Playwrighting Top Tips: Part One

Last month, Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters was published, providing access to the leading industry writing training for the first time.
This blog is the first in a series of ‘Tops Tips’ inspired by the book that we’ll be bringing you over the next few months. Part one comes from Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha theatre and founder of Schoolwrights.

Fin Kennedy: It has been a privilege and a pleasure to be one of the ten ‘Masters’. The combination of giving free reign to industry tutors to set vocational tasks alongside academic rigour is unique, while being able to research and develop with students new creative forms in a ‘Lab’ format each and every year is of real practical value to our company. I am delighted that some of this learning is being disseminated further with this book.

 

Can you tell us more about your dramatic writing teaching?

Fin Kennedy: I’m currently putting plans in place for the writers’ group that I’ve started in-house at Tamasha. There will be craft-based training about different aspects of playwriting, but I also want to start to train that group up as artist-producers able to take responsibility for curating, project-managing and particularly fundraising for their own projects.

It’s been a bugbear of mine over the last ten to twelve years that the traditional relationship between writers and organisations renders writers essentially passive. We’re almost entirely excluded from the infrastructure of theatre-making, which is weird given that everything starts with us. We’re where the ideas come from. We decide whose lives are worth putting a frame around.

Outside of the odd residency programme, you don’t get writers running theatre companies. You’re always freelance. You wait for the phone to ring. You wait to somehow come to a literary manager’s attention. When you do get a commission you’re told what the play you’re writing is or ought to be and sent away to write some drafts on your own. It’s disempowering. My experience started with the knockback I got for How To Disappear being rejected by every theatre in London, and having to fall back on my own resources and go “Actually, I can’t make a living out of play commissions, how else am I going to use my skills?” I think writers’ skills are applicable in lots of different contexts, but particularly in a community context. That’s something I’m passionate about training other writers up to do.

Fin Kennedy, photo by Phil Adams

What do you believe writers need to know about working in schools?

Fin Kennedy: I do a whole module on this. Amanda Stewart Fisher is an academic at Central School of Speech & Drama who writes a lot about community applied drama and she talks about the writer in residence role in the community context as being a temporary, shamanistic role. What she means by that is that it’s not about you. When you get a commission from one of the big companies like Soho or the Royal Court, it is about you and your voice and your vision and your name in lights. It’s not like that when you go into schools. This is not only because it’s less glamorous and there is not the same infrastructure but also because the close-up work that you’ll do is very collaborative.

You might have a group of young people for whom you are the workshop leader as well as the writer and gatherer of the material. That involves a channelling kind of process where you’re trying to capture their voices, their concerns, their worldviews and spirit and energy. Then you take all the fragmentary material that they’ll generate with you in sessions, take it away, give it your professional polish but hand it back to them in a form that they’ll recognise.

It’s self-effacing in that respect. I enjoy that process and I enjoy taking myself out of myself. I think it’s made me a better artist – it’s broadened my palate about the kinds of worlds and experiences I can write about with legitimacy. It’s about keeping a stake in real life. It’s easy when you’re a fulltime freelance writer to be holed up in your home/office/garret pontificating about how the world works without actually taking an active part in it.

I’ve not had a ‘proper job’, in terms of being at the office every day from nine to five, for a long time. I’ve got one now with Tamasha but before that I hadn’t had one for ten years and it’s easy to shed a lot of stimulus and experience that way. So I think it’s important for writers to use their skills in a very worldly way.

Thanks to Fin Kennedy and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters

The Masters at Work

Oberon is delighted to bring you Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters which brings together for the first time the knowledge of professionals who have led the way in dramatic writing in the UK.
Senior Editor at Oberon Books George Spender, said: “All of us at Oberon are thrilled to be a part of this extremely exciting project that will no doubt have a tremendous influence on the next generation of writers and theatre makers.”
Taken from the introduction to the book, written by its Editor Jennifer Tuckett, this blog will introduce you to the new collection and what you can expect from it. 

9781783193240Drama Centre London is one of the UK’s best drama schools, having trained many of the most successful theatre and screen artists in the UK, and Central Saint Martins is one of the world’s leading colleges of art and design. The two organisations have recently come together to create the UK’s first MA in Dramatic Writing covering writing for theatre, film, television, radio and digital media.

As part of this new MA, we brought together ten people who have led the way in the training of dramatic writers in the UK. During the course’s first year, with these ten ‘Masters’, we ran The Year of Experimentation to investigate what dramatic writing training can be in the UK – the first time these top industry professionals had ever worked together and pooled their advice.

This book shares the results of this year with you via ten Masterclasses from our Year of Experimentation Festival – the culmination of our first year – and provides access for the first time to the leading industry training. Our ten Masters are:

  • Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme
  • Stephen Jeffreys, Literary Associate at the Royal Court Theatre for eleven years and creator of Masterclasses which have led the way in Playwriting training in the UK
  • Caroline Jester, who has been Dramaturg at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, co-author of the book Playwriting Across the Curriculum and has pioneered collaborative and digital playwriting programmes worldwide
  • Fin Kennedy, winner of the first Fringe First award ever awarded to a schools production and co-Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company
  • Kate Rowland, founder of BBC Writersroom
  • Philip Shelley, instigator of the Channel 4 screenwriting course
  • Nina Steiger, Associate Director at the Soho Theatre
  • Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader for Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins’ new MA Dramatic Writing Course
  • Steve Winter, Director of the Kevin Spacey Foundation and co-creator of the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays and TS Eliot US/UK Exchange
  • John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers Academy and former Head of Channel 4 Drama and Controller of BBC Drama Production

These ten Masterclasses offer a unique opportunity to learn from those creating and running the best dramatic writing training in the UK, whether you are a writer, student, teacher, arts professional or simply interested in writing.

jennifer-tuckett

Jennifer Tuckett

Many of these schemes receive thousands of applications a year but what these people teach or think about dramatic writing and why they created these programmes is often not publicly available. And if it’s not publicly available then how do you know what is being taught or thought about if you’re not a part of these schemes? And how do you become a part of these schemes if you don’t know what is being taught or thought about? It seemed to us this is a potentially vicious cycle that we wanted to address.

Each Masterclass includes an interview providing further insight into who these Masters are and additional tips. Some also include Q&As with or input from the audience from our Year of Experimentation Festival.

We do hope you’ll enjoy the book, and will use the Masterclasses to inspire your own writing.

Have your say in the future of dramatic writing in the UK by taking part in this survey, the results of which will be discussed at London Writers’ Week in summer 2017 – https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/dramaticwriting

The Actor’s Toolkit

We’re excited to announce the launch of The Actor’s Toolkit today, which gathers together its definitive range of titles for working actors and actors in training. Written by some of the finest practitioners in their fields, these books are designed to equip actors with everything they need to learn, develop and thrive.

As the UK’s foremost publisher of plays and books on theatre, Oberon is also the go-to publisher for those who teach the craft of acting and their students. The Actor’s Toolkit comprises eleven titles in all, based around the categories of Movement, Voice, Text, Auditions and Career.

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The launch is supported by a social media campaign, advertising in trade press and a discount offer on the Oberon website. Anyone interested should head to www.actorstoolkit.co.uk to learn more and get 3 for 2 on any of the eleven core books in the series until 31st January 2017 with the discount code TOOLKIT342.

Books in the Series

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The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting: Part Three

Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader for the MA Dramatic Writing at Central St Martins, and head of the new ‘The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting’ competition, has kindly come back as a guest blogger for Oberon Books to update us on the next stage of the competition, what’s coming up for the winning playwrights, and how you can get your hands on the lesson plans and the wonderful writing they inspired… 

I’m pleased to be writing to let you know that The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, the new competition from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions has announced the production of the winners’ play.

The winners’ play will be on the theme of what it means to be a student in the UK today, drawing inspiration from the Cultural Learning Alliance’s recent figures showing a decline in the number of students studying the arts at school level, the announcement of the end of the Creative Writing A level last year and the forthcoming debate on whether arts subject should be part of the EBACC, scheduled for July 4th in the Houses of Parliament.

The winners, hard at work on their play

The winners, hard at work on their play

The production will take place as part of a Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting day at this year’s London Writers’ Week, and the day will also feature free workshops with Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre Rob Drummer on how we can create a more diverse theatre industry and Senior Editor of Oberon Books George Spender on how theatre publishing works, continuing the competition’s aim to provide access to the leading training coming out of the industry for writers everywhere to benefit form.

Winners include Vee Tames, a 17 year old student from Colchester who used the lesson plans from the competition to write her first play, Titilola Ige, a MA student from Croydon who also works in a charity for young people, Monique Geragthy, an undergraduate student from Queen Mary’s University who also used the lesson plans to write her fist play, and emerging writers Miriam Battye from Salford and Mufaro Makubika from Nottingham.

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

Jennifer Tuckett and winner Titilola Ige

We’re delighted to be launching stage two of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting competition. We hope the day on July 5th will provide an opportunity to showcase the work of the winners of The Student Guide to Writing, alongside a second opportunity to offer free workshops and access to the leading training, this time on why its important to provide access and how theatre publishing works. Rob’s workshop will also offer tips on rewriting and where to send your work so all entrants to the competition can get further free advice.

We’re also particularly excited about the theme of the play – with the forthcoming debate on EBACC, we’re pleased to be giving the student winners a chance to have their say on this subject matter via their winners’ play, in-keeping with the theme of the competition to empower students and young people and encourage more diverse voices to be heard by providing access to the leading training coming out of the industry.

Lesson Plan writer - Fin Kennedy

Lesson Plan writer – Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company and one of the lesson plan writers said: “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting provides important access to the leading playwriting training coming out of the industry and I am delighted to be involved. The innovative online format empowers writers, teachers and groups across the UK to take the initiative and start writing, whatever their circumstances, using new media to democratize vocational training. The implications for access and diversity are very exciting indeed, and I hope it inspires other initiatives of this kind”.

Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers’ programme said: “Craft, diversity and well told stories from a vast range of perspectives, experiences and individual voices capturing what it means to be human – these are my passions. Hence, The Student Guide to Writing felt like a great match.  The more people we can inspire to add their voice to the canon, the more we increase the chances of creating a more open, enlightened, incisive, insightful and equitable world for us all to play a part in.”

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Lesson Plan writer Ola Animashawun

Vee Tames, schools winner: “Writing for the stage had always been something I wanted to try for a long time. However, I lacked the knowledge to know where to begin and the particular demands of the form. The lesson plans were very concise and provided you with exercises you could use immediately to spark ideas and clarify each element of your work such as structure, dialogue and character. The competition deadline itself is what gave me that final boost of encouragement to enter! I was pleased when I found out I won the Schools Category with my first ever play; it is immensely gratifying and such a confidence boost.”

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Jennifer Tuckett and lesson plan writer Lucy Kerbel

Miriam Battye, emerging/general category winner: “I want to be a really great writer, the best I possibly can be. I’ve been given sage advice to just read, read and read. It’s a foolproof way to get better. Studying is much the same thing. It’s just getting as much stuff in your head so you’ve got more thoughts to work with.

Mufaro Makubika, emering/general winner: “This was a great opportunity to learn about craft from highly respected industry figures. It’s a fantastic honour. To me, all a playwright wants to do is get their work out and work more.”

 

For more information on the day or to book tickets, please go to: https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/festival/the-student-guide-to-writing-playwriting-day/

Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters” is also available to pre-order at http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing and “The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting” will be published at the end of 2016, which will include the lesson plans and winning writers’ work in one volume to provide permanent access to the lesson plans and the leading training for the first time. We hope you will join us in July to see the winner’s work and for the second stage of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting and the opportunity to get further advice and feedback on your plays.

The Student Guide to Playwriting

Jennifer Tuckett is Course Leader for Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martin’s new MA Dramatic Writing. Previously, she founded the UK’s first formally industry partnered MA in Playwriting and last year was a finalist for the Women of the Future Arts and Culture Award.
We asked Jennifer to write a piece for our blog about a new playwriting competition and accompanying book which she’s helped spearhead, and explain how you can get involved. 

scene 1I’m really delighted to be asked to write a blog about The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting.

Jennifer Tuckett

Jennifer Tuckett

The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting is the first in a new competition series from the Bush Theatre, Oberon Books, the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins and Writers at Work Productions and has now launched at thestudentguidetowriting.com

We’re really excited about the competition series, which we hope will provide access for the first time to the leading dramatic writing training coming out of the industry.

Writers can enter from schools, universities, or elsewhere (as we want to encourage anyone to be a student of playwriting) or teachers can teach the lesson plans in class.

All you have to do is follow the lesson plans then send your work in. Five winners will then be chosen to attend a bootcamp on playwriting at Central Saint Martins, see their work showcased at London Writers Week and the lesson plans and winning work will then be published by Oberon Books!

An outline of the first competition’s shape and contents can be found below:

10 leading professionals have now committed to writing lesson plans as part of The Student Guide to Writing: Playwriting, to provide access to their training.

The lesson plans will be published via the website www.thestudentguidetowriting.com

Lesson plans will be released from January to March 2016 and will be:

Lesson Plan One: Starting Out – Rob Drummer, Associate Dramaturg, Bush Theatre

Lesson Plan Two: Ideas – Ola Animashawun, founder of the Royal Court Theatre’s world famous young writers programme

John Yorke

John Yorke

Lesson Plan Three: Structure – John Yorke, creator of the BBC Writers Academy, one of the most influential writing training programmes in the industry in recent years, and author of the best selling book on storytelling Into the Woods

Lesson Plan Four: Scenes – Jennifer Tuckett, Course Leader of MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins

Lesson Plan Five: Characterisation – Rebecca Lenkiewicz, playwright and mentor from the Bush Theatre

Finn Kennedy

Finn Kennedy

Lesson Plan Six: Dialogue – Fin Kennedy, founder of Schoolwrights and Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company

Lesson Plan Seven: Theatricality – Steve Winter, co-founder of the Old Vic New Voices 24 Hour Plays and TS Eliot Exchange and Director of the Kevin Spacey Foundation

Lesson Plan Eight: Rewriting – Caroline Jester, former Dramaturg at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and author of Playwriting Across the Curriculum

Lesson Plan Nine: Staging Your Work – Caroline Horton, writer, director, actor and mentor from the Bush Theatre

Lesson Plan Ten: Final Advice – Lucy Kerbel – founder of Tonic Theatre and creator of Platform

Students and their teachers can follow the lesson plans to build up a play week by week.

At the end of the project the lesson plans and winning work will be published by Oberon Books to provide a book for use by students and teachers in schools and Universities across the UK to improve dramatic writing training the UK and provide permanent access to the leading training.

Please note there are four categories of winner: a schools category, a college and University category, an emerging writer category and anyone (two prizes will be awarded in this category) as the competition wants to recognize and encourage anyone to be a student of playwriting.

Rob Drummer BUSH

Rob Drummer

Associate Dramaturg at the Bush Theatre Rob Drummer said: “We’re delighted to be partnering The Student Guide to Writing which forms part of our efforts to inspire and develop playwrights from a diverse range of backgrounds and to engage audiences nationally in new theatre writing.”

Senior Editor at Oberon Books George Spender, said: “All of us at Oberon are thrilled to be a part of this extremely exciting project that will no doubt have a tremendous influence on the next generation of writers and theatre makers.”

Jennifer Tuckett

Jennifer Tuckett

Course Leader of MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins Jennifer Tuckett said: “The Student Guide to Writing is a new series designed to provide access to the best dramatic writing training in the UK. Teachers can use the lesson plans in classes or students can follow the lesson plans on their own. The winning student work will be published along with the lessons in a book published by Oberon Books as a permanent legacy of the project. We are thrilled about the partnership between Central Saint Martins, the Bush Theatre and Oberon Books on competition one, all of whom are leading the way in the UK.”

For further information please see www.thestudentguidetowriting.com

As part of the new partnership with Oberon Books, there will also be a second book for writers for theatre, film, television, radio and digital media offering more advanced advice from the industry across all forms of dramatic writing and offering access to the leading training coming out of the industry in all forms of dramatic writing for the first time: http://oberonbooks.com/creative-writing/dramatic-writing

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Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric

Giles Taylor is an actor who has appeared at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and at numerous regional theatres, as well as on television. He is also a Shakespeare Consultant, working on productions across the country and running workshops for both actors and directors
Philip Wilson is a freelance director who has worked at theatres including Birmingham Rep, The Bush, Chichester Minerva, Liverpool Playhouse, Sheffield Crucible and the Traverse. He’s also the former Artistic Director of Salisbury Playhouse, and was the Performance Consultant for the film Shakespeare in Love.

Together they’ve written Oberon Books’ latest must-have handbook, Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric: a guide for actors, directors and playwrights

Last week, Áine Ryan from Oberon Books had a chat with Giles and Philip for this blog, in which they talked about the process of writing a book together, and why there’s a space on everyone’s bookshelf for it. 

Áine Ryan: So, Giles, Philip – how did the book come about?

Philip Wilson: Well, Giles and I, having known each other for around 15 years, finally got to work together when I directed a double-bill of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Birmingham Rep. In which Giles played not one but three butlers: Lane and Merriman in Earnest, and Bennett in Travesties.

Giles & Philip see their book for the first time, at the Oberon office

Giles & Philip see their book for the first time, at the Oberon office

Giles Taylor: Philip mentioned, during early table-work rehearsals, that Wilde’s play was packed with rhetorical devices, and my ears pricked up. I have long had a love of rhetoric, from my university days studying Classics, and have used it as a major tool in teaching Shakespeare. Other cast members, though, while interested, weren’t sure what warranted being rhetoric – and even Philip admitted that he could never remember the Greek and Latin names of the devices.

PW: I still often can’t! Anyway, we had a chat in a tea-break, and pondered the idea of how useful it would be to have a book in rehearsals that listed all the terms, but had a focus on drama – and contemporary drama, too, not only Shakespeare – rather than on politics or oratory.

GT: Once the topic was out there in rehearsals, my rhetorical antennae were a-quiver. To help the company, I compiled a list of about 60 rhetorical devices, with examples from both plays. In doing so, I had a eureka moment one day when we were working on Travesties, and realised that part of an apparently rambling speech by the lead character, Carr, was actually an extended paramoiosis. It’s now in the book! We are all aware that Stoppard is an extraordinary wordsmith, but even by his standards this is a superb example.

PW: Giles’s discovery really was helpful in unlocking a difficult moment in the play. And it proved the point that, if one could identify these devices, it could clarify the text and inspire ideas as how best to present and perform it.

AR: So clearly there is a need for this book; a space on the shelf for something on this topic.

‘We don’t always know why we say what we say, or write what we write – but invariably, the Greeks have a word for it. Packed with memorable and quotable examples from sources ancient and modern, this witty and well-organised handbook offers a lexicon for our efforts, terms for our art. For any teacher, actor or writer, a useful and fascinating guide.’ Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

‘We don’t always know why we say what we say, or write what we write – but invariably, the Greeks have a word for it. Packed with memorable and quotable examples from sources ancient and modern, this witty and well-organised handbook offers a lexicon for our efforts, terms for our art. For any teacher, actor or writer, a useful and fascinating guide.’ Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

GT: Exactly. No-one, as far as we are aware, has ever written about rhetoric in drama in general before: there’s lots on Shakespeare, of course, but barely anything on other playwrights. Initially we were too busy putting on the two plays to take the idea further. But after the run finished we met and talked about approaching publishers with the idea.

PW: We were both aware of Oberon, obviously, and the website had a very clear (if slightly daunting) set of guidelines, which made us really think about who the book was for, and how it should be structured.

GT: It was very early on that we decided that we didn’t want to produce a simple dictionary of terms, with devices listed alphabetically. Those already exist and frankly are a bit impenetrable. We felt that, as theatre people, we needed to group the devices thematically.

PW: We approached Oberon with this approach: they – that is, you – responded quickly, called us in for a meeting: and suddenly we found that we had been commissioned!

AR: Were there new things you learned yourselves as the project got into full swing, in terms of rhetoric?

PW: How many devices there are! And how it doesn’t matter, ultimately, if a playwright didn’t have that form in mind, when she or he was writing their play. It may simply have sounded… right, suited the character, or the moment, or the mood. But it is there, and seeing that it is there may enable an actor and director to do something more precise or different with those words. Which surely is what rehearsal is about: exploring the text.

GT: I really wanted to talk to living playwrights about their use of rhetoric, but there simply wasn’t time. I did have a brief chat with Laura Wade, though, about her play Posh. She admitted that she was unaware how rhetorically her writing of those characters had turned out, but supposed that in reaching for the words, phrases and ways of talking that such highly-educated, self-obsessed people use, she had fortuitously found the rhetoric of that class. Fascinating. Maybe for a further edition I’ll pin down a few others! Continue reading

Dennis Potter and Me

Sunday marks 80 years since the birth of Dennis Potter. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of British television, both as the writer of the seminal dramas Son of Man, Pennies from Heaven, Blue Remembered Hills and The Singing Detective and as a ferocious TV critic and essayist. One of Potter’s most devoted disciples is Peter Bowker, creator of the acclaimed BBC serials Blackpool and Occupation, whose BBC2 biopic Marvellous won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama last night (10 May 2015).  

In his foreword to The Art of Invective Peter Bowker reflects on Potter’s ‘cruel and witheringly precise humour’ and what this new collection reveals about a spikey and uncompromising character.

Like many a 1970s hysteric, I can lay claim to having been titillated by the work of Dennis Potter long before I had actually seen any of it. Our family didn’t get BBC2 till the mid-Seventies so, for some time, my only acquaintance with his work was the BBC1 announcer intoning, ‘And now over on BBC2, Casanova’ for six weeks. In fairness, that was probably all the TV filth a 13-year-old in 1970s Stockport could handle without imploding.

But the real beginning – the real meeting with his work – was the moment in Pennies from Heaven when Bob Hoskins’ Arthur first turned to camera and opened his mouth and Elsie Carlisle’s voice came out. I can remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Are they allowed to do that?’ It was so audacious but yet it made perfect sense. It was experimental but it was impossible to imagine the story being told in a better way. And like all great ideas, you were left wondering why nobody had thought to do it before.

1970 'Angels Are So Few' promo shot

1970 ‘Angels Are So Few’ promo shot

As the years went by and I took in Blue Remembered Hills, The Singing Detective and Cream in My Coffee, I used to fantasize that me and Dennis Potter could be mates. Reading this collection does make me think that he would have been a tough mate to have.

The cruel and witheringly precise humour that we see Philip Marlow exercise in The Singing Detective is very much present in both his views on television and his views on himself. Reading this collection it is clear that critically, he didn’t appear to have a safety catch. He seemed not to recognize that simultaneously being a practising dramatist and a drama critic was problematic in any way, or, being Potter, relished the fact.

Just as his best drama simultaneously provided a critical and often musical analysis of the drama as it unfolded, so his non-fiction often reads as a dramatic monologue disguised as analysis. The musical rhythm of his dialogue and the savage put downs are all present and correct in his prose style.

Here he is reviewing a 1972 adaptation of War and Peace and taking on his familiar anti-realist position. Noting how much the director lingers on the soup plates, he goes on, ‘Naturalism might well demand that life be turned into one damned dish after another, but the insights of a great novelist are rather more interesting than the eye-line of the head waiter.’

9781783192038And here again, in a review of Till Death Us Do Part in which he worries that the character Alf Garnett has become a hero to the very racists he was invented to parody. He opens with an anecdote about a recent stay in hospital in which he found himself sharing a ward with:

assembled Alfs addressing themselves to the unpalatable fact subdued Pakistanis had somehow managed to infiltrate into the ward under the pretence of chronic sickness. We all knew as a matter of course that these cunning brown bastards were only there to draw social security payments, an argument which temporarily wavered when one of them so miscalculated his ruse that he actually went so far as to die. “There’s yer bleed’n curry for you,” observed my nearest Alf, not entirely without compassion.

As a piece of satire, I can’t think of a finer or wittier skewering of the myth of ‘health tourism’ and ‘benefits cheats’ in the space of one paragraph.

As a piece of prose it has elegance and playfulness, that final ‘not entirely without compassion’ reading almost like a stage direction and, like a perfectly weighted pass, allowing the reader to take it in their stride.

Most rewarding of all for the Potter geek, it is recognisably the blueprint for a moment in The Singing Detective where Ali – the Pakistani in the next bed to Philip Marlow – turns the expectation of racist abuse into a moment of shared hilarity between Marlow and himself at the expense of a liberal young houseman.

With his eye for absurdity and precision of language, how I would have loved to have read Dennis Potter on the likes of Iain Duncan Smith or Nigel Farage. Indeed, Farage, with his strained combination of fake bonhomie and victimized suburban bluster, could almost be a character invented by Potter – and played by Denholm Elliott. Cameron, you suspect, would be too easy a target, although I would like to see what he would have made of Nick Clegg’s avowed love of Samuel Beckett.

Dennis Potter

Dennis Potter circa 1987

There’s a tone in Potter’s prose and in his voice in interviews that reflects the masochism at the heart of his greatest work. He endlessly tortures himself with the notion that TV isn’t worthy of the same intellectual interrogation as literature or art but then makes it clear that he intends to ignore his misgivings and give the same forensic attention to an episode of Steptoe and Son or Coronation Street as he would, indeed does to War and Peace.

Naturalism, as Dennis was keen to remind us throughout his career, was just one way (and a flawed way at that) of writing television drama, but it had, partly through soaps and long running series like Z Cars, become the most familiar and dominant form by the time Pennies from Heaven burst on to our screen. Watching it now it reads as a largely naturalistic drama with music. The only time it really steps out of its realist framework is during the song sequences and during the encounters with the mystical Accordion Man. The Singing Detective then used the Pennies from Heaven template as its starting point to gloriously and triumphantly deconstruct the whole way in which we tell stories.

The towering achievement of The Singing Detective was to be simultaneously formally adventurous (A man in bed with a skin disease is writing or rewriting a detective novel, reminiscing about a traumatic childhood, peopling the film adaptation of his detective novel with characters that may or may not be characters from that troubled childhood. He is simultaneously being ripped off by his agent or wife or both for the film rights to the story he is writing. He is being psychoanalyzed. These multiple worlds bleed into each other from the beginning, and the musical sequences emphasize and restage his fears of illness, of betrayal, of loss of mind, of loss of conscience) and yet still to create a character who we cared about, who we believed and with whom we emotionally engaged. When Philip Marlow raises his still misshapen hands in triumph as he leaves the ward for the last time, I cry every time. He has won. He has beaten his sickness. He has taken up his bed and walked. He has become the triumphant hero of his own story – his own stories even.

Continue reading