Only Fools And Horses actors reunite in a two-hander adapted for the stage by Beautiful Thing playwright Jonathan Harvey.

Starting life as a series of books, Ladies Of Letters went on to become a BBC Radio Four favourite and a 10-episode television show. Now adapted for the theatre, the humorous two-hander reunites Gwyneth Strong and Tessa Peake-Jones - perhaps best known as Cassandra and Raquel in long-running TV sitcom Only Fools And Horses. 

What’s On recently caught up with Gwyneth to find out more about the new stage show...

“It’s a bit of a shock to the system,” laughs Gwyneth Strong in talking about two-hander comedy Ladies Of Letters, in which she reunites with old pal Tessa Peake-Jones. “There’s quite a lot of words to say, being as there’s only two of us on stage. When you say ‘yes’ to things like this, you know they’re going to be tricky, but we’ve been working very hard and long days, and it’s worth it. It’s nice, good fun, and lovely to be with Tessa after all these years.”

The new stage play reunites Gwyneth and Tessa professionally for the first time since they appeared together in iconic TV sitcom Only Fools And Horses. 

Ladies Of Letters - created by Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield - began life as a series of books that traced a Royal Mail-powered back’n’forth between two elder women - Vera and Irene. Having met once, the characters struck up a correspondence, exchanging news and opinions, subtly and not so subtly trying to out-do each other, and offering support when the chips were down. Adapted for a BBC Radio Four series in 1997, which ran for over a decade and starred Patricia Routledge and Prunella Scales, it transferred to television in 2009, with Anne Reid and Maureen Lipman as Vera and Irene.

“I do remember hearing it on Radio Four and thinking it was very funny," recalls Gwyneth, who'd previously worked with writers Lou and Carole while at London's Royal Court Theatre. "I really liked it, and then I heard  the names Carole Hayman and Lou Wakefield come up at the end, and I thought, amazing! I didn’t know it was them who'd written it!”

Despite the appeal of the earlier radio and TV incarnations, both Gwyneth (Vera) and Tessa (Irene) decided to steer clear of any old recordings.

“We haven’t gone back to listen to it again because I think it might confuse us. Neither of us have it in our heads - I only heard it all those years ago - which I think is best because we’ve got to make it our own.”
Ladies Of Letters’ premise may be simple, but it’s also highly effective.

“They get very much into a one-upmanship that brings out lots of comedy - hopefully -  and pathos. It’s very interesting, the mix that it is, and I don’t think there’s anything you can compare it to, which is a good thing.”

Though sharing common ground - both Irene and Vera are widows who live alone - their rivalry, spanning everything from offspring to recipes and household tips, makes for some beautifully observed comedy. On the surface, it may seem a little (dare we say it?) comfortable, but brewing in the background are very real concerns and darker themes.

“It can be quite dark. A word that wouldn’t have been around when they first made the radio series is ‘frenemy’, and they are definitely ‘frenemies’ - the two ladies need each other, and that works; they keep hooking back in. It’s quite lively - and fruity in parts too, which we like!” 

Adapting the series of (occasionally poisoned) penned exchanges for the stage is acclaimed writer Jonathan Harvey (Corrie, Gimme Gimme Gimme, Beautiful Thing). Though he keeps in the spirit of the original, his input has given the production a contemporary sheen, allowing characters to engage with such 21st-century issues as climate change.

“Jonathan’s done an amazing job in adapting the letters to a fully blown story, and it’s amazing how much of it was in the original book. He’s done a magical job with weaving it all together and updating the bits that needed updating. He’s made the women a bit younger than they were, and that’s given them a bit more scope to talk about different things. He's a great writer.”

Gwyneth and Tessa first met in 1988 after they joined the cast of BBC One sitcom Only Fools And Horses. Gwyneth starred as Cassandra, the partner of Nicholas Lyndhurst's Rodney, while Tessa was Raquel, the long-term (and long-suffering) girlfriend of David Jason's London chancer, Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter.

Written by John Sullivan (who'd previously created Citizen Smith, starring Robert Lindsay), Only Fools And Horses followed Del Boy’s exploits as he attempted to better himself with get-rich-quick schemes that consistently ended in disaster. The series ran from 1981 to 2003 and remains hugely popular today, with regular repeats and even a West End stage musical.

“I first saw Tessa when I went to see her first episode. I was rehearsing, and they asked if I wanted to see a recording of the show; I’d never seen one before, live.
“So the first time I actually saw her was on the set - which was really funny - and we met really briefly after.
“Actually, at the beginning, we didn’t know if we would be involved together, or even any more, because we were both booked originally, I think, for one episode each.”

Both Cassandra and Raquel were instant hits, becoming vital characters for the rest of the show’s life.
Discussing the series’ enduring popularity, Gwyneth says: “It has this life of its own that just goes on and on, which is delightful. Obviously, we knew that we were in this very successful show back then, but we never thought we’d be talking about it 30 years later.

“It seems to be able to entertain all generations, and doesn’t seem to have dated in the way that other shows perhaps have.
“John Sullivan was such a wonderful writer, so we always had this incredible material, which was a joy to read even before it was in the hands of all the other talent involved in the show.”

Feature by Dave Freak

Gwyneth Strong stars alongside Tessa Peake-Jones in Ladies Of Letters at Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, from Tuesday 7 to Thurs 9 June.