Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Shakespeare and other playwrights

I have liked pretty much everything I've seen at the theatre in the last few months. I'm loathe to spoil this run of good fortune by booking to see something else and risk seeing a show I don't enjoy. Fortunately, some of my loveliest evenings have been spent talking about theatre to people who are involved in it, without actually having to go and see a play. And that's what I've been doing this week.

On Monday I met up with a group of playwrights to talk about writing. Like all basically shy people, before I left the house I imagined all sorts of frightening scenarios that would let me out of going along. Would the assembled company somehow intuit that I wasn't so much a playwright as a novelist (look everyone!) and try to chase me away. Would I present myself at the assigned meeting place only to find that everyone else was as shy as I was and had stayed away, with the organisers fidgeting uncomfortably in front of a large, empty ledger in which they had hoped to make a register of names and record the meeting notes. Was it perhaps a trick of some kind?

It was a lovely evening, of course. It wasn't a trick, the place was rammed, the conversation was stimulating, no-one asked for my credentials. I met quite a few people whose work I had seen and admired, as well as catching up with some old friends. I nearly blew it by getting quite drunk and murmuring 'but writing a play is so difficult, don't you think?' and also exclaiming, 'Oh, thank God!' much too loudly when I heard that a highly-recommended play I felt I ought to be seeing was fully booked and there was no chance of getting a ticket.

On Tuesday I went to The National for the launch of two books, one written by Nick Asbury and the other by Simon Reade. Nick's book, Exit, Pursued by a Badger, tells the story of his part in the RSC's recent History Plays. He was commissioned to write the book on the basis of the series of highly entertaining blogs he wrote for the RSC website, and he has expanded on these to give the book a narrative coherence and include broader themes such as fathers and sons, death etc. I know Nick and he's witty and clever, a talented musician as well as an actor, with an actor's enthusiasm for the theatre, and a genuine modesty combined with a slighly surreal, self-mocking sense of humour and a stock of amusing anecdotes - so I'm really looking forward to reading the book.

Nick and Simon Reade were interviewed by Rachel Cooke on stage at the Cottesloe as part of the book launch and, although I went along because I wanted to celebrate with Nick last night, I liked the sound of Simon Reade's epistolary book Dear Mr Shakespeare so much that I decided to buy a copy of his book as well. Simon was formerly Artistic Director at Bristol Old Vic, as well as Literary Manager at the RSC, and has had several plays and adaptations produced. He mentioned that part of his job as Literary Manager was to find a polite way to turn down playwrights who had sent in unsolicited scripts, without actually encouraging them to keep writing in. He said that the phrase 'we've thought about it long and hard, believe me!' seemed to do the trick.

More recently, after submitting his plays to Literary Managers, SR found himself on the receiving end of rejection letters. Based on these experiences, and the frustrations of trying to put on productions and hearing all sorts of silly excuses about why they shouldn't go ahead - reasons to say no, rather than reasons to say yes, (an echo of some of the discussions on Monday night) - he decided to write this book. It's an examination of Shakespeare's career, told through imagined contact with fictional modern-day characters who wouldn't have existed in Shakespeare's time - the intern, the professor of gender studies, and so on. It sounds interesting and so I'm looking forward to reading his book, too.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Lobster Revolution

The events of the last couple of weeks have mingled together in one cohesive narrative in my mind, ably assisted by the drugs provided at Kings College Hospital on Friday, where I had a wisdom tooth removed under sedation - the drugs promoted a sense of mild euphoria and blurred the distinction between dreams and reality, causing forgetfulness, as they were supposed to do. And oh, what dreams - I'm currently making an inventory to see what other parts of my body I could get removed.

So I joined Twitter about two weeks ago and, although I'm enjoying the cameraderie with other writers and with theatre-makers and journalists, I particularly enjoy the updates from characters who inhabit an alternate reality - RichardMadeley, RealNickGriffin, MrsStephenFry, Count Arthur Strong, TheFuckingQueen, John Shuttleworth and his manager, Ken Worthington ('Got to go out now to Jessops, John'). I don't follow or try to interact with any celebrities on Twitter any more than I would in real life.

However, apart from comedy and cameraderie, there is another reason to follow updates from people you don't know on Twitter: As you will have read in the papers, even if you don't use the application, Twitter had a valuable part to play during the recent uprising in Iran. Several students tried to get the word out about what was happening, posting news, video footage and photographs, wanting to raise awareness around the world and also seeking assurance that the world was watching, even when BBC Persia and other sources of news had been jammed in Iran. They used Twitter to communicate with each other, as mobile phones were cut off and landlines tapped - a friend who has been in constant contact with family who have been out demonstrating every night in Iran said that even when she can get through on the phone, the calls will be monitored and interrupted; as often as three times in a two minute call.

On Saturday and Sunday night last week, just after the phoney election results were announced, you could follow any update on Twitter tagged with #iranelection and see events unfolding live, while reports in the press and on TV lagged behind or ignored the situation altogether.

By Monday, when people came back to work and logged into Twitter and started to join in, it soon became impossible to trust information coming from anyone other than the original sources. Lots of people on Twitter wanted to help but inadvertently took notice of mis-information posted by Iranian authorities and other saboteurs and repeated it. Others seemed to treat it as a game - they began to repeat nonsense, ignoring trusted sources of information, self-importantly giving witless advice, muddying the picture, making alarmist claims, etc. It was the equivalent of well-meaning villagers joining in a search for a missing person and trampling over the evidence, ensuring that even if a dead body was found, the killer would never be brought to trial. Or, worse, people treated it like some kind of interactive online event where the prize for discovering the game was the opportunity to take part, not realising that their ridiculous interventions could mess up communications and even endanger lives. Imagine the Maquis trying to hide injured British airmen in the Second World War, only to be beseiged by hordes of onlookers pointing, shouting, giggling and giving phoney advice as if taking part in a promenade theatre show.

By Monday/Tuesday many of the #iranelection updates on Twitter were spam/rubbish/lies, with links taking you to porn sites rather than pictures of the demonstrations in Tehran. At least by that time, the media had caught up and you could go to The Guardian, The Times, the BBC. They pretty much relied on updates from the Iranian students who originally posted on Twitter and continue to post for 18 hrs or more a day, as well as information coming from Iran via phone calls to families and friends here (foreign journalists have been banned from reporting) but at least they were filtering out the nonsense.

Other events that have been preoccupying me - though they are not life and death, like the events in Iran - have been much more personal. How to get my work produced. It preoccupies all writers, even the most successful ones. I went to BAFTA to the launch of the Screenwriters Festival which will be held in Cheltenham in October this year. Christopher Hampton gave a talk, in which he said that of 42 scripts he had written, only 13 had been produced. That's pretty crap, isn't it? If a novelist of the same stature had written 42 books, all 42 would have been published. The SWF is supposed to be an opportunity for writers to come together and celebrate screenwriting in this country (I went along two years ago, having been optioned to write a screenplay and having a TV project in development) but in my case the outcome was counterproductive. Screenwriting at the top level seems to be a miserable, competitive, highly-paid job which involves working within a narrow set of parameters dictated by a tranche of management with an eye on sales rather than artistic achievement. If you work as a screenwriter, you will get your heart broken, warned David Hare at the SWF conference I attended in 2007. Fortunately, very few ever get to his rarified level, so most hearts of aspiring screenwriters will remain intact.

However, I talked to Phil Barron at the event at BAFTA (Phil writes about the SWF launch here and here) and he expressed surprise that more people don't just go out and make films, rather than waiting for the nod from executives and funders. Most of the films he has made have been micro budget films. Before you turn your nose up, his latest is a star-studded affair. Details here. The message I took away was that it's better to go out and do it for yourself.

The same message came across at an event at The National Theatre organised by Sphinx, which discussed the representation of women on screen and on the stage, as well as opportunities for women performers, writers, directors, designers, production crew, etc. Details here. The conclusion was that, although women are too often represented in negative stereotypes on TV and are underrepresented in all aspects of film-making, the only way to fix this is to do something about it ourselves. Tracy Brabin used the adage that if the lobsters worked together to get out of the pot of boiling water, they might stand a chance. Interestingly, through a 'friend' on Twitter, I subsequently came across this open letter from a woman director on Women in Hollywood here.

And yes, sure, the negative representation of women (whether the objectification of young women or the invisibility of women over 40) on screen and in the press in the UK, the under-representation and comparatively poor pay for women in all aspects of work in the UK (not just 'the performing arts') are not life and death, like the increasingly bloody events in Iran. But if you're not happy about the way things are and you want people to know about it, you have to speak up. Equity has a petition you can sign here.

So what have I learned from the last couple of weeks? Drugs and Twitter are great, if used wisely and in moderation. Neither can change your life, though they might change your perspective on it. But most important of all, wherever you are, whoever you are, whatever your situation, if you want change you have to do something about it yourself. But you can't do it alone, you have to band together with like-minded people to make it happen.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Fatal Errors Screenwriting Workshop, 2nd July

Screenwriter William M Akers, author of Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great, has been in touch to say he's coming to London to give a workshop on Thursday 2nd July at the Met Film School, entitled Fatal Errors New (and experienced!) Writers Make!

Tickets are £15 (pay on the door). To book your tickets please email

Friday, 12 June 2009

More Signs of Ageing

Last night I stumbled over a shoe that had been left in the hallway in my house and, as a result, I'm beginning to accept that perhaps the 'pitbull' that I wrestled with outside the corner shop the other day was not a pitbull but a discarded shoe.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Hints and Tips for Survival in an Urban Environment

My dog Jessie was attacked by another dog as we went to the local shop on Monday to buy a pint of milk. The attacker was one of those pitbull types wearing a thick leather collar and harness decorated with burnished metal, a bit like the belts that boxers are presented with when they win a championship fight. The savage creature was waiting for its owner outside the shop untethered, so presumably the collar was for ornament rather than restraint, though at least I had something to grab hold of as I wrestled with it.

While it may have looked like a pitbull, I know that it can't have been because, between us, Jessie and I survived the attack with just a few scratches, a limp and a sore arm. Apparently the only way to get a true pitbull to release its prey from its jaws is to poke your finger up its arse (although I'm told that if you have the presence of mind and a pencil to hand, a pencil will do). Fortunately I didn't have to resort to such extreme measures but I offer the information to you in case you should find yourself in a similar situation.


Last week, in the heatwave, we ordered a 10ft paddling pool.

Kyle says that when he looks out of the window at it now, it represents everything that's disappointing in life.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Any Dream Will Do

Many thanks to those of you who took place in last night's thought experiment, in which we tried to establish whether I was dreaming you or you were dreaming me. I woke up this morning and the government is in further disarray and the BNP have won two seats in the elections. Not your dream or mine.

Furthermore, I'm not a member of a Margaret Morris Movement dance troupe, my new novel is still unfinished, so is my play, so is my screenplay. Back to work.

Kevin Spacey, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Morris

Do you sometimes get hints that the universe might be a fiction and you're dreaming it? I do. Everyone knows how dreams work, little bits of real life work their way in to them and work their way out again.

Last night I dreamt that I went to a Company after-show party arranged by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic, and it turned out that the theatre was a ship and we set sail and sailed around London, and I knew that the party could only last until the ship docked again, and then we'd have to get off. I hadn't planned on going to the party but at the last minute decided it was too good an opportunity to miss. I didn't have time to put on any make-up or get changed and unfortunately I was wearing big, flat, black velvety shoes and knee-length lemon socks with a blue knee-length skirt. Other guests were dressed to the nines and several commented on my appearance, thinking I was trying to draw attention to myself. Now, it's obvious to see the connections there. I'm going to see Company at the Union on Tuesday. I have been following Kevin Spacey on Twitter and it can only be a matter of time before he follows me back and invites me to a glamorous party. I wear ridiculous clothes when I sit at home writing, and cringe at the thought that anyone might come to the house and see me like that. I wore large, flat shoes and too-short trousers to the Ukulelescope on Saturday and regretted it even though no-one looked at my feet.

But I have been reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (an imagined life of Marilyn Monroe) and I've just got to the bit where she's making Some Like it Hot - I'd forgotten she was a ukuleleist in the film. It's my third ukulele connection in four days. And yet the book and the recent ukulele intrusions into my life (Tom's play, the Ukulelescope event at the BFI) are external to me. I'm not controlling them. Unless this whole thing is a dream?

As an experiment, I'm going to go to bed now and try to dream myself a better life. Since Saturday, I have been giving some thought to putting together a Margaret Morris Method troupe of dancers. I have approached a few friends informally. Some have indicated they'd be keen to join. Of course, it's all a joke. A bit of fun. But it would be so lovely to express myself artistically through dance for once, instead of writing. Andrew, Katie and Elinor, if you should wake up tomorrow and you and I... If we should all be members of a dance troupe. Then... then...

But maybe I'm not dreaming you. You're dreaming me? Let's see what tomorrow brings, then we can talk about it.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Post-Ukulelescope Melancholy

I suddenly feel so melancholy, post-Ukulelescope. I sometimes wonder whether it’s ever worth feeling fleetingly happy when this ensuing sadness is the inevitable result.

I need to send family members out of the house with what little money I have in my purse, begging them to return with scraps of music and silent film to feed my cravings, or else ask them to try to recreate the joy of yesterday evening for me somehow. Go on, please.

Do that slightly wobbly, ever-so-serious synchronised dance in my kitchen, as demonstrated by the pupils of Margaret Morris. If I lead, you can follow. Dress up in bloomers and show me how to throw a man and break his wrist, then ‘torture his leg’. Or you could fabricate a giant green snail and pretend to ride on it. Please. Oh, that’s better. Oh, you know I can’t stop dancing when you play that magic fiddle. Ahhhh.


I went along to see the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britian's Ukelelescope at the BFI on the South Bank last night as a friend had a spare ticket. As it happened, Tom Green's radio play The Tent, which I listened to on Thursday on iplayer, contained some ukulele-playing by Hester Goodman. As I left the house last night - saying to Lauren, Don't make me go, which is what we always say when one of us has to go out - I little thought I'd return a few hours later feeling I hadn't seen enough ukulele playing for one week.

I thought Ukulelescope might be diverting, kitschy; a novelty show. I went with pretty low expectations, hoping it wouldn't disappoint and wouldn't go on too long. But it was one of the best things I've ever seen. Oh, if only we'd booked for the earlier show, I would have turned round and booked a ticket for the next one and gone straight back in again. I can't ever remember enjoying a show so much that I wanted to see it again, except Aurelia's Oratario at The Lyric a few years ago, which also contained a series of images by turns haunting and sad, with no discernable narrative. I fell in love with that show and I fell in love with this one.

Ukulelescope provided a live musical commentary to assorted clips of silent film, from 1899-1929. The film documented a pioneering, bitter-sweet but on the whole determinedly optimistic pre- and post-war era where athleticism, modernism and personal endeavour were cherished, where people all over the Western world were experimenting with the new cinematic technology, using it to educate, entertain and titillate. It was moving, beautiful, clever and very, very funny.

At times the result, as interpreted by the Ukulele Orchestra, was a bit like watching a sophisticated version of It’s A Knockout, the earnest endeavours on screen celebrated and gently mocked by the live musical commentary. I laughed till I cried at one point – it was the arrival of the hunched witch in the Cambridge University camera club’s Witch’s Fiddle that did me in, if you were there last night and you saw it. At other times it was beautiful, elegiac.

I loved the 'jujitsu for the ladies' clip – a kind of sneaky lesbian 1920s porn under the guise of an instructional film. Also the lengthy smoking advertisement, explaining how to save enough money to take your wife and children on holiday. I was astonished by the sight of the horses and carriages in London in 1926, scenes which are impossible to replicate in even the most expensive costume dramas. The Bristol beauty contest was rather sad. What on earth was happening in the weird, haunting footage of a girl in bathing suit on a very, very windy day at the seaside singing Beside the ZuyderZee, with apparently unrelated people milling about in the background? I loved the man singing Ain’t She Sweet while a dancer called Chilli danced into view and then edged off camera again. I loved the barrel-jumping Canadians, the young women from the Margaret Morris school demonstrating dance moves. And what about the plucky young woman crossing the channel on a hydrocycle. The amazing technical skill of Melies the French magician, who formed his own orchestra by replicating himself on film - there was a very, very old man in the seat in front of me who loved that clip, and it was rather affecting to think that he might have been involved in silent film himself. Then there was the extraordinary, fascinating beauty of the stop-motion unfolding of flowers, accompanied by appropriate music composed specially to bring out the personalities of each bloom.

Oh what's the point? I'm just listing everything I saw. Every clip they showed, I'd think perhaps it was my favourite - and they had 27 of them.

The next Ukulelescope will be on at the Litchfield Festival on 14th and 15th July. It looks like it's sold out. I can't go, anyway. But presumably they'll bring it back to the BFI? I hope so.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Give a Little, Get a Lot

A couple of screenwriting friends are making short films and asking for modest donations to help fund them. Danny Stack has written, directed and produced Origin. He's now asking for pledges via Twitter to help him complete it - you pay nothing until he reaches his £1000 target. The £5 minimum gets you a booklet entitled How to Get Your Movie Made - it's a pdf list of contacts in UK film companies, with information about whether or not they accept unsolicited material and tips about the best way to approach them. Larger donations get more goodies, such as an invite to the premiere. A £500 donation will even get you an Executive Producer credit. More details here.

Lucy Vee is producing a short film she has written. In return for a donation, she'll send you a pdf booklet with information about scripting reading - so if you're wondering how to generate an income while you're writing scripts, you might think about going into the script reading business. At the very least, you'll get an insight into what script readers are looking for when they read your script and report on it. Details here.

I recently donated to both, altruistically (quite modest amounts, though higher than the £5 minimum). However when Danny sent through the 'Get Your Movie Made' booklet this morning it made me think, well... why not try and get this film made that I've been talking about with Daniel York.

Immediately, I started wrestling with various problems associated with the film, not all of them high priority, perhaps. But sometimes, when you get those little nagging worries out of the way, it frees you up to think about the bigger problems. First up, what will we call it in shorthand? We can't keep saying Does Benedict Cumberbatch Know Kung Fu? every time we talk about it. Will we call it 'Does'? Hi, Daniel, just calling about 'Does'. We need to start thinking about locations for 'Does'. Getting plenty of buzz about 'Does' etc. Yes, I think that will suit, though I ought to consult Daniel. But maybe as he's directing, he'll just want to call it Daniel York's film?

Then there's the catering at the premiere. I jokingly said in a comment on an earlier post that I would be serving my home-made anchovy surprise, so long as it's not too dear. We live in an age of irony so you won't be astonished to learn that I have never actually made a dish of that name, though if the film gets made, I'll have to come up with a recipe that approximates to people's expectations (is it a canape or a dip? even that's by no means certain) about anchovy surprise. Even though it's said to take eight years for a feature film to get made, this is what's bothering me the most right now.

Finally, it's all I can do to stop myself from dusting off my Pimsleur Cantonese I tapes and trying once again to get to grips with the language. Yes I know that writers don't normally get to do cameos in films and the whole point is that this is not a 'Chinese' film and it's supposed to be providing employment opportunities for English actors of East Asian appearance not for English women writers of Western appearance who don't know how to act but know how to say yee sup man gong bai (twenty Hong Kong dollars - as my friends in HK say, exasperatedly, you don't need to say Hong Kong dollars in Hong Kong any more than you would say British pounds in England. But Pimsleur will insist on teaching it that way). But couldn't I appear very briefly as one of those mis-guided social commentators we're going to put in the film who has genned up on the culture, language and heritage of our actors? Other phrases I know include 'would you like to have dinner with me tonight' 'hurry up' and... well, the usual swear words.

No, you're right. I mustn't be allowed to be in it. I should just write it. Must just write. That's the hard part, though - getting started. If only there was a film completion fund I could contribute to which would result in a finished script winging its way back to me via email, with kisses and gratitute from the sender, and a promise that we must meet up soon, as happened with Danny and Lucy.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Imaginary Screenplay

I'm enjoying working on this imaginary screenplay. Actually I'm not sure if it's supposed to be for a film or a play. A flay? Anyway, it's a new venture and very diverting.

I have had imaginary children, of course - what woman of my age hasn't? These infants are usually invented as a way of alerting unsuitable boyfriends that however keen on sex one might be, one has no intention of breeding with them. Some of these children live for many years, some exist only for as long as it takes to write an email and send it when drunk.

There was a pink, misshapen cuddly toy - won at a fair in one of those grabber machines, I think - that was nameless, only ever referred to as 'our son'. He represented what I thought a child of mine might look like if I became pregnant during what might be called my hedonist phase. He lived for about ten years, never changing, sweetly enduring. I think that in the end I gave him to a charity shop, though he might have gone to the tip.

Then there were my two sons, Brixton and Sefton, the first 'conceived' at around the time of Brooklyn Beckham's birth, and named after the place in London where I live, the second named after that horse that was injured in the bombings in Regent's Park in 1982. I have no idea what became of them, they were children who took no corporeal form, so it's hard to keep track. But they were nice kids.

Later, I had five more, all boys named after cricketers. I don't know much about cricket so I had to look up suitable names on the internet. They all had red hair, were practically feral and would run through the house, naked or in over-sized jumpers and no shoes, fighting mostly, though sometimes they would pause to ask, Why is Mummy crying? I don't remember any of their names except the youngest one, who was called Garfield Sobers. I don't know where they are now. Social services? They didn't last long.

Obviously, the daughter I talk about in so much detail on here is real: Lauren. She just worked on a theatre production that got 5* from Lyn Gardner. I'm not saying all the stars were garnered by her contribution. Still, I'm proud. Sometimes I have mentioned Kyle. He's also a real boy, though grown-up. The rest - my eight sons listed above - are made-up. I don't suppose I'll ever mention them again.

More recently, I had the imaginary menagerie. I'm ashamed to say I lost interest in the animals concerned, though Jessie is still alive. She is also real.

Which brings me to the imaginary screenplay. It's great fun thinking about it without actually having to do any writing - a process I recommend heartily. Though I must admit, I thought of a very good joke to put in it last night. I've got an awful feeling I might go and spoil it all by starting to write the thing.

The Tent - Tom Green

Friend of the blog Tom Green had a radio play called The Tent broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday - it's still available for a few days on iplayer. It's very good and even includes a bit of ukulele playing. More details on Tom's blog here .

It's always useful to read produced scripts - there are plenty here on the BBC writersroom page. But Tom also provides a downloadable copy of the script for The Tent on his blog if you're interested.