An occasional series of articles linking the work to the world.
Written as a Preface to the performance of ‘Dreams, Screams and Silences’ at l’ecole normale supérieure, Paris, as part of their symposium – ‘Sarah Kane. 20 ans après’.
Theatre is dead.
This virus, that corrupts our minds as much as our bodies, is Fascism regenerated as a germ, it is anti-society, forbids us to congregate, to act collectively, to exist as community, on pain of death. It locks us into our smallest, most reducible cells, atomised, isolated and controlled. Our ‘culture’ streams through screens, we are like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, transfixed by the flickering shadows on the wall, not knowing the fire that lights them.
But it is round the communal fire that storytelling happens, and we need the story as much as the heat from the fire. The same part of the brain which, when it suddenly, dramatically physically enlarged, enabled our ancestors to create more complex tools and increased our prospects for survival and development, is also the part of our brain that works with language. We develop our language by telling stories. So by telling stories we exercise the brain function that enables our complex social survival. We created fire, found food and shelter, and having eaten we sat around the fire and began to tell stories. In doing this, we developed our abilities to survive and civilise, because we became more adept both physically (making complex tools) and emotionally (perceiving our presence in the world). This is not hippy rhetoric but anatomical fact, storytelling is key to our survival and progress.
As for the species, so for the individual. I have known too many people personally who account for their survival of traumatic events by reference to their involvement in storytelling, either their participation in making stories or simply being told the right story at the right time- a film, a novel, a poem, a work of theatre that has made a crucial difference.
There is not such a large gap between telling a story and being told one, the story depends both on the teller and the listener to be alert, and depends upon the authenticity of both. What the audience brings into a room is as crucial as what the artist has placed there, it is in the moment of interaction, of connection, that the room is lit by the fire.
Let’s burn the place down.
The act of telling stories around the camp fire is theatre in its essence, which at its best needs nothing but the light and heat of the audience’ imagination. Lift a hand in front of the fire, create the shadow of a tower or a dragon, invite the participation of the imagination of your listener/watcher. And see terrible dragons bring down great towers. This simplicity is the heart of theatre, all the extra layers of mechanics and technology is spectacle, not storytelling.
In 1996, in Edinburgh, Robert LePage came to Edinburgh with a one-man ‘Hamlet’, which I was excited to see. Except I didn’t see it. His one man ‘Hamlet’ was cancelled, because a tiny piece of machinery, a rivet or screw, so specialist it would take weeks to replace, had been broken or lost or didn’t quite work as it should. For want of a nail. No Hamlet should die because you’ve lost a screw, especially a Hamlet so audacious to be one man. You should be able to stage Hamlet with a chair and a hammer and a candle in a room above a bar, and you should be able to adapt your performance if the hammer is stolen.
There is a need for spectacle in the world, but let’s not confuse it with storytelling.
In the early 2000s, I met up with Ewen Bremner in his hometown of Edinburgh. It was the Festival, again. The first time I had been back since Sarah’s death. She haunted many corners of that City of Ghosts. Ewen had never seen ‘Cleansed’, so I took him spontaneously to see a fringe production by some student company. It was the first staged version of it I had liked (the London premiere crushed it with a heavy and self-conscious staging, you never saw the story). The students articulated the nightmare totalitarianism and psychosis using the barest of stage mechanics – a stepladder, a bucket, some chairs. I quizzed Ewen after (in a bar haunted by Sarah) and he’d got it, seen the play, was told the story. The more recent English National Theatre production was moribund, crushing the life out of the nightmare with mechanics, showmanship, fake spectacle. When theatres lose the art of telling stories, the game is up.
We went to Edinburgh in 1990 with nothing. We had some words. We had energy. We sometimes used a chair or two. We lit a stage floor with a little light. We burned.
We had slots booked, and had to fill the empty room. Sarah had written her first two monologues. Vivid, excoriating pieces that demanded to breath with an audience. I guess we could have just staged them but I threw into the mix a bunch of experimental short works I’d been working on for the hell of it, suggesting she direct everything. We conjured an acting company out of thin air. I phoned up my mate from York, Sean Holmes, and said “What are you doing this summer? We need some actors. We don’t know what we’re doing.” Two days later Sean was driving to Bristol with two friends, Marie-Louise Hogan and Giles Ward, to join Sarah’s friend Cate Eschle, and the day after that they started rehearsing. Sometime during the rehearsal, seeing my own pieces were not quite cohering, I suggested I keep writing through the Festival, and if we liked the work we’d put it in the show, take the older pieces out. “My” half of the show would change throughout the month we were running. Sarah’s two pieces would be the second half.
Every day, I was writing new work (from titles given by the audience), Sarah and the actors were rehearsing new material, and every day we were performing. We were exposed to our audience, and they were exposed to us. For a month. You find out about yourself. There were fights, there were tears, there was much laughter. We were tired, we all fell ill, we carried on. Every performance was intimate, and sometimes dangerous, because we challenged our audiences as we earned the right by challenging ourselves.
And, the following year, with different actors, we did it all again.
Why is this work interesting to students of Sarah? Because it was the environment and culture and fomenting moment of the time she found herself as a writer. She sat in a room with strangers and watched and heard her monologues for thirty performances. You learn stuff doing that. But she wasn’t passive, she was directing my work all that time too, we were all learning from each other, and a language was passing between us all by some kind of osmosis, sometimes we’d speak lines and genuinely not know whose they were. We took it for granted at the time- the energy, the intensity, the creativity – but you look back from a distance at that incandescent shore and see the fires burning, you can still feel the heat.
Everything was disposable. Permanent and disposable. Her three monologues from those two years are inaccessible except by academic privilege. And yet they are timeless. My own pieces (about 60 short plays) were written on typewriter, photocopied for actors, and largely left to rot in boxes. Two became short films which I directed shortly before making ‘Skin’; in retrospect, all three short films belong together, and all have their genesis in our Edinburgh adventure. I have lost some of the works, perhaps they will reappear. It is a paradox peculiar to theatre, that permanence yoked to evanescence- the mutability and transience of work which aspires to be universal. I only started to excavate the work after talking with Valentin Guerguerb about resurrecting some of it for the Sorbonne/L’ecole Normale Superior conference. I dug into dusty boxes and started reading. I was as shocked as anyone will be by meeting themselves half a lifetime ago. I felt like a scholar of my own work, composing first and second folio versions to try to recreate what was nearly lost. I’m in there, Sarah’s in there, two companies of actors are in there, and the audiences are in there, because what we got from them informed what we did next.
It’s a long way of saying, we told stories round a campfire. They were not recorded, filmed, streamed, transmitted, filed. But they impacted on the people there. And that impact reverberates, is still echoing in the world.
Thirty years later. I find myself with a group of students I have only just met, sitting to read a selection of these pieces, knowing that we will be showing them to a small audience the next day. The students are working in a second language, and I am incompetent in their first. On first reading, the shock of inevitable failure, how, in 24 hours, to work through layers of language and meaning? Impossible. Old instincts take over. Go immediately away from the texts, just work on ourselves, who we are, what we’re doing there, remind ourselves of our shared humanity. The fear of failure doesn’t go, but becomes less important. Next step, create our own atmosphere, our own space. We are in a desolate Brutalist underground gymnasium. We take possession of one corner of it; shine three or four lamps into our space and close down the other lights. We put blacks against the wall behind. And suddenly we are more intimate. Chairs for our audience encircle the space at its perimetre. We have shut down the world, and lit a campfire. Now, back to the stories. More slowly. Trust the music. Go with the rhythm. Hear the tune and sing. The fear stays at the edge of our lit area. So long as we are in there, believing, trusting, we have a chance.
Thank you Sophie Cachera, Lucile Rose, Adalouise Voituriez, Juliette Labreuche, Maiko Bernhart and Louis Lopparelli. You all amazed me. You brought the same spirit of adventure and authenticity that Sean and his friends brought all those years ago, driving down the motorway on a whim. Please keep that spirit with you always. It is the spirit of travelling players in the time of plague, the theatres shut down, taking their tales by horse and cart to whatever community will hear them. It is a spirit needed now more than ever.
On the day, with our audience gathered round, I have another shock. Not of inevitable failure, but of the inevitable power of storytelling. Unrecorded, unfilmed, exposed to the intimacy of the moment, these students give themselves to the music and it soars, and the audience give themselves too, and the hair on my skin is prickling. I have been here before. This is what it felt like. Telling those stories to strangers around an imagined campfire, many years ago in Edinburgh. That intensity, alertness and generosity. That beat of silence before applause. I remember this well. Sarah heard it every night. In between heartbeats, all life.
Long live theatre.
Read more about Dreams, Screams and Silences
Published SEP 2021 (simultaneous publication with the French version in Revue d’Histoire du Theatre – ‘Sarah Kane. 20 ans après’)
A man shouted a me, “Oi!”, from across the street, and dangerously skewed through traffic towards me. I was on Charlotte St, North of Soho, just out of a meeting. The words the stranger spoke to me were alarming too, if you hadn’t heard them before. Panting, he leaned into my face excitedly and spoke.
“From rapture to rupture in less than a second.”
They were words I had forged the previous summer, in a hothouse writing experiment I had staged in Edinburgh with Sarah Kane and Sean Holmes (among others). In Dreams, Screams and Silences I was writing a short play every day, Sarah was directing them and Sean was part of the acting company which rehearsed each new work and added it into the show. So many words had spewed out of me in that Festival month, I could hardly account for them or take responsibility for them, I was a monkey randomly typing and occasionally coming up with, perhaps not Shakespeare, but sometimes something of note or worth. The stranger on the street had latched onto one of those frantically penned barbs, and for what reason remembered it, and I was honoured by his rememberance- I’d rather be thanked than thumped for what I’ve written, but frankly any response is preferable to muteness, blankness or indifference. GB Shaw once wrote in a Preface “any fool can make an audience laugh, what matters to me is if they are in the melting mood.”, it is connection that we crave, both for the creator and the consumer. We have all come out of a theatre or cinema checking the phone, wondering where to drink or eat or if we’ve missed the last train, but we go to cinemas and theatres for something else, the dead habitual dullness of existence needs provoking, exciting, even intimidating. If we melt, we are alive. It is food and oxygen to writers to know you’re getting through, and poison to fear you aren’t, won’t or can’t.
Sarah caught onto this when her first play was produced at the Royal Court; after a few days of the pre-social media shock and awe, and her genuine bemusement and concern that apparently sane men could be so bewildered and offended by her play, she started to relish what was blowing back to her, in all its forms. Everybody had heard of Blasted, everybody wanted to see it, and everybody was talking about it. That press night at the Theatre Upstairs has become a bit like the Sex Pistols at Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall, the number of people who say they were there would sell out Wembley.
(Memory is strange. I once told someone a story about when I’d been in a bar sitting next to a Millwall supporter who ate- actually ate – his pint glass, and years later at a party this person started saying Do you remember when we were in that Soho bar and that fat guy started eating his glass. He had the details off pat, with only one caveat, that he was never actually there. He’d been told the story vividly and added to it his own emotions and made it part of his own history. Which, when you come to think of it, is everything a writer tries to achieve.)
Sarah said in retrospect she almost wholly enjoyed the insane reaction to her play- she had people running up to her in the street every day for the rest of her short life, both figuratively and literally.
Our Edinburgh experiment was like a writing bootcamp. For me there was the daily dread of finding words, characters, dramatic situations and structures, from out of the void with only a stranger’s suggestion of a title to hold onto. For Sarah, she for the first time witnessed daily her language and ideas coming alive for an audience, saw and felt the emotional impact her words could have in an intimate arena, and often experienced what to my mind is the best sound a writer can ever hear – not the applause and bravos of a cheering crowd, but the stunned, still silence of an audience in recovery from her art. By the time we were staging Dreams/Screams, I’d already had a Sunday night tv film go out on BBC1 to the unimaginable figure of 9 million people, all watching it at the same time. But while Sweet Nothing unquestionably touched and moved people, maybe even melted them, it took many years for those responses to filter through to me, because they happened in the home (and, again, with no social media through which to filter the experience). 30 people on wooden chairs in an Edinburgh masonic lodge seemed bigger to me than having a quarter of the adult population watching my film. In the theatre were people I could see, hear and speak with. The responses to a short tale of a squaddy’s death by the bereaved mother of a 1st Gulf War soldier reminded me of the critical human importance of storytelling, of why we do it, why we need it. And so many times I have had to remind myself of that lesson.
The sad (for me) fact is that about 95% of my written work has never been seen in public. My office is piled high with boxes of scripts, layers of dusty drafts of screenplays, tv series and plays which each represent an extrordinary amount of time, effort and imaginative travelling into an unknown land from where no postcards are received. Talking once with Alan Rickman about my National Theatre commission Plague Mysteries, which never got produced, I said with a bitter laugh, “Oh well it was only a year and a half of my life”. His jaw dropped and he visibly blanched (he did not shock easily). The life of a writer, Alan. Of this writer, anyhow.
And so, when I do get a film actually made, rather than pinballed around production partners, financiers and media groups, accumulating many bonus points along the way but never hitting the top light, the green light, when, after 7 years of dreaming, working, battling and enabling, in some limping shape at the end a battered script of mine finds itself standing shiftily in the brazen light of the public gaze, well then, yes, fuck it, I want a response.
ID2 Shadwell Army is a sequel (of sorts) to my film ID, which was made 20 years ago, and is by far my most commercial work (well, it got made didn’t it). It’s had few reviews, and most of them profoundly lazy one paragraph yawns, along with a couple who could actually see what the film is rather than what they expect it to be. It was released in a limited number of cinemas, along with a simultaneous online release, all of this rushed in order to get it into the lucrative dvd market ASAP. No red carpets, no Late Night Reviews, no festival circuit. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen it already, but I’ve had less feedback (and less fun) than if I’d staged a play to 20 people in a room above a pub.
Time will tell. The original ID also got mixed reviews, sparse distribution, little publicity and yet, and yet, over a period of time it has gathered moss and garnered acclaim and, more importantly, embedded itself in the culture. It’s unclear how these garlands get awarded but ID now has the stamp of a bona fide “Cult Classic”, and its loyal, international fanbase extends through cultures, languages and generations. Middle-aged men have tattooed quotes from the film on their bodies, and teenage student women have parties to watch the film.
Time will tell, but waits for no man. I put a story into the world and want the world to talk back to me. The online response has been tricky. A lot of fans of the original film are decidely upset- some don’t like that the film does not recreate the rose-tinted and alcohol-fuelled tropes of the original, or that it takes what’s familiar and twists it into another shape; some don’t like that the film is political, some don’t like that it is multi-ethnic (and the hero is a 2nd generation British Muslim). There has been a general hammering at the film that I started to realise is often using a particular language, including offers of violence towards the creators of the film, and it begins to appear co-ordinated. If that is so, who is doing the co-ordinating?
There were a stream of nasty responses on the film’s Facebook page, and some provocatively abject online reviews on IMDB, from newly-signed up first-time reviewers keen to register their 1-star (out of 10) notices. It began to smell. I winkled them out. On the Facebook page I published a considered response to my accusers. Things became clearer. Some stepped back from their previous joining of the lynch mob, appreciated that I was engaging with them and realised they were being over the top. The ones who didn’t back down had to step forward more clearly. The comments rolled in –
“You took the English Defence League name and slandered it…Why make the EDL out to be terrorists…Was this film funded by far left social justice warriors…I’ve been to EDL demos, proud people trying to protect our country…The problem with the British Film Industry is that it’s run by a bunch of half gay, metrosexual SJWs and other leftys (sic) who produce crap like this…A bit of free advice, don’t take your roadshow to an area where we are active….”
Along with suggestions that the writer should be “strung up” or “top himself” – for writing a film you don’t like? Really? Many of these critics felt that the depiction of EDL activists taking part in violence or hate crime was slanderous, and suggested I take a look at their Facebook page and educate myself. Of course, I had read their material before, but I thought ok let’s have another look-
“We need to take a leaf out of there (sic) book close all mosques and ban the Koran and the way I would ban it would be to burn every fucking copy in front of all Muslims and when they cause trouble a bullet to the head will sort it…A doze (sic) of petrol is what’s needed…burn down the ones here…Blow it up…”
Actually, the activists in the film who initiate violence against a mosque have splintered from the EDL, but the protestations from these critics that it’s not conceivable the EDL would pursue violence seem particuarly weak only months after a Britain Forward activist has assassinated an elected politician.
It was tempting to provoke my online lynch mob, in a way that would increase public awareness of the film, and a recent Q&A screening had me seriously considering whipping up the row a bit to the point where some of the torch bearers might even show up, I quite fancied facing a demonstration on the steps of the Duke of Yorks Cinema in Brighton…but then again I had friends and family coming and the idea was to celebrate the screening of my film. I put my can of petrol away.
The Q&A screening was quite moving for me, to finally have a film shown at my local cinema, and to have so many friends there for it. I had feared the response, as there were people there who could be trusted to let me know in no uncertain terms where the film had gone wrong. I was staggered by the overwhelmingly positive response, from people whose judgment I trusted and respected. Sitting in a room, in the dark, watching my story unfold in the company of these people, was really quite similar to the studio theatre experiences I so treasure. I feel I had, in the exhausting process of development and production, become alienated from my own story, and to watch it with this audience allowed me to reconnect with it, and also to move on from it- each script is like a lover, you go through ecstasy and wars and come out exhausted but hopefully still friends. I made friends with my film again, and sitting in a room after with likeminded souls, sharing words and drinks and thoughts and laughter, was in the end a better outcome than an EDL demonstration would have been likely to prove.
The sense of isolation that writing necessitates, my own anguish at how little of my work is seen in the world, my sense of failure about my own writing, almost caused me to cancel the Q&A screening in Brighton. I needed that connection, that response, too badly, and if you need something so badly and get it so little you start to fear it. I can see now why I thrived on the adrenalin of writing every day and exposing it immediately to a live audience, but the withdrawal from that intoxication is tough. So many years of spawning complex ideas, inhabiting interior lives, excavating emotion and wrangling words, and too little is seen or heard in the world, too little evokes response, outside of the small cadre of connivers and co-dependers who professionalise writing ‘development’; so much fucking effort to so little effect, has left me thinking it’s really ok if my work never gets an audience again.
And then I sit with an audience looking at something I wrote and really I quite like the experience.
I staged with Sarah a second year of our short plays adventure in Edinburgh, we were back in the same studio space below the castle, and I subjected myself again to the masochistic task of Prometheus, writing a short play every day. Somewhere in the middle of the run, dazed and drained by the experience, I sat in a bar on Cowgate. Sarah came up to me with a grin on her face. She spoke that line again, “From rapture to rupture in less than a second”. It was graffitied on the wall of the ladies loo she’d just visited. It’s a kind of fame.
She soon would achieve a greater rapture.
The Brighton Q&A can be viewed on the ID2 page (below the trailer) – camera very wobbly for first few minutes, then settles down.
You can leave your own online review of the film on MUBI. You can award star points in seconds, and a quick sign-up allows you to write your own considered review. Go for it, whatever you think of the film.
Published OCT 2016
Never meet your heroes, that must have been on my mind when I declined the chance to meet Samuel Beckett, who in my youth and still now I consider the master, his poetic paradoxes exquisitely capturing the difficulties and absurdities of human existence. I was in my 20s, working at the Royal Court and a member of the writers’ group there, when I joined my first agent. I’d not really thought much about agents, but when Leah Schmidt, then of Curtis Brown, approached me I checked her out and found that she was Beckett’s representative, which was good enough for me. I must have gushed at Leah over my first few months with her, because she mentioned me in a phone call with Beckett, told him of a young writer she’d just taken on who was a great admirer of his work, and he passed the message on that if ever I was in Paris I should be sure to look him up.
I’m an idiot.
Of course I should have immediately arranged to just be casually passing through Paris for a weekend and popped down to Montparnasse to see him. Instead I re-read his work and biography, and confirmed my palpable unworthiness to be even in the same room as him. How could I begin to speak my admiration for the work, how could I even open my mouth and let my words exist in the same universe as his? I fretted and delayed, got busy and let the invitation go cold. There’s always next year. Except there wasn’t. It was Sarah Kane who phoned me up on Christmas Eve to pass on the news of his fading. Born on Good Friday, died at Christmas, perverse and brilliant to the end. I never met him, always regretted. Godot never came.
I would have been a fool in his presence I’m sure, could handle it now of course, would realise that the last thing he’d want to talk about was his work, I’d bring him a bottle of good whiskey and play chess with him, or walk the Boulevards, or (best of all) just sit there in silence, acknowledging the passing of time.
By the time Beckett had lost his endgame I had spent the autumn working with another hero, the great tv and film director Alan Clarke, whose retrospective season is on now at the BFI. I’d grown up with Alan Clarke in my house, since with telly in those days if there was a strong, provocative voice being aired on the box then the speaker was in your house. TV in the 70s and early 80s was university for a fledgling dramatist. Bold, risky work was beaming constantly out of the cathode ray tube and irradiating many millions of viewers, despite the best efforts of Mary Whitehouse and her ‘National Viewers and Listeners’ organisation, committed to stuffing the genie back in the box. Alan was clearly a brilliant and demented kid let loose in a toy shop, his work could not be ignored or denied.
I first met Alan in producer Louis Marks’ office at the BBC, brought together by then script editor Paul Marcus. Paul had shown Alan a play of mine, and brought us together to talk about a film based on “Vicious Houdini” David Martin, a transvestite fantasist small-time crook who bizarrely became Britain’s Most Wanted Man and a target for front pages of the Daily Mail.
Sitting in a room with Alan was thrilling. Never meet your heroes, they’ll only let you down. He didn’t. The man was as energetic, funny, exciting, sexy, dangerous and provocative as his work. Alan said I like your play. I said I fucking love your work. We chatted for ten minutes, then he turned to Louis and said, “I think we’re going to be alright”. The best review I’ve ever had.
Over the next months we met a few times in Louis’ office, usually then heading off to the BBC canteen or bar, walking the eternal Tardis corridors of Television Centre on the way, which, with Alan, was a journey punctuated by shrieks, shouts, laughter, hugs, kisses, backslaps as old colleagues, comrades and collaborators of his would steer towards us. The man was royalty. Doors to dark offices swung open and people would leap out at him- producers, actors, crew, tea ladies and secretaries would swarm around him. I’d huddle anonymously in the background, but he would unfailingly introduce me to people as this young writer he was working with. Looking back now, I think we were just walking round and round in great circles for a couple of hours as he hooked up with old pals. The BBC was a different place then.
I delivered my first draft of Vicious shortly after the week in which the BBC had screened both ‘Elephant’ and ‘The Firm’. I told him Elephant was incredible, had amazed me and left me speechless with its audacity. He said, “What about The Firm?” I said I wasn’t so sure. He grimaced and told me how the BBC had taken the final cut from him and taken out a key scene (a marital rape). I asked him how he could cope with such treatment, and he said well you just get on with the next one, what can you do? But I saw the agony of it. He was an artist, and it hurts to be mistreated.
We met to discuss my script for the first time, again with Louis and Paul. He nodded at me as he came in, and sat and put the 188 page script on the desk in front of him, making small talk with Louis. I was preparing myself to be let down by my hero, when he turned to me and grinned. “I was going to have you on a bit longer but I can’t keep it up. This is terrific. I love it, and I know exactly how to do it.” “Well I did write it for you.”. “Thank you.”
That was maybe the best moment I have ever had as a writer. We started to cook up a plan to make the film as a feature for cinema release, rather than the tv film it had been commissioned as. Alan talked of Tim Roth or Gary Oldman playing David Martin. How good does it get?
We had a meeting late in the year, Louis wanted to take us to a restaurant for lunch but Alan wanted to go to the BBC canteen. It was a happy place for him. Louis left us talking into the darkening afternoon as dishes were collected and floors were mopped around us. Alan was quieter than usual, that incredible energy and laughter was more restrained. (Alan was one of those people who, when he was around, there was just a lot of laughter). I did see a cloud in his face, and I realised in retrospect that he knew at that time that he was ill.
A few months later his illness was confirmed to me on location on my first film, Sweet Nothing. Corin Campbell Hill, who later directed my film Criminal, was working as 1st AD, a role she had often fulfilled with Alan. She was regularly by his bedside, and had told him she’d gone back to Assisting for this one film. He asked who the writer was, and was delighted we were working together. Sweet Nothing was in post-production when Alan died, and was dedicated to his memory. A few years ago, a festival at the Riverside Studios featuring Alan’s films and newer work influenced by them, screened both Criminal and my film ID, but Sweet Nothing could easily have been part of that too. It seems most of the work I’ve actually had produced owes something in influence to this man whose work had terrified and thrilled me as a teenager.
Alan Clarke and Samuel Beckett had more in common than being heroes to me. The work of both was characterised by the undeniable imprint of authenticity, every moment of all they produced was intended, real and earned, expressed with remorseless clarity and burning intensity. In both cases, lives lived and expressed appear simultaneously accidental and inevitable. The painstaking dictation of a dying man’s last letter in Alan’s ‘To Encourage The Others’ has the painful self-aware obduracy of Beckett’s Krapp poring over his revisited lost life. Both were able to capture the blistering intensity of the lived moment of consciousness, and also to dramatise the appalling passing of time in a monotonous repetition where the everyday becomes transcendental. Both appreciated the beauty in ugliness, and saw how we are all ugly and beautiful, and played with the raw comedy of that. And both were men for whom there was little difference or division between their life and art, it was all a continuum, they were invested in both.
My overwhelming sense of my own work is abject failure. I know what greatness is, and how phenomenally difficult it is to produce, and I get close enough to it to understand how abysmally I fail. Beckett and Clarke are two of the artists who have encouraged me to reach beyond the lazy, the mundane, the mediocre and acceptable. I could have had an easier life striving for less.
When recounting my story of failing to meet Beckett, I often ask people who, still alive, would have the same effect on them. Who are your heroes? I’m running out of living ones, seems that heroes die while villains persist. There’s a battle being fought, and the good guys are losing. Sounds like an Alan Clarke film.
Laughing in the shadow of the gallows.
Sweet Nothing can be viewed here.
Criminal can be viewed here.
Read about ID here.
The BFI Alan Clarke season is running through April.
The Vicious page will be online soon.
Published APRIL 2016
My dear, departed friend Sarah Kane left Bristol University with what the Department Head had told her was “the strangest First Class degree we have ever awarded’, and I suspect its weirdness was the result of the number of times in her undergraduate career she was formally reprimanded. Among her misdemeanours were responding to a tutor who called an essay of hers “pornographic” by tossing a pile of men’s mags at him saying “look at them if you want to see some porn”, and her topless axe-wielding response to a lecture about Dadaism (did that happen, or did she just talk about it?). Quite mild, by comparison, was her staging on campus of a trilogy of one-woman plays under the title “Fuck Life”, with the poster going up all over the walls of the Students’ Union and Drama Department. When called to account for her transgression, she pointed out the show’s title was a direct quote from Beckett’s ‘Rockaby’, one of the three pieces she was directing, and the matter was quietly dropped. (They love her now at Bristol, and her association with the University helps it pull in some of the best drama students in the country, she even delivered an alumni lecture there, and we can surely only be a few years from the Department having a Sarah Kane Studio or an academic Chair in her name.)
Sarah’s at it again, upsetting everyone, even years after her passing, the new production of ‘Cleansed’ at the National having them apparently fainting in the aisles. You can’t can’t keep a bad woman down. The production is previewing in the week of the anniversary of her death, it’s a shocker of a week which also marks the fifth year of passing of my old friend and collaborator Paul Marcus.
There has just been a memorial event for Paul, and there was sad celebration of him before and after a screening of his (still fresh, still potent) directorial stamp on the Prime Suspect canon he did so much to establish as a landmark of television drama. This only weeks after the loss of Paul’s old friend (and another collaborator) Alan Rickman. Alan would I’m sure have attended the memorial, if he hadn’t become himself suddenly in memoriam. Fucking February, and so it goes on.
After Paul died, Alan took on the role of Executive Producer on the Rachman project which Paul and I had worked so hard on together. It was with Alan’s support I took over the role of director from Paul, and Alan proved to be a dream producer- his intellect, insight, experience, strength and generosity are irreplacable, he was at least as great a man as he was an actor.
And in this month of aching loss and remembrance, this week particularly of sharp stabs of age-old pain, I am in a BBC studio recording a play about grief. It’s been a long time cooking. I started filling notebooks in the weeks and months after Sarah’s death, capturing, collating and filtering the stray storms of radiation emanating from this tiny cosmic event, observing myself and others in our emotional convulsions on the edge of insanity. I don’t know if I can ever do those notebooks, those emotions, dramatic justice- they are crowded with characters in extreme states of being, mad stories spooling off them, taking people down winding paths and dark corridors and broken alleyways to destinations beyond reason. There are a thousand stories there, and honouring just one has proven a task that stretches my ability as a writer further than anything I can imagine. That journey with grief started in my early 20s with the sudden loss of my brother, then Sarah gave it another jolting twist, and there have been a handful of awful lurching turns since then. The notebooks, so cluttered as they are with stories and people and language provoked to breaking point, are only faint echoes of grief’s primitive shriek.
I have thought I will never be able to write about this.
But something has shifted recently, the voices are speaking more freely now, the characters embracing their fates, the stories finding a destination. Undivided Heart is not the whole story at all, it represents one fragment of shrapnel in the rubble after a nuclear blast, one tiny piece of an unsolvable jigsaw, but the creation of it over this dark winter pierces the black murk of loss with a sharp sliver of light. It’s an almost impossibly difficult piece which I hope expresses one very simple idea, that grief, while degrading and corrupting, is capable of expression, and in that expression the loss is defied.
Fuck life, for sure. But fuck death more.
Undivided Heart is now recorded, and will be broadcast in May.
Rachman – Empire of Dirt continues to look for funding.
Published FEB 2016
A shambling-heroic figure stands on a hilltop, looking down at the chimneys and mills of his home town, declaiming poetic resistance to the conformity and submissiveness the town represents, speaking words hewn from the rock of a working class upbringing, using tools stolen from the local grammar school.
You could create a whole season of 1960s British New Wave films which feature this scene, the poetic hero played by Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris, his language the rugged-romantic new articulacy of David Storey, John Braine, Barry Hines, and he quite often has a girl at his side. I struggle to think of a female equivalent of this rockface warrior, Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes on the hills above Bradford in Andrea Dunbar and Alan Clarke’s ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ were less inclined to reflect on their social conditions, much more interested in getting their next shag. (In reality, those male heroes too were largely driven by the sexual imperative).
These scenes meant a lot to me as a boy growing up in Basildon. I felt the same conflict as those characters on the hillsides, between the dull weight of social expectation my hometown represented and the fire in me to create, to speak and be heard. And I had my hilltop too.
The view of Basildon from Langdon Hills was concrete blocks and roundabouts rather than smoke stacks and slag piles, and escape was represented by the misty sludge of the Thames estuary. I would of a Sunday walk up to One Tree Hill, the highest point in Essex, writing poetry and dreaming dreams of escape, soundtracked by the cacaphony of a hundred dogs at the nearby rescue pound. It sounded to me like the howling captive souls of the town’s inhabitants.
To me, Basildon was a place you had to escape from. I didn’t see until much later the positives of the place – decent affordable housing, open spaces and parks, plentiful supply of jobs – that had enticed my parents and many thousands of others of their generation. All I could see as a teenager in Basildon was apathy, mediocrity, blandness and brutalism, and I had to get out of that place, if it was the last thing I ever did.
Some escaped via music or sports, my own (improbable) route out was to get to university. The final weeks before my leavetaking, I would often go up to Langdon Hills late at night with a girl called Jacqui, who would endure me railing and ranting against the factory farming of humanity that was Basildon. The Estuary had a certain beauty at night, lit by tankers and the oil refineries of Canvey Island, and even Basildon had some charm when one was just about to leave it, and the midnight kisses were sweet. When I had made my escape to university, Jacqui would send me letters soaked in patchouli oil. I would always know there was a letter from her as I approached the communal college mail boxes, it was a trail of patchouli back to Basildon.
These memories were recently ignited when reading Just Can’t Get Enough- The making of Depeche Mode, by Simon Spence, which is far more than the usual band memoir, charting the journey from drafty church halls to sold-out stadia, although it does that well enough. It is also a social history, a description of the rise of the new towns post-war, and the political enviroments in which they were born and then transformed. In focusing on Basildon, it provides reportage from that first generation of children to be raised in these alien new enviroments. Talking ’bout my generation.
(When Depeche started making their records, this Joy Division fan found them silly, poppy, too light to endure. Now I listen back and think, what good songs, what great tunes, and how bloody fantastic these guys did something else than go work on the Fords factory line, which is what we were really all meant for, the Basildon boys.)
Personally the book evoked many memories, my teenages torn between the prog rock descendants of flower power and new energy and anger of punk, one moment making the pilgrimage to Southend Kursaal in ex army greatcoat to see Barclay James Harvest, the next moment, shorn of hair and flares, it was the new noisy anthems of punk. (The bridge between them was the very distinctly Essex sound of Eddie and the Hot Rods, the Kursaal Flyers, and, most wonderfully, Dr Feelgood).
But what struck me most in the book was less about music, more about the restless need to be creative that I and others felt in our Basildon cage. The trouble with the newtowns was they were over-designed for an imagined life of leisure and full employment, a world that never arrived, and many thousands of new settlers were uprooted from large extended families to these virtual battery farms of boxed-in nuclear existence. There were few places to congegrate, to commune, outside of the church, which had its imprint all over the town. I remember with wonder the day a cinema finally opened, thousands queued round the block, one single cinema screen serving a hundred thousand people. There were many mangy youth clubs, and there were hellhole pubs, and one terrible nightclub. A few of us did start to congregate in the local Arts Centre bar (the ‘Arts Centre’ was a bunch of prefabricated sheds, but it served us well), it was a place you could pass your poetry around without getting your head kicked in, and the beer was decent.
The story of Basildon is really the story of post-war Britain; a community with incredible potential and talent and creative possibilities, but where what is expected of you is to keep your head down, obey the rules then die. If the New Town Planning Act was a well-intentioned but catastrophically flawed exercise in social engineering, the Right to Buy legislation was cynical practice designed to assert individualism over community, and to get the working classes voting against their own interests. It worked. So well, that Basildon became the political touchstone for those seeking to hang on to power, and a cliche for evermore.
My film script Crying Out Loud is really about this, the screaming need to create, to own our lives, to belong to our communities. I wrote it for the BBC, and we got very close to making it. A stumbling point was the then Head of Film wanted me to make it contemporary, set in the present, rather than the 1980s. I held fast, it was so distinctly about that turning point in Basildon’s history, when the right-to-buy agenda changed the Essex mindset from the communitarian inner-city spirit of post-war hope, to the “no such thing as society” nastiness of Thatcherism. Sticking to my guns did me no good, and we didn’t get the film made. All that remains of it is a short I made, featuring shots of the Basildon landscape with some voice-over speeches from the film script. Living Space can now be viewed on this site.
Just recently, when moving my office/workspace, I was going through some old boxes of photos, postcards and letters, and was suddenly enveloped by wafts of ancient stale patchouli. I remembered very vividly those midnight meetings, what it was to be that angry young man, untamed, refusing to accept the norms and rules and expectations a concrete bunker in the Essex countryside seemed to impose on him. I recoiled with shock at the energy it took to stage that personal rebellion, what it felt like to assert one’s own freedom.
It felt good. I want more. I just can’t get enough.
You can read about Crying Out Loud, and watch Living Space, here.
Just Can’t Get Enough- The Making of Depeche Mode (2011, Jawbone Press)
Published OCT 2015
One night in August 1990 a boy on the cusp of his 18th birthday tears a bed sheet into strips, knots the strips together and forms them into a noose, which he attaches to the bars of his window. While another young man sleeps in the room, Simon Willerton puts his head through the noose and leans his weight into it, hoping for oblivion.
When the alarm is raised the next morning, a guard asks the question – “Slasher or swinger?”, referring to the two most common methods of prison suicide. The prison was Armley, a notorious adult prison in Leeds, where young Simon was on remand, charged but not convicted. The nefarious crime which ensured he should be deprived of his liberty while awaiting trial? He stole a kettle. A second-hand kettle. From a building site. He also stole some teabags. He wanted to make a cup of tea. His own kettle, well that had been stolen.
Simon was a swinger alright, as I found out when I made trips to Bradford in the early 1990s to meet with his family, friends, and teachers as I started to research my BBC drama Criminal. I had already been powerfully drawn to Simon by the incredible injustices that marked his death, but I was to discover another story as I got to know him better, the story of a young man possessed of extraordinary spirit, inspiring the love and affection of many who knew him, and also attracting, as misfits do, the malign interest of bullies, cynics and manipulators.
A swinger? Well, yes. He had rhythm, wrote and spoke effortless looping verse, sent love poems to those who inspired his desire, sang songs to nature and chanted prayers of thanks to whatever household gods he invoked, thanking the universe for his daily bread. When he got into trouble at school (often) teachers would find poetic apologies on the desk; when he was surrounded by bullies (frequently) he’d channel inspiration from one idol or another (Elvis Presley and Norman Wisdom were two favourites) which would sometimes amuse or bemuse his abusers sufficiently to avoid another bashing. Simon had a heart the size of the Alhambra.
It was not only my naivety, but a general social ignorance, that the word autism was never uttered in all the time I spent researching Simon’s story. It seems appallingly obvious now, but he was undiagnosed at the time, and never received the care and attention he required. I am only guessing now, but my writer friend Sinead Gillespie, who has a grown-up Asperger’s son, saw the film and feels certain that Simon was on the spectrum. It makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense was that a cataclysmic chain of small incidents resulted in Simon, a vulnerable 17 year old boy, being incarcerated in a tough adult prison while awaiting a trial for petty theft. The last act of Criminal covers his few weeks in gaol, where the regime is almost a distillation of the customs, procedures and behavioural expectations of the wider world. You must behave. We are intolerant of acts of expression, of freedom, of spontaneity, which are perceived as being either embrassing or offensive, and are severely discouraged. I talked with prisoners and guards who were in Armley at the time, and my drama tries accurately to reflect the withering of spirit that occured there for Simon. While many individuals, inside and outside the prison, (family and friends, but also agents of the state) may have been accidentally culpable of neglect, we are collectively responsible for a lack of encouragement and protection of those who are vulnerable or different. Yes, I really do believe that Society Is To Blame.
I was encouraged that, after broadcast, the film was for some time used by the Home Office in the training of staff on how to recognise and respond to signs of vulnerability in young prisoners. But the numbers of deaths of children and young people in custody did not go down. Legislators did address the abomination of detaining children in adult prisons, but they now find themselves instead in privatised young offenders institutions which are driven by profit, overcrowded, insufficiently equipped, grossly understaffed, with poor supervision of inadequately trained officers. And the glowing government reports for these institutions are, of course, written by the paid lackeys of the companies that run them.
Since Simon’s death in 1990, nearly 300 inmates under the age of 21 have died in custody, 90% of them registered as suicides. (Simon’s death was recorded as an open verdict, others too, so the percentage is in fact higher). 65 deaths in the previous four years were recorded last year by the campaign group Inquest. Despite heightened awareness of the issue in training and planning, and efforts to keep children out of adult prisons, the death rate over this time is strikingly uniform, averaging one suicide a month by a child or young adult in custody. Given the efforts to improve this, the privatisation of prisons is clearly keeping the figure consistently high. They may not all have been poets, like Simon, and they may have been found guilty of more heinous acts than nicking a builders’ kettle, but imprisonment of a child should never amount to a death sentence.
I have been thinking of Simon a lot lately, since a recent interview about the film with James Collingwood for the Bradford Review. James is one of a number of people I have come across for whom the film had a significant impact when broadcast, and who continue to watch it and talk about it. The impact and interest is not only about systemic injustice, but about something more universal. I think it is more urgent now than it was then.
It is the story of an innocent, thrown into the world and left to survive; in Simon’s case at several stages there should have been safety nets, but they were tattered and torn and not fit for purpose. Each moment when Simon might have been saved from his destiny, he was socially let down- not through malice, but through lack of sufficient care, and not by individuals, but by social systems. There were many good people around Simon, yet still he fell. Something, then, was rotten in the state. I fear we soon shall be plagued, swarmed, flooded by many such stories, as our state deliberately takes less interest in, less care of, the vulnerable among us. The decrepit, dysfunctional social systems that let down Simon are now adopted as a perfect model.
Old, uneducated, sick, homeless, unemployed, disabled? You are effectively a prisoner in a privatised state, where punishment is ruthlessly administered and care is withdrawn. The safety nets are not there anymore, you will fall, you will fail. Your only hope is to obey the rules.
Do not dare to be different.
Watch Criminal here.
Read the interview for the Bradford Review here.
Published AUG 2016.
Last night I was travelling at immense speed on a train along the Southern coast of France, from Marseille into Cannes. The train crawled at first, hugging the coast, but gradually and inexorably picked up speed until it was careering giddily between mountains and the sea. An amazing train ride. Only not really, because it was in a film.
I noticed it was a film because the early part of the journey was in black and white, but as we picked up speed and night turned into day and we approached Cannes, it changed from black and white to colour. I noticed how the fireworks in the night sky were only white, but as we rode into sunrise the deep green-blue of the Mediterranean faded in with that atmospheric azure glow of the sky, the whole world lit with colour. It was an amazing film. But not really, because it was all a dream.
I noticed it was dream when I alighted from the train and entered a rabbit warren of strange shops and tea rooms and bars and cubicles, all wrapped round and leading into one another, via twining stone steps, with strange encounters occurring behind doors and people peering through slits and door cracks inviting you in, like tripping through Amsterdam’s red light canals, but indoors, so interior in fact it was all in the mind, being offered sweets and intoxications and carnal pleasures by strangers and ghosts. And it was an amazing dream.
The seamless warping from train journeys into films and dreams and back is not unusual to me, as they all seem to tap into the same region of the brain, all involve transportation and redefinition, force the mind to shake itself out of habitual routes and patterns and see the world anew.
I have long believed, with Bunuel, that films work like dreams, are a kind of waking dream, occupying a parallel universe where many of the laws and logic of nature are the same, but some are strikingly altered, firing off new synaptic shocks in the brain, but not so as to render reality meaningless and incomprehensible, in fact the reverse, to cast new meaning onto it. Travelling does the same, even in an increasingly homogenised world we still are forced to deal with different language, perception, custom and ritual, absorb and adjust to slightly different ways of being, navigate new landscapes. We would be paralysed by art or location if our every single index of existence was overhauled, but the shifts in perspective that travel, dreams and storytelling offer us make us more alive, new to the world, shocked by its and our own existence. Dreaming, travelling, being told a story, we become children again.
My friend Colin Ludlow has written a beautiful book, ‘Twenty Four Dreams Before Dying’, recollecting his powerful dreams at a time of great personal crisis, hovering in a coma between life and death. His dreams (so lucidly described you believe you have dreamed them yourself) frequently invoke journeys, often by train, and also make constant reference to cinema and drama. I loved this book’s exploration of the wormholes in our mind where our everyday realities twist into journeys real and imagined, stories told or yet to be, warped and wefted with the fabric of dreams.
Another friend, Philippa Williams, just recently referred to me a quote from Robert McFarlane’s ‘The Old Ways – A Journey On Foot’ which, in tracing back the etymology of the verb “to learn”, found that it derives from the same root as to travel – ‘To learn’ … means at root – at route – ‘to follow a track’. It reminded me immediately of Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’, where a landscape is explored and traversed by telling stories about it, by singing it. There is for Chatwin’s Aboriginals no separation between the land they travel and the stories they tell about it, they navigate an ever-present Dreamtime, and their creation mythology translates to us as The Dreaming.
Storytelling, dreaming, travelling, are fundamental to our species, and, to my mind, inseparable.
Much of my working life to date has been spent trying to honour this deep seam in our human consciousness, where stories and travels and dreams are one and the same. It isn’t easy though, not in this place and time, to put such work into the world. Everything I have managed to make or get made, which has been properly financed, is effectively a prosaic storytelling, linear, flat, easily comprehended, with just slithers of allusions to this bigger brighter stranger world our minds inhabit.
I evolved over some ten years what became an accidental trilogy of stories which very strongly connect these elements of journey, dream and film. What became my Europe Trilogy started off as a commission from British Screen to write and direct a film, Kissing The Butcher, which had its roots in the Bosnian war, and involved the traumatised journey of a British mercenary soldier and a young Bosnian widow across a hallucinatory Europe, connecting the Balkans to Britain. The reasons I was given for it not being financed (after considerable development) amounted to it not being a conventional story, and objections to what were perceived to be its surrealism (but I had been to Bosnia at war time, and what is seen as surreal in 1990s Soho believe me was all too real in that other place not too far away).
Initially a BBC tv project, I wanted to explore, in Rocking Jesus, the idea of a young band with a charismatic vulnerable singer who goes missing in action when his band are about to break, and go on the journey with him, find out what happens to him, but also to do this in tandem with the story of an obssessed young fan who won’t let him die. It surprised me (as good stories do) when it turned into another European journey, a 17 year old troubled woman pursuing a 21 year old troubled man to caves in rural Spain. And it has evolved into the middle story of my Europe tryptych. As a tv 4-parter, the first three episodes follow a fairly traditional narrative form, and only the final act moves into a more hallucinatory mode. This shift works much better as the 3rd act in a single film.
When I had the idea for a film, In The Land Of The Living, commissioned by Film 4, for a story about a grieving woman on holiday in Marrakesh who meets the doppleganger of her dead brother, falls in love with him and lures him back home to Bristol, it was no surprise to find another continental journey was again an intrinsic part of the story. And, again, it worked with the logic of a dream, or nightmare, where the known world is behaving much as we are used to except for some bizarre kinks in its fabric which render normality strange.
What makes these stories part of a trilogy is not only journeys by rail across Europe, but also that the storytelling is dreamlike, involving paradoxes, narrative jumps, time shifts and location ambiguities, identity confusion, stark, surprising images, lateral explorations of theme and recurrent motifs – all things that cinema delivers so powerfully. The scripts also tell, I believe, compelling stories, and had they more adhered to social-realist orthodoxies, they would certainly have had a better chance of getting financed in the UK.
I recall Krystof Kiewslowski talking of how the first half of his film making career was spent circumnavigating the cultural censorship in Warsaw Pact Poland, but the second part of his career involved similarly dealing with marketplace constriction in Western Europe, always, he said, there is censorship somehow. In the East it was a censorship of content, in the West of aesthetic. His genius, of course, overcame all obstruction.
Revisiting these stories now, I find new meanings revealed to me. In each story of the trilogy there is a kind of death, a kind of resurrection, and a kind of redemption, albeit a difficult and painful closure. It is clear now my unconscious was infusing these stories with with my own deep sense of loss – of a brother, and of a friend – and trying to work through to some kind of acceptance. I am not sure I knew this at the time, but that’s how dreaming works, it tells you what you need to know about yourself, and storytelling enables you to dramatise that.
Telling stories, dreaming, you’re on a runaway train, crashing through points, hurtling through stations you may have stopped at, not really in control at all. It is a train ride I want to stay on, a film I want never to end, a dream I never want to forget, but each ride and film and dreaming is a definite journey, with a point of departure and an end destination, the necessity of completion and certainty of termination deeply woven into the pattern.
An amazing train ride? Not really, it was an amazing film. But not really, because it was an amazing dream. But not really, because it was all real, all true all along, part of an amazing brief life of the conscience.
When we stop dreaming, then we are lost.
‘Twenty Four Dreams Before Dying’ by Colin Ludlow, published by http://www.smokehousepress.co.uk
Published JULY 2015
Pebbles Into Pools
In an interview on the release of his first film as a writer, Nick Cave said that writing a film is much easier than writing a song. The bastard. While my own adolescent attempts at song writing testify to the difficulties of that art form, and unquestionably Nick Cave can hang a story on a tune with rare grace, the idea that the creation of three verses, a chorus and middle eight could be as excruciating a journey as seeing an idea through from treatment to screen bears at least some examination.
Notwithstanding the casual genius of Lennon and McCartney, who would scratch on pads for an afternoon and “write ourselves a swimming pool” as Eleanor Rigby leaked out of their pens, I am sure most bluesmen do pay their dues with a life lived and filtered into minstrel form, but an original screenplay will also send a considerable invoice to its scribe, itemised seperately under time, emotion, research, thought and development. That dreadful ‘D’ word, which would have surely punched the guts out of young Robert Zimmerman and left the entrails Blowin’ In The Wind.
It was almost exactly 6 years ago I first sat down to outline a sequel to my 1995 “cult hit” film ID. I know it’s the anniversary now because it was on my birthday that I sat with a notebook in a bar in Amsterdam and cooked up my new story.
Producer Sally Hibbin had first mooted the sequel a month earlier, over a lunch in Soho. As we parted company on the edge of Wardour Street, I turned to her with a naughty idea. “Our undercover cop is called Mohammed”. She didn’t flinch. “He’s a British Asian and he’s been thrown to the wolves by his bosses, sent undercover at Shadwell”.
I loved the audacity of it, its subversion of the genre the original film had created, crashing through the gears of what’s expected of a British thriller. I had a sudden intense certainty that this was the story I wanted to tell, and as I spoke it I felt equally certain my idea wouldn’t be given the time of day. But Sally didn’t blink; the idea floated there a moment, then she said, “Ok, let’s see the treatment”, and careered off to her next meeting.
Which is how I found myself overlooking an Amsterdam canal and dreaming the dream, alone, on my birthday, at the ragged end of a broken relationship. I was more than ready to write about existential crisis.
Looking back now at that handwritten first go at a story, it’s clear that the essential world of the film, the dominant characters, the mood and tone and themes, the overriding story arc, were all pretty much nailed on that birthday evening. So much was crystalised then, not unlike the the birth of a poem or indeed a song. I did not quite write myself a swimming pool then, but maybe a new shower. But of course that moment of creation was only the starting sprint in a marathon of realisation and development.
Film is famously a collective artform, involving the creativity and expertise of many people, and everyone has an opinion. However, writers have to keep their peculiar vision intact, negotiating the many minefields of script meetings, redrafts and sometimes bitter arguments. You need the hide of a tank commander to get through it. Many of the early meetings were with Sally, the BFI development executive Chris Collins, and Valery Ryan, who has the rare distinction of being a script editor I haven’t at any time wanted to kill. Chris contributed with a crucial insight on my (habitually) vastly over-long first draft- that we should start the story at a stand-up comedy act which came 40 to 50 pages in. It was horrible, because I instantly knew he was right, and most of the first 50 pages had to go. Sally also made a key contribution, pointing out that my sub-plot of the building of a new mosque close to the Shadwell ground, needed to be more central to the story. I knew immediately that these were good ideas, regardless of how much valued material I might have to lose. Valery made many contributions of detail, working close to the rockface of this mountain we were all climbing together. At other times, ideas were pitched in that I had to fight tooth and nail against, fighting for the heart and soul of my piece. We were climbing the mountain together, but I was the one climbing first, ahead, with no rope to guide or save me.
My dear old friend Paul Marcus used to talk about what he called the ecology of a script, understanding how apparently small changes could have dramatic and unforseen impacts elsewhere. When we were working on our film Rachman together, he was always looking out for these shifts and quakes that a change of the slightest detail could effect. It’s usually though the writer’s responsibility to keep an eye on this stuff, to ensure when a producer suggests a butterfly flaps its wings in the first act that a resultant seismic storm in the climax is contained. A screen writer must see both the rockface and the mountain range, keep check on the beating heart and language of each character but also ensure the fundamental structural architecture remains intact. When suddenly, for reasons of economy, you have to fuse two characters into one, as I did on ID2, it’s also necessary to mop the blood off the floor. The screen writer must be an assassin who cleans up after himself.
At a later stage a whole new perspective came into view when we asked Joel Novoa to direct the film. Joel is unusual, paradoxical, a Venezualan also steeped in Los Angeles, an art house film maker who cites the emotional beats of Batman films when discussing a script. He asks hard questions, tries to understand each beating moment, but he also needs to be open to human mystery. (I enjoyed what David Lynch once said, that mystery is good, but confusion is bad). By the time we were working together I had already been living with the script 4 years. An incredible mental stamina is required at this stage, because you have to keep everything as fresh and interesting for yourself as when you’re having that first mad rush of ideas.
Now the director is living it, the actors are living it, the cinematographer, editor, designer are all living and breathing this unique invented world. The caterer has more involvement now with these words, this world, than I have, and I must have the distance and repose of a monk who has renounced all wordly things, apart from the odd email asking if I can just have a look at that tricky bit of dialogue again. And I’d say this repose, this laying to rest, is perhaps the very hardest part of the work, because it involves a kind of grief and letting go. I will wake up in a few weeks with the sudden realisation of what’s missing from that scene in the houseboat, and it will be too late. I’ll get no remix, no covers, no unplugged version or live rendition. The film obliterates the script forever.
Poet, tank commander, mountain climber, monk and hygenic assassin are just some of the roles a screen writer may have to fulfil. In the end though writing is just writing, whatever the form. When I’m working with young people or students who want to write films, I tell them to read and write poetry first. That’s where you learn the power and value of words, that’s the esssence of the writing experience in miniature, from the first creative burst, through the endless reworking, the management of detail and structure, and the realisation that you never really finish, you just give up. You can live the whole struggle in making a poem. And what is a poem but a song.
Once you have held and thrown that pebble, then you can look up and climb the mountain.
Published MARCH 2015
Blasted by the Past
“We hold on to grief because we do not want to let go of those we love”. This devastating truth was uttered recently by my friend Edana Minghella, herself no stranger to grief’s grip. It struck me with special force in this month of Fucking February, when I am compelled to acknowledge the absence of loved and departed friends. In particular, it is a month that registers both the birthday and deathday of my dearest friend, Sarah Kane, made all the more poignant this year by the 20th anniversary of her first production at the Royal Court Theatre, and by some contemporary revivals of that particular work. Each February I embrace my grief, because I do not want to lose what is already lost.
Will I never be free of this woman? That was the phrase that struck my brain when I picked up a week old copy of The Guardian and saw her on the front page at Zagreb railway station as I was hauling myself away from a war zone. (I also picked up a copy of Sight and Sound there, containing an article I’d written months earlier, so I could also entertain myself with the thought – will I never be free of myself?) I can’t remember why she was on the front page on that particular occasion, she must have said something or thought something that someone had found strange. We were in the middle of a personal interregnum, an emotional eye of the storm, and I thought that my wandering around the site of a contemporary holocaust might at least provide a distraction. It didn’t, of course, distract, it only served to endorse my sense of brokenness, the whole world seemed broken.
All that fuss about a play seemed particularly silly, a year later, viewed from the Bosnian mountains, and of course its brilliance was to show how short is the chain that connects the horror that occured there to the apparent civilisation of theatres and hotel rooms. I saw lots of theatre during my stay in Zagreb and it was a great way to view the soul of a society that had been recently at war. I thought of bringing ‘Blasted’ to the war zone, but wondered (probably wrongly) if there were any surprises in it for an audience there. The presence of war creates strange perspectives, and it was in Zagreb that I saw on cable news the horrifying story of 16 children killed in a school gym by a lone gunman in the Scottish town of Dunblane, and caught myself thinking, only 16? Why so much fuss? Thousands of children had been slaughtered in Bosnia, buried in unknown graves, countless others were raped, and schools were the scenes of war crimes. CNN were not so interested. But when I am thinking “so few” about a massacre in a school, I know it is time to go home. Via the well-stocked bookstall at Zagreb train station.
It had been a long European journey, that had started (in February, of course) at the Berlin Film Festival, where Sarah and I were shortlisted for a Golden Bear with our film. We were in that fractured state with each other where once-lovers are finding out where their friendship and intimacy still lies, when part of it has died. Berlin was in a state of savage rebuilding, and so were we. We somehow managed to avoid all the film parties, but we did visit the zoo and a concentration camp. One good day was spent following our film around the city in a chauffered car, watching it exhibited on screens both West and East. In West Berlin they laughed, in the East they studied it seriously. Both were fine by me.
Sarah took a flight back to London and its front pages, and I took slow trains to my war zone destination, deeply hoping that the Dayton Peace agreement would be signed by the time I got there (it was, though in blood). My journey accidentally replicated in reverse the route followed most unwillingly by Primo Levi and a hundred thousand Austrian Jews transported from Vienna to Poland. Somewhere in the middle of my travels I made that connection, with frozen blood. On my way out to Bosnia, Vienna felt fascist, oppressive, soul crushing; when it was my gateway back from Zagreb it felt like freedom and music and art and air. Every European story makes its call there somehow.
My journey post-Berlin was work-driven, a research trip, but also it seemed a good way to make the break, to let her be free, let me be free. I was scared of making the journey (rightly so) but also had a sense of release in doing something I felt so challenged by. Sarah told me afterwards she tried so hard to stop me going to Bosnia, and the strange thing was I could not remember her trying to stop me at all. I’m sure we were both right. Maybe she tried everything but the one thing that would have stopped me going, and that’s the only thing I would have noticed. As she said to me once – “You’d do anything for me except leave me”.
I’ve been trying to leave you Sarah, ever since you left me (and all of us). But letting go of grief is very hard, because it is a final acknowledgment of a final solution. We grab onto grief, embrace it, become its lover, and it is a jealous possessive lover that will never let you go. When you embrace it, it is a kind, gentle lover who sooths and comforts, but just try to break free and it will fucking blast you.
‘Blasted’ is not just about a civilised world becoming uncivilised, it is also a love story. The critics never got that. Tortured, twisted, yes, but full of love. Ian loves Cate, Cate loves Sean, the Soldier loves Col, and Cate offers Ian love in the end, which he receives with grace. No recent writer was so capable of rapture. In fact, all of her plays are love stories, as is Skin, the film we took to Berlin. A certain sort of mind can only see the violence, but others can see the passion and yearning for connection that bleeds through her words. Our humanity is revealed to us in extremity, and it is a sordid soul who witnesses the extremity without also seeing the humanity. That is psychopathy in personal terms, and Fascism in political terms. Those artists who openly explore these areas of the extreme also tend to be the most humane.
In the extremity of grief, howling unending grief, we experience our capacity for love. That is not something to give up lightly.
Published FEB 2015
Provocation and offence so often go hand in hand, which is a problem for art because it is nothing if not provocative. The artist must take responsibility for their provocation, but the audience or reader or viewer, if offended, must take responsibility too for how they deal with that sense of being personally confronted. Storytelling has the power to cohere a community, but also to undermine the individual. The job of the artist is to represent a world we think we know, and reveal in it the farce or horror we’d rather not face. That can and should be alarming. If we are left shocked, affronted, dismayed, upset or in any other way challenged, we can choose to see that as a gift, that provokes thought and evokes emotion. You can take that gift or reject it. But don’t shoot the messenger.
We are naturally appalled by the murderous attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, but I have found myself compelled to question why this event had such a devastating impact on us when compared to other recent atrocities. What springs to mind immediately is the slaughter by the Taliban of 142 schoolchildren and their teachers in Peshawar only a few weeks ago. Where were the candlelit vigils in European cities for them? Were we too busy with the christmas shopping?
A shocking answer to this question was provided to me by fashion designer Afira Khan -“Don’t you know a white man’s life is worth more in our society over an Eastern child?” That devastating sentence has compelled me to examine my own responses.
The first thing that occured to me was how the Hebdo massacre was, in so many ways, closer to home. I can see myself more clearly being in that room in Paris than in the school in Pakistan. I can imagine these writers and artists as they settle down for their midweek editorial meeting, sending texts and emails to loved ones, arranging lunch or early evening drinks on the phone, having furtive smokes out the window, casually saying their hellos. A school in Peshawar? I don’t even know what that looks like. I expect there are desks and chairs, windows in the room. Is it a new building, an adapted old one, a temporary building, a tent? I know there are children. I have an idea what children are like, I was one once myself. But an editorial meeting in Paris? I can imagine myself there. I can smell the coffee.
We have greater empathy for people and events that are closer to us and our lives, for sure, it’s human. We are going to be more emotionally devastated by the death of our cat than by a major earthquake in a region far away. The Pakistani tv channels in the 24 hours after Hebdo were more concerned with the secret wedding of Imran Khan. This isn’t just Western myopia, it’s human myopia.
There was another kind of immediacy, too, in the Paris event, which was not reflected in the trickle-through of news from Peshawar. Within an hour of the editorial assassinations, I was watching online the various video captures from rooftops of the killers making their exit – at first unedited. The shocking slaying of Ahmen Merabet, the policeman, raising his arm to be spared, was not even the most disturbing moment to me. It was the sound, from an alternative view, of the firing guns reverberating through the neighbourhood. The sickening cracks, each one of which may have meant a life extinguished, sang a song of utter violence. It made me really imagine the scene in that editorial boardroom. In theatre and film we often think that what we don’t see, what we are compelled to imagine, is so much more powerful than any image. But I fear in life the sight of such carnage would overwhelm our imaginations. The guns sounded terrible, and I did get around to imagine those sickening sounds in a schoolroom too. I still am imagining that.
Another human frailty that perhaps makes the Paris slaughter more real to us is that we have a difficulty comprehending horror at a certain magnitude. For us to get it, we need it scaled down. We can’t imagine in excess of 100,000 people dying in the Indonesian Tsunami, but we can completely relate to the many terrifying stories of individual tragedies and lucky escapes that we heard. Spike Lee made a great film about the devastation of New Orleans, which made real for us what were only ideas and statistics by telling individual stories from when the levees broke. John Hershey’s book ‘Hiroshima’ brilliantly evokes the actuality of being hit by a nuclear warhead in the recounted tales of some survivors. Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’ has immense cumulative power in the procession of individual stories. At its best, art is articulation.
It is easier to imagine 12 men and women sacrificed in a boardroom than 142 children each being individually slaughtered, after witnessing the torture of their teachers. The great myth of Christianity powerfully carries the sins of humanity in the image of a single man’s torture.We tell big stories by scaling them down and making them imaginable.
I fully appreciated this aspect of our psyches when standing in a Bosnian cemetry at the end of the war there, and trying to comprehend the agony and suffering that region had endured. All the graves were fresh, all the bodies were young, and there were many many new headstones, acres of them, and this was one of two cemetries in only one town in a country where many towns and villages had been destoyed. I focused down onto one single grave among many, and contemplated the agony endured in my own family by the death of my young brother. And thought of that being represented by one gravestone. And then I tried to expand out, along the row of stones, and out and out, trying to understand how much pain was encompassed in just a patch of that one graveyard. I became dizzy and nauseous with the effort, and soon gave up. You just can’t imagine it.
I think that is one reason why the deaths of 12 people are more comprehensible than of hundreds of children. But Afira is undoubtedly right, and cultural relativism does apply. On the same day of the Hebdo shootings, Boko Haram attacked and wiped out the Nigerian town of Baga, killing an estimated 2,000 people out of a population of 10,000, the town now barely exists. Je Suis Baga?
Ultimately I am bound to feel camaraderie, solidarity and kinship with the writers and artists who were butchered sitting around that table, as we are all involved in telling stories in a public arena, offering ideas and critiques which may not be entirely comfortable for the reader or viewer. I believe it is an honourable pursuit. My film ID2 (working title), which is about to go into production, will likely expose me to criticism, telling as it does the story of a young British Asian man, torn between two cultures – the Islamic heritage of his family and the modern Western culture he grew up in and works in, as it happens, as a policeman.
The producers won’t let me call the film by my preferred title, which is ‘ID2: Mad Mohammed”. Provocative? Certainly. Offensive? Only if you want to remove it from the context of the film. My rejected title perfectly evokes the journey and struggle of the central character. The script makes very clear that Mo is “mad” in the sense of angry, not insane. What he does with that anger is a big part of our story. There are a lot of young angry men called Mohammed in the UK, I have met a few of them, and endeavouring to articulate their story might just be an interesting and more than useful pursuit. I am also very proud that we have a contemporary British film in which a British Asian is at the very heart of the story, the hero in the classical sense of the word, It’s a serious bit of work which may capture a mainstream audience; but I am certain there will be people who will have a vested interest in shooting it down. I just hope they don’t want to shoot me down too.
If we can smell the coffee, we can also smell the blood.
Published JAN 2015
Writing On The Run
One autumn in the South of France, I was escorted with half a dozen other film writers to our work studios in the grounds of a famous chateau. We were invited to pick our chosen space among a number of superbly adapted stables. Wonderfully equipped and exquisitely furnished, I turned my back, knowing there was no way I would work or write in such an enviroment. Eventually I found my way to the basement kitchens, with a continual bustle of staff and a const