I don’t know about you but I’m still in a low-level state of disbelief and shock about what we’ve been through over the last year. I keep thinking about the idea of someone in February 2020 predicting all of what has happened to us; and how absurd and incredible we would have thought it.
We are living through a sci-fi movie (albeit an extremely boring one). When I think about all of the people I know who are, like me, stuck at home, when I think of all the office blocks, of Channel 4 and the BBC, having stood empty for the last year, of the fact I haven’t been to central London since last March, I still have to metaphorically pinch myself that all this has happened.
My last encounter with the West End of London was in early March sitting in the front row of a matinee of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Leopoldstadt.’ I was sat next to a chatty, charming lady of about 85 who launched into a monologue about how she was going to ignore all the hysteria about coronavirus and carry on regardless, how she had limited time anyway and she certainly wasn’t going to waste it being scared of being out and about in the world. I wonder if she’s still alive. I do hope so. The theatre was packed out and I felt uncomfortable in that setting and left at the first interval (the play wasn’t great either!). I couldn’t have imagined that that would be the last time I was in central London, the last time I used the tube.
An overriding emotion alongside the disbelief has been anger. Anger at the knowledge that this was all avoidable, that people on the other side of the world dealt with this like the intelligent (female) adults they are; there is an alternative universe, where the story took a different, more positive turn. I need help turning this anger into positive action (or perhaps just staying away from Twitter?).
ZOOM – living & working online
The last year has involved discovering a new way of living and working – largely through zoom and its variants (‘Teams’, ‘Blue Jeans’, etc – it’s funny how Skype has faded out of the picture).
I remember when having first conversations about the idea of running a course on zoom rather than in person, referring to it as BOOM (I’d never heard of it before). How quickly life changes, and how quickly we have to learn to adapt.
I’m hugely impressed and inspired by writers’ ingenuity and creativity. There have been many conversations about the creative community’s response to the events of the last year, how to incorporate what has happened into the stories you tell.
I have read a number of brilliant scripts that tackled the issue head-on – a romantic comedy about an unlikely couple forcibly locked down together; a TV comedy drama about a mid-life crisis dramatized solely through the medium of zoom; a script that chronicles this year in the life of a family artificially brought together. Not only are these brilliant projects in their own right. They are works of art that will be really valuable in helping us remember what life has been like in the past year, helping us to process and make sense of what has happened; and when we view these stories with the perspective of time and distance I suspect they will be even more valuable. Some of these writers’ responses have brought home to me the primal importance of art and creativity.
During this last year of lockdown I have developed rich, enjoyable working relationships with people I’ve never met. I feel I know some of these people well; I have to remind myself that I’ve never met these people – including nearly everyone – writers and script editors – involved in the 2021 C4 screenwriting course. So many people I’ve never seen standing up!
The anticipation and excitement about meeting so many of these people – and meeting up again with so many other people who I haven’t seen for so long and have missed, is exciting and, frankly, a bit emotionally overwhelming. I hope it’s not all going to be a big anti-climax!
Alongside this excitement is a developing low-level anxiety at the prospect of going back to living how we did pre-pandemic – commuting, mixing in confined spaces with multiple strangers, just being really busy. Do I want that? I’m not sure I do.
This forced adaptation teaches us to value both the things we’re missing and the things we still have (on the one hand – theatre, live music, cinema on the big screen, live sport with a crowd of partisan, impassioned, noisy supporters, meeting new people face-to-face, the energy of busy city life; being in the same room as other people whose company you enjoy; my grown-up children; on the other hand – so many wonderful scripts that I’ve read, TV shows, films, the countryside, nature, walking by the sea, cycling through beautiful country lanes, the company of my wonderful wife. And above all, meeting my beautiful granddaughter, born on Feb 16th. Seeing my daughter’s joy and love for her new daughter.
And a discovery that – for me personally – living out of London has many more pros than cons. I’ve realised how my sub-conscious (unthinking really) bias that London was the centre of everything in the UK and the only place to live if you want to be at the cutting edge of life – was an extremely stupid opinion.
The peace and quiet in which I’ve been able to read and work, the lack of physical clutter, has made work and creativity easier. I’ve run so many enjoyable (for me at least!) online courses, met so many brilliant, interesting writers on these courses, been pitched so many great ideas.
It’s been a rare and valuable chance to take stock, to think about what’s important, what I want to do, a chance to focus on ambitions and aims – rather than just getting through the work I have in front of me day to day. It’s so important for all of us to stand back from the daily rush through life from time to time, to really consider our longer-term aims and ambitions, what we want to do that will be truly fulfilling. And then we need to work hard to make space for these priorities.
Thinking about how life will have changed when we come out of this – I hope it will be a big help for creatives who live outside of London – that will be a big plus for the industry as a whole. We are all looking for new voices, new stories. And stories that don’t come from London and the ‘Home Counites’ need to be much more prominent.
I recently had a minor (email) spat with a high-profile industry person who taught me this valuable lesson – assume the best unless you have very tangible reasons for not doing so – it’s a lot less tiring and disruptive. Before you wade in with criticism, put yourself in their shoes. Try and focus on the negative things they may be going through, the troubles they may be having before you start an argument or judge them. Everyone’s trying to do their best and we all fall short. If you want someone to do something differently and better, put yourselves in their shoes first and think about how to communicate this in a way that feels positive, affirmative and constructive rather than judgemental. Have empathy basically. Life has become much tougher for a lot of people in different ways and different walks of life.
…have been another real plus of the last year. Alongside the many hundreds of scripts I’ve read, I’ve read more books this year than ever before. I have loved escaping into some amazing story worlds. Some of the highlights, the stories with which I’ve really connected emotionally –
English Monsters by James Scudamore – if you were interested in what I wrote a year or two ago about public schools, privilege and dysfunction, this is a book that will speak to you.
Station Eleven, The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel is a wonderful writer. The stories she tells are both epic and highly personal.
Just Like You by Nick Hornby – NH is not everyone’s cup of tea; but for me, the acuteness of his observations about North London metropolitan life, the excellence of his comic dialogue, his affection for his characters (and humanity in general) shine through this brilliantly told story.
Come On Tonbridge by Mark Hookway. (Volume 1 of 2). This is a book I can confidently say none of you will want to read! So why am I mentioning it? Because I love its passion. This 1st volume is 671 pages long (and Volume 2 that I haven’t read yet is the same sort of length.) It’s the diary of an athletics coach over 20 or so years, charting the rise in success of his club, Tonbridge AC as they start to win national competitions and produce international-class athletes. It’s an account of one man’s madly obsessive, self-sacrificing ambition for the athletes he coaches, the trials and tribulations he went through, the many times he felt like giving up, the shit he had to take from athletes who lose interest and young athletes’ parents who take him for granted, and the ultimate success he achieves – success largely for others rather than himself. The book was largely written during lockdown and is a testament to one man’s very particular niche interest, the way he has pursued it, and how much it has benefitted the lives of those he has coached (all, by the way, for free). The fact that it is self-published is also a lesson in initiative and the get-up-and-go we all need to make a success of our work.
The End Of Time by Gavin Extence – a wonderfully empathetic dramatization of the worldwide refugee crisis.
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming – a beautiful, complex and very human family mystery story.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford – like so many of the best works of fiction and drama, the thing that grabbed me about this book was the combination of story and form. I loved the way the structure of the book made it so rich and compelling
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld – a brilliant, alternative fiction about how things could have worked out very differently for Hilary (and Bill) Clinton, that has so much to say about modern US politics and human nature in general.
Finally, the title of this blog – Unhappy Anniversary – references (a brilliant) Loudon Wainwright iii song, Enjoy!
PS Please do get back to me with your own thoughts about the impact of the last pandemic year and how it has affected your (working) lives – I would love to do a follow-up blog of your own personal responses.
The next newsletter will be on Friday April 2nd
All the best
March 19th 2021