Writing ‘Mother Knows Best’

I wrote ‘Mother Knows Best’ back in 2002 before I had the luxury of a laptop. This meant handwriting each page maybe four or five times or more before writing the final draft and then typing it with my electric typewriter. I often thought I’d finished a page only to discover I’d left out a word or misspelt a word and then it was out with the Tippex. Sometimes, if there were too many mistakes, I would have to discard the whole page.
I remember writing the first few pages of the play in the reception area of Atlas Cars in Mullingar while I was waiting to have my car serviced. Originally, Nick and Joe were television repairmen, but I think I changed them to painters because tv repairmen don’t usually travel in pairs.
Tess and Harry had originally featured in the second three-act comedy I wrote called ‘The House-Husband’, featuring their other daughter, Geraldine, a sort of younger version of Tess. I thought there was more mileage in these two characters, so I decided to use them again, making them central to the action this time.
I had marvellous fun writing Tess – endowing her with every ounce of badness in my body. I always the loved ‘Alexis’ character in Dynasty so I wanted to create someone who was devious and scheming and would go to any lengths to achieve her goals. Of course, she has the Hyacinth Bouquet snobbery, too, but there’s a fire burning in her soul as well.
While Harry is the henpecked husband, I didn’t want to make him a complete doormat. I gave him a sense of humour and a comeback line for most of Tess’ insults. And in the end, I made sure the worm turns. That final scene took many, many rewrites before I was happy with it – so that Harry would get everything off his chest. That final scene contains a reference to an egg-timer, which many say is the most memorable line in the play. They’ve asked me where it came from or how I thought it up, and the simple answer is: I don’t know! It’s just one of those creative things that happens when the conditions are right.
Harry and Tess each have a different relationship with their daughter, Suzy. Harry calls her ‘Suzy’ and is very close to her. Tess calls her ‘Suzanne’ and there is a distance between them.
With regards to the quiz ‘A Friend In Need’, it was originally going to be ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ with Gay Byrne, but that was taken off the air just as I started the play. So, I invented my own quiz. I’ve known Marty Whelan for many years and so made him the quizmaster.
With regards to the reference to Roy Keane and Saipan, there was nothing else in the news when I was writing that part of the play, so I just put it in. I knew it would be an event people would always remember.
I vividly remember being outside the doctor’s surgery in Coole sitting in my car with a pen and notepad when I wrote a draft of the scene where Nick and Suzy are on the sofa.
The name Dulcie Cotter came from two sources: Dulcie from the English actress Dulcie Gray and Cotter from a man from Cork I’d met in country pub in Sligo a few years before.
Dinah Dolan is based on a few girls I met during my teaching days. I remember I had just started teaching at this school and this pimply, greasy-haired 16-year-old girl looked up and said: “Jaysus, Sir, did anyone ever tell ya, ya have lovely blue eyes!” Probably Dinah’s sister. And that’s where I heard the name Dinah, too.
I didn’t know how to spell ‘shih-tzu’ before I wrote this play. I didn’t even know what one looked like.
Most of the last act was inspired by a short comedy sketch I’d written back in 1980s called ‘The Big Day’ where a mother and daughter return from a wedding and find an incompetent thief hiding in the house.
I had originally intended to call the play ‘Follow Your Heart’ after a piece of advice which Harry gives to Suzy in the play. But when I mentioned this title to the members of my writers’ group, it got a very lukewarm reception. So, ‘Mother Knows Best’ was the next choice and it was an inspired choice.
When I’d finished the play in September 2002, I asked a friend of mine, Marie Woods, whom I’d acted with in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ some years previously, to get a group of people together for a reading at her house. This she did, and once I heard the play read, I knew I had created something special. My instinct has been right with almost twenty productions to date.
I transferred it to computer a few years ago and updated it a little..

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