Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 108: Wright & Robinson

The man in the photograph, is known as Eric “the hat”, to give him his full name, Eric “the hat” Robinson, one half of the comedy duo Wright & Robinson, who began life in music halls and variety shows around the UK, before succesfully transfering their act to radio, then television, before an acrimonious split in the early 1960’s. After the professional divorce, Eric Robinson, went on to have a successful television career, becoming a much-loved elder statesman of the British entertainment world, whilst his ex-partner, Leonard Wright, all-but disappeared from sight, foraging for work where he could get it, in an industry that thought him “hard work”.

The irony was that the eminently successful Eric, was the straight man of the comedy duo, whilst Leonard was the funnier half, the one blessed with enviable comic timing and an ascerbic wit. Like many personal and professional partnerships that go their seperate ways, the two could not abide being within joke-telling distance of each other thereafter, let alone on the same bill or, God- forbid, in the same room. For eight long years, between 1961 and 1969 (long mostly for those around them), the two did not exchange one pleasantry with each other, even though their professional and personal lives had been intertwined and inextricably linked for the best part of twenty-five years.

Eric would openly talk about the split when interviewed in the media, but Leonard kept his silence, nursing his rancour and resentment like it were something precious to him. Eric would only say, diplomatically, that the two of them had had a “professional difference of opinion”, leaving it open to guesswork as to what that innocuous and suitably vague statement actually meant. One had the definite impression that if Leonard had volunteered something on the subject, it would probably have been considerably more toxic, Leonard being the more volatile of the two and not someone known for his detente .

By the time the end of the ’60’s drew nigh, Eric Robinson was living his life in a fashionably wealthy street off the King’s Road in London’s South-West (royal) borough of Kensington & Chelsea. He was able to pick and choose from the television and radio work offered to him, was the subject matter of BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs’ on more that one occasion and boasted, in Billy Todd, the finest theatrical agent that top performers of the day - from Tom Jones to Shirley Bassey - could hope for. The abundnace in his working life was mirrored by the enjoyment of a personal life filled with children and grandchildren, all with a steadfast and loving wife by his side.

Leonard, on the other hand, was struggling to make rental payments on his Hackney bedsit, a ‘modest dwelling’ that would physically rattle as the trains went by on the tracks that he lived cheek by jowl with. There were no hired drivers to ferry Leonard from NE1 to the studios of the Brtish Broadcasting Corporation to find out what musical selection Leonard would take to the desert island, only a red, double-decker, Routemaster bus that would trundle him along to Shoreditch and the supermarket.

The ill-will and enmity between the two could not be put asunder, even when Eric’s wife succombed to cancer; not a card from Leonard to Eric, no call from Eric to Leonard, the bitterness ran deep.

The cold war between these two eventually came to a head, one September night in 1969, when, along with seven other comedians, Eric “the hat” Wright and Leonard Robinson were put on the same bill together for one night and thrown in one communual dressing room with the others, forcing each to acknowledge the others’ existence, even opening up a torrid dialogue.

Day #108 Tip: No dialogue in the Treatment
Attempting to write a screenplay of the night that Leonard Wright and Eric Robinson shared a dressing room together. along with seven peer group comedians of their day was something that I tried to do with my first screenplay, The Comedians.

For me, the novice/apprentice/greenhorn screenwriter, writing that treatment before the screenplay was almost impossible, because in a treatment you must keep dialogue to the absolute minimum. What characters “do” defines character; character is action. As someone once wisely said: “don’t show me a scene where they talk about attacking the castle, show them attacking the castle.

The Comedians is/was a script for a film about nine comics in a dressing room, much of the matter of the screenplay was about what they said, it was a struggle to write any sort of a coherent treatment when dialogue was denied me; I couldn’t do it. Dialogue is to be saved for the actual writing of the screenplay, by which time your characters will have been screaming to speak for the last five months; by that point in time they’ll have an economy of speech which will be profound, saying only what needs saying, no more no less.

My first treatment for this screenplay was littered with “he said”, “he shouted”, “he yelled” and on and on. I didn’t know how to solve that script. Two and a half drafts later (and a draft by someone else) and I still couldn’t figure it out. Many have suggested that it “should” be a theatre piece and I’d reply that it “could” be a theatrical work (not to be confused with Trevor Griffiths’ ‘Comedians’).

This script was to be my response to Twelve Angry Men: nine angrier, sadder, mentally deranged men. I’ll solve the conundrum that is The Comedians one day.....when a STORY of ACTION, active moments of conflict between characters comes to me. Then and only then, the treatment won’t seem such a slog. And maybe then, I'll know what became of Leonard & Eric? Until then, they both wait at the bus stop my imagination, eyeing the timetable waiting for....?

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