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My agent was invariably cheerful. “Not to worry,” he said, “We’ll see if we can place it somewhere else.” And then he said “What I think we should do is you should write another one for them.” “Another play?” I squeaked. “Yes. Show them that you’re still keen and you don’t give up.” “A whole other play?” “Yes. Just write one and we’ll send it in then you’ll be in good standing with them.”
The trouble was I was annoyed with them. They had failed to recognise that I had placed the future of television drama at their disposal. They had made the Monkey Assertion. This latter had been made before, almost at the beginning of my playwriting career. Lumiere & Son had had the good fortune, quite early in its history, to present a play at the Bush Theatre in London, after a spell mounting work at the legendary Oval House Theatre. We opened a show called ‘Jack…the Flames!’ at the Bush and, for the first time, reviewers from national newspapers came to review us. (They were loath to travel south of the river unless it was for shows at the National Theatre or the Old Vic. The Bush was north of the river, in Shepherd’s Bush.)
Michael Coveney, then writing for the Financial Times, saw the show and was moved to observe that “This is the sort of show designed to make a monkey out of reviewers.” Michael, who for several decades we could only refer to as Coveney, was to be even ruder about subsequent shows, but that’s another story. After twenty years or so of pointedly ignoring him at openings and parties I found myself, towards the end of the 20th Century, able to greet him stiffly and then, a couple of years ago, at a Christmas party held for contributors to The First Post, an online newspaper to which we had both been contributing, we held a perfectly pleasant conversation in the course of which he actually almost disarmed me by mentioning that he was about to run a half marathon and, when I asked him why, said “Well, I’m a short, fat little bastard and I need the exercise.”
I felt that I’d been buoyed up by Roger then stiffed by Robin. I didn’t question Roger’s motives for a moment – he was a risk-taking producer. Robin wasn’t. With heavy heart I dragged out the Olympia and tried to imagine what on earth I might do. I wrote plays because I had ideas for plays, not because a play needed to be delivered to prove a point. While it was clear that whatever I wrote would be rejected, I still felt that I couldn’t fill the sheets of A4 unless I had something mildly exciting to motivate me. I knew that I had to cut corners – the next play must take no more than a week to write and it shouldn’t involve difficulty (‘Lots’ featured the studied removal of conflict, its successor should actually be a lo-conflict writing task). I also reminded myself that I wasn’t being paid the second time around.
On occasion I have used sentences like this in Strength Weekly: ‘Then I made up my mind.’ Such slightly stylised assertions have, I think, generally been used to introduce matters of moment. Not in this case. Then I made up my mind. I would use Jean and Max again, not only that, I would call the play ‘Jean Pool’, a title I had already used for the stage. Then I wouldn’t have to think up a new title, which either takes ten minutes or three days, nothing in between. I would write a crime mystery that gets solved by detectives. There would be a problem but this time it wouldn’t go away, the detectives would have to solve it. There would be clues and deductions, I decided, irritably. They’d like that, it wouldn’t make monkeys out of them.
Episode 6: Some pages are covered with writing. A broadcaster is sent a packet.
This post is in a series: please start at Episode 1
I wrote the script on my pale blue Olympia portable typewriter because, in the olden days, there were no computers small enough to get into a room. As with my writing for Lumiere & Son, I used carbon paper to make copies. In order to save on photocopying costs I wrote my plays on eight sheets of A4 interleaved with seven sheets of carbon paper. This was the most you could wind around the roller without it jamming. In order that the final sheet did not comprise simply a series of faint grey marks I typed very hard, pounding the keys forcefully with every stroke. The director got the top copy, myself the second copy, the actors the next six copies. ‘Lots’, however, was merely duplicated. One copy for me and one for my agent who would copy one for Roger.
In common with most of my script work the writing part was the easiest. The thinking part takes between three years and three days depending on prevailing pressure systems. Once the thinking has advanced to what we, in the trade, call the ‘right’ point (I will not burden the reader with too many of these specialist terms) I say to myself “That’s enough thinking. Let’s write!” The writing is accompanied by thinking but it is of a detailed rather than broad-stroke character. If I remember correctly (and who does, these days?) writing ‘Lots’ was thoroughly enjoyable, especially on those occasions when I broke through into ever more extreme progressions of my regressive scheme.
When the teleplay was finished I gave the top copy to Roger, who would get back to me by the end of the week. During the intervening days I imagined myself on various chat shows and polished my witty yet telling ripostes and responses. A few days later Roger rang me (phones were attached to the wall by a wire in those days). He said that he had enjoyed the script greatly, as had his assistant and script editor who was called either Tatiana or Sally or possibly even another name. We went to dine in a restaurant adjacent to Sloane Square. I clearly remember thinking “The world is my oyster” as I navigated the Kings Road on my old yellow Claud Butler.
Over luncheon on linen, the first of many such that I was now destined to enjoy, Roger and Sally told me of their favourite scenes and moments. I told them that my favourite line in the script was ‘The car is red.’ Roger did make one critical comment, however. “You know, when you put a piece of paper over the left side of the page, covering up the characters’ names, you can’t tell who is who.” I told him that I wasn’t overly concerned with character and that, anyway, the actors would make it perfectly clear as they developed their roles. (I still believe this.)
In a few days we would get a response from Roger’s boss at the BBC, who may have been called Robin and was in charge of Play for Today or Playhouse, whichever series it was. In the intervening days I contemplated the better bicycles, the sharp suits and the frequent visits to America.
Robin said “He is making a monkey of us.” That was that.
Episode 5: My agent has an idea.