Letting the characters breathe

South RidingPhil: A few weeks ago I saw Andrew Davies giving a talk, during which he showed a little clip of his latest adaption- “South Riding.” The audience let out a dreamy “Ohhhh” in the way only a large group of older ladies can (they made the same noise for a clip Colin Firth in full Darcy mode earlier in the evening) and I wondered if they would be quite as pleased when they saw the actual programme. I didn’t know the book at that point and the Wikipedia entry isn’t exactly fulsome, but from the clip it appeared to be a strong-willed young woman become headmistress in a northern girls school and shakes things up a bit whilst upsetting the stick-in-the-mud governors and local gentry. For an audience of Daily Mail and Express readers, it might all be a bit too close to communism.

Never mind, I like a bit of pinko drama myself so had a look. And it’s erm, not very good. But not for the reasons I expected. The problem is, at some point the head of BBC drama will have made a decision.

“Andrew”, he or she will have decreed, “We want a three-part series.”

Andrew will have gulped and pointed out that the previous adaption ran for 13 weeks.

“That was the 70’s Andrew. People had longer attention spans then. They needed something to save them looking at the horrid orange swirly wallpaper.”

And with that he will have been dispatched from the office.

Which is why the characters don’t get time to develop. The plot is Bang, Bang, Bang. For example, promising but  poor child Lydia Holly is encouraged by headmistress with talk of going to Oxford. 30 seconds later she is hauling her dying mother out of a ditch. By the end of the minute her family are being turned down for poor relief so she has to give up school. In the next scene she is scrubbing clothes and shouting at the headmistress who has visited the slums to try to tempt her back to class with a book of poetry.

Did we get a few moments for our poverty-stricken child to dream of a place among the dreaming spires ? Does hope well up in her heart only to be dashed by being snatched away again ? Nope. We don’t have time for that.

That’s what happens when you have to knock a complicated plot out in three hours. Not Mr Davies fault, he had twice as long for Pride and Prejudice which is a simpler story – in the film version nothing important got missed out. That worked out well so why not go for 6 parts on South Riding ? It’s not like they skimped on anything else. Locations, setting, costume, cast – all brilliant. OK, so the steam train was a bit wrong but people look at me like I’m nuts when I mention this, so I won’t.

All of this is why books are better than telly (until I get to do TV adaptions or film, then this bits going to get edited). There is space for characters to develop or “breath”. We can have scenes that don’t move the plot forward but do allow us to get an impression of the people involved. In our writing partnership, Candice did much of the actual character development, especially of the main protagonist Kate. Even so, when sitting down and talking about her over coffee, we both had a pretty good idea what she looked like (actually, I got her hair colour wrong but was quickly put right) and how she would behave. The advantage of this is that we could both let the character go on the page and not write anything that the other would object to too much.  Hopefully this will allow a reader to care about her, something that is important for some passages when you have to feel her pain.

The best books, the ones you fall in love with and re-read time and time again, are those where you feel close to the people on the pages. They don’t even have to be nice people, can anyone honestly say they like Poirot as a person for example ? It doesn’t matter, there is something about the character that makes us want to know more. Even when we know the plot, we like to revisit our old friends.

The thing is, the people on our pages have been friends for nearly a year now. So much so that as I was helping out at an event last month as watching people come out of one of the buildings immediately thought, “Blimey, he’s Gareth” because he looked like him. Or at least the him I have in my head. I wonder if any of the people I saw will one day read the book and think, “Blimey, that’s me !”

Candice:  Hey I didnt think it was that bad – though the last episode was abit – interferring fella dies, woman loses love, dad finds new girlfriend etc all rolled out in quick succession.
I did like the comment back to the cat, “That wasnt what we were expecting at all was it, puss!” I can understand talking to cats as I do it on a regular basis and it’s very therapeutic.

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Filed under Candice, Phil, Writing

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