.
On a more personal level I’ve worked as a support worker for Mencap since 2015, and the people I worked with when I first started there are among the most incredible people I have ever met. A minimum wage job that’s emotionally and physically draining, and I rarely heard a single word of complaint or disgruntlement.
What is your biggest indulgence?
Toasted cheese sandwiches.
What do you like about yourself most?
I feel lucky I’ve always been surrounded by incredible friends. I think I have good judgment in people.
What’s your worst character trait?
I have no sense of direction and I get confused far too easily.
Where is your favourite holiday destination?
The only exotic holiday I’ve ever been on was when I went to Melbourne a couple of years ago. My best friend from school lives there so he gave me a full two week tour of the beaches and bars of what must be one of the most beautiful and exciting cities in the world. It was a special time, I’d love to be able to go back there, whenever that might be possible again.
Best day of your life?
My friend Molly and I made a sitcom, and I remember the first day being on set. We had no idea the scale of how big it would be. We knew it would be big but we kept looking at each other in utter disbelief. Hearing actors saying the words we’d written in the house we shared together on Norwich’s Dereham Road was an absolute dream, and something I will forever be in awe of. I would say the first day of filming was the best day of my life, but in reality every single day of those six weeks was just as special. It’s not something you ever expect to happen.
What’s your favourite breakfast?
This is one of my favourite things about where I live in Norwich. I’m about 10 minutes away from The Street Café on Magdalen Street. Their breakfasts are incredible. Just up the road is Olives, which is another Norwich highlight. During the lockdown it’s having breakfast in cafés that I particularly missed. I go to Edinburgh every year for the Edinburgh Festival and I love a full Scottish breakfast too. If you have a good breakfast you’re going to have a good day. I’m sure there are graphs to prove that.
What’s your favourite tipple?
I love dark rum and coke. I first had it at Leeds festival when I was about 17 and it’s kept me company at festivals, parties and gigs ever since. Good things happen when I drink rum.
What’s your hidden talent?
I’m quite good at WhatsApp voice messages.
What’s your earliest memory?
I have one vivid memory of being in the park, on a roundabout with my sister. I don’t know why I remember it so clearly. Maybe going round and around on the roundabout activated my memory and from that moment on I could remember things. It was just me and her, being pushed around the roundabout.
Tell us something people don’t know about you?
I lived in Vienna for a year, teaching English. I don’t know if people know that about me. I lived in a little cottage that didn’t have central heating, I had to go out collecting firewood. I was 22, living like a little woodland boy, picking up sticks and bits of logs for my fire, drinking Austrian red wine, listening to loud music, reading novels, writing stories and poems. It was the year that made me realise I wanted to take writing seriously, and that it wasn’t just a hobby anymore. It was a special time that feels impossible to imagine now; me in my Hansel and Gretel house, eating schnitzel and writing stories.
What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?
Any sentence that starts with ‘John’ followed by a pause isn’t going to end well.
Tell us why you live here and nowhere else?
Working for Mencap gave me the opportunity to travel all across Norfolk and Suffolk, and being able to explore towns like Diss and Framlingham has opened my eyes to how friendly and relaxed a lot of our area is. I feel settled and happy here. There is so much about Norwich I love – the Arts Centre, the Book Hive, Future Radio, The Fat Cat the cafes, the people, the coast. I love that when people visit they always say such positive things about Norwich. I live near Mousehold Heath and it’s such a big part of my life now to go on massive walks down the countryside roads that lead out of town, through the woods or through the fields.
What do you want to tell our readers about most?
In my new book A Supermarket Love Story every aisle in a supermarket has a poem or story dedicated to it. That was published in the summer, and I love it when people get in touch and say they’ve enjoyed that.
I’m also performing at Norwich Arts Centre on November 24 with my brand-new show, My Car Plays Tapes. It's a storytelling show that I took to the Edinburgh festival in August, (easily the highlight of my year). The show is about working as a support worker, and being reunited with my old tape collection from the 1990s. I remember the first time I ever performed at Norwich Arts Centre was a real career highlight, and when I toured my show John Peel’s Shed it was completely sold out, with people standing around the edge of the room. It’s always been a special place for me, both as a performer and a gig-goer, so I’m excited to be there again with this brand new show
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