How ‘True to Life’ Must a Drama Be?

The last four Sundays I have watched BBC1’s drama series Undercover with, I confess, some envy.  The subject matter – the lies and lives of an undercover policeman living with one of his targets – is something I have been trying to tackle for a while.  A spec script I wrote for a dark comedy on this subject was rejected by the BBC.  Peter Moffat is a more experienced  writer and his series is considerably more accomplished than the script I wrote.  I swallow a bitter pill.  But not that bitter.

The show has attracted some criticism in today’s Guardian.  One of the things that attracted me to the subject was outrage at the way undercover officers treated legitimate protesters, and more specifically (and more outrageously) the women they formed relationships with. One of these women, writing under the pseudonym ‘Alison’ for understandable reasons, has taken the show and its writer to task for ignoring her real story and broadcasting something that lacks credibility.

It is difficult to disagree with her summary:

“It would be wonderful if the series brought to wider public attention some awareness of the abusive relationships condoned by the police in the name of law and order, and even better if it sparks viewers’ curiosity to find out more about the true stories.”

I think, however, that this misunderstands what drama is for.  The stories of Alison and other women deserve to be brought to wider attention.  This would be a job for a documentary (or this excellent book); a fictitious drama necessarily takes liberties with its source material to make the story more … dramatic.  It really isn’t a good way to bring out the facts.  What we see, rather, is a more universal truth: a story about deceit and duplicity, a story that shows the strain a double life can place on the person living that life, as well as the people they are deceiving.  These themes are not unique to the specific situation; the specific is a way to access the the universal.

I agree with Alison that “the institutional sexism … at the heart of [these] cases” should be highlighted, and I think that dramas like Undercover help this.  But, an over-adherence to the facts would misunderstand the nature of drama, without particularly helping the cause.

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What is a Writer?

Two months ago I went to an event organised by Writing West Midlands.  I didn’t get into writing to improve my social life (which isn’t to say that it couldn’t do with an upgrade) but I’m told that networking is useful.  Actually, scratch the note of scepticism: I know that networking us useful; I’m just not that good at it.

Despite various mishaps on my journey to the venue, I arrived in time for the pre-event mingling – something that makes me extremely uncomfortable.  I stood around for a few minutes, nursing a cup of coffee and trying not to make eye-contact with anyone.  By and large this was a success, writers being generally shy/misanthropic.  Unfortunately (not really) it didn’t work with The Poet.

The Poet is someone well known on the Midlands scene – possibly quite well known nationally – who I’ve bumped into occasionally over the last 11 or 12 years.  I know her name (because she is, as I say, well known on the Midlands scene) but she doesn’t know mine, because I’m not.

“So you’re a writer too,” she said, after reminding me where we first met.  “Well, I write,” I replied, well aware that my publication record (see my CV if you must know) is considerably less illustrious.  What is a writer, but someone who writes, I wondered underneath my false modesty.

The first session, perhaps appropriately, was called ‘Becoming a Writer’.  As we waited for the session to start, I overheard a conversation somewhere behind me.  A man was outlining his plans: he said something like “I want to start writing; I thought I’d come to this event first.”  I didn’t turn round and tell him to get on with it, because that would be rude (not to mention out of character).

The first speaker, Leila Rasheed, asked us to think about what we meant by ‘writer’ – pretty obvious question to ask if you want to know how to become one.  I asked myself the question, but couldn’t think of an answer.

What is a writer but someone who writes?  Two months later I think I’m getting close.  I want to be read what I’ve written; I want people to enjoy reading what I’ve written; I want people to look out for what I’ve written.

Will I be satisfied when this happens?  Probably not.

Play That Funky Play

My short play, ‘Release Date‘ received a rehearsed reading at Birmingham Rep a few weeks ago.  I could write about how much I enjoyed the experience, but gushing isn’t my thing: it really was that good (the whole experience, not necessarily my play).

I’ve uploaded a copy of the script (click hyperlink above) and I’m now working on a longer version.  Feel free to contact me if you want any further information, or if you simply want to rip it to shreds.

Feedback

It’s been a while, I know.  The reason I started this blog was to promote my writing, but then I spend my time, erm … writing, and not blogging.  I don’t just write though: the internet is a vast place with many distractions.

Anyway, on with the motley.  Regular readers will remember that my last post was about the Birmingham Rep’s ‘Write Away’ group.  That was July and I finally get to see a rehearsed reading of my play next week.  Yesterday I got to meet the director and discuss the play.

This was a first for me (despite my advanced age).  I find conversation difficult at the best of times, which is one of the reasons I became a writer.  Talking about a play I wrote five months ago with someone I just met – actually, I found that relatively easy.  When I say ‘relatively’ I mean easier than small-talk (see comment above about making conversation).

It did find it disconcerting to talk in depth about my thought processes and motivations when writing the script.  More difficult, she was complimentary (related to my difficulty with conversation is a difficulty receiving compliments).  I came away with one area to review – the ending – and that is down to my unease rather than hers.  I have spent the last few hours trying to work out how I want it to end.

The rehearsal and performance are next week – invited guests only, I’m afraid – and I might blog again to let you know how it went.

Writeaway

I have just completed ‘Write Away‘, a ten week course for developing playwrights, run by Birmingham Rep.  I’ve never been very sociable as a writer – it may be one of the reasons that I am a writer – but I have had a fantastic time.

The theatre sees the course as the beginning of a conversation.  I have completed a ten minute play and will have a script-in-hand reading in the autumn.  This will be a chance to work with a director and actors and to hear my work performed.  Will it lead to anything further?  That is down to what opportunities come up and my own ability to take them.

What I have gained most is a group of friends who are also writers.  I’ve tried writing groups in the past, but haven’t found anything that quite matched what I wanted to do.  Although as a group we were at different places, talking about writing and exploring ideas and approaches together has given us a solid base to build on.

Write Away is run yearly by the rep (click on the link for more information).  To get on to the programme you have to complete a one day workshop (called, appropriately enough, ‘Play in a Day’).  This is a valuable experience in itself.  After a few hours’ of tuition, participants are given the chance to write a first draft and hand it in.  This isn’t as hard as it sounds and no one is expected to write Hamlet.

I would recommend it anyone who is serious about writing drama.  It probably helps to have already written something and to have some ideas about character and structure, but you’ve nothing to lose if you give it a go.

Writing to the gallery

I recently submitted a short story to Prole Magazine.  Obviously, I looked at the submissions guide first – even I’m not that foolhardy.  One stricture stuck in my mind:

structures and forms that exist only to … appeal to the coffee lounges of our older universities are not welcome.

I have never been in a coffee lounge in any university, let alone an ‘older’ university.  I haven’t got a clue how to write something that would appeal to one.  This is a shame: Prole didn’t want my story – their loss – so I’m looking for a new market.  Here’s the thing, having been rejected, I can’t help wondering if it was because it does appeal to an old-university coffee lounge.  How would I find out?  More importantly, how do I bring my story to the attention of one?  It would seem churlish not to give it a go.

BBC Writersroom

The BBC Writers’ Room submission window opens tomorrow.  This window is concentrating on writing for CBBC or CBeebies.  Unlike some of the writers who post to their comment boards, I have no problem with the Writers’ Room concentrating on specific genres.  I have never considered myself a children’s writer.  A couple of weeks ago, when I out that the window was due to open shortly, I decided I should probably give it a go.  I opened one of my notebooks to try and develop an idea.  The first thing I found was a note I’d made a week earlier and then forgotten: the idea was for a children’s drama.  

I do keep notebooks (obviously), but I rarely find them that useful.  It’s nice to know that the system works occasionally.  I started the first draft yesterday and should get it finished before the window closes on 7th July.