BLOG 2019

MAY

An intensive spell of work on HADRIAN this month - I was mindful of the fact that May 31st was the deadline agreed with the producer Tommaso Jandelli for me to submit a newly revised draft. I try hard to stick to deadlines. For one thing, I think it's about being professional rather than using the line "I'm an artist darling, you must wait till I'm finished." But as well I find deadlines useful to focus my mind, or putting it another way, I need that pressure.

The screening of TO THE LIGHTHOUSE at the Cinema Museum went well. I was pleased that both Suzanne Bertish (who plays Lily Briscoe in the film) and Julian Jacobson (who composed the music) could join me for a Q&A afterwards. One Q that came up was whether I see myself as a feminist writer, to which my A was a rather nervous "yes". I cited my other films THE MILL ON THE FLOSS and HARD TRAVELLING in support.

Talking of feminist writers, I used BBC iPlayer this month, to watch both series of FLEABAG over three or four evenings. Phoebe Waller-Bridge uses the device of "looking at the camera" or, to link to the ancient device from theatre, "asides to the audience" - though mostly it's just a look. I found this interesting partly because she uses it so often (more, for instance, than PEEP SHOW) and also because she even incorporates this into the inner world of the drama by having one character who becomes at least partially aware that the central character is doing this. The neat idea here is that this is a priest as if, being someone with a belief in God, he is therefore able to grasp at an extra dimension to reality. I found it interesting in other ways too: the intensely female perspective, the harsh comedy, and the inclusion of a step parent as a source of pain. I wonder how often this is tackled in contemporary drama? Of course, this is comedy, which makes it safer... We have of course the old fairy tale idea of "the wicked stepmother" but in the context of modern family life with so many divorces followed by a new relationship to which children must adjust, step-parents must make for a frequent source of tension and even misery. Waller-Bridge's most daring idea of all, though, is to have the central character behave abominably to her best friend in the recent past (with calamitous consequences) and yet (just about) Fleabag holds on to our sympathy. This is perhaps possible only because she is so obviously unfulfilled and, if this is the right word, unhappy.

Finally I must record that I felt a bit sad this month not to be in Cannes. But really I couldn't find any good reason to be there. And as well it would have come right in the middle of the time needed for HADRIAN. Similarly, I don't at the moment plan to be at the Galway Film Fleadh - the only reason to be there would be to try to progress MY SONGS INSIDE and I'm not yet ready to do that.

Reverting to feminism, an exhibition opened this month of work by sculptor Shelagh Cluett, who died in 2007. I was invited to the opening on account of a sculpture "survey" exhibition I put on during my time at the Ikon Gallery 40 years ago in which I included her work. I'm pleased to record that we opted to include six male and six female artists in our show, a balance rarely seen then. Charles Garrad, who knew her well, is one of those people now caring for her work and seeking to bring it to new audiences.

 

APRIL

Despite the groans that ended last month's blog, I have found the energy to return to the HADRIAN script. But I think being harnessed to a director is very useful in such a situation. I suppose this is what is known in the trade as "development hell." I do believe, though, with each draft the script IS getting better and I am able increasingly now to understand the reasons why it's been so hard to get it right.

Three good events came up during the month: the first was an invitation to attend the presentation of awards to the winners of a competition for screenplays by young people. Film the House is organised via the House of Commons, so that young people must find out who is their MP and submit work to that person. MPs are among the judges and sponsors. The competition aims to raise an awareness of creators and the need to protect their intellectual property.

The second took me to Manchester. There was a dinner in honour of Carol Ann Duffy, who has completed her ten year term as Poet Laureate; she's also a Professor at the Metropolitan University, which has a strong link to poetry through the creative writing tuition there. It was nice to have a focus on poetry as a change from film: there were some readings during the evening, the amount nicely judged to give a special feeling to the dinner but not to overwhelm it - everyone wants plenty of time to natter, don't they... Screen drama wasn't in fact that far away after all: several of the guests were stalwarts of Coronation Street, first created by Tony Warren at Granada TV in Manchester in 1960. It still averages 8 million viewers.

The third was a book launch: another interesting step away from movies. "The Unhoused Mind" was put together and edited by Gabrielle Brown. I first met Gabrielle when we were both working in Brixton Prison a long time ago. As I've said elsewhere on this site that led to a decade of involvement with prisoners in my case, and in her case the time there was part of her lifelong interest in people one might loosely term "marginalised." Prisoners are rarely as outside "society" as those who are the focus of Gabrielle's book, but some can be close to that condition. The book is concerned with people who cannot fit within the norms the majority tend to expect. They are sometimes said to "exclude themselves" and are likely to be among the long-term homeless.

Another book launch came right at the end of March but I'll record it here. There was a celebration at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly of artist Mali Morris in the form of a small exhibition. This was linked to the publication of a handsome book looking at her career. Mali has always been keen to acknowledge the importance to her of a one-person show I gave her at the Ikon Gallery and in the detailed CV in the book she refers to her work in making paintings for my adaptation of "To The Lighthouse."

As it happens, that film gets a rare screening on May 16 at the Cinema Museum.

There's been some progress on an idea that emerged from meeting people associated with the Max Wall Society, who organised a screening of my film WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU last year. I've decided to say nothing about that yet, but as they say, watch this space.

 

MARCH

Brexit seems to dominate everything - it sucks the air out of where I am, leaving me breathless.

Some weeks ago, thinking we might indeed be leaving the EU on March 29th, I renewed my SNCF Rail Senior Card, as a kind of gesture of defiance. Or maybe optimism... It seems the only way to actually get hold of the new card is to extract it from a ticket vending machine in Paris so I made a trip out of it early in March, going to Paris then travelling on to Germany to visit a friend and back again via Paris. Alas, at the Gare du Nord, the reality hit. There was a "work to rule" by SNCF staff (which I gather continued for weeks afterwards) so I spent nearly three hours queuing at snail's pace through passport checks and security, before boarding the train after the one I was meant to get. I fear this was a foretaste of how it will be when if we become a visa-controlled nation outside the EU.

In the middle of the month I was asked to be guest of honour at the annual dinner of the Max Wall Society, which was a charming occasion - this was due to WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU, one of Max Wall's last acting roles. A short speech was required: I was nervous about it beforehand but apparently it went down all right.

The next day I was off to Belfast again as my play GIBRALTAR STRAIT has been given another week-long staging by Brassneck Theatre. I was asked again to share in the Q&A after the show.

Given the chance of a three week break from MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN, due to the director's absence abroad, I turned again to MY SONGS INSIDE: last month I'd pitched it to a director I happened to meet at a networking event. He liked the script a lot but we met to talk it over and he did have some useful thoughts about it. I wanted to see what might be done to address his comments; some improvements resulted but I remain doubtful whether I will ever find the interest and investment necessary for it ever to be filmed. The idea of re-working it for the theatre interests me though.

And then, as the month ended, reactions to the HADRIAN script indicate more work may be required. I'm wondering whether I can bear to return to it.

 

FEBRUARY

I was surprised to be contacted near the end of January by the Royal Literary Fund; they asked me to return to the fellowship I held last year at the Medway campus in Chatham. This was caused by illness befalling the person who was given the fellowship after me. I was there for six weeks, following the usual pattern of making myself available to help students for two days each week. I seem not to have mentioned the fellowship in my blog for last year. It might be thought (well, why would I?) that it has nothing directly to do with my main work. But in fact, it has a definite connection: it is well-paid work offered to large numbers of writers. It must in many cases be a vital means to keep going, given the general situation facing us scribes of declining rewards for what we do. In fact, the first one I got in 2003 was hugely valuable during a time when I was having little success in gaining work.

Doubts I expressed in my JANUARY blog as to whether we'd quite done the best we could on the MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN script proved to be right, and some good work has been done since. The script has now been approved by the producer and the next step will be to get some expert advice on budgeting and also some thoughts about casting. As everyone in the business knows, if you go looking for interest in, and possibly finance for, a project, the question is always "Who's in it?"

I watched THE FAVOURITE this month, which has been quite a hit. It strikes the right note for the current mood by being focused almost entirely on female characters and gets the word "romp" applied to it by reviewers which is always good. We are living through an extraordinary era of widespread contempt for those placed in charge of our lives: Trump over there and Brexit black comedies over here, so this portrayal of the rich and politically powerful being vile to each other and generally in a mess is just right.

Aside from that (though not such a big step) I've decided to talk about Brexit this month!

I've lived my life wanting and hoping that we can be both British and European, but the referendum has revealed that many millions of people living here don't feel that and don't want that. The turmoil we've lived through since has almost certainly been damaging to the film industry. The UK many years ago withdrew its cash from Eurimages, a EU-wide development fund. They gave it to the Film Council then a few years later shut that down... Brilliant. This move followed the usual pattern of being snotty towards the EU and wanting to be "in yet not at the same time." If Brexit happens (I've not given up hope) the opportunities for co-production and collaboration will get even worse than now.

I don't want to repeat here all the stuff remainers like me groan about. Rather, I'm thinking about how it affects me personally. As with many of us compelled to write, there isn't much of a gap between what is personal and what is our work. So what is this pain I feel? Why the sadness and sense of loss?

I read an interesting article recently in the London Review of Books by Nicholas Spice which gave me an insight. He talks about his fear of walls and borders. He admits to his anxiety about being trapped, to a love of being in transit. In other words he is, as he puts it so charmingly, a remainer who likes to be free to leave.

He makes the illuminating observation that for many people living in continental Europe, doing away with borders is immensely attractive. We can see this embodied in Angela Merkel, raised behind the border of East Germany; it was the root of her stunning refusal to close the borders to refugees, although this arguably destroyed her political career. Old people have a memory (and it's probably a folk-memory passed down to younger people) of being stopped and checked at borders, of being turned back, perhaps then as a consequence being doomed to capture, internment or even death.

For the British it is the opposite: it is a fear of invasion that lurks in their minds. Yes, it came close in WW2 (a war endlessly invoked in the UK) but we haven't been invaded for centuries, nor do people here have any idea what occupation by a foreign army feels like. But we now have the UK Border Force, staffed by people with paramilitary uniforms and a general air of cool appraisal, with cattle pens to control arrivals. This was one of the straws in the wind, dating from 2012. The following year we had the "Go Home Or Face Arrest" vans. This fear is combined weirdly with a sense of superiority. How else can we explain the decision by some Brits living full-time in Spain to vote Leave? One of these, interviewed recently, was confident that if the Brits are forced to quit Spain "their economy will collapse."

To step on a train in one country and step off it in another is a wonderful thing. The Eurostar trains are magic to me. It is remarkable that following the bombing of Madrid in 2004 (killing 193 and injuring 2000) Spain didn't close its borders. Of course they knew the terrorists were already living in Spain, as was the case with the attacks more recently in France, but it would have been an attractive option politically to assuage the grief following the attack. For the UK, it is a crucial tenet that bad people will arrive if you let them, so of course we insisted on an opt-out from the Schengen Area of visa-free travel even before there were any attacks. So that's why my passport is checked twice before boarding the Eurostar - once by the Brits (shall I be allowed to leave?) and the French (shall I be allowed in?) In other words they don't trust each other, isn't that the bottom line?

I'm aware it is the borders encircling the EU that are being closed, a brutal truth and a whole other issue. But for me, a screenwriter who has worked with directors and producers in France, Germany and Italy and who has set screenplays in those countries, it is the loss of "freedom of movement" that hurts most.

 

DEC 2018 / JAN 2019

Not much to talk about this time round...

Amongst the seasonal stuff in December - social gatherings and trips to see my children in the weeks leading up to Xmas - there was an important meeting. Tommaso Jandelli, producer of the MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN project, came over to see Charles Garrad and myself to talk over the latest draft, which has emerged from Charles' involvement in the project. He expressed himself happy, but my own feeling is that the script still isn't quite right, so I've been doing more work through January. It never ends!

And early in January, it was good to meet with Martin at the Cinema Museum; he has invited me to show TO THE LIGHTHOUSE there. I hope it will possible for it to be screened from a 16mm print. We agreed on May but keeping it flexible for now as to the date. Suzanne Bertish (who played the role of Lily Briscoe) is keen to join me for a Q&A, which is excellent, and we must try to fit round any commitments that might crop up for her as an actor.

A new project has been emerging for me this month as well. Only a possibility at this stage, brought to me by people who came to the screening of WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU. It's just great that a film from way back can in this way seed a new piece of work. It justifies my determination to get my earlier work back into view.

In respect of work seen, I'd like to comment on COLETTE. It was enjoyable and all done with great style (and expense!) but I came away from the cinema with a curious feeling about it. Although Keira Knightley is on the screen for almost all of it it doesn't feel quite her film. Without necessarily resorting to voice over, there needs to be a way to let an audience inside the main character, to feel we are getting her point of view, her weltanschauung to use that nice German portmanteau word. Maybe it's to do with the direction or maybe it was caused by such a forceful presence in Willy, the character playing opposite her (Dominic West) but for me that didn't happen. We stay outside her, looking at her.