Cancer survivor Stuart is inspired to write first radio production

PUBLISHED: 07:48 29 July 2019

Stuart Houghton with Mark Benton who stars in his play: Making Plans with Nigel

Stuart Houghton with Mark Benton who stars in his play: Making Plans with Nigel

Archant

A sweetly humorous play, about a father of young children who finds he is suffering from breast cancer, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on July 16 and received positive tweets immediately.

Making Plans with Nigel by Stuart Houghton from Saffron Walden is the writer's first play and an instant hit.

It starred Mark Benton (known for his roles in Shakespeare and Hathaway and Early Doors) as the central character, also called Stuart.

Sally Lindsay (Coronation Street) played his wife.

Stuart, scared stiff as he is told he has a malignant tumour which urgently needs removal, hears in his head the voice of the growth, whom he calls Nigel.

In Stuart's terrified mind, the tumour - diagnosed in 2016 in the lead up to the referendum - is confused, dream-like, with the campaign being run by Nigel Farage.

Lewis MacLeod from Radio 4's Dead Ringers, gives a sterling performance as the voice of Farage saying things like: "We can't be ruled by these DNA bureaucrats".

If Stuart dies, Farage's voice says, his young sons will "take the great opportunities of a no-dad deal."

The play is based on the real-life experience of the author who was diagnosed in August 2017.

It was after the referendum but he did name his tumour Nigel.

He says: "Nigel Farage's voice seemed to be everywhere and once you are diagnosed, everything seems to be about cancer. You see adverts everywhere and everyone you meet seems to know someone who has suffered cancer."

In the play, Farage's voice has a surreal quality as the tumour tries to persuade Stuart of the advantages of his new situation: "The real question is who do we want to run our body?"

He speaks about lymphatic trade routes saying: "I represent change, that's all and the opportunities this represents."

The play gently shepherds the audience through the steps that medics take for granted but shock the patient.

When Stuart is moved into a private waiting room after his mammogram and is given tea and a biscuit, he thinks: 'they don't waste biscuits on good news'. When he goes back for his results, he is alarmed to see a nurse holding a box of tissues.

And finally (and this happened to the playwright in real life), after the operation, before giving the results the surgeon goes on, seemingly forever, about complicated medical details only eventually telling the patient - what the man desperately wants to hear - that the operation has been a success and he is about to be given the all-clear.

The play also echoes real life in that the author is married with two boys who were seven and nine in 2017.

Fictional Stuart puts off telling his wife, Natalie, until he needs surgery. Nat calls him "a silly sod" and is with him for every treatment session after that.

Houghton told his wife, Nadia, much earlier and they told their boys what was happening.

"We decided to be honest with the children. I was going to look different," he said.

The couple also thought the boys might also wonder why their parents were suddenly serious and pre-occupied.

Strangely, part of tumour Nigel's predictions came true. Oddly, this did turn out to be an opportunity.

Houghton, 47, has a background in non-fiction. He works in IT for Amnesty International and his writing has been technical and includes reviewing video games.

This is his first foray into fiction and his first play. The fact that it was eagerly embraced and aired by BBC Radio 4 was described by a friend as "the most middle class falling on your feet ever".

It began after a national newspaper article said too much was being spent on breast cancer research for women at the expense of prostate cancer for men. Houghton wrote a piece for another newspaper in response.

"I said research for one type of cancer also helped another and men could get breast cancer too," he said.

The article inspired a BBC producer to suggest a play. It aired on Tuesday afternoon and within the hour, there were positive tweets from women who had experienced breast cancer.

"They recognised elements of their journey. I interviewed a lot of men who had suffered cancer before I wrote it to get a wider perspective.

"The BBC were worried about the connection with Nigel Farage but we will see."

Making Plans with Nigel will be available via BBC Sounds for a month. Go to: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006snf.

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