A few years ago, when I lived in Wirksworth, a Head of Drama was staying with me and he was fascinated by my stories of all the people who lived around me, sometimes complete small narratives, sometimes just descriptions of their personalities. He wanted me to write a series, a warm and (hopefully) funny look at the odd characters we/they all were. I refused. He nagged. I kept on refusing; I wanted to live in that town for a little while longer, with neighbours who accepted me, not with neighbours crowding around my gate with burning torches and pitchforks shouting “Kill the writer!”
But the idea of a village drama has stayed with me over the years, and wherever I go, of course, there are interesting, likeable, intriguing, challenging, bloody annoying people. People who somehow enter my subconscious, blended, mashed-up, mucked about with until they dissolve only to reform, like the beamed-up crew members in Star Trek, into ‘my’ characters.
When the BBC told me a couple of weeks ago that they were in a fix, with a writer failing to deliver, and there was just a month or so to write a two part radio play and deliver it in a state ready to produce, I remembered Wirksworth and I knew I could write 90 minutes of drama in four weeks and have it edited and cleared by legal etc, and ready for casting. When you’re my age, people don’t challenge you often, and I miss the excitement. Oh, yess!
I already had the story in my head, a simple but satisfying tale of an enigmatic character who swans into a tight little community and creates mayhem… but is it in a good way or in a destructive way? That’s the question posed in the play.
I’m on track, time wise. The first episode whizzed off to them yesterday. But here’s the thing – it isn’t the story I sold them. This happens. Characters have a life of their own and when you write one scene you can discover that the next planned scene doesn’t sit in honesty with the first…. I thought that one of my characters would lead an old man to his death…. I was wrong. This character is weak and mean and self centred, she’s amoral and lives only in the moment with no consideration of consequence or the feelings of others, but she isn’t (damn it!) a murderer.
So, my black comedy is a charcoal grey comedy at best.
Normally, not a problem. You sit down with the producer and director (both the same person in radio) and explain why it’s morphed into something unexpected and everyone says ‘Jolly good!’ or ‘Are you mad’ or ‘You’re sacked’ and we go on from there. But this time there’s no time for discussion. The director is in the studio recording another play so I can’t talk to her, and by the time she emerges from that recording and gets my script, our slot will be already booked. If they don’t like what I’ve done, no time for a second draft, they’ll just have to fish something out of the archives to fill those 90 minutes.
Will they like it? Watch this space. I’m onto episode two now so they’d better tell me quick-quick!
See that cartoon? I love it. Here’s the story; I did a couple of years on two very very long running UK soaps. I was pretty duff at both of them, because I am no good at plot or structure, while soaps gobble up plot lines, and structure’s essential when there are four story strands running through a 26 minute episode. It all comes down to maths and being able to keep four or five plates spinning at the same time. They pretty soon discovered how useless I was, and I would be given the death episodes, the pathos episodes and the comedy episodes, when the build-up to the big scene is all sub text, words unspoken, conflicting emotion. Or jokes. But mostly they said things like “All you have to do, Luce, is kill Vera Duckworth” and that’s easy peasy, so I survived. Just.
But the soap monster takes no prisoners and onto the team came a middle aged man who was relatively inexperienced. Soap writers can be brutal and on this particular team there was a group of not everso pleasant men, some of whom had been there for many many cosy snug years. They formed a horrible little clique that barely tolerated the women writers on the team and they gave new members a really hard time. This newest writer was a bright, interesting man, with an unusual mind, untainted by their years of slogging away at plot twist after plot twist, an unconventional and creative talent, and so they gave him a really rough ride. A mixture of male aggression, jealousy, tribal loyalty and spite. They didn’t care that he was a father, with a family to support – they were out to get him, to drive him away. Sadly, they succeeded. On his last team meeting, he gamely tried to introduce a new storyline to the group and yet again he was knocked back macho-style, diminished. That’s when he drew that little cartoon. I grabbed it and it sits in a frame by my desk.
When I look at it, I remember him, and I’m touched, because it shows his resilience, his wry humour, and somehow I just know that he will have thrived, in spite of the small and mean minds. He was a lovely bloke.
That little clique of men had just been there too long, propping each other up too long, maintaining the establishment too long, walking along the road of well-worn precedent for too long, cosy and secure for too long. Unchallenged for far too long. They were suffering from a stenosis of the mind. An unnatural and unhealthy narrowing. In every walk of life and institution, frightened people cling to what they know, and club together in their weakness and uncertainty to resist the new.
Woodrow Wilson said “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”
I’m 70. I don’t want my thoughts and ideas to be the ones I had 50 years ago, or five years ago. Man, I certainly don’t want them to be the same ones I had 5 years ago. God changes things, illuminates life, transforms and mends. He heals hearts. I don’t want to stop changing. I believe that I will, by the grace of God, change and transform and mature right up to the moment of my death. I hope so, cos I’ve still got one hell of a long way to go before I’m properly cooked.
Here’s one more quote I love – it’s from an American engineer and industrialist, Alfred Perlman ‘After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully. After five years, look at it with suspicion. And after ten years, throw it away and start all over. ‘
I throw stuff away all the time. One of my favourite places is the town tip.
Those thoughts remind me that change is challenging and difficult, but how we need it! The church needs it. We need the flexibility of mind to change streams, to admit wrong, to try new things, to dare. To risk failing. Today two friends came to pray with me, and as we prayed for the courage to change, to step forward into whatever God has prepared for us, I found myself saying “When our feet grow, we need bigger shoes.” both men laughed aloud, and so did I – Mrs Obvious at it again.
I wonder if it made God smile. Or maybe he just rolled his eyes.