I hope you are all keeping well in these strange and severely restricted times. It seems we’re just going to have to be patient, be kind to ourselves and each other and try – although sometimes it’s not easy – to keep feeding our creativity, as things we were looking forward to disappear over the horizon.
Above all, I do think it’s important that we find ways to keep talking to each other at the moment when we’re all stuck inside. I’m lucky enough to be with wife and youngest daughter but my three elder children and their partners are in various parts of London. We’ve set up a weekly quiz on zoom, set by a different family member each week. It’s a fun way of formalising continued contact.
Here are a few recommendations that I hope will be help to brighten your lives a little in the next however many weeks –
BOOKS – using the extra time we all have to read is something that has given me real enjoyment in the last couple of weeks (although I’m lucky enough to still have plenty of excellent scripts to read in weekday working hours!). This is when a kindle (or other reading device!) really comes into its own.
I have chanced upon some brilliant books in the last couple of weeks –
English Monsters by James Scudamore.
If you were interested in my musings about boarding school a few months ago, then this is the book for you. It’s beautifully written – essentially about the damage that boarding school does to people, how that damage can run through your whole life. But it’s about much more than that. It’s about family, friends and surviving trauma. I found it powerful, moving and thought-provoking. The book made me (again) think about incidents from my own years at boarding school – not just the bad moments but the good as well.
But I think this book has a lot even for people who didn’t go through the boarding school experience – it’s just a great piece of writing.
James Scudamore also wrote this excellent article about the book and his own personal experiences (I would advise reading this article only after you’ve read the book)
A Bit Of A Stretch by Chris Atkins
True account of the experiences of film-maker Chris Atkins, sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for the fraudulent tax avoidance scheme that he was encouraged to use by a dodgy accountant to fund one of his (BAFTA-nominated) films. The book covers the experience of his time in HMP Wandsworth. The book is by turns moving, shocking and very funny. Above all, it’s a powerful indictment of the dangerous and destructive chaos that is the English prison system. The book has apparently been optioned by a TV production company. If this project doesn’t get picked up double-quick by a broadcaster, I will be amazed – it’s wonderfully well-suited to dramatization and a story that needs as wide an airing as possible. It also has weird parallels for us in this age of enforced lockdown! Speaking of which…
Station Eleven – by Emily St John Mandel
You may think it’s not the best book to read right now in that it’s about a pandemic that kills 99.9% of the world’s population but in the same way as the current coronavirus is making us all reconsider so much about our lives and things we have taken for granted for so long, so does this book. The quality of the writing and the storytelling grabbed me from the first few pages. One of my favourite books of the last few years. While there are many bleak images and moments in the book, at the same time, there’s also something beautiful, profound and ultimately uplifting about it.
TV / FILM
I’ve been watching a lot of comedy as an antidote to the misery of the news. Here are some of the highlights. If you haven’t seen them, some of these may well give you a much-needed smile or two –
BREEDERS written by Simon Blackwell. (Sky, Now TV)
About the experience of coping with life, work, family and everything else when you have young kids. Refreshingly sweary and foul-mouthed – and to my mind a really well-observed, honest account of the messy reality of trying (and failing) to multi-task. I have found a lot of this laugh-out-loud-funny.
THE TRIP TO GREECE (Sky, Now TV)
Another in the very productive Michael Winterbottom / Steve Coogan creative relationship. (When you get the chance I also highly recommend their feature film GREED which I saw at the 2019 LFF). Like the previous ‘Trip’s this is stunning to look at; and the weird reality / fiction crossover of having Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalised versions of themselves is really interesting and successful. A lot of it is really funny (particularly Brydon’s impersonations and the prickly, competitive relationship between the characters) and by the end the series becomes unexpectedly moving.
IN MY SKIN – written by Kayleigh Llewellyn, directed by Lucy Forbes.
All 5 episodes now on BBC iplayer, this is a superb 5 x 30’ comedy drama series. Lucy Forbes also directed THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD series 2 and came into talk to the writers on this year’s C4 screenwriting course, which alerted me to this series. The writing, direction and performances are outstanding – highly recommended. This was released onto BBC iplayer on March 29th and my household had consumed it all by March 30th. It’s so great when brilliant new voices like Kayleigh Llewellyn deservedly get their shows made – this really stands out from the crowd. I can’t wait for series 2!
WORK – the last couple of weeks have made me really value and appreciate the work I do. Reading and analysing scripts feels like a wonderful privilege and escape at the moment. But it’s also made me value the other parts of my work that I’m missing – the company and camaraderie of so many writers, script editors etc.
(By the way my script consultancy is very much open for business. If you’d like feedback on a script, please get in touch.)
ANIMALS – Having two dogs and a cat has been a great boon in the last couple of weeks. Having two dogs who need regular walks gives you perspective on what’s happening and makes you value their constancy and the positives they bring to your life.
MUSIC, FAMILY, NATURE and the COUNTRYSIDE are other things that have had enhanced value recently. (I’m particularly loving new album La Vita Nuova by Maria McKee).
EXERCISE – having a bicycle ride or run as part of the day is really helping my morale.
TWITTER – (and social media in general) is a bit of a double-edged sword at the moment. Some of it is worrying and depressing. But I’m finding certain people / tweets can really add to a positive mental state at the moment. Her are a few twitter accounts that might bring a smile to your face –
@brian_bilston Brian Bilson’s wonderfully humane, funny, extremely clever poems are great.
@baddiel David Baddiel speaks a lot of sense, often very funnily.
@realbobmortimer – his ‘train guy’ creation is comedy genius.
@MrMichaelSpicer – a twitter phenomenon for good reason.
I hope some of the above brightens your days a little if you didn’t already know about them. It would be great if you’d like to respond and make some recommendations of your own that I could share in the next newsletter.
2 RANDOM SCREENWRITING OBSERVATIONS
1 I think sometimes over-adherence to structural ‘rules’ can screw you up as a writer. Above all, you need to trust your innate storytelling instinct – we all have one; rather than trying to tick off structural points on the map – inciting incident, mid-point, end of act 2 etc. Above all, the best stories are surprising. Concentration on structural rules can often do more harm than good.
2 At this time, I’m finding I don’t have much engagement with ideas unless they’re two things – escapist and funny OR more particularly if they’re ideas underpinned by passion and conviction, ideas that are driven by a writer’s fire for the idea. At the moment I’m turned off by ideas that feel cynical and ‘commercial’. (The truth is, I’m always turned off by these sorts of ideas but now even more strongly). What we are all looking for in writing is honesty and that writer’s own truths – even if they’re not our truths. A particular world view / attitude. I’m not interested in what they think might be commissioned – schedule filler.
The next newsletter will be on Friday April 17th.
Keep well and creative,
All the very best
April 3rd 2020