For over thirty years I have written for a living. Initially I wrote plays for the theatre, subsequently (and for most of my career) television drama; finally, I wrote several film scripts. I fought as hard as anyone else to adopt the writer’s profession and I endured as many slings and arrows in the course of it as did others. And now I’ve decided to stop writing. It has been one of the key moments of my life, certainly as personally significant as handing in my notice as a teacher at twenty-eight for the uncertainty of writing professionally. An enormous decision, in sum. I have to admit that I never expected this to happen: like all my writer friends I assumed I would go on writing until I drop.
My decision is not because of waning, such as they are, powers. Nor certainly because I no longer love the calling: I would in fact say that I have never loved the process of writing more than I do now. There is still nothing like that thrill of the unknown that writers face each day: what’s going to happen next? You may have planned your project, but when did a project ever go according to plan? Characters start speaking for themselves, suddenly they do something unexpected, the weather changes and you the writer are no longer in charge, you are simply noting down the actions and words of others…No wonder Balzac on his deathbed called for a doctor he had created many years previously.
Most of us like to recall our professional origins: our young determination, the endless disappointments, the unexpected break. Like most of us, I had a damned hard fight to get my work seen. And of course I thought, as we do when we are young, that success, once found, will be permanent. One of the secrets of the future is that for most people it isn’t, that it needs constant maintenance and is a slippery possession at best. I began my TV life, ironically enough, on a series called Wish Me Luck, and one of my last screen outings was, again ironically, The Last Detective.
In between, managing to steer clear of soaps, I covered the waterfront of police and hospitals via five years as a principal writer on The Bill, and episodes of Casualty and Holby; found myself writing Minder (I thought the call was a hoax; Arthur Daley was the most difficult character I ever had to write), my career wild card Dr Who, and Albert and the Lion — one of the last original screenplays made by ITV (why did they stop?) It was fun most of the way; I got to work with some great talents and I was lucky to be employed almost permanently.
However, there came a time after quite some years when I began to sense I’d entered a being-part-of-the-furniture phase of my career. I delivered on time and to budget; my stuff worked: I could be trusted. Instead of being offered a two-hour episode of the latest murder investigation by the latest unhappy detective, I found I was being offered commissions to create series. At the time it seemed a natural progression. So a year would be spent working with a producer, often an editor too; characters would be created, their lives constructed, their destinies revealed in some tea-fuelled marathon in Covent Garden.
At some point the producer would go and discuss the project with a broadcaster; the broadcaster would be keen. There would be meetings and rewrites, rewrites and meetings. The broadcaster would be even more keen. Then the producer would formally submit it to the broadcaster. After that, one of two possibilities happened, both usually taking many months. The first was nothing: the broadcaster would simply not respond to the producer’s (or my) email(s). The second was that it was rejected, often because the broadcaster was developing something suspiciously similar with someone else. Either way a year or eighteen months of work was gone, and for nothing except that I had been able to continue paying the mortgage. Of course, being a script-writer isn’t a straight job, it doesn’t come with shares, health insurance, and a preset retirement age. As my early mentor Alan Plater once gently reminded my younger self: ‘Nobody said you had to be a writer’. But I could live with that. I knew the risks when I started.
Enough though can get to be enough. After three such experiences, although the mortgage had continued to be paid I’d had nothing on the screen for several years. My neighbours began to think I’d taken early retirement. I decided to give up on TV altogether and head for the film business. ‘For God’s sake don’t,’ said a TV producer friend, ‘they just lie to you and change your script.’ I thought I was used to that so, knowing better as usual, I ignored her. My first film script, written on spec, was bought by a small English producer. She tried valiantly to raise the money to make it, failed, and sold it to a bigger producer. It then emerged that the bigger producer fancied herself as a writer. Need I go on? Announcing that my script, which she was of course ‘totally in love with’, needed just ‘a little sprinkle of fairy dust’, she rewrote it. Into something unrecognisable, unfilmable, and, thus far, unsaleable.
Faced with a choices list of zero, I wrote a second film on spec and this time sent it directly to a broadcast/film production company. A meeting was arranged. This time I had a Hollywood director with me who wanted to direct it. The broadcaster loved both our work, he quoted it to us: from a Minder of mine and from the director’s big-success film. Our new best friend, he loved the sound of the project and couldn’t wait to read the script, which in fact he had received a month previously. But no matter, he was enthused.
We never heard from him again. Actually, that’s not quite true. A few months later a friend of mine had a meeting with the same broadcaster. My name came up and for some minutes the air was improved with agreements about what a great guy Kevin Clarke is. An hour later as their meeting ended and my friend was being shown out the broadcaster said to him in an apparent afterthought: ‘By the way. Tell Kevin we’re passing on that project of his, will you?’
That was the last time I offered a script to an English company. My subsequent three have all been optioned in the US. I have always found a welcome there. They gave me my start three decades ago when, completely unknown and unable to find a London fringe theatre that would even read my first play, Transatlantic, I managed to get a shoestring production in New York. That makes it sound much grander than it was, but it gave me the confidence to come home and chuck in the day job to write full time, and to direct my second play myself. Maybe I should have read the runes then but much as I love it there I’m English through and through and I did not want to move across the Atlantic. I must also say that in my latterday experience with film producers in LA I have encountered nothing but courtesy and, this time genuine, enthusiasm. As another writer said to me, the Americans know what it takes to get a good script and they are prepared to invest the time and money necessary. Yes, they will tinker with what you’ve done but they don’t do so behind your back, and, so far in my experience at least, they know when to leave well alone. But even American enthusiasm has not been enough to make me want to pick up the quill again.
There are still ideas floating around, projects which could be turned into reality. But is the time worth the effort? It takes several months in all to arrive at a fairly finished script (we all know that no script is ever finally finished, of course) and then, usually, months/years before it is made. Or before you get the message that it is not going to be made. Do I want to continue investing such disproportionate amounts of time and effort? I did so for years. But now I find that the answer has become No.
So what next? How to fill the space which has been occupied for as long as I can remember by the impulse to make drama? Like contemplating divorce, once the question has been seriously raised it will never go back into the bottle, it must be answered. In recent years, trying to usefully fill time while waiting for projects to be made or not made, I began following up a long-denied passion for history. It was unfinished business: I was expelled from school at sixteen, officially labelled ‘Not University Material’. Now I found that instead of trying to fit an hour or two of history into the day after I’d done my stint on the script, the schedule was becoming reversed. I’m now working on my third degree. I found myself immediately at home in the Tudor and Stuart courts. Their jockeying for power, murderous rivalries, vicious jealousies, lies, thefts, faux friendliness, and ruthless betrayals, are familiar territory to anyone who has carved a career path through the British television drama departments. So the past is my future.