Leesa Harker: 'I desperately want to get my work on TV but the success of Derry Girls killed my plots... so I'll have to write something new'
As Belfast author and playwright Leesa Harker brings her own unique brand of humour to the stage of Belfast's Grand Opera House, she tells Leona O'Neill that behind the laughter she had real concerns regarding her health
She's the woman who unleashed the brash and crass, but nevertheless magnificent, Maggie Muff on to the world and now Belfast author and playwright Leesa Harker is ready to bring four more unique and hilarious Northern Irish characters into our lives.
The Belfast woman, mother to daughters Lola (11) and Lexi (8), says she is proud of her work over the last few years - she is the writer of 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue, Dirty Dancin' in le Shebeen, Maggie's Feg Run and Maggie Yer Ma! - especially considering she was battling cancer in the middle of it all.
Leesa (41) will next week bring her rip-roaring comedy The REAL Housewives of Norn Iron to the Grand Opera House before taking it across Northern Ireland. The show features Caroline Curran, Roisin Gallagher, Rosie McClelland and Diona Doherty as four very different 'Norn Iron' housewives: one a "wee Derry girl", one a posh Belfast lady, one a dinner lady "from the road" and a farmer's wife from Fermanagh, who are thrown together in a reality television scenario with hilarious consequences. Added to the mix is an American producer in the shape of Patrick McBrearty who spends the show stirring, spilling secrets and trying to boost the TV ratings by skullduggery.
Leesa says she can't wait for audiences to see the show.
"It's really funny," she says. "It's a play, but it's kind of a comedy show and there are a few parody songs in there as well because I saw how the audiences reacted to the songs in the Maggie Muff shows.
"I have four characters who are all hilarious. I have a Derry one, Iwonka, who is originally from Poland but has lived in Derry from she was five years old. I have one from 'the road'. She's a Millie and it could be any road that she's from. Then I've got a BT9-er, a posh one, and a rural one - Dora from Fermanagh."
Leesa has carefully created each individual with their own distinct lives and instantly recognisable characteristics.
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"The Derry one, Iwonka, is young," she explains. "She's a social media influencer and a make-up artist and she's going out with a footballer and is a wannabe WAG. Then there's Jean, who is the dinner lady with six kids and the husband who has worked all his life. Her kids are up a bit and she's at a bit of a loose end.
"Cynthia is the BT9 woman, she's a slimming class leader and she's all into fitness and exercise and eating healthily. But she has just hit the menopause and her body has changed and she's not dealing with it very well. Also, her husband has a little problem in the bedroom so she's feeling frustration big time.
"Dora, the farmer, hasn't worn a bra since 1995 and she has a monobrow. She really just wants to be a bit glamorous and dickie herself up and have friends, because she is stuck on the farm all the time.
"So they are all totally different and they all go on a journey of themselves. Obviously throwing four people like that together, you are going to get fireworks."
Add to the mix the American TV producer whose eyes are fixed on ratings and plots and plans accordingly.
"There is also a guy in it, called Terry, the American TV producer," Leesa says. "He tries to get all the women to fight and go up against each other. He is telling them each other's secrets so that they argue - and he of course hopes this will be good for the TV ratings. He wants them all to hate each other.
"At the start of the play they are all in their own lives and they are all looking for an escape in a different way. They hear an advert on the radio for the Real Housewives of Norn Iron. So they all go for it and they come together for the show. Terry puts them in different scenarios. For example, they have a sleepover in Crumlin Road jail and the cameras are rolling and the audience are watching all this.
"The overriding message is about reality TV and how fake it is. Terry is always in the background on the phone and trying to get dirt on the women. He gets their secrets and then reveals them so there is an element of 'how much are you going to sell yourself for this?'
"One of them wants fame, one is in it for the money, one of them is trying to impress her husband and one is in it for the glamour of being on TV."
Leesa believes that, behind the comedy, her message is a very timely one.
"Sometimes people want fame and then, when they get it, they think was it worth it?" she says.
"To focus on this and to ask this question is timely after the tragic deaths of those of took part in Love Island (Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis earlier this year) and the Jeremy Kyle Show (Steven Dymond died last month).
"Another message that I tried to get across is that women need to raise each other up and not go against one another. It's all about the sisterhood.
"There are a couple of issues in there going through the play. There's the menopause and also gambling addictions. There are all these online bingo games now, aimed at stay-at-home-mums and people are getting into debt and developing gambling problems. I deal with issues in the play - so, even though it's absolutely laughing for two hours, there are some important messages in there too."
Leesa says she didn't base her characters on people she knew, more that she picked up traits to give her characters while partaking in her favourite past-time: people watching.
"I didn't really base the characters on anyone in particular," she says. "I never really do that. Things that I write about and characters that I do are, I suppose, little bits of things that I see, but it doesn't have to be anyone that I know.
"I'm a people watcher, I always have been. I could sit all day easily when I'm out somewhere and just watch people. I would sit and watch someone doing something and in my head I would have their whole life planned out. I have always been like that. So my characters and scenarios have been all from things I've seen, or heard about.
"At my last play, Maggie Yer Ma, a couple of friends of mine, who are dinner ladies, came along to see it. After the show we went for a drink and they were chatting and I was listening to them. And that is what planted the seed for having a dinner lady in this play."
Leesa says that, although her newest work is based around the housewives of Northern Ireland, she finds the term 'housewife' derogatory and thinks it's gone out of fashion.
"I don't think housewives exist any more," she says. "Most girls I know work (outside the home). I think the term housewife is kind of a derogatory term for me. It just reminds me of being stuck in the house. I know plenty of 'house-husbands' or, as I'd rather call them, 'stay-at-home-dads'.
I don't know anyone who would refer to themselves as a housewife or house-husband. It's almost a comical term. But I don't think it exists anymore.
"I think that people are individuals and they shouldn't have a title like that. Classing yourself as a 'housewife', I just don't think that happens these days. Some of my friends are stay-at-home-mums and they would never describe themselves as a housewife. They might not be working but there is always a plan about going back to work or studying and they are always doing things on the side."
Leesa has a whole host of successful books and stage productions under her belt since she put pen to paper and wrote Maggie Muff back in 2012. She says it was only when she recently sat down and listed her work that she was able to take pride in what she has achieved, despite the obstacles put in her way.
"I am really proud of myself," she says. "This year has been tough because I haven't been well, health-wise, and it's been hard writing this play. I should have had it finished by the end of last year. But it took me a long time to get this done. I actually sat and wrote down all the stuff I did since I started. And a lot of it I've written and it hasn't been seen. You don't get success with everything so I have several scripts sitting there that have never gone anywhere.
"So aside from all the stuff that you've seen, there is loads more. "I wrote down everything I did, year by year, and I said to myself, 'for goodness sake, Leesa, you have done an awful lot'. I have been having fatigue this year and I'm thinking that maybe it's just tiredness from just going at it for all these years.
"Because in amongst all of this I did have cancer and had four months of chemotherapy. I think I need to give myself a break. I worked all the way through my illness and treatment. I had a show on at the time when I was having chemotherapy and I just worked through it. I was hospitalised twice after taking an allergic reaction to the chemo. So I think I should give myself a break.
"I'm saying that now, but I'm starting a masters degree in creative writing at Queen's University in September."
Leesa's life was put on hold in 2013 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says she remembers the day she was told like it was yesterday, and recalls thinking that she might die - before her fierce fighting spirit kicked back in.
"When I came home from the clinic after being told I had cancer I went upstairs with my mum," she says. "I was screaming and vomiting with the shock. I screamed into a towel because I didn't want the kids to hear me.
"I thought this was it, it was over. I thought I was given a death sentence. I cried for the entire day after I was told. My daughter Lexi was three at the time and I kept thinking that she wouldn't even remember me. And I cried and cried. And then something just changed. I thought 'no' and something just clicked inside. People say you're so brave, but it's in you, it's in everybody. You have no choice, you just have to get on with it.
"Obviously there is the odd wobble. There are people who I went through treatment with who aren't here anymore, and that gives you a bit of fear.
"When I was first diagnosed I could never have imagined myself here and now. For the first day there were no thoughts at all. It was just like everything was paused, life was paused.
"I had just done a deal with the Grand Opera House for my second book, Dirty Dancing at the Shebeen, and I hadn't written the script yet.
"So I just had to get on with it. I thought it would be good money and, if anything did happen to me, there would be money in the bank. And that was a driving force too. I didn't want to let people down, as tickets had already been sold.
"So I had one day for a pause and everything just started the next day. And I haven't looked back since."
Leesa says she is desperate to have her work seen on television, but hasn't been having too much luck thus far.
"The BBC have been close to commissioning my work a couple of times," she reveals. "But for the last few years they have been saying to me that 'there is a comedy coming out of Northern Ireland ...we have to see how that is going to go...' and it was Derry Girls.
"One of the scripts that I sent in and they really liked centred around Maggie Muff and Sally Ann, with flashbacks to when they were at school in the 1990s.
"So the BBC had said that there's something coming out about schoolgirls in the 1990s and it's based in Derry so it wouldn't work to have two of them, so I had to drop it.
"I don't know if Derry Girls is a help or hindrance to me. I don't know if they are thinking 'let's have more or less things like that'. I think Maggie Muff is probably dead as far as going through London and indeed Belfast. I think maybe they think it's too rude and they wouldn't want to take the risk.
"It's a case of just trying to create something new now. It's not one person, you have to impress a whole range of different people and they all have different tastes.
"I have a couple of doors opened now and I just have to keep trying.
"I have learned so much in what I've done so far that I feel in a much better position, that if I create something brand new, I know who to take it to. So we'll see."
Leesa's The REAL Housewives of Norn Iron is on stage at Belfast's Grand Opera House until June 16 (for more information and to book tickets, visit www.goh.co.uk), and on tour at various venues thereafter