Tuesday, 10 August 2010

A friend for the summer...

Some time ago I posted here about a story I had written for children and my ambition to "get it out there" - as a result of which I illustrated it myself - despite my wanton lack of talent as an artist. Since then I have spent far too much time learning the subtleties of Microsoft Paint, Powerpoint, PDF creation and how to use HTML(?). Indeed. 

The end result is "Tess and the Seaside Girl" - an e-book for 4-8 year olds, replete with nostalgic prose and pictures that will appeal to anyone who has longed for a friend for the holidays.

Tess' story is, I think, one with universal appeal. Timeless and ageless and culture crossing. While I risk sounding even more self-promoting than usual, I have realised that if I want to generate a following for my writing, ideas or work, then I have to tell you what is in it for you.

So I will tell you a story to make my point.


Do you ever consider what sort of story yours would be if you were telling it for the big screen? Or the little screen, for that matter?

Some time ago I worked in a very eccentric office. We were the lawyers who drafted the legislation that wound up becoming the laws of the Commonwealth of Australia, so you can imagine just how eclectic a group we might have been. Being young and fun and full of ideas, I (together with another lawyer/good friend) scripted some episodes of "OPC (Office of Parliamentary Counsel)" - you know the sort of thing - "Ally McBeal" meets "The Office" meets "Yes Minister". The scripts and the plots lines were nowhere near as amusing as the casting though. Naturally, someone bright, attractive and classy - out of the reach of all Hollywood slander and gossip - was to play me. I cannot remember who it was, to be frank...

Anyway, we had a huge (notional) budget for name actors and created a cast replete with Jeff Goldblum, Carrie Fisher, Danny De Vito and William Hurt. We had Meg Ryan, George from Seinfeld and Helen Hunt. We told some of our colleagues who had been cast to play them - it was a very effective way of keeping one's friends close and one's enemies closer. Obviously we did not tell the guy in question that Danny DV was to play him... But by and large our casting was either very apt or very flattering because it really captured the imagination of the office for a few weeks back in the summer of '96. Indeed, some of the staff emailed me asking who was cast as them - I was put on the spot more than once. It all seemed real and magical, at the same time. As if somehow, by saying it, we could create a fantasy land where the silver screen could come alive all around us. Where tedious concerns like proof checking and remembering to bring cakes to Friday morning tea were put aside for more urgent and glamorous calls on our time.

A year or two ago I posed the question at my then workplace - open plan professional services - quite a different kettle of fish, really, from my first real job at OPC. My neighbour - a 28 year old, bright and upcoming structured tax financier - told me without a moment's hesitation that Matthew McConnaughey might manage to play him. A range of dashing, well toned and tanned, albeit somewhat empty headed, leading men were proposed by the rest of the "bay" (area of desks) to play them. It was inspiring just how well the Gen Y chaps thought of themselves.

Now, in another world again - self-employed author, blogger, chair of the PTA, coach and often-home-alone-with-husband-abroad-mother-of-three - the story is more gripping than the cast. It is a story that we all know and relate to, after all.

This is not to say that the cast is superlative. No, the mother would be played by someone like Cate Blanchett (capable of looking like death warmed up but also gorgeous when need be). The father would be someone we all like - he would not be in much of the film so it is not that important - maybe Hugh Jackman, maybe Denzel Washington...

But the really important thing is the story itself. It will be told in the mocumentary style. It will seem real but it will in fact be actors playing the parts of these ordinary and simple folk in west London in summer.

The plot is not extraordinary. The tale of a mundane and humdrum urban life as seen through the eyes of the mother. Voice over, naturally.

The backdrop of London is always a seat filler - think Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Love Actually, myriad crime dramas, Spooks. Against this backdrop we then have the interplay of social comedy and high emotion. As a summer tale - London is half empty as all of the school children and their families have cleared out for warm and sunny climes - it is a sure-fire box office hit.

The story will revolve around the joy and pathos of family life in the city. The antics of the little family as they embark on "summer at home". The action packed scenarios of holidaying in the city. Boarding the buses with overflowing gym, grocery, craft and lunch bags. The missed calls on the mobile, promising an elusive play-date, client meeting or call-back from the builder. The romps in the park. The bickering over the last brioche, last bath and later bedtime. 

There is plenty of humour and drama.

And tension. Imagine the camera panning down the aisles at Waitrose - will she buy Frosties or Rice Crispies? Full-fat or semi-skimmed milk? White bread or wholemeal? Which washing detergent? Come on Mum, it's holiday time. Give the kids a treat, we urge. Yes, Frosties win! 

Will Mum get the sleep-in she begs for? Will Grandad muddle the time difference and call before dawn on a Sunday - again? Will the reduced price Pinot Grigio taste like reduced price Pinot Grigio? Which priest will say mass? Will it rain all day? Will the children enjoy making faux stained glass windows at the museum and if they do, will Mum meet anyone interesting there? Will there be any leather school shoes in the sale? Will the littlest one be able to sit through a 90 minute session at the cinema? Will the strange lady who lives on the communal garden become more friendly? Would the living room seem bigger if the sofa was by the other wall? Will the children be persuaded that pasta with pesto is still their favourite meal? Is take away dinner really worth it? Can people really live without a tv?

Then there is the bit where the family is due to meet for a longed-for play-date with old friends soon to embark on their summer vacation. Suddenly, at the last moment as the family steps out the door to journey to the park for the picnic, the phone rings. The other mother is calling to check on the weather across town. Lo and behold, she hears the sounds of a sniffle, a blocked nose, in the voice and inflection of  Mum/Cate. Without warning, the date is cancelled.Why? "We do not play with germs". Fearing the worst sort of infectious disease to ruin their trip away, the friends beg off. "We shall catch up another time." The family is left alone and bereft in the street. Nothing to do, no one to see. Friendless and feckless.

And so the audience is exposed, fleetingly, to the vagaries of women, socialising and germs, topics so immense and serious as to be beyond the scope of this trite little play. Themes not lightly touched upon in an unambitious comedy of errors such as this. And yet, the story takes a turn. The great themes of love and friendship, loyalty and self-preservation seep in. The background music becomes melancholy. Cate is faced with bigger issues now. Who can she turn to in her loneliness? Facebook? Twitter? Marie Claire? Netmums? Is it wrong that she feels so let down?

Dammit, they kept the whole day free!

And here come the twist!

Confronted with 6 spare hours they had not expected to have, Cate and the children make hay! Their creative juices fired up with the indignation of being cast aside so coldly - they begin writing and painting and drawing, baking and cleaning and sorting.

What a blessing it is to have a long lazy summer at home with no one to see, nothing to do, nowhere to be and no one to have to spend any of it with!

The freedom, the scope for uninhibited self-expression, the unstructured joy of a day left empty and unplanned...


So anyhoo. Where was I? Oh yes, the casting couch.

No - before that.

Yes, Tess, and the timeless quest for a kindred spirit with whom to share the lazy, relaxing, joyful and sunsoaked (or cloudy, as the case may be) freedom, of summer time.

Her story really does resonate. 

I hope that Tess' other adventures will also find their way into an e-book shop near you before too long.

And perhaps a range for grown up readers:

Tess and the longest night.
Tess and the running away from home.
Tess and the ripped wallpaper.
Tess and the horrible sink blockage.
Tess and the strange man.
Tess and the big fat person's shirt.
Tess and how she ceased to be invisible at the gym (when other ladies kept taking the equipment she was using).

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