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The Dunn thing

In her latest book, Nell Dunn reveals some of the real people who inspired the likes of Poor Cow and Up The Junction

01 October, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

Terence Stamp and Carol White in the film of Poor Cow

NELL Dunn’s plays and films, including Up The Junction, Poor Cow and Steaming, lit up the West End in the 1960s with many strong female characters that were always larger than life.

Now, in her new book, The Muse, Dunn reveals some of the real people who inspired her work. They include Josie, a cockney friend always in trouble, who she met in a pub, and Olive, a Soho prostitute who ended up living with a vicar.

In an interview with Review, Dunn, who is 84, talks about her current work as a patron of the charity Dignity in Dying.

She took over the role following the death in 2009 of her husband, former Islington resident Dan Oestreicher.

If you are a fan of the 1960s, or lived through the period, Dunn’s book has some sad moments but will also make you laugh. There are only 151 pages but each anecdote keeps you wanting more.

She writes about her best friend Josie: “Her chitter! Her chatter! Floating around me. Lighting up my life.”

Josie reveals she’s had 24 lovers at various times and names each one for Dunn to write down. They include a bloke called Blue Eyes and another, Tio Pepe.

Later, in a letter to Dunn, Josie says she’s working in a beach bar in Spain. “God, it is hard work in this heat,” Josie writes. “Still I enjoyed it, chatting away to everyone – Oh, it was funny, they thought I owned it. I told them I’m only the ‘washer up.’”

Later Josie falls for a villain called Bill and discovers he’s stolen £1,800 from her bag.

Josie inspired Dunn’s 1967 first novel, Poor Cow, about the life of a working-class girl in the Swinging Sixties. It was adapted for a film starring Carol White who played Josie, with songs by Donovan. This was the first feature film directed by Ken Loach.

Another good friend of Dunn and Josie was Olive, who started off as a West End prostitute. Sometimes they would visit Olive in her rooms in Old Compton Street.

Olive also read palms. “We loved sitting about and chatting in the outer room,” Dunn writes. “If a man arrived he disappeared with Olive into the private quarters. ‘See you later Nell…’ Olive would call. And we finished our biscuits and left.”

Nell Dunn. Photo: Dan Oestreicher

Later on in the book we discover that Olive has left the red light district, and in a complete change of mood, has moved in with a vicar. She has also been unwell, not helped by her and the vicar’s addiction to sherry.

Dunn and Josie visit Olive and her vicar at a red brick house next to his church.

They are made welcome and then the vicar reveals that he’s fallen in love with Olive. Later they drink a toast to Olive’s health, with sherry naturally, and together sing one of her favourite hymns, What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

Dunn writes: “The vicar sang in strong baritone. Olive in a reedy falsetto. And Josie in a sweet lyrical soprano. I did my best.”

The Muse is a collage of letters, diaries and remembered conversation spanning the years from 1979 to 1984. More than 50 years later we learn that Dunn and Josie are still best friends and speak to each other most days by phone.

Today Dunn lives in Fulham and Josie on the south coast with a “handsome man”.

Dunn’s first husband was screenwriter Jeremy Sandford, famous for the 1966 TV play about homelessness, Cathy Come Home. He died in 2003 aged 72.

Her second husband, Dan Oestreicher, died of lung cancer at home in 2009 aged 77.

She explained that Dan was visited by five National Health professionals in his last 24 hours of his life, but none of them appeared trained, as far as Dunn was concerned, to deal with a home death.

Dunn said: “Although I felt Dan never got the proper support it wasn’t so bad because there we were together, just me and him.

“The NHS people who turned up the day before he died seemed more concerned with arrangements for his funeral.”

Dan’s death prompted Dunn to become a patron for the charity Dignity in Dying.

She is also a trustee with Interact Reading for Strokes, which provides actors to read to stroke patients in hospitals to help them with their recovery.

“I love this charity because actors get some paid work and stroke patients benefit from following a good story.”

Back in 1968 some of Britain’s biggest rising stars, including Dennis Waterman, Maureen Lipman and Suzy Kendall, appeared in the film version of Up The Junction. It contained a soundtrack by the group Manfred Man and the band The Squeeze also wrote a hit song based on the title.

Two years ago Dunn’s 1965 book Talking to Women, involving edited transcripts of conversations that she had with nine of her female friends, was re-issued.

“In the old days some men wouldn’t read a book like that. They’d say: ‘Oh, it’s just a women’s book’”.

I think more men read this sort of book now and will enjoy it.

  • The Muse: A Memoir of Love at First Sight. By Nell Dunn, Coronet, £14.99

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