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We talked to internationally renowned playwright and former Guild President David Edgar about his Iron Curtain Trilogy, which is being performed together for the first time to mark 25 years since the Wall came down
It has been reported that you sat down at your computer to start writing the first play in the trilogy, The Shape of the Table, the day after the Berlin Wall came down. Is that true, and how affected were you by that event?
It’s not completely true that I started the day after the Wall fell, though of course Eastern European communism had been crumbling for many weeks before the actual fall of the Wall. I was in Poland during the summer election campaign, which led to Solidarity taking over from the Communist Government, and was conscious of the sense that history was being made. The actual Polish election was on the same day as the suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square (4 June 1989) and people feared that that was what would happen to the growing protests in Eastern Europe. But it turned out that the Polish election was the future, and the Tiananmen massacre the past.
The Shape of the Table is an interesting title. How did it come about?
During the Paris peace talks (in the late 1960s) between the Americans, the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF; Viet Cong), the delegates spent nine months arguing about how the delegations would be seated. The South Vietnamese Government refused to recognise the NLF as a distinct party, claiming that their sole enemy was the North Vietnamese. The conflict was eventually resolved by a circular table at which the two national governments sat, surrounded by smaller tables for the other combatants. It seemed a good metaphor for the seemingly petty issues which actually have a huge importance in negotiations. In both The Shape of the Table and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001) breakthroughs are achieved by a tiny change in vocabulary.
There are three plays in your trilogy: The Shape of the Table (1990); Pentecost (1994); and The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001). They were all conceived and written separately, over a decade, and focus on Eastern Europe during the post-Communist era. Is there one broader theme you explored in all of them?
I’m not sure there’s a single theme, but the three plays add up to a narrative: the first celebrating the victory of a mass movement over an authoritarian government, but suggesting that something important might have been lost; the second showing how the optimism of a newly unified Europe open to all was undermined by ethnic divisions, Western exploitation and fear of outsiders; and the third showing how those factors led to bloody wars breaking out across the region.
Did your opinion on the historical impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall change over the course of writing the three plays, and how was that reflected in your writing?
No, in the sense that it seemed like the greatest event of my lifetime, and it still feels like that (despite 9/11, which happened when the third play was in performance). What did change was how I felt about its aftermath. Like anyone human, I found the uprisings hugely exciting and inspiring (very much as those of the Arab Spring, which resembled them). As someone on the left, I felt that an important experiment had failed, and that that had impoverished humanity. Over the following years I became increasingly pessimistic about the ethnic and religious differences which emerged in Eastern Europe and beyond, which is reflected in the second act of The Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Do you think events of the past few years have given lie to the view at the time that the fall of the Berlin Wall represented the triumph of liberal democracy? And how, as a writer interested in politics, have you been reflecting the current challenges we face?
As I say, I think the overthrow of the totalitarian regimes of Eastern Europe made the world a better place, not least because illiberal and undemocratic regimes gave way to more liberal and certainly democratic ones. That’s the upside, and it’s a big one. The downside is that the ‘shock therapy’ economics imposed on the former Communist countries impoverished large swaths of the population, disparities of wealth became enormous, there were losses in terms of welfare and (in some countries) women’s rights, and there are now extreme right-wing movements in some of the former Bloc countries. I think you can trace both the move to the right in Hungary and the crisis in Ukraine back to the economic policies those countries were required to pursue by the West. My next play may well be about this.
It has been said that you enjoy challenging your audiences, particularly with long stories and polarising themes. Is this fair, and if so, why do you do this?
Well, my most successful show commercially (my adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby for the Royal Shakespeare Company) was eight and half hours long, and it continues to appeal to audiences in revivals in America and elsewhere. I don’t set out to polarise my audiences, but if you write on political themes, then that’s going to happen.
You have had more than 40 years’ experience writing for theatre, written more than 50 plays and been described as one of the most prolific modern playwrights. What keeps you motivated, and writing?
I’m a lot less prolific than I was: the spectacular numbers have to include many short plays I wrote at the beginning of my career. I now write fewer than one a play a year. But because I’ve been at it for so long, that adds up to quite a number. There’s a theory that playwriting is a young person’s game: I don’t agree with that, and I’m keen to disprove it by keeping going. I don’t plan retiring yet.
You founded the University of Birmingham’s MRes Playwriting Studies course in 1989 and were course director for a decade. What was the founding philosophy behind the course?
The playwriting course arose out of a number of self-help organisations set up by playwrights in the 1970s and 1980s to develop their craft. I wanted to try and codify those insights through dialogue with younger playwrights. The founding principle was that the course would be taught by practising playwrights (as it was and still is), and thus became a forum between emergent and more established playwrights to develop a language to describe what we do. My book How Plays Work (Nick Hern Books, 2009) is the result of these conversations, and the wisdom both of fellow playwrights who came and talked to the students, and the students themselves, three of whom have gone on to direct the course.
You were President of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain from 2007 to 2013. What did you take from that experience, and why do you think trade unions have an important role to play today?
I am very proud to have been involved with the initial negotiation of two of the Guild’s three theatre agreements. We are currently involved in renegotiations of all three (too many to do at once). Without these agreements, playwrights would not be guaranteed upfront fees; they would pay a proportion of their future earnings to theatres that did their work from the first pound; they would have no right to attend rehearsals or to be paid for so doing; or to be consulted over casting or text changes. Improving and policing these agreements is vital for playwrights and the health of the theatre. This also applies to other areas where the Guild has agreements, including television and radio. Any playwright who works under a Guild agreement should join the union.
The Iron Curtain Trilogy, by the Burning Coal Theatre Company, will transfer from North Carolina to London’s Cockpit theatre (13-30 November 2014). Further details and bookings can be found on the theatre’s website. A trailer of the trilogy follows:
The BBC detective show Sherlock, Britain’s most watched drama series in a decade, has picked up three BAFTA Cymru awards, presented at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 26 October 2014.
The TV drama series was co-created by Writers’ Guild member and award-winning screenwriter Steven Moffat, alongside Mark Gatiss, for Hartswood Films. Moffat has also written selected episodes.
The adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor Watson, is filmed mainly in Cardiff. Its three series have received critical acclaim, and 12 million people tuned in to watch series three in January 2014 to find out the mystery of the lead character’s apparent death after falling from a rooftop.
Viewers were teased by a special BBC trailer (see the video, above), which suggested Sherlock was in fact alive and well, while Steven Moffat said at the time: “It’s time to reveal the truth about what happened between him and the pavement.”
A Christmas special and fourth series are planned for 2015/16.
Sherlock won the Best Television Drama BAFTA Cymru award; while Arwel Jones won the award for Best Production Design on the series, and Claire Pritchard won an award for Best Hair and Makeup.
Over 700 screenwriters, film-makers, producers, actors and execs will attend the London Screenwriters’ Festival on 24-26 October.
The Writers’ Guild is sponsoring the festival, the world’s largest professional screenwriters’ event, which takes place at Regent’s University in central London.
Guild member Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner) will be one of 150 expert speakers, which also include Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), Sally Phillips (Smack the Pony) and David Hare (The Hours).
The schedule includes over 100 seminars, workshops, an evening networking drinks and party, plus the following annual highlights:
• The Great British PitchFest
• Advanced Mentoring Script Labs
• Actors Table Read
• Script Surgery
• Free Legal Advice Clinic
Screenwriters Line Langebek (I’ll Come Running) and Andrea Gibb (Dear Frankie) are co-chairs of the Writers’ Guild Film Committee, which will be hosting a stand at the festival. “We are pleased to be sponsoring this major annual gathering of emerging and established screenwriters and are looking forward to meeting many of them,” they said.
“The Writers’ Guild has a very active Film Committee. We have taken a leading role in an international campaign to have the role of screenwriters recognised at film festivals. We hold networking events with Directors UK, and advise feature film writers on their agreements, options and the process of obtaining funding. We have also joined with producers and directors to lobby for part of the revenues from subsidised films to return to creators for reinvestment in new projects.”
You can buy tickets and view the full festival schedule, which also includes events for writers for TV, online.
Fourteen delegates from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain travelled to Warsaw in October 2014 for the World Conference of Screenwriters (WCOS), joining 29 other guilds and writers' organisations from 19 European countries, plus North America, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, South Africa and India.
Here they debated, networked, shared experiences, were inspired, empowered and – most importantly – passed two resolutions: calling for true equality of men and women in screenwriting; and placing the creator at the centre of quality TV.
We asked Writers’ Guild delegates to tell us what thoughts they brought home with them. You can read these below, as well as download each writer’s full report.
(Credits: Doctors, The Indian Doctor)
“If we stand together, within our guilds and national industries and in cooperation with our sister unions across the world, we have more leverage than we think.”
Read Bill’s full report
(Credits: Which is Witch?, Genie in the House, Mike & Angelo, B&B, Romeo & Juliet, T-Bag)
“Speaking with so many talented colleagues from all across the world has really fired me up, and left me thinking loudly and clearly, ‘Writers, unite!’”
Read Grant’s full report
“Real empowerment means trusting the writer, the audience and the idea.”
Read Kate’s full report
(Credits: Doctors, The Bill, Family Affairs, Casualty)
“WCOS03 was a memorable and life-changing experience. It was incredible to be in the company of so many talented and inspiring people.”
Read Henrietta’s full report
(Credits: Casualty, The Bill, Heartbeat, EastEnders, McCready and Daughter)
“Communing with writers from all over the world gave us a chance to see that we share the same challenges.”
Read Ming’s full report
(Credits: The Dumping Ground, Tracy Beaker, Young Dracula, Sadie J, Doctors, Eve)
“As we British writers continue to struggle for artistic freedom and respect, it is inspiring to know that we’re supported by writers around the world.”
Read Emma’s full report
(Credits: Give Me A Chance, Get Up, Stand Up, The Famous Five, Custer’s Last Stand Up)
“We might write alone but we stand together as one, saying ‘let writers write’.”
Read Gail’s full report
(Credits: Backflip, Eight Words, Lift Off, An Island Between Heaven and Earth, Happy New Year)
“To know there are many screenwriters, in the UK and across the globe, who achieve long and successful careers, is inspiring, empowering and highly motivating.”
Read Alistair’s full report
Jamie Rhodes on his latest work, tips for new writers and why he is a Guild member
“I first realised I wanted to become a writer when I was 11. I went to a fairly rough comprehensive in Bradford and hated music lessons. So I used to sit at the back of the class and read a book. The teacher let me do it as I think he was just happy with one less pupil being disruptive. One day he said to me, ‘Jamie, what happens when you’ve read all the books in the world?’ to which I replied, ‘I will write my own.’
I was lucky in that, even though it wasn't a great school, I had good English teachers who nurtured and supported me. In fact, I have dedicated my first short story collection, Dead Men’s Teeth & Other Stories from Voices Past, to them: Ghislaine Anderton, Terry Binns and Joanna Cowie.
The idea for the collection came about after I started following the British Library’s Untold Lives blog, which features snippets from their vast archives.
I applied for Arts Council funding earlier this year, and was successful. This meant I could devote myself to intensive research and writing for six months. I applied for a British Library reader’s pass (which gives you access to their archives) and spent hours wading through old documents, some of them hundreds of years old.
One of the stories I came across was that of a ship’s surgeon, quarantined for three weeks aboard an indenture vessel stricken with cholera in the 19th century, outside Suriname. I did a degree in philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University, and in my writing like to explore broader facets of the human condition. So on the surface this is a dark and interesting tale of a man trapped on a ship. On another level it is about the lack of understanding we feel about why we are here, not sure if we are ever going to reach our destination, wherever that is.
I also find inspiration in observing people. One tip I would give emerging writers is get yourself a part-time job that is public-facing in some way. Working in a bar might not be glamorous, but it is a good way to support yourself financially in the early days, and there are lots of opportunities to watch people and notice their mannerisms.
Another tip would be to be open-minded about opportunities that come your way, even if they aren’t what you ultimately want to do. It will gain you experience, and also show agents/publishers that you are serious about your career. My first professional credit was as a screenwriter, on a public service information film. I have also written radio plays, taught screenwriting in schools, worked as a journalist, run career-strategy workshops for writers, and founded the Homeless Film Festival.
I’m passionate about ensuring that marginalised groups are able to benefit from creativity and the arts. Human beings have a unique capacity not only to create, but to appreciate art, and I think everyone should have access to that, whoever they are. It is part of enjoying and exploring the full spectrum of experiences available to us.
Every writer should join the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, whatever stage they are at in their career. It is the writers' trade union. I joined as soon as I got my first professional credit in 2010, and have been active in the East Midlands and London regions. I’ve been on committees and helped organise events. It’s a great way of meeting other writers, and also the more you put in, the more you get back. And you definitely get taken more seriously by agents and publishers if you are a member.
The London & South East branch of the Guild was with me every step of the way on Dead Men’s Teeth & Other Stories from Voices Past, giving me a letter of support for my application for Arts Council funding, and setting me up with a mentor, writer Caz Moran. She has been fantastic and a huge benefit to my professional development. This really helped me make the leap from writing in script form to writing short stories. It was a big jump but by the end of six months I was producing an average of 8,000 words per week.
The Guild has also helped me promote my short story collection, alongside the British Library, which is keen to show how its archives are far from stuffy. For me, they were a mine of endless fascinating stories, and a seed for my creativity.”
Find out more
Dead Men’s Teeth’s & Other Stories from Voices Past is published by Mardibooks. The collection is published in collaboration with the British Library and is funded as part of an Arts Council programme to support emerging writers.
To book tickets for the launch event at the British Library on 20 October, where there will be readings and dramatic performances, visit the British Library website.
Writers' Guild members are automatically entitled to a British Library reader's pass.
Jamie Rhodes has produced a video on career strategy for writers:
What people are saying about the book
“Jamie Rhodes has mined and minted gold from the British Library Archives. Inspired by sources as various as a ship's surgeon's log, verbatim interviews, diaries or even advertisements for false teeth, Rhodes gives us glimpses into unexpected places, the forgotten corners of history, in stories told with the authentic weirdness of truth; touching, quirky and humane.”
Olivia Hetreed, President of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain
“We are delighted that our Untold Lives blog inspired this set of short stories created from the ‘small but beautiful details of real lives’ in the British Library Archive Collections.”
Margaret Makepeace, British Library Curator, India Office Records
Book cover design above by Christa Leask
Writers’ Guild member Mike Leigh’s much-anticipated Mr. Turner receives a gala screening at the 58th BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 8-19 October 2014.
The portrait of the artist JMW Turner is played by Timothy Spall, who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year for the role. The film focuses on the last 25 years of Turner’s life when his painting moved towards the Impressionist style for which he became remembered. It also probes the colourful life of a character who famously strapped himself to the mast of a ship so he could paint a snow storm.
Writer/director Mike Leigh has described Turner as "a great artist: a radical, revolutionary painter… I felt there was scope for a film examining the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world."
The UK release date is set for 31 October 2014.
The BFI London Film Festival will bring 248 films to 17 venues across the capital over 12 days. It will feature screenings on themes including love, family, treasures, cult and thrill; and competitions, including the Best Film Award and First Feature Competition.
Other Writers’ Guild members whose work is being shown at the Festival include Gregory Burke ('71), Joe Fisher (Electricity), Leslie Stewart (Moomins on the Riviera) and Jack Thorne (War Book).
The full programme, including bookings, can be viewed here.