This week, very sadly, the blog is dedicated to the life of writer ROBIN BELL. Robin was writer of one of the 13 ‘Tribute’ dramatic monologues. He was a brilliant writer, as you can hear for yourself, from his ‘Tribute’ monologue. He was passionate about film and story-telling and was hugely generous with his time. He died at the horribly young age of 37. To remember Robin, this week’s blog is the interview Katy Walker did with him about his TRIBUTE podcast, BOOKMARK. Robin himself interviewed the other 12 writers and the interviews are a testament to his perceptiveness and generosity. Robin asked all of us other 12 writers searching, thoughtful questions that made us think about our work and the process and purpose of dramatic writing. They are a brilliant companion piece to the monologues and a mark of Robin as a person. They were his idea and they are an act of kindness and intelligence.
So here is the interview Katy did with Robin –
‘How weird is this? I’m being interviewed on my own
blog. I’ll hand over to Katy Walker who interviewed me straight away so we
don’t get too bogged down in the oddness.
This week the tables are turned, as the featured Tribute writer is Robin himself, with the intriguing and evocative ‘Bookmark’, voiced by Broadchurch’s own Joe Sims. He could hardly interview himself, could he (well, maybe – he’d probably do a very good job of it, but I volunteered, with a few excellent questions from Will Mount). Here’s what we learned.
What inspired you to write Bookmark?
I thought Tribute was a great idea. One of my all-time favourite TV shows was Six Feet Under, I loved how it faced death head on. I instantly knew who I would like to pay Tribute to. It was my Nan, who died 10 years ago. I have a note on my phone when this idea was coming together which has words to signify the stories I wanted to tell. It reads “Salad, flying rat, Gifts, long walks, fancying Darren Gough.” I didn’t find room for the last two.
I knew it was becoming a good fit when I felt my idea started exploring what a Tribute actually is, what memories are and the importance of them remaining in the past.
It seems rooted in a bygone era – of deckchairs, ‘salads’ and people called Beryl. And your description of the cat that brings ‘gifts’ is very relatable. How much is this based on your own memories of childhood?
A lot of it is based on my childhood and I wanted it to feel like a memory of childhood, so it has a storybook type feel to it. I’m sure my childhood wasn’t all deckchairs, Beryls and feasts but they are the elements which form lasting memories. I guess you highlight the elements of the past which don’t feel part of the present more because it’s distinctive to that time. The ‘gifts’ part was bigger in the first draft and had a slapstick comedy scene of a rabbit running around a bedroom, but it had to go to stay on plot.
The grandmother ignites in her grandson a great love of reading. How much of Bookmark is a tribute to books/the written word?
I’m not sure if it’s a direct tribute to books and the written word, but that element is in there to highlight how memories are the stories we tell ourselves about our lives – like the salad story that goes from disappointment to greatness or the flying rat punchline. I wanted to make that link between memories and stories. I also wanted the childhood remembered in the Tribute to be heightened and feel like it’s from a book. Kids’ books often feel like an idealised version of what childhood was like. Roald Dahl books often do this, before he throws the darkness in.
Have you ever used a peperami as a bookmark?! What else do you use?
Unfortunately, even though I’ve banged on about the truthful aspects of the Tribute, the peperami is complete comedic artifice. Can you imagine what it’d do to the pages of the book – grease stains, meat smells, urgh shudder, it doesn’t bear thinking about. I have used envelopes and football stickers as mentioned in the Tribute, also cinema ticket stubs, leaflets, bits of fallen plaster and a sock. I’d rather go with what is to hand rather than fold a corner.
Food seems to be a great comfort in this piece. Was this an intentional ‘device’?
I wouldn’t say it was an intentional device, it was one of the true story elements I started with. I wrote the description of it before I had the story actually, and the structure it eventually gave me the answer and the ending to the piece. I love the initial disappointment of being served a salad as a kid, and then it building up to become a veritable feast. I absolutely love the verve and excitement Joe injects as he describes the food, it’s paced perfectly and really gives that moment great character.
The changes of tone and viewpoint are beautifully done. You switch between reminiscence, philosophy and eulogy and we don’t notice the joins – how conscious was this subtle movement through these transitions?
Thank you for saying that. Having written it I think you’re always more aware of the joins, but I think a lot of the reason they’re covered is in Joe’s performance. He paces the story so well, modulating his performance perfectly to deliver maximum emotion and carry the listener through at the right pace during every step of the way. I was blown away when I first heard it. From a writing point of view, the transitions weren’t something I focused on – with Twisted Showcase we move from domestic to uncanny within a heartbeat, even adding layers of ridiculous comedy on top sometimes so hopefully it is something I am used to.
Your protagonist’s invention is a fascinating idea. How did that come about?
After I had the parts which formed the memories I came up with the invention to tie the story together. As I thought of these memories it got me thinking about what memories really are, how much truth is in them, are they rose tinted, can they be corrupted, things like that. The more I thought about it, the more I began to think about where memories take place, they feel very real and powerful, but obviously, it’s all in your head. That’s when I had the idea of an invention which could take people back to their memories, and make what is in their head physically real. Once I had that idea I realised, if it existed, that there would be a high demand for that. Plenty of different uses as well, but for the purposes of the Tribute I thought I’d just focus on it being used to cope with bereavement. Basically, this is just a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t view the story as being about technology, the focus for me was it was more about memory.
The narrator doesn’t want to be transported back to the sacred memories which he describes? Would you if you could? What one memory would you choose?
After writing Bookmark I’d have to say memories should stay where they are and that I wouldn’t revisit them, but that is a boring answer. Also, I think we’d all love to go back and relive certain parts of our lives so we appreciate them more. I was just watching a Manic Street Preachers documentary on Sky Arts which follows them making the album Everything Must Go after the disappearance of Richey Edwards. It’s a great documentary, and it ends at their first stadium gig at what was then called the NYNEX, Manchester. I was there, and yes it was brilliant, but at the time I didn’t realise the importance and significance of that gig to the band and to their story. So maybe today I’d choose to go back to that gig, knowing more regarding the context with hindsight. But really memory is so powerful that we have the ability to take ourselves back: you can smell a certain fragrance which can take you back to childhood, or hear a certain song which takes you back to your early twenties etc. That’s what I wanted to explore in my Tribute.
You’re the brains behind the Twisted Showcase – is this Tribute a departure in terms of genre?
If any people who have watched my Twisted Showcase episodes then listen to my Tribute they will probably see it as a departure. It shares the oddness in some respects, and it shares a twist in the tale in that it transpires this warm, cosy story about a bygone era is set in the future and based on an unbelievable piece of tech. Maybe it is more in line with my kids’ TV specs or an amalgamation of those two styles.
What’s your next project?
I’d love to have the clarity to answer this one succinctly. It always seems like I have too many plates spinning at any one time. I’ve been trying to write a feature this year but keep getting pulled in different directions with spec script rewrites on two kids’ TV scripts and an adult crime drama. I’m also working on a stage adaptation of Twisted Showcase, and a few new one page pitches. Finally, there’s a sitcom I’m co-writing with the co-creator of Twisted Showcase, Rhys Jones.
What have you learned from interviewing the other writers?
Oh wow, so much. From the many different ways that ideas come together, to how in control of what messages are told in different writers’ stories, and how they view their own work, and how different writers view the importance of death as a theme. It’s been enlightening.
Which of the other Tributes have stood out for you, and why?
They’re all great and really different from each other. Philip did a great job selecting this bunch to form the series. It’s really tough to select ones out, but I’ll be brutal and just chose one – Eulogy for Tricia Slater by Sarah Penrose. I loved how it extracted humour from the subject of death.
What would you want your tribute to be?
I’m not sure, but make sure there’s a cracking buffet afterwards that people talk about with the same glow Joe Sims gave that salad. Whenever I ask my Mum how a funeral she’s visited went she’ll always mention the buffet first – “They put on a great spread.” That’ll do me.
Thank you Katy and in particular, thank you Robin for the warmth and creativity you brought to so many people. RIP.
This should be a reminder to all of us – to write, write, write. Our time is finite and we all have a lot to say and limited time in which to say it.
This last link is to an article Robin wrote post-diagnosis about what his illness did to his perception and enjoyment of films – it’s a brilliant, profound piece of writing. about what films and stories mean to us on a personal, emotional level
As I was reading it took me back to distant memory of a film experience of my own – it was the last day of the school holidays. As usual I was dreading going back to my boarding school, counting down the holi-days at home. To treat / distract me my mother took me to see THE ALAMO a John Wayne film. I must have been 8 or 9, I remember little about the specifics of the film but a lot about the experience – the anticipation, the excitement that the film induced in me; something stirring and exotic about the scale and drama of the film and something about the whole experience of a trip to a big cinema in a big town (Canterbury I think). Also that it summons up (thanks to the thoughtful and honest trigger of Robin’s writing) a valuable affirming memory of my (now dead) mother’s love and kindness, the thoughtfulness of her act (and I think it was also a treat for her) and the deep emotional, communal power of story and the cinema experience.
The next newsletter will be on Friday May 31st (when I will be at the BBC Writersroom Scottish Writers Festival in Glasgow – if you’re there, please say hello).
All the best
May 17th 2019