Simon Brett, OBE Speaks to Hampshire Writer’s Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s February gathering proved to be an occasion of great contrast, hosting Marian Forkin of The Book Bus charity and Simon Brett OBE, multi-award winning author of serialised crime fiction novels, radio and television producer and script-writer.

Special Guest:  Marian Forkin.

Marian explained that the fundamental aim of The Book Bus organisation was to enhance the life chances of children in Third World countries through the provision of books and libraries.  These are children who would otherwise be unable to develop their potential.  That simple truth was the catalyst for the formation of The Book Bus project in 2006 by founder, Tom Maschler, remembered as the publisher of Penguin, when he saw first-hand the sheer scarcity of books in the remote areas of Zambia that he was visiting.

The charity is now centred in Malawi, a country where only 5% of children receive a secondary education.  Marian shared a stark and inspirational example of how books can change lives by explaining how African boy, Kelvin Doe, invented a wind-powered electricity generator so that he would be able to read at home in the evenings.  It was Kelvin’s access to a book, helping him realise that simple but life-changing aim, that eventually led him to present at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a 15-year-old and finally to embark on a PhD in the United States of America.

Marian was keen to show how the ethos of The Book Bus organisation was based on a desire to promote enablement through access to books and thereby foster independence and self-determination.  The children accessing the programme have their reading levels monitored and are assessed and measured against standardised attainment targets so that individual progress is a tangible, organisational outcome.  The annual cost of running the Malawian programme is a modest £15k and similar projects seek to achieve equally beneficial outcomes across Africa, Asia and South America.

To round off an inspirational and very affecting presentation, Marian shared a video of the wonderful work that The Book Bus organisation is currently undertaking.  For more information on this important and far-reaching initiative, please visit: www.thebookbus.org

Keynote Speaker: Simon Brett, OBE

After graduating from university, Simon started a long career in both radio and  television, but it is as a prolific writer of crime fiction that he is perhaps most well known.  To date he is credited with over 80 crime fiction novels, his work comprising favourite collections including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering, and Blotto & Twinks series.  Further to these much loved and intricately plotted books, Simon has also written successful non-series novels with his Shock to the System (1984) being produced as a film starring Michael Caine.

In 2014, in recognition of his lifetime achievement, Simon was awarded the Diamond Dagger for Crime Fiction and in 2016 he was invested with an Order of the British Empire.  Not bad for someone who started his working life as a Father Christmas in a London Department store!

The longevity and breadth of Simon’s success offers a wealth of practical  experience from which he can draw and from this he was able to relate valuable and grounded advice to new and seasoned scribblers alike.  Simon alluded to the idea that to choose to be a writer was by definition to choose a life, if not of loneliness, then solitariness.  For a large part writers have to be content in their own company while they create the worlds of fiction that their characters inhabit.

From Simon’s work in broadcasting – particularly his work in radio (a medium, he said, that lends itself particularly well to the writer)  – he found great inspiration for many of his story ideas and his future writing career.  His early adaptation of a Dorothy L Sayers ‘Lord Peter Wimsey’ adventure was the catalyst that launched him into full-time writing.  Perhaps it was the levity to be found in Sayers’ prose style that was to become part of the wonderful signature humour that underpins much of Simon’s work.  And to this end Simon was keen to explain that writers should not be bound or stifled by the accepted norms of a chosen genre and that taking narrative risk was key to writing with originality while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls of producing derivative material.  He was at pains to highlight the importance of giving characters dramatic moments and that these moments reward the reader as they progress through the story.

As a testament to Simon’s creative intellect,  he told the audience that involvement in the process of producing a first draft is where he finds the greatest artistic satisfaction; that while many writers toil over numerous re-drafts that approach wasn’t for him.

Simon’s presentation was packed with humour and anecdotes from his long and illustrious career.  The audience was treated to wonderfully informative practitioner’s advice communicated in a riveting and very entertaining raconteur’s after-dinner style.

October Competition Winners 2013

by Celia Livesey

‘Write a Pitch on any Subject for a Radio Programme – 200 words’

Our Special Guest and Competition Adjudicator for the evening was Sasha Twining. Sasha’s career started in local radio, and currently she regularly presents a Saturday Breakfast show on BBC Radio Solent. She has also worked on television as a news anchor and correspondent on international and national news channels for the last six years as well as being an announcer on the BBC for a number of years before moving on to ITV. Sasha has also presented a number of high profile daytime shows, including Sunrise with Eamonn Holmes and Sky News Today with Dermot Murnaghan.

Unfortunately the BBC changed her work schedule at short notice and so she was unable to be with us last night. Copies of the competition entries were, however, forwarded to her last Wednesday, so she was able to judge these and send in her adjudication.

Sasha’s Adjudication:

Thank you very much for all your entries, they were all really interesting, and I especially liked that everyone had written about something that meant something special to them. Radio is a very, very personal medium. It relies on emotion and connection, and any radio show HAS to have both to stand any chance of gaining an audience in today’s market. I judged the entries on the following criteria.

  • Could I imagine listening to this programme.
  • Could I place the programme in a particular time of day/type of radio station/audience.
  • Was there enough information in the proposal to interest a prospective programme maker.
  • Did the entry include any information about HOW the programme would be made (length, time of day, cost implications, legal considerations, audience profile etc.)

While most people touched on the first three criteria, I’m afraid hardly any mentioned the logistics of a programme. Most programme producers want to be given a rough idea of HOW a strand will be made in a programme pitch.

Having said that, I enjoyed reading the pitches – and there are a couple that I could easily imagine being slightly re-worked to become useable on radio.

1st Prize: Alternative Realities – Olivia Stephenson

I like this idea, and could imagine it working in the 6.30pm comedy slot on Radio 4. In essence it is a slightly changed version of Room 101 (the television show) but nicely re-worked for radio. I thought Olivia had picked a great example of a starting topic, which would easily spark the interest of a producer. However, like many of the entries it lacked the logistical information. Time, audience profile, length of show, suggested panellists etc. Having said that, I feel this entry overall had the best idea for a prospective show.

Congratulations!

The main premise for the radio programme is the idea of removing something seemingly insignificant from our world, thus creating an alternative reality where the object, creature, mineral, etc. does not exist. Each half hour programme would be hosted by the same presenter, joined by a panel of three guests, each with a varying degree of knowledge concerning the removed item. For example, the host could introduce the alternative reality of life without cherry pie. This would lead to a discussion of how the world would differ if cherry pie did not exist, with varying opinions from the seemingly futile consideration of what it could mean for the popular nineties TV series, Twin Peaks, to how radically different our reality could be, and even to a voice which argues that we could do without it. The programme would then conclude with the host asking each guest whether they would choose to live in the alternative reality or to remain as we are. The purpose of the programme, besides the light-hearted notion we all often play, that of “what if such and such didn’t exist?”, would be to challenge the way we experience the world whilst gaining a deeper understanding of the hypothetically removed object through the program’s guests.

02_ Oct 2nd Prize Gill Hollands2nd Prize: Endless Story – Gill Hollands

I picked this idea as I could imagine it being used as part of a BBC local radio late show. I particularly liked that Gill had included the website in her pitch. Radio these days has to be multi-platform, and involve other types of communication, particularly the web. I liked the idea of a strand that would run over a week – and could imagine this building a real following. I personally would open it out to anyone sitting at home (not just writers’ groups) as the BBC Local Radio late night audience would love to listen and get involved.

Congratulations!

This is a programme for writers and listeners, a two-way entertainment. Each week we join a different writing group who start the story. For example:

‘In the chill silence, all she could hear was dripping. The smell of mould had invaded her sinus. Her numb hands dangled from the rusted shackles. She licked long-dried tears off her cracked lips, taking a deep breath. Agony seared her shoulders as she yanked the anchors from the rotting wood. Her arms wrenched forward, dragging her down. The damp flags were hard to her stiff knees. Her dry sobs echoed off the dim walls…’

The public then ring in with the next sentence and the writing group would then follow in turn with the next, which gradually builds into a whole new story. Prompts can be sound effects which are used in the background.

The aim would be to recap at the beginning of each day, offering pointers along the way, with a view to finishing it on the Friday. The finished story could then be published to the radio website for everyone to enjoy. The aim would be to give exposure to creative writing and local writers’ groups.

03_ Oct 3rd Prize Sara Sims3rd Prize: Talking to Myself – Sarah Sims

I have given this entry third place because I think there’s a real gem of an idea in there. I feel with a bit of work, this could be a nice idea for a ten minute ‘pause for thought’ type piece. I imagine it more along the lines of writing letters, and each participant starts the segment with a brief explanation of who they have written to (that they no longer speak to) and then reads a letter that they have written to the person. I could imagine this as a short feature series in Woman’s Hour in Radio 4. What we call a ‘stand alone’ feature. Well done – I liked it, and I think with a good producer, and some excellent choices of participant, this could make an excellent piece of radio.

This documentary is about talking to someone who isn’t there. All of us have people in our lives to whom we can no longer talk, in the real, face-to-face sense. Someone we love dies, or moves away, and the thread of conversation that interwove our daily existence is snapped.

That is painful enough. What’s equally – some would argue, even more painful – are those people we cannot talk to because they will not talk to us. Perhaps there’s been a sudden rift, following a blazing row. Or perhaps the rift was more gradual, a slow attrition, the relationship worn away by accreted misunderstandings. Either way, these people may be physically gone, but very often, we still talk to them. We might fantasize about winning that last argument. Or, in our more gentle moments, we may appeal to them for clues about what went wrong. We may even discuss everyday things with them, so that, without their volition, they remain enmeshed in the fabric of our lives. Six people let us into these one-sided conversations, revealing enduring sadness, anger, and hope.

 

Highly Commended: Pardon Them for Living – Andrea Stone

I’m giving this a Highly Commended because the subject choice is superb. BBC radio stations are increasingly aware of the need to produce programmes to challenge preconceptions about the elderly, and indeed about their care. However, I didn’t award this entry a place in the competition because I felt it was not sufficiently well-formed to be a proposal. It lacked all logistical information, and didn’t explain what sort of programme the idea would form. Having said that, Andrea used some wonderful phrases, and it was very evocative.

Highly Commended: Sound Bite – Celia Livesey (pseudonym Susan Shaw)

I awarded this a Highly Commended because this entry came the closest to looking like a proper proposal. It explained the format of the panel quiz, and gave a few examples. I could imagine this idea forming part of a Radio 4 comedy quiz show. It narrowly missed out on being placed – so many congratulations.

 

In Conclusion:

On behalf of the HWS I’d like to give our thanks to Sasha for such a wonderful job of adjudication, which was very much appreciated by the winners. Many of our contestants said they found writing a pitch for a radio programme quite challenging, but 16 entries were still received, so it was a tremendous response.

Finally, Sasha has agreed to come back as a main speaker and bring her recording team for a workshop – definitely an evening not to be missed.

Writer, broadcaster and producer, Susan Marling at the HWS

report by Carole Hastings

HWS Chairman, Barbara Large, opened the evening by saying it was the Society’s intention to help move members closer to their writing goals with an exciting programme. She welcomed Susan Marling who she had met at the Society of Authors and apologised that Sasha Twining from BBC Solent could not come due to a work commitment. She will be part of another evening in the future when she will bring a small crew with her for a short session on producing for radio. Barbara encouraged everyone to pick up details of the 37th Pitstop Refuelling weekend in November from the welcome desk. Details on the ‘Events’ page.

David Eadsforth, Events Secretary, introduced Susan Marling who set up Just Radio in 1995 and is consistently producing programmes for radio with original approaches on Ernest Hemingway to Salvador Dali and Pete Townsend.

01_ Oct Susan MarlingSusan started her career as a Head of English in a London comprehensive school before she started writing for national newspapers and radio. She approached producers with the offer “I’ll give you five ideas if you let me do one of them.” After working in TV, she decided to move to radio as she recognised that women have a short shelf life on television.

She said ideas are the currency of a writer and they need the ability to adapt their texts to appeal to a wider audience for radio. Writers need to be able to mine the treasure they have e.g. a travel writer needs to create a number of angles on a trip to be able to sell the idea to a number of outlets.   Commissioners want writers to draw their work into the present day and to have a fresh look on history and historical events.

To that end, Susan worked with Jenny Uglow on taking her acclaimed book on Hogarth and reframing the material as Hogarth, the modern moralist, by overlaying the Rake’s Progress on Soho. She also produced Uglow’s The Lunar Men about the Lunar Society of Birmingham who shaped and fired the modern world under the leadership of Erasmus Darwin. James Bond, the Last Englishman written by Professor David Cannadine who theorised that Fleming invented James Bond as a consolation to the British for loss of empire after World War II, was also one of Susan’s Just Radio Productions.

Last year she produced Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Myth, presented by Allan Little. This positioned Lawrence as the father of modern guerrilla warfare and as the man who predicted future strife in the Middle East in the wake of WWI and the Sykes-Picot agreement.

In May this year, she produced Food: A Scandalous History when the horse meat scandal was on everyone’s thoughts. It was recorded at Borough Market and fronted by Giles Coren who interviewed Rosalind Crone, writer of Violent Victorians on what was used as food fillers in Victorian times.

We heard that the BBC commission twice a year and a tender document is used for both in-house and freelance producers. These outline slots that are available from 15 minute pieces that might run across the week to longer pieces.

An idea needs to be captured in 200-300 words and the commissioner will explore a dozen ideas and then the pitch takes place. Often you don’t get the result for a long time and there is usually a delay on getting your work on air. Currently Susan is working on a programme which will not be aired until March 2015 at the earliest. In house producers at the BBC have their work guaranteed as there is a quota system.

Susan’s recommendations on how to pitch were as follows:

1          Identify a producer

2          Think about what you want to say

3          Refine it

4          Be clear on what you can bring. Is it:

  1. an untold story
  2. special access of some sort -[story of family etc.]
  3. talent

5          Be aware of when to stop selling – don’t spoil a potentially good relationship!

She said it was impossible to patent ideas but worth testing them on people you could trust before approaching the BBC. Commissioners welcome comedy but it needs to be clever and witty.

This interesting talk gave the audience plenty of food for thought and a number of writers went home considering how they might adapt some of the work they had already written.

Listen out for…  Just Radio Productions

Selling British Luxury (BBC Radio 4, Monday 14th October 11am)

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen investigates the popularity and success of British luxury brands abroad. He traces the appeal of British manufactured products in emerging economies and discovers how heritage brandssuch as Rolls Royce, owe their healthy sales to the highest quality British manufacture, and, often shrewd online marketing.

The British Mosque (BBC Radio 4, Thursday 17th October 11.30am)

At a time of unprecedented mosque construction and following Newham council’s rejection of the controversial Abbey Mills ‘super mosque’, architecture critic Jonathan Glancey examines the architectual state of the British Mosque.

The Devastation of British Art (BBC Radio 3, Sunday 20th October, 6.45pm)

Diarmaid MacCulloch marks the start of the Tate Britain exhibition on iconociasm with a programme on the destruction of religious art6 during the English Reformation.

Programmes coming up:

Whitsun Weddings presented by Jean Sprackland (poet) (Radio 4, 1st December)

Bryan Ferry’s Jazz Age ( Radio 4, 9th December)

Algo World presented by Natalie Haynes (comic) (Radio 4, 9th December)

Staging a Revenge presented by Isabel Sutton (Radio 4, 8th Juanuary 2014)