"I write in quite a visual way"
What Steven asked Sarah Hehir, writer, poet and scriptwriter on The Archers and Doctors
Sarah Hehir is a writer, poet and screenwriter, with credits including Doctors and The Archers. Steven met her at Mrs Sourdough Bakery to discuss her play set in Kosovo, her debut novel, and why she stepped away from politics.
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Where were you born?
I was born in Scunthorpe. It was Humberside at the time. It’s now North Lincolnshire.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
They both went to grammar school in Scunthorpe. My mum always said she didn’t even know the eleven-plus was happening, it was so different to nowadays. She left school at 16 and worked for the Ministry of Pensions at some point, and then has done loads of different jobs. She worked in a butcher’s, as a barmaid, and ended up working at Lloyds TSB. My dad left school at 18, didn’t go to university, but ended up doing an HND (Higher National Diploma) and worked at the steelworks. They went to London before they had children for about five years, which was quite unusual back then. My dad ended up back on the docks and worked there as a chemist for most of his life.
How did you find school?
I liked it. I went to a tiny village primary two minutes from our house, which was nice. It was kind of a blur. Most of it was alright. I remember a few odd moments like coming into the school hall and there was a Japanese theatre company doing a show about mercury poisoning. It was almost immersive interactive, late 70s, early 80s, in a tiny village school. It had a massive effect on me, and my desire to get more theatre into schools. We didn’t get to see anything normally other than pantomime. To have something like that come in was amazing. Secondary school was alright. I went to the local comprehensive. Some amazing teachers, some absolutely awful (laughs). It was the time when they were urging working class kids to go to university. My sister is two years older than me, and she went to Cambridge. I don’t think that would have happened five years earlier. I went on to Manchester.
How did you find university?
Mind-blowing. Fantastic. From a tiny village to Manchester University at 18, it was incredible. I loved it. I would have probably stayed in Manchester, I don’t know. I did a teaching degree and taught there as well, and then met Aidan and we moved to Ireland.
What was your first full-time job?
After University I got a job at a production company in London. I got an address from the Artists and Writers Yearbook. I said I wanted to be a producer. I didn’t. The pay was almost nothing, I lived above their house. It was an odd kind of job. I decided being a teacher would be much more interesting and exciting. I went home and worked in North Lincolnshire libraries. I loved that, but that was just while I was waiting.
What brought you to the Medway Towns?
Love and money I suppose. We (Sarah and husband Aidan) were in Ireland, then we came to Sheffield with his work, then he got a permanent contract in London. We had just bought a little cottage in Sheffield, the first house we had bought. We had two babies, two little ones, and we couldn’t afford anything in London. Somebody said about Medway, and we could just about do it. I had never imagined living in the south or the southeast (laughs). And here we were, it’s been 16 years.
What is your current official occupation?
Writer. I am so happy to say writer. Sometimes scriptwriter.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
I didn’t get to be a full-time writer until fairly recently. Writing on The Archers helped. In Medway, although I am secondary trained, I have done a lot of primary teaching. I was writer in residence at Oaklands and Delce. I’m happy to give free workshops at schools.
What does a writer in residence mean?
It was really nice for the primary schools to value writing. I was often doing workshops, graphic novel workshops, and I would also write poems about the schools. It is often a role written by whomever is employing you. It’s often bringing creative writing to the fore, and if you do it well, you make it exciting and do collaborative writing.
What political parties have you been a member of?
I have been a member of the Labour Party, which I stood for election in Rochester West against Kelly Tolhurst, years ago. I’m really angry at the moment with Keir Starmer and his stance on Palestine, so I am not a paid member at the moment. I think I have been a member of the Green Party as well. I would support them anyway in the locals.
When did you join the Labour Party?
I voted for Andy Burnham when Ed Miliband won, so I must have been a member then. I probably joined when I came to Medway in 2007. I was asked to stand in Strood, I think, but I wanted to stand in my local area where I was bringing up a family. I was working at the Delce school and then the prison. I think I was just a name on the ballot. I stood with Derek Munton, but I wasn’t prepared to be just a name. At the time I don’t think there was a thought there would be any chance of getting in. I decided it was worth fighting it, and we did. I had a blog, which was quite early days: Borstal Girl working for Rochester West. If you Google me, that stuff used to come up above my writing. I wouldn’t be against standing again, but it is hard if you don’t support something important about the leadership.
The question I have wanted to ask since we launched The Political Medway in 2015 is that you only lost in the 2011 local elections to Kelly Tolhurst by 307 votes…
Why didn’t you stand again?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I had three young children. I had won the BBC Writer’s Prize in 2013, and things took off and it gave me hope that I could be a professional writer. I think as well it was partly from respect for what you would have to do. I was a bit naive going into it. I wonder what life would have been like if those 300-odd votes had been different. I would put everything into it, but a young family is challenging. I probably thought later ‘Gosh, did I know what I was putting myself through?’
You worked at the local prisons?
In the Young Offender’s Institute. I taught English. It was supposed to be literacy around the wings, but it was just pushing through exams really. I ended up teaching maths, which was a bit mad. Where possible I did creative writing with them. I got a lot out of it, but when the Conservatives came, everything changed almost immediately. All the things that I could see had value were axed.
What was the prize you won in 2013?
The BBC Writer’s Prize. It was writing for radio. It was the first year and judged anonymously. You could be an established writer for radio or brand new. I wrote ‘Bang Up’, which was loosely based on my experiences teaching in prison. I remember opening the email on the train and I could see the first bit, but my data had run out, so I had to wait until I got home to read the full email (laughs). It was life-changing in some ways. It was more the shift that I could call myself a writer, that I was good enough. It hasn’t been easy though. I struggle to get past gatekeepers and commissioners. It’s not worth getting bitter about, but I’d get angry because it is a very closed shop.
What was the prize?
It was a radio commission. It is still my only original piece on radio. This is the anger not bitterness, despite pitching many through a really good producer. It’s frustrating. I’m writing for The Archers. I write for radio all the time, but every writer wants their original. It’s just a struggle, with far less BBC radio being commissioned, despite far more audio being listened to. There are often writers’ competitions, which are free to enter, which often poetry isn’t. They often have quite a high bar to entry, and playwright competitions are difficult if you aren’t independently wealthy.
How did you come to be writing on The Archers?