I remember a particular evening in White City, at the old BBCTV headquarters, in the late Eighties. I’d been asked to address a group of BBC employees – accountants, secretaries, make up and costume people, car park attendants (anyone interested, in short ) - who wanted to be writers. In the course of the talk I showed them extracts from three films I’d made for the BBC over a period of about seven years - completely separate, I thought:
1. ‘Gaskin’ – a drama documentary (starring the young Paul McGann) about a Liverpool teenager who sued the City Council, under whose charge he had been placed, for their lack of ‘care’ during his childhood;
2.’Coppers’ – (starring Tim Roth), a fiction based on a real case about two South London lads who dressed up as policemen;
3. ‘Angel Voices’ – a semi-autobiographical film about a Parish Church Choir who go to sing (and get into trouble) at Blackpool in the Sixties. Michael Williams played their choirmaster.
I don’t know what my group of BBC employees made of the evening but I had a revelation. I’d been writing the ‘same’ film for most of the Eighties or, at least, the same theme underlay each of them. All were about someone who was half in/ half out of a group or society, looking in. I’d tapped into something in myself, urgent and barely understood – and was now looking at my own unconscious and involuntary literary personality. You put on the characteristics of somebody else while writing, but can’t help but reveal yourself. It probably explains your choice of subjects - why you choose one subject rather than another.
The decade after this talk – the Nineties – were a tricky time for me as a writer. The single play or film (my preferred form) as a staple of weekly television was over in an era of multi channels: the terms of trade had turned against me. We were into ratings, producers’ jobs were on the line, managers were taking over. Television drama had become very much top down: ‘What Alan wants is…’ Or, chillingly, ‘We’re looking for shows that make a louder noise.’ I found myself writing what other people wanted me to write, rather than what I wanted to write. It was – almost certainly - time to do something else, knuckle down to ‘real life’. Instead, I went a long wander. I sold my flat, spent a lot of time living cheaply in France. I thought I was finished as a writer – or the writer I wanted to be.
I did a certain amount of tutoring at the National Theatre, with some brilliant, then barely known, young writers: one to one, the more experienced writer helping bring on these upstarts. I did a good job by them, I hope, and also envied them. They were fresh and had experiences that they needed to write about. My own experiences – I’d spent a lot of time in journalistic and political company during the Eighties- just weren’t working for me anymore. I was paid by the BBC at one point to go over to Brussels, sniff out the Commission. I covered the Guinness trial for the BBC, a major City scandal at the time. And came up short. I now realise what was the problem. I’m not really a political animal: I don’t have strong views. My natural tone of voice is ironic, even light hearted, certainly not earnest. I tend to approach plays – discover them - sideways on, ‘crablike’: I don’t begin by thinking ‘I am going to write a play about such and such.’ And I’m probably a miniaturist. What I attempt to do with a play is offer the maximum insight with minimum number of words. The ‘big’/public plays I was trying to write at that time – as opposed to the more off beat pieces of the Eighties (see above) – saw me going against the grain, straining. I’ve always admired Nick Faldo, the golfer. Not as a man - too self obsessed - but the fact that as a young and successful golfer he realised that his technique (or swing) wasn’t secure enough to see him through, so took a couple of years out to alter and perfect a new swing - and then came back to win a half a dozen majors. What I was doing or letting happen on my wander in the late Nineties was ‘altering my swing.’ ‘Ripening in idleness’ as Balzac put it. I knew this wouldn’t take a matter of months, but maybe years – if I could survive. I was reading a lot of biography/autobiography – still am. Not novels. I’d grown tired, through spending my days making up my own fictions, of other people’s fictions/fantasies. And it was through my reading – and the time and space I gave myself - that I found my voice again, recovered confidence, and entered a new phase as a playwright.
I started no longer writing mainly from my own direct experience. I can make things up – it was how I had made a living after all - but I can’t imagine any more sitting down with a blank screen and fictionalising. From early on as a writer, without being aware of it, I was always more comfortable with ‘facts’. My first play had been a slice of my mother’s life; my second play – about a failed professional footballer – had been the experience of a good friend of mine.
What I started writing were biographical plays (in time, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Flaubert, no less). I suppose more strictly you’d call them a fictional recasting of actual events. This involves plenty of research, which I enjoy, and it’s arguable these days I can’t write without having what we might call data to start with. The only fiction is the gaps between the dots of data. So I still make things up, but try hard to keep to what we know happened.
Annie Proulx of ‘The Shipping News’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ questions the usual advice (I’ve given it, in my time, myself) to young writers: write about what you know. She says: ‘Learn what you want to write about. Find out about it.’ That’s me, now.
To give an example, in a play which didn’t give up its secrets till almost too late (in other words was a great deal more than simply a biographical account) I wrote a play for Radio 3 about Montaigne, the French essayist, whom I noticed in his later life embarked on a diplomatic mission, negotiating between princes to help bring to an end the Wars of Religion in France. I was pleased to have discovered this mission, the swan song of his life – it has generally been ignored in favour of the Montaigne we know, the sage who wrote his essays in a tower. There was plenty of drama, of course, in that trip he undertook: he was arrested, hi-jacked, fell ill, probably witnessed an assassination. But I’d given him a young secretary. I called him Peslier. Montaigne had secretaries, though we know nothing about them. So I made up a young man: the illegitimate son of a priest, I thought, and a bit provincial, though bright, and righteous – his characteristics a bit like me, if truth be told. What I hadn’t foreseen was how this made up character (the author in disguise?) would take over the show, despite all the obvious derring-do of the piece. Quite late on in the writing I realised that what the play was truly about was the relationship between the old master and his amanuensis - that I was heading for the moment when one generation passes the baton over. That was the resonance of the play for me. Henri the Fourth – Navarre - the new king, a Protestant, wanted Montaigne, a Catholic, to be his adviser. In real life, Montaigne turned him down, citing ill health. In my fiction I had him sending young Peslier in his stead. The climactic scene became Montaigne instructing Peslier on how best to negotiate with princes – the title of the play was ‘Living with Princes’ - handing on his expertise. Peslier walked into the first scene – he hadn’t featured in the synopsis (or selling document) – and almost took the play over. Incidentally, I called him Peslier after the great French jockey. There were two other minor fictional characters, necessarily introduced to keep the wheels turning, and Peslier was joined by a (Sergeant) Soumillon and a (Captain) Guyon. Both also are the names of French jockeys. No one noticed.
Someone said of Shakespeare that ‘borrowing from literary models’ – he made up only a couple of plots - ‘helped him escape from the vices of singularity and useless invention.’ I suppose I do the same as the great man, only my stories are taken from a slice of biography, a few months or years, no more. I take the facts for granted – Montaigne is married, has a daughter ; he suffers from kidney stones; he’s a Catholic; Navarre, a Protestant, trusts him.
And there’s a play about Shakespeare, which follows the facts as we know them scrupulously, the script of which is on the News section of my website: ‘The Pattern of Painful Adventures’. This started as a play about John Marston, Shakespeare’s younger playwright contemporary, who gave up the stage for twenty five years of obscurity as a parish priest. Marston makes, I hope, a memorable appearance - though the play moved, in the writing, away from him. I lived at the time just round the corner from a pub in Clerkenwell, run, in the early 17th century, by a man called George Wilkins, who probably collaborated with Shakespeare on that late play called ‘Pericles’. The pub was a bawdy house in Wilkins’ day, and that interested me about Shakespeare’s collaborator – and about the senior playwright. Though Wilkins and Marston stay prominent in the piece, the play shifted under my fingers to become very much about the tricky relationship between Shakespeare and his younger brother and eldest daughter, who were of an age, one a Stratford girl (who has just married sensibly and ‘well’), the other a licentious young actor. I think what the play is really about is the clash between a ‘rakish’ London life and a more staid and ‘respectable’ provincial existence. In my play Shakespeare is very uncomfortably torn between the two: ’I can’t plead innocency of life,’ he howls at one point. My old friend Hanif Kureishi used to say of me I was an interesting and conflicted mix of provincial and metropolitan. I like it when a play wanders where it will (to use a Shakespearian sounding phrase) before finding itself. I like to write a bit out of control, but within factual parameters, reining in a bit when needed. But there’s a considerable degree of freedom in this latest phase of my writing ‘career’. Biographical writing, particularly when the facts are scarce, is a cheerfully impure art, one in which, I suggest, the biographer reveals perhaps as much of himself and his preoccupations as of his subject. In short, try as you might, ‘You can’t’ - as a better writer than me once said - ‘keep the author out.’