Television and other minor irritations (2)

A few weeks ago, the List Magazine wrote a piece about me, because I had a play on in Glasgow. One of the questions they asked was 'when did you first realise you were famous?' to which I answered that I didn't think I was famous. With one or two celebrated exceptions, writers are slightly famous for a bit, and then sink into obscurity again.

I don't think I realised just how true that might turn out to be, until it was forcibly brought home to me by a couple of subsequent encounters . First, a person who has known me for many years, turned to me on a certain social occasion and said 'you've written one or two radio plays, haven't you?' To which I replied, well, more than two hundred hours, actually! But I could understand it, because nobody really listens to the writer's name, even when they listen to a radio play, or dramatisation. I don't do it all that often myself.

A few days after this, I had occasion to express my own realisation that I didn't want to write for television at all. I think I said something to the effect that, in spite of a few past opportunities (outlined in the previous post) I had never really made a go of it, but now regretted nothing except the money. Cue a number of kindly reassurances that of course it wasn't 'too late'. It was though I had suggested giving up writing - which, of course, I hadn't! I was just pointing out that some years previously, I had made a conscious decision that writing for television wasn't for me, in the way that - for instance - a doctor might decide that geriatrics was not an area he or she felt any interest in. This is perfectly true. Which is not, of course, to say that I would turn down any offers to exploit my other work, so long as somebody else would do the actual TV dramatisation, pay me a reasonable amount of cash, and leave me to get on with the kind of writing I do best.

So what was all that about?

Well, I said it myself, didn't I? Most writers are slightly famous for a very short while. The newspapers come calling, take photographs, print articles. And then, dear reader, we all sink into obscurity again, until somebody comes along and - with the best will in the world - assumes that we are absolute beginners. It has happened to me on more occasions that I care to recall.

Which is not, of course, to say that certain kinds of advice aren't very welcome indeed. Oddly enough, some of the most helpful advice I have had, in recent weeks, has been from much younger editors, directors, actors, agents. So many young people seem to have a certain wisdom and insight that we ignore at our peril. And it's very refreshing to tap into this youthful perspective. It helps to keep an older and perhaps overly cynical writer on her toes!

Television and other minor irritations (1)

I attended an excellent talk about Writing for the Screen a couple of evenings ago. You can read the lecturer's take on it here. It was a brilliant talk, partly because the advice on how to set about constructing a script for television was so direct and clear, but partly because it very much 'told it like it is.' Stuart doesn't pull his punches. He has had a great deal of success in television, so his experience is invaluable - but he has also had his fair share of television induced hassle and his advice for coping with it (treat it as a job, don't take it personally) would almost certainly have been invaluable to me many years ago when I had a few opportunities in television and still thought that I might want to write for that medium.

Back then, I had several short plays produced for STV, followed by a spooky serial for teens. It was called Shadow of the Stone - and boy, was I ahead of my time there! It has been one of the misfortunes of my writing life that whenever I have come up with an original idea, and had it knocked back, 'because nobody is interested in the supernatural', etc etc - I have seen it become flavour of the decade, several years after I have lost interest!

Anyway, after that, I wrote two episodes of a Scottish based television series called Strathblair - and then, following a successful stage play for the Traverse, I was approached by a script editor to develop a 'rural' series for television.

There followed a couple of years, during which I worked through successive hugely detailed proposals, outlines, sample scripts, making changes along the way. It was a truly vast amount of work. Somewhere, on a shelf, is the box file, or several box files, full of the paperwork. Eventually, I realised that it was never, ever going to be made. The script editor had simply been earning his salary. Whereas I hadn't been paid a brass farthing for any of this 'development' work.

Don't get me wrong. In any area of writing, you have to be prepared to do a lot of work up front and uncommissioned. But at that stage in my career, I had already had several competent television projects produced. So there should have been development money. In effect, I worked for nothing, for two years, on the promise of a pot of jam tomorrow. Only tomorrow never came.

God knows why I never asked for money, nor why I didn't give up sooner. But of course the money is so good, in television, when you finally get any - good, that is, compared to almost any other area of writing - that the innocent are tempted to soldier on, as I did.

Somewhere along the way, though, I realised that television was not for me although the realisation had little to do with that one bad experience. I think I found the process itself way too frustrating. I have no problem at all with collaboration - you can't work in theatre without it, and it can be tremendously rewarding. But television is largely weighted against the interests of the writer. And I couldn't just do it 'as a job', because whenever I write something, I have to be passionately involved in it. I can't help myself. Which, of course, raises the stakes. 
UK television dramas - with a few notable exceptions, Doctor Who springs to mind, and that's why it's so blooming brilliant - are often engineered by committees of executives who want to have their say. What emerges is the kind of thing we see on our TV screens. I'm told that in the US, by contrast, experienced writers are likely to be much higher up the 'food chain', much more influential in the process. Teams also work together, so that younger writers can be helped by older and more seasoned writers. I'm sure that happens here, but since even those older, more seasoned writers have very little real clout in the overall process, it doesn't help. But it does serve to explain why a significant percentage (but not, of course, all) US dramas are so much more vivid, imaginative and original than anything we see on our screens here. True Blood is a good example. Would that ever have been made here in the UK where we are supposed to be so 'daring'? I very much doubt it!

The Director from Heaven

A few posts back, we were discussing the Director from Hell. The Secret Commonwealth, of course, had the opposite - the Director from Heaven. She was young, enthusiastic and incredibly talented. She was also a pleasure to work with from start to finish. Her name was Jen Hainey and I suspect she's definitely going places! Well - she already has an enviable track record for a young actor/director.
I always have enormous admiration for theatre directors because it can be a difficult job, quite a large portion of which involves juggling and reconciling egos. Mind you, the ego of an actor is often in inverse proportion to the talent! Some of the loveliest and most self effacing actors I have ever worked with, have also been by far the most talented. They produce these jaw dropping performances and ask you afterwards 'if it was alright'! On the other hand - and naming no names - I can think of a few towering egos with the tiniest talent who specialise in making other people feel small. Fortunately, it doesn't happen very often.
But even when everyone gets on well, there is something about the process of developing a play for the stage which exposes vulnerabilities, in actors, and in the writer - and when it comes to making it all work smoothly, the buck stops fairly and squarely with the director. He or she must have a strong artistic vision of how she wants the play to emerge, must be immensely practical and well organised, but with an understanding and imagination, must be able to do a great many things at once - but must also be sensitive enough to reassure everyone involved.
I've been reading Russell T Davies' immensely enjoyable and inspirational The Writer's Tale, in the introduction to which he relates the story of the taxi driver who asks 'So do you think up the story and the actors make up the words?'
I've been asked this, or something like it, more often than you might believe. Some people seem to have the idea that the playwright comes up with an outline on the back of an envelope, while the actors improvise all the dialogue!
But during my recent production, people made what amounts to the opposite mistake. They would say things like 'What a lot of words the actor had to learn!' Which was, of course, true. It was what is known as 'a big learn'. And because actors take their cues from each other, a monologue is certainly challenging for an actor. But to equate a performance with simply learning the lines is akin to equating a performance of - for example - a piano piece with learning the notes. I can make a fair stab at learning the notes of a piece of Mozart, on the piano. Will I play it like Alfred Brendel? You bet your life I won't! I'll never be able to do that in a million years of trying.
Which is what marks the difference between somebody who can learn the lines - and a fine actor. But the work that allows that fine actor to produce a wonderful performance mostly takes place after the words have been learnt. And the person who facilitates, encourages, soothes, suggests and helps an actor to 'find' the performance of a lifetime can - when the relationship works well - be the director. This in turn involves a flair for collaboration, an understanding of what makes a good piece of theatre coupled with tremendous energy and a very definite skill at managing people. And that's what goes to produce the director from heaven. Who is, it has to be said, beyond price!
Thanks, Jen - and I hope we work again some time!

The Let Down

I had an email from a friend last night.
He had been to see the play, and loved it.
So, he asked, what happens now? Do TV/film offers pour in? Or is that it?

Well, sadly, that tends to be it. Which goes some way towards explaining the reasons why writers become a little miserable at the end of such a project. One minute, or so it seems, there you are, being taken seriously, congratulated and hugged on all sides (actors and others in the theatre are nothing if not touchy/feely) and the next you're back in the garret, all on your own, with only the PC for company, wondering what to write next. The change is instant and faintly depressing.

It isn't so bad for actors, especially if they have another project in the offing. If they're lucky, they have a little break and then they are onto the Next Big Thing. But for the writer, the sense of let-down can be intense and disturbing. You add the play to your CV. You print out any good reviews and add them, along with production pictures to your portfolio, and then ... well, you move on.

With books and stories, you at least have something to show for it all, something that still exists, something that you can look at occasionally and say 'I did that!' But even if a play is published in an anthology, there is a sense in which it still only exists as a real entity when it is in production. The words on the page are all well and good, but they need actors, director, designer and audience to animate them, to recreate them, to - essentially - turn them into a play.

It is - moreover - a dimension which is seldom properly communicated to students who study drama as a form of literature. If literature students never actually see a play in performance, then it is a little like music students spending a whole year studying Beethoven's Ninth without ever listening to the music. Something, arguably the most important thing of all, is missing!