A few days ago we were meant to be disembarking from a cruise that would have taken us to a number of Scandinavian countries. But guess what, it was cancelled. Can’t think why! Last year we did a couple of similar cruises, which weren’t cancelled. These were organised through a good friend of ours – Debbie Arnold, who exudes more chutzpah in just one day, than I’ve done in a lifetime. I say that as a compliment – I wish I was a better salesman, but I’m not. I’m a shit salesman, full stop, can’t even kid myself. When I have an idea, I always think it’s the best idea in the world and I can never understand why someone doesn’t just come along, snap it up and run with it. Of course, the idea might be crap, but in my own defence it normally doesn’t see the light of day because of one of the following – wrong timing, normally premature, or wrong desk, that easily happens, or lack of perseverance – which happens a lot. I’ve known people persevere with some of the poorest of ideas and succeed. Having said that, inevitably the outcome is crap. There’s been major ideas that I’ve had, that not only didn’t make it into production, but sometime later a show has appeared on screen, not only utilising the same idea, but using the same title. The latest example of that is COBRA. I’d been working on a series called COBRA since I first heard about the Government’s emergency cabinet briefing procedure, about 20 years ago. My story, though I say it myself, was a lot better than theirs, for a start it did actually centre around COBRA. But hey, they got there’s on, and I didn’t. For me it was very much a case of … non-perseverance. I’ve known people shop one idea around for years, putting all their belief and effort into the one script, sometimes they’ve succeeded, but more times than not – they’ve failed. I always seem to be working on half a dozen ideas and I loved being able to switch from one idea to another, but I know most people like to concentrate on one project at a time.
In the beginning I wrote because I loved writing, first stage work, then TV. I was under the impression that if a piece was good, it would get done. Not so. I hadn’t taken into account the ‘two wrongs’ – wrong desk, wrong time. I suppose in the beginning I did have perseverance, but not for just the one project. When I had a project rejected, which in those days were all my TV projects, I just thought they were no good, I hadn’t taken into consideration the ‘two wrongs.’ So I took a deep breath, I had a few glasses of wine and started writing another idea. Perseverance. Not over one project admittedly, but generally. If they didn’t like the last one, then fuck ‘em, I was going to make sure they liked the next one.
After I’d been commissioned for the TV thriller Dog In The Dark, my agent suggested that I should maybe look at coming up with an idea for radio. Radio was still then a place where radio producers, which were mainly BBC staff positions, were allowed to assemble their own raft of programmes. So although there was still the bog standard Afternoon Plays with the ubiquitous west country accents, which as soon as I heard such phrases as “Ark at Ee,” or “Those grockles is betwaddling me,” I immediately turned off. Inevitably I did switch it back on, just in case I’d been misled, and the annoying accent was masking a great piece of drama. But luckily for me and the rest of the radio listening public, there were a few radical producers around that were looking for contemporary, grittier and more realistic dramas. But I still didn’t have an idea and quite honestly, I don’t think I was bothered about finding one. I’d been writing stage plays and now I’d made my first step into TV, why would I want to write for radio? So as far as radio was concerned I didn’t need any chutzpah, I had nothing to sell.
In the early 80s, I was driving home late one evening, after rehearsals for a play I was directing in North London and was listening to a programme called Anna and the Doc on Capital Radio. This was a phone-in show with Anna Raeburn and a psychiatrist, who tried to deal with the callers “personal, sexual and emotional problems”. If this wasn’t the first talk show on radio, it was certainly one of the earlier ones. And it was certainly the only show I knew about where people were allowed to talk about their particular concerns. I loved it because it gave me an insight into a section of the public I knew existed, but I had little contact with. Here they were spewing out all their inner most secrets. So, if I was ever in the car and it was on, I’d be listening.
On this particular occasion I came in halfway through a conversation. The caller was a teenage girl, just fourteen years old and she was without a doubt in a very emotional state. As she spoke you could hear the sobs in her voice, you’d have had to have been made of wood not to sense her desperation. As the conversation developed it became clear that she was pregnant, and her older boyfriend had tried to abort her with a kitchen knife. And now she was bleeding. Not only that her father, who was obviously a total drunk, was due home any moment and she didn’t know what to do. I was transfixed. They’d mentioned the girl lived in Croydon, but of course hadn’t revealed her address. All I wanted to know was where she lived, because I would have turned the car round and headed off to Croydon, rescued the girl and taken her to hospital. But of course, that wasn’t going happen. What happened was that in the background you could hear the girl’s father arriving home, the girl started to become more hysterical, I became more desperate to know where this girl was and then Anna announced: “We’re going to a commercial break, don’t go anywhere.”
Whatever happened to that girl I have no idea. For lots of reasons I’ve thought about her over the years and of course I’ve got no nearer to knowing the outcome of the situation. I can’t even remember what happened after the commercial. I have a funny feeling that Croydon girl didn’t return, and that Anna and the Doc went onto another caller. I’ve always hoped she was being dealt with off air, but of course the chances of me ever finding out are virtually non-existent.
The more I thought about what I’d heard and more I told people about the call, the more I knew I wanted to write about it. Which is exactly what I did. And of course, the obvious medium for the piece was the radio. I wrote an hour-long play, on spec, and sent it to my agent. They in turn sent it to a producer, Peter King, who they thought might like it and thank goodness he did. The play was called Get It Off Your Chest. The reason being is that the play revolved around a talk show host called Alan Best, played by Gary Waldhorn, who had a talk show called ‘Get It Off Your Chest with Alan Best.’ The play explored the relationship Alan Best had with one of his callers as well as the relationship he had with his own daughter, who’s anorexic. This might sound strange, but back then not a lot of people knew about anorexia. It was relatively unheard of. It existed, of course, but hadn’t hit the headlines. I did a few more drafts after my initial spec script and the only thing Peter and I argued about was the end. I wanted a bleak, tragic end and Peter wasn’t sure that was suitable for a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Theatre. After a number of conversations, a broken desk and one smashed telephone – all my end I’m afraid – we went for the tragic ending.
I loved the process of producing a radio play, it was very inclusive and fluid. If things weren’t working, we changed there and then.
The turnaround on radio in those days was very quick and Get It Off Your Chest was soon transmitted. I’d written in a number of fictious commercials, making the whole play as if it were a live version of a commercial talk show. So, at 3pm there was the normal news headlines, followed by the announcement: “It’s now time for the Afternoon Play.” We opened on a couple of fictitious radio commercials, and suddenly the BBC’s switch board was alight, with a number of listeners demanding to know what had happened to the Afternoon Play and why had the BBC resorted to airing commercials?
The play obviously had an impact on quite a number of people. A good few years later, when I was running a long running drama series, a writer tried to punt the exact same idea to me – a talk show host, his anorexic daughter and a young girl’s failed abortion. Needless to say he didn’t get the gig.
After that first radio play there followed quite a few others in quick succession, most of them produced by Peter King. We’d obviously built up a relationship and I no longer had to write scripts on spec, I would punt him an idea over a lunch and walk out of the restaurant with a commission. We had a healthy working relationship, which meant I didn’t have to be a salesman. Hopefully as I grow older, I’m getting better at it, but even now I’m a long way from brilliant.
So back to the cruise … when we’re all allowed out again, we’ll be back on another. Of course, it’s not just sitting around enjoying the many delights of a modern ocean-going liner – there is work involved. I do talks on my career and the history of British TV, or along with other artists, we do workshops on performing and writing. We work our passage. But truth be known it isn’t that hard, because I’m talking about something I love. I may not be able to selI a glass of water to a man lost in a desert or sell 100% guaranteed hair restorer to Patrick Stewart, but I do get up every day and do a job I love – making make-believe. How good is that.