I have a commission for a Christmas play (Radio 4) and it had gone flat on me. PHUT! Flat.
Gorn. Gorn, gorn, gorn. Nowt. I no longer knew why or what or when or anything at all. I knew what I wanted the play to say, but as for how to say it? My mind was blank. It’s for transmission in 2019, so there’s a year and a bit to go, but a year and a bit can add up to a whole load of bewilderment and anxiety. It was no use looking up the original idea, because, well, it had gone flat! What was the use in that? Better to start again.
Erm…… no. No. Nothing. The tumbleweed skittered across the dustbowl of my mind.
Yesterday, I saw a document on my desktop that I didn’t recognise, in a file it shouldn’t be in. I opened it. It’s the original idea for the Christmas play and- guess what! – it’s OK. Better than ok, it’s jolly good! It’s exciting. Phew. NOW I remember. So I looked up my emails and there is one from my co-conspirator on this project (editor? pastor?) and his notes injected even more oomph into the idea. Ahh. Yes. Of course. Phew. Stand back, let me at it.
Oh, hang on… first better do that Easter play…. erm… erm…..
Hey, you know that image I posted of the Sopranos cast? It’s my screensaver and I realised something significant as I gazed at it (wondering which was the most urgent, a call to hot buttered toast, or a banana); every single person in that portrait is best described in terms of their relationship with Tony Soprano. So, we have the man himself, his wife, his sister, his brother-in-law, his right hand man, his Uncle, his psychiatrist etc etc etc. The writing of the Sopranos was so focussed and disciplined that everyone in that tableau is identified primarily and relevantly by their relationship with the central character, and each of those relationships is different, multi-faceted, unmistakeable. Even the relationships between Tony and his two henchmen are different because the characters are unique. Every single character in that cleverly staged photo has integrity.
Even the image is perfect – no one’s eyes meet, every gaze is sidling away from confrontation, from honesty. Only Silvio Dante appears to be, maybe, searching to meet Tony Soprano’s eyes, and even he fails. Tony is brooding, isolated, while surrounded by his mob and those who love and serve him, unreachable, secretive, a bronze statue, brittle and hollow. And he’s so beautifully portrayed both by the writers and by the actor that we love the man, the monster, the damaged boy. His baleful, selfish heart is there for us to see, we sense the broken pulse, and yet, man! he is sex on legs. How do they do that? I mean, how?
In case you can’t scroll down…
The cleverest, most heart-breaking moment I have ever seen in any TV drama was the closing shot of one Soprano episode; all through the ep there has been the usual Soprano madness, deceit, death, barbarism, cloying religious piety, sentimentality, hypocrisy…. a struggle between a man and his son to understand each other… and in the last scene (no dialogue at all) there they are, father and son, united at last, heading out to sea on their high speed motor yacht. At last they’re at peace with each other, doing what they like to do best, the day is beautiful, Tony is beaming, and as he opens up the throttle and the boat surges forward… what happiness! Then the camera pulls back and we see the turmoil and rage of their wake, as it tosses smaller boats aside, swamping them, so that their occupants are thrown around. Tony? Oblivious. Blind.
His life, in twenty seconds.
Amazing writing. Over several series. That sort of writing is way, way, WAY beyond me, and I think it’s beyond most writers – so maybe it’s as much to do with the producers as it is the writing team. Whoever in that long running production was the ‘charm’, the visionary… it’s simply marvellous. Hats off.