Screenwriting (5)


Mrs Johns had just started teaching my elder 2 sons at primary school and she had twin boys the same age (3) as my youngest. One day I was dropping him off at Stutton Seals Playgroup when I saw a well-dressed man escorting his kids in; to see any man at Stutton Seals was marked something of a turnup. It was Mr Johns and we got talking, there in the preschool, prefab playground. He was a film producer – and not just someone who liked to say they’re a film producer; he was actually producing a film right now, a horror movie shot in Suffolk. If a screenwriter bumps into a film producer in London, it’s just par for the course; when it happens in Suffolk, it’s got to be fate.

He told me he had a source of funding in the Northeast and was looking for movies that could be shot there on a budget. Did I have anything along these lines? Well, it happened that I did – the first movie I ever wrote, now called Liability (it acquired a ‘The’ somewhere along the line): a hitman and his unwitting apprentice on the A1.

Things moved fast. I sent him a treatment in January; by December the same year we were shooting, with a cast including Tim Roth and Jack O’Connell.

My eldest son, then aged 10, accompanied me on the train to Newcastle when I went up to visit the set. On the way, we played card games; The Guardian had issued a pamphlet of them and my son wanted to learn them all.

By the time we’d been picked up and driven to an executive home north of the city, the (interior) location for the day, it had started to snow. As luck would have it, we were just in time to see Peter Mullen improvising 6 back-to-back, expletive-laden takes of a scene of domestic violence. I was in a dilemma, having my 10 year old there. But it was really snowing now. I couldn’t put him out in the cold. I told him that this was drama – and people occasionally swore a lot. He was more interested in learning Shithead*.

The female lead in The Liability was played by Talulah Riley, of St Trinian’s fame. She was married to Elon Musk at the time – but about to get a divorce, which may be why she sought out a film that was shooting 6,000 miles distant from LA. The divorce went thru in 2012; the following year, she and Musk remarried – only to divorce again in 2016.

She spent the next morning talking to my son, who was – I think – a little smitten. Or maybe that’s just what a screenwriter would say.

* A card game.

Screenwriting (4)


My script for Costa Brava in turn became a writing sample and it was sent to Miriam Segal, who summoned me to the tiny office of her production company in Queen’s Park and talked to me about her idea for a soap-like tv drama set in Ayia Napa. My lack of enthusiasm was perhaps too evident, so conversation moved on, over subsequent meetings, to her colleague Tony Dennis’s idea about a Jamaican who comes to London to investigate the death of his wife, whose taxi-driver dad he reluctantly teams up with. Why me? could have been my answer (I did live in Dalston, at the time…). But I was a can-do screenwriter. I thought of something to say.

I wrote a first draft of Prince’s Kingdom (NOT my idea for a title. A prince would have a principality, surely?). In time, it worked its way up the BBC. (It must have been 2001 by now because it was Tony Dennis who rang me one Monday morning, when I was at home looking after my 7-month-old son, and told me that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Centre.)

Word came back that the BBC would commission if we could cast as the taxi driver one of a list of three: David Jason, Warren Clarke or David Suchet, then riding high in the Trollope adaptation The Way We Live Now. We met Suchet at a club in Shaftesbury Avenue and the only thing I remember him saying was that he didn’t want his character to swear at all, which bearing in mind he was a taxi driver, wasn’t necessarily the obvious response. Tho it could have been interesting…

We went on, encouraged – until the moment when Suchet starred in a new, modern-day series on the BBC: NCS Manhunt. It didn’t do well. The word came down: David Suchet was henceforth only castable in period drama. And that was that.

But by then I apparently got on well with Miriam, who ran the production company, and she asked me if I’d ever seen a play called Good – which, amazingly, I had! (With Alan Howard at the Aldwych in 1982, only because my father didn’t want to. I was 18.) So that’s why Good – 18 drafts later – became my first produced screenplay…

Screenwriting (3)

The thing about me was that I could have a go at any screenplay (beyond sci-fi), so when my agent received an unusual request, she tended to say: one for John Wrathall. That was how I met Lodewijk Crijns, a young Dutch director who specialised in making fake documentaries, including Lap Rouge, one about 2 Dutch brothers living a hand-to-mouth existence in the South of France. He wanted to direct a film following a group of English boys aged 16 to the Costa Brava – and watching them fall apart.

At the meeting, I suggested Essex as a good place to audition schoolboys, and – hey presto! – the next thing I knew he was there, staying with his producer and an assistant in the next village. We toured Essex secondary schools – and selected 5 boys from places like South Woodham Ferrers and Hockley.

When I first met him, Lodewijk had long hair but to be ‘proper’ for visiting schools he had had it cut short, which looked quite odd with his 2 silver earrings. In Brentwood, the 4th or 5th school we’d been to, he was feeling cocky, used to the system of making a speech to assorted 16 year olds and filming those who were interested. But he attracted sniggers. Was it because of his odd, Dutch accent.

Actually, no. I’d heard them chatting.

I said, in a whisper: They think you look like Gary Glitter!

But Dutch people, it turned out, didn’t know him. I explained that he was a 70s glam rocker.

⁃ So, that’s good?
⁃ Well…

I explained to him that Gary Glitter, at that very moment, was on trial for having child pornography on his computer…

Lodewijk went quiet.

Luckily, he has a warped sense of humour. But he’s admitted that ever since, he’s never felt totally at ease in a school with 16-year-olds.

Screenwriting (2)

In the spirit of Blue Peter, 3 ‘options’ went – in 1998 – to scripts I had prepared earlier. One was a screenplay all about the Gunpowder Plot, to which I’d added a love story (in the spirit of La Reine Margot, which I’d loved); I optioned it to a new company called Mogirl (geddit?).

Another was an option on the first script I ever wrote, called – over the years – Chillout (there was a rave scene in the script), Bank Holiday and Hope’s End. This was designed to be a first feature: a hitman and his driver, on the road north. I was paid for a year’s option and a rewrite but I must have been feeling confident because I blew most of the fee on a trip to Sicily, where I stayed on an organic kiwi-fruit farm on the slopes of Mount Etna. Each morning there was a thick layer of volcanic ash on the car, which must have helped with the kiwi fruit. I wrote till 2 while Matthew (of Room For Doubt fame) drove to see Roman mosaics; in the afternoon he’d come back and we’d set off for Taormina or Catania to have supper. It was the only time I’ve gone away specifically to write – and it (sort of) paid off. Thirteen years later, the script was filmed – after many more rewrites and a new producer – as The Liability, the movie I was preparing to introduce when the stroke happened.

The last option for that year was for a screenplay about a lunch hour, in real time. It was called Out To Lunch.

But the piece de resistance was a commission for a brand new movie, the result of a pitch to Working Title. When I was 7 I’d been to Orkney and had the official BEST HOLIDAY EVER (basically because my Dad actually stayed for the entire 2 weeks instead of being lured back early for the inevitable ‘office crisis’ – which apparently happened in August every year). Earlier in 98 I’d been back there, with my wife, and had seen again the Italian Chapel, built by POWs. It gave me an idea…

So I was writing for Working Title, the UK’s closest answer to a studio. On the strength of that, I was invited to the company’s Christmas writers’ drink. John Cusack was there because he was writing (and would star in) High Fidelity. But I wasn’t going to talk to him – I was much too insecure. Instead I talked to a middle-aged accountant who drew up budgets; she’d presumably popped in for a quick drink after work. Amazingly, I had something grownup to talk about: an offer I’d just made on a terraced house in North Essex (it was our 2nd home – and the one I still have now, where I’m sitting writing this, 20 years later, with the front door open onto the green…). She also had a 2nd home and as we chatted about how nice North Essex was and how easy it would be to go down there after a busy week’s work writing screenplays, I could almost think – at 36, while glancing at John Cusack – that I belonged.


Screenwriting (part 1)

In 1997 I wrote a short film, Magic Moments, which actually got made. By then I’d been writing (unpaid) screenplays for 5 years, getting a little better each year. The short was shot in Glasgow just as Tony Blair was elected and I duly thought, in tune with the D:Ream anthem: Things Can Only Get Better!
I got an agent (thanks to Vadim Jean and my own ingenuity) and in the first year, 1998, she sent out my work to everyone, with the result that I got 5 commissions. The first was a Kavanagh QC, which turned out to be a spare quickie in case another script, by a better, more established writer, didn’t arrive. But of course they didn’t tell me that. The morning after I delivered it, I was so excited to get a phonecall from Chris Kelly (the producer and ALSO the presenter of the ITV’s Clapperboard!) that I got out of the shower and took the call in the kitchen, wrapped in a towel. Only to be told that the better-known writer HAD delivered after all; mine was mothballed. Less than 24 hours ago I had still been putting the finishing touches to the script, dreaming of the BAFTA it might win… Now it was scrapped.
Kelly cheerfully put the phone down, leaving me dripping. I went for a forced march along what I called the Woodland Walk but was in fact (inappropriately) called the Parkland Walk, an ex-railway line. (In those days we lived in a top-floor flat in what estate agents called ‘the Miltons’: the Bermuda Triangle between Archway, Highgate and Crouch End.)
On the plus side, however, I got paid: £7,000 for one month’s work!
I thought this turn of events was just beginner’s bad luck. It turned out to be an accurate guide to my future career…


The Lakes

In The Lakes I was put on anti-psychotic medicine by Dr Agharwal, the consultant psychiatrist who wore a good suit and drove a BMW. What happened was, every Friday morning he’d come and the patients would see him and about 4 or 5 others. We’d each get an allotted 10 minutes.

Showers were a problem. I couldn’t get in and out of a bath without my bath bench, and – shit happens – the disabled shower was blocked. I could shower for about 2 minutes before it flooded. I tried so say this to the mental health nurses, and they said I could have some help showering. But the way they said it, I worried it would be Frances Farmer-being-hosed-down time: the cliche of a mental ward.

So on Friday I thought I’d speak to the psychiatrist about it – the top man. I said I hadn’t been able to wash properly for weeks and was worried that I smelt. He looked at me (long greasy hair) and by reflex referred to his interior list – delusion that he smells bad: tick. And so he just prescribed the antipsychotic medicine. Next please…

Even then, I knew that wasn’t what I needed. I needed a bath, for Christ’s sake! But at that stage I just gave up again and took the medicine.

Mercifully, he wasn’t there next week and his deputy, a Chinese-origin man who at least LISTENED, thought better of it and dropped the antipsychotic. I remember telling M (a friend who’s also a psychotherapist) about it when he came to visit and he knew I wasn’t psychotic. Just deeply, deeply depressed.

Other psychiatrists mentions the various stresses that contribute to psychosis. The Lakes COULD be a good thing for patients who just wanted a holiday. I’ve heard about alcoholics who’d go in there just because the abstinence thing is taken care of. They no longer have to DECIDE not to drink.

But for me, The Lakes was not good. It was set up for mentally challenged but physically able people, but it wasn’t AT ALL set up for the physically challenged. Take the kitchen: I could get in there and make a cup of tea, just about. But I couldn’t get out! I’d have my left hand holding the cup and the walking stick, my useless right hand in my pocket – and no hand to pull the door open; it only opened INWARDS. I’d have to wait until someone came in the other way. So I’d have my cup of tea and would just stand there indefinitely, sipping the tea and burning my mouth, because what else was I going to do?

I was there for 2 months.


I’ve been thinking about Charlie and his progress from community jazz worker in the 80s to manager in the 90s (The Afghan Whigs!) to ME sufferer in the next decade to university lecturer in the next. That year, when he worked at Community Music, I must have asked is he knew any drummers. He suggested a teenager called Jan Kincaid. We (singer/guitarist, bassist – and me on my Wurlitzer electric piano) ‘auditioned’ him at a rehearsal place in Wapping. It didn’t take long. He was about 16 – and a thousand times better than us.
Someone asked him what he liked.
He said: Jazz funk.
We scratched our heads and said goodbye. (And soon split up.) But I always remembered his name. He was GOOD.
About 5 years later, I saw the Brand New Heavies on Top Of The Pops and recognised him. And went: Aha…
By then I’d given up music. I knew it was no use…


In the last summer holiday before I had the stroke, my middle son was extremely into The Beatles. He was 9, and choosing audiobooks from the library for a long drive north, he – rather oddly – chose Philip Norman’s biography of John Lennon, on (I think) 16 CDs. (Another audiobook we chose on the journey – for the ‘adults’ turn’ – was Ed Reardon’s Diary, giving rise to the 9-year-old’s comment: ‘Dad, you sound just like Ed Reardon.’)

The biography certainly made a change from Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books (better than Fleming, if you ask me), but it was quite detailed. Eventually, we got onto Lennon’s teenage years – and the expression ‘getting off at Edge Hill’, meaning coitus interruptus, Edge Hill being the last stop before the Liverpool terminus at Lime Street. This was over my middle son’s head.

Yesterday he happened to be in Liverpool giving a concert with his choir. He’s 16 next week and I texted him a ‘getting off at Edge Hill’ reference. He replied, but not to the joke. Maybe it’s still obscure to him.

In 2012 we’d spent a week with my parents at a farm in Staffordshire (we saw the opening ceremony of the London Olympics there) and then drove from Youth Hostel to Youth Hostel, up to one in the middle of Hadrian’s Wall. I’d been to the Wall once before, on a school trip at 13. Then, we walked from Carlisle to Newcastle, camping on the way. I was nervous and when, the first night, someone had a stomach ache and was whisked away in the night to a hospital, my only thought was: thank god it wasn’t me. It was my first year at senior school and failure was very much on my mind.

The weather in 1977 was great and en route along the Wall we stopped at a farm and drank water from an outside tap. Looking down, I saw a bucketful of water. It was full of puppies, recently drowned.

We had a dog – a cocker spaniel – and, being 13, I wasn’t quite pubescent. I loved the dog – and the thought of ANY puppies being drowned and just left there, without even a proper burial… Well… I don’t suppose I cried, being on school trip, but I wanted to.

I made it to Newcastle, where I bought donuts for 2p, I remember. Very cheap, even for 1977. A little more confidence had been gained. But going up the stone steps at school again, the English teacher I liked complimented me on my rosy complexion, rather creepily, and I always mistrusted him afterwards.

Lost (1956)

Aka Tears For Simon and 999 Scotland Yard – increasingly tabloid titles is never the sign of a film that’s done well.
An 18-month-old baby is kidnapped by Kensington Gardens (cue some ropey script observations about Peter Pan). There are similarities to the same year’s infinitely superior The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Drably directed by Guy Green, an excellent cinematographer (4 films for David Lean) but a jack-of-all-trades director (I’ve seen Sea Of Sand, The Angry Silence and The Magus and they’re nothing to write home about).
Three reasons to see this: the performance of David Farrar as the cop investigating; the cinematography of Harry Waxman in Eastman Color (he also did Sapphire, Twisted Nerve and The Wicker Man); and lots of London locations.
The routine script is by Janet Green (no relation) who did the snatched-from-the-headlines scripts of Sapphire and Victim (in the latter capacity she was also a character in a recent Radio 4 drama). In both of those she had a better director in Basil Dearden. Here the headline is: ‘Can a career woman be a mother as well?’
But she has a good way with a sarcy comment from the supporting women, who include Barbara Windsor, Joan Sims and Thora Hird (women’s roles are upped with her involvement).
Alas, the main woman – Vienna-born Julia Arnall – is pretty dire, with her awkward Austrian-crossed-with-Rank-charm-school accent.
Equally bad (tho surprisingly top billed with Farrar) is the husband, American David Knight, who previously made a couple of obscure Anthony Asquith movies.


In Crete, my eldest son swimming in the pool… He made friends with a little Greek girl who was in the next apartment… He was reading Charlie Higson’s The Enemy… We played backgammon in the café at Chania… Going for a long walk and finding a little hermit’s retreat, built into the rock. And later on the same walk, hearing rifle shots very near and running for our lives… My middle son, who wasn’t a very adventurous eater, compiling the ‘Rough Guide’ to Cretan meatballs, having them for every meal and rating them out of 10…

On the morning we were going to fly back, a volcano had erupted at Eyjafjallajökul in Iceland and filled the air with ash. We waited at the airport until the word came: no flights. A hotel on the outskirts of Heraklion was taken out of mothballs and put at the passengers’ disposal. But it wasn’t very nice. We were one family to one room. The swimming pool was green.

After one night, I reckoned the ash wouldn’t clear for some time, so I went exploring. While the kids watched a Dwayne Johnson movie in the foyer, I walked alone up the beach, working on the theory that sooner or later there’d be a better hotel. It was April and many were still shut. But far down the beach I could see deck chairs. A hotel was open…

I walked on and on. It seemed to be an optical illusion: it kept being just as far away. At last I got close – only to find: a river coming out onto the beach, between the hotel and me! By now I’d been walking at least an hour and I didn’t want to turn back. My family were depending on me. At least that’s what I told myself. I waded in, right up to my waist, and all the way across. I dried off on a deckchair. And then I went into the hotel and negotiated a rate, a day before the rest of the stranded passengers descended.

It was a 5-star hotel that was next to a cement works. But it was nice enough. My wife and the kids hung out by the pool, where my middle son cracked his head open on the side of the paddling pool and had to be sewn up. I worked. For 4 hours each morning I was transported to Botswana for a screenplay I was giving a last polish to…

Later, after I got home, I delivered said screenplay – only for the producers to go quiet. I thought about suing to get my last 3rd of the first-draft money; I looked into it. But apparently to sue someone in LA I’d have to have an LA lawyer and it didn’t seem worth the struggle. Another project came along and I forgot all about it.

This story has a happyish ending, though. Five years later, when I was 2 years post stroke, I got paid. The LA producers had teamed up with another set of British producers who wanted to tell exactly the same story – and it had been made. They used the other guy’s script – but I had to be paid, 5 years on, just to cross the ’t’s.

When I finally saw the film on tv, I thought they’d have been better off using mine. But Rosamund Pike wore some nice 40s dresses.