Probably the question I’m asked the most is – “How do I become a writer?” And of course, it’s impossible to answer.
The second most asked question is – “When did you become a writer?” Again, impossible to answer, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out the two questions are very closely linked.
Back in the first blog I wrote – OPENING SALVO, I mentioned I got my first commission from the BBC in the late 70s, for a thriller called Dog In the Dark, but this was neither the reason I became a writer, or when I became a writer.
I started writing at school in the way every school pupil does in this country, something we take totally for granted, when there are plenty of places in the world that are crying out for the chance to learn to read and write. Not appreciating that we are all offered this opportunity, is almost like laughing at those who are not so lucky.
Whether I was any good or not, who’s to say. But what I did realise, only fairly recently, was that I must have been an okay storyteller. Friday afternoon in junior school, which was for seven to eleven-year olds, was story time. The teacher would read the class a story. Then for some reason, I can’t remember what – she’d probably left the book she was going to read from at home, she asked if any of the class would like to tell a story. Was I the first? I’m not sure. But what I do know was that after telling a couple of stories, the kids in the class started to ask if I’d do the Friday afternoon story session. What were the stories about? Not a clue. Of course, I’d already started to read and those early reading days would normally involve Enid Blyton’s – Secret Seven or Famous Five. Adventure stories, which I suppose were thrillers for kids. These books are now probably deemed unsuitable – no diversity, no LGBTQ, no environmental issues, just old-fashioned mystery stories. Sort of Jack Reacher for eight-year-olds. I would imagine these are the type of stories I told, stories that appealed to working and middle-class kids in a Northern industrial city. It was escapism, but escapism we could relate to.
When I went to senior school two things happened, suddenly English wasn’t just English, it was English Language and English Literature, and I moved into the loft bedroom in our newly acquired house. I loved English Literature; reading and absorbing books, plays, poetry I have always enjoyed. English Language, as a subject – not so much. It always felt a bit restrictive, a bit perfunctory. I would imagine that’s changed somewhat by now, but in those days the whole English Language shtick had little to do with using your imagination
You may wonder why moving into the loft bedroom made a difference to my future career path. Round about the time I went to grammar school we moved from our two up-two down terrace to a nice suburban 3-bedroom end terrace with great views over the city of Bradford. As always there wasn’t really enough room for us, my parents, my two sisters, my grandmother and me plus large dog. In a three bedroomed house we were basically a couple of bedrooms short. My parents, right up until when my grandmother died, slept on a sofa bed in the dining room. Each night they would get it out and make up the bed, then each morning they would put it away and turn it back into a sofa. So the three bedrooms were occupied by my grandmother and each of my sisters had one. I was given the option of the loft which you accessed by a pull-down ladder. Why this was relevant, was because this was where my grandfather’s, my mother’s father, Herbert Overend Wilshire, (you couldn’t make up a name like that) who died four years before I was born, this was where his books and my mother’s old books were stored. My grandfather apparently was an avid reader, something my mother had inherited from him. Here, just an arm’s stretch from my bed, was the most eclectic mix of books probably outside the local library. Virtually all were hard backs and had that musty smell of old paper. So without much effort I read the classics of literature. Books that weren’t been offered up for reading at school like Dracula, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Animal Farm … the list was endless. The majority I loved and if there was ever a single moment that would have made me want to write, it was probably sometime round about then. However, I certainly never considered writing as a profession.
In my early teens I became interested in drama and started to devour plays. For some inexplicable reason, so inexplicable I still have no idea what made me do it, I read any play I could lay my hands on. The school library had a number of plays, and because nobody else was really interested in them, they were mine for the reading and sometimes the taking.
As I approached my mid-teens, Dave Guest, a school mate, asked if I’d like to go along with him to the West Riding Youth – an invitation, which I didn’t know at the time, was going to change my life. Here we did lots of improvisation, frequently around the Sharks and Jets in West Side Story. I started dabbling with writing drama, but didn’t really show it to anyone, probably because I was terrified they would tell me it was crap. Nevertheless, it was this period in my life, that made me understand that I wanted to be involved in theatre … there was no thought of TV at this time, and as far as I could see there was only one route in – I would become an actor. Strangely I didn’t read lots of books about acting. The only ones I read were Stanislavski’s, An Actor Prepares, Building a Character and Creating a Role. These books really confirmed what we’d worked on at Youth Theatre and reaffirmed, for me, that it was right approach.
The next writing opportunity came at drama school. One of the tasks we were set in the third year, was to direct a one act play. Most people were choosing Pinter, or Beckett, or Ionesco, or some other well-known playwright, so I decided to direct a play by that lesser known playwright – Nicholas Arland, aka Tony McHale. I adopted a pseudonym simply because I wanted an honest reaction to the play. I knew if it were known I’d written it, then the critiques wouldn’t honest. They’d either been full of praise, or full of scathing patronising praise, but neither would be a sincere appraisal.
The play was called Sight. It involved two old friends meeting up after a number of years and one reminding the other of a pact they’d agreed on when they were teenagers. When I did it at drama school it got a more than favourable reception. A year or so later I was working with the Q20 Theatre Company. This company performed an eclectic mix of shows from classic plays, to more avant-garde modern dramas, to pantomimes to school shows. The amazing person who ran this theatre company, and still does, was John Lambert. John decided we should create a show to take round to secondary schools and I immediately offered to write it. It was called Prepare Yourself and it was about how actors prepare themselves to play various different roles. The title was a nod to the Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. The piece contained various extracts from various plays illustrating the different types of drama and how actors approach each one. For the last piece, which was to represent modern drama, I decided to use Sight. The two friends were played by Simon Jones and Kevin Hubbard. Simon went onto be a successful actor both sides of the Atlantic, playing such roles as Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited and Ford Prefect in the cult series Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. Kevin went to produce shows for LWT. At this stage nobody was using music in straight plays. Unless somebody put a record on during the action, plays would be totally minus music. So I decided to buck the trend and I used music, Bridge Over Trouble Water, by Simon and Garfunkel over the denouement of the play. At the time I knew it was strikingly effective. I may not have been the first to utilise this emotional tool, but I went onto use the technique from there on, but it wasn’t until a quite a few years later did it become normal to have music added to a drama in the same way that music is used in movies.
John was looking for a new play for the company to perform, so one weekend I wrote, When A Man Loves A Woman, the title was a straight steal from Percy Sledge’s hit record. I was in my early twenties at the time and I’ve always thought when you’re that young that’s about the length of time it should take you to write a play. Now it can take me anything up to two years. At this point I can’t think of anyone who had used the title of a song as a title of a play. Of course, now it’s done all the time. For some reason we never did the play and it’s probably in the loft somewhere along with other unproduced masterpieces, or maybe they weren’t masterpieces which is why they weren’t produced.
I continued writing one act plays and occasionally full-length plays. The one act plays I could persuade other actors to perform, but the full length plays I didn’t really know how to go about getting them produced. So in the loft they went.
Then came the time I wrote the panto; which I know I’ve mentioned before and that was the first time I got paid for actually writing something.
As an actor I started doing more and more TV, so I started to turn my hand to writing TV scripts. At this point I had read all of Jean le Carré’s output and was knocked out with the wonderful way his characters and plots weaved together. I fell in love with the ‘cold war’ and to this day would love to write something about that period. But in the 70s, what it meant was I wrote thrillers for TV. That’s what excited me.
By this stage I’d read and acted in numerous stage plays and acted in a number of TV dramas from Coronation Street to Stan Barstow. Copies of stage plays were easy to get hold of, but TV scripts were virtually impossible, unless you were acting in one. I kept all my TV scripts, studying mainly the lay out, so that when I submitted a script to a TV company, the format was one they recognised immediately. Something that today, I would advise any budding writers to do.
The scripts went flying in and then came flying back. I would sing my version of My Way – ‘Rejections I had few, but then again not too few to count, I did what I had to do And the numbers grew to a huge amount.’ Every time a script came back, I just thought ‘fuck it – I’ll show them.’ At the time I would only send scripts to either the BBC or one of the ITV networks. I just assumed that if a script had been rejected by one company, that it would be rejected by all the others. Of course this isn’t the case, but I didn’t know that then. As long as a script is in good shape, whether it gets made or not is down to three things – right time, right desk, right mood – by that I mean, even if it lands on the right desk at the right time, the person that picks it up and starts to read it, has to be in the right mood. If they happen to have had a fight with their partner, or their dog has just been run over, or something as simple as their train was cancelled, then you have an uphill battle. Which is why I tell all writers, beginning or established, you have to be tenacious. You have to keep on knocking, especially if you have belief in your work.
Then some years later and a loft sagging under the weight of rejected scripts, I was working loading lorries through the night and I got a call at work from Jan, my wife. Of course, this was way before mobile phones, so for her to call me at work I knew it had to be serious. Excitedly she told me the BBC had been on the phone and they wanted to a meeting. This was for Dog In The Dark, a four part thriller, set around a doggie detective. To this day I remember the opening shot, George, the doggie detective, walking into Birmingham bus station with a standard poodle with a French cut.
The BBC commissioned the series and I was paid more money than I’d ever earned before, so I was surprised when they wanted to change things.
One of things they wanted to change was one of the characters being killed by a poison tipped umbrella. It was thought to be too far-fetched. Then about six months later, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was stabbed in a London street with a poison-tipped umbrella. The temptation to ring them up and tell them that they missed a serious opportunity, I just managed to suppress. In the last 40 years that temptation has reoccurred on quite a few occasions.
The show was cast – David Daker was to play the doggie detective and Angela Bruce was to play his rather dodgy side kick. Then suddenly the project was shelved. They were making five serials, but for financial reasons they ended up making one.
Big lesson learnt. There was I, with one foot on the ladder, and someone came along and knocked me off it.
But nevertheless, I was on the ladder. I had been commissioned. This wasn’t pretend, this was for real. And I felt like I was a writer.
So to answer the first question – “How do I become a writer?” You persevere. You just keep on going and going and going, whilst learning all the time.
And the second question – “When did you become a writer?” I always give the same reply – when they started paying me. But the truth of the matter is I would write whether you paid me or not, but equally so, you can never pay me enough.
How did it happen? It was inevitable.
When did I start? When I began.