Life of Brian
From Country and Border Life 2010
Escape to the Country
A widely successful book charting one family’s move from the city to rural Herefordshire has been adapted for the stage by an acclaimed Shropshire theatre company – and it’s showing across Wales and the Borders
Words: Sally Themans
In 2002, Brian Viner left London with his wide and children in search of the rural idyll. As a senior features writer and columnist for The Independent, Brian’s interviews with sporting legends – Sir Bobby Robson, George Foreman, John McEnroe and Sir Roger Bannister, to name a few – have been essential reading in the newspaper’s pages since 1999, as have books such as The Football Interviews and Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me – his amusing account of the sport he watched on the telly as a boy during the ‘70s.
But experiencing the “metropause” – a yearning, as he describes it, on the part of him and his wife, Jane, to seek out a different type of life for them and their three children, Eleanor, Joseph and Jacob – the “somewhat urban couple” found themselves in deepest Herefordshire. Here, the trials and triumphs of their new rural existence provided fertile ground for a fresh column, Tales of the Country, and subsequent book, which humorously chart the family’s move. Now, this account of their transition from Crouch End in North London to Docklow, a tiny village with about 100 inhabitants between Leominster and Bromyard, has been adapted for the stage. The play opens at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury this month.
Ludlow-based Pentabus Theatre Company approached Brian with the idea for turning his tales into a play last year, and the award-winning playwright, scriptwriter and author Nick Warburton has produced the script. “I’ve had no creative input into the project apart from having written the book, which has been adapted brilliantly - by Nick Warburton” Says Brian. “Nick’s a hugely experienced writer for stage, screen and radio whose credits include episodes of Eastenders. That proves what a versatile fellow he is: murder, rape, abortion, adultery, armed robbery, incest – and now cowpats.”
Versatile is also a description that fits Brian and Jane Viner. They met at the Hampstead and Highgate Gazette and enjoyed a typically “media-orientated” life – he as an award-winning sports and TV columnist with the Daily Mail and then The Independent, she as a producer on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour. The move to Herefordshire kindled a new phase in Brian’s career, with the weekly Tales of the Country column appearing in The Independent alongside Brian’s sporting interviews. “The irony is that, professionally, I was concerned about the move but actually it’s been the best thing I could have done,” Says Brian.
Such was the popularity of his refreshing and humorous look at his family adapting to country life that it led to the book of the same title, chronicling the Viners’ first year in Herefordshire. Tales of the Country was first published in 2005 and has sold 40,000 copies. A second book – The Pheasants’ Revolt – followed in 2007.
“Moving was a big step into the unknown and everyone was waiting eagerly to see what was going to happen,” explains Brian. “We’d met in London and had no idea how we would function as a couple, or indeed as a family, in this new environment. It’s a seismic move – it would have been easier to move to Barcelona or Munich than to move from London to Herefordshire.
“We had in our minds a house on the edge of a small market town or village – the key criteria for location choice being ‘The Cappuccino Test’,” chuckles Brian. “I wanted to be able to walk from my house and be able to get a decent cappuccino as had been my habit in Crouch End. But oh no. The house we found and fell fairly instantly in love with was a far cry from a cappuccino. From Docklow, it would take about half a day’s brisk hiking to get anywhere near a decent cup of coffee.
“Urban living is different from rural living; everything involves a car journey and some degree of planning. We suddenly found ourselves in a much larger, grander house than we’d ever expected to live in; we’d been used to a limp cabbage patch of a garden and now have five acres to contend with. And we also found ourselves the object of a mixture of fascination and suspicion from local people, which I’m told is typical – especially if you move into ‘The Big House’ and especially if you write for a newspaper.”
The Viners remain humble about their surroundings: “It’s extraordinary from our modest backgrounds to be living here, and we feel very grateful for being in this lovely house in this lovely part of the world.”
An unexpected consequence of the move to the country was what it revealed about friendship and diversity. “One of the big worries of moving the children from an urban environment was that they wouldn’t get to experience the multi-ethnic, diverse make-up of people we were surrounded by in London. However, when we really looked at ourselves, the truth was that actually all our friends were our age, white, middle-class professionals. What moving to the country has taught is that with a smaller pool from which to choose your friends – you begin to choose those whom you like, rather than those whom you are like. In London it was unthinkable to have friends in their seventies; here, in Herefordshire, it’s a different story and completely acceptable – nay, enriching – to have friends of different ages and social backgrounds. That has changed our view of the world and given us the true meaning of diversity”.
Local theatre-lovers will be able to witness the family’s transition for themselves when Tales of the Country opens on 8th April. Following its date at theatre Severn it will tour Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and the Borders before ending up on the London stage in May. “I come out of it a bit of a pillock,” grins Brian. “I’m tickled it’s going to be a play and I hope people enjoy it.”