Can You Tell Me The Name Of The Prime Minister? Writing the election...
I noted with wry amusement - and just a hint of a cold sweat - the challenge on the Writers Room blog for 5/10 minute scripts about the events of the recent election, and can't wait to see what people come up with.... mainly because six weeks ago I had the same challenge, except the script I was writing was to be 45 minutes long, to be written during the election campaign, recorded a week before polling, and transmitted a week after the result was known. How on earth had I got myself into this scrape?
It was a fantastic, if marginally terrifying privilege. There were one or two moments when I wondered why I'd agreed to do it. Last year I had written a play for Radio 4 about the kidnap attempt on British PM Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1964. It seemed to go down reasonably well, and as a result I was asked if I wanted to contribute a 'Rapid Response' drama to Radio 4's Afternoon Play slot.
Many will know about the 15 minute 'From Fact to Fiction' series on Saturday evenings, where a writer dramatises some aspect of the week's news, but Rapid Response is different. You are gifted 45 minutes of air time, to come up with a more substantial drama somehow reflecting the zeitgeist.
Yeah, I know... 'zeitgeist'. Over used word. But it's the right word in this context.
Soooo... I was booked for a May14th TX, which meant the whole process from conception to scripting to recording to editing, all in the preceding 5 weeks... which turned out to be the 5 weeks of the General Election campaign.
The first instinct was actually to write about something completely different. After all, a script written during the campaign would surely be out of date only days later, and second sight isn't one of my talents. I put together a story about Child Protection (also much in the news before the election) but as chance would have it a similar play on that subject had been commissioned for later in the year.
A hop back to the drawing board said there was no avoiding it. I had to DO the election - it would be all that people were talking about. And that's where it got scary. Seven days after an election, that I didn't know the outcome to (and it WAS unpredictable!), I would be trying to say something that hadn't already been said by the acres of newsprint and comment that would surely be generated around it.
And that's not to mention the pressure you feel by the very nature of the slot itself. Where else in broadcast media would a writer be offered 45 minutes of airtime to fill with a play of their own choosing? We dream of such opportunities, but when it's there in front of you, the sense of real privilege can be a bit overwhelming. It's also about as exposing as a commission can be.
Despite being relatively small in the grand scale of things, this is one gig you really don't want to mess up. I am not exaggerating when I say that I had at least one completely sleepless night during the writing period...
So how could I deal with all the booby traps I was setting for myself? Firstly I realised that there was no way I could add anything to the day to day political discourse. If my play was going to seem fresh, then it had to be incredibly personal. It had to be about how I felt, emotionally about the state of the political nation... and I would have to trust that others listening would connect with that much more emotional approach.
I was also informed by having attended Tony Blair's testimony at the Chilcott Inquiry. I was struck by his repeated question; 'Don't ask me about what I did in 2003 - ask instead about what would be happening in 2010 if I HADN'T taken the country to war in Iraq.'
That hypothetical seemed even more apposite than Mr Blair intended - capable of being turned completely on its head.
So that led me to a science fiction quantum fantasy, laced with satire, and hints of polemic...
...which you can still catch on iPlayer until Friday lunchtime. Hope some of you can catch it... and good luck with your scripts. Should be fun... especially as you know what happened. For three or four days the title of my play - inspired by the Alzheimer's question - became unfomfortably prophetic. In the end, thanks to some wonderful production by Jeremy Mortimer, it was a fantastically satisfying project, and it's wonderful that there is still somewhere on Broadcast Media where the writer is trusted in this extraordinary way.