A series of 13 dramatic monologues about life and death. Please listen, enjoy and spread the word!
It’s been another busy couple of weeks since my last newsletter –
WATERSPRITE FILM FESTIVAL, Cambridge.
This is an excellent annual film festival for student film-makers from all round the world. I was on a panel giving feedback to the 2 winners of a short film script competition on Sunday March 12th. These two writers were brave enough to submit themselves to script notes in front of an audience of about 70. The two winning scripts were imaginative, original and very promising – and the two writers receptive, smart and impressively articulate in a high-pressure situation!
The session took place in a beautiful room with amazing views in St Johns College – the culture shock of walking into the world of Cambridge academia from suburban North London was striking.
BBC WRITERS ROOM BELFAST
And then the following Thursday I had an equally enjoyable day running two courses for the newly established Belfast section of BBC Writers Room. An all day course with 10 selected Northern Irish screenwriters, and then a one hour talk to a larger group of writers.
Northern Ireland has a thriving screenwriters’ community and it’s great to see that the BBC Writers Room is already starting a number of new initiatives to try and help these writers get their work out there.
LOST WITHOUT WORDS
A one hour play at the Dorfman, National Theatre. 5 actors in their 70’s and 80’s, with no previous improvising experience, being put through their improvisation paces. Some of the scenes and stories that came out of the evening were completely captivating – moving, magical and at times very funny. There was something about actors of this age improvising (really successfully) for the first time in their long careers, that was particularly powerful and poignant.
Can I ask you to indulge me this week? What I’d like to write about isn’t directly about screenwriting although I do think there are all sorts of applications in terms of stories and careers.
The weekend before last I went to two of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’m normally into hyperbole (?) but these two shows really were wonderful. Neither were about scripts as such – they were two music shows. On Friday March 10th SURVIVING TWIN, a 90’ show about fathers and sons by Loudon Wainwright III, one of my favourite singer-songwriters. His songs, mostly on this subject, interspersed with his readings / performances of his father’s writing – articles that Loudon Wainwright II wrote in LIFE magazine from the 60’s to the 80’s – when magazines like LIFE and TIME were at the cutting edge of journalism and US society, and LWII was a well-known name.
Some of the articles by LWII are about his relationship with his own father (the original Loudon!) – and then Loudon III sings about his relationship with his son and grandchildren – so many generations of the Wainwright family are covered! The show is a tribute to his father, re-introducing his father’s writing to a new audience – and the chosen articles, for instance, about the death of a beloved family dog, about buying a suit in a London tailor’s, about the birth of his son (Loudon III) – are wonderful, thoughtful, moving and funny pieces of writing – in fact they share many of the same qualities of LWIII’s songs – funny and wonderfully well-observed slices of life.
‘If families didn’t break apart, I suppose there’d be no need for art’ As one of his lyrics goes – and so many of his songs are about the pain of relationships – usually with the women in his life but also with his family – children, parents.
The readings and the songs connect wonderfully – and the show is a reflection on the joys and difficulties of the father / son relationship. I watched it with my son, and spent the evening dabbing my eyes, laughing, ending in a spontaneous standing ovation.
If you don’t know LWIII’s music, here are a few songs you could try on youtube (or wherever). Now in his early 70’s LWIII has written literally hundreds of songs. And the vast majority of them are wonderful – he writes about all the staples of popular song but with such humour and complexity.
2 nights later my elder son (who happily for me shares much of my musical taste) went to the last ever concert by Stornoway. The band existed for 10 years until last Sunday and hail from Oxford. My son and I first became aware of them at the time (8 or so years ago) when he was just off to uni in Oxford. I first heard them (as one of the few unsigned bands ever) on Jools Holland’s LATER, playing the wonderful ZORBING and FUEL UP. ZORBING starts with the lyrics, ‘Conkers shining on the ground, The air is cooler, And I feel like I just started uni.’ Stornoway’s songs are wonderful – they’re also a strong reminder for all of my family of a particular time in our lives. For my son, they bring back his days at uni, for the rest of us, they bring back the days when he first went to uni and we missed him. And they also bring back to us the road trip we did in the US, driving from New Mexico to California, when Stornoway’s first album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, was the only CD we listened to for two weeks in the car.
The band are a huge talent, they have written so many wonderful songs but have decided to go their separate ways. Enjoying their songs and the intense emotion of the evening, it seemed scarcely credible to Jake and I that such a hugely talented group of musicians could be giving this up.
The evening was made more poignant for my son meeting up with several old uni friends who he hadn’t seen since uni, including one who had travelled from Boston USA especially for the show!
It made me think about the power of art – and the different perceptions of it. Clearly, among the audience there was a feeling that this music was the soundtrack to our lives, of real emotional importance. Stornoway’s split made me question whether the band realise how rarely gifted they are!
But both shows also made me think about the mystery of mass appeal and audience response. Because, while Loudon Wainwright and Stornoway are two of my favourite artists – in any area (music, films, books, TV etc) – neither are household names.
Why aren’t Loudon Wainwright (and Randy Newman) as big as Springsteen? Is it because their songs are more complicated, darker and more introspective? Why was the small Leicester Square theatre only 2/3 full for Loudon on Friday night, when in the summer I’d been part of an 80,000 crowd at Bruce Springsteen’s Wembley show? It’s a mystery to me.
It also made me think about both the positive – and negative – influences of the internet. Clearly musicians and bands no longer make even a fraction of the money they used to make pre-internet. Album sales are a thing of the past. The only real money to be made is by playing live – and, wonderful though that must be in many ways, it must also make life difficult when you’re constantly travelling, parading yourself in public. The lead singer of Stornoway, Brian Briggs, is that rare, contradictory creature (a great basis for a screenplay character!) – the reluctant rock star.
We need to consider the possibility that TV and films may go the same way as music. On the one hand, the reach of the internet is wonderfully liberating. But making a living out of your art is a whole lot harder when music, writing and film is so instantly accessible to all (so much new work – especially feature films – is now illegally downloaded). For so many in the world of writing, this is such a huge, tricky issue – particularly, for instance, in journalism and poetry.
A few Stornoway highlights –
Thank you for indulging me – in two weeks time I’ll be focusing on something more akin to screenwriting!
All the best
March 24th 2017