By Ashley Coates. Published: 01/11/2012
“My agent called me and told me this idea was going around and we both laughed, you know, “it’s a new musical about the ABBA hits”, we both thought the idea was extraordinarily funny.”
The success of Mamma Mia! has come as something of a surprise to its writer, Catherine Johnson, who expected to be returning to write Byker Grove scripts shortly after meeting ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Byjön Ulvaeus.
As the show opened in the West End, Catherine was busy looking for the next job, not believing the musical would make very much money. But the production she thought would last three months ended up lasting more than ten years, making it the 10th longest running Broadway musical, grossing over $2 billion worldwide and is now the highest grossing musical film of all time.
With the success of the show, Johnson was given her due for an all-consuming addiction to writing that began when she was just six-years-old. Whilst at her Gloucestershire primary school, Catherine “was very well behaved and very keen and eager to please” but as secondary education dragged on, she grew bored of academia, and also found she increasingly needed more time to herself, taking time off lessons to be alone, have a cigarette or read a book.
Johnson’s improvised timetable caused a great deal of friction between her and the school, who asked her to leave after a clash with the headmaster. Expelled at the age of 16, Johnson now tried to work for Debenhams in Bristol but found her continuing need for solitude got in the way of her job.
She balanced a number of part-time roles whilst writing radio plays and looking after her children. In 1987 a play-writing competition ran by HTV and the Bristol Old Vic caught her eye and she began work on her first play-script.
By now Johnson was at the stage where she was seriously considering joining a college and getting qualifications if her writing career did not start to support her. She already had her first child, Hugh, and was expecting another, Myfi. Her first play, ‘Rag Doll’, won the competition and was shown at the Bristol Old Vic. Her reputation improved considerably, but more importantly, she felt she had, at last, found her “calling”.
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When did you first discover your interest in writing?
Right at the beginning when I was about six-years-old and we were asked to put forward pieces for a competition. It was the putting together of words, the forming of the story, it just excited me, it’s the feeling of control I suppose. That was the point when I really felt I wanted to be a writer of some sort but it took me an awfully long to think, “ah, it’s scripts, that’s what I should be writing!”
So did you close off to other things at that stage, was it definitely writing?
No, I had fancies for other things along the way, because I loved going to the theatre, I thought about acting but that wasn’t a very serious thought, I don’t have that level of confidence and I never thought about directing. I guess it was as if “I will always write”, somehow, somewhere, but I didn’t always think it would be a career, it would just be the thing I do because it was so natural to me…
It was part of you, rather than a career.
Exactly, so I was interested in psychology for instance but I never thought of life without writing something down at some point every day.
Your school days were quite a difficult period for you and your teachers, were you always a rebellious child?
Not always, that came a bit later, I was very well behaved and I worked very hard when I was in primary school and I was very keen and eager to please. What went wrong? I still don’t know. I got bored actually, I did start to wonder why I was doing these things that I was so not interested in doing and I also found I needed a certain amount of time each day by myself so I used to take a lot of time off lessons to sit by myself, have a cigarette, eat a sandwich.
To me, it seemed OK, I thought I could get my energy back for the next lesson, get some focus. Extraordinarily, the school felt this wasn’t on at all so we began to clash and I got worse as the clashes continued.
So what was the final straw then for the school?
The day I went in wearing a halterneck top and told the headmaster where to go, that was the final straw and that is when I was expelled and education ended for me at that moment.
You’ve talked about how when you were young you needed to spend time by yourself and that you never really considered any other career path. Did you feel dragged along by your writing at any point?
Yes, that’s a really interesting question to ask because you are absolutely right, there were times where I used to wish I was doing something, anything, else because it doesn’t ever stop. There isn’t a moment where you go, “right that’s it now.” It’s a compulsion and an addiction. I am really grateful that I have it too.
It’s living other people’s lives in your own head, I guess.
That’s it, yes, I do feel like I don’t live a whole life. I live a life of observation and a life of inner dialogue. I do very much need to be by myself as much as possible.
What was it like, initially, being asked to work with ABBA?
I laughed my head off. My agent called me and told me this idea was going around and the producer would like to meet me and we both laughed, you know, “it’s a new musical about the ABBA hits”, we both thought the idea was extraordinarily funny and said: “Yeah of course, just to tell people I had met ABBA, that’s something isn’t it? Even if I never get to do the work.”
So you didn’t think at that stage that it would even happen, because ABBA may not allow it to happen, or whether they would take you on?
I didn’t know whether they would take me on. When I met the producer she told me the idea did have the backing of Benny and Byjön, but they were going to be very rigorous in overlooking the project and I needed to convince them with the right idea, the right storyline and they would work very closely with the whole production, once we got over that first hurdle of preparing the storyline.
But after meeting them a few times I forgot really that they were ABBA and they just became the guys I worked with and still now there’s that thing where I see them and it is great to see them but then you are put in a situation where you’ve got people going: “it’s Benny, it’s Byjön”, and I think: “Of course they are famous as well, I forget!”
The main thing that the press like to say about you is that you went from rags to riches, and that was quite quick as well, it must have been around 1999-2000, when Mamma Mia first came out…
I did go from being really quite hard up when I first started writing, even when I had won the competition, it was an extraordinary amount of money I felt at the time, it was £2000, but it wasn’t an awful lot in the scheme of things.
So I very quickly moved from theatre to television just to earn enough to tick over but by the time I got the job for Mamma Mia, I had a house, I had a mortgage, I mean, it was tricky, it wasn’t as bad as it had been, I still had to try to earn enough money to pay for everything, so I was always chasing the next commission, I was never comfortable enough to take a week off, or even a weekend off at that point.
I got the job for Mamma Mia and for the two years working on that, really for no money because I got paid the original commission, it was was a scary-ish time because I was always thinking, this is keeping me bobbing along but you can’t afford for anything to go wrong because I can’t pay for anything to go wrong. Really, nobody had expected Mamma Mia to make any money so was thinking: this is going to open and three months later it will close, I need to be already in the swing of the next project.
The plot of Mamma Mia concerns itself partly with the life a single mother. Did you see yourself as Donna at all?
I did absolutely want to write about the single mother who wasn’t a wretched kind of – you know – at that time there was a lot of press about single mothers being a drain on the state etc etc. so I wanted to write about a working single mother who had got her life together and the relationship she had with her daughter who she absolutely adored but fought with.
So that part was very much based on my relationship with both my children. But the character I identified with far more is Donna’s friend, Rosie, who’s a writer and is a much more “I’ll go my own way, I’ll do my own thing” sort of character. That’s the one I felt was most based on me.
You had no idea that it would become one of the highest grossing musicals ever?
No, the thought that it is over ten years and it’s still running, it doesn’t make sense somehow.
Did you give any thought to making it into a film, when you were working on the play?
Not right at the beginning. Judy, the producer, always had this at the back of her mind, that it was either going to be a play, or a film. She decided to make it a stage play before she met me so she was thinking about it well before the offers started coming in. Actually as soon as Mamma Mia opened in America, the film studios started getting in touch so we knew from about the first year that one day it would be a movie.
It was just a matter of holding our nerve and not selling the rights because it might have been quite tempting to accept an offer in that first year and then somebody else would have made the movie and then that would have been it. But Judy held on and held on and eventually said “right, we will work with you but I am not selling the rights to you”.
So you wanted control, even at that point.
Yes and I think it’s why Mamma Mia has been successful, in a sense, is because all the people who have worked on the stage show have worked on the movie so it’s very much kept the spirit intact.
Overall, are you now comfortable with Mamma Mia being, for now, your masterwork? Do you get people bothering you about it, linking ABBA references into conversations?
Not so much people in general but there are very few journalists who can resist that and it always amusing me because I think: “In ten years do you think you are the first person that has done that?” No, I am absolutely happy for Mamma Mia to be my life, my world, because I know there are other things I can do but I can’t ignore the fact that Mamma Mia is always going to be the biggest thing.