You can't keep the author out
The appeal of the actor’s life – those in work – must be inhabiting a different character every few months or so. You can generally recognise the actor under the disguise, hear what’s always at the back of Albert Finney’s throat – Salford – whatever the accent. At the end of the Eighties, after ten years of fairly frequent work for the BBC Drama Department I was asked to give a talk. There are thousands working for the BBC as secretaries, accountants, in contracts and so on, some of them interested in becoming writers, and I showed those who turned up that night in White City extracts from some of the films I’d written, while talking about the writing process. There were three contrasting films: a drama-documentary about a Liverpool teenager who had sued the City Council for the way he’d been brought up; a film – a dark comedy, based on a real case - about two lads who’d dressed up as policemen; finally, a semi-autobiographical film about a church choir at Blackpool in the early Sixties. I’d never put the three films together. They spanned seven or eight years and, for all their differences, it darted through me that night that they were all – revealingly - about the same subject. The lead character in all of them (Paul McGann as the Liverpudlian, Tim Roth as the would be policeman, and the 15 year old chorister, whose voice breaks as the old certainties of his life fall apart) is an outsider who half wants to be inside, half relishes his ‘pariah’ status. I don’t know what lessons the audience came away with that night but I’d learnt something about myself and realised – if I ever doubted it - you can’t keep the author out of his work. From then on, for a few too many years, I decided to start writing more autobiographically. It was a mistake. I was seeing a lot of another writer at that stage who’d just had a huge success with a cheerfully free-wheeling and scabrous film of his own life and background, and he was scathing (as he could be) about my ‘caution.’ I would tell him various things I’d been getting up to, generally late night. ‘Why don’t you write about that?’ he’d say. Well, as it turned out, Alan Hollinghurst was having a good go at chronicling gay life at much the same time, better than I ever could. Those years – that experience – got its Booker winning chronicler. One play I laboured over during that period, with a deal of welcome support from the National Theatre Studio – there were at least three versions - headed down inwards and became a form of therapy. I doubt if I was the first or last National Theatre Studio writer in that little room in Waterloo to have sat, subsidised, sorting himself out, and eventually I came up looking for air. I’d read a magisterial biography of Thomas Hardy by Michael Millgate and seen the dramatic possibilities in Hardy and his two wives. I tried to get it underway in television but I was left in no doubt that producers then were ‘looking for shows that make a louder noise’, and the synopsis went in the bottom drawer for a dozen years. The result – a radio serial: ‘What I think of My Husband,’ can be heard on the Listen section of this website. After its broadcast I had an e mail from Millgate himself, whom I didn’t know. Someone in the UK had alerted him to the play which he had heard via the BBC iPlayer in Canada. He approved – it was a fan letter. I’d stuck pretty faithfully to the facts as we know them, and hugely enjoyed the research. The play had written itself. After my struggles with large ‘public’ plays and autobiographical glumness, though I wasn’t to know it yet, biographical drama would prove to be the way out of my impasse as a writer.