Writing About People Like Us: Part 1

The Arts

The world I grew up in is not the world that’s out there now.

Every year there’s a competition among young BAME actors in America to perform the best monologues by August Wilson, whose ten-play ’20th century’ cycle is the gold standard by which black actors are judged. Although not well-known in the UK, his polemical plays contain powerful speeches grounded by authentic voices hitherto unrepresented. Inevitably the monologues cover big themes; childhood, family, love, God and history.

In the documentary ‘Giving Voice’ some of the young black US actors chosen to represent their schools explain what Wilson’s monologues mean to them, and it’s clear that many feel their hopes, dreams and opinions are being expressed for the first time in voices that they recognise in life.

There’s a move away from fantastical escapism at the moment in favour of realistic drama featuring characters the young can relate to. The nominations list for this year’s British Academy films is a triumphant vindication of the decision to shake things up, as films like ‘Rocks’, ‘Sound of Metal’ and ‘His House’ bring diverse experience into the big awards for the first time.

As writers mature they inevitably lose touch with life’s early simplicities. We can stay relevant but it’s harder to find the right voices. I’ve always been a fan of non-naturalistic writing, especially in plays, but it’s very much out of fashion these days and I have trouble relating to the new realism, partly because I have no dealings with the young, how they speak and feel.

An example; An Ipsos MORI poll of sexual orientation across generations recently found that 84% of baby boomers (aged 55-75) described themselves as heterosexual. The figure was 72% for Gen X (41-55),  60% for millennials (25-40) and 54% for Gen Z (under-25). But how can you talk to the young about that? How would someone of 19 be comfortable talking to a 67 year-old stranger? The world I grew up in is not the world that’s out there now.

I was raised in a time when the only black male you saw in a film was a pimp, a junkie or Sidney Poitier. As for gay representation, we were stuck with the sinister killers Mr Wint and Mr Kidd, sexless John Inman and Larry Grayson. We were told that to be artistic was to be feminised and rendered useless. There were just two acceptable careers for a writer; you could go into advertising or journalism, both of which I tried.

On balance there’s more I like about the new Britain I see around me, although I abhor its inequality and the grotesques who promote it. But to write about it now from the sharp end? That will take a new generation of young writers who have the confidence I utterly lacked at their age.

(To be concluded)



24 comments on “Writing About People Like Us: Part 1”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    My recollections of my younger days are different from those above. I am now 69 and gay, having lived with my partner for 30 years. (Have you ever thought of divorce? No, murder yes). When I was 19 (1971) I moved to London and joined various amateur dramatic societies, and the old gay group, CHE. As a result I made friends with people of all ages, including some middle aged ladies, and another lady who was old enough to be my grandmother. The latter was widowed two years after I met her, and it was nothing for us to go out binge drinking on a Saturday night together and get totally rat-arsed. My sexuality to them was no problem whatsoever. And many a happy raunchy chat together about our sex lives (or lack of it) after a skinful often ended an evening out rather nicely.

    I do think things described by Mr F above are a bit of a generalisation. Many young people join groups with people of all ages, and are the better for it. Apart from amdram, the model railway world has blokes of all ages mixing together, and, happily, the hobby is now attracting more women of all ages these day which makes the mix even better.

    A final note-I found I often had more in common with people in hobby groups than gay groups, as often, just being gay wasn’t enough.

  2. Jonah says:

    Ah, the BAFTAs! For decades my quibble with the film division of BAFTA is when the awards are presented as a junior Oscars, or as a precursor to the Oscar ceremony. By George, this year the BAFTAs came through! The slate of nominees is as un-Oscar-ish as can be, albeit at the expense of expected nominees like Carey Mulligan, Viola Davis, Olivia Colman, Gary Oldman, and more. However, if the value of awards is to call attention to noteworthy achievements, some which may have gone otherwise overlooked, this year the BAFTAs succeeded.
    Sometimes I think fondly at the 1950s and early ’60s when the BAFTAs honored only British films, or work done by Brits in non-UK productions, like the French film industry with their César and the Italians with their David do today, except for specific foreign categories. (Is this exclusion still in effect with the television division of BAFTA?) Of course, British film was at a high point in those decades. When the UK film industry collapsed in the mid-1970s, there would have been few British movies to fill out categories. “Confessions of a Window Cleaner”, the top Brit pic at the box office of 1974?
    In recent decades BAFTA has made sure of some British winners with the categories of Outstanding British Film and Outstanding British Debut. (This year’s list of 10 nominees for British Film seems a little excessive, though. Are they all that good?) Another virtue: BAFTA often honors home-grown work more fully than do other academies’ awards (“Trainspotting”, “Nil by Mouth”, “The Full Monty”), nominating deserving performances possibly overlooked by other film bodies (Saeed Jaffrey in “My Beautiful Laundrette”, Kristin Scott-Thomas in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, Hugh Grant for his delightful villain in “Paddington 2”).

  3. Richard says:

    Jonah, did you see Grant in The Gentlemen? The film itself plods along (lockdown has made for some unwise film choices) but he has a huge amount of fun playing the most revolting character in it. Devious yet hopelessly out of his depth. Like a diseased Arthur Daley.

  4. admin says:

    When I first starting voting at Bafta there were lean years where you struggled to honour British films, which were either desperate for Hollywood attention or under-nourished little arthouse things that would have benefitted from another year of development. Few British films were truly mainstream. Now that most films I admire from outside the increasingly isolated Hollywood system are collaborative in finance and talent, we’re getting a blending of both.

    The phantasmagorical ‘1917’ was a case in point. It feels like a cross between ‘The Longest Day’ and a Fellini film, mixing a classic adventure story with an impressionistic journey. Similarly if you watch the documentary about the making of ‘Nil By Mouth’ you’ll see the subtle stagecraft behind the gritty realist exterior. It’s this combination of art and craft we and Europe seem to naturally combine.

  5. Keith Ravenscroft says:

    Dark days as we see what Big Tech is really for, agree with Left or don’t speak. Democrats are raving crazies out for blood this can’t end well. We were taught to fear the Right but it was coming from the Left and now we’re on the canvas like Jackson Pollock- belief all splattered, its Bill gates or the pearly ones no dissent aloud. Sorry but this is the way I feel as I grow old and just need home comforts. I like to binge on old drama and comedy and not have to see box ticking casting or woke scripting (well not as much anyway). I enjoy living my final days as I am. I am regressing, but what the hell. We are nailed down in Europe praying this damn thing peaks. But what’s the use of talking, just put a cloth gag over your metaphysical one. Don’t talk and get on with it… Vaccinate us! Yes, I have come to an age where I despise the radical left and its creepy brainwashing totalitarianism that has poisoned the kind of ideals we had in our youth. Once you see beyond the mask, it’s hard to watch. TV with every programme pushing its agenda. We are no longer rocking in the free world….
    Well, this is just an oldie speaking. May I?
    The world I grew up in, is not the world that’s out there now.

  6. Brooke says:

    Re: August Wilson. Two Trains… is a must see (hard to read; easier to hear). The play sheds light on how/why the US reached its Trump/Biden moment. Pittsburgh, the location and Wilson’s birthplace, is highly symbolic–a former center of US commerical and industrial power, then hit hard by deindustrialization with thousands of people losing employment and their homes. The black neighborhood, The Hill, was “redevelped” with a vengence (central theme in play). It’s now home to the elites, knowledge industry professionals in AI, robotics, science research and development. Google, IBM etc replaced the mills. There’s much to learn from Wilson’s dramatic interpretation of this era. I wonder if the actors who focus on soliloguies understand its broader implications.

  7. Brooke says:

    The world you grew up in is still out there…It’s running in parallel with other worlds, as it always has. The “other” worlds are claiming more atttention, as is their right and due. And as we live longer, there are more worlds vying for attention.
    I applaud the designers of Biden’s inauguration for bringing this to our attention. Lady Gaga was right to sing the anthem as a question, and Amanda Gorman had an answer.

  8. Keith Ravenscroft says:

    Strange that it is then, that our news programmes have made no reference to Biden’s obvious health problems and unfitness to be carrying out Presidential duties (“You know, that thing….”) – (The Pentagon!) Imagine how they would have gone for Trump in similar circumstances.

  9. Jonah says:

    This year’s BAFTA slate seems low on traditional comedies (“Emma.” received only one nomination) but the list is blessed with dark – even horror – comedies.
    I haven’t seen Hugh Grant in “The Gentlemen” yet (at least it’s out on home video, not imprisoned on a streaming service for subscribers only). Hugh Grant is an underrated actor. Sure, there’s the stereotypical dithering Hugh Grant character that had become tiresome. But check out his more recent performances such as the tender Mr. “Mrs. Florence Foster Jenkins”. His semi-retirement of several years ago seems to been rejuvenating, with top-notch work in “A Very English Scandal” and “Paddington 2”. Of course “The Undoing” may undo some good will that has grown.
    Even in his younger decades, Hugh Grant was more versatile than commonly thought: his closeted character in “Maurice”, the exploitative theater director in “An Awfully Big Adventure” (a movie I want to love; a ragtag theater troupe in WWII England playing “Peter Pan” with Alan Rickman as its Captain Hook ring all the bells, but the film is more sour and dour than expected). There are also Hugh Grant’s fine performances in “Sense and Sensibility” and as Chopin in “Impromptu” which could be seen as restrained variations of the Hugh Grant indecisive stereotype, true.
    BTW, Hugh Grant is another actor to have played a Prime Minister (in “Love, Actually”). This fall alone there were 2 British TV imports with fictional PMs, one played by Robert Carlyle, the other by Helen McGrory. If you got all the actors, living and dead, who have played PMs, fictional or otherwise, in film and TV, you might fill a House of Parliament. The actors who have played Winston Churchill alone would fill a bench or two. And all the dramatic US Presidents, fictional or otherwise, on the screen, might fill the Senate, at least.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Um, I just watched Citizen Kane last night. It was very good.
    We can choose our world as long as everything is tied down thee way it is just now.

  11. Peter T says:

    Us is the problem.

  12. Brooke says:

    I agree, Peter; except us is all we got.

  13. Peter T says:

    Brooke, I wasn’t thinking of the whole of humanity us, though that can be pretty bad, more the us of ‘he never was one of us’ type us. The us that excludes.

  14. SteveB says:

    I think one of the biggest things I notice is how younger people venerate Fleabag but to me despite the clever writing she is just a spoilt brat.

    Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You was pretty impressive though, and maybe fulfills your criteria for a new young writer?

  15. Helen Martin says:

    And last night it was Hammer Film’s Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing. Apparently they planned a series of Holmes films with Cushing but it didn’t come off.It was Stapleton’s daughter that went into the mire in this version and the hound just had a mask to make him look fiercer. Did MGM act as distributor for Hammer films in North America? The film said Hammer, alright but the MGM lion appeared right after it.

  16. SteveB says:

    @Helen Martin
    Yes nearly all Hammer films were made with presold US distribution deals which means the UK and US title sequences are usually different, with different stars given pominence, etc etc

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – a chug through some Hammer movies sounds the ideal way to spend some time, to me. Whatever ones you watch – you’ll have fun. Of course there are their Dracula/Frankenstein/Mummy cycles, but they did a nice line of B/W thrillers, too. The Bette Davis starring ‘The Nanny’ is astonishingly good. I’m fond of both their versions of ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde’: the later one, ‘Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde’, especially – the casting of Ralph Bates, and Martine Beswick is inspired – the two actors look uncannily similar. Hammer’s version of ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’, starring Herbert Lom is a lot of fun, too, transferring the glamour of Paris, to a rather shabby theatre in London.
    Then you have the three ‘Quatermass’ movies, the first two are very good (despite Brian Donlevy), but the third, 1967’s ‘Quatermass And The Pit’ is astonishing. A real ‘Once seen, never forgotten’ movie. Big ideas, great atmosphere, and Andrew Keir’s brilliant portrayal of Quatermass. To the Quatermass movies, you can add ‘X – The Unknown’ which feels exactly like a Quatermass movie, which it would have been, had the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale not put his foot down.

  18. Paul C says:

    The best Hammer film is Kiss of the Vampire

  19. Brian Evans says:

    oo-er, Paul… I beg to differ. It’s “The Devil Rides Out,” surely !!

    And let’s hear it for the comedies they turned out at the same time, they are now rather forgotten. My fave is “A Weekend with Lulu” with Shirley Eaton, Bob Monkhouse, Irene Handl and Leslie (ding dong) Phillips.

  20. Paul C says:

    Good point, Brian – that’s a gem too. The most horrifying of all Hammer films however is Holiday on the Buses – aargh !

  21. Brian Evans says:

    You’re right Paul about “Holiday on the Buses”. I saw it the ABC Catford Sarf London when it came out. I still wake up screaming in the night.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    Paul and Brian – The most horrifying fact about ‘Holiday On The Buses’, is that, out of all the films made by Hammer – it was the one that made them the most money. If that’s not sad, then I don’t know what is.
    For my money, the best Hammer movie is ‘Curse Of The Werewolf’ A brilliantly tragic story, superbly told.

  23. Helen Martin says:

    Watched “Puss in Boots” last night. Guillermo del Toro and hundreds of people from all around the world. I’m watching credits more closely these days.

  24. Jonah says:

    Since we’ve moved on from the topic “Writing About People Like Us” to Hammer movies, one favorite of mine is the 1961 bank robbery/hostage film “Cash on Demand” starring Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell. Ingenious script. Suspense, but no literal monsters. One of the contemporary crime films that was a Hammer specialty before Mum, Frank and Drac came on the scene. “Cash on Demand” gives a fascinating look at a branch bank’s staff, similar to that of a bookstore’s staff in Hammer’s 1952 “The Last Page” (unfortunately retitled “Man Bait” for Americans) which co-starred George Brent and Diana Dors, the movie’s titular character in the US.

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