Story in a time of war

You don’t need me to tell you that we’re living through dark times. The last few years have brought us the madness and national self-destruction of Brexit, an unthinkable and ongoing global pandemic, the growing and real threat of the climate emergency – and now, to add to the mix, a major war in Europe with the threat that it could apparently become nuclear. I have written this on Thursday March 3rd and I hope by the time you receive this, things haven’t got even darker.

We can all be forgiven for feeling even more anxious than normal at the moment when all of this stuff that is out of our control is raging through the world.

Hoping not to sound ridiculously trivial about this, it has made me question – what is the point of drama and fictional stories when all of this is going on?

But in fact it makes me think that drama and the stories we create and tell each other are even more important now. And it also really focuses my mind on thinking about challenging writers to write about the things that matter – to them. It’s so easy to be wise in hindsight, to say – why the f**k has this government been accepting dirty Russian money for the last decade? There have been plenty of people shouting loudly about this – brilliant journalists like Carole Cadwalladr. But why don’t we all listen and act on what they’re telling us?

It makes me think about and appreciate anew the dramatists who show the courage and intelligence to tackle the stories that really matter, that affect the lives of ordinary people, about events that cause pain and suffering and dramas that are part of the response – I take my hat off to Jack Thorne for writing HELP and to Channel 4 from rushing it through the commissioning and production process. Similarly, to Jimmy McGovern for writing a serial like TIME, such a brilliant dramatisation of the awful conditions in the UK prison system. And – Nicole Taylor – THREE GIRLS, Michaela Coel – I MAY DESTROY YOU, Adam Kay – THIS IS GOING TO HURT, Russell T Davies – YEARS & YEARS + IT’S A SIN. So many brilliant writers who directly tackle and dramatise huge social and political issues.

At times of crisis, we often look for escapism, for shows that will take us out of the horrible realities of the world (thank you CHEATERS, STARSTRUCK, ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING, TED LASSO) but I also think at times like this it focuses the mind on making sure that we tell stories that have real meaning for us, stories that are heartfelt, personally important to us – and not just cynical drama that is ‘dark’ for its own sake or that uses dark, difficult subject matter in ways that feel exploitative and dishonest (too much TV drama!).

A film like CODA is the best of both worlds – it takes you out of yourself, into a different and very particular story world – while at the same time telling a story that matters, that is important and challenging but is also life-affirming and positive.

STATION ELEVEN is a show that I am enjoying at the moment although ‘enjoying’ may not be exactly the right word – I appreciate its brilliance – but maybe right now isn’t quite the right time to be watching a show about the end of the world. But the TV adaptation, while very different in a lot of ways to the book on which it’s based, is faithful to the spirit of the book – in that it feels so wide-ranging, epic, full of provocative and inspiring ideas and images, and all told from a richly human perspective.

STATION ELEVEN – both book and film – is also an example of an exception that proves a rule (yes that phrase is sort of nonsensical). I often question dystopian story premises – a. because I read so many of them and b. because too often they seem to be dramatising an issue from the present day by placing that story into a fictional future. But they too often seem to be doing the opposite of what you should be aiming to do with drama – they take all the heat and immediacy out of the story by putting into a generic and fictionalised context.

STATION ELEVEN is very much about a fictional dystopia, it does all those things I too often complain about – but nonetheless succeeds brilliantly; and the fact that the book originally came out around the time the global pandemic was just rearing its head only added to its relevance and the power of its story – ie completely contradicting my own personal bias. The bottom line is that if something is good, it’s good and will overcome any personal bias you have.

But the recent and current global crises really focus my mind on asking writers about the stories they want to tell. Global events should always act like a challenge to writers. Why should I watch / read your story when I could be watching a documentary / the news about the real and extraordinary things going on in the world? And whether what you’re writing is directly addressing huge global events, whether it’s an articulation of your own very personal response to certain events, whether it’s an attempt to tell a story that takes us as far away as possible from the darkness of the current world, whether it’s your attempt to tell a very particular personal story that will help us all find a new perspective on other events, it seems to me that the worse the world gets, the more we need your stories. The darker the news is, the more we need dramatists to re-interpret these events, the more we need you to show us what is of real, lasting value in this world.

And one of the many aspects of STATION ELEVEN that I enjoy and that echoes these feelings is Emily St John Mandel’s vision of her post-apocalyptic world – the ‘travelling symphony’ moving from town to town performing Shakespeare plays; and the almost mythical ‘book’ at the centre of the story – a ‘self-published’, graphic novel that is passed down the generations – one of the messages of both book and TV series is that we need, we thrive, on STORY and art. We need to keep telling each other our stories, to reaffirm our humanity, the love and kinship of the human race, in the face of the horrors of the world.

The number of images and stories that have already come out of Russia’s awful invasion of Ukraine just in the last week that could inspire their own stories and reinterpretations are numerous. Many images of man’s inhumanity to man – but even more of humanity and huge courage in the face of great danger.

In this global context of incredible drama, evil, suffering, kindness and bravery, it’s so important that as writers and creators we are telling the stories that really mean something to us, stories that hold truths, that are driven by passion, fury or joy – rather than being created through cynicism and commercial calculation. Above all, it seems to me, that terrible events in fact only bring home and reaffirm that we all need writers to tell us stories. And the darker things get, the more we need stories.

Here endeth the lesson.

Let’s hope the world looks a little less terrifying in two weeks time,



Twitter: @PhilipShelley1

March 4th 2022