Stephen Wyatt interview
Darren Rapier talks to two-time Tinniswood Award winner Stephen Wyatt about his writing for radio, stage and television.
Available as a podcast on iTunes, or via the Writers' Guild app for iPhone and iPad.
How did you get started as a writer?
I was always obsessed with writing. I was the sort of kid who filled up notebooks with plays and bombarded the school magazine with endless articles. But when I started to study English Literature, first for O Level, then A Level and then at university, the creativity rather dried up. I became very self-conscious and it was only towards the end of my university time that I started writing again. I did a PhD and began a career as an academic, but it was not for me and, quite soon, and I gave it up and became a freelance writer.
Have you found the PhD to be useful in your writing?
In some ways; it was in 19th Century popular theatre and so gave me a very broad idea of what theatre can be. It has also been of practical use. I did two radio series of adaptations of stories by W.S. Gilbert, which we called Gilbert Without Sullivan, and that was directly drawing on what I discovered during my PhD.
I understand that you got involved with the Footlights at Cambridge...
Yes, I directed a Footlights review called Every Packet Carries A Government Health Warning. But I realised I wasn’t really a light-entertainment writer or producer, it’s just not my temperament. Then I got a job as writer-researcher with the Coventry Theatre and Education Team, which I did for a year was quite difficult for me because it was a very new sort of world, but it did mean that I really learned to think about the purpose of each show.
That was a time of a real emergence of theatre and education, wasn’t it? And theatre was being used as an educative tool not to teach about a curriculum subject as it is now, but almost to teach about how to be a human being.
I think that’s right. There was a certain political ideology behind some of it in terms of asking or inviting children to look critically at the system in which they were involved – we tackled some interesting subjects. I was with Coventry Theatre for a year and subsequently worked with a number of theatres in education companies on various commissions.
And how did you get into writing for radio?
My first radio play was in about 1977, but it was only in the late 1980s that I started doing it on a more sustained basis. That was partly because I got into doing dramatisations and adaptations, which makes up quite a large part of the work available in radio. I did an adaptation of a wonderful, weird novel called Memoirs Of A Midget by Walter de la Mare. It’s a fantastic book, very strange, and the main character was played magnificently by Emma Fielding in one of her early roles. The only way it could have been dramatised was on radio; it’s the only medium that could do justice to the weirdness of the story.
Is radio your favourite medium to write for?
Well, I’ve never managed to sell very much for film, so that’s my least favourite. I haven’t worked in television for quite a long time – my best days were the early ones, when I wrote a TV film called Claws and did two Doctor Who stories. I worked on Casualty and the House Of Eliott and learned a lot from them both in terms of discipline, but while in the early days I enjoyed them both very much, either I got tired of them or they got tired of me. The number of people who had a say as to whether your script worked or not seemed to be getting bigger all the time. When I was first on Casualty I worked with a script editor and then the script was sent to the producer, who gave notes, and that was it. By the time I finished there were heads of department, executive producers, producers, script editors, everybody pitching in, and I wasn’t very good at coping with it. I think I rewrote my last Casualty script six times and I genuinely believe it was worse on the sixth draft than it was on the first. So I’ve been with radio since then and, to a certain extent, the theatre.
Was Doctor Who an enjoyable show to write for?
In some ways Doctor Who is one of the most wonderful shows in the world to write for. It is a writer’s show because each story is different. It has certain givens – you have to have the Doctor and you probably have to have the companion and you’ve probably got to put them both in some sort of danger at the end of each episode. But apart from that you can resolve it in your own way and you can create your own worlds. I think that’s its power and it’s one of the very few television series in which the fans are actually interested in the writers. One of my two stories came out on DVD last year, the other one’s coming out this year and you find a whole debate reignited about how bad or good it was. The second one people like more; the first one I did, which was slightly changing what was then the mode, was called Paradise Towers. A lot of fans loathed it and 25 years later they are still angry at me for writing it.
What was it they disliked?
To me the wonderful thing about the original concept of Doctor Who was that there was no baggage, he could just go somewhere and have a story. So we made a conscious decision at that point to have a bit of a clear-out of all the Doctor Who mythology since it had all got a bit inbred – but that didn’t go down well with the fans because that’s what they loved.
Does radio give you that bit more freedom in that sense, in the sense that you can write about anything, any period?
Yes. Of course you’ve got to sell the ideas – and sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t – but, as an example, Gerontius, my piece about Cardinal Newman that won the Tinniswood Award: who in the world, apart from BBC radio, would commission a play in which two celibate priests fall in love while discussing the finer points of Anglo-Catholicism? Radio allows you to look at subjects and employ angles that are now extraordinarily difficult to do in mainstream television, or anywhere else, except possibly in the theatre.
What advice would you give to writers considering trying radio?
The first thing is obviously listen to quite a bit of radio and, if possible, read a radio script. It’s difficult to get hold of them, but BBC Writersroom has some online. It was something I always used to urge the people who did my courses to do: looking at what’s actually on the page as opposed to what you hear. After that, I think the main thing I would say about radio is that it takes place in your head, not in front of your eyes.
For the audience?
Yes. In some ways it’s closer to poetry or novels than it is to film or television, because it is so much an individual experience inside the head of each member of the audience. So it’s not very good when people are shouting and it’s not very good at having too many people speaking at once. You have to be aware, in a way, that you’re telling a story into somebody’s brain. I think the reason, for example, why you have to be particularly careful with scenes that involve violence or sex is that people picture what is going on in terms of their own problems and imaginations and are therefore liable to be outraged by what might appear to be something quite slight. People have very strong reactions. Years ago a producer told me that she’d had a letter from somebody which said: ‘I was absolutely disgusted by that play that you produced last week and I had to switch off. Could you please tell me what happened in the end?’
What are you writing or working on at the moment?
For radio I’m doing a version of Alice Through The Looking Glass (by Lewis Carroll) for next Christmas, and we’re doing it as a more adult piece. We really are doing Through The Looking Glass rather than a synoptic version of Alice. We’re trying to catch something of the of weirdness and originality of that story. And I’ve also just written my first full-length stage play for many years – I wrote it speculatively, I don’t have a commission. I suppose that came about because in the past year theatre came back into my life. A musical comedy I’d written called Pick Yourself Up was revived at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. A monologue I’d written called The Standard Bearer was revived by Neil Dickson, directed by Julian Sands, who loved the piece; they performed it in America and are looking to perform it again. And then I also wrote a play for Krazy Kat, the children’s theatre company. So this has sort of got me fired up a bit about theatre again.