Winchester Writers’ Weekend: more than just words.

I was excited to be travelling to the Winchester Writers’ Festival with two talented  writer friends. It was the first time I’d been to this festival and I was really looking forward to the workshops, the talks and meeting the agents.
Given the horror stories I’d  heard beforehand of writers rushing out of their sessions with an agent, reduced to tears, straight into the arms of an  agony aunt specially employed to pick up the pieces, I was fascinated by what the whole experience would really be like.
The one-to-ones with literary agents are an exceptional opportunity to meet professionals who work in the industry at the cutting edge of the vocation we writers are trying to access. They are mostly young women, but with a number of older agents of both genders, all having been doing their job for a long time and on the lookout for a writer whose work is saleable, the agents were an active group of people who were clearly focused on business.
I met four agents and, in every case, they were complimentary and positive. The point is, though, that while praise is nice, all agents offered me ways I could make my novel and the package that goes with it more accessible and potentially successful. As writers, we aren’t in search of fans among our agents , we are looking for real ways to improve and to go forward.That is really the whole point of the festival. We know we’re good but how can we make our product better and how can it be moulded to fit the gap it will inevitably fill?
One agent suggested I change my novel title; another loved my title. This is  excellent: it enables us as writers to be flexible and to learn quickly that the industry is subjective and that each agent has his or her own set of requirements which are simply different from those of another agent. As writers, we need to be resilient and able to change our work while holding on to and resolving what is essentially important to us in our own writing.
I had a great experience from four positive and clever agents, women who knew their stuff. They could not have been more helpful and they all managed to squeeze an incredible amount of information into a tight fifteen minutes slot. Given how many writers with different packages they must have met over two days, they must have been exhausted, yet I still came away from each one-to-one having been helped uniquely with my novel and I felt important.
I’m now clear about what I need to do to make my novel leap from the page and surge forward. I believe the one-to-ones are a key opportunity for all writers to achieve success more quickly and effectively. Also, the agents weren’t afraid to tel it like it is: other writers told me of positive experiences and of meetings where they were clearly told what needed to change. What can be more useful to an aspiring writer than that?
On the Saturday morning, we had a keynote speaker for the festival. As  a creative person, I have a low boredom threshold. I have seen so many keynote speakers who haven’t done it for me. Recently I was at a university keynote speech, where the speaker chatted blandly to a beaming front row of friends while the rest of us yawned and stretched and looked at the ceiling.
However the keynote speaker, writer Meg Rosoff,  was inspirational. She was able to put her finger exactly on the essence of good writing, striking a strong chord with most if not all writers in the room. I’ll now buy her books, even though she doesn’t write in my genre. I can learn from good writers like Meg- we all can.
I went to an interactive workshop on writing with author, Judy Waite. It was the last slot in the afternoon, when everyone was tired and thinking about going to the pub. Her session  blew me away. I have been in education for  years, on both sides of the desk, and I can recognise talent, dedication and passion. Her input was exceptional and I really benefited from the work she did. We read our stuff back and there was no doubt that her methods had made everyone think hard  in terms of writing visual detail.
One interesting observation, though, is that the men in the group volunteered to read their ideas back first, and then a few hesitant women followed. Why do we do that? It is something I need to resolve personally. Do we fear criticism, are we too modest  or, as women, do we simply let the men go first? Without doubt, the last reader, a woman, had the most interesting and clever writing style I’d heard that day. Why do we hang back? I will give that one some serious thought.
The weekend’s talks and workshops and meetings were great. As if that wasn’t enough, Winchester University is a fabulous place, both in terms of setting and for food and relaxation. I’m a vegan and therefore used to being given slug-filled lettuce and bland tomatoes at mealtimes when I go on such events, but the food was the best I’ve had in any higher education establishment and the service was so good. I was astonished by all the shiny happy people I met. Winchester is such a positive place
I spoke to an interesting and kind lady who talked to me about PhD opportunities at Winchester and I came away really excited. I met lovely people-new writers from Rome and Paris and Stoke-on-Trent. I ate out in the picturesque town and even sat in a pub which served superfood quinoa salad. Heaven!
We three travelling writers came away having been improved and delighted and inspired.
I couldn’t have had a better weekend.Thanks to all involved!

Concerning Corrie: we need more grit and less suds

In a previous blog, I hinted that Shakespeare’s plays may have been early soap operas for the thousands of groundlings who cheered and hissed and threw missiles at the stage when the tragedy was notched up a gear. They would have paid a penny, these butchers and tanners, seamen, shop keepers, wig makers, to stand in front of the stage. That was almost a day’s wage in the 1600s. They were a boisterous bunch, too: often loud and hot- tempered, they would often heckle the actors and they clapped and booed and jeered as they thought appropriate. In 1629, a French company were jeered and ‘pippin pelted’ because they dared to use real women for the female roles. They would arrive late, leave whenever they liked before the end and at times, the groundlings would become so affected by the action, they even joined in, climbing on the stage.

That’s not too far a cry from our current response to soap operas – how many of us have never shouted at the screen when the characters are in a high drama situation, our suspension of disbelief going into overdrive?

There have been moments of soap madness which have combined excellent script writing with sharp acting performance and the result has been the creation of household names and momentous drama situations which stay with us to this day.

Remember Brookside, when Mandy Jordache killed bullying hubby Trevor and Sinbad put him under their patio, then Jimmy Corkhill had to dig him up again to retrieve the wedding ring? Remember the best row ever in the shocking climax  in Eastenders when the Slater girls were screaming at each other and Zoe yelled at Kat ‘You’re not my bloody mother!’ and Kat replied ‘Oh yes I am!’

We love the pantomimic qualities of soap; the creation of heroes whose triumphs we can hope for, and villains whose vileness and knavery we can loathe and despise. Put the baddies and goodies together and drama will develop. There was the Krystle and Alexis catfight in the lily pond in Dynasty where we all goggled at the spectacle of kicking legs and wigs and wet dresses on the telly before bursting into laughter. There was Den and Angie’s Christmas divorce and the awful fire in Emmerdale which killed Sarah Sugden and the flying window, roof tile, biscuit or whatever it was that sent Tricia Dingle to an early grave. But amid the riots and romance, we have to care about what will happen next.

This brings me to the point about modern soaps and perhaps the competition between them for viewing ratings, which may cause the plots and the characters to be strained to such an extent that they defy belief. Once upon a time, in the sixties, seventies and eighties, soaps were mini kitchen sink Dramas and a good place for brilliant actors and promising scriptwriters to cut their teeth on new, edgy stories. Soaps boasted characters we could believe lived next door to us, and we treated them as if they were neighbours, we were concerned about their lives. Stan and Hilda Ogden and the Mitchell brothers had a certain quality we both loved and hated: they were flawed heroes and yet somehow likeable. Now we are treated to characters who may be down on their luck, may be troubled, may be bankrupt or breaking up but they still manage to find their way into the Rovers for a pint or a pie and a pastry in  Roy’s Rolls, and how they keep managing to slide out for lunch in Nick’s trendy bistro on the wages from a part time job in Underworld is mystifying.

We expect soaps to bring a bit of drama into our lives and I’m sure we have all had moments where our own lives have roller coasted out of control a bit, so we expect to be staggered by the events which play out on our screens. But who would choose to live in Weatherfield, where minibuses crash and boozers blaze while Fizz gives birth seconds after the impact and Leanne marries Peter at his hospital bed moments before she’s told to fear the worst.

And in terms of romance, does anyone look any further than their next door neighbour for a life partner? Moreover, why does simpering Tim stay with silly Sally? Why would tough business woman Carla pick boozed up and bankrupt Peter Barlow, who cheated on her while she fell into an alcoholic stupor on her wedding night? Are we expected to believe that any man on earth, let alone the talented if bland Robert would cope with Tracy the conniving, lying and duplicitous murderer?

It’s good that Corrie has defied the trend to make all the storylines about misery and death, and the warm humour which seeps into characters’ rapports can be a step away from empathy and likeability, as seen in the Steve/ Lloyd friendship. But what about the Platts? I laughed out loud at the ridiculous comments and death- puns which kept coming through the family mouths as Gail arranged the furniture in her granny flat while druggy Callum was cold beneath the concrete floor. I am guessing the body under the annexe story is one which will keep bubbling for a while, culminating in a massive showdown scene before the actress who plays Kylie gets arrested and goes off on a real maternity leave? Or perhaps Callum will come back from the dead, as Dirty Den did on several occasions, and claim his new son Harry? Or maybe there will be a haunting, or they will wake up and it was just a dream!.

There have been some powerful and impactful moments of drama, such as Steve Mcdonald’s brush with mental illness, well scripted, and sensitively performed by an actor who had previously specialised in being a feckless barman who told superficial jokes. It is impressive when we realise we are in the company of great actors who are capable of startling performances, such as Katherine Kelly as Becky Mcdonald, who had us convinced that, despite her shady past, she was a character with depths of integrity and altruism.

But too often, the characters and storylines are a little weak and implausible, such as Maria’s pointless marriage to Pablo, which then causes her to dress like a lion so that Luke acquiesces with an engagement ring, without giving her betrayal more than a second thought. Even serious and ground breaking story lines, such as Phelan’s rape of Anna or Izzy’s sourcing of cannabis to cope with her everyday pain have not yet reached the emotive impact which will make an audience think about the real repercussions. Brechtian Lehrstücke or learning plays, where the characters and plots imitate life so that an audience can use logic to make decisions and form conclusions about how society works is often an important part of soap stories, but in these cases we the audience are not being made to care enough about the characters; their agonies, their plights, their dilemmas are being superficially presented without the  real jolt of empathy or tension which will make us react.

Remember the Free the Weatherfield One campaign, and the  signs which went up all over the UK asking for Deirdre to be released from prison when she was wrongly jailed for theft? Tony Blair backed it, t-shirts went on sale, it was a huge talking point nationally. Yet Gary’s arrest and Tony’s death and Phelan’s petty crimes in the community centre pass almost unnoticed: Sally, Norris and Dev remain comic characters and the romance triangle roller coaster between the bullying Caz and the star cross’d Kate and Sophie has raised barely a sniff of compassion.

Perhaps what we need is characters whom we can care about, who are less superficial, and that is difficult to achieve now in the mad soap-opera world of a tragedy a minute and a death,birth or divorce every few episodes. What we need is a dilemma we can believe in and characters we can commit our allegiance to.How can we care about characters who are underdeveloped and engaged in superficial story lines? I have seen Anna do her pained expression more times than I want to, and the result is that I don’t see her problems as interesting or her relationship with or Kevin as a venture I really care about.

Give them all something heroic to do, give them some depth and purpose. Create more characters like Eva Price. Her storyline showed her saving the enslaved Marta, despite her determination to do the right thing getting her sacked from Underworld. The situation  was far fetched but worked due to her performance, where she mixed humour and determination with gritty, gutsy action and a few human mistakes which make the drama credible. Eva the Diva has a heart: she is flawed and funny and her character is being constantly developed, due to the actor’s ability to create subtext and to show a multi-faceted personality. If only this were true of the downtrodden Tim or the whingeing Norris or the miserly and boring Dev. Give the characters passion, a heart, some credible layers and some honest action.

Strong story lines we can believe in, characters we can understand and get to know and like, a sense of commitment to backstory and action is what soap fans now need. There’s a lot of montage, a brief glimpse of a character emerging, a facial expression, a moment, and then we move to another transitory and peripheral storyline. We need some grit without the misery, some drama without the sense of déjà vu  accidents and incidents. We need to start to care again about our characters and believe they are real, rather than the current situation where Martin is cracking bad jokes about  dead, concrete- embalmed Callum in front of  gormless and gaping Gail while Sarah-Louise is having hysterics at the baby’s baptism.

Otherwise, the alternative is that reality TV will become the new soap opera. I mean, is there anything more exaggerated, ridiculous, mercurial and episodic than the life of the Kardashians? We soap-opera groundlings are always going to be more than capable of shouting abuse and throwing a few pippins at the screen. Moreover, it is very easy to change channel, watch the football instead or just take ourselves off down our local pub and have a little life action of our own.

Sublime Shakespeare: ‘Tis Beauty Truly Blent

‘… we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’

I loved Shakespeare when I was at school, despite my English teachers. They were not the enthusiastic pedagogues of today, striving to make the bard accessible because every child mattered. My teachers were dry pecking birds who wanted to perpetuate a class system in which the Felicities and Florences were urged towards Oxbridge and the threadbare uniformed eleven plus-passing paupers like me were relegated to the back row of low expectations. I knew I would achieve an A grade at A level in English. When I mentioned going to Liverpool to study my degree, the headteacher wrinkled her rhinoceros nose at me and said ‘Eww, that is so towny!’

I paid her about as much attention as I ever did and never looked back once I’d left.

But I loved the Literature classes, even though Abigail and Arabella got to read all the best parts round the class and I had the occasional comic role because I could do accents.

In year eight we ‘did’ ‘Twelfth Night’. I struggled a bit with the concept of Shakespeare’s comedies at that point. We were told that some plays were classed as comedies, but I didn’t understand why some of them  were funny, and no-one explained it to me. In ‘A  Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ we were meant to laugh at Bottom’s working class plight and his subsequent humiliation. In ‘The Shrew,’ we were meant to find Kate’s subjugation funny. And I never knew, as a kid, what was  so hilarious about the antisemitic abuse and exploitation of Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice.’

It was the 20th century, not the 17th, and I was clear why Sir Toby was fairly funny and Sir Andrew was a figure of parody, and I understood that it was hilarious that Maria and her boys took the poke out of Malvolio because he deserved it for being priggish. I was a bit uncomfortable with that, though. The idle rich and drunk laughing at others and marrying the maid because she showed her superior wit by ridiculing someone a bit weak with probable low self-esteem. Wasn’t that bullying, I wondered? And as a thirteen year old, I had no idea why it was funny to dress up as a boy and cause a rich egotistical heiress to pursue you.

Then much later I saw Mark Rylance as Olivia.

‘Twelfth Night’, at The Globe in 2013, was an all-male cast, much as it would have been almost 400 years ago, in Jacobean costume, with traditional music and instruments.

Rylance as Olivia brought everything into sharp focus: with his tiny steps, which gave the impression of gliding daintily across the stage, and his falsetto-high voice, his performance was not a parody or a grotesque, but a radical and witty interpretation which cleverly makes the traditional also sharply contemporary. Olivia was not played for her superficial beauty, but for her keen wit and her ability to run her own household powerfully and with insight. And when she sees Cesario, Viola’s male character in disguise, looking very similar to Boy George in his days of ‘Karma Chameleon’, she decides she must have him.

All performances were incredibly impactful and strong. The cast were a collaborative team, but Rylance has such a superb sense of timing and diction and how to use Shakespeare’s language to wring out the most meaning for the audience. The moment Cesario and twin Sebastian appear on the stage together for the first time , Olivia exclaims ‘Most wonderful!’ A fresh interpretation from the one which implied a miracle: we as the audience know she is goggle-eyed, considering the prospect of a ménage a trois and we oblige with spontaneous laughter.

Olivia is in charge but her attraction to Cesario is a sucker punch to her omnipotence, and it is this new found frailty and dependence which swings from cool mistress to besotted girl which inspires the humour. We find ourselves, like the groundlings of the 1600s, laughing raucously at the innuendo jokes which would never be noticeable in a straight performance done entirely for the type of middle class audiences who laugh politely in the right places. Yet Rylance remains credible, a dilemma of delicate femininity and a woman who rules her own world. It is fun and frivolous, but never a pantomime.

The scene between Orsino and Viola/Cesario annoyed me when I was in year 8, when Orsino says such lines as:

There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much. They lack retention.

But this scene was tenderly homoerotic. Orsino is not the priggish macho aristocrat here: we realise that his words are currently mistaken as Viola gazes at him through the eyes of Cesario, but we forgive him, because she does, and also because the rapport between the characters promises such passion and hope for change. This too is why the scene is humorous but also full of tension and romance. It’s perfectly positioned to pave the way for the action and confusion which follows.

While Stephen Fry as Malvolio and his rowdy tormentors create the slapstick which the groundlings would have revelled in, Rylance and the actors play out the love triangle and confusion of identity with  intelligent comedy, wit and farce, a great homage to how Shakespeare should be done. I just felt really happy to be in the audience: no numb bum moments, which can be the case with some productions – we were truly transported and delighted throughout. If I didn’t understand Shakespeare’s comedies before, this production made every opportunity crystal clear.

I also saw Rylance as Richard the Third, a performance rich in self-loathing and machiavellian exploitation. But perhaps that production is for another blog.

As we remember Shakespeare’s birthday, and his death on April 23rd, 400 years ago, we can contemplate an important part of our culture which may once have been the property of the middle class audiences who, due to their elitist backgrounds, understood or claimed to understand what it all meant. But it didn’t start that way. Shakespeare’s plays were the top dramas and soap operas of his time, played for fun, for laughter, for passion, loved by all who saw them, whatever age, class or background.

It is thanks to brilliant actors like Rylance and his cast, and thanks to the dedication of outstanding modern teachers who make Shakespeare’s plays fresh, accessible and meaningful that those times are here again. We can all enjoy Shakespeare; we can understand the meaning of every line in context, and new and exciting interpretations enable us to build bonds with the characters and make the storylines contemporary and meaningful without losing their original impact. The curtains have been drawn and we have been shown the picture. And what a great picture it is too.

If I could go back to my dry and diffident English teacher, I’d still say thanks, though. She may not have taken me to where I was always going to go, but I had a seat in the room and a book marked ‘Shakespeare’. And from that starting point, the journey was always going to be exciting.

Cumberbatch and Van Gogh in the same frame. Fascinating.

Today, I was discussing the new film ‘Loving Vincent’ with an Art student. Apparently, it is a really exciting and ambitious film, to be released this year, in which Van Gogh’s troubled and brilliant life is told through animation; there will be 56,800 hand-painted frames in the entire film in the style of the artist. I watched the trailer and I now I think I have to see the film! It promises to be stunning, breathtaking and beautiful. Directed mainly in Poland by painter Dorota Kobiela, the ground breaking film will be a real feast for the eyes.

A year ago, I was in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. A few hours in the museum, traipsing from one painting to the next, is exhausting emotionally. It’s as if you have been on a visual whirligig of his life, unsettling, incredible and in full colour. I recall looking at one of Van Gogh’s paintings, ‘Self Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat, 1887’, and having a strong sense of Vincent the man. In the picture, he is gaunt and hunched: his eyes don’t meet ours, wherever we stand. He is solitary, singular and sad. Then again, I saw ‘Self Portrait’, 1889, the one against the blue background.Vincent’s mouth is set and stubborn but his eyes are unsettled, his beard fiery red and the whirling blue behind him makes me think of his intense mental confusion. By this point, he had committed himself to an asylum in St Remy, having argued with Gauguin and cut off a portion of his own ear.

Today, for no particular reason, someone gave me a film and recommended that I watch it. It is the docu-drama  ‘Painted with Words,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Van Gogh. Released in 2010, and featuring only Van Gogh’s own words through his letters, narration from Alan Yentob and some talking heads from other actors playing Theo Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and other influences, it tells Van Gogh’s life story in flashback from the hospital in Provence.

This film had somehow passed me by, but it shouldn’t have. Cumberbatch is an ideal actor to play Van Gogh, not only visually, with his light hair and beard and intense blue gaze, but because of his intelligent interpretation of the painter’s character. Cumberbatch’s Van Gogh is self-absorbed, obsessive, often a little lachrymose and tender hearted, and his portrayal is sensitive and believable. We know what will happen at the end of the story: we know about his unrequited love obsessions, his loneliness, his excessive absinthe drinking, his friendship and quarrels with Gauguin.

But Cumberbatch delivers on empathy, often merely by talking to the camera.His ability to use pause, pace, non-verbal language and vocal expression is stunning, as are his excellent facial expressions. His eye contact and then the lack of it, his moments of self absorbed musings, create a portrait of the artist as a troubled genius and Van Gogh’s painted and drawn masterpieces are his props, which makes for a powerful depiction.

‘Painted With Words’ is a thorough film, covering Vincent’s time in England, his inappropriate love for his cousin Kee, his  fractured relationship with his father and, above all, his dependence on the good nature and support of his brother, Theo. It touches upon his love for his mistress, Sien, whom he found as a pregnant prostitute and took her in, using her as the model for paintings such as ‘Sorrow’.The film deals with his life in  France, his loneliness, his obsessive need to paint and his descent into bipolar illness. Here Cumberbatch excels. Vincent is a driven artist and his genius is his enemy.  He separates himself from a world of people  he does not completely understand in order to paint it’s natural beauty.

Van Gogh’s paintings and  drawings, many which he gave away to his brother, feature powerfully, telling a story by themselves, as his work changes in its influence, from his early copies of others’ styles, studies such as ‘The Fisherman on the Beach’, to ‘Sorrow’ and then the wonderful ‘Potato Eaters’.Then  came his fascination with colour: self portraits, Japanese art, bright fields, flowers, then the superb ‘Starry Night’ in 1889. At times, he could complete a painting in a day. By the end of his life he had created well over 900 pieces of Art.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a very  likeable Van Gogh and he creates a tragic figure. It is a unique portrait of an incredible artist using only his own words, and it is a moving film. Often misjudged and, at times, misjudging and ill-treating himself, Vincent is a man obsessed with his work. It is the only area in which he excels, having failed in other areas of his life: conventional paid work, religion, parents, friends and love.

Cumberbatch shows us Vincent’s youthful enthusiasm, his growing pains, his losses and mistakes and tantrums, but he remains a character with integrity and compassion. We notice the resolution with which Vincent accepts his isolation and his illness, as if his paintings are the greater part of the man, subsuming his soul. Vincent is tormented, unsupported and alone and the final moments of the film show him eating his  paint in a suicide attempt and finally shooting himself in the chest in a field of golden wheat, (although there are other theories about his death, including the idea that he may have been murdered).

It will always be an irony that Vincent Van Gogh is lauded now and yet he had little celebration or payment for his genius in his lifetime. It may be too late for him, but films such as ‘Loving Vincent’ are a great tribute to a unique artist. Benedict Cumberbatch credits him with a depth of character and an obsessive talent which may have initially  balanced the banalities in his life, but later Vincent became two polarised characters, the genius painter and the flawed man. ‘Painted with Words’ is a superb film, another triumph by one of the greatest actors of our time as he portrays one of the greatest artists ever.