Showing posts with label Chernobyl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chernobyl. Show all posts

Mr Bates, the Post Office and Issue Based Drama


Anne Marie Timoney and Liam Brennan in Wormwood

If you haven't yet seen it, and you'd like to watch a perfect piece of 'issue based drama', seek out ITV's recent Mr Bates vs The Post Office. Written by the excellent Gwyneth Hughes, with a very fine cast, it tackles an injustice so colossal, so disturbing, so enraging that you'll be fuming quietly (or perhaps loudly) about it long after you've switched off your TV.

Here's the interesting thing though. I've been following this issue for years. There have been a number of hard-hitting programmes and articles about it, but this drama is the one that has 'cut through', the pebble (albeit a very fine pebble indeed) that started the landslide. 

Ever since it was broadcast, I've been mildly irritated by a string of social media posts wondering why 'they' - that perennial they, who ought to do all kinds of things - don't do a drama about a string of other issues. Everything from Brexit to migration. All of them disturbing issues with which we must sooner or later grapple.

Dear reader - and even dear writer, because some of my friends are aspiring dramatists and some are already fine playwrights  - that isn't how  issue based drama works. That isn't how you set about writing it. You don't look at a sort of pick and mix of current issues, and say to yourself 'I fancy that one' and then jam a set of characters into it.

Well, you can, of course, and people frequently do. Especially when they're starting out. The results are almost always dire. Boring diatribes about issues, with the characters purely incidental vehicles for the playwright's preoccupations or obsessions.

Back when I was writing plays, I spent a long time - years, in fact - with the idea of a play about Chernobyl nagging away at me. I'd been pregnant when the cloud drifted towards the UK so it had loomed large for me as for so many others. But it wasn't until the accounts from the people who had been most involved with it came filtering out from Ukraine that I suddenly saw the play I wanted and needed to write. The firemen and their families, the people living in Pripyat, the schoolteachers, the children, those who experienced it at first hand - those were the people whose voices and experiences mattered, and suddenly any 'issues' became secondary to those experiences. They mattered, of course, but they could only spring from characters whose lives were interrupted by that 'safety experiment' gone so disastrously wrong. 

The result was a play called Wormwood, written for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and staged there in  May 1997. It was a well reviewed but disturbing production. People cried at it. Occasionally, they fainted. If you want to read it, you'll find it online or in an anthology called Scotland Plays, published by Nick Hern Books. 

Many years later, the superb US TV series titled Chernobyl was equally focused on character.  It's hard to watch, and yes, many issues arise out of it. But first and foremost, we are captivated and horrified by what happens to the people most closely involved, from the 'party man' whose whole ethos is gradually thrown into question and destroyed, to the firemen buried in lead lined coffins. We watch and we identify with these people. Just as we identify with all these innocent postmasters and mistresses whose lives were destroyed in order to - well - to preserve a brand. We watch and we know that it could happen to us. And then, if we're honest, we also wonder if we too had been on the other side of that divide, with our livelihoods dependent on toeing the Post Office line- what we would have done differently. Would we have been brave enough to say thus far and no further? 

After Wormwood was staged, I ran a short course on issue based drama for young writers at the Traverse. So many years later, the central truth remains. The only way to 'cut through' is to focus on those most closely involved, people with whom we can identify. 

Last night, I watched a heartrending documentary about the 39 Vietnamese migrants who suffocated in a container, before they could ever set foot in England. What made it so tragic was the recognition that these were people like us, human beings, many of them young people, with hopes and fears and dreams. The last messages they sent to their families, from within the hell of that container, were mostly apologetic. 'I'm sorry' they said. Sorry for wanting to improve their lives, for taking a leap of faith for themselves and their families. 

Now there's an issue that somebody could tackle. An issue obscured by the daily rantings of our politicians. But to do that would involve immersing yourself - as the detective who investigated the case clearly did, and has never got over it - in the ordinary, mundane, precious lives of those 'people like us'. Then, I reckon, the issue would take care of itself. 

Opening scene of Wormwood at the Traverse

Playing Fast and Loose with the Classics

Kidnapped, with swords!

Christmas TV here has been a bit dodgy. Plenty of movies to enjoy, but very little good original TV drama, and most of what was touted as 'original' - wasn't.

This is, as ever, a personal opinion. And I'm coming at this from the point of view of somebody with my fair share of dramatisations under my belt, albeit for BBC Radio 4. These included Kidnapped, Catriona, The Bride of Lammermoor and even Ben Hur, chariot race and all, among many others. Some of them are repeated from time to time on R4 Extra, where you can catch them all over again, although I always forget to look, so the small cheque for residual payments comes as a pleasant surprise.

Dramatisation is fun, especially when you love the book you're working on, but it's also a challenge. Not something for beginners. You are not there to impose your own creative quirks on somebody else's creation.

One of the first things you have to decide is how you are going to set about translating that original into what is a completely different medium - and to do it without upsetting too many people. Scenes will have to be left out. Characters too.  But alongside the notion that you are creating a faithful realisation in a different medium is the notion that you should strive not to do too much violence to that original.

I could cite a dozen examples of excellent film and TV dramatisations, faithful to the original, but also wonderful dramas in their own right. Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility comes to mind but there are plenty more. I'd place the recent Poldark series in that category as well. I didn't watch it the first time round, and I know there are people who prefer the previous dramatisation, but I've read some of the books, and the newer dramas seem very faithful to the world Graham created.

The other form of drama that works well is where a writer takes a much loved original and uses it as inspiration for a wholly new piece of work, without ever pretending that they are doing anything different. The brilliant Bridget Jones falls into this category, as do clever, quirky, funny films such as Clueless. I've done it myself to some extent, with a novel called Bird of Passage that is a re-imagining of Wuthering Heights in the present day, while remaining a loving homage to the original.

But during winter 2019, here in the UK at least, we were treated to various dramatisations that took a much loved book and then skewed it till it was virtually unrecognisable, in some cases imposing a world view on it that would have been wholly alien to the original.

I hated all of them without exception.

Christmas Carol - why tamper with perfection? Dickens knew how to tell a damn good story if anyone did. Dracula? Why call it that? But it began much earlier with theWar of the Worlds that started off well but very quickly descended into such a tissue of incomprehensible nonsense that many of us were left feeling indignant and cheated. Sanditon was another one in which a writer indulged himself at the expense of a dead novelist. (Is this a thing over-confident middle aged male writers do? It might be so.)

I'm left wondering, don't these dramatists have an original idea in their heads? Or is it just possibly the notoriously conservative TV executives, paying the piper and calling the tune. Are they so scared of originality that they can only permit dramatists to piggyback on the classics?

After the brickbats, the bouquet.

Far and away the best TV drama of 2019 - probably of the decade - was Craig Mazin's Chernobyl. I still think about it with a combination of awe and admiration of every single thing about it: writing, production, acting. If you haven't yet watched it, seek it out. I have seen nothing like it produced here in the UK for many a long year. Maybe our systems no longer allow for such talent. But try not to binge watch it, or if you do, perhaps you should allow yourself some recovery time!


Wormwood, the Traverse, 1996:
Liam Brennan and Ann Marie Timoney .
If you haven't been watching Chernobyl, the TV series - the fifth and final episode was last night on Sky Atlantic - you must. If you're a writer or a would-be writer or, let's face it,  a human being - you have to find a way of watching it. It is  the best television drama I have seen for years, decades, possibly for ever.

I'm not exaggerating.

Everything about it is perfect: the performances, the camerawork, the authenticity, but above all, the incomparable writing. I've been enthusing about it on social media ever since it started, five weeks ago, and people keep saying to me 'but I don't have Sky' and I keep saying, 'well get it. Or find somebody who does. Or find a way to catch up with it. But whatever you do, just watch it.'

Every minute of every episode counted. Every line of the script was both subtle and meaningful. Nothing was superfluous but nothing was over dramatized either. Craig Mazin didn't need to over dramatize. The subject matter was dramatic enough. Instead, the writer needed to be in control, and Mazin was. There are moments in this series that are more genuinely terrifying than anything I have ever seen in any kind of media in my whole life. And all the better for being oddly low key as well. Just like the truth of horrific events.

'Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,' said one of the characters last night. 'Sooner or later, that debt is paid.' Since the character was a scientist, a real person, these may have been his own words. But practically every line of ever scene counted in this way. Every scene had a dozen lessons to teach us about political lies, about a commonplace but disastrous inability to admit to the truth, about the way in which sooner or later, our complacency will lead nature to teach us a terrible lesson by doing exactly what it does, without reference to us, and certainly without regard or pity.

This production was close to my heart for various reasons. I was in the early stages of pregnancy in 1986 when the disaster happened. Fortuitously (although it didn't seem so at the time) I had flu. Genuine, full blown, horrible flu. I had been in the Canaries where my husband was working aboard a charter yacht at the time, and had flown home to Scotland on my own while he sailed the yacht back. I may well have contracted it on the plane. Fortunately, my parents lived close by and I went to their house, so that they could look after me. I stayed indoors for several weeks, and those weeks just happened to coincide with the weeks when the Chernobyl cloud passed over the UK. Flu is pretty dangerous during pregnancy, but I was OK. Maybe I'd have been fine anyway. But it was reassuring to know that I hadn't been outside at all.

Ten years later, my play Wormwood, about the Chernobyl disaster, was developed and given a full scale and incredibly well reviewed production at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, with Philip Howard directing. Later, the play was one of the recommended texts for the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus, so I still meet quite a lot of people who studied it at school. It was published, first of all in an anthology called Scotland Plays, and then as an individual eBook text, Wormwood, both of which are still available, if you fancy reading it. Wormwood is another name for the plant artemisia after which Chernobyl is named, because it grows in profusion in the region. It is, coincidentally, mentioned in the bible in connection with a terrible disaster.

My father, a distinguished biochemist, had actually spent two years on secondment to the Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna in the early 80s, so he was able to help me with the science. And of course, with ten years having elapsed, there was considerably more material 'out there'. All the same, watching Mazin's outstanding production, I did find myself wondering how much I might have got wrong. As it turns out I had got it pretty much right, except that, of course, time, political changes and expert analysis had added more precise details.

I would love to read the scripts. For now, though, I can only repeat. If you haven't already seen the television series - do, please, move heaven and earth to watch it. You'll be frightened and moved and saddened, but you won't be disappointed.