Archive for the ‘stories’ Tag

4 things I learnt from The Story

tim wright and rob bevan

Tim Wright tests his sense of balance

Today I spent at the excellent The Story conference at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, organised by my fellow Commissioning Editor at Channel 4, Matt Locke (a labour of love on his part). The theme was stories and story-telling – little theory, no money talk, just narrative and tales about tales. So what I learnt…

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

2) The best comic books have a layer of history, a layer of mythology and a layer of contemporary relevance as evinced by Sydney Padua‘s Lovelace & Babbidge. She showed the development of  their new adventure Vs The Organist which combines Victoriana with Orpheus & Eurydice with proto-geekage. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a similar combo, a bit more literary, and it’s top of the tree for me. (Talking of trees, the frames in the new story where a band of monkeys break into Babbidge’s office and drag him off to the underworld gave me a sudden flashback to a game we played as children with plastic monkeys, something I hadn’t thought of for decades- there’s so much buried in these memories and imaginations of ours, and connection, especially surprising connection, is the key to creativity.)

3) The best stories combine profound emotion and humour. My old friend and colleague Tim Wright stole the show with his Harrison Fraud story. It’s about a mad time when he tried to convince his business/creative partner, Rob Bevan, that Harrison Ford wanted to work with them. The comic story of facial hair and faked letters was punctuated with insights into Tim’s marital struggles, recounted with an unflinching honesty. That willingness to confront difficult themes head on – as demonstrated equally in Tim’s wonderful In Search of Oldton project which has its roots in his father’s tragic death – is what raises his stories to special heights. Tim and I worked together on the writing of MindGym back in 1996, a game about creativity, Rob worked on it too programming and designing  – it was a landmark project for me, drawing me into the world of non-linear story-telling and interactivity, and I learned a wealth from Tim’s methodical approach to scripting. I remember sitting with Tim in a bar in Clapham Old Town, asserting my dedication to film-making and that I’d be giving up this interactive thing before too long, not really my bag. 14 years down the line and here I still am.

4) The best fiction is less strange than truth. The day was rounded off in style by a besuited David Hepworth, he of The Word and Smash Hits, who told a lovely circular tale of the passage of wisdom from father to son to grandson via a bespoke tailor’s in the Yorkshire village he grew up in. It involved the coincidence of a suit being made for him unknowingly by the tailor who had made his father’s suits. It reminded me of my wedding ring. I wear two rings – the wedding ring my wife gave me in the top O of the OXO Tower by the Thames when the O X and O were all floor-to-ceiling windows and the tower was still a building site, and a plain silver ring I bought from a stall in Camden market several years before. To cut a long Irish story short it turned out that the posh jeweler in Gabriel’s Wharf and the Camden stall holder were one and the same person from Inishowen in Donegal (where my wedding ended, 60 miles down the road from its start point in Derry). This stranger than fiction coincidence came to light one day when I was chucking out old chequebook stubs and I found the £10 cheque I’d bought the silver ring with. Recently I’ve had another such experience where I came across the same person (Pippa Harris of Neal St Films, Sam Mendes’ business partner) through two totally different routes – one starting off in a novel I was reading, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson; the other through judging the RTS Single Drama Award for work – the true-life story weaving through all manner of themes from Rupert Brooke to Wikipedia. It’s coincidences and dynamics like those that make life worth living.

I had a quick chat with David Hepworth on the way out about the merits of The Word podcast (very good for jogging I said, great for repetitive domestic tasks he countered) – it’s the very best on the Web, a chat with friends over the kitchen table. Leaving the period lobby, it felt great to have spent the day in Conway Hall with its radical, left-wing vibe. It was here that I took my first published photograph – one of  Gerry Adams and Ken Livingstone that appeared in An Phoblacht, the Irish Republican newspaper. But that’s another story…

barrel of monkeys

Monkeys test your sense of balance

We got the Jazz

Lafayette Flying Corps

The other afternoon I had a fabulous chat over tea with director/writer Peter Kosminsky (Britz, The Government Inspector, Warriors) about a forthcoming scriptwriting project of his. It was refreshing for me because the conversation centred on stories which is not usually the focus of much of my work in the Factual arena. Stories are so fundamental to human culture and I came across the beginnings of a fascinating one today.

Like my earlier post Je suis un chef noir – Heart of Darkness, it’s a story involving France and Africa (in this case, indirectly through Afro-America) and racism (in this case, the prejudice of America not of France).

The protagonist is Eugene Bullard. The entry point is the Paris jazz scene between the wars.

The scene was based in the seedy quarter of Montmartre. Bullard, a black American born in Georgia or Mississippi [depending on what you read] in 1894, was programming Zelli’s Club, one of the key clubs in the area (set up in 1919 or 1922 [depending on what you read] by Joe Zelli, a London restauranteur or an Italian-American [depending on what you read] – guess he could have been both, a restaurant and club which dominated the scene til the 30s. The walls were decorated with movie star caricatures which were later emulated at Sardi’s in New York which is where I’m writing this post [in the city not the restaurant, that is]. I came across this story whilst reading about purposeless wandering around cities and today in my purposeless wandering around Gotham I found myself under the red awning of the Village Vanguard where, for example, John Coltrane played in 1961 – the year Bullard died in this same city. So all the skeins of this narrative have been weaving themselves together all day.) Bullard went on to own another hot jazz club, Le Grand Duc. Zelli’s, with its underground dance hall, was less upmarket than the Duc and regularly raided by les flics.

Back as a child in the deep South, Bullard had had explained to him by his father: “in France there are not different white churches and black churches, or white schools and black schools, or white graveyards and black graveyards”. His mother was a Creek Indian which makes the decoration of the biplane, above, all the more resonant.

When he was ten, Bullard stowed away on a ship and made first for Berlin or Scotland [depending on what you read], then London (where he was a boxer and music hall performer), reaching Paris in 1913. When the Great War erupted the following year, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He won the Croix de Guerre for his role at the crucial battle of Verdun. He went on to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a volunteer squadron who fought for France before America entered the war (the outfit to which the plane above belonged). He flew 20 missions and downed two enemy planes. So he was the very first African-American military pilot. His nickname was Black Swallow of Death. When the USA did enter the conflict in 1917, Bullard was transferred to the US Air Force and immediately grounded. He ended up back in the French infantry. He’d literally been “uppity”, thousands of feet uppity in the French skies.

Our hero died in poverty and obscurity in New York in 1961, having had a series of non-uppity jobs from perfume salesman to interpreter (for Louis Armstrong) to security guard, ending up as lift operator at the Rockefeller Centre (which I wandered past last night aimlessly).

Despite decades of obscure wandering in the aftermath of his Parisian heyday, Bullard was buried with military honours …by French Officers in the French section of the military cemetery in Flushing, Queens, New York. Two years before, the French had made him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. By contrast, the Americans waited 33 years after his death and 77 years after his pioneering heroism to eventually make him a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Not the ending the story deserved.

eugene bullard

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