About 5 years ago, in my quest to retrain from musician to writer, I completed a creative writing course and was doing bits of copywriting here and there. I was ready for my next creative challenge, when I found it watching Coronation Street.
There she was: Fat Brenda. I say ‘there she was’, but it was more a case of there she wasn’t because Brenda was only ever referenced by name. She was an invisible character, like Captain Mainwaring’s wife in Dad’s Army, but Mancunian and working in a cab office!
I loved the idea of Fat Brenda. I pictured her spending her evenings in a deserted Weatherfield, sitting at a switchboard that never lit up and wondering why everyone else got to leave except her. It struck me that it must be a lonely life living off-screen, always waiting for your moment in the spotlight.
When you write at home it can be a solitary existence too, and I suppose I identified with Fat Brenda. It was at that point that I thought what Brenda really needed was Twitter.
I wanted to develop a character using 140 characters, and Fat Brenda was the perfect blank canvas with which to do it. If anything, I thought I’d get a few followers and have a laugh, and that would be it.
So Fat Brenda began ‘tweetering’ on 31 August 2011, while she sat in Streetcars with her ‘hi-phone’ in one hand and a Ginsters pasty in the other. I invented a best friend for her too — Bernice.
I had her smoking Dunhill, drinking Mellow Birds and calling everyone ‘lovey’. She even had a catchphrase: ‘Flamin’ belting!’
The first thing Brenda needed was followers, so I sent a few tweets out to the people who might actually know who she was.The first 2 folk that Brenda tweetered were the Coronation Street Blog* *and Steve Huison, who played Eddie Windass on Coronation Street and the ginger one in The Full Monty. Amazingly, both replied, both retweeted her and both got me some followers. Success!
From then on, it snowballed. I started writing ‘Fat Brenda’s Cream Horn’ on the Coronation Street Blog, where she gossiped about the residents of Weatherfield, and her followers began to grow. Brenda replied to everyone and was always grateful for company while she did her shift.
I did all of this anonymously; I was obsessive about it. It was Brenda tweeting. In fact, when I wrote the blogs and the tweets, it didn’t even feel like it was me that was doing it at all. It just felt natural to write as her — which must have been strange for my wife, who used to refer to Fat Brenda as ‘the other woman.’
The only time I broke cover was to Steve Huison via Twitter, and after he got over the initial shock that I was actually a man in my 30s and not a 55-year-old switchboard operator, he asked if I wanted to meet and discuss some writing ideas. ‘YES I DO!’
I replied. So I did, and he was lovely. He asked if I would write a play about Fat Brenda. ‘YES I WILL!’ I cried. And then he told me that he wanted to play her too.
So that’s what happened. The play was part-produced by Harrogate Theatre, directed by Steve’s wife Theresa Smith, and played over 2 nights in their main theatre space. It got one of the largest attendances for a piece of new writing, and it played in Manchester too. There were articles written about Brenda and me in the Metro and the Manchester Evening News — it was quite surreal. And throughout this, Coronation Street was kind and supportive. They allowed me to use their intellectual property and read through the play to make sure
it was all in keeping with their brand.
So on the strength of all that, and with the help of some amazing people that Brenda and I met along the way, I attended some storyliner workshops at ITV and ended up getting a job as a storyliner at Hollyoaks. And now I’m at Emmerdale. And that’s all down to Fat Brenda.
The side project I started to keep myself sane and creative landed me my dream job of writing soap. She’s still there too, ‘on the Tweeter’, smoking her Dunhill and lamenting to her 13,000 followers about her broken Clairol Footspa and her monthly Tena Lady bill. Bless her.
Steve Huison used to say that ‘when you do something for the love of it, people respond to it because you’re not doing it to make money, you’re doing
it because you want to’, and he was right. Doing something without the expectation of reward is probably the most honest thing you’ll do, even if you’re pretending to be someone else.