Sunday, 20 July 2014

Something Miss-ing

Years ago, an acquaintance of mine, who was an expert in botany and worked for the forestry commission, went to see the 1966 Oscar-winning film A Man For All Seasons starring Paul Scofield. The story, for the historignorami among you, is about Sir Thomas More, who, on a matter of principle, defied King Henry VIII and was executed for his pains.

Early in the film my friend muttered to his wife that a certain tree in the background of one of the outdoor scenes had not been introduced to England in the sixteenth century. From that moment on, he lost interest in the film; because the setting was so obviously fake to his eyes, there was no point to the story.

I was vaguely amused to hear of his reaction. Surely such minor points faded into insignificance when set against the majesty - I use the word with care - of the film? Couldn't he see the much greater tragedy of a noble character brought low by principle?

Decades later, that anecdote came back to me in the first few minutes of the television screening of The Woman in Black, starring Daniel don't-mention-Harry-Potter Radcliffe as young lawyer Arthur Kipps at the turn of the 20th century. Firstly, it seemed to me that the drawings of Radcliffe's four-year-old son were too contemporary in both depiction (what they showed) and medium (the crayons used). Shortly afterwards, I cringed as Radcliffe's boss (the usually reliable Roger Allam) uttered the words "this firm doesn't carry passengers" - a phrase which has only entered the language in the last twenty years or so. The death blow for my enjoyment was dealt by the death certificate in Kipps' hand, which referred to a Ms. Jennet Humfye.

Ms? Ms?! Ms???!!! The appellation is a 1970s invention. Until that point unmarried women were always designated Miss (and a few of the older generation still insist on that term). If you are going to spend all that money on recreating a sense of the past, I silently shouted at the screen (the Other Half was sitting next to me and I didn't want to disturb his concentration, plus I doubted that my words, even at full volume, would somehow penetrate the tv and make their way through space and time to the set designers who put this film together)... If you are going to spend all that money on recreating a sense of the past, do it properly. Take pride in your work. Get someone who has a little more education than you have to check what you are doing. Has no-one taught you that Ms is relatively new? What did they teach you at school? Didn't your natural curiosity lead you discover that basic fact of etiquette by the time you reached puberty? Or have you not reached puberty yet?

That was the point at which I gave up on the film. From then on I was distracted by almost everything I saw. Why, I wondered, was the village set high in the Yorkshire Dales and yet somehow only a short distance from the flat sea? Why, when Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds) was driving the Rolls did his hands move unrealistically up and down on the steering-wheel as in old films when the car was so obviously set in the studio? Why was there a modern "First Aid Emergency" sign at the railway station? Why, when Kipps, his wife and child were walking along the railway tracks, had they suddenly shrunk to dwarf-size? Why was Radcliffe's acting so wooden? Whoever heard of finding a large cemetery attached to a country house? Why . . . ?

Oh never mind what else was wrong. The only conclusion I drew from The Woman in Black was that Something was Miss-ing, and it wasn't just fear and suspense.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Still here

Ouch! I see it's been almost two months since I last posted here. My excuse? My reason? (depending on your point of view)  Real life. Other priorities. Whatever. Theatre-wise I have been rehearsing and promoting Desire and Pursuit. Work-wise I have been spending as much time as I can - which is much less than I should - on my book business. Life-wise I am in the middle of a year-long move to Edinburgh, which includes sorting out and moving the contents of my and my partner's home as well as the homes of elderly relatives. Amidst all these obligations maintaining a blog becomes a luxury that time seldom allows.

I'm here today to change my profile. Out goes the announcement of the run of Desire and Pursuit at the Etcetera Theatre in London which finished last week. (Aside: how do I turn off these annoying red lines which insist that "Amidst" and "Theatre" are not words? - oh, give me an intelligent Brit as a programmer and not an ignorant American...) Which leaves only the announcement of the Edinburgh Fringe run in August. What I will put in its place when that run comes to an end? Well, there's a profound question.

I am tiring of my involvement in theatre production. While I enjoy the heady sensation of seeing my works brought to life - especially when the actors bring out subtleties that I hadn't noticed or intended - and I welcome the regular and apparently unfeigned praise from audiences known and unknown to me, I am no longer willing to throw away time and money on projects which give so little return. By which I mean (a) critical acclaim, (b) large audiences, (c) money.

The reviews that have come in have ranged from indifferent to high praise. I don't mind the former - they confirm my belief that my works are not for everyone and it is generally the younger and less educated who are unimpressed by what they see. What really disappoints me is the fact that the reviewers are all self-appointed, a function of the world we live in, in which anyone with access to a computer can opine on anything, irrespective of their understanding of the issue. Even the most intelligent review is worth little if it is not read, which means that the only critics whose opinion really matters are those attached to the national dailies: the Lyn Gardners and Charles Spencers of this world. I have tried - oh, how I have tried, to get them to come to my plays to tell me how they loved or hated them, but to no avail.

The audiences. Yes, it's wonderful when theatregoers I have never met shower praise on me after the production, when I'd rather they waited until I had to cleared the stage and had a drink in my hand. And the more compliments they want to shower on me, the happier I will be. But when the total audience is limited to two or three or five or six people the impact of such compliments quickly fades. Tell your friends, I say to my new-found fans. Tweet, FB, blog, whatever, if you think these plays are as good as you tell me they are. Of course we will, they say, and of course they don't. So audiences remain small

as does the income from them. At the moment those of us investing in our productions are getting back about 15% of our money. That means we are losing 85%. After two years of such losses, I have come to the point at which I tell myself my ego is not so fragile that it needs to be constantly massaged by praise from the small numbers who see my plays. More important, I cannot afford such a drain on my bank balance. It's time to switch off the tap.

All of this means that unless there is some miracle in Edinburgh - ideally two or three influential reviewers come early in the run and gives the production such high praise that we are sold out for the rest of the week - Desire and Pursuit is likely to be the last of my work to see light of stage. It's been interesting, it's sometimes been fun, but it looks as if it's time to move on and away.