Comedy writer and animal activist

Born: August 5 1928;

Died: May 31 2016

CARLA Lane, who has died aged 87, was a comedy writer who did more than any other to bring the lives of women to the forefront of the sitcom.

In Butterflies, starring Wendy Craig, she tackled a housewife’s frustrated longing to commit adultery; in The Liver Birds, she wrote about young women discovering the new independence of the 1960s; in Solo starring Felicity Kendal, the subject was separation and its aftermath; and in her biggest hit Bread, the star was a working-class Liverpudlian matriarch trying to hold a family together against the best efforts of the men in her life.

For the British sitcom, it was revolutionary stuff: meaningful as well as funny, full of pathos and drama, and featuring, pretty much for the first time, portrayals of the real challenges faced by women in ordinary homes in Britain. At the BBC in particular, Lane was also an unusual figure. “I sailed through the place like some kind of movie queen,” she said. “I was a woman, I was Liverpudlian, and I could write.”

Comedy writing was only one of the obsessions in Lane’s life though – the other was animals. She campaigned vigorously against live exports from Britain and for many years ran a sanctuary from her home in Sussex. She said that, like her good friend, the late Linda McCartney, she was simply bewildered by the way humans could treat animals and wanted to do something about it.

Her love of animals emerged early on in her life. She was born Romana Barrack in Liverpool and in fact her grandfather was also an early campaigner on animals, calling for separate holds for livestock on ships. As a little girl, she would also endlessly rescue animals of all kinds, to the frustration of her mother.

She started writing when she was very young and won a poetry completion run by the Liverpool Echo when she was still just seven years old. However, she left school at 14, married at 17, and worked as nurse.

The desire to write did not leave her though and after joining a writer’s workshop in Liverpool, she met and teamed up with Myra Taylor and they began to write sketches together. They sent them to the BBC’s head of comedy at the time, Michael Mills, who spotted some talent and encouraged them.

The result was The Liver Birds, about two single Liverpudlian women who move into a flat together. It came at the end of the 60s when women were starting to find ways out of the traditional British patriarchy and it immediately rung true. The first series starred Polly James and Pauline Collins but it was when Nerys Hughes joined the series for the second series that it really took off and transformed Carla Lane into a serious force in comedy writing. The series was later revived in 1996.

Myra Taylor eventually left the series, but Lane kept going and started to develop other ideas. In 1978 came Butterflies starring Wendy Craig as a housewife toying with the idea of an affair. At first, the authorities at the BBC were resistant to the idea, believing that adultery was a subject for drama rather than comedy, but Lane insisted. She could make it funny and dramatic too.

The series was a hit, thanks in large part to Wendy Craig’s exuberant performance, and it led to many more commissions for Lane from the BBC. There were two series of Solo, with Felicity Kendal - and Kendal also starred in one of Lane’s later, less successful series The Mistress.

However, Lane’s biggest mainstream hit was Bread, which began on the BBC in 1986 and ran for seven series. The series focused on the Boswell family of Liverpool, led by its matriarch Nellie (played by Jean Boht) and sought to portray the real struggles of a family trying to pay the bills. Some critics thought it pandered to Liverpool stereotypes, but it was a consistent hit and once again focused on the woman’s role in the family.

After Bread, Lane struggled much more to find success. There were other series for the BBC including Luv, starring Sue Johnston as a well-off Liverpudlian whose marriage has failed and there was an ITV comedy Searching starring Prunella Scales, but by the 1990s Lane seemed to be struggling to find the zeitgeist. Her relationship with the BBC, which had been the centre of her work, also began to suffer. “I don’t know the people at the BBC any more,” she said in 2008.

By this point in her life, Lane’s focus had also shifted very much onto animal rights and much of the money she earned from comedy writing was spent on the sanctuary and charity she ran at her home Broadhurst Manor in Sussex. She had no regrets though about how she spent her money. “I could be extremely rich and live in great style if I didn’t give so much money away,” she said in 1996.

Three years ago, in honour of her work on animals, an animal rescue centre near Liverpool was named her. Fran Ellis, the founder and trustee at the Carla Lane Animals in Need Sanctuary in Melling, Merseyside, said Lane had been a passionate friend and ally to abused and abandoned animals.

"The world of animal welfare will be all the poorer for the loss of such a talented individual,” said Ms Ellis. "We changed the name of our charity to recognise the work done by this special lady. Her name will live on in all we do."

In recent years, Lane had moved back to Liverpool because she was unable to continue her work in West Sussex due to ill health.

She received an OBE for services to writing in 1989 but returned it to Tony Blair in 2002 in disgust at animal cruelty. In 1995, she was given a Royal Television Society award for her Outstanding Contribution to British Television.

Her autobiography Someday I’ll Find Me was published in 2006.

Her marriage to Eric Hollins ended in divorce and she is survived by her two sons.