The Pitlochry Play #1: the sound of water

I’m here in Pitlochry, land of Pitlochry Festival Theatre and much, much more. Today’s day 3 of my playwrighting residency at the theatre and I’m rolling around like a pig in poo at the luxury of all this writing space and thinking time.

I’m not here to share anything about my “process” with you, but I can’t keep all this to myself, so I thought you would like a local waterfall.

It’s great to watch in real life (not so amazing in my rushed wee film from my August holiday here), but it’s stunning to listen to. Sound and water are featuring heavily in the project so far; trees and mountains are too, but let’s save that for another day.

Let me introduce you to the fantastic, the inimitable, the one and only: Black Spout:

Black Spout waterfall, Pitlochry, Aug. ’19

May You Live In Interesting Times: a new age of political TV drama?

Ah, those old Chinese curses, eh?

A couple of years back, I was pitching a TV drama-comedy idea to a really cracking producer. We were both excited (I think!) about the central character – an unseated MP thrown into my old work world of lobbying, with all its grey shades and the implications for her previously stable world view. We laughed. And then we sighed.

“Broadcasters are shy of political drama,” she said. “It’s a hard sell.”

Ho, ho, ho.

I grew up in the ’80s – politics was everywhere on TV. A sixth-former watching the BBC’s House of Cards while Maggie Thatcher’s world fell about her. Spitting Image was the weekly treat (I say, “treat”; more like a 5-foot high trifle and a diving board).

Last week, you might have caught Channel 4’s Brexit. It had both an excellent cast and the level of quality that made you (well, me, at least) hungry for more. (You can watch it free online til early February.) There was a great deal of excitement generated both before and after and much to enjoy: the personalising of the players; the fictionalised insight of protagonist Dominic Cummings, the “Leave” Campaign Director, whose frustrations we were encouraged to share.

It was like having a giant iron door unlocked, so we could peer inside the machinery of Westminster’s Brexit campaigns, eyebrows raised or knotted as we watched this cog catch on that ratchet, while those levers went up and down for no obvious reason whatsoever. That’s what good political drama does – turn the abstract into the relatable: we all do silly things.

But does C4’s Brexit herald a”new age of political drama”? As a career-politico-turned-scriptwriter, of course I want that to be true. But the wise producer’s note of caution rings hard in my ear. Broadcasters are in tough times, competing with US and European content, and both born of different financial models.

Den of Geek’s superb run through 2019’s TV drama highlights shows that although – like 2018’s – 2019’s dramas tackle inherently political issues (the porn industry, poverty, the care and justice systems, NHS, inequality, globalisation…), the political system itself isn’t taking front and centre.

But even if British audiences lose all appetite for tales about democratic processes or political deal-making, our need for stories of politics’ on-the-ground human impact remains as hungry as ever .


No new stories? Then you’re never alone!

Way, way back, many moons ago, I spent a disproportionate amount of my degree studying fairy tale, folk lore, myth and language. A very lucky soul, I was.

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Morgan Le Fay, Frederick Sandys, 1863/4, Birmingham Museums & Gallery

I ended up examining  the evolution of one character in particular – Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s half-sister. A powerful woman in every version of the tale, she morphed from pre-Christian tri-partite fertility goddess (Celtic Morrigan), to an evil, conniving force of darkness. Over the centuries, society’s attitudes to women changed, as Christianity spread, and as things like the Marian Cult of the Virgin Mary took hold in scriptoriums (remember, back in the day, the monks were the publishing houses!).

And so, as Christian men took over, the earth-mother became a demoness. The other significant woman in Arthurian legend, Guinevere, herself changes during the story from sweet virgin to unfaithful wife.

As my own tale morphs and grows, and I constantly learn about the importance of story-making and -telling, I’m reminded again and again how, fundamentally, stories are universal.  No matter the surface differences between Peppa Pig, Greta Expectations and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a closer look will find the parallels: regardless of age or culture, we all want and need our story medicine – we just take it from different bottles.

So if there’s nothing new under the sun, that should remind us: our tribe is always out there.

  • As a writer, that might goad you to keep writing. You’re not doing it for you – it’s for the people who need that story.
  • As a reader/viewer, remember to try some new stuff, regularly and not just on the screen. Just as your own tale keeps growing, so others are sharing theirs for you to enjoy.

And as the changing depiction of Morgan showed how “society” (the story writers and publishers, reflecting an increasingly male-led world) viewed women who had power, so our stories reflect the way we want our world to be, and how it is. Which means, ultimately, that if we don’t say it, publish it, produce it, watch or read it, it canot be heard. 

For those who like delving deeper in such things, both TV Tropes and the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Fable Index can lose you several hours down the rabbit holes of linking themes, motifs, lessons and characters….Just remember to come back!