Lots: Episode 7

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After a few months, not only did I stop fretting about my BBC non-commission but I grew lazy about retrieving script copies I had distributed to potential lovers of the Next Thing in Television. At some point I released a copy to a producer friend who gave it to some other producers. For some reason that is probably uncomfortably seated in issues of personal psychology I contrived not to realise that the master copy of ‘Lots’ was now out of my possession. A few years later I started, as I often do with pieces of my writing that I’m fond of, running through scenes from ‘Lots’ in an idle manner in my head.

My recollections were, perforce, approximate. I recalled writing a scene in which a character wishes that she had had a brother. Moments later there is a knock at the door. It is her brother. They embrace exultantly. That night they curl up together in bed, in a nice way. I also remembered Max and Jean and Anna driving through America in a car they had been given (everything they needed came to them – their desire was all). They had been driving at night and had not been able, therefore, to examine the car. When day broke, Max said “The car is red.” I liked that line very much. I remembered other things in the script and even had vague recollections of the second script, ‘Jean Pool’, the one I wrote because I was told to. I realised that I would very much like to see these scripts again but I could not remember where they had gone.


I wanted to see them, in part, because I regarded them as a link between two worlds of writing. Before ‘Lots’, written in 1983, I had written almost exclusively for Lumiere & Son. Because the company was ‘on the fringe’, ‘experimental’, ‘small scale’ and modestly funded, we could do what we wanted. Nobody cared. At the point of writing ‘Lots’ I was in transition. I had started doing some journalism for papers and magazines and I was drawn thereby to the idea that my plays might achieve, as broadcast events, the national exposure that some of my journalism had, relatively effortlessly, received. While this never really happened, I still felt that ‘Lost’ – as it begs to be anagrammatised – was the riskiest thing I had essayed for some years. As far as I was concerned, in its lack of compromise, ‘Lots’ was pure. When I thought about it I felt pure too.


Despite the fact that Hilary (see Episode 1) and I had enjoyed a long and close relationship, frequently characterised by the exchange of meaningful goods, I had no recollection whatsoever of giving her a copy of the script. In retrospect, considering that she is one of the more assiduous archivists of my acquaintance, I should, at least, have, perhaps, just mentioned the loss of ‘Lost’.

18.02.2008

Lots: Episode 6

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I lifted another character from the stage version of ‘Jean Pool’: Hugh, a young man who had lost his diary and engaged Jean and Max to find it. The metaphor for loss of identity was thoroughly and artlessly transparent, in the tradition of baldness that I was pleased to have evolved in my work. As soon as one premises a full length television play for the BBC on such advertent whimsy, all is lost. It will never be broadcast.


Hugh tells the detectives that he lost his diary in Greenland and suggests they go there. He can’t remember where in Greenland. They go there. The brief stage directions (as they are not called in television) read: ‘Scene 4. Greenland. Inside an igloo.’ I was wilfully concocting a non-starter. In my defence I should add that similarly unadorned passages were to be found in profusion in ‘Lots’. But the reader should remember (see Episode 1 of this series) that in that instance I had been told, by a member of the BBC, to ‘let my imagination go.’ By so doing I had simianised the powerful and had been cast, like a block of toilet cleanser, into a place of abjectness. On this occasion I had been advised, by my representative, to consolidate a state of ‘good standing ‘ with the pre-simian (the term is used to denote a potential for simianisation rather than to posit a Darwinian non sequitur) community. I struggled only feebly with my truculence, however, because I sensed that it might ease my passage through the writing chore.


Having composed a series of scenes that appeared to offer Hugh clues as to his identity, I commenced the denouement. First Max, then Jean – in the traditional country-house mystery manner – presented their analyses of the evidence, followed by their conclusions. Each conclusion is utterly different. Max demonstrates that Hugh used to be a baker. Jean establishes that he was an astronomer. The writer had devised scenes susceptible to both interpretations. As you would.


It goes vague then. I handed the script in. They turned it down. I stayed friends with Roger. I had made a few copies of both ‘Lots’ and ‘Jean Pool’. One or two went to other producers and never came back. I never saw them again. I had no more copies. Floppy disks had not been invented. 24 years passed.


Episode 7: The unearthing. The re-assessment.

12.02.2008

Lots: Episode 5

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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.

Lots: Episode 4

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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.

10.02.2008

Lots: Episode 3

This post is in a series: please start at Episode 1

Let my imagination go. Uhuh. Roger was very likeable and I was flattered by his view that the eccentric work of Lumiere & Son – or something like it – would be viable in the centricity of BBCTV. I would pull out all the stops on this one. I would go where I had not gone before. I had long been irritated – as suggested from time to time throughout Strength Weekly – by the received wisdoms of playwriting, especially those which asserted the primacy of well rounded character, credible dialogue and a good story. While, as a consumer, I was often content to savour the accomplishments of playwrights, screenwriters and novelists who had no axe to grind with regard to these matters, when it came to producing my own stuff I was hardcore and became increasingly so as the years went by.

I mused on the notion of just how much could be removed from performance before it vanished. Peter Brook, of course, had said “A man walks across an empty space, whilst someone else is watching him and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” but it’s not really a night out, is it? Besides, I wasn’t a minimalist, I wanted busy, fast, imagistic theatre.


Then it came to me. One of the wisdoms I had received was that drama could not exist without conflict. Who said? And how dare they? I would write a (television) drama without conflict. I would open the screenplay with some characters facing an insurmountable problem which they would proceed to surmount without developing as characters. Having removed the plot engine about a quarter of the way in I would then guide the characters – the detectives Jean and Max and their client Anna – through a series of situations that delivered modest challenges which were almost immediately resolved for no reason connected either to the nature of the principals or their efforts or some mysterious yet beneficent quality of the phenomenal world. Shit, then, would just happen.


As I noted this down I began to realise that this was what Britain was waiting for: thanks to the perspicacity of Roger, a young 39 year old playwright would storm the small screens of the country with his moreish avant-gardism and quite quickly find a snug abode in the nation’s hearts. He (I) would become the Bleasdale of the New Bleak, the uncompromising author of works of hilarious sad violent beauty that eschewed irritating wisdoms.


Fortunately I have always been calm in the face of heck and was able, despite my dizzying prospects, to continue applying myself to the compositional task. I decided that not only would conflict be removed wheresoever it arose but that the characters would move backwards through time because, as everybody knows, the olden days were so much better in all ways except for medical science in particular anaesthetics. As scenes progressed, the characters’ costumes would regress through the styles of the centuries. Not only that, I decided, but – following my own insistent logic – the species would travel backwards to its origins in the Garden of Eden after which the women would disappear into the mens’ bodies via a wound appearing just below the site of their sixth rib.


Episode 4: The draft is borne into the world. It makes an impression on representatives of the BBC.

09.02.2008