No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to info@oberonbooks.com and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.

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Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Two

In this part two of our Top Tips mini-series, Philip Shelley, who founded the Channel 4 screenwriting course, chats about the artistic side and the business side of a writer’s life. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses, and we’re grateful to Philip Shelley and to Jennifer Tuckett for their help with this blog.

What do you believe writers need to know about script editing and writing in general?

Philip Shelley: This is what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass. There are so many different areas to writing. I think there’s the whole craft side of it but there’s also the business side of it, which isn’t talked about so much in this environment. I think it’s very important.

The business side is something I’ve learnt a lot from doing the Channel 4 course as we have a huge number of entries and it is very hard to get onto the course. Inevitably, when we choose the twelve writers we choose, we love their scripts. Their scripts are fantastic but some writers do better off the back of the course than other writers.

That’s generally not to do with their talent because they’re all incredibly talented writers. It’s more to do with how they run their careers as a business, how they conduct themselves as a business, how much research they do about work they want to do, how much television they watch and how they get on working with script editors, producers and directors in quite a pressured environment.

If you could give one piece of advice to a writer, what would be the one thing you’d say?

Philip Shelley: Probably just “be persistent and be determined”. That’s two things. You’ve just got to stick at it really because you only need one person to like your work. If you write a script and it’s rejected by fifteen people and one person takes it on, that’s all you need. You do get a lot of knock-backs. That’s one of the things on the Channel 4 course we learn about writing. When you’re working with a script editor for the first time and you’re not used to that, it’s hard. We ask a lot of questions that writers don’t want to be asked about their work. Some people thrive in that environment and some people find it difficult.

Philip Shelley

In any production, if you’re working on a show that’s in production, it’s difficult because there are very tight deadlines that you can’t miss. The script has to be to a certain quality by a certain time and there’s no way round that. It is tough but you need to have sufficient passion for the craft and for writing that you can ride those bumps and enjoy the process. I think the best writers do it because they love writing. It’s a question of making sure you enjoy it.

You can find more information on Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters HERE.
You can read part one of our Top Tips series HERE.