Hamlet comes to BBC Two

We are delighted to learn of the planned screening of Robert Icke’s Hamlet on BBC Two in 2018. As huge fans of Robert Icke‘s work and of this production, the screening – commissioned by Patrick Holland (Controller, BBC Two) and Emma Cahusac (Commissioning Editor) – gets two thumbs up from all of us at Oberon HQ. It’s always wonderful to see any steps taken to make great theatre more accessible for everyone, and this decision means people can now watch a stunning modern production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the comfort of home, wherever they are in the country!

This production – which transferred to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre after its sell-out run at the Almeida earlier this year – stars Sherlock‘s Andrew Scott as Hamlet, Angus Wright as Claudius, Jessica Brown Findlay as the tragic Ophelia and Juliet Stevenson as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. It has also cast Guildenstern as a woman (Madeline Appiah) which adds a new and really interesting dimension to Hamlet’s relationship with Guildenstern.

Robert Icke’s modern take remains faithful to the original Shakespearean text, but somehow manages to feel fresh, relatable and up-to-date. It has received unanimous praise, being called ‘thrilling’ (The Stage), ‘rich and beautiful’ (Evening Standard) and ‘masterly’ (Variety). You can read more reviews here.

Another exciting aspect of this TV adaptation is the potential for it to be used in classrooms, alongside the text, to help students appreciate and engage with the play. Reading a Shakespeare play on the page just cannot be compared with hearing and seeing it performed in real time, in terms of understanding the language and the characters. With such a star-studded cast, and a modern Danish setting, this is sure to be a popular choice for English and drama teachers and their pupils.

You can learn more about Robert Icke’s Hamlet, and buy your own copy HERE

Regrettably: notes on ‘How To Win Against History’

How to Win Against History is a musical retelling of the life of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905). He was born to inherit the Empire, but instead he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring him.
Written, composed and performed by Seiriol Davies, this fabulous show has been a huge hit at the Edinburgh fringe for the second year running, and is touring the UK throughout 2017.
In this blog, Seiriol talks about how he first learned that Henry Cyril even existed.

“I grew up on Ynys Mon, a.k.a. Anglesey, a.k.a. The Druidic Haven of the Celts, a.k.a. The Flat Bit Before You Get To The Irish Ferry. It’s a barreny, lovely, salty sort of place. Henry Cyril Paget also lived there, which is handy.

While we’ve been making HTWAH, I’ve said this particular story so many times that I’ve a bit lost track of exactly how true it is (oh my god look: thematic relevance), but my recollection is I used to make my parents take me to Plas Newydd, which is the Paget family’s estate on Anglesey, over and over again as a boy. Of course, it may have been like twice and I just sucked it all in through my hungry, mad child-eyes in such detail that it felt like loads.
And I should say it’s a National Trust place, we didn’t just turn up at somebody’s house with me in the back seat, goggle-eyed and absorbing key memories for later musical theatre projects.

In fact, my mum has in her retirement expressed an interest in working at Plas Newydd and becoming one of those powerful-looking National Trust ladies who dwell by the fireplaces in an angora cardie waiting to tell you what that weird Game of Thronesy thing is (it’s probably a long-range bedpan) or to point vehemently at the ‘stop prodding that’ sign, or to pose for the odd awkward group selfie with a family in velourette anoraks from Wisconsin.
And I for one think this would be very exciting.

But anyway, there were two key reasons why I wanted to go there so much:

(i) The mural by painter Rex Whistler (the non-Whistler’s Mother one) which is all Italianate froufferies and phantastickal towers and harbour-folk, and is well worth the twenty minute tour guide talk-through, as it does things with foreshortening that beggar belief. Like, if you as a viewer do a nifty crab-walk along the floor in front of it, it can make a sailboat seem to sail out of the harbour before your very eyes while not moving at all in real life because it is a painting and this is not Harry Potter. Or at least, that is what the tour guide claimed, and my response was to just glare at it until I could sufficiently motivate myself to believe I could see what she was talking about.

But in any case, it’s a bit Where’s Wally and a bit Magic Eye and I was so preoccupied with it that we’ve now got a framed copy of it up by the sink in the kitchen in my flat. And I’m fairly sure that, if it wasn’t positioned where the glassware cupboard door slammed into it with alarming enthusiasm every time I open it, I would have by now found the peace to enter its zone and divine its secrets while washing the wine glasses of a Tuesday morning. But, as it is, I just get mesmerised and accidentally smack it again with the cupboard door.

(b) The small collection of laminated, photocopied snaps of Henry Cyril which were grudgingly stuck on the wall next to the toilet by the back porch. Now, as context, the pictures of the other, preceding Marquises (NB Other people seem to say ‘Marquess’, but I tend to prefer ‘Marquis’. I’m not sure why; I think maybe cos Henry seemed to favour it that way, and I’m just some ratbag socialisty commoner with Radio 4 affectations, so I’ve allowed myself to pick which spelling I fancied. Do get in touch, DeBrett’s) are not exhibited in the same laminatey toilet zone; their pictures are painted in oil, hanging in big gold frames in rooms you actually hang out in, or they are immortalised as busts, or full-body statues on top of huge columns erected looming over Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a nearby village) as a deliberate copying of Nelson’s Column in London.

Well, one of them has that. The first Marquis was a hero at the battle of Waterloo (by which we presumably mean he stood in a big hat at the back telling some poor people to run that way) and was so British that, when his leg got blown off by a cannon shell, The Duke of Wellington, who was next to him, looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think your leg’s been blown off” and Paget looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think you’re right”. For these services to hats, shouting and limb-removal-not-noticing, he got himself a Column, which is probably one of NW Wales’s top Columns, and I really mean that.

The fact that it was this sort of lineage Henry Cyril was coming from makes it no real surprise that he got relegated to the Gallery De Toilette, because…
I mean look at him. Google Image Search ‘Henry Cyril Paget’ and look at them outfits.

Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury drove through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a sellotape suit?

Henry Cyril Paget and Seiriol Davies

I drank them in, those pictures, though not really identifying very much with the whole fabulousness thing. I’ve never been an extravagant dresser per se, apart from a brief phase when I took to tying bright scarves to the belt loops of my skater jeans in an attempt to look like a sort of sexy satyr, but ended up looking (as a friend helpfully pointed out) “as though my butt was wearing a cape”. And, at the time of seeing the images,
I was probably wearing a Homer Simpson T-shirt, urban camo trousers and Hi-Tecs.

But there’s just something about him in those pictures. Okay, sure, there’s the millions of poundsworth of costume budget; but there’s also the sort of ‘don’t give a fig’ attitude he has which I loved: that he’s gazing out, dressed for some reason as a prog rock chandelier, telling the world to fig off, the bunch of motherfiggers.

And reading the little inscription underneath, which said (spoiler alert) that he’d ruined himself, died young and been expunged from the family history as comprehensively as possible – with all the letters, photos and diaries his family could find, burnt – set off my little internal bell of moral outrage. And so, because I believe in swift, decisive action, I decided to make a play about it twenty years later.

But over all that time, the simplicity of that feeling hasn’t really changed, despite growing-upness making it clear the whole thing’s more complicated, what with issues of privilege and stuff like that.

Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character (“Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!”) people have just seemed to warm to him. Due to some combination of his defiance, his outsideryness writ on such a massive, Imperial scale and the fact that we know hardly anything about his internal life (due to the aforementioned bonfire), people seem to be able to pour themselves into him. Because I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.

Also yes, his outfits are life-giving.

I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley.

However, the truth is: there is a bit more stuff that survived the fire. I was lucky enough to have the help of Lily and Christopher Sykes, who are descendants of the actual real life Lilian from her second marriage, as well as Prof Viv Gardner, fabulous performance historian at the University of Manchester. With their help – as well as some lovely people who’ve written to me either when they heard we were making, or having seen, the show – I’ve got a few more tidbits.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with people after the show (sample:
“So, did he really exist?” “Yes. Did I forget to say that several times in the show?” “No, but I thought that was you making it more clear that he didn’t exist.” “Surely that would be quite a weird way of saying that.” “Yeah, but you are quite weird.” “Good point. A Strongbow Dark Fruits please.” “Strongbow Dark Fruits. Really?” “Don’t judge me.”) I thought it’d be good to talk a bit around the story, to weave some of these bits of tid into the script; to show how the show matches up with the true-life story as much as I know it.

I might be wrong, you might think this a very tiresome thing to do, but anyway I’ve done it now. And you can buy it here.”

 – Seiriol Davies, Woolwich, Friday 6th Jan 2017

Oberon have published both the annotated script edition, and the musical score in the songbook edition. The annotated script contains many footnotes (feenote) from Seiriol’s research, while the song book contains the fully-transcribed piano and vocal arrangements for all fourteen songs from the show, so you can have a sherry and sing any of the glamorous roles.

Aboard the Victory O

This funny and touching memoir was originally written by Jonathan Miller for a celebratory volume of essays by colleagues and friends of stage and screen actor Laurence Olivier. It is published in the collection One Thing And Another: Selected Writings 1954-2016, published by Oberon Books and edited by Ian Greaves.

“I first met him informally at parties after Beyond the Fringe. He saw the show and was, I suspect, slightly irritated by our Shakespeare sketch. He had sat in a box and it got backstage that he was not conspicuously amused.

My first professional contact with him was when Ken Tynan edited a television programme called Tempo, which was commercial television’s answer to Monitor. With his wonderful flair for what is fashionable, Tynan had asked us to do a regular satirical spot. In the opening programme this was a pastiche of C. P. Snow written by Alan Bennett, a high-table scene of people drinking, wearing gowns and so forth, and bandying conversation about. On the same programme Larry was being interviewed by George Harewood about the opening of Chichester.

Jonathan Miller, then & now

We were on first but we began ‘corpsing.’ There were two takes, three takes, and Larry was obviously amused by the fact that the young lads couldn’t do it. By the fourth take we could see him getting more and more impatient at these dreadful amateurs. It took something like 20 takes before we got it right, by which time he was thoroughly nettled, if only because we’d kept him waiting so long.

Then I didn’t see him for some while, by which time I’d blotted my copybook quite badly with him. When I saw his performance as Othello, I told a journalist that while I couldn’t help but admire the extraordinary bravura, energy and detail of it, I wasn’t all that impressed by the performance as a whole. He was understandably annoyed by this – or I heard he was – and looking back I can understand just how he felt and I’m rather surprised he ever asked me to direct anything. However, some years later I was doing my first and only feature film – an unspeakable catastrophe – and was sitting in the commissariat at Elstree when a message came through saying ‘Laurence Olivier on the phone.’ I thought it was Alan Bennett or Peter Cook. Anyway, a hoax. I came to the phone and heard this voice saying, ‘Dear boy… This is Laurence Olivier here… Joanie wants to do The Merchant of Venice and would love you to direct it.’ No question of him acting in it, no mention of that at all.

I was blushing at the thought of what I had said about his Othello. ‘I would love to,’ I managed to say and I mentioned doing a nineteenth-century version. He said, ‘Whichever way you want to.’ Later I saw from his book that he came up with the idea. It may well be that we both thought of it. But, anyway, it then gradually became apparent that he was going to do Shylock. Now, whether he had thought this all along and had decided to delay committing himself until he found out whether I had an idea which coincided with his own, or one which he could approve of, the fact is that he came to the first reading knowing the part perfectly. Not like the other actors.

This was so characteristic of him. He’s very Machiavellian and although this has its drawbacks, there was always something glamorous about his political calculation. It was like working for Diocletian.

Before rehearsals I had a lot of difficulty eliminating ideas of which he had been persuaded by Ken Tynan, who had in turn been persuaded by Orson Welles. The idea, for example, that Bassanio should play all three suitors, including the black one, in order to get the right casket. There was another idea that Portia would present herself in court in a wheelchair. In any case there were a lot of encrustations – Tynan’s rather than Olivier’s – which I had to careen before I could find the clean lines of the play. Eventually we came to an agreement, which also involved persuading him to drop an enormous amount of make-up – false nose, ringlets, a Disraeli beard, all adding up to a sort of George Arliss. I said, ‘Larry, please’ – as a Jew I felt embarrassed – ‘please, we’re not quite like that, not all of us.’ He then said a wonderful thing: ‘In this play, dear boy, which we are about to perform, we must at all costs avoid offending the Hebrews. God, I love them so.’ ‘The best way to do that, Larry,’ I said, ‘is to drop these pantomime trappings which are offensive and unnecessary.’ He agreed to drop the ringlets.

But he had invested in extremely expensive dentures which gave him his strong prognathous look – based, I think, on a member of the National Theatre Board – and he was so attached to them in both senses that I felt I would have been a terrible spoilsport to object to them. He used to go round the corridors of the National Theatre seeing whether anyone knew he had them in. He would give interviews to journalists wearing them. He loved them so much and he looked rather good in them – and I couldn’t bring myself to object!

Still from The Merchant of Venice

In the event we did a lot of horse-trading. I would give him ideas and he would exploit them. He never tried to push rank. He has what all really great actors have – an expedient recognition of good business. If you have a good idea he’ll take it from you regardless. If not he will go on to ‘automatic pilot,’ or rather he’ll take over the controls himself.

I suggested the little dance, at the moment when Tubal tells him Antonio’s ships have gone down. I also suggested that he entered bearing Jessica in his arms when he discovers her flight. This reminded the audience subliminally of Lear and Cordelia – another father ‘betrayed’ by his daughter. I suggested his crying at the end, though not in any way which he didn’t utterly make his own. He always looks for a memorable effect at some critical moment and I remember him saying, ‘Oh God, I’ve done a fit, a fall, I cannot possibly fart!’ I said, ‘Why not try humiliated, terrible crying. I can’t do it, but I know you can.’ Off he went and gave it this curious unparaphrasable energy and vehemence which did actually freeze the blood. I remember him saying, ‘Oh dear boy,’ and there was a look of brimming gratitude in his eyes. He has an absolutely wonderful, really humble magnanimity. If something is good, it doesn’t matter who or where it comes from.

When the Merchant opened I became aware of his stagefright, as he called it. I didn’t know it was that, not until three or four days into the run. He certainly never spoke about it during rehearsals or run-throughs or on the first night.

I was standing in the wings one night and could see, in that rather unnatural light coming from elsewhere which you see from the darkness of the wings – a look of shocked terror on his face, beads of sweat on the make-up and his eyes staring as if they were behind a mask. I couldn’t detect anything more than a hesitation. I knew, though, from brief moments of stagefright in Beyond the Fringe, that what to an outside observer seems like a thirtieth-second is half an hour for the victim. He then confessed to me that he had these moments of appalling, shattering lapses in which he forgot his words and the earth stood still. There was a night when he actually forgot the things that a Jew has: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?…’ One was almost tempted to say, ‘Hath not a Jew elbows!’

Still from The Merchant of Venice

After the event he was wonderfully humorous about it, but I should imagine from the drenched and exhausted way in which he came off stage it was far from funny. I think it happens to a lot of people as they get older. It was obviously more than mere forgetfulness. It was the terror of a moment of standing outside himself and seeing himself suspended in the night sky of a theatrical performance, illuminated by all those lights, watched by dimly visible faces – and frozen. It must have been a horrible experience.

But he seemed to recover from it because far from retiring as he threatened to do, he came back with redoubled vigour in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He has this curious and startling immortality, which became part of his charisma. He would be fatally ill one moment and the next moment he’d be back on stage doing a part of heroic length with some superbly accomplished piece of business, giving the performance of his life. Everything about him as a public performer is to do with being unexpected, unpredictable – Machiavellian in fact.

His ability to shift with the tide is also absolutely astonishing. There was a time when, despite the noble glamour of his roles in Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), he belonged, for a lot of younger people, to another era. The slightly clipped tones, the romantic, matinée idol; nothing whatever to do with us, and we all thought he was yesteryear. Then quite suddenly he was doing Archie Rice with brilliant modern seediness. He took on the very thing which denied everything he had been. In place of the glossy, beautiful, noble, grand creature of earlier days, he was suddenly scratching the inside leg of his awful check-trousers as a seedy comic, offending all the ladies who had adored him. He renewed himself in this act of metamorphosis – a sort of phoenix performance. It’s part of his Machiavellian strategy: be unexpected, come back as something else. If they think you’re dead, spring to life; if they think you’re passé, change your course. Identify with the enemy, join them, and then beat them. No one else could manage to be as protean, as Machiavellian, as self-serving – and remain so lovable.

Those of us who knew him as a father, as a leader of the National Theatre, saw he had what he had always wanted, as a great patriotic Englishman: control of the whole show. He was always the great commanding officer. He would have loved to have been the captain of the flagship which sank the Bismarck. He always wanted to serve his majesty and there he was, in command of this grounded boat, 15 brass rings on his sleeve and a bridge of his own.

The very set-up of the National, the offices in Aquinas Street, was like Pompey’s galley, or like the shacks on those HMS training ships which are on land. It was absolutely made for him. Whatever competitiveness he might have had among his peers was now sublimated into running his ship, dispensing largesse, interest, and patronage to younger actors. His eminence had been recognized and a lot of otherwise competitive energies were turned to totally benevolent purposes. He loved the thunder of feet on the companionway. He was always speaking down the tube, lots of clang-clangs to the engine-room, backings and churnings of propellers, and people brought up unexpectedly to the bridge. He had genuine interest in the welfare of his staff, like a first class Captain on a battleship. ‘Sign on. Everyone is expected to do their duty.’ And because of this he created an enormous competitive admiration and filial affection amongst those who worked for him.”

One Thing And Another is a collection of Jonathan Miller’s thoughts on subjects as varied as human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, modern medicine and opera. It is published by Oberon Books and is available from our website.

Hir @ Bush Theatre

Love this review from Hayley Sprout, this show continues to make people think!

Hayley Sprout

Hir by Taylor Mac is the latest production at the Bush Theatre’s newly renovated theatre. The play follows Isaac who comes home from being away in the marines to find his sister Maxine is now his non binary sibling called Max. At the same time, their mother Paige has rejected contributing to the patriarchy and has stopped doing what is expected of a housewife, including caring for her husband Arnie who recently suffered a stroke.

IMG_3175

Taylor Mac creates a family dynamic that creates a fine line that balances between being very intense and being very comedic. Hir is certainly a family dynamic I haven’t seen represented on stage before. The title Hir is the middle ground between “him” and “her”, much like the character Max. What’s really interesting about this play is that the play is written by a non binary person in Taylor Mac, which stated in the author’s…

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London Writers’ Week – special offer!

London Writers’ Week runs from Mon 4th – Sun 9th July this year. That means that from today we’re celebrating all things creative writing – after all, how would all our marvellous plays exist if it weren’t for our talented writers?!

To show the love and share the talent, we’re offering 50% OFF our four most popular writing books: Lisa Goldman’s The No Rules Handbook for Writers, David Quantick’s How To Write Everything and the follow-up How To Be A Writer, and of course Glyn Maxwell’s classic On Poetry in its gorgeous new paperback edition.

Use the code WRITERS2017 at the checkout to pay half price on all these brilliant books, and see how much your writing can improve with a few hints and tips from the best in the business. But hurry, as this offer will end on Sunday 9th.

Find out more about London Writers’ Week on their website HERE.

An author’s note on two versions of Iphigenia in Aulis

Oberon has just published a new volume of Iphigenia in Aulis, containing two versions of Euripides’ masterpiece in a new verse translation by Andy Hinds, with Martine Cuypers. The first of the two versions is a translation of the complete text as it has come down us via the only surviving manuscript; a text which is highly corrupt. The second is offered as one possible, more performable, ‘stage’ version of the play.

Here, Andy Hinds shares a few notes on the much-disputed ending of the story, as well as discussing how he approached the interpolations in the piece, and ideas for performance. This blog is an edited version of the notes included in the book. 

Notes on Iphigenia in Aulis

The ending

It is generally agreed that the last 98 lines of the only surviving manuscript of the play were not written by Euripides, but were inserted later; possibly by Euripides’ the Younger (son or nephew of the Elder), for the first production staged about a year after Euripides’ death in around 405 B.C., or were perhaps added by some other producers or actors for some much later production.

Some believe Euripides intended the play to finish at the point just before these last 98 inserted lines begin, i.e. at the close of the short chorus following Iphigenia going off to be sacrificed (line 1531). Others speculate that the original ending had been considered unsatisfactory and had at some point, therefore, been cut and replaced by the one we have today. Yet others suspect Euripides had perhaps not finished the play before he  died, and so an ending had to be supplied.

I loved so much about the play, but for a long time remained unsure if I could stage it in the confidence an audience would leave the theatre feeling satisfied with where the play’s action had taken them. At some point while pondering this issue, a possible ‘solution’ occurred to me: I could create a new ending by dropping the Second Messenger and enacting onstage the sacrifice which is narrated in his speech.  The idea, however, was not to enact the sacrifice exactly as the Messenger described it (that is, with Iphigenia vanishing and being replaced by a doe), but to enact what the imperative of the tragedy’s action demanded: that is, the sacrifice of the young woman. The idea, of course, contravened the principle that, in Greek tragedies, major action always occurs offstage.  I was convinced, however, it would work.

No sooner did this idea occur, than another followed: as part of the enactment of the onstage sacrifice, I would deploy the words the Messenger tells us were spoken, in the course of the ritual, by Iphigenia, Achilles and the prophet Calchas. Excepting the few Calchas lines referring to the doe and the disappearance of the girl, I would include all the lines, re-allocating some of them to other characters or to the chorus. Now I felt I could mount a production that might convince and satisfy myself, a cast and an audience.

The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Jan Steen, 1671

Interpolations

Apart from how to negotiate the ending, one of the challenges every director and company has to face when staging this play is to make a decision as to which sections of the existing text to include or to excise. It is clear that at various points throughout the text, lines or whole large sections have been inserted by someone other than Euripides (some perhaps by Euripides the Younger, some definitely later by others). There inevitably is some disagreement as to whether certain lines do, or do not, represent genuine Euripides; but regarding many substantial sections there is a broad consensus.  While knowing which sections these were, I decided to bring into rehearsals a translation of all the lines; I was interested to discover which sections would stand up, or would not, to the scrutiny that actors and directors bring to any text as they rehearse it. It wasn’t long before most of the sections generally agreed to be interpolations started to feel as if they were getting in the way; they felt repetitious perhaps, or contradictory, or inappropriate to a character or his or her main intentions etc. So, one by one, we began excluding these, once or twice having to insert a few words to cover the joins. With each excision, the text began to come across with increased coherence and pace.

Some lines usually considered suspect, I have retained when they proved to aid impact, clarity, or flow.

Andy Hinds

Productions  

Both the full and the performance versions of the play are available for performance. If using the full text as a starting point for preparing a text for production, substantial investigation, thought, and decision making will be required; and many will be excited at the prospect of such.

The shorter, performance text is offered as one proven, production-ready version where the bulk of this investigation and other work has already been done. This may better suit the circumstances of others.

 

You can find out more about this book, and its companion volume, The Oresteia, on our website

How I Write… by W. Sydney Robinson

To celebrate the official release of Speak Well of Me today, we’ve been chatting to its author, W. Sydney Robinson, about how his day-to-day life as a writer looks… it’s not all book launches and agent lunches you know!

Writers seldom discuss their working practices. The reason is simple: nothing is more unglamorous or depressing than a writer’s routine. This is not to say that authors lament their lot – far from it – but the pleasure they derive from this most dreary of pastimes will always be a minor mystery for the happy, well-rounded multitude.

The first illusion to demolish is that we spend most of our time writing. Over the past decade I have completed three biographies, but only a small fraction of this time has been devoted to the actual process of writing. What takes infinitely longer is the task of hunting down information: in libraries, archives and – most exciting of all – among the living. Only once a great deal of undigested material has been assembled does the outline of the book begin to take shape – and then one can actually begin.

W. Sydney Robinson

When I reach this stage my daily routine is unerring. I wake up as early as possible – sometimes four or five o’clock in the morning. I quickly review what I did the previous day, making any changes which seem necessary, before sketching an outline of whatever I hope to achieve that day – sometimes as much as a whole chapter. This planning stage is crucial. Out of the mass of materials, I try to link together a story, usually sticking quite rigidly to the chronology, but departing from this when a particular event or anecdote seems part of a more general theme. Wherever possible I will allow the subject of the biography to tell the story for himself, as there is nothing more tedious to the general reader than the biographer commenting upon events or documents in the manner of a narrator. They have come to hear Johnson or Nelson or ‘LBJ’ – not Boswell, Southey or Robert A. Caro. That may be an old-fashioned view, but it happens to be my own.

Once the day’s paragraphs have been sketched out, I take a short walk or, sometimes, a run. This moment contemplating the dawn of a new day is vital for me. To see the sun beaming down on empty fields, or men and women hurrying to their places of work, helps keep my self-appointed task in perspective. For nothing is more destructive to a writer’s readability than to forget that to the world at large his output very likely means nothing at all.

Having cobbled together the bare bones of the paragraphs I take myself to one of my preferred cafes to commence work. In my early days of writing I had a romantic notion that small, independent coffee houses would be the most congenial places for this. I soon learnt, however, that there is little a purveyor of delicious homemade carrot cake detests more than a writer. So instead I sip my small latte in a Costa or a Nero for several hours, and before I know it the morning is over – and most of my day’s work complete.

This is when the early start begins to pay dividends. With six or seven hundred words safely in the iCloud, it is possible to peruse other people’s books. I know that some authors swear that they never read a line not written by themselves until their task is complete, but I can envisage no way of writing that was not at least in part derivative of what has come before. To be unconscious of this would be to allow one’s style to be dictated by Steve Wright, Homes Under the Hammer, The Big Bang Theory, or whatever other scraps of culture one may pick up around the house on a normal day. For my reading I tend to stick to what I know best: the classics, as well as the innumerable books by authors I happen to have written about. Over the past four years this has entailed reading through the scores of plays, novels, biographies and histories composed by one of our greatest of living authors – Sir Ronald Harwood – but I still derive much inspiration from my previous literary subjects, especially Sir Arthur Bryant, Dean Inge and the Titanic’s most curious victim, W. T. Stead.

In the early evening I finish the last of my writing before reading it all the way through again, just as I commenced the day. This helps ensure that there is no ‘break’ or deviation in the chapter. On some days I earmark the entire new section for destruction the following morning – a writer must not be too precious about these things.

And then, if I am lucky enough to still have someone who is willing, I find a friend with whom to pass an agreeable evening discussing other things. For however large, however important and however great the subject may be, the writing of another person’s life is no substitute for a life that is lived.

Speak Well of Me is published today and is available to buy online here, in all good bookshops, and can also be ordered into your local bookshop on request. 

If you enjoyed this insight into a writer’s life, let us know, we would love to expand this blog into a mini-series, featuring more of our writers. You can also check out How to Be a Writer for more on how professional writers organise their working day.