Sunday, May 23, 2010

Day 45: A Cracker of a Man

Observant followers of my thoughts will have noticed by now that I’m not afraid of collecting a quote or two. In fact, whenever I’m in the company of someone who has wisdom or experience that I’d like to plunder, I’ll always have pen poised, ready for that nugget that’s going to solve my life.

I do quite a few script consultancy jobs and I’m constantly amazed at the number of writers who sit down with me, in readiness for a two hour session, with no notepad. Even though I’m going to give them a hard copy of my notes at the end of the session, I let them them know that during the course of our time together, pearls of wisdom will drip from my mouth, gems that might be not in the notes and they won’t want to miss them (excuse me a second whilst I just check my ego at the door).

“There is no higher calling than to write about injustice; I don’t know how you could turn it down.”

Thus spake Jimmy McGovern, creator and writer of Cracker, The Lakes, Dockers, Hillsborough and many other fine, fine film and television pieces. I sat in on two audiences with Jimmy, back, I think, in 1999, when he was out here in Australia. He first came to my attention as one of the writers on the seminal TV series Brookside (Channel 4) in the UK, back in the early 1980’s. For the unwashed of you, Brookside was a daily ‘soap‘ that gave the up-until-then ‘soap‘ genre a bit of a scrub up.

By the way, the fashionable term for “soaps” today, is “continuing drama”. East Enders, Coronation Street, The Young and the Restless, Neighbours, The Bold and the Beautiful, Home and Away are all, “continuing dramas”; don't say that you haven't been told.

Brookside was real in a way that I hadn’t found the “continuing dramas” to be like before. It seemed as though writers like Jimmy McGovern and Frank Cotterell- Boyce (amongst many many others) arrived with the brief to rip out the melodrama, tear through the wall of naturalism and get stuck into realism. Subject matters - many of them television-taboo - were suddenly on the TV set which I and my middle-class English family crowded risqué. Actors like Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston(Mr and Mrs from the Royale Family/Grace from Waking the Dead) brought a performance sinew to the scripts that I certainly hadn’t seen before in the cast of television actors that I was familiar with. Were they actors, they seemed like “real people” to us?!

Suddenly, the “gogglebox” became relevant to me through programmes like Brookside, Boys From the Blackstuff and the writing DNA that flowed down through Jimmy McGovern’s milestone mini-series, The Lakes (just been re-issued on DVD). Drama content had something to do with me now, it was relevant, not removed; no longer did it feel like somewhat of a frothy construct, which “continuing dramas” feel like today, at least to me they do.

Day #45 Tip: There Is No Substitute For Authenticity

In the late 90’s, Jimmy McGovern turned his writer’s sensibility to a feature-length TV piece called Dockers. It was broadcast here, in Australia, on ABC Television, along with a companion piece about The Making of Dockers (except it wasn’t called that).

Dockers came about, following the real-life events of the striking workers and their families who lost their jobs in the Liverpool dock strike of 1998. Without going into great detail about the how’s and the why’s of what happened, the upshot was that, when the dust had just about settled, these men and their families were left without jobs, without income and without a voice; their local members of parliament and even their union had abandoned them.

I can’t remember how it came to pass, but with Liverpool being Jimmy McGovern’s home turf, he became involved with this group of people and suggested a way that they could turn from being the unheard to the heard. They formed a writers co-operative of sorts (The Initiative Factory) and the idea was suggested of telling their story/stories through the medium of a dramatic piece for the screen, the television screen, the most powerful of mediums. This process is the very subject matter of the “making-of” companion piece and, for my money, is as good as, if not better than the Dockers film itself.

On a regular basis, Jimmy McGovern would meet with this group of people, sometimes en masse, sometimes individually and guide them through the process of creating the film from their own experiences which, memory tells me, THEY wrote and he shaped/co-wrote. The fundamental difference here was that rather than a writer parachuting in and collecting together the material needed and whizzing off, never to be seen again, he empowered this group (none of whom had turned their hand to writing before) to give voice to their stories and become the accountable architects of their own work.

Verbatim theatre is a common strand of theatrical performance/writing, a kind of “word for word‘ replay of events, documented by a writer or company and then replayed on stage; The Laramie Project (in it’s theatrical rather than filmic form [personal preference]) about the murder of Matthew Shephard (a murder widely considered to be motivated by homphobia)is one piece that comes to mind, as is the play/film Aftershocks about the devesation following the Newcastle (NSW, Australia) earthquake of 1989.

Robert McKee says this: “A true author, no matter the medium, is an artist with godlike knowledge of his subject, and the proof of his authorship is that his pages smack of authority....this writer knows. I’m in the hands of an authority. And the effect of writing with authority is authenticity.”

These thoughts are but rules of the road, nothing more and I always love the exceptions to the rules: In one of those Q&A sessions with Jimmy McGovern, he was quizzed at length about the television series Cracker and it’s protagonist, the criminal psychologist, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane). Here’s something he said: “With Fitz, I wanted to create someone who was looking for the pure truth...however, I never met a criminal psychologist until the wrap party”. Then he added, about writers: “...we’re human....”

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