Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Boy From Brazil

 The cover of the Eastern Daily Press "Weekend" supplement for May 3rd 2014, promoting the tie-in feature I wrote for them.

It was back in April last year, before I’d even done much work on what was to become Far From the Fogs, that my boss David suggested that for my next documentary project, we should tackle the story of the racing driver Ayrton Senna’s connections to Norfolk, where he spent much of his early career.

With the 20th anniversary of Senna’s death on the 1st of May 1994 approaching, it seemed an obvious and fitting one for us to do. Indeed, credit for the original idea must go to my colleague Edd Smith, who had first pitched the notion of such a programme for the anniversary some time before this. For whatever reason, I ended up being the one asked by David to make it, which has ended up being a fairly extraordinary experience.

The first bit of work was done last summer, when David went to interview Martin Brundle about his new book, and took me along with him so that I could also record an interview for the documentary, about his famous battle with Senna for the 1983 British F3 championship. But most of the work has been done since January, recording interviews with those who worked with Senna when he drove for Norfolk-based teams, and tracking down what archive might be available for use.

 Slightly-unsuccessfully posing for a photo with ex-F1 driver Martin Brundle after I'd interviewed him for the documentary... I didn't go through the whole thing with my eyes closed, I promise!

It was an occasionally frustrating experience, when not being able to speak to interviewees who could really have added something, and being unable to use any F1 commentary archive due to rights issues, but the positives far outweighed the negatives. I think I managed to come up with a programme which told a good story in an effective way, and certainly all the feedback I have had on it has been pretty much universally positive.

But it has also been a very important programme for me personally, because it’s the first thing I’ve made as a producer that I have managed to get onto a national BBC radio station. Once I had a first edit of the programme done, I submitted it to BBC Radio 5 Live, who to my absolute delight and amazement said they’d consider running a shorter, 25-minute version of the programme.

Given the Radio Norfolk edit of The Boy From Brazil, as I’d titled it, was 55 minutes long, this seemed like quite a daunting prospect, but it actually only took me three runs through to get it to work. My first attempt at a cut down was about 37 minutes, another pass through got me to about 29, and then finally I’d taken enough out to make the cut. Their requests for a more defined ending and “upping” the production with some incidental music beds in places also gave me ideas I was able to take back to the Norfolk version to make the whole thing stronger.

5 Live liked it, and it was quickly scheduled for a spare half-hour slot on a Sunday evening the weekend before the anniversary of Senna’s death. Indeed, it seemed to go down so well with them that they ran it again on the anniversary itself. And they had to scrape me off the ceiling with excitement when I found that the 5 Live broadcast was selected as a “Today’s Choice” in the Radio Times.

 It may sound a bit sad and a little old-fashioned, but I have been a Radio Times reader for as long as I can remember, so having my work highlighted in the pages of the magazine was an enormous thrill.

I am proud of the work I do at BBC Radio Norfolk, but to have something deemed good enough for broadcast on national radio is extremely pleasing, and really makes you feel a part of something bigger, the great BBC stretching all the way back to 1922. Something else that contributed to that was actually getting the chance to go to Broadcasting House in London for the first time, the spiritual home of the BBC, to record the voiceover narration with Rob Bonnet.

David and I had been trying to think of a suitable voice for it – David wanted someone who resonated with the material, whereas I wanted a voice that had the right sort of familiarity and, more importantly, authority. One morning it suddenly struck me that the best candidate for the job might be Rob Bonnet, who worked for the BBC in Norwich in the 1980s, had reported on Senna’s career at the time but was now known nationally as a BBC sports reporter of long standing, currently on Today on Radio 4.

David wrote to Rob, who agreed, and last month I had the very great thrill of travelling down to Broadcasting House to record the narration script with him after he’d finished a shift on Today one Friday morning. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got quite emotional as I walked from the tube station towards that famous building, sitting like a mighty battleship anchored at the top of Regent Street. Rob was very nice, and had only tiny tweaks to suggest to the script I’d written, which from someone of his great experience in network radio and television was also very satisfying.

 Another great thrill was getting to go and do some work at Broadcasting House, the headquarters of BBC radio since the early 1930s, and very much the spiritual home of the entire Corporation.

After the programme was complete, it all began to snowball. The Brazilian desk of the BBC World Service saw the “Today’s Choice” feature in the Radio Times, and phoned to ask me about the programme. This ended up with me providing them with the script and raw audio elements to make a Portuguese-language version of the 5 Live edit for broadcast on the Brazilian radio network CBN – which I suspect will be the first and last time any work of mine will grace their airwaves!

As with Far From the Fogs, there was also a tie-in article for the Weekend supplement of the Eastern Daily Press, which they again kindly made the cover feature. David is often nagging at me to try and pitch more feature article ideas to people (rather than, as I suspect he sees it, wasting my time trying to write novels), but really, there’s only a very select range of subjects that I feel particularly qualified to write about, and could with any enthusiasm. I’m not a journalist, and I couldn’t write non-fiction copy week after week after week on a regular basis about things that didn’t really interest me.

 My EDP feature. Very gratifyingly, as with the Sherlock Holmes piece I wrote them last year, they didn't have to change a word.

It is always nice, however, to get my name in professional print. My colleagues at BBC News Online were also kind enough to give me a co-author byline on a tie-in piece they put up related to the programme, although in this case the credit wasn’t really deserved. I did write a possible article for them (and felt quite proud of myself for having managed to write completely different pieces for them and the EDP), but they didn’t use it, instead taking another angle on the story and just using some of the quotes I had provided. The resulting piece by my colleague Zoe Applegate managed to reach No. 1 in the “most read” charts on BBC News Online on Bank Holiday Monday – all good publicity for the programme, the full-length BBC Radio Norfolk version of which was broadcast that day.

 Top of the charts for BBC News Online, on the morning of Monday 5th May 2014.

I’d also sent the possible article I’d written for News Online to the Brazilian desk, who ended up publishing a version in Portuguese that, in terms of content, ended up being closer to what I’d written than the English version, oddly enough. Certainly the first time that any of my prose has been translated into another language!

So it has all been a very exciting few weeks, good for my ego and possibly good for my radio career as well. However, I am well aware of the fact that none of this would be happening were it not for the fact that a man died in a horrific accident twenty years ago. At times during this whole process I have worried about the fact that I am getting career benefits based purely on another man’s death – while it’s possible we would have done a programme about Senna’s early years in Norfolk had he lived, the fact he died gave an anniversary to hang it on, and possibly gave him an almost mythic status that added to his legend.

But I take comfort from the fact that those I have interviewed and others with whom I have communicated during the process of making this programme, who all knew Senna, seem comfortable and happy with celebrating his legacy, and perhaps drawing attention to a part of his career not often lingered over in other broadcast programmes about him.

Overall, then, a very satisfying spring, both creatively and professionally. Where it all leads is another question… I’ve been lucky enough in recent years to make programmes for the BBC about several of my great interests – Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, The Beatles, and now Formula One motor racing. I do wonder whether my luck will run out at some point, but I’ve had a great run.

Now, though, I think it’s time to turn my attention back, at least for a short while, to the business of novel-writing, and finally getting Another Life submitted to some agents and publishers.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

My Novels: Love Letters to Amanda

Love Letters to Amanda

Word count:

December 2008 to August 2009

Set during the opening year of the First World War, Love Letters to Amanda tells the story of three British soldiers, named Fitcher, Hamilton and Deacon, who serve together in the same company on the Western Front. After Fitcher is killed in action, Hamilton begins corresponding with his widow, Amanda, and the two develop a close bond through their letters. When Hamilton is eventually mortally wounded, he persuades Deacon that he must pretend to be the writer of the letters when he returns to England, to save Amanda from the trauma of losing another man whom she has come to love.


The man’s voice carried clearly down the busy platform. He was walking quickly up to the family, and might even have broken into a run had there been the space amongst the crowds, but none of the three had paid any heed to his call. Not the man, not the woman, and nor the little girl between them, who held each parent tightly by the hand. They walked along three abreast, apparently oblivious to the short, evidently excited man pushing and shuffling his way towards them as the clouds of steam puffed out and rose up from the engine alongside.

People were scattering this way and that; those just missing the train as it departed, and those, like the family of three, who had just disembarked from the one opposite. Baggage was being collected, colleagues were shaking hands, children were being called for, and this man, in a black pinstripe suit and officious little bowler hat, was walking briskly, now waving his rolled-up newspaper to try and draw the attention of those he pursued.

“Jimmy!” he called again. “Jimmy old chap!”

Finally, a little out of breath, red-cheeked and perspiring lightly in the muggy summer heat, his exertions were rewarded as he caught up with the family. He tapped the man lightly on the shoulder with his paper, and the three of them stopped as one, turning to look.

The husband and father of the group was in his mid-thirties, although the first thing anyone would notice about him was not his age or manner, but the scar across his left eye, and the glass disc where once a window to the soul had sat. He had a short, bristled moustache clipped off neatly, and oddly wore a single brown leather glove, over his right hand.

“I’m sorry,” he replied, pleasantly. “Were you talking to me?”

The story of the writing of Love Letters to Amanda is the story of two dinners, with two different women.

The first of these dinners took place at a vegetarian restaurant in Norwich in December 2008, after Christmas, and after the pair of us had been to see the film Australia. I was excitedly outlining to this friend of mine the idea for an epistolary novel I had conceived called 26 Letters – or possibly 26 Characters, I wasn’t yet sure which to go for. Although I’d written large chunks of a couple of novels I eventually abandoned for one reason or another in 2007 and 2008, I hadn’t at this point finished a full novel since Forget Me Not, over two years previously. I am not quite sure why that is, but perhaps it is no coincidence that at the end of March 2008 I had the ridiculous good fortune to begin working for the BBC full-time, so by the end of 2008 I was feeling rather happier and more relaxed about life, and perhaps in a better state to do some writing.

The idea of this new novel would be that each chapter would be told from the first-person perspective of a letter writer. There would, as the title suggests, be 26 of these, one for each letter of the alphabet, with each character’s name to begin with the letter of their chapter. The story would take place across the decades, and there would be something in each chapter that linked it to the preceding one, inspired to some degree by David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which I had read a few years beforehand at university.

I didn’t have every chapter conceived in any detail yet, but one story I had come up with for one of them was set during the First World War, and broadly speaking would involve the storyline of Love Letters to Amanda, as outlined above. I was so excited about this story idea, someone having to go back home to England and pretend to be the dead man who had written the letters, that while discussing it I was making some sort of over-eager hand gesture and ended up spilling orange juice all over myself.

My friend was amused, but also taken with the idea, and insisted it was worth turning into a novel all of its own. I decided she was right, there was more than enough story there to work into a full novel. So I plunged myself into a few months of research and writing, investing in various books about the First World War and bashing a first draft into some sort of existence.

 Some of the research material I bought while writing Love Letters to Amanda.

Then there was the second dinner.

This took place in a Vietnamese restaurant, somewhere in East London, in late April 2009. My companion on this occasion was a different woman with whom I was friends at the time.

She had been interested in Love Letters to Amanda since I had first mentioned it to her, had been keen to see the finished result, and not long before this had read the first draft, which I had finished sometime in March.

She thought it was all right, that it worked as a story, but it needed more effort putting into it. Specifically, she didn’t think I had really got across just how utterly, grotesquely awful the whole experience of being in the trenches on the Western Front would have been. And also, I had severely under-written the main female character, the eponymous Amanda, who needed a much stronger personality.

She was a clever, perceptive woman, this lady, and she was of course right on both counts.

So it was back to my writing, back to my research, and for really the first time I gave a novel I had written a complete overhaul. The second draft of Love Letters to Amanda, finished in the summer, wasn’t simply a case of correcting typos and taking out poor-quality sentences. Whole new sections appeared, others were excised, some events were re-ordered and everywhere there were changes and, hopefully, improvements.

Looking back:
I am very fond of Love Letters to Amanda, and I think it represents an important step in my development as a writer. The second draft was so much better than the first, so inescapably superior, that it really made me realise for the first time how much of the work can be in improving what you have.

I’d always thought beforehand that when you’d written the first draft, that was pretty much your sculpture finished, bar the odd bit of chipping and polishing. But during the course of (re)writing Love Letters to Amanda, I realised that the first draft isn’t anywhere near that – it’s simply unloading your block of marble off the back of the lorry.

Mind you, I do think that, in retrospect, I approached the whole thing from the wrong angle. Instead of telling the story of what happened during the war, the novel really ought to have been set a few years later, perhaps during the 1920s, with someone investigating and discovering what has happened, uncovering the family’s secret, with perhaps some flashbacks to the war and excerpts from the correspondence.

I do tell myself that perhaps I will have another go at it one day, writing it from this other angle. After all, I have the characters and the story… simply moving the perspective ought to make the writing of a new version all the easier, when you know what’s going to happen.

I’ve also been thinking about perhaps putting the novel as it exists online, for free, as I did with The Wicket in the Rec after that failed to find a publisher. After all, it would tie in with the centenary commemorations for the First World War coming up over the next four years, so it would seem somehow fitting.

Although it was never taken up by any agents or publishers, Love Letters to Amanda did represent at least a small step forward, and another little boost in confidence. I submitted it to the agent who had been so promising about my previous few attempts, Laura Morris, and after seeing a synopsis and sample chapters, she asked to see some more of it.

So I excitedly sent her another chunk of it, and although she was very encouraging, she didn’t think it was quite good enough for her to want to represent. Which was disappointing but, as I say, another step further forward than I’d ever got before. Interestingly, Laura thought it was perhaps too similar to Atonement, whereas I’d been worried throughout the whole thing that it might come across as a poor man’s Birdsong.

Alas, when I tried other agents and publishers after this, it was pretty much back to square one, with nobody interested in seeing anything further after I’d sent them a synopsis and sample chapters.