Return to Sender

by John Davies

On the 17th July I posted the following update on my Facebook page: OMG! OMG! Per Gessle from Roxette has just replied to one of my Tweets! #BeyondHappy

No sooner had I posted the update than I remembered merely days before I had been asked to write my second article for Winterwind based on this update from July 6th:

Thanks to an English project way back when I had a long standing hobby as a kid writing to actors/writers I liked. I had some wonderful responses from so many people. Now, as great as having a RT, like or favourite from someone you admire online is I do miss that thrill of an unopened envelope and the real, physical content inside. If stamps weren't so blinkin' expensive I'd start this hobby up again tomorrow. But they are. So I won't.

Nothing can compare with the tactile reality of a personalised reply. Not that someone 'famous' taking their time to favourite, RT or reply to you on social media isn't thrilling - it is, as my immediate leap from Twitter to Facebook demonstrates - but knowing that that moment of interaction was longer than a key press or 140 characters does carry more weight.

In the early 1980s Mrs. Crawley introduced my English class to the concept of letter writing. To make it interesting she said we should write to someone we admired - actor, writer or sports personality. And we did. While we supplied the "bestest handwriting", she delivered not just the structural guideline to the letters but also the envelopes, stamps and addresses. This was the first time I recall my entire class fully enjoyed a set task. One friend wrote to David Attenborough, another to Duncan Goodhew - the list went on (well, to about 20 - the size of the class). Me? Come on! Early 80s and me being a major Doctor Who fan? I wrote to Tom Baker. Did you need to ask?

The letter was written and sent to the BBC (always a great way to get letters to actors) and I waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing came back. My classmates received some replies - Brian Wilde sent a lovely photo-card of him as Foggy from Last of the Summer Wine, David Attenborough wrote a sizable response, photo included, but my Time Lord seemed to be lost in time. Until one evening. Arriving home after school with my cat, Tibby, on my shoulders (she always met me at the bottom of our road) I plonked down my school bag and saw my mother smiling. "You might like this," she said, holding out an envelope. It had my name and address on it. In my writing. This was it! This was my first reply! Tom Baker had replied!

With trembling fingers I opened the 7 by 5 manila envelope and carefully lifted out the signed B&W photograph. Okay, there was no letter however that did not matter. Tom Baker had taken time from his day to reply. To. Me.

In that kitchen a monster was born. And a great hobby. Who else would do the same?

The evenings after school would find me alternating between writing letter after letter and then opening reply after reply. The return rate was phenomenal. Thanks to this amazing task-come-hobby I have enjoyed numerous replies from so many people. Being a Doctor Who fan, the living cast were my first choices and, as is so true of the cast who work for that show, the vast majority took their time to give back to the fans - this fan - and reply. But so many other shows - the cast of 'Allo! 'Allo! (with Carmen Silvera inviting me to meet the company if their stage show made it to Sheffield), Last of the Summer Wine, the Carry On stars, Birds of a Feather, EastEnders... so many stage actors as well. Far too many to simply list in a roll call. I will, however, mention three specific examples.

Don Henderson, the star of Bulman (and admittedly Doctor Who's Delta and the Bannermen but I wrote to him prior to 1987) replied with six handwritten double sided pages of A4, sending in addition Bulman promotional material and a guide on how to pronounce Siobhan (his co-star in Bulman). From that first reply until his passing we always exchanged Christmas cards as well.

Gordon "Wesley Pegden" Wharmby from Last of the Summer Wine. He wasn't a trained actor and it was clear that he was thrilled to get a letter from a fan. Not only did he reply with the requested signed photographs, he sent personal Polaroids of himself on set and his handwritten letter was covered in oily fingerprints - as though his actual onscreen character has assisted with the reply.

Anthony Buckeridge wrote the Jennings books - the socially considered runner-up to the Just William books. Society was wrong. Jennings was far better. Having been introduced to his work through my mother, I wrote to him and entered into regular correspondence. One time he came to my assistance during a story writing issue at school. I had written a short story based on Mr. Buckeridge's characters and my teacher at the time disputed the way I spelt one of their names. One pupil was called Darbishire. Every time I mentioned that name she crossed it out, in red ink, and wrote, "Derbyshire" - as in the county. This was despite the fact the books I was inspired by were in the school library! After writing to Mr Buckeridge again where I explained this, he sent me a letter that I used to correct my teacher!

The hobby got so big that for three weeks in the run up to Christmas my mother would refuse to hand over any replies that arrived. Instead, she would wrap them in Christmas paper, attach string and hang them from the Christmas Tree. Each evening I'd return home to see another brightly covered envelope dangling from the tree. The run up to the Big Day was intense. Not only did I have presents to look forward to but after that I had the joy of opening reply after reply.

Now, with money I have had the opportunity to travel and meet many of my "heroes" - some of which I had written to before, taking the whole interaction to a new level. Michael "chum" Sheard and Anthony Ainley would form the backbone of a future article. I now interact on the Internet and have conversed with many I would have previously sent a letter. As rewarding as that immediate response is, nothing will ever replace that one on one moment with that actual envelope and hidden contents. It can't. It's like preferring Kindle over real books. Yes, on Kindle you have the words but with a book you have the actual vessel in which it was meant to be delivered. Letter writing is sending out a message in a bottle in the hope it shall be returned.

Should these witterings have inspired you to have a go at writing rather than emailing / Tweeting, I am happy to include this guide. It certainly helped me.

Rules for letter writing:

1) Hand write if possible. It's immediately more personable and demonstrates to the person you write to that it has taken your time. Ensuring that your spelling and grammar is checked is a bonus, too. Handwritten is not essential though. If you have genuine scribble writing the last thing you want is to give your reader a migraine so type away.

2) Always, and I stress always, include a self/stamped addressed envelope, for your reply. Actors often have many months between jobs and they do not have "disposable income" for stamps and envelopes. It also demonstrates politeness and the fact you are asking kindly for a reply.

3) Use 1st class stamps. If you're writing to someone telling them how wonderful they are, nothing will say it less than a 2nd class postage stamp.

4) Make it personal. Don't simply write stating, "I saw X, Y and Z - great! Can I have a signed photograph?" Talk to them, treat it as a conversation - but don't go overboard. Even between jobs these are busy people. My rule of thumb? 2 sides of A4. Page 1 the introduction and comments; page 2 the time to pose 3 -4 questions and then ask for a signed photograph.

5) Addresses. To get the letter to the star, TV stations will forward letters on - the BBC being the best - but always look at the London Theatre Guide. This way you'll see which actors appear where and you'll be able to get your letter to them directly.

6) Enjoy it.

Oh yes, I mustn't forget Kenneth Williams! One morning the letter catcher shuddered as a loud thud came from the porch. Rushing to the door I opened it and saw a large padded jiffy bag. Inside were two signed photographs and a letter. It simply said, "I hope the book answers your questions". Inside that large envelope Mr Williams had sent something else. He had posted a copy of the latest edition of his autobiography. It still sits on a shelf back home and is highly treasured in my family.

This article was brought to you by the numbers 1 and 2, the letters S, A and E and the hashtag #KeepWriting

Discuss this article on the forums