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Christopher Reason on how his family's experience of mental health problems have shaped his life and his writing. The article is based on a speech he gave to the 'Time to Change' Mental Health Conference at the Royal Medical Society.
I've been invited to share my experiences of 'writing about mental health'. But as soon as I started to think about this, I realised that virtually everything I write is about mental health. That's because my work is almost always character centred. Whether it's soap opera – I've been on the EastEnders writing team on and off for nearly 20 years – or any of the adventure stories, political thrillers, comedies, domestic dramas that I've written, I always begin with the character. The reason for which will become plain.
So how do I create a character? My starting off point is: 'We're all nutters but some of us are nuttier than others'. For there's a continuum that stretches from relative mental health (I'm not sure if I've ever met the person who was entirely sane) right through to psychosis, and all of us dwell somewhere on that continuum. Nor is it a static point we occupy. One day we might be feeling fine, then something happens – a bereavement, a separation, an illness - and we find ourselves struggling to cope. How we handle or mishandle this crisis is what teachers of creative writing like to call a character's journey or their arc. A leading character's arc is often congruent with the plot – in many cases it is the plot – so understanding the psychopathology that underlies a person's character has always been crucial to me. Other writers, and I'm not knocking them, take a completely different approach. They think of the big concept – Independence Day or Avatar say - and only then create the characters that will fit into it. One approach is not better than the other, they're just different.
So why do I take this character driven, psychology centred approach? That's entirely bound up in my own personal history.
Helena Pielichaty on a campaign to promote reading for pleasure and the value of authors' visits to schools
In April 2011 the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG) held a One Day Conference for its members. During the Q & A session, Annemarie Young voiced her concern that many teacher training colleges did not appear to have much in the way of reading for pleasure on their courses - the little time allotted to reading tended to concentrate on synthetic phonics. If newly trained teachers weren’t getting any advice on reading for pleasure, how could they be expected to encourage their pupils to read widely once they were in the classroom, Annemarie wondered.
Other delegates agreed, adding that it wasn’t just new teachers who weren’t aware of the wide range of children’s literature available but many experienced teachers, too. The rigidity of the English National Curriculum was given as one reason for teachers abandoning long-established practices, such as the class reader; Ofsted’s ‘expectations’ were another. I related my anecdote of the teacher who, when I asked why she didn’t have a class reader any more, replied: ‘Can you imagine what Ofsted would say if they caught me reading to my class?’ Caught – as if she were indulging in some deviant act!
After the conference CWIG and the Educational Writers Group (EWG) formed a Campaigns Group to look into this issue. Further research confirmed that within most PGCE courses, reading for pleasure was given a one hour slot, if that, leaving NQTs dependent on their mentors in schools for ideas and inspiration about books. However, a study by Teresa Cremin (2011) highlighted how narrow even established teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature was, with only 10% of those surveyed being able to name 6 poets or 6 illustrators , reiterating what had been said at the One Day Conference.Yet there is some excellent work going on in schools, especially in those with a designated school librarian.
The next event of the Guild's Off the Shelf at Black's event features James Miller who explores extraordinary themes in his writing.
Born in London in 1976 and educated in Oxford and London, Miller is author of the acclaimed novels Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008) and Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010). He is currently finishing his third. He has a PhD in African-American literature and civil rights and is particularly interested in experimental and avant-garde literature, critical theory, contemporary American literature, Modernism, the Beat Generation and any work that plays with notions of genre.
Miller’s short stories have been published in various anthologies and he has spoken at numerous festivals, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, Wilderness Festival, Berlin’s Hebbel-Am-Ufer theatre, the Tottenham/ Palestine literature festival, the Festival of Ideas and the Athens Megaron.
If any Guild members would like to present their own 10-minute reading after lunch, please email Jan Woolf.
James Miller: Off the Shelf at Blacks
11am-4pm, 18 November Blacks,
67 Dean Street, Soho, London
Price: £30 (includes coffee and a two-course lunch with wine)
By Olivia Hetreed, President of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain
I recently had the privilege of attending the Bryan Forbes Tribute put on by the National Youth Theatre, of which Bryan was, for many years, the enthusiastic President.
Bryan was writer and director of such films as King Rat, Seance on a Wet Afternoon and Whistle Down the Wind.
Through a series of recollections from family, friends and colleagues, punctuated by performances by present NYT members and illustrated by lovely photographs of Bryan on film sets and with his family, we were treated to a wonderful overview of a life lived generously and tirelessly in pursuit of the best work, enabling the brightest talent to shine and in a spirit of tremendous love and generosity.
From the opening, entirely unprintable anecdote to Nanette Newman's on-the-brink-of-tears final words, it was a funny, outrageous, touching and very appropriate memorial to a great man of British film and theatre.
Forbes was treasurer of the Guild in its formative years and in 1962 he won the Guild's Best British Comedy Screenplay Award for Only Two Can Play.
In 1969 Bryan Forbes became managing director of Associated British Productions, at that time the biggest name in the UK film industry. He was sent hundreds of scripts. He welcomed every contribution and then "asked everybody to believe that every single submission would be considered." Those writers who showed promise he directed to the Guild and he was clear that he wanted to make Elstree a Guild studio.
In his memory the family have set up a bursary for directors at the NYT.
Guild negotiates increases for writers
The Writers’ Guild has negotiated a 2% increase in minimum fees for BBC radio writers, backdated to 1 August 2013. The flagship rate for an original drama by an established writer goes up to £91.73 for two transmissions, while the fee for an episode of The Archers goes up to £920. Other rates include a scale between £183 and £374 for a 15-minute short story, and £10.58 per minute for abridgements. The new rates replace those implemented on 24 January this year and will be reviewed again with effect from 1 August 2014 - download full details (pdf)
There is also good news for playwrights working for leading theatres – minimum rates for the Royal Court Theatre, Royal National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company were increased by 2.2% with effect from 1 April 2013, bringing the basic rate for a full-length play to £11,759 - download full details (pdf)
Conference: 19 November, RADA Studios, London
The Guild would like to thank everyone who completed the online survey on bullying as part of the Creating Without Conflict Campaign. We have had a great response across the entertainment industry.
The campaign seeks to challenge bullying and harassment in the entertainment industries. The aim is to raise awareness, to work with employers to create effective policies and procedures that will protect staff and freelance workers from bullying and harassment and empower members to challenge and report incidents without fear of reprisals.
Our recent survey asked members about their experience of bullying and harassment in their industry. The aim was to see how widespread the problem is throughout the entertainment industry.
We will be launching the full findings on 19 November at the Creating without Conflict Conference which will take place at the RADA Studios in Central London from 9.30am to 4.30pm. The morning will explore the survey results and the afternoon will consist of discussion groups, giving members the opportunity to discuss in more detail the issues that have risen from the survey and look at ways of moving forward.
The conference is for members of Writers Guild of Great Britain, BECTU, Equity, Musicians’ Union and NUJ. It is free to attend and a sandwich lunch will be provided, but numbers are strictly limited.