Thursday, 13 April 2017

Keeping Faith Starts Production ...

It's taken over four years (my producer says nearly five), but the first series of Keeping Faith starts filming next Tuesday April 18th. No press release from the broadcasters yet, so I have to be careful ...

Series one is an eight part crime thriller, warm-hearted, I hope, set in a small South Wales town of the kind most would consider an idyll, untouched by the wickedness of the outside world. They would be wrong, of course ...

The story follows Faith Howells (played by the wonderful Eve Myles), who is a mother of three young children and devoted wife to Evan, (played by her real life husband, Bradley Freegard). Together they run the small law firm set up by Evan's rakish grandfather after the war. When we meet them, Faith is on extended maternity leave and savouring the last precious months of being with her children full time.

Then, one Wednesday morning, Evan leaves for work  and never arrives. Faith's tranquil life is thrown into chaos. The story follows her over the next frantic week as she discovers that there was far more to Evan than she ever imagined ...

The story is set in and around Laugharne, the beautiful small  town, village really, where Dylan Thomas spent his final years. The cast is all Welsh and we're shooting in both Welsh and English - this is a co-production between BBC Wales and S4C. We have a very talented producer/director in Pip Broughton who promises to bring a unique visual style which makes the most of the evocative landscapes.

I've tried to lace the scripts with plenty of humour. Some of my earliest efforts at writing were comedic, and there's some of that here. There's something in Welsh voices - the rise and fall, the inherent music - which cries out for colourful, sometimes heightened dialogue. Eve Myles delivers it with great passion and warmth.

I sneaked a picture at the readthrough this week and below is a shot of Eve Myles, who, miraculously, has learned to speak Welsh during the last six months.

The shoot will take five months for transmission in November. My job is done - now back to writing the novel.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Books and Bookies - A Day On The Road With A Life To Kill

I had a great road trip to Lytham St Anne’s yesterday for a literary lunch hosted by the excellent Plackitt and Booth bookshop in the stylish Gusto restaurant. Guests had an excellent lunch and a copy of A Life to Kill in the price of a ticket. Plackitt and Booth is a wonderful example of an independent bookshop that has risen to the challenge posed by Amazon and organises frequent author events which have become the lifeblood of the publishing industry.
Books only sell by word of mouth, and this is where word spreads – where writers meet readers and exchange thoughts.

As always, the thrill is in meeting new people. Among the many I had the pleasure of speaking to at Lytham were Bill the (nearly) 90 year old author embarking on his next book, and Sam, an entertainer who had spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq with her soldier partner and for whom, I hope, the new book will have special resonance. She says it’ll be the first print book she’s read in years, which is terrific!
Over lunch I talked with Pat, (who runs Plackitt and Booth with his wife, Alison) and Andy Belshaw, who handles sales for Macmillan in the north of England, about what independent bookshops offer that bigger beasts simply can’t. The answer is they can introduce you to books you may not even have thought might interest you. Amazon’s algorithms can offer you something similar to what you have already read, but can never help you make an imaginative leap. Browsing in the best bookshops carries the thrill of the unexpected surprise – the book that leads you into whole new worlds.

On the way home, I squeezed in another talk at the Scribe Literary Festival in Middlewich, Cheshire – a neck of the woods new to me – and found a welcoming audience full of questions and probing interventions, which I love. In the audience and next to speak was a local pathologist, a very cheerful man who told me that a colleague of his thinks dead bodies must exude a sort of chemical that makes pathologists happy and content in their work. From his smiling countenance, I’d say it was working brilliantly … Thank you Rowena Gomersall for inviting me and organising the event.

                                                                 Middlewich, Chesire
On these long treks my pal Richard kindly does the driving and always adds a certain spice to proceedings. When I met him fourteen years ago he was wearing an eyepatch, had shoulder length hair and was fresh from a near-fatal accident in the last private coal mine in the Forest of Dean. He’s done a lot of tunnelling and road building over the years, he’s travelled more than Alan Whicker, frequented the flesh pots and been the wrong side of some cell doors. He is one of the happiest people I know and somehow seems to spend every winter in the tropics (Mexico and Belize this winter). Thanks to budget flights and the ATM, you can draw your pension in Goa or Dangriga, drink and smoke all you like, find a bed for the night (albeit shared with a few bats) and spend your days on the beach and still have change at the end of the week. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Pleased to report he made a decent dent in the William Hill bookies in Lytham, nearly lost it all in Middlewich but won big on a 5/1 and ended the day well up by three figures. We had to mess around with tow rope at midnight to get his car started once we got back to our rendezvous point up a darkened lane at Symonds Yat, but he got her going and I crawled home with dirt under my nails and wondering how me manages to say ‘Hello, Darling, it’s your lucky night,’ or similar, to almost every barmaid, petrol station cashier and hapless passer-by we meet … And they always smile (well, nearly always).
Pics: signing books for the lit lunch and Richard's January in Belize.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Waiting Impatiently ...

Any day soon I will be able properly to mention the TV series I have been working on since 2013 which finally goes into production in April for transmission in November 2017. Not a Jenny Cooper adaptation (hopefully that is happening in Canada - a Canadian company are working on it), but something completely original and written for TV.
I stopped writing TV full time nearly 10 years ago to concentrate on novels. At that time TV drama was very much led by TV executives and there wasn't an awful lot of space for writers to have their heads. As a TV writer the job was to come up with pitches that suited the shopping list of the current commissioners (who change very frequently, and the new ones always bin projects in development). Then along came the Scandi dramas and US shows like Breaking Bad which told slow burn stories over many episodes. They developed characters in ways that TV had failed to do before. Suddenly the television form was resembling the novel and writing was important again. The advent of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon has only cemented this change. TV drama is aspiring again and what audiences are being treated to is the depth of character only writers can deliver - with the help of brilliant producers, directors and actors.
My show has its compromises - I have to answer to a script editor, two producers, two executive producers, distributors and even a French television station which is going to be broadcasting it - but it's a story told over eight episodes which will hopefully come back for a second series and carry on. I've remained faithful to the original concept and had some excellent input from others on the way. There's a large element of collaboration in the process - good TV has a very strong central idea and narrative that belongs to the writer, and others help polish and burnish it.
The moment there's an official press release I'll post some more info and a few pictures that give a flavour of the show and the story. We read through the scripts with the cast on April 10th and start filming April 18th in South Wales.
In the meantime, a few pictures from one of the principal locations - Laugharne, the last home of Dylan Thomas.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Letters Home

At several points in A Life To Kill (and I have to be careful with plot spoilers) I mention letters home from soldiers in Afghanistan. I had learned that many soldiers carried them in their breast pocket so that they would be easily found in the event of their deaths.

I researched these letters and found numerous examples. They were all simply written and full of love. These are probably some of the most truthful documents you will ever find. This link to the BBC website gives a little flavour of the sort of things I was looking at and which I hope I have managed to recreate in the book.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Where Did A Life To Kill Come From? ... Why Writing Is An Act Of Faith

You never quite know where your next good idea for a book or screenplay is going to come from. You can sweat at the desk all you like writing lists of ideas, but it's the one that strikes you unawares that becomes the one that takes light. Try and force things (as we often do in television writing) and out comes something stale, flat and forgettable. 
Before I started writing A Life To Kill I had written outlines for three or four Jenny Cooper novels. They would all have worked on one level, but they weren't setting me alight. I showed them to my publisher, Maria, and I think she felt the same way. She advised me to go off and think about a stand-alone idea that Jenny Cooper could be part of. Somewhere during our conversation I remember her suggesting that perhaps only part of the story should be told from Jenny's point of view.

Maria's steer bamboozled me a bit - my previous six books had all been told from Jenny's point of view - but I let it sit there in my brain while I waited for an idea to strike.

I did what writers do: went to my desk and started trying to force ideas out onto the page. Nothing worked. I worried briefly that the well had run dry, went through one of my not infrequent phases of wondering whether there was any job for a lawyer who hasn't worn his wig in earnest for 20 years, then a little bit of luck, fate or whatever you like to call it came along. 

I describe how the inspiration for A Life To Kill came about in the author's note at the end of the book.
Here's what it says:

A little under two years ago I was due to give a talk at the Bookmark bookshop in Spalding, Lincolnshire, a town on the far side of the country from my home. It involved such a long drive for a brief appearance (and I was to be only one of three writers speaking that evening) that I almost cancelled, but thankfully I stuck to my maxim of ‘turn no opportunity down’. 

When I arrived, late and saucer-eyed from many hours at the wheel, the owner of the shop handed me a note. It had been left for me by one of her customers - someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. His name is Frank Ledwidge. In the academic year 1989-90 we had been at Bar School together in Gray’s Inn, London. I remembered Frank as a friendly and irreverent young man with the stubborn and tenacious streak that all good advocates require. After being called to the Bar he went to practice law in Liverpool, and that is where I assumed he had spent his career.

Frank’s note, apologising for not being able to attend my talk, included his phone number and an invitation to get in touch. I called him the very next day, eager for two decades’ worth of news. It turned out that like me, he had dabbled in the law for a few years before wondering if there was more to life. Unlike me, he had been a member of the Naval Reserve and in the late 1990s spent some time as an observer during the conflict in the Balkans. The experience seemed to light a spark in him. He turned his part-time military career into a permanent one. Soon afterwards, he became part of the futile and evidently often comical effort to detect weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Following Iraq, Frank was deployed to Afghanistan where he ended up in charge of justice in the British occupied territory of Helmand.

To say that his experiences left him less than impressed with the effects of British and US foreign policy would be an under-statement. He emerged disillusioned and critical of politicians and military leaders who failed to understand the complex consequences of their actions on the ground. It would have helped, for example, to understand that many Afghans still bear the British a deep grudge dating back to our previous occupation of that country in the late nineteenth century. To such people, all foreign occupiers, whether British, American or Russian, are one and the same. Frank has written three seminal works of non-fiction based on his personal knowledge and experience, each of which I recommend. They are: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; Punching Above Our Weight: How Inter-Service Rivalry Has Damaged the British Armed Forces, and Investment in Blood.

Frank also introduced me to a young man called Ed, who had recently returned from commanding a platoon in Helmand. Ed gave me a very detailed and candid account of day to day life in a forward command post. Much of what he told me was revelatory. What struck me most powerfully was just how young our front-line soldiers are. Our wars are being fought by teenagers and very young men, who, while they may be technically described as volunteers, are in reality just ordinary lads often from the most challenging and deprived of backgrounds. The officers who command them can be as young as twenty-one.

After a few conversations with Frank and Ed, I knew I had the subject for the next Jenny Cooper novel. Huge thanks to both of them and whoever or whatever brought us together.

I so nearly didn't go to Spalding that night. Frank's note would have remained unclaimed under the counter and there would have been no book and no chance of discovering the characters that sprung from my conversations with both Frank and Ed while researching with them.

That's how it seems to go in writing. You never know what's going to turn up and each new day is an act of faith that you'll have story to tell and the words to tell it with. The book comes out this week - now to have a little faith that readers will like it.

Frank Ledwidge's books are all available on Amazon and at other good books stores. 

If you're ever in Lincolnshire or thinking of ordering a book from a local business, I heartily recommend the excellent Bookmark Bookshop in Spalding. It's a bookshop with coffee shop and reading rooms. Perfect.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Research In The Ring - Busting Your Nose For Art

January 12th sees the publication of A Life To Kill, the seventh novel featuring Coroner, Jenny Cooper.
It's a book that came about by a chance encounter a couple of years ago with an old acquaintance from student days, Frank Ledwidge, who had been in military intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I explain in the author's note at the end of the book, Frank told me about his experiences in these two wars he considered dubious, to say the least, and introduced me to a young infantry officer named Ed who had recently commanded a combat platoon in Helmand.
Talking to Ed, I got an unvarnished insight into the reality of combat for the very young men who fight on the front line. Ed was 25 when he commanded his platoon, his men were mostly aged 18 to 23. The average age of an infantry soldier is 20. What he told me became the raw material and inspiration for the story. The factual details of the living conditions of the soldiers is completely real and straight from the horse's mouth.
I like to research my books as much as I can. Talking to Frank, Ed and others, including a very senior coroner with long experience of conducting the most politically sensitive of military inquests, gave me all the factual information I needed to tell an accurate story. There was still a bit missing, though, which was an insight into the minds of young men who, charged with testosterone, are propelled into violence.
Male aggression is a hard thing to explain to those who have never experienced it for themselves. It's a vital energy that when harnessed and directed can be used to huge creative or destructive effect. Most young men fantasize about violence to some extent, not because they consciously wish to inflict it, but because it's part of the elemental animal make-up. The violent instinct is that which can become career ambition, or sporting talent. It's just energy that manifests in a particular way - and it's strong enough to overcome the fear of injury or even death.
I couldn't go to war, but I could try to tap into the experience of being a 'warrior', albeit one who wasn't going to be shot at. I signed up along with a bunch of lads from Bath and Bristol for an intensive boxing programme that ended with a big tournament in front a crowd in an indoor arena in North Somerset. It was billed as a 'white collar' event, but the few of us with desk jobs were heavily outnumbered by the boys who make their living scaffolding, plastering and myriad other ways of working up a sweat. In amongst them were a few former soldiers (though they still looked like boys to me), who proved another useful source of information.
As soon as we started training, whatever we did for our day jobs ceased to matter. It was all about trying not to get hurt while landing a few. I turned out to be very good at getting hit and spent months sporting black eyes and bruised ribs! It was fun, though, and more than that, absolutely exhilarating. To my surprise, even at 46 I had plenty of violence left in me, and during the months of training it found an outlet in boxing: I have never felt calmer or more at ease with the world than during that period. Ed had said to me that there something almost 'zen' about the experience of being a soldier in a forward command post for six months. I began to understand what he meant: everything came into sharp focus. All other cares fell away. Preparation for a big fight in front of a crowd and the feeling of physical fitness and competence that came with it channeled all that churning male aggression into a pure stream. Life had clarity and purpose; the destructive urges which in normal life are a disruptive influence and a disturbance to the psyche found their expression and created, dare I say it, an inner sense of nobility, the like of which I hadn't known before.
There was, strange as it may sound, peace in the middle of this structured violence. There was also a great camaraderie. Except when we were busting each others' noses, we pugilists couldn't have felt more warmly towards one another. All barriers fell away and we became firm friends.
Fight night was a thrill. Terror followed by the adrenalin rush of walking through the crowd accompanied by pounding music into the ring. The punches flew but we didn't feel a thing. I was pipped on points (alright, he kept jabbing me in the nose, and now it's permanently bent), but it was without doubt the most exciting evening I've ever had.
I came away with a bunch of new and perhaps unlikely friends with whom I've stayed in touch, and with a far deeper understanding of myself and of the nature and positive potential of the violent impulses that grip and drive so many of us. There's no question that the experience was invaluable in informing my writing and helped in the creation of many of the the characters who appear in the book - some of whom are even named after my boxing buddies. (Will they read it and find their names? I hope so!)
As for the young soldiers, I feel nothing but sympathy and admiration for them. There's an exchange in the book about the fact that soldiers are volunteers, with the implication that they must accept the consequences. A bereaved family member questions what it means for an unformed teenage boy to 'volunteer'. The soldiers we put in harm's way are lads from the poorest homes and the roughest areas. Many are simply looking for order, structure and a means of channeling that aggression that so can easily become self destructive.
If you get a chance to read the book, I do hope you enjoy it. Here are a few pics from the night of the fight that marked the end of the physical aspect of my research. I'd happily do it all over again!