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The Warp

Writer vs Director


Writer vs Director

In the world of media studies, both ‘Cathy Come Home’ and the television film that Ken made from Nell’s book ‘Up the Junction’ have been presented as significant because, so some have claimed, for the first time the programmes are ‘director led’ rather than ‘writer led’.

They are also seen as significant because they are both important in the move away from studio based drama towards film based drama. ‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Cathy Come Home’ are both evolutionary hybrids in that context with both having some scenes done in the studio and some on film.

Certainly the balance of power seems to have shifted a long way since those times when Bernard Shaw was able to override his director (producer) and himself stride onto the stage to show the cast how it should be done, and this letter is about some thoughts I’ve had about this.

I have been told tales of writers these days being locked out of the theatre during rehearsals of their plays and the story is told as a joke, and the radio producer Sean McCloughlin, who had been a TV script editor, tells me how it was looked on as a script editor’s job to keep a writer happy during rehearsals. In one case a writer was objecting increasingly to what was being done to his play and Sean’s manipulative solution was to take him to the pub and get him drunk.

If writers are the unacknowledged legislators of their time, as Shelley called them, the increasing power of the director does not necessarily facilitate communication between a writer and society.

It can do so. One writer whose work one always first thinks of in terms of the author rather than the director is Dennis Potter. Many people feel his directors served him well and that his message was blunted when, in ‘Black Eyes’, he directed himself. (I don’t actually agree with this – I love ‘Black Eyes’.)

By temperament, writers are usually more introvert and directors more extravert. Writers often have quite a strong degree of British reticence and a desire not to be seen to be blowing their own trumpet. Directors often have no such inhibitions! Directors are that much closer into the management structure and hence are closer in to the film or television companies’ publicity machine and ethos. I remember Asheton Gorton, who did art direction for ‘Blow Up’, saying how in his experience directors always tried to ‘diminish’ a writer’s credit and ideally would wish to give the writer no credit at all.

An example of the negative effect a director can have can be found by comparing the film version of ‘Up the Junction’ with the Ken Loach television version. Most people would agree that Peter Collinson’s insertion of a story line in the film version is vastly unsuccessful, taking the project back into that cliché ridden mould which the Loach version and the book provided an escape from.

In my own case, I’d say that Ken Loach enhanced the qualities of ‘Cathy Come Home’. In my next play ‘Edna, the Inebriate Woman’, Ted Kotcheff did wonders with the dramatic element but weakened, disempowered and invalidated its social message. He (and the producer, Irene Shubik) did not realise the importance of various techniques which I’d already successfully introduced in ‘Cathy’ and persuaded me to exclude them. Still in a third play by me, ‘Smiling David’, which had already been on radio in a powerful production, the direction by Phillip Saville was so extremely insensitive and wide of the mark that I asked for the production to be discontinued.

‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Cathy Come Home’ may mark the end of a writer led tradition and the beginning of a director led tradition but they are also hybrids in this area as well. In both of them it could be claimed, I believe, that as in the Dennis Potter plays, it is the writer’s name that our viewers think of first, before that of the director, and both are plays in which the writer has made a large and unusual contribution.

One thing you don’t mention is the success that ‘Up the Junction’ had already had, and continues to have, as a book. The vividness and verisimilitude of its language, its presentation of manual class lasses who go out of an evening actively seeking sexual frissons, of families which are matriarchal because the menfolk are so often in prison, the wonderfully observed presentation of ‘ordinary’ people, burst into a literary world where the privileged classes still ruled much of the cultural roost and immediately claimed its place in literature, as it still does, both as a sociological document and for its poetry.

The television version of ‘Up the Junction’ wonderfully captures the qualities Nell put into the book. You write of Loach and Garnett’s perception that the structure of Dunn’s text should reflect the on-going nature of the life-struggle and context she had depicted; ‘the radical revision of form in Loach and Garnett’s “Up the Junction” was its determination to present a vision of ‘life’ caught ‘on the very wing,’ you write.

However, this does not take on board that while from Loach and Garnett’s point of view it was a discovery, from Nell’s point of view it was there already. The ‘authorial voice’ of Nell is strong. I think all the particular qualities you find in the TV play are already there in the book and are as exploratory and innovatory in terms of the book medium as they later were when Loach and Garnett transferred them to television.

In ‘Cathy’ too, the author’s voice is strong. The film is based on years of research and on experiences I had and on a crusading mission I was mounting. I chose most of the locations, and tape recordings made by me are used throughout the film. Of what other play or other film, whether director or writer led, could this be said? Some, very few, scenes are improvised, often from ideas supplied by the author on the set.

The director sometimes intrudes too much, I believe. Scenes which could have been suggested at script conference were instead improvised on location and are of a less high standard, I believe, than the majority of the scenes which were written directly by me.

One critic once wrote that television drama moved from author led to director led when Cathy speaks over the heads of the homeless hostel committee, directly to camera, to us, the viewers, with her ‘Runts ... haven’t you got homes of your own ...’ invective. It’s a powerful moment in the film and it was intended by me, from the moment I wrote it, to be shot like that, and I remember explaining it to Ken at a script conference.

That critic saw it as a director’s moment but (and this shows how this sort of view can be dangerous because the director/author roles do overlap) it is actually an author’s moment.

The author’s voice is strong. What other play ever has been accompanied, as ‘Cathy’ was, by a national newspaper ten page series in which the author gives the stories and statistics on which his/her play was based?

What other is accompanied, as ‘Cathy’ was, by a 20,000 word essay (in the novelisation, published by Pan) doing the same thing? (Of course, Bernard Shaw did do just that). Or has an author who is on the TV later that night in a current affairs chat show defending and proselytising for his/her play; or appearing on the major current affairs programme of its time, the David Frost Show, defending and proselytising in front of some twenty local authority employees?

This is, I hope, not an ego trip. Films and plays don’t ‘belong’ and are not created by any one person but by everyone who is in them. But both plays, I believe, could equally be described as author led or director led. Perhaps their enduring strength is there just because the role of both writer and director in each case are both of them so strong?

I believe it is most important to realise that there may be a more sinister reason for the media choosing to celebrate the importance of the director rather than that of the writer. In a medium whose message is becoming increasingly bland it is a way of disempowering the writer.

By focussing on the style of the direction it is possible to diminish or pervert the message of the author to his/her public, thus suiting fine the hidden agenda of the media kleptocracy who like to keep things non-controversial.


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