Needling the Queen
05/23/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
IF QUEEN ELIZABETH THINKS THAT THE past few years have been rough on the royal family, she should see what British humorist Sue Townsend has in store for her: the Windsors getting booted out of Buckingham Palace, Prince Charles in the clink, and the Queen herself struggling to get dressed ("How fiddly buttons were! Why did zips stick so?") and make breakfast in a tiny housing-project bungalow. "There is so much to do" laments the Queen in Towns-end's wicked new play, The Queen and I. "So many tasks. How do ordinary people manage?"
What Townsend wondered was how the royals themselves would fare if forced to live like Elizabeth's increasingly restive subjects. Based on her 1992 best-selling novel of the same name, The Queen and I chronicles the misadventures of the Windsors after republicans abolish Britain's monarchy and the Queen's family finds itself on the dole. The play, which opened in Townsend's hometown of Leicester—90 miles north of London—on March 29, received mixed reviews ("theatrically dismal," sniffed the august Times; "brilliantly mischievous," praised the liberal Guardian) and will be arriving, aptly enough, at London's Royal Court Theatre beginning June 7.
"I always liked the story about the prince and the pauper," says Towns-end, 48, who is also the author of the best-selling Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾—and several sequels—about a nerdy British adolescent. "This just popped out one morning when I was lying in bed. It was such a simple idea."
And perhaps a little wishful too. Although Townsend reluctantly admits to sharing a bit of her country's fascination with the royal family ("We've been indoctrinated like Russian children were with Lenin," she says. "The Queen's photograph was in every schoolroom"), she strongly advocates making Britain a republic. "It would be good for us," she says. "We need a shake-up."
The eldest of three girls born to John and Grace Johnstone, then Leicester bus conductors, Townsend came by her populist instincts early. As a child, she often got into trouble at school for tardiness and not wearing her uniform. "I've always been very bad at being told what to do," she says with a smile.
Her passion, always, was storytelling. "When she was very young, we would find her secretly writing under the covers in the middle of the night with a flashlight," recalls her mother. "She would make things up and read them to the other girls."
Seeking new adventures, Towns-end dropped out of school at 15 ("I couldn't wait to get the hell out," she says) and went to work first at a shoe factory and later as a salesclerk, garage attendant and hot-dog vendor before marrying sheet-metal worker Keith Townsend at age 18. When he left her with three toddlers to raise (Sean, now 28, Daniel, 25, and Victoria, 23), Townsend found out about public assistance firsthand. "We were desperately poor," she says. "My motto will always be, 'There's always 10 pence down the back of the sofa.' "
Times were still tough when Townsend met canoe maker Colin Broadwray in 1975. Both were then working as inner-city playground instructors, and they enrolled in a kayaking course together. Romance bloomed, and their daughter Elizabeth was born in 1977. Broadway encouraged Townsend to turn her hobby of scribbling dialogue-filled short stories into play writing, and in 1978 she won a writing grant.
Numerous plays for TV, theater and radio followed, along with the wildly popular series of Adrian Mole novels, which made Townsend Britain's best-selling author of the '80s. Now a chain-smoking grandmother of three, Townsend lives in an old Leicester vicarage with Elizabeth, 17, and Broadway, whom she married in 1986 at Elizabeth's urging. She does her writing at the kitchen table, and the entire house is littered with books about the royals that Townsend researched to make sure The Queen and I was dead-on in its satire. Although she expected hate mail from royalists when The Queen and I was published as a novel in 1992, Townsend reports she got only three indignant letters. And, she notes, she collected something she didn't expect: In 1993 she was awarded membership in the Royal Society of Literature. Even for an avowed republican, says Townsend, "it's quite an honor."
LAURA SANDERSON HEALY in Leicester