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

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Exploring the Past

I don't know many writers who actually find writing fun. No, by and large we have to get our kicks in other ways. For me, research is definitely one of them.

This is a photo of Ormaig, once the principal settlement on the Hebridean island of Ulva. It was home to the Clan MacQuarrie, the "Sons of Guaire".

A little further along the coast, the map shows a Cille Mhic Eoghain or 'Cell of the Sons of Owain'. In this case, Owain and Guaire were probably the same person - Guaire appearing as Guaire son of Aedan in Adomnan of Iona's Life of St Columba and Owain in all likelihood being Owain of North Rheged, a British prince whose mother was Aedan's daughter. She was also Muirgein, born in Perthshire, the half-sister of Arthur.

Ulva is relevant, then, to the Arthur story (the story of the real King Arthur, that is), because "Guaire" was also the father of Gwalchmai, who later became known as Gawain. The Sir Gawain of the later romances was thus one of the Sons of Guaire, a founder of the Clan MacQuarrie of Ormaig and quite possibly one of the priests of the Cell of the Sons of Owain.

The word in Gaelic for a doctor, a wise or learned man and, by extension, a Druid is Ullamh (Irish - ollamh). Interestingly, although possible derivations of the island's name, Ulva, include the Scottish Gaelic ullamh dha - 'ready for it' (i.e. occupation) - no one seems to have suggested that Ulva could in fact be the Isle of the Wiseman. This wise man would have been Sir Ullamh O'Corn, as he is known in a Hebridean folktale - that is, Sir Wiseman son of Horn, the nephew of Arthur. Given the near God-like status of his father among the people of North Britain until his land was overrun by the Saxon foreigners in the year of Arthur's defeat, Gwalchmai (otherwise known as Ullamh or Gawain) would most likely have been a Druidic priest of sorts, and so the remains of his chapel or cell on the southern coast of Ulva represent the hermitage of a wise man who had been ejected from his proper place on the nearby Isle of Iona by the coming of St Columba and his intolerant monks.

All this is of great interest to me right now because in a few hours I shall be setting off for the Isle of Mull. By Sunday I expect to have set foot on the Isle of Ulva, the first of what might be several exploratory visits over the next week or so. I want to see Ormaig, where the descendants of Owain/Guaire (the princely son of Muirgein and Urien) lived. I want to find my way to what remains of the Cell of the Sons of Owain, to stand where the genuine Gawain once stood, to gaze out across the Hebridean sea, looking south towards Iona, which the Christians took from the Druids.

That's my kind of research, folks. Writing can never quite measure up to something like that!

Friday, 16 July 2010

Double Falsehood

(No, don't worry - not another verbal assault on certain politicians; not this time, at any rate.)

A couple of weeks ago, a school-age daughter of very good friends phoned me out of the blue to ask how many plays Shakespeare wrote. Now, I'm often accused of never giving a straight answer, but on this occasion I was happy to reply -

"Nobody knows. It's true. We just don't know. If the school tells you it's 37, who are we to argue? But it's wrong. The real answer is, we don't know. Next question?"

I was in Stratford today - lovely old Stratford - for a talk about the publication of a new Shakespeare play. This is the latest in the Arden Shakespeare series. It's called Double Falsehood. And it's by Lewis Theobald (pronounced: "Tibbalt"). And by John Fletcher. And by William Shakespeare.

It's actually an early eighteenth-century version of an earlier play by Shakespeare. Quite possibly the last play Shakespeare wrote. Then, it went by the name of Cardenio, and was based on a story from Don Quixote (a bit of useless information - Shakespeare and Cervantes died on exactly the same day).

What makes this play enormously interesting for me is that the Lord Chamberlain, who probably commissioned it for performance at the court of King James, was Robert Carr, onetime favourite of the King. By the time the play was performed, Carr was married to the dazzling Frances Howard and King James was in love with another young man, George Villiers. And while Carr was happily embedded with the crypto-Catholic faction at court, Villiers was quickly adopted by the Puritan hardliners who were determined to see Carr and his Howard in-laws crushed.

Carr. Cardenio. Get it?

Anyway, Carr's fall from grace came shortly afterwards. In order to marry him, Lady Frances had been forced to divorce her hopeless husband, after which Carr's bosom pal turned against her. Evidently, this chap must have known something because he was suddenly imprisoned in the Tower of London. Where, after a short while, he died. The assumption at the time was that he'd been poisoned.

Carr and his wife eventually stood trial for the supposed murder of his friend, Sir Thomas Overbury. They were effectively pardoned (four lesser mortals had already been executed for their roles in what probably wasn't a murder anyway). But Carr and the crypto-Catholic faction were ruined. And by then, Shakespeare himself was dead. In fact, he died the day before the jurors received their summonses to attend the hearings.

It was only typical of Shakespeare that he would have been batting for the Catholic faction - just as it was typical of his great rival, Ben Jonson, to be the pet poet of the Puritan bunch. But given the way Shakespeare died, and given that he died rather suddenly in the midst of the greatest scandal to engulf the notoriously scandalous reign of King James I, and given that Ben Jonson was with him, or not far away, when he died, the role of Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio in all this courtly intrigue is ... well, intriguing. Because it was Shakespeare's contribution to a bitter factional war at the heart of the English government, one that involved the two leading poet-playwrights of the day, the leading lords and ladies, the king's two favourites, the country's foreign and domestic policies and the greatest issue of the age (religion), not to mention claims of murder, witchcraft, treason and sexual perversion ...

Frankly, I'm looking forward to getting hold of my own copy of Double Falsehood. It won't be quite what Shakespeare wrote, but it can only help to advance our knowledge and our understanding of the man and his times. It might even offer a clue or two as to why Shakespeare had to die when he did. The whole Carr thing had got way too embarrassing for the King, and Carr's enemies (including Ben Jonson) were not prepared to let that master of eloquence William Shakespeare speak out. And so, there was a 'merry meeting', and Shakespeare died.

Yep - plenty of interest in Double Falsehood, the closest thing we have to Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Something in the Air

Okay, so the meeting went well. Really well.

There was me, the very picture of nonchalance as I wandered into the famous BBC Television Centre, probably looking like someone who's spent too long in the countryside and might actually have arrived by tractor. And it turns out that they've moved the drama department. We used to be across the road, behind the bike sheds. Now we have something called 'The Drama Building'. And before long, we'll be moving again.

Hey - dig that "we"!

Anyway, a great chat, most encouraging. And oddly enough, there's a guy working a door or two away on Lark Rise to Candleford. He was script editor on the last series I worked on with the producer I was meeting (she's now an executive producer, two steps down from God). I haven't seen this script editor chap in fourteen years. Only yesterday, though, he was asking after me.

Now, all this is just a wee bit weird. But I've been having a strange sense of a return to business-as-usual after something like ten or twelve years. Let me explain.

One of my very first writing jobs in British TV was developing an idea by Paul Theroux into a potential TV drama series. This was for a firm called Euston Films, a company for which I had, and still have, almost unqualified admiration.

The project stalled rather suddenly when the parent company, Thames Television, lost its licence to broadcast. It lost its licence because it had annoyed a certain Margaret Hilda Thatcher. See, Mrs Thatcher had unleashed a death squad to assassinate a group of Irish people in broad daylight on the streets of Gibraltar. Thames TV made a documentary about it. By doing so, they signed their own death warrant, so to speak. Their broadcast licence was effectively revoked, and my series with Euston Films withered on the vine, basically because Euston Films no longer knew if it had a future.

I got my revenge, up to a point, by restaging the shooting of the Irish Republicans for another TV drama series (we did it on Brighton sea-front, though, rather than in Gibraltar). But it was a hollow victory. I had in fact lost one of my very first jobs because of a politician who went ape whenever somebody questioned the terrible things that happened while she was in power.

But it was a golden period for me, following on from Thatcher's own political demise, because her party remained in government for another seven years. Great news for hard-hitting drama and political thrillers. Why? Simple:

Because we expect Conservatives to misbehave. We know that they're up to no good. We can devote all our energies, 24/7, to uncovering their multitudinous peccadilloes, their evil little schemes, their shady deals, their assaults on civil liberties ...

Thirteen years under a centre-left government just weren't the same. Okay, so the Labour leadership might mess things up a bit. They might annoy us somewhat. They might even lead us into illegal wars. But they're not hideous, twisted, self-serving swindlers, bigots and cheats. Right-wing conspiracy theorists will go out of their way to invent strange stories about Labour but they're unlikely to be true.

The last thirteen years have not been very good for drama in the UK. But no sooner have the forked-tongued chinless wonders of the right got back into power and, hey, the BBC beckons me to The Drama Building. Former colleagues are enquiring about me after all this time. Looks like we might be back in business. TV Drama is about to be reborn out of fear and loathing, the anguish and the outrage which it is only sensible and proper to feel in the face of this dreadful coalition government.

Something in the air, my friends. Something in the air ...

(Oh, and BTW - hi, Shayne!- a really good friend who works in arts documentaries has suggested that the BBC might be interested in a documentary or two about Shakespeare, or rather about the revelations I can offer. So that's something else I'll be looking into very closely, while publishing's very, very quiet just now.)

Friday, 2 July 2010

Good News/Bad News

Apparently, it's hell out there. Nobody's buying anything. And it's worse in the UK than in the US of A. Publishers in London, poor things, are staring out of the window wondering what to do with their lives. It can't go on.

That, at least, would appear to be the case with popular non-fiction, a genre (?) which has been hit rather badly by the recent economic uncertainty (and that uncertainty is currently enjoying something a come back here in the UK). Historical fiction, so they say, is thriving. And knowing some fantastic writers of excellent historical fiction I can only say, well that's great news.

But I'm too scared to write historical fiction. I keep thinking I'll go to pieces if I don't know what colour doublet Will Shakespeare was wearing on a certain Monday morning (and if I make it up - well, then it'll be made up). No, I feel safer with historical non-fiction, especially my own sort of investigative brand. Which just happens to be what publishers don't think anyone is interested in buying at present. Not just me - it's across the industry. Something to do with a certain High Street bookstore chain and its dullard management, fortunately elbowed aside after a truly dreadful Christmas season and now replaced by some human beings.

Anyway, that's what my agent told me over the phone yesterday. Best to wait until a publisher somewhere stops staring out of the window, gives a little shudder and thinks out loud: "Better do a bit of publishing, then."

So what's a poor writer to do in the meantime? Well, here's the weird thing. I'm heading back to the BBC!! Haven't passed through that hallowed portal in twelve years or something crazy. But, couple of weeks from now, I'll be back in the building, discussing DRAMA.

All a result of meeting up with an old producer colleague a few weeks back (just go down a few posts and you'll find it). An idea or two was sent, both were liked, so we're seemingly back in the game. How cool is that?

Like I say, it's been a dozen years since I crossed the threshold of the BBC Drama Building, and I'm extremely optimistic that things have changed. Most important, though - I learnt, way back, that in TV drama you have to be working with people you trust. If you don't, or can't, trust your colleagues to make the right decision every once in a while, the project's probably doomed. And I trust my old producer colleague, not least of all because she's done some terrific stuff while I've been out in the sticks. She's kept the torch alight, bless her, like a beacon in the darkness.

So, while we wait for the publishing industry to shift its collective arse, heigh-ho, it's off to the BBC in London, and a break from history for a wee while.

Funny old world.