Showing posts with label playwriting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label playwriting. Show all posts

Twenty Five Years of Work in One Small Box


One small box
In the above picture, you're looking at twenty five years of my radio drama, packed into one small box. I sorted them all out when I was decluttering my office recently and these were on their way to the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs a radio archive, as well as being an expert in apples and a fine musician too. My chief feeling when I looked at them was one of exhaustion bordering on depression. So much work, and so little trace of it left.

This isn't strictly true, of course. Some of them still exist in CD form, and some of them crop up on Radio 4 Extra from time to time - my dramatisation of Ben Hur for instance was repeated quite recently, and I enjoyed listening to it again. 

The cassettes are a mixture of original drama, dramatisations, mostly for the old Classic Serial slot, and one or two abridgments, but that wasn't really my thing. I had completely forgotten about some of them, which is hardly surprising, since I started writing for radio when I was in my very early 20s. 

Drama made in Scotland
My first two plays were The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness: two slightly weird half hour plays, made with the late Gordon Emslie, who died much too young. They were broadcast only in Scotland. Those were the days when Scotland actually had its own radio drama budget and could make decisions about what it produced, without - as now - filtering everything through a London editor. Revolutionary idea, eh?

O Flower of Scotland won a UK-wide best original play of its year and Bonnie Blue Hen won a Scottish radio industries club award. I remember going to London to pick up my award for Flower and being hissed at by the young woman waiting to usher me onto the platform to 'be quick, we're running out of time'. Even then, radio was the poor relation. No acceptance speeches for me. 

Maydays, the Butterfly Bowl, Sardine Burial, Cloud Cuckoo Land, Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring, Madame Butterfly, Tam o' Shanter  - there they all were, bringing so many happy memories with them, especially of the radio drama department in the welcoming warren of a building on Queen Street. It was originally in the old BBC building at Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, but most of my work was made in Edinburgh. In all the years I worked on productions there, I never could find my way around it without help - but I loved the place. And I certainly remember the ultra strong coffee and hot scones that kept us going during long hours in the studio.

There were original series: The Peggers and the Creelers, Running Before the Wind and The Curiosity Cabinet that later became a successful novel. (Usually it works the other way round, but not this time!) 
Looking back, I still think my titles were intriguing. 

There was a trio of Polish themed plays directed by Marilyn Imrie, with whom I worked for years - Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts, of which I liked Noon Ghosts best. This was the last performance of distinguished Scottish actor Callum Mill, with the equally wonderful Harry Stamper. The BBC wanted to repeat it but found that they had deleted it and nobody had a copy that was good enough to broadcast. 

Then came a series of big dramatisations: Kidnapped and Catriona. Ten hours of radio. Such luxury is practically unheard of nowadays. The Bride of Lammermoor, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Island, the Mysteries of Udolpho and good old Ben Hur with a starry cast that included Samuel West, Jamie Glover and Michael Gambon. 

Sound effects and serials
When I started out, the tapestry of sound effects had to be done in the studio, simultaneously with the recording, rather than added after. Some technical wizard would run between record decks, fading sounds in and out - a lark in a clear sky, a bumble bee buzzing past. It involved an awesome amount of skill and a real commitment to the script. 

'Spot effects' were, and probably remain, good fun. Actors standing on chairs shaking bunches of keys sound remarkably like men on horseback, with the jingling of harness, but the swords in Kidnapped were real enough. They belonged to my husband, and still have the notches to prove it. 

There were Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre that I dramatised with Brian Sibley - each of us allowed to choose favourite stories. A wholly enjoyable experience that one, with the brilliant Hamish Wilson producing - so brilliant in fact that the Beeb did its usual trick of suddenly making this international prizewinning producer redundant only a few years later. I doubt if he ever got over it. I certainly didn't.  

There were a few random post-Woman's Hour serials, for a slot that no longer exists, because - you know - current affairs. Hilary Spurling's brilliant and bizarre La Grande Therese was by far the best and most enjoyable of these, but my own original Voices from Vindolanda worked well too, and one of these days I may do something else with that material. The last serial I did was something called Feelings Under Siege by Bridie Canning, with an excellent producer who had wanted to work with me, but by then the BBC had decided to borrow the role of script editor from television and impose it on a system that was already working well. This one stuck an unwelcome oar into the relationship between producer/director and writer, and I think the result was unsatisfactory for all concerned. 

After that, my last radio play was The Price of a Fish Supper. I suspect that was only because my stage play had received such glowing reviews, and went on to have another life as a successful touring production, that they couldn't quite bring themselves to turn it down.

After that, silence. My name became the kiss of death on any submission. For a while, I had young producers who wanted to work with me but I had to tell them that there was little point in it. Like Hamish, a few years earlier, my face just didn't fit any more. Once or twice, Marilyn Imrie, with whom I had had a long and productive working relationship and friendship until her death eighteen months ago, would suggest an idea with my name on it, but it would always fall at the first hurdle. 

Was I sad about it? Well, at first I was. My first intimation of trouble ahead was when a big commission was summarily cancelled just before the contract was due to be finalised. That had been money that I was counting on as a significant part of our household budget, so there was a certain amount of panic. But of course freelance work is always uncertain and until the cash is in your account, nothing is ever sure. 

Moving on
In the long run, it was very good for me, forcing me out of my comfort zone.  I wrote a few well reviewed stage plays but, more importantly, I turned to fiction, and found that I loved it. Some nine novels later, although radio paid a whole lot better, I would never now go back to it. Besides, it isn't what it was, perhaps because budgets hardly ever allow for the 'elbow room' of a big bold production like Ben Hur. Radio drama has been subject to a slow process of attrition with slots disappearing all over the place. It's wonderful to see new writers coming forward, but the BBC allowed experience, especially technical experience, to leach away, getting rid of the old before they had time to train the new in the nuts and bolts of how to make a good radio drama. 

I'll tell you what I do miss though. I miss the collaboration. I miss the good working relationship with an excellent producer/director. I miss the script readings with fine actors, and the technical expertise, and the sheer pleasure of that experience. I miss the way I used to write in the knowledge that I would go on to work with a group of talented people to create something that was faithful to my vision, but better - alive, engrossing, a thing apart. Novel writing is a solitary business by comparison. 

Oh, and I miss the tarry coffee and the hot scones as well. 

Beware of Advice

From Wormwood, about Chernobyl, at the Traverse, 1979

While chatting on a professional Zoom meeting the other day, I found myself suddenly articulating something that has been growing on me for a number of years.

Looking back over a long switchback of a career as a novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright, I can now see that almost every piece of advice I've been given about what to write and how to write it has been wrong.

Let me clarify. I don't mean editing. In particular, I don't mean the intense editing that looks at style and structure. As a playwright and prose writer, I've had some wonderful directors, publishers and editors. (I've had a few appalling experiences too, but that's another story!)

We all need a fresh eye when we are too close to a project to see the wood for the trees. But the best of them shared a quality in common.

None of them told me exactly what to do.

Instead, they asked a series of tricky questions. They invariably honed in on aspects of a project where I felt uneasily that something wasn't right. 'What did you mean by this?' they would ask. And 'Can you clarify here?' and 'This seems somehow clumsy' and 'Can you look again at the structure here?'

In addressing these issues I always felt that I had made the piece of work better and I was grateful to them.

I don't mean practical advice either. We need to know about being self employed, using business bank accounts, budgeting, sorting out our taxes and a hundred other things.

So what kind of advice do I mean?

I mean advice about what to write. What to do and what not to do with that writing. How to shape a career. The sad thing is that writing is a lonely job. So we crave help and advice. I'm craving it now. We never learn. We expect too much. As William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade,  'Nobody knows anything.'

Many years ago, I had some success in a particular area of writing with what turned out to be a groundbreaking piece of work. And on the strength of it, I was approached by somebody in a related field, who wanted me to pick up that piece of work and run with it. Hesitant, suffering from imposter syndrome, I consulted a more senior colleague, who told me that it wasn't a good idea, pointing out all the drawbacks.

I took the advice and turned down the proposal. In retrospect, I can see that turning it down was entirely the wrong decision for me at that time. I was just too young and too easily swayed to see it.

I can think of many other occasions where professional people have confidently told me that 'nobody wants' this or that subject or theme or medium. They turned out to be not just wrong for me, but wrong in general too.

One of the very best things about the late, much missed David McLennan when he ran his A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor - and for whom I wrote three plays - was the way he responded to so many ideas with cheerful positivity. He would point out that success would be great, but failure would be OK too.

It was the trying, the experimenting, the exploration that mattered.

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!