Writers – make notes!

When will I learn? Lying in bed this morning, about 6.15, I was thinking about the Christmas play for the BBC, and wondering about Joseph (as a child I resented that he was  ‘Saint’ Joseph. I used to say he was ‘just someone’s husband’) and really delving into the recesses of my imagination to firkle out what it might have been like for him, a good Jew, to marry a pregnant girl in the days when adulterers were stoned to death…

I’m very (very) fortunate to have a script editor who’s not just a bloke, but he has a sharp mind, he’s Biblically sound and knowledgeable, he’s married  and well read. When he talks about Joseph, I see that he ‘gets’ the mindset of a Jew who believed in the prophecies about the Messiah, a man who was obedient to what he believed to be the word of God, and a man who was about to be married, with all the passion and excitement those three things involve. I really don’t.

I don’t usually have any problem with male characters – I like the company and conversation of many men far more than the conversation of most women. I’ve been accused of writing men up to the detriment of women. Hard cheddar. But Joseph? Man, he is elusive. I can’t quite reconcile a male in a patriarchal society, in a mysoginist environment, with someone managing to cope with the passion, longing, disappointment, religious fervour and elation – and that’s what he would have been faced with. Write that, if you can!

This morning, lying in bed, I had a sharp and clear and fabulous insight. Amazing. Really. I suddenly understood an aspect of his character – or maybe his personality – and his situation that I hadn’t understood before. I reached for my notebook but then thought ‘Nah. I’ll remember this – I’m wide awake and bouncing, so straight in the shower and then to the keyboard.’

Yep. Straight in the shower, where all my insight was washed away. I have no idea what thoughts I had. None whatsoever. A tip for you writers, if the showergel says

 ‘Kills 99% of all known creativity’,

give it a miss

But about three hours later, when I was still smarting from the hefty kicking I was giving myself, that good ole script editor emailed with a thought. It wasn’t the same thought but it put fuel in my tank and got me back to the script and solved a problem.

The lesson is; make a note. If you have an idea, wherever you are, sleepy, dreaming, wide awake, high on life, or down and dodgy …. make a note.

Joseph is a historical character so there’s a real responsibility to do him honour in character, personality and environment, and it’s always easier with fiction. It’s very rare for me to have any difficulty creating a fictional character, and when I do writing workshops or talks I always apologise when asked about characterisation. The thing is, most of them pop into my head fully formed. They really do. I don’t think consciously ‘We’ll give him this personality, and that trait, because his childhood was …’ They simply pop up in my head, smiling and talking and walking and skulking and being as real to me as this keyboard, or the dog sleeping at my feet. There is only one fictional character that has ever given me any problems and that was the ‘supporting’ character in Bramwell.

Bramwell was a series about a female doctor in London,  three series and two films covering 1895 to 1900 (ish) and Marsham was a male doctor who worked in the infirmary she set up. It’s the best series I’ve ever written, and possibly my best writing. Quite early on in the drafts, ITV  were unhappy about the character of this side-kick… could he be…. different?  Once that was said, the imaginary and already created bloke would not leave me. Every time I tried to write a new character, up he popped. It drove me mad. Draft after draft, there he was, thinly disguised but unmistakeable. Then, in some exasperation my fabulous producers (Harriet Davison and Tim Whitby) dragged me, kicking and swearing, to the National Portrait Gallery. I was fuming. They kept forcing me to go to museums and stately homes and bloomin’ Greenwich (to soak up the architecture! I mean, really!) and all over the place and I hated it. This was going to be a complete and utter waste of time. But Tim knew that to get the old Marsham out of my head I had to replace him with a new Marsham.

I walked in one of the room in the Portrait Gallery and there I found this:

John Elliot Burns.png

This doughty gentleman was John Elliott Burns, a Labour leaders and Socialist, but for me he became Dr Marsham, a working class Scot, a doctor and visionary. The old gentleman was gone and the new one was there in all his dignity and shyness and reticence and splendour. I think Marsham became my favourite character – and not just because he was, like George, a Scot. He was played by the delicious and delightful Kevin McMonagle, and the character was just fab. I loved him.

So. All I need to do now is find the key to Joseph. I’m getting there, but it’s a sort of limp and stumble, where usually it’s a whoosh.

Come on, Joseph.  Come out, come out, wherever you are.

I’ll get you in the end…….


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