Click here to listen… But read the article first – it’s a great story in itself!
Missing The L Word? Run out of box sets?
Relax and enjoy Henpire : an LBTQ podcast drama for our times
Article by: Stephanie Highett
Women have a terrible reputation for not supporting each other in the workplace. It’s like those other LBTQ clichés – sensible shoes, an obsession with cats and moving in after the second date – but actually way more detrimental.
Which makes it doubly brilliant, therefore, to be able to relate a tale of real-life LBTQ derring-do that demonstrates just how powerfully women can pull together to address a very real commercial emergency – with the added bonus that the lovechild of that creative collaboration became a six part comedy podcast, Henpire, with a star cast comprising Alicya Eyo, Heather Peace, Horse and Patricia (Tish) Potter.
The story actually began 12 days into lockdown, when Ky Hoyle, the owner of Sh! Women’s Store, posted a heart-rending message on a WhatsApp group chat. She wrote, movingly, “If I give up fighting for Sh!’s survival (and, Lord, I feel like doing that every two hours), I’ll come back [to the group chat]. . . . . It’s exhausting though. I’m exhausted”.
There was an immediate and amazing response from the whole group; but, most significantly, this was taken onto another level by Pippa Dale, a founding ambassador of LBTQWomen, Samantha (“Sam”) Grierson Schwarz, the writer of Henpire and the BAFTA Award winning producer, Jacquie Lawrence. Within just a couple of hours, Sam had written the first and original Sh! Whisper product placement audio story “The bullet train”, which was then professionally recorded and packaged within 10 days – with other episodes soon following.
The sheer ambition and speed at which this all happened “in real life” was a transformative experience for everyone – but especially for Sam.
“By the time I had written the third Sh! Whisper, I said to Pippa and Jacquie – I’m going to turn this whole experience into an audio sitcom – it’s so insane, no one will believe it,” Sam laughs. “So Henpire was born, with the fictional characters inspired (but with LOTS of artistic licence!) by the original Sh! Whispers team; the Hen character based on Jacquie, Ella’s character inspired by Pippa and Drax based on me.”
The writing work Sam had undertaken so rapidly in real life was echoed in “Henpire” by Drax’s character being set increasingly outrageous writing challenges by Hen to get a new women’s digital platform, “Whiplashes”, off the ground.
Sam has always dreamt of being a writer but it has only been over the past year she has found the courage to dedicate so much energy to it. After just a one-week long workshop, she wrote and published her first play “Crocodile”. She is someone who responds brilliantly (a skill in itself) to teaching, advice and being mentored, so with guidance from Jacquie and others in the profession, her writing skills were dramatically widened.
Henpire deals with many important themes. In Sam’s own words, “It is important to me that I dealt with their characters and their back stories, as they all had a unique journey to tell around motherhood, dating, caring for parents and navigating a later life diagnosis of autism – the latter echoing my own personal journey”. Sam continues, “Drax in Henpire is also autistic; it is very important to me to get the female autistic voice into the public domain, as it is sadly lacking and little understood.”
For Pippa, the whole project epitomised exactly why the LBTQWomen network was created.
“LBTQWomen is a talent-rich community that can achieve anything when we pull together and use our network, dedication and skills to get any project off the ground. I am hugely proud that we were able to collaborate so quickly and effectively to support Ky in her endeavour to ensure that Sh! continues to blossom as a business. It was an absolute bonus that this then developed into Henpire. It is a fabulous example of our community at its best and we are so appreciative of the time, expertise and effort that so many incredible people gave us so generously.”
Pippa adds, “The fact that the crew of 14 comprises 12 women, 11 of whom identify as queer, is an important illustration of an incredible pool of talent which is all too often overlooked.”
For award-winning producer, Jacquie Lawrence, the project also presented a fascinating voyage of discovery and collaboration.
“Henpire involved a core team of people working outside their comfort zone, transferring their skill set to new roles with everyone acting as a safety net for each other. Then we had the support of a stellar cast, with no one demanding star status. This was all about the power of women working together within the unusual circumstances brought about by COVID.”
She continues, “I have never written or produced audio drama, let alone directed it, so the personal challenge of directing in a new medium was really attractive. Podcast drama is also one of the few mediums that has really flourished during lockdown, so this was another timely consideration. As the director, I had to think more about getting distinct voices, tone and delivery out of the cast. In visual drama, so much cast differentiation is down to physical attributes, so I had to rid myself of those visual rules. The ten-minute audio structure also meant that, during the script development, I had to work with Sam to encourage her to strip away the flab, making the script tighter. With short episodes, it always helps to end on a joke and or a reveal. It was a challenge but I loved it”.
The gathering of such a high-profile cast and crew was a team effort driven by Jacquie.
Sam comments, “At the first read through, it was pretty surreal sitting in the same room (all social distancing) as three amazing actors reading words that I had written literally weeks before. I remember saying to Jacquie and Pippa – I’m writing an episode where Drax has to go to a music festival and be a roadie for Horse the singer. Does anyone know Horse? Can you get me Horse? I wrote the episode in the super-optimistic hope that she would say yes, so it was incredible that she agreed to help when I contacted her. We even used her fabulous track “Don’t Give Up” (which captures the spirit of Henpire) for our theme tune.”
When asked what it felt like – as an established author and director – that Hen (played by Alicya Eyo) was based on her, Jacquie commented, “I like that the ‘top bird’ was loosely based on me – I empathise loosely. At times it was disconcerting that life was imitating art and vice versa. I think she sounds bossier than me, but others in the cast and crew had a different view!”.
And what a cast! Alicya Eyo, star of Emmerdale and Bad Girls, was effusive in recalling her involvement. “What an absolute joy to work on this! Lifting Hen off the page and having a team full of inspirational women (and honorary women!) was pretty darn special. A funny, touching, heartfelt script by the wonderful Sam made the whole thing feel easy – I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.”
Tish Potter, the actor playing Ella, is well known for her work in Shakespeare in Love, Casualty, Holby City and Just Charlie. She explains, “I got involved with the project at the invitation of my wonderful friend Pippa Dale. She was very enthusiastic about the people involved and the idea of creating something collaboratively, but also focusing on the incredible women within the lesbian community. I found the whole idea incredibly exciting and was very flattered as a straight woman to be asked to be involved. The character of Ella is loosely based on Pippa whom I’ve known for many years so it was lovely to be able to pick out little bits of her in Ella. Her kindness, generosity, humour and sensitivity. She also has this extraordinary ability to be fantastically high flying and achieve amazing things whilst appearing to just be having an uproariously good time gadding about.”
Tish adds, “It was great to have something to focus on during lockdown which – as everybody knows – has been a very quiet time for people in the arts and everywhere really. We recorded it in a socially distanced studio and the whole process went very smoothly”.
Heather Peace (Drax) summed her experience of the project up beautifully. “I love, love, loved working on Henpire with such a great team of queer women and allies. We worked hard, laughed a lot and I learnt so much from Sam about being a working parent alongside living with a diagnosis of autism; it might be different but it sure isn’t bad.”
Finally – it seems utterly fitting that – from such a humble and moving start – the Langham Hotel has kindly sponsored the (socially distanced!) celebratory launch of Henpire on 10 September. Meanwhile, Sh! continues to thrive and make all of our lives a better place.
LBTQ women are the business!!
In the meantime, listen to all six episodes of Henpire by clicking Jackdaw Media Group