Fade To Black

Towards the end of July, I wrote about a script for a short film that I was gradually developing from a short story I’d written last year, Warm Leather. Knowing how badly I procrastinate, I was doubtful that I’d manage to get it finished anytime soon, but I’m now pleased to report that I’ve broken the habit of a lifetime – I have a complete draft! I typed the words “fade to black” on Tuesday last week, and quickly shared what I’d done with a small group of friends. They may have been slightly biased, but the feedback they gave was largely favourable, so for now I will stick with the draft I have – my next objective is to send it elsewhere and see if I can find some more informed advice.

After so many years of only managing to write snippets of script, it means rather a lot to me to have committed to this one through to the end, even though it’s only 14 pages long (quarter of an hour in length, rather than the half an hour I had anticipated). It’s given me a solid starting point to develop and grow the story where necessary, and if nothing else, it’s been good practice for the “Creating Short Screenplays” module I’m starting in Winchester next semester. I couldn’t be happier with my progress so far, and if I can find the right place to send it next, then who knows? Maybe this won’t be the last update I give you…



The Stage And The Stars

Prior to last weekend, I had been lucky enough to see three Shakespeare plays, and these opportunities all came during my A-Levels. I saw the first two – a modernised adaptation of Twelfth Night and a more traditional version of Romeo and Juliet – on trips to the University of Exeter, and I was then incredibly fortunate to see Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre in London. We studied the latter two plays as part of my English Literature course, and as we did so it was hard to notice the lack of enthusiasm creeping around the room at times. Maybe that was because we were made to read and endlessly analyse them, but I still thought it a shame to see. I knew these plays were great, and that everyone else would find them a lot easier to engage with when they saw them unfold on stage.

Sure enough, when we eventually did go on the trips, I could tell that they were more enthused by watching them in the flesh than any sweaty classroom reading. There’s a certain magic I feel watching a Shakespeare play that no other piece of theatre has, no matter how good it is. I’m not entirely sure what it is, or where it comes from, but I know for sure that I felt it again on Saturday night when I attended an outdoor production of Hamlet along with Mum. It was a warm and pleasant summer’s evening, and our surroundings weren’t bad either – that’s high praise coming from someone who doesn’t always get on with the countryside. The show was to be performed by the five members of a theatre group known as the Three Inch Fools, who would use only a simple wooden stage (adorned with a string of fairy lights for when it got dark) and the various props and costumes dotted around it to play multiple parts each. I was intrigued by this minimalist approach as soon as we arrived, and I liked the fact that everything had been laid bare for the audience to see.

I was not disappointed. I welcomed Shakespeare’s words again as though they were old friends, and every one was delivered beautifully by the actress behind Hamlet, Rose Reade, and the rest of the cast, whose projected voices were carried all the way through the audience and across the hills by the light breeze. Everyone present was both respectful of the actors and totally captivated by humour and pathos alike. The English language was a very different thing in Shakespeare’s day, but as it manifested itself in front of my eyes I had no trouble at all understanding and interpreting it. It felt almost like I had become suddenly and instantly fluent in French or another foreign tongue. This helped to make me very comfortable with what I was seeing, even when I was also on the edge of my seat – this was a feeling only exacerbated by how well the cast made the entire piece flow. Each actor was also an equally proficient singer and musician, and many of the props they performed with were traditional folk instruments that matched the time period the play was set in. In such gifted hands, these were able to provide excellent interludes that either served as useful bridges between scenes or illustrative devices at key points within them. Any movements to and from the stage were gentle and hardly noticeable, as was every costume change – anything slower or more stilted was made a part of the performance, usually with a line from one character that put another back on track. Not once did any of the cast slip out of character. If anything, with every passing scene they seemed even more at one with their roles. This added a little more comedy to every laugh, and a little more gravity to every tragedy – especially the multitude of deaths at the play’s climax.

I originally started writing this post on Sunday morning, only hours after we had returned from Hamlet. What prevented me from finishing it in one sitting was mainly my lack of confidence as a reviewer – I was worried about publishing it and appearing as though I had no idea what I was talking about (I might not anyway, but you can be the judge of that). Ultimately, though, I decided that it was more important for whoever did read this to know how much I appreciated the Three Inch Fools and the evening of first-class theatre they gave us. As that particular performance was the penultimate one on their summer tour, I was glad to have been able to see them before their break, and I have no doubt that everyone who sees them when they are next on stage will feel exactly the same way. Look them up if you haven’t already, and if you do feel inclined to witness them at their best, I am certain you won’t regret it in the slightest.


Blessed Are The Writers

The annual Doctor Who festive special on Christmas Day finally saw Jodie Whittaker make her long-awaited debut as the Doctor, replacing the outgoing Peter Capaldi in a burst of orange light. It was a fantastic send-off for Peter, who has been a brilliant Doctor and ambassador for the show, but its closing moments – depicting an explosive regeneration and Jodie plummeting to Earth from a fiery TARDIS – were an introduction to an even more exciting era to come (previously discussed here).

Finally seeing the Thirteenth Doctor take over as the star of the show actually gave me goosebumps as I sat slumped on the sofa. We may have to wait until the Autumn, but that fresh new Doctor Who dawn will be the very next thing to greet us. The corresponding feelings of eager anticipation have only really come to me once before; whilst I obviously look forward to the start of every new series, I haven’t been this excited since 2010, when Matt Smith took over as the Eleventh Doctor for Series 5. If you ask Will, he’ll tell you I hold that particular run of episodes in very high regard. At that point, everyone in and around Doctor Who also found themselves looking at a changed animal of sorts. Much like now, there were plenty of new faces in the cast and production team, and what came from them was a series that I believe is yet to be topped.

Any of its thirteen episodes could easily have stood out as a favourite, and all were memorable – although, in my opinion, the modern classic “Vincent and the Doctor” (written by Richard Curtis) is a particular highlight. I remember watching the series on first broadcast very clearly. It felt – and still does feel – like Doctor Who was a new programme, closer to five years old than fifty. I’m not criticising how it’s been before or since, because I owe an awful lot to its complete 55-year history. I just think that Series 5 had an especially vibrant quality that may not have been the same had there been more continuity from Series 4, David Tennant’s swansong. Change is a good thing, more often than not, and with it there was increased vitality. Eight years on, Series 11 has a golden opportunity to bring even more, with new crews in the TARDIS and behind the camera. I may have said all this before, but I reckon that conveys just how excited I really am. When the Doctor comes down to Earth with a bump, I can’t wait to see what adventures will await her. Blessed are the writers who get to find out first.


The Day I Fried a Snake

“I saved my pocket money for three weeks. I didn’t buy anything. No comics, no crisps, no sweets. I went to a pet shop and bought this tiny green snake instead. A grass snake they called it. When I got home I played with the snake. It felt warm and soft. I was scared but I still had to hold it. I liked the way it wrapped itself round my fingers like an electric shoelace. And then…. then I realised. I could never keep it. Not as a pet. Where would it sleep? What would it eat? Where would it go when I went to school? It was a stupid thing to to buy. So I had to get rid of it. But how? All sorts of things occurred to me: flush it down the toilet, bury it, throw it from a tower block. But all the while another thought was taking shape. A thought so wonderful it seemed the only thing to do. So I got a frying pan and put it on the gas stove. I put a bit of butter in the pan and turned the gas up full. The fat started to crackle and smoke. I dropped the snake into the frying pan. It span round and round and its skin burst open like the skin of a sausage. It took ages to die. Its tiny mouth opened and closed and its black eyes exploded. But it was wonderful to watch.” – Presley’s monologue, from The Pitchfork Disney by Philip Ridley, 1991.

The piece you see above was both the best and worst thing I ever had to perform during my A-Level Drama course. I loved it because it was surreal and it gave everyone who ever heard it the shivers, but on the other hand it was also the closest I have ever come to suffering for my art. I never read Philip Ridley’s full play, so I can’t tell you about the context behind it, but I found this in a book of monologues for students and just knew immediately that it could be a winner. A large part of our grades for the course was due to come from our monologues – but unlike our previous end-of-year performances, to which we could invite anyone we liked, these would be given only to the rest of the class, our teacher and the visiting examiner. By this point, my class only actually consisted of a handful of other people, but I was glad of this when it came to choosing my piece as I knew I would have a smaller and more intimate group to try and unsettle. But how would I do this? I needed to gross them out in some way, and after a week or two of thought I knew exactly what to do. I needed to fry the snake in front of their eyes, leaving them open-mouthed and speechless in response…

OK, so frying an actual snake wouldn’t have gone down well with the examiner or the RSPCA, so instead I had to find what I’ll call a “stunt snake”. This came in the somewhat predictable form of a raw sausage, which would slide around in a real frying pan and be squashed and manipulated mercilessly in my fingers as though it were alive. Having taken a trip to Tesco so that I would have some bangers to hand, I made sure I had one on my person for rehearsals the next day – as well as a pan borrowed from the kitchen. Sure enough, my plan for the piece worked like a dream, even though I realised I was going to have a problem with raw sausage meat getting stuck underneath my fingernails. Even when I washed my hands vigorously after every run through, it wouldn’t always budge immediately – this is what I meant by suffering for my art. As time went by, however, this soon became a very small price to pay, because the end result was something I became immensely proud of. In just two minutes or so, I had the chance to perform something that would completely captivate its tiny audience – not because of me, but because it was sheer surrealism in the truest sense. For once, I couldn’t wait for exam day.

Now, let’s bypass all of the build-up to the big moment and cut directly to the chase. Imagine me there, with my lamp, frying pan and stunt snake ready on the table, being given the signal by the examiner to begin the monologue. What residual noise there was has now completely died away and I am now alone in my performance space, with only my meticulously-rehearsed lines in my head for company. They’ll never desert me, surely?

Wrong. For the first and only time in any Drama lesson, I drew a complete and total blank. I searched frantically for my opening lines, but there was only rolling tumbleweed for what seemed like a lifetime. It got to a point where I was sure I was only seconds away from being failed and ushered back into the audience – and it was then that the piece spluttered into life as I remembered what I was supposed to say. I sailed through the remaining dialogue with ease, but the silence at the beginning was still in my thoughts, overshadowing everything else. I was convinced that I had totally sabotaged my own A-Level grade, and that for my classmates, the teacher and the examiner, it was also the elephant in the room. The biggest surprise would be saved for last, however, when it transpired that nobody in the audience actually noticed I’d forgotten my lines, and that the examiner thought the resulting pause was for dramatic effect. I believe it actually ended up improving my mark slightly – but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to prevent my D overall…