Wednesday 21 September 2011, 12:54
I struggled a bit when thinking about what things I could say on a writersroom blog because I always like the blogs on here that try to be useful. I read this website all the time, mainly because I want to work out how other writers do it and I was determined to think of something similarly useful to write... How to do fantasy on a budget struck me as interesting - but Toby Whithouse dealt with that brilliantly at the BBC TV Drama writersfest when he said 'I was thinking about how to show the afterlife without any money and I walked past a door and thought - that seems good'. How to write a six part TV show on your own also seemed useful - but the truth is, I'm not sure I totally have worked it out myself yet - it was a mad scramble mostly. So I thought I'd talk briefly about the genesis of The Fades - how it all came about...
The Fades was born out of the worst TV script I - or possibly anyone else - has ever written. I went to see (exec producer) Sue Hogg and (script editor) Esther Springer at the BBC. This was about five years ago and I hadn't done much TV by then - Skins series 1 had just aired, and Shameless series 4, both of which I'd written on - and they also had liked a couple of my stage plays. But I was still very new and easily intimidated and pretty rubbish at talking to people, particularly TV people, and Sue and Esther had to cajole me to speak. We talked about Skins, and the Ghostbusters t-shirt I was wearing and Sue asked that question executives like to ask sometimes - 'if you'd written any TV show, which TV show would you have written, and why?' I thought and said 'Freaks and Geeks' - still, in my opinion, one of the great TV shows of our age (if you haven't watched it, you must, and if you have watched it, buy the scripts, and if you have both watched it and read the scripts, then buy Paul Feig's books - Kick Me and Superstud) - Sue looked at my t-shirt and back at me and said - as I think I've said in every interview I've had about the show - 'what about Freaks and Geeks meets Ghostbusters?' And I nodded and said 'I can do that'.
Well, it turned out, and funnily enough this is something I've talked about less in interviews, I couldn't. The show that I wrote based on that premise - a show called 'Short Stuff and Weird' - was, without doubt, total unmitigated garbage. A kid and his friends investigate ghosts using the support of the kid's zany (dead) Granddad. There were pipes involved. There were basements. There were sheds that blew up. I could describe more but I'm hurting myself describing even this much. I tried to fix it. I couldn't. I phoned Esther, in a horrible panic, and she said - come in, let's talk about it. We talked. And then we talked some more. And eventually Esther was as convinced as I was that Short Stuff and Weird should never be seen by another human being. So she said 'then let's not hand it in, let's use this opportunity to do something different, let's write the show you want to write'. This was what I wrote that night:
"A thirty-six year old woman - SARAH - is crying hard. Tears are streaming down her face as she stares into a mirror. Staring into a mirror, she picks up a knife from beside her on the bed. She hesitates one more time. And then carefully, she slits the side of her face. Stammering tears all the while as she does it. Her breath irregular and pain-ridden. She slits from eye-socket to mouth edge. And then she repeats the slit on the other side of her face.
SARAH looks up, and tries to smile through the tears. She tries to smile again, but she can't. Blood is now streaming down her face and mingling with the tears. Her hand really shaking now. She then takes the knife and carefully cuts underneath her nose, between the slits on her face. She puts her hand under the slit and pulls hard. She begins to peel her face. She's making snuffles of agony as she does this. But she doesn't scream.
SARAH Help me - I - help me -
A hand comes into view and begins pulling hard at the slits, tearing the flesh, peeling SARAH's face. It's hard, it's not easy, this is not body horror, this is a bit more complicated than that. The camera slowly pans around her room. Coming finally across POLUS, the bone-ridden face of a bone ridden man. He is straining hard - then suddenly his face relaxes, his hand has done it's work - he sits back, with blood dripping from his hand. He smiles. The camera continues to pan. It finally arrives back at SARAH. Who has now peeled her face off, from nose to eyes. She looks down at her t-shirt, spots of blood land on it. She looks up at her reflection in the mirror. She touches where her nose should be. She makes a hollow scream, it seems to echo."
None of this is in the final show. For one thing it's too expensive, for another the BBC compliance unit would never pass it for 9pm on a week night, for another it didn't actually suit the character of either Polus or Sarah as those characters evolved, and finally it's a bit overwritten and would be really hard to execute well. But it was what I wanted to write. Pinter apparently always started with an opening image and only that. I don't always start with anything, and I'm sadly not Harold Pinter but this thing was what allowed me to spend the next four years writing the show you're hopefully all about to watch (please). And the strange thing is, and this is my point, I don't think I could have written it without having first written the extremely terrible Short Stuff and Weird. By thinking about ghosts and realisations for all that time - albeit on a fool's errand - I worked out how to write something I hope is a bit better. The act of chewing on shit actually really helped me.
Daniel Kaaluya as Mac in The Fades.
I don't know how many other writers share this. But it's true of quite a lot of what I've written. My first professional stage play - When You Cure Me - came about because I'd written a bad play but liked one scene in it (about bed pans). Similarly, my radio play People Snogging In Public Places (stored somewhere on this website) was a result of failed theatre commission. I wanted to write something about my Uncle and my Mum but it wasn't until I wrote a bad play about my Uncle and my Mum that I realised that the play needed to be about me, my Mum and my Uncle and that radio was the right place for it. I think, because of the way I write, I need to have space to make wrong turnings before I know the right turning to take, and Short Stuff and Weird was undoubtedly the wrong turning I needed for The Fades. It's a horribly painful process, based mostly on failure, but as I was saying to my friend the other day, I think writing - or my writing - is mostly about failure. Most days finish with me reading the work I've done and sitting there going 'well, that's a piece of shit'. Paul Abbott declares in big letters on this website - 'writing is rewriting' - I think what that phrase means for me is that most of what you write you should be prepared to throw away - but that hopefully some of it can inspire you to something you feel happier with.
Johnny Harris plays Neil, an orphan who has left the conventional world behind to commit himself entirely to the Angelic cause.
The Fades has been extremely hard to write and even harder to make, episode one went through a mammoth 36 drafts as me and the amazing script team (Esther, Esther's fellow script editor Richard Cookson, Sue, and producer Caroline Skinner) battled issues of logic, compliance, budget and humour and none of the rest of the five episodes were any less difficult. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't knackered and slightly battered by it all and I'm sure the cast and crew went through even worse. But mostly I feel extremely lucky. Everyone owns a television show by the time it airs - crew and cast -whether it's the costume designer putting the lead character in brilliant burgundy jeans, or the composer finding a noise that makes a ghost seem like a ghost, or the way Theo Barklem-Biggs makes the relatively small part of a junior Detective seem like one of the most important in the series - and The Fades is a show that, for better or worse, whether it's a success or not, I'm proud to have been part of. I'm grateful it's not frigging Short frigging Stuff and frigging Weird but I'm equally grateful that frigging Short frigging Stuff and frigging Weird brought me to it.
The Fades starts tonight on BBC Three at 9pm. Watch preview clips and read bios of the characters on The Fades programme page.
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