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Script Doctor

Holing up in a London hotel to work with Lars von Trier, who could refuse?

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I’ve hit the big screen only once in a writing life that has concentrated mainly on radio and television. But if you’d googled my name a few years ago it was as if I was the ‘author’ of a single cinema film — and little else. That film was The Element of Crime — Danish, made by the auteur, prankster and Dogma theorist (etc) Lars von Trier; his second film, I think. He was little known here in England at the time and was wanting a wider audience.

The Element of Crime took an odd and memorable week out of my working life. It was the early 1980s and my agent had rung on a Friday afternoon. She never called me ‘darling’ but that was often her tone. ‘You’ve been working on that stage play a bit too long’, she said. ‘Do you want to earn a bit of money? You’d be working a week. It’s to do actable dialogue for a Danish film they’re shooting in English. All I know about the director is that he’s apparently the Danish Spielberg.’

The script was couriered round. It was a plain English translation, so rather wooden. I found the story puzzling but the work sounded easy, the money was welcome, and the desire of even the most dedicated writer to get beyond four walls for a time should never be underrated. I was stuck with my stage play and relieved to let go of it — at least for a time.

The young Lars von Trier was holed up at the Strand Palace Hotel, where each morning though the week we would talk about the film section by section. I then would go away and come back the following day with a ‘do-able’ idiomatic version. It starred Michael Elphick, was to be filmed entirely in studio (it was intensely artificial) but was ostensibly set somewhere like Egypt — there was a lot of desert and sand in the script.

As I write this it all comes back: a futuristic landscape with Germanic town names. The plot, opaque, centred round a string of brutal murders of detectives (I seem to remember). I didn’t understand much of it, but assumed the director did. There were a number of ‘philosophical’ speeches for the actors that I had to render speakable with my ‘golden words’, as my agent put it.

Trier, then slim and boyish, lay on the bed, in a back room with no view but the internal workings of the hotel, ducts, ventilators, and so on, and on our second meeting, the Tuesday, asked me what route I had taken to the hotel. I said, ‘Waterloo Station and then across Waterloo Bridge’. He said that he had seen the film Waterloo Bridge (the wartime film, with Vivien Leigh) but didn’t know what the bridge was like in reality (it was a hundred yards from his door). I now think that this was a wind up, but my conclusion at the time was that he never – some phobia? – left his hotel room. He certainly never left the room during our two- to three-hour sessions: I was the one who came and went. I can’t remember if coffee or tea arrived or was offered: we never went for a drink in the bar.

On the Wednesday I needed to find a filthy English equivalent of a Danish nursery rhyme that he hadn’t been able to translate, and I came up with (from an extensive childhood repertoire) ‘Mum does it, dad does it, horses have a try. Cats do it, dogs do it. Why can’t I?’ He approved, was delighted. It went straight into the script, and about a year later I watched the distinguished English actor, Esmond Knight, spouting this doggerel on a big cinema screen at the Electric on Portobello Road.

On the Thursday we came to a halt. I just didn’t understand the motivation of the young woman lead-character. That affected the dialogue, and director and I got to arguing – slightly testily – before the Danish tyro conceded, disarmingly, ‘I don’t know what her motivation is either. It doesn’t matter’. I was then – more than now – a realist; straitjacketed, I sometimes think. Hitchcock’s films, great though many of them are, finally miss the top slot in my pantheon because you know he’s interested in getting to the set pieces willy-nilly: motivation and character take second place. But by the Friday my job was done. Money was paid over and I got back to my (realistic) stage play, which was dutifully finished — and remains deservedly unproduced.

Element of Crime opened at Cannes, the following spring, 1984, and won some award (to my astonishment). My agent sent me a long, though damning, review of it from the New Statesman with a handwritten note, in red ink: ‘Oh, dear’. And the slim young man became the great Dane (so to speak) we know today. There was a photo of him – much weightier now – in my paper last week, which prompted this reminiscence. I do think the film was tripe, and von Trier might – these days – be the first, disarmingly, to say he agreed.

I had asked for my name not to appear on the credits, not because I was unhappy, but because I thought the project was hopeless and my role had been as script ‘tidier’, no more. But as the credits rolled in front of a thin audience on the Portobello Road that afternoon, there it was. I had hit the big screen.

There was a consequence, however. As von Trier’s reputation and expertise grew, so my name, in the new algorithms of search engines, became entwined with his. It was as if the highlight of what I laughingly call my ‘career’ was The Element of Crime. The only way to put an end to that – cut the Google cord – was to establish a web site of my own, rather than accept the random entries that accumulated around my name. I’ve written a number of films for television before and since, but that was my only adventure in the Big Screen Trade — where, as the great scriptwriter, William Goldman says – rightly – ‘nobody knows anything’.

Stephen Wakelam’s adaptation of Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head goes out on Radio 4’s 15 Minute Drama slot at in August.

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