Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Old Friends

Went to a talk last night in Birmingham. The two guest speakers were Tony Garnett and Hilary Salmon, both top TV producers. I worked with both of them in the 90s.

It was great to see them both again, and really nice to chat with them briefly afterwards. But it felt rather odd. See, I've been out of TV for nearly ten years now, because - well, basically, because it just wasn't worth it. I'd learnt at the feet of the masters, and now a bunch of minnows had taken over and were screwing up everything in sight. I couldn't afford to carry on writing for television, not if I wanted to retain my last remaining shred of sanity.

At the same time, it was odd to think that I had worked with some of the best, and had really learnt my craft. And that, for the whole of the noughties, all that know-how was redundant. Even thinking about working in British TV was a waste of my time.

Could things be changing? Is it possible that, with big cuts coming to all sectors (the BBC included), we can get rid of the thousands of spin-doctors, marketing wonks and unnecessary 'executives' who have been cluttering up the BBC for years, getting in the way and preventing the creatives from making good programmes?

I'm almost daring to hope so. Of course, I still want to carry on with my books; I've done far too much research and development on them to let all that go to waste.

But I would be happy to go back to TV, if I could bypass all the bullshit and just work with a first-class producer on a real good project.

After all, at one point I had a four-part series with the BBC, who were eager to discuss a potential second series and would I be interested in a screenplay adaptation as well? Then somebody new came along and I've never worked for the Beeb since. Maybe it's time to venture back - just dip my toe in the waters - listen out for the approaching-shark music - see how we go.

Meanwhile, I've stared into the hole in the ground where Shakespeare's house was (you can see the cellar walls now) and may well be helping to enlarge it before too long. That should help me keep my feet on the ground (or even under it) while thoughts of TV drama begin to distract me.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Digging Shakespeare

A chance to volunteer on the archaelogical dig taking place at Shakespeare's last home. What do we think about that? Should I go for it?

Of course I should. As you walk along Chapel Street in Stratford at the moment, large panels prevent you from looking over the wall at New Place into the dig that's going on there (although an open-top bus tour seems to give you a good view as you go by). But to be in there, as part of it, rummaging among the foundations ...

The house only seems to have been known as New Place after Will Shakespeare bought and refurbished it in 1597. Before that it was the Great House, a 'pretty house of brick and timber' built a hundred years earlier by a local worthy and onetime Lord Mayor of London.

Royalty stayed there in 1643, in the form of Henrietta Maria, the Catholic queen-consort of King Charles I. The Queen was a guest of Will's daughter, Susanna.

In 1756, a preacher, the Rev. Francis Gastrell, was living there. Outraged at the number of visitors and passers-by who wanted to see a mulberry tree in the New Place grounds, which supposedly had been planted by Shakespeare himself, the reverend took an axe to the tree.

The very next year, a mysterious document was discovered hidden away among the rafters of the roof in the house where Will Shakespeare grew up. It proved to be a handwritten copy of a Jesuit Last Testament and Will of the Soul, signed by Will Shakespeare's father.

In the meantime, Gastrell had a few of his windows broken by people angry at his felling of the Shakespeare mulberry. Finally, in 1759, he freaked out altogether and demolished New Place brick by brick.

The town seemingly did nothing to stop him. Whether a lone preacher could destroy a three-storey house on a busy street without anybody noticing, or whether (as seems much more likely) he had a substantial mob to help him, the town bided its time and then sent him packing. He was marched out of town accompanied by booing crowds, and a local bye-law was passed forbidding anybody with the surname Gastrell from ever living in the town again.

Like so much of the Shakespeare story, we are usually expected to accept that Shakespeare's final home was simply destroyed by an angry clergyman - and that's that. Whatever you do, do not draw any conclusions from that astonishing act of vandalism, least of all that there may have been some sectarian issues hanging around the memory of Will Shakespeare.

Whatever you do, do not imagine that a Protestant preacher destroyed a part of our national heritage because of its Catholic associations with our national poet. No, no, do not think that. It's just one of those things, okay? And maybe we shouldn't have mentioned that Jesuit will. Don't want anybody getting any ideas, do we?

But as a way of getting just that little bit closer to the Bard, what could be better than sifting through the soil of his demolished house?

Of course, I'm not actually working on my Shakespeare book just now. I'm sweating away on my Arthur book. But Stratford's just a few minutes away. Shame it's not Arthur's grave I could get to in a few minutes. Heigh-ho ...

(PS: Hi, Shayne!! Great to see you! I'll get some blog links organised soon, I promise.)

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Round the Block

All last week, I was thinking "I'll write a blog about writer's block!"

How's that for irony - meaning to write about writer's block but just never quite managing to do it.

But I was going to. Because I don't believe in it. Or, rather, I know it happens, but I don't think of it as 'writer's block' at all. Whenever it happens to me (yep - guess what last week was like) I know it's because mentally I'm trying to take a short-cut.

When you write something, you shouldn't imagine that it's set in stone. The first draft will have garlic and sapphires in it, and the second draft should restructure it and give it a better shape, and the third draft (really) should round it off with a final polish and that little extra zing.

The first draft ought to be just a determined effort at getting everything down on paper in some form or other. We can worry about how good it is, how well it's working, later.

But so-called writer's block happens (I believe) when you're working on the first draft but you want it to be as good as the third draft.

Working in TV, there'd be the occasional nightmare when a script editor would phone, just days before deadline, and ask you to change all the locations, or alter the ages of the characters, or something equally dumb. Which meant that, in just two or three days, you had completely to rewrite the script. That's when I began to learn about writer's block. There was a dreadful panic when it came to putting any word on the page - a vertiginous sense that 'This is it' and that it had to be right, first time, every time.

Great way to panic yourself into writer's paralysis, folks.

Anyway, so, having figured that out, it's easy to know how to deal with writer's block. Just write. Write whatever. And then come back later and clean it up.


But I didn't write that last week because I'd had a couple of trips to my nearby town of Stratford, and I'd watched Shakespeare in Love, and I was wondering - why do so many actors read Shakespeare all wrong.

Take that famous balcony speech:

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

How often have you heard the first line spoken as if it read: 'O Romeo, Romeo, where are you Romeo?'

Is that what it says? No. What it says (or means) is: 'O Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo?'

It's all about his name. And at a time when the State was trying to impose a Protestant form of religion on a rather conservative country, a name like "Rome-o" would surely stand out as a declaration of tribal Catholicism.

So Juliet asks, "Why are you 'Romey-o'?" Why can't Romeo change his name (his surname, Montagu, was shared by one of the most Catholic families in England, and Shakespeare's then patron, the Earl of Southampton, was related to them: Southampton's mother had been born a Montagu) and therefore deny his faith?

Or, failing that, Juliet will renounce hers. The Protestants wore little woollen skull caps in church. Juliet is a Capulet.

So it should be read with something like the former Troubles in Northern Ireland in mind. This is a life-and-death situation.

But I didn't blog about that, either.