Poster: Mr. Television
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Daughter’s stage plays set to honour work of pioneering sitcom writer, Peg Lynch
14 April, 2017
“I’ve so many projects planned that I don’t know where to begin”, says Astrid Ronning, as she prepares to take another step on an emotional and enlightening journey.
When her mother died in July 2015, aged 98, she left behind an exhaustive personal record of her career as a trailblazing female sitcom writer and star.
Since discovering stacks of correspondence, footage and recordings while clearing out the old family home in Massachusetts, her daughter has been piecing together the strands of a life story kept inexplicably quiet.
For the latest project in a series of hatching plans to honour the legacy of Peg Lynch, Astrid will step into the ‘Ethel’ character brought to life by her mother – opposite Bernard Hill’s version of sitcom husband ‘Albert’ – for the Ink Festival, taking place in Halesworth this month.
In its pomp, Peg Lynch’s Ethel and Albert series drew a nationwide US audience of radio listeners and television viewers.
From her home in Walberswick, which she shares with Black Beauty theme composer Denis King, Astrid has been preparing to perform two short episodes of Ethel and Albert with the locally based Boys from the Blackstuff actor.
She will also play recordings of her mother discussing her work – and show a vintage 1950 kinescope recording of an episode from the long running series.
“I didn’t think it would snowball like it has,” she said.
“I met Julia Sowerbutts [director and Ink Festival organiser] when Denis and I came to Walberswick. She grabbed us to get involved in the local panto.
“My background is in set design – and Denis’ in music – so we created a bit of a team and worked together on other projects. “I was away for the festival’s first year but attended the second and was totally knocked out by how well it was organised.
“Julia knew about my mother’s story and asked me what other categories of performance might work at the festival. I suggested radio plays, and the whole thing snowballed from there.
“I got suddenly distracted when my mother’s house sold, and spent a couple of week’s having sleepless nights, but it all came together eventually.
“I took two live shows, including a version made for TV. Both are about 10 minutes long. I also wanted to show a kinescope recording, which was the only way the networks had of making copies back then – essentially, a 16mm film camera pointed at a screen in the control room.
“Upon clearing out my mother’s house, I opened a cupboard to find 84 kinescopes of half-hour shows.”
Following her death, Peg Lynch’s writing style was loftily compared to that of ratings-topping 90s show, Seinfeld.
However, despite being dubbed ‘the woman who invented sitcom’, she is less celebrated than many of her higher profile contemporaries, like Lucille Ball.
“She’s well known among old-time radio enthusiasts and historians,” said Astrid, whose godmother Margaret Hamilton played Albert’s aunt in the show before portraying the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.
“The thing that set her apart was that she owned her show – she never let go of it, which prevented it going into syndication.
“This was in the same era as The Sid Caesar Show and I Love Lucy – the golden age of television.
“She was asked to transfer production to LA (from New York), but the show would no longer be live, and she didn’t want me to grow up there, so she said no – she just stopped. She had spent 24 years getting up at 4am – still having to be a mother and a wife.
“Although she had many fans at the time, this is a big campaign to relaunch a long forgotten name.
“Fortunately, she was prolific and wrote everything down. She also had a meticulous secretary, who was also an aunt, so all the accounts and contracts still exist. I’ve so many projects planned that I don’t know where to begin.
“She started writing as a young, solo radio writer in 1937. She would write to her mother four or five times a week, and her mother saved and catalogued every letter, so we have full documentation of her rise to fame – and meeting the man of her dreams.
“About 99% of the archive is with the University of Oregon. I’m so glad they’re on her side, and that her work isn’t hidden away in some box.”