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Ming Ho reports from the Time to Change ‘Meet the Media’ Event
Mental health: does TV perpetuate negative stereotypes? That was the question posed by Time to Change, an anti-stigma programme run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, at an event for television drama professionals held on 1 October at the Hospital Club in London.
The evening began with a new training film presented by broadcaster Alistair Stewart, which aims to promote good practice in the portrayal of mental illness, and includes interviews with writers and directors involved in high-profile stories such as the bipolar disorder of Jean and Stacey Slater in EastEnders and the breakdown of Dr Ruth Winters in Casualty.
Kate Rowland, BBC Creative Director of New Writing, then chaired a panel discussion with writers Danny Brocklehurst (Exile; Accused), Dana Fainaru (Casualty), and Bill Lyons (Emmerdale), and mental health nurse, Lol Butterfield, who had advised on Emmerdale’s Zak Dingle storyline.
Research into a three-month sample of TV drama, led by the Glasgow Media Group, revealed that 74 programmes contained storylines on mental health issues – and these featured 33 instances of violence toward others and 53 examples of self-harm. While almost half were deemed to be sympathetic portrayals, the characters tended to be shown as tragic victims; and 63% of references to mental health were thought to be ‘pejorative, flippant, or unsympathetic’. How can we, as writers, redress this disproportionate image of a link between mental illness and violence and dispel the fear that it engenders?
Jayne Kirkham, Chair of the Guild's Children's Committee, reports from the Labour Party Conference in Manchester
Yep, like the Lib-Dems in Brighton last week, the Labour Conference in Manchester was another gathering of the clan. But Labour’s conference is bigger and redder. You would hope so, wouldn’t you? Although actually, I thought the branding was rather blue – blue lighting, blue Union flags: a bit Stella McCartney really. And I was surprised to still be tripping over ice buckets in the Midland Hotel lobby; despite us being one nation under a groove, there’s still quite a lot of champagne socialism around.
Oh, you will have read the reports of the speeches and press releases and know that we’re half way between elections so there were no exciting policies or lines being drawn in the sand in the conference hall. I came in half way through one debate and didn’t realise the speakers were on the other side of the stage. I spent quite a long time watching five purple cushions on a sofa. With a head full of kids’ television, I thought soft furnishings that talk were normal. Although I did remark to my neighbour that their argument was somewhat fabricated. He tutted and said something about cloth ears. Likewise the fringe was not what you’d call dynamic. Walking round the exhibition hall the most exciting and thought provoking thing was a display by some guide dogs. Although I did see Alistair Campbell on a kayak ergometer machine. That was more distracting than anything: I was having a useful conversation about select committee process at the time and there he was, paddling like Goldie Hasler himself on the Boating Alliance’s stand.
I am very pleased that I went, though. Labour aren’t just the lot that lost: they are Her Maj’s Loyal Opposition and while last week I pompously spouted that it was my job to hold the likes of David Laws to account, it isn’t. That job belongs to the likes of Stephen Twigg. So I had arranged meetings and picked out useful fringe events, on the look out for more political allies and friends for the Guild and the Children’s Media Foundation. I didn’t have to search too hard. At least not when I talked about the issues around children’s media and arts. With the Communications Green Paper having been kicked into touch, there was little obvious interest in wider issues such as intellectual property. But it’s a bit like picking raspberries: there will always be some more on the canes.
As I said last week, whether all this has been successful will become clear with time when (not if) policies and laws change. In the meantime, forgive me for not saying too much publicly. What I will tell you is that one senior politician still had the dry cleaning ticket pinned to his suit, Film Four will be screening a movie about the Rochdale Pioneers in early November and that one purple cushion whispered to its comrade, ‘How long do we have to stay before it’s not rude to leave?’
Alistair Rutherford (pictured) on adapting a biography for the stage, with support from the Stroke Association
In 2005 Edinburgh-born Stuart Hepburn suffered an extensive brain stem stroke which left him with virtually no movement and no speech. Ever since he has lived with ‘locked-in syndrome’. Over time, he regained limited control over his right hand and arm and in 2008 he began writing his biography, A Most Curious Detour. It was published in 2010 and it was around that time I was asked by a mutual friend, Ian Gilmour, to read Curious Detour to see if it had potential for a stage play. Ian thought that Stuart’s story was important and through drama could reach another, more diverse audience. The potential was certainly there, so Ian then contacted the Stroke Association UK (SAUK) to see if it would be interested in such a project.
SAUK’s Director in Scotland, Maddy Halliday, already knew Stuart and agreed to look at our proposal to adapt and stage his story. The SAUK officially backed the proposal in January 2011.
Funding was always going to be key to doing full justice to Stuart’s story and SAUK set out to raise the budget to commission the adaptation and to mount a professional stage production. I took on the role of producer and asked a director and actor I’d worked with before to join the project’s creative team.
Stuart’s book begins just before the onset of his strokes and chronicles the time he spent thereafter in different hospitals and rehabilitation centres before eventually moving into a new flat. Given the nature of his strokes, he freely admits his recollections in the book are not wholly accurate, particularly as he suffered vivid and sometimes terrifying hallucinations that he didn’t recognise as such at the time. I knew it would be a challenging adaptation, especially as Curious Detour contains a lot of detailed information covering the many months he spent in hospital, and I had to ensure the drama of his story wasn’t lost in those details.
From March 2011 onwards we held regular meetings, usually in Stuart’s house, to discuss progress and also to let Stuart and the rest of the team meet the ever-increasing number of people I brought on to the project.
We developed an awareness-raising strategy that could help in our fundraising efforts and decided to do a short script ‘taster’ as a performed reading in November 2011 in Edinburgh. We secured an excellent venue, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and I began planning a 30-minute monologue for November.
Out of the blue we were invited to present this ‘taster’ at the Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh in August 2011. It was too good a chance to turn down so I quickly wrote the script and our director and actor started their work. That event in August sold out and got very favourable responses from the audience. We ran a Q&A session afterwards and it was clear from the health professionals in the audience that Stuart’s story was throwing a spotlight on sensitive and little-explored areas. SAUK’s main aim of raising awareness of stroke issues, even in this early version of the play, was definitely being achieved.
Fundraising efforts began to bear fruit in September 2011 when we received a grant from Awards For All. We then repeated our 30-minute performance and Q&A sessions in November 2011 to even more enthusiastic and informed audiences.
It was becoming clear in late 2011 that we would not make our target funding level for the main show so we trimmed our budget and everyone’s fees were reduced. We scaled back our run of nine or 10 performances to two. I started work on the full-length script in early 2012 for a June production.
A key part of Stuart’s story is that the strokes have not affected him intellectually and mentally but he is ‘locked-in’. When he lay in hospital beds he was fully aware of everything happening around him but couldn’t interact with it. It’s essential that the audience knows his feelings and thoughts at those times. I therefore decided to have three ‘Stuarts’ in the play, all played by one actor. One was him before the strokes, the second after, and the third was the internal, fully aware Stuart.
Stuart communicates using a ‘Lightwriter’, a keyboard-based text-to-speech device so we used PowerPoint to project his dialogue on to a screen for the audience. Slightly risky if the cast made a mistake and got out of sync with Stuart’s pre-programmed replies but, happily, this didn’t happen.
Stuart spends most of the play in a hospital bed as he gradually goes through all the difficult stages of his slow and laborious recovery. At the times when I wanted the internal Stuart to ‘speak’, he simply changed from being incapable of speech or movement to actively vocalising his inner thoughts as per normal.
As Stuart’s book is written solely from his perspective there’s only limited information about other people but there was more than enough to build a drama that would keep an audience engaged for close to two hours. Key to that was his wife, Pam, and the role she played in his recovery. Stuart doesn’t hold back in his comments on his bad experiences deep within the NHS hospital system and Pam became a crucial advocate for him when he couldn’t speak for himself.
The first ‘gala’ performance of the full-length A Most Curious Detour was in June 2012, again at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. We sold out quickly, the box office had to disappoint many and we knew the play’s subject matter was connecting with a lot of people. The show was a great success. You always know when an audience is truly captivated by moments of almost total silence and there were many. I balanced the intensity of Stuart’s story with some humour to ease the tension. Everyone involved in the production did a fantastic job. Stuart and Pam were in the front row and I let out a great sigh of relief when they told me afterwards that they were very happy.
What happens next? We have funds to perform the play once more in Glasgow later this year. Playwrights normally retain copyright in their scripts, but I will soon transfer script ownership to SAUK. It will be SAUK’s asset to explore and use as it wishes. It wants this play to be seen by as many people as possible. All royalties will also be theirs and I hope it will be a source of income towards their valuable work.
I know, too, from my own BBC radio drama and screenwriting experience that Stuart’s story would work well in those media.
Maddy Halliday also indicated another route for a shortened, tailored version of the drama to be used within teaching hospitals and medical colleges. In other words, let the next generation of nurses, physios and doctors experience this powerful depiction of a genuine stroke survivor’s story.
When Stuart began picking out letters one by one on a computer screen and slowly but surely wrote his story he had no idea where it would end up. It’s an important story, it’s heart-warming, challenging and life-affirming and adapting Stuart’s book for the stage has been a fascinating and rewarding experience.
A Most Curious Detour, by Stuart Hepburn, is available on Amazon. As Ian Gilmour says, we can be ‘…thankful that we do not need to pick up every piece of human experience first hand to glean some crucial learning from it…’
Photo of Alistair Rutherford by Jon Davey Photography
The Stroke Association
By Maddy Halliday, Stroke Association UK Director in Scotland
The Stroke Association is committed to working with others to create a world where there are fewer strokes and all those touched by stroke get the help they need. To achieve this vision we need to significantly increase public and political awareness and engagement in the stroke cause as currently this is too low. The most recent stroke awareness figures show that only 62% of people in Scotland know what a stroke is, contrasting with much higher public awareness of heart disease and cancer.
The Stroke Association supports a range of awareness activities including media coverage and campaigning, but until our involvement in A Most Curious Detour we had not used drama as a way of promoting stroke awareness. The Stroke Association is an enthusiastic supporter of the “Curious Detour” project because we believe that the combination of personal testimony and drama is a powerful way of engaging others in the stroke cause.
The gala performance of A Most Curious Detour in Edinburgh in June 2012 was a success and we look forward to our second performance in Glasgow in autumn 2012. Thereafter we plan to encourage performance of the play through community and student dramatic societies - across Scotland and hopefully UK wide. We also hope to raise funds to use excerpts from the play, combined with discussion, to support improved understanding of a person's experience of stroke amongst health and social care professionals.”
A keynote speech by Steve Ince for the 11th International Conference on Entertainment Computing 2012 in Bremen
Whenever I prepare for an event of this nature I’m reminded of the huge diversity of gaming in particular and computer related entertainment in general. It’s bewildering in its range and scope and simply keeping abreast of the constant assault of news and developments is somewhat daunting.
But this broad scope also gives such incredible creative freedom to those of us who want to explore new ways of delivering entertainment to a worldwide audience. This talk, then, is me scratching the surface of writing for games and how the whole idea of entertainment can affect how writers approach the task.
David Cage, the creative mind behind the game, Heavy Rain, recently said this about players: ‘I am not interested in giving them “fun”, I want to give them meaning.’ Many of us might think that one of the main points of games is that they should be fun, but I understand why Cage would make a statement like that. The word ‘fun’ has a certain amount of baggage that could trivialise the emphasis of the product. Super Mario is fun, for instance, and Cage may feel he needs to distance his games from this kind of association. If we substitute ‘fun’ with ‘entertainment’, surely Cage would want his games to be meaningful and entertaining? If they are not, why would we want to play them? And if we want games to be entertainment, we must see them as such throughout the development process.
Caitlin McDonald reports on a recent Off the Shelf at Black’s event
Pic: Helen Smith (left) with David Nobbs and Off the Shelf organiser, Jan Woolf credit: Anne Hogben/WGGB
I was actually there under false pretences. Off the Shelf at Black’s is advertised as ‘A series of monthly, one-day residencies for fiction writers held on Mondays.’ It was that one word – fiction – that kept stopping me from signing up. But each time I saw an article in the Guild magazine about Off the Shelf it sounded like such fun, and so useful, that at last I couldn't resist and I booked a place. I believe that no matter what kind of writer you are it is always possible learn from someone else's experience. There are so many aspects of writing that transcend genre that it’s worthwhile hearing about another writer’s process. Plus, coffee, lunch and the chance to poke about the worn splendour of Black’s... what more could you want?
This particular Off the Shelf was a comic-writing workshop with Helen Smith and David Nobbs. We got off to a very comedic start indeed: as Helen began to read from her darkly comic mystery Alison Wonderland one of our number literally fell through the floor. Or rather, one of the legs of his chair managed to find a large chink in the wood, tipping him unceremoniously on to the carpet. No writers were harmed in the incident.
Once the chair had been extricated from the floorboards, Helen talked about writing what you know, whatever that means to you. For example, Being Light, the second novel to feature her character Alison Wonderland, begins with a man who gets swept away by a freak gust of wind on a bouncy castle. The germ of this novel came from Helen having read about a real Australian man getting tumbled off a bouncy castle by a gust of wind. Helen fictionalised this by allowing herself to consider the ‘what-if’ moment: what if instead of landing a few feet away, the man had bounced away for good?
Following on from this Helen made a point about the need for fiction writers to have the capacity to notice the unusual. Everywhere there is fodder for humour in writing and the comedy isn’t always in the event itself. Instead it is so often in the capacity of the writer to provide a voice, to give a perspective that allows the telling of an event to be framed in a comic way. This echoes Helen’s strategy about the ‘what-if’ moment, the ability to take a real situation and apply fictional possibilities to it. What I took from this was the need to keep an open mind to comedic possibility and to seek out perspectives that might be used to present a situation or an idea in a humorous way.
Another aspect of Helen’s talk was how even a lightly comic description can be rooted in the darker parts of the human experience. The funny image of a man inexplicably bouncing off into a strange new adventure allowed Helen the space to build a metaphor about the unexpected end of a romantic relationship. Drawing on personal experience, she used the idea of her fictional bounced-man to explore feelings about how easily a person can extricate themselves from the bounds of what appears to be a settled relationship. Approaching tragedy obliquely can allow space to explore these darker truths from a humorous angle.
Helen’s advice about style can be applied equally to fiction and to non-fiction. As discussed in the article Non-Fiction: a True Story, non-fiction can be just as rich in description and perspective as any novel; non-fiction can still be a story. While the realm of ‘what-if’ is the province of fiction writers only, the ability to observe keenly for events that might be presented in the desired voice or tone (in this case comic) is valuable for all writers.
David Nobbs, known best for his Reggie Perrin works, spoke next, reading extracts from The Return Of Reginald Perrin and from his upcoming book The Fall And Rise Of Gordon Coppinger.
Part of David’s talk concerned stylistic choices. In particular he highlighted the power of succinct description to create a full picture in the reader’s mind with a single phrase or even sometimes a single word. As David read from The Return Of Reginald Perrin, I was reminded that lists can be a very effective descriptive tool in this way. Instead of a drawn-out narration of each object or concept, a rapid-fire list can act as a series of metonyms calling to mind a rich kaleidoscope of images. David chose a passage in which Reggie remonstrates with his friend Jimmy about the latter’s new ‘secret army’, in which two lists categorise who might be attracted to or repulsed by its aims. A single word or phrase sufficed to call to mind a whole phalanx of each group being described.
Speaking about the editing process, David focused on being open to criticism and editorial suggestions. David suggested that an editor acts as a reader’s advocate to clarify questions about the story. He discussed how easy it can be to lose sight of what has and hasn’t been revealed about a character in an initial draft because the author is so close to the material that it is possible to forget which parts of the story have actually gone down on the page. A well-placed question from an editor can improve the text by explaining what’s missing from a reader’s perspective. Often the answer to questions like these, regarding, for example, a character’s motivation for a particular feeling or action, is already clear in the author’s mind and the problem can be rectified with a few lines or even a few words.
The key point I took away from David was a very useful bit of advice on how to approach criticism. David always welcomes criticism or commentary before a work is finished because if he agrees with the critic, he is left with a better piece of writing as a result, but if he disagrees, his faith in the strength of his own writing is reinforced. Either way, it’s profitable.
Following the author readings there were questions from the audience. Several concerned the importance of tone in writing. Referring to the bright, gentle world of Wodehouse (often considered the consummate comic novelist), the first interlocutor wondered if it were possible in the present day and age to really create that sort of gently comic fictional universe. In response both Helen and David focused on the importance of personal perspective and the individual sense of voice that can be brought to a piece. Tone is a very personal aspect of an author’s writing and the way each author creates comedy comes down to his or her unique voice.
A related question about tone was raised about the impetus behind humorous writing: should it be rooted in ludicrousness, or should it come from a sense of the lighthearted, a sense of telling amusing tales? Helen suggested that her writing is always an invitation to readers to explore a world view that is not their own. She discussed the idea that comedy can be a way to alleviate some of the difficulties that arise from misunderstandings based on differing perspectives. David echoed this, indicating that comedy is a blend of character and situation.
One writer asked about pathos in comic writing. Helen said that her preferred method of creating a humorous tone was not pathos but bathos, which can help avoid the emotional fatigue that comes from constantly reading one style. She also highlighted the importance of having empathy with characters; regardless of what style you write in, eliciting a feeling of empathy for the characters allows the reader to get a deeper hold on them and become more involved in the story.
As the duckling non-fictioner among the swans at this fiction workshop, I challenged that if we are all supposed to write what we know, why use the medium of fiction at all? David answered that this was a very big question, but that in his mind fiction should always be there to illuminate fact. It is there in the service of truths, whether those be factual events or the emotional truths of human experience. I was able to corner Helen after lunch to answer this as well. Her take was that though much of her writing is rooted in her own life, to write without the veil of fiction would be constraining. Having tried non-fiction in her first book, she felt limited by fears of offending the people she described. She also mentioned the hindrance of realism: sometimes real life just isn’t extraordinary enough to create a compelling a story, while fiction can take building blocks from several sources to create challenging situations for characters. Being informed by situations in her own life, these fictional settings then provide space to explore from an oblique angle the emotional truths that David spoke about.
After lunch three writers shared extracts from works in progress and received feedback from the audience. This was, naturally, valuable for those with work under discussion but it was also really informative for the whole audience to take part in the conversation. There was plenty of rich information to take away and apply to our own writing, regardless of our personal style or genre.
The day was fun and immensely valuable as a source of advice that was platform-neutral: no matter what kind of writer you are, it really is beneficial to hear from others about your craft. Do go along Off the Shelf and get some food for thought.
Caitlin McDonald blogs at caitlinmcdonald.blog.com
Details of upcoming Off the Shelf at Black's events will be posted on this site.
Wednesday 10th October 7 - 8.30pm - a Birmingham Book Festival event, in partnership with the Writers' Guild
Lecture Theatre, Muirhead Tower, University of Birmingham B15 2TT
A talk with readings showing how drama shares many of its structures with poetry £8 / £5 for Guild Members
To book: call 0121 2364455 or visit www.birminghambookfestival.org
In this session, playwright David Edgar will show how drama shares many of the elements and structures of poetry. This is because both forms are written to be spoken, as well as being designed to be consumed at a single bite.
Illustrating his session by actors’ readings from classical and modern plays as well as clips from films and television drama, David Edgar will show how how plays communicate meaning by the technique – familiar to poets – of drawing unexpected connections between different elements. Plays as a whole have a common, underlying shape which owes more to the metaphorical character of the poem than the literalism of the novel. This is partly because the key events in so many plays take place in a metaphorical space.
So, as well as containing poetry (from the Greek chorus via Shakespearian blank verse to the bleak imagery of Samuel Beckett), great plays are poems in themselves.
David Edgar is one of Britain’s leading playwrights, who has written extensively for the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many other theatres. His best known work includes Destiny, Pentecost and a multi-award-winning adaptation of Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. His play about the making of the King James Bible – Written on the Heart – opened at Stratford last October. Founder of Britain’s first full-time university playwriting course (at Birmingham in 1989) his session draws on his hugely successful book about playwriting, How Plays Work, published by Nick Hern Books in 2009.