BLOG 2019

My blog ran from May 2011 to September 2019.



The new picture on the front page of this site is of the Roman amphitheatre in Nîmes - apparently the best preserved one in the world, and still in use for rock concerts and the like. For the technically minded: I took this picture at night using my old 35mm camera, hand-held, and a 1600ASA film. It has a ghostly quality that I rather like.

I was there because my most recent film, WAITING FOR YOU, opened the Nîmes Film Festival in February 2017: it was a perfect match, being a British film (which the festival is always focused on) yet starring Fanny Ardant and shot mostly in France. In fact, the location was not far from Nîmes.

And of course there is the link to my current project THE MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN - though the amphitheatre was, I believe, built a little before Hadrian became Emperor. Besides, it seems from Yourcenar's carefully researched novel at least, that such places didn't appeal much to Hadrian. Loved by the Roman citizenry, however: in its heyday the amphitheatre in Nîmes could hold 24,000 people (the O2 Arena in London can only hold 20,000.) Hadrian was focused more on other public architecture, notably the Pantheon, which still stands in Rome today.

Films seen this month include PAIN & GLORY, the new film by Almodóvar. It contains some real delights and the recollections of childhood are beautifully captured. I did feel the narrative was over-crowded: particularly the saga of how the central character (a director modelled on Almodóvar himself) sets out to mend the long-enduring feud with an actor, which is then awkwardly joined to the central elements of the plot. We are told this feud derives from one Almodóvar actually had with the actor Antonio Banderas - who plays the central character. Geddit? Well, yes, but it's all rather solipsistic. However, the film looks glorious and, yep, there's a clever twist at the end.

I also went to see BAIT - about as different from Almodóvar’s film as it's possible to be. A peculiar experience: the film is so deeply felt and such an immense labour of love. Mark Jenkin does everything himself with very basic film equipment and facilities. Yet as well, it has such an old-fashioned feel, particularly the plot, which you could say was a melodrama. I was reminded of MANON DES SOURCES, a film by Marcel Pagnol in 1952 then re-made as two linked films in the 1980s. In shooting style, though, there was more than a whiff of Bresson, with hundreds of static close-ups of "significant objects." But there is an intensity in it, a purity as well in the black and white film stock and the defiant use of shots that would normally be deemed unacceptable (there's even "a hair in the gate" in one of them). In fact, the film seems to erupt from the Cornish characters - it feels like the rough walls, like the beer on tap in the cramped bar, like the ropes and nets needing to be endlessly tied and untangled. This gives the film a lot of power.

Watching BAIT I couldn’t help being reminded (OK, I'll be self-regarding like Almodóvar now) of my own film BEGGING THE RING, which was shot in Cornwall over 40 years ago - of course, on film (that's all there was!) and in black and white too. Set in 1916, the incursion of affluent second-homers (Jenkin's subject) was hardly the issue; rather it came in the form of the Army, who were dragging young men off to the war in France. I returned to Cornwall for TO THE LIGHTHOUSE - Virginia Woolf's family, of course, were "second homers" - and their house-guest, angry young student Charles Tansley, comments acidly on the grinding poverty in Cornwall all around them - which is there still. I'm so pleased director Colin Gregg and I opted to re-locate the film there rather set it in the Hebrides, where Woolf rather arbitrarily sets her wonderful novel. Tansley also attacks patriots for "clinging to borders" while capitalist exploitation jumps over them. So there's Brexit anticipated. Tansley would groan to see poor Brits waving their flags as the ship goes down.



It's two years since my inspiring trip to Italy to look at the world of Roman Emperor HADRIAN - hence the image on the first page of this site. The main event this year was to travel to Scotland - to Moniack Mohr, near Inverness, to be one of the two tutors on a week-long course in screenwriting. I was co-tutor on a course there back in 2002, when it was still run by the Arvon Foundation. Now it is operated separately with funding from Creative Scotland. Participants have to pay but there are bursaries to help some people.

It was a good experience and I've found the same on the other occasions when I've been a tutor for Arvon: it's a communal experience with meals shared and plenty of social contact. The days are filled by workshops and "one-to-one" sessions, the evenings by some screenings and talks. For the tutors there is a challenge in accommodating a considerable range of experience and ability across the spectrum of people who sign up to come but overall the week becomes a kind of celebration of invention and story-telling. I find it a tonic quite aside from the work I am there to do - to advise and encourage.

Stimulated by the interest of a young Irish director, I've given MY SONGS INSIDE a good shake-up in recent weeks. The plan is to meet early in September and that will be an opportunity to see where I might have changed things for the worse - there's always the risk of that! More probably, however, there may be some further changes needed so that the script is fully resolved around those alterations I've made already.

I was invited to work on a cinema project over the summer. This became, I'm afraid, an occasion to re-affirm a policy I've held to for many years now: that I don't work on other people's projects for nothing, though I will do this for those I've initiated myself (MY SONGS INSIDE is a good example.) The result was that the project was first offered and then withdrawn when I explained that position... but I have to live with that. My reasoning is mainly that if the other person invests nothing then might they simply walk away from it?

Talking of that, I watched a good documentary in August about Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort. A long review can be found here.

I was reminded of being commissioned to write a screenplay about Albert - I think it was during the 1980s when projects were arriving all the time. In that instance, the producer (from ITV) paid for the script but then walked away, or rather couldn't find the interest he had expected to find within the company that would have enabled him to take the thing further. So it can still happen even when "money has changed hands" - indeed, Andrea Gibb, who was our guest speaker at Moniack Mohr echoed this.

She said she worked her way through 14 commissions before she had one that went into production. This is a ridiculous waste of money and effort though it means a writer who is in demand can make a living - as I was then and Andrea is now.

I was disappointed of course; it leaves you feeling helpless - but sadly this is the screenwriter's lot on occasions! Albert seemed to me, from the reading and research that I did, to be such an interesting character. He had to cope with virulent dislike from the xenophobic English (so what's new?) yet he achieved so much in his short life. All this was confirmed in the documentary. In the years that came later, much has been made of Victoria in TV dramas, and generally the pendulum has swung considerably (and rightly) towards foregrounding female characters. It is hardly in tune with current thinking to say that Albert became effectively the monarch, and that Victoria did as he wanted. But we must hold on to the truth in everything, I think - now more than ever when it is so under attack. The historians did that when they made this point clearly in the documentary, basing it on mounds of evidence. I'm reminded of a criticism I've seen made about recent TV period drama where female characters talk and behave in ways that are not credible for the era in which they exist.



I'm pleased to be invited back by the Royal Literary Fund to do a second year at the Medway campus in Chatham, in Kent. I spoke about this back in my blog for FEBRUARY, when I was asked to do a few weeks there to cover for the writer holding the Fellowship for 2018-19. As I said then it's a valuable thing for writers to gain financial support in return for useful work. I was there in mid June to meet with staff at Medway, who run the student support services within which the RLF Fellow works. I will be there from mid September on the same basis as before: two days a week to be available to any student seeking help with their work.

A wee bit more work on HADRIAN this month, and at the end of June, the script went back to the casting director for her thoughts. It's been quite an undertaking, but finally I think we are there: in collaboration with the director I have made a good screenplay. The key idea back in May was to break with a conventional chronology: a simple decision which has hugely improved it. This month we tried to cut absolutely anything that could be cut: to keep the script fast-moving, to keep the reader surprised by - that most basic point with the screen - "what happens next."

Talking of that I watched YEARS AND YEARS this month (by Russell T. Davies) on BBC. Good to see some thumping great political points being made in TV drama again. And my goodness, contemporary TV moves at a dizzying speed: I'm old enough to remember the invention of the "remote" and I can see how profoundly it has affected the medium. The audience must be kept glued to the drama...

... Which underlines the fact there would be no prospect now of anyone making a film from a book like TO THE LIGHTHOUSE! I had word from one or two people who have watched my adaptation which has been put on Youtube. It's a murky pirated copy accompanied I think by educational material people are paying for! Allegedly been watched nearly 19,000 times, but I believe only a few minutes counts as a "view" so who knows what that figure really means... I posted a splutter of annoyance myself as a comment to this, the piracy involved. I regret it kind of came out wrong because the implication was me being aggrieved by a loss of money, but actually that isn't the point. The point is that if there's that level of interest why on earth is it not available on a form where it looks the way it should? It's horrible to see it looking like something that's been stored in a cupboard, seemingly covered in what you could call digital dust. One viewer called it "digital scum."

I've been able to reach two Irish directors this month regarding MY SONGS INSIDE: reactions always interesting, and I continue to hope for this project. My feeling has always been that its essential spirit is Irish and that if I can find a real Irish involvement, I may get somewhere! Carl Schoenfeld is taking it to the Galway Fleadh Film Market in July.



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.



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.



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.



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.