I cannot believe it’s eight weeks since the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate. I’m pleased to say I have spent almost all of that time writing. I use the word ‘almost’ as the summer always means street theatre which can blitz most weekends.
Then there are the regular 100 mile round trips to visit my 91 year old dad in his care home in Witherwack, Sunderland. (I love that name but I always think it should be in Liverpool! Try saying it – it’s impossible in anything but a Scouse accent!). And, of course, I have to sleep, eat, drink and perform the usual human bodily functions which, when you add it all up, can amount to fair bit! So, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not ‘almost’ – nowhere near it in fact – more like 50%. I’ll plump for 51% as that will give it a ‘majority holding’, which is good. A ‘controlling stake, in fact! (Stockbroking background coming out there!)
All as it should be then! I am officially retired now – as far as the DWP are concerned at least – and in receipt of a State Pension. For this, I am grateful to all of you out there who are paying National Insurance contributions and, in effect, contributing to my meagre stipend. Moreover (always loved that word!) I am also no longer subject to the tyranny of what is laughingly called ‘a daytime job’. Don’t give it up, they say, don’t they? Well . . . I have, despite the fact that when you are self-employed, as I have been for the last 25 years, there is no employer showing you the door and/or giving you a gold watch when you hit 65.
The option is there to continue until you peg it, shuffle off your mortal coil, become an ex-employee, bereft of life, push up the daisies, fall off the twig, kick the bucket, run down the curtain or join the bleedin’ choir invisible! I could have carried on until I had to be carried out of a school hall, clutching whatever organ, extremity or limb had finally given up the ghost . . . and unceremoniously stuffed into the back of a Transit with the rest of the scenery, props and costumes! I chose not to go down that road!
So I NEED the writing. The brain needs to function! The synapses need to snap back and forth! Or I will go insane!
Any road up, as they say in the Highways Department . . . the writing! When we left Harrogate, I thought I was just a couple of days away from finishing my radio play – 45 minutes for the 2.15pm daily slot on BBC R4. How wrong can you be? (This is the crime drama, by the way, set against the backdrop of the bombing of my great grandfather’s lemonade factory in North Shields in May 1941) One of the agents I pitched to at Harrogate said that she could also see it as the weekly BBC R4 serial – 5 episodes of 15 minutes. So I set about the conversion of the existing 45 minute radio play into a ‘sister’ play of 75 minutes in total but which also had to have ‘hooks’ every 15 minutes to make the listener want to listen to the next episode. As well as the hooks, it also needed an extra 30 minutes dialogue but at least that allowed me a bit more latitude and ‘colour’! Easier said than done but I think, a few weeks after the point where I thought I was almost finished, that I have now actually, genuinely, REALLY finished.
I haven’t found it easy. It’s been hard graft up a steep learning curve! I have written and rewritten these scripts. I have bashed them and lashed them, pummelled them almost into their death throes, resurrected them and re-created them, deleted any extraneous words from the 45 minute version and then put them back in and expanded on them for the serial, 75 minute version but now . . . it is done! BBC R4 Drama have these submission windows and the one for drama – be it 45 minutes or serial – is now open until Friday 24th September. I am sending them the 45 minute version, with the comment that it also exists as a serial. I have moved away from the original working title of ‘Shelter’ to ‘A Handcart to Oblivion’. Fingers crossed!
Radio drama is a very exacting medium. You don’t have the luxury that a novelist has. You don’t have the visual imagery of TV or film. No florid, eloquent descriptions of what the characters are thinking, what they look like, where they are, their motivations, backstory, tastes in clothes, their music collection, their . . . anything! It all has to be delivered by the spoken word. Devices exist, of course, which can help to tell the story and fill in the background, like sound effects and the use of a narrator. They can help the writer to avoid lines like “Is that a smoking gun in your hand?” or “My word, what a glorious sunset and it’s only half past seven on a Thursday night”. Essentially, it’s all down to the dialogue, a good director who knows the story inside out and good actors. Radio actors are a cut above, in my opinion. They don’t have the nuances of facial expression, body language, close ups and the like. It’s all in the delivery of the words. A rare talent!
Next May sees the 75th anniversary of the factory bombing so my dream would be to have it accepted in time for it to be broadcast then.
Until I decide on my next magnum opus, I am sending some humorous (very original and side-splitting, if you want my honest opinion!) poems into a competition but that’s a slow burn. It closes on 13th October and it’s two months before you hear anything!
Dad has to be the subject of my next play. As I said earlier, he’s 91 and now, sadly, in the grip of Alzheimers. As well as serving in both the RAF and Parachute Regiment during the war, he finished his career in the Diplomatic Service. His first post was Moscow in 1974 at the height of the Cold War. This was followed by East Berlin and then on to less stressful and more ‘comfortable’ posts in Malaysia, Thailand, Chile, Jordan and Ghana.
His first two postings are the ones that interest me. Before he lost his reason – which I am afraid is what Alzheimers means, in case anyone is not aware! – he would constantly say that he was not able to tell us a lot of things that occurred during his postings to Moscow and East Berlin because he was governed by the Official Secrets Act. He never actually used the words “ . . . or I would have to kill you”, but we got the drift!
Dad was employed by the Diplomatic Service for the last 13 years or so of his working life, spanning the period 1974 to 1987. Although a lowly Security Officer – or so he told me! – the post obviously carried greater responsibility when he was in Moscow and East Berlin. He would occasionally mention ‘The Friends’ and I know now that this is a reference to MI6. They would suddenly be in evidence ‘when they were needed’.
The whole scenario fascinates me, especially the fact that, once you have signed up to the Official Secrets Act, there is no release,as far as I can work out, other than death. A note from your mam just wouldn’t cut the mustard! So even in his present mental condition where strange tales are now the norm and recognisable English vocabulary has been extended to include dozens of new words that owe more to Stanley Unwin than Stanley Baldwin, he is prevented by law from telling what he learned while in the employ of Her Majesty’s Government.
And I suddenly got this image of dozens of old blokes, like dad, in care homes across the UK who, no longer inhibited by reason or fear by dint of their deteriorating mental condition, are singing like canaries! Sensitive information is kept under wraps for a long time – 100 years in some cases, I think – so there could be inherent risk for nations and individuals in these disclosures.
It would not be sufficient to conclude that what they are spouting would always be dismissed as the ramblings of old men. Inferences could be drawn by certain parties, careers could be at risk, lives at stake! So, imagine a team employed specifically by MI5 or MI6 – with arguments there as to whose responsibility it is – to ‘silence’ these guys.
Any road up, it’s an idea and needs a fair bit of research but it’s not too much of a stretch. Is it? Radio play again, I think.
Probably . . .
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