Bridget O'Connor obituary

Author and playwright who shone humour into dark corners

by Michelle Kass, Monday 18 October 2010

Bridget O'Connor had a rare talent for film-writing.

Bridget O'Connor, who has died aged 49 of cancer, was the author of the prizewinning play The Flags, as well as collections of short stories, and several plays, for both radio and theatre. Most recently she had been working on a film version of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Born in Harrow, north-west London, she was the second of five children of Bridie and Jim O'Connor, from Limerick and Cork respectively. In Harrow, Bridget grew up amid ceilidh bands and dancing lessons, and spent long, wild summers on Ireland's Banna Strand, the utopian beach referred to in The Flags. She attended Catholic schools before reading English at Lancaster University.

After several years' writing while working in a building-site canteen and then in a bookshop, Bridget won the 1991 Time Out short story prize. This was followed by two story collections: Here Comes John (1993) and Tell Her You Love Her (1997), which were translated into several languages, including Serbo-Croat. Her story A Woman's Hair was included in The New Picador Book of Contemporary Irish Fiction (2000). From 1996 to 1998 she was Northern Arts literary fellow at Newcastle and Durham Universities, where she fell in love with the writer Peter Straughan, later her husband and sometime co-writer.

Several of Bridget's stories were broadcast on BBC Radio 4, for whom she also wrote plays, including Becoming the Rose (2000, winner of the Arts Council's Write Out Loud award), The Centurions, and States of Mind (co-written with Peter). She was also writer-in-residence at the University of East Anglia in 2000.

In 2001, Bridget and Peter moved from Hackney, in the East End of London, to Ireland with their baby daughter, Connie. During a year of Cork rain Bridget wrote her first full-length stage play, the blackly comic The Flags, about two lifeguards on the second-worst beach in Ireland. It was directed by Greg Hersov (first in the Manchester Royal Exchange studio, and then in the main house), and designed by Laurie Dennett, who found on his research trip to Galway that the burnt-out cars and steel lifeguard huts were not fanciful. Bridget had been on a cycling holiday to the Aran Isles, had headed down a hill and found herself on a terrible beach, "a moonscape with rusty puddles and dead fish", rather than the beautiful sight she had been expecting.

Alfred Hickling reviewed the play for the Guardian: "As sharp and gritty as the authentic Galway sand covering the floor: a greyish, granite composite... you'll be shaking out of your shoes for weeks. But it's worth putting up with the mild discomfort, seagull corpses and rank seaweed for characters and situations as sublimely drawn as this."

The play went on to be produced in Liverpool, Dublin, Belfast, Slovenia and Australia, and is due for production in France next summer in a translation by the French playwright Serge Valletti. The Flags also led to further (sadly unfinished) commissions from London's Tricycle Theatre and the Royal Exchange as well as a residency at the National Theatre studio. She was developing The Lovers, written for Live Theatre in Newcastle, as a feature film, and a short film called Dead Terry, told from the perspective of a narrator who, unaware that he has died, observes the gathering of his friends and relatives. Shining humour into dark corners was a speciality.

The family had by this time moved back to England, and settled in Hove, East Sussex. Bridget and Peter were jointly commissioned to write several films, produced and yet to be, including Sixty Six (2006), starring Helena Bonham Carter, Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution (2007) and The Three Musketeers.

Filming began recently in Budapest on their adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, developed with the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. These three rare talents, all with theatre backgrounds, were having a great time with a book that they loved.

Tim Bevan, of the UK Film Council and Working Title, noted that Bridget brought "a non-sentimental, unexpected, visceral approach to each scene that made her screenwriting exciting and exceptional. Great movie writers are rare in this country and she was one of them."

Bridget and Peter married in May 2008 with invitations designed by their bridesmaid, Connie. Peter and Connie survive her.

Bridget O'Connor, writer, born 18 January 1961; died 22 September 2010