As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a leap-out-of-bed-with-a-head-full-of-story kind of guy. I need to know why I’m writing what I’m writing in order to do it.
Of late, I’ve been a little unsure as to my “why”. My grandfather died recently and I thought I could find my way through grief by leaning into my play for the Bush Theatre which is based on a fictionalised version of my grandparents. However, I’ve just hit a wall and find it impossible to even begin to fictionalise someone whose removal from my reality I’ve not quite dealt with yet. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing next to nothing. I’d come very close to thinking that I might not care about writing anymore.
Then last night, I went to meet my friend Martin and he asked me what I was up to. I talked through some projects and then I hit that Bush play and I felt an urgency to explain everything I wanted to do in it. The thoughts rushed out of me and I realised I had been speaking, with some great deal of enthusiasm, about the form and content for about an hour. I walked home wanting to dig myself into those rewrites again.
Maybe this is a solution to the ennui when it hits you? It’s bad to talk about projects early on, but perhaps when you’re stuck in the doldrums it’s best to reduce our work to the simplest terms of what it is: Telling a story to a friend.
I once asked my grandma why she was so obsessed about me getting married. She gave me an answer I didn’t quite expect:
“I’m worried you’ll get lonely.”
But I have never felt lonely. I’ve had surrogate-housemate relationships since I was eighteen.
I lived with eight people at that point when I was a wide-eyed fresher. That become five people when I was nineteen and thought I was a little more discerning when I definitely wasn’t. Four when I was twenty one and had an image in my head of who I wanted to be. A steady constant of two others throughout my twenties as I made that image a reality until I got to just one at aged thirty one. Stephen. He too has now gone.
Though he was relatively late to the party, Stephen had an outsized affect on my life. When I was at the absolute worst of my depression in 2015, the day I felt my feet inching towards the front of a speeding bus, it was Stephen I went to and said that I needed help. Dramatic though it is to say it, I’ve no doubt I would be dead now if not for him.
But it’s not the big things I’ve missed, really.
It’s the knock at the door and a cup of tea when you’ve got a steaming hangover.
It’s living vicariously through a disastrous dating life.
It’s sharing the tiny triumphs when you’re trying to build successful careers.
It’s someone to let you in when you’re locked out.
It’s being asked “pint?” and saying “sure” without having to book a person five years in advance.
It’s been a month since my last housemate left. Looking at his room, now just a room, a room that hasn’t really been empty for nearly eight years, eight seminal years when I was just striking out into the world, I find myself realising that at this point there probably aren’t anymore housemates, not like the ones in your twenties/early thirties. There will be no one to share that next stage of life with.
#1 – What Rogue One attempts to do is almost certainly more interesting if you’re a Star Wars fan and there’s no denying that there is a huge amount of fan service going on in this movie.
Having said that…
#2 – I am a massive Star Wars fan so whatever.
#3 – There are a lot of people I’ve spoken to now who are marginal Star Wars fans who loved Rogue One.
#4- I wanted to keep this spoiler-free but I figure enough people have seen the movie now but, either way, here is your warning of SPOILERS.
Rogue One is both non-essential viewing and a necessary corrective to the Star Wars movie canon. How is that possible? Well, it speaks a little to what I discussed in an earlier blog about alternate narratives. The Star Wars story universe is so large that everyone’s understanding of what it is can be totally different. If you’re just here for the Skywalker & Co monomyth, which is after all what most people understand Star Wars to be, Rogue One won’t do anything for you and that’s A-OK.
But if you want to explore a little deeper, if you want to have a new lens to examine not just these films but the nature of history-making and heroic narratives, especially in times of war, look no further.
To begin, here’s a hot take for you:
The protagonist of Rogue One isn’t Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso.
Jyn is the hydroscopic nuclei around which the misfits of Rogue One form and tumble down, down, down into the core of a nascent war, a mission trajectory that’s shared and unstoppable. It couldn’t happen without her. But the mission isn’t really abouther.
The realprotagonist is the most consistently underserved ‘character’ in the Star Wars universe.
The real protagonist is the Rebellion itself.
There are a few reviews and indeed comments from friends whose opinions I rate that suggest that the characterisation of the Rogue One team is thin. I agree with that.
It also didn’t bother me at all. Not only that, but I think it’s fine. Not only that but I think that this works in a positive way towards what this spin-off film is trying to achieve that the main movies often suggest but never quite land: Being a Rebel fucking sucks.
I realise this might read a lot like a rabid fan’s lengthy defense of undercooked characters but go with me on this because if nothing else I think Rogue One pulls off one hell of a trick in expanding the Star Wars universe in every direction whilst telling a very contained story.
On a practical level for Disney/Lucasarts, Rogue One had to work within a narrow, well defined channel: Tell a satisfying tale in the same story universe without overwhelming the narratives of the Saga movies (as I have learned the Episodes 1-7 are called). This film is built to be entirely subservient to the grander ones around it. Subsequently Rogue One, whizzbangs aside, exists on a smaller level than the main films. The heroes are minor characters in the world, they’re not Jedi and even the main villain – Director Krennick – saunters around with the fury/frustration mix of an insecure middle manager.
Even the emotional space of Rogue One is smaller. The Saga films operate under the sweeping emotional logic of a grand space opera. The music is more soaring, the language heightened, the jokes broader, the characters more vivid, the colours brighter, the contrast between sides sharper. Black. White. The Dark Side and the Light.
Rogue One, on the other hand, operates in the emotional logic of a war movie. It’s still got jokes, its characters are still occasionally fun and whilst some of the morals veer into the grey, the visuals do so less than you’d think – it’s beautiful film to watch. But there’s little romance to all this. There’s no time for it.
That’s because whilst our characters here are a lot less equipped to deal with them, the stakes are still huge, the enemy just as daunting as in the Saga movies. It’s this disparity that gives Rogue One its weight. It’s why a Death Star targeting a city here feels more daunting and terrifying than Starkiller Base wiping out the entire New Republic in The Force Awakens. This movie is all about the scale of the challenge that director Gareth Edwards twins well with his eye for the awesome (in the original sense of the word). In the Saga movies, the main characters observe people getting fucked by super weapons. In Rogue One, the main characters are the ones that get fucked by super weapons. The Death Star here is an absolute titan, in a way that it’s never felt before, and dealing with it feels like the most urgent thing in the whole damn universe, ahead of absolutely anything else. It’s this imperative that makes Rogue One move at the speed of plot, not the speed of character, something which is anti-thetical to wisdom on good writing. The film, without question, suffers a little for this.
Yet, for me, the aforementioned weight-through-scale is why I still found Rogue One satisfying and why I didn’t miss any greater characterisation. I suppose it’s not too dissimilar to my love of Apocalypse Now (a movie, trivia fans, in which Han Solo’s got a cameo and none other than George Lucas was once slated to direct.) Willard not having much about him as a protagonist didn’t bother me and still doesn’t bother me in the slightest. He was a man on a crazy mission with crazy events happening all around him that were out of his control, all in service of taking down a Big Bad. Now of course Apocalypse Now is a totally different style of movie and has a whole different take on warfare. But both movies are about the missionabove all else (well, at least, the non-Redux version of Apocalypse Now is and if you’re not a monster that’s what we’re talking about). The relentless drive. It’s in opposition to, say, a Saving Private Ryan, which desperately wants you to care about its characters. The movie isn’t about Private Ryan at all really, it’s an excuse to showcase the valour and humanity of these incredible people. You can tell how important it is to Spielberg. Apocalypse Now and Rogue One have a completely different approach and rarely reach that same level of characterisation.
Having said that, Rogue One’s characters were still clear enough to me to get me through the story. I was never at a loss as to what everyone’s ‘deal’ was. Yes, none of them were particularly special, none of them got a huge amount of space to get to know the others. But each of them had an anchoring point, each of them had a part to play. Rogue One needs more characters to create similar potency to a few in the Saga films. Its wholeness comes from greater numbers, wider skills and greater diversity in a world you already know at least a little about.
This last point matters.
Some have commentated that Rogue One wouldn’t work anywhere near as well if you removed it from its Star Wars context. I believe that’s likely true, but this is to miss the point. The whole raison d’etre of this movie is to reframe that context, and this moves me on to how Rogue One isn’t just fan service but genuinely makes the Star Wars universe richer both in tone and in complexity in a way that the Saga movies cannot without derailing themselves.
There are certainly nods to those in the know. Some made to amuse (too many of these), some made to be a nostalgia nurse, but most fill in tiny gaps of story and lore in a way that is immensely rewarding. There’s the Death Star’s weakness now being a deliberate choice, not a simple flaw. There’s the Jedi being seen in the context of being part of a larger religion. There’s young Jyn having a Stormtrooper doll. I loved this! It’s a little of what I’d hoped for from The Force Awakens. There’s a moment in that movie when Rey talks about Luke Skywalker and the Jedi as a myth. No longer there, but indelible in cultural memory. Yet there’s nothing really in that film that hints at this powerful myth’s place in that world. I remarked at the time “wouldn’t it have been great to have seen something like kids playing as Jedi and getting told off or something so we know what the deal with the wider world is?”. With that one half a second shot of a Stormtrooper doll, you get how deeply rooted the Empire is. It’s not some vague menacing military presence. You feel the Empire’s supposed pervasiveness through this better than almost anything else I’ve seen in the Star Wars movies. It’s beyond great ol’ fleets of Star Destroyers, it’s down to the very toys children play with in that world. As someone who was more delighted than one should be to see a brown human Star Wars figure in a shop (thanks, Riz) there was something in that which seemed to highlight the grip of a dominant force, not just militarily but culturally too.
My favourite nod was a very subtle one, subtle enough to have passed by my co-watcher who is also big on Star Wars. In a section of the fight above Scarif, a hapless Red Squadron X-wing pilot gets it in the neck. They spent a little longer focusing on his demise than others. Why? Because he’s Red Five, the callsign Luke gets given during the Death Star assault in A New Hope.
That’s a funny moment to look back on after watching Rogue One. When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, the beat is ultimately less about saving the Rebels (with whom he really doesn’t have any real investment), and more about him trusting in the Force and thus preparing him for his journey to become a Jedi in the films to follow. His sigh of relief when the torpedo enters the exhaust port feels like it’s saying “oh thank fuck the Force worked after all and I don’t look like a total dickhead for turning off my targetting computer.” He even gets a medal for this demonstration of Boy-Wonder-greatness.
In contrast, you suspect that the history within the Star Wars universe may not remember Jyn and co so well – indeed, it’s impossible for the future films to do so without some sort of unwelcome Late-Stage Lucas Special Edition kind of insertion. To paraphrase the Hamilton mixtape, the Rogue One crew are Luke Skywalker’s ghost writers. Which is a necessary and sobering thing to see, really. Nearly everyone who dies on Scarif won’t get remembered individually. Such is the fate of most people who do important things for the sake of any war, cause or movement. And you don’t actually have to be that interesting a person to do your part, either, even if movies demand it, entertainment demands it, dramatic writing demands it. Reality doesn’t. Not one bit.
Do I think that’s all by design? No, I’m not quite that generous, and there are plenty of bumpy moments and choices in Rogue One,but perhaps it’s because of the moment we’re living in that I feel more able to give a pass to a film that flags how our mythologies, societies and ideology are ultimately collective even if Great Individuals seem to dominate our narratives. There’s such hope in that if you’re in deep despair at what feels like a lack of agency. Thus the events of Rogue One are the sort of mythical moment that can power the relentless emotion behind a whole resistance. You can imagine soldiers on Hoth with tattoos saying “Remember Scarif”.
I’m finishing this post not long after hearing of Carrie Fisher’s death at sixty, which is no age. It’s a stark reminder that all our heroes must die, most of them earlier than we or they would wish. That’s the message of Rogue One – life is routinely devastating, our ends will likely be unsatisfying to us and unresolved to others but on we plough in the hope that through our actions it will be a little less so for those who come after that. The movie literally continues after you’ve gone because you yourself don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
Rogue One’s final dream-haunting Vader sequence demonstrates this. Having slammed Luke a little earlier, let me give him his due – it’s this horrifying sequence that drills home the needfor young Skywalker to appear into this universe. Vader is unstoppable, a merciless, murderous machine gun in an a field of quivering, tightly-gripped bayonets. Yet, perhaps because of what we’ve seen up to this point, those soldiers who get ripped apart by Vader don’t feel like grunts anymore like they do at the start of A New Hope. Their deaths sting. They feel like the most important aspect of the resistance, ones who will die without people knowing much about them but knowing themselves that someone else will carry on the fight once they go. There’s no doubt the comrade behind the blast door will take the crucial message on and on and on. There’s no doubt another fighter will take up a downed pilot’s callsign. There’s no doubt the narrative of the cause is greater than the narrative of the individual.
Tonight I’m going to slip on my Emperor Grandma t-shirt, get along to the IMAX, sit my increasingly large arse in a chair and watch Rogue One, the new Star Wars movie. I’m finally going to learn how the plucky Rebels got their hands on the Death Star plans. What a story that must be!
I’m excited. How excited? This excited. A year and a half in advance excited.
Anyway. I think I might be more excited about Rogue One than Ep 7. Am I doing it wrong?
Within the world of Star Wars fandom, this is perhaps heretical – how could the grand saga of Skywalker and Co be less of a draw to me than some chumps humping through undergrowth with some admittedly quite important paperwork?
Especially since – hang on.
I already know how the Rebels get the Death Star Plans.
An outpost in an asteroid field intercepted signals from captured Imperial communication satellites. I know this, because the 1993 PC game X-Wing told me so. A game that fulfilled the dreams of kids (and, who are we kidding, adults) the world over by letting you take control of the eponymous Coolest Space Craft Every Made TM and throw it around some often infuriatingly difficult missions. You get to fly as Luke in the final mission and, yes, do that famous trench run that makes use of those stolen plans in order to commit what is probably a genocide in order to prevent another genocide.
No wait wait – that’s not it at all.
Fuck that noise. I think you’ll find it’s Kyle Katarn, Imperial officer turned mercenary, who actually stole the plans during a daring raid, a raid I got to participate in as part of 1995’s Doom-inspired first person shooter game Dark Forces. I loved Kyle. Kyle was a badass. Kyle was my boy. And when he – of course- turned out to be a bit of a Jedi all along I was dead pleased for him. Now though, he’s just dead.
Disney’s buy out of Lucasfilm as a way of paving the way to making new films meant that there would have to be a re-organsing of the plethora of material in what is known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The EU (ho ho) takes in books, comics, computer games, heck – card games, bedsheets, anything that continued the Star Wars stories beyond Return of the Jedi, or filled in blanks between or before the other movies. In the main, this re-organisation meant “none of this is real anymore” (I mean none of it was real in the first place, but you get me.)
Disney aren’t total morons and have astutely realised that wiping this all from the (Galactic?) map and starting again is unwise and have generously allowed the previous stories to exist as “legends” whilst firmly asserting their own cannon. And why not? It’s an arrangement that allows to pick the ripest elements within them for incorporation into the official timeline. See how Grand Admiral Thrawn, everyone’s favourite art-appreciating evil genius finds his way into the Star Wars: Rebels animation. There are some even fainter echoes – before there was Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren), son of Han & Leia, there was Ben Skywalker, son of Luke.
As much as I see the need to give a consistency to the story universe, to bend them to the gravity of the new Episode films, it makes me sad because it feels like the narrative gorilla throwing its weight around, when it was never actually the main stories in the films themselves that kept my love of Star Wars burning. It was the smaller stuff, the the visceral parts I delighted at. The design aesthetic was intoxicating, the way those little words “a long time ago” freed it from contemporary chains.
The whine of an X-Wing accelerating. The S-foils opening. The spat spat of its blaster.
It was the detail of the world and the broader one it intimated to exist that my fandom was built on. I devoured histories of the companies that designed the starfighters. I saved my pocket money to buy a model of the shuttle Tydirium from Toys ‘R’ Us, which led me to joining the US Star Wars fan club at a time when The Phantom Menace was but a twinkle in Georgie’s eye. I still have the little membership card somewhere in my bedroom.
Looking at the books in said bedroom, I desperately hope against my own memory to find some well-thumbed copy of a literary classic to smile at, to validate the idea that I was some precious storysmith. Not at all. The most dog-eared book of the lot is Michael A. Stackpole’s X-Wing (are you sensing a theme here?): Rogue Squadron.
The continuing exploits of a crack fighter squadron, tasked with dealing with a post-happy-ever-after world? Yes, please. (Now that I think of it, that feels very 90s, good guys have won, end of history, doesn’t it?)
Because of the Rogue Squadron books, WedgeAntilles, a minor character in the original trilogy occupies as much space in my affection as any of the Skywalker mafia. The best Expanded Universe books were not the ones that dealt with what Luke, Leia and Han et al were up to. They were often too weighed down by the film’s characterisations. You can’t let those guys drift too far from who they were, partly because the fans are coming for those characters and partly because with so many different writers and explorations of the stories, there wasn’t necessarily consistency of continuation and you couldn’t bank on casual fans having that knowledge. Yes they would have kids and what not, but essentially they were now sitcom characters who change superficially with each story but cannot progress.
So the film lot could jog on. Their lives are more or less set*. It’s the scumbags, the mercenaries, the wannabes, the not-so-powerful, the defectors, the former slaves, the ones still with something to prove all playing in that rich world whose stories sucked me in and that i could relate to. In fact, remember how I said that X-Wing had infuriatingly difficult missions? One of the novels actually turned one particularly notorious mission into an actual rite of passage for pilots, not unlike Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru. I yelped with joy when I read that link between the worlds. It made it feel cohesive and truthful in a way that didn’t rely on the films to hold it together.
This isn’t to say that the films aren’t dear to me – one of my earliest memories is sitting with my grandma at Christmas, watching the telly, seeing a robot upside down in some sand. It’s not any robot, it’s C-3PO, and it’s Return of the Jedi (the third act of which is a story masterclass, yes, Ewoks included. Fight me). But it’s telling that once we got it on video, I would fast forward through the people bits in Jedi to watch the space fights. Who are the men and women who got to be daring but never get the kudos, except for maybe a cool line or two, or a fiery death? They could be anyone. They could be me.
That’s why Rogue One, a franchise’s stand-alone tale where they could well kill off every new character, feels exciting. These are the people whose stories I want to see. It fulfils Star Wars’s original promise of the heroic anyone, which is slightly betrayed through the Episode movies’ gradual cementing of the Skywalker lineage as thestory of Star Wars.
And, I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to the X-Wings. None of those The Force Awakens Muller Light X-Wings, it’s full-fat, four engine bastards for me.
Perhaps in a world where it feels like centrist, tent-pole narratives are collapsing around our ears, we can but look to the edges for our hope, for new stories to speak to us, to make sense of the world. Too grand a statement by half for what is still a Hollywood monster?
I’ll probably hate Rogue One anyway, won’t I. You might too.
If so, don’t worry – I’ve got two great little PC games for you to play if you want an alternate take on how dem fine Death Star plans end up in the hands of a certain space princess.
*I have to tell you though that Chewbacca meets his end by being crushed by a moon.
When my friend Tutku asked me to write a short for a night of plays responding to Brexit I, again, remembered that I wasn’t meant to be writing any shorts this year and now I sort of have to accept I definitely am and have, between this, Come To Where I’m From (literally the post before this) and The Pathfor HighTide (who, as a quick aside, I’m super pleased to have joined the board of). I am lousy at saying no, which often makes my agent very sad.
In this case however, there was an idea knocking around my head that I wanted to give a go. How does an individual create resilience, in particular to words, if you can’t rely on others not to use them? It’s an idea that my grandparents – who get fazed by very few words – would be on board with, I’m sure.
Following the reported post-Brexit hate speech spate (one incident of which I witnessed, and one that affected by grandfather in hospital), I thought about it again so I tried to get some conception of the idea down, which Tutku took on with grace, even if I was delivering a draft just hours (an hour?!) before her first rehearsal.
Shorts are tricky things to pull off in that I think people assume you can just bang them out and certainly some folks I know can do that, but for me to write a half-way decent one, it takes almost as much thinking as a full-length play. If that sounds nuts, consider that everything you write is the act of taking a topic and trying to conceive it in an imaginative way (in this case through the lens of theatre also). There’s usually one big idea at the heart of it. Both shorts and full-length pieces needed the time for that big idea to come through.
This is my roundabout way of saying I taking fucking forever to write these things and they take up huge parts of my thinking which is why I’ve tried to dodge them, since I’ve got plenty to be getting on with at the moment. This might be a piece I come back to in future.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see this performed since I was up at the Roundhouse for an event showcasing The Good Immigrant (plus raising money for The Good Causes). I hate missing stuff other people have made the effort to put together, and doubly this one because sitting in that audience would’ve been a real part of the, for lack of a better word, fun. Heard it went well though!
I know I’ve been neglecting this blog and its purpose – to make the writing and the challenges it causes to the life behind it clear to anyone who wants to do it – but will shortly put up a proper longish update about what I’ve been up to and how life has changed in ways large and small (honest). Just realised that I’ve been writing it, on and off, for a little over six years now. I’d just got going with my writing back then. I wonder what I’ll be writing about in six years from now? Complaining about short plays, probably.
Exit Strategy, performed at the National Theatre, 1st August 2016, as part of Artist Directors of the Future Talks Brexit night.
Director: Tutku Barbaros
Cast: Ashraf Ejjbair & Tamsin Newlands
The blurb is: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always haunt me. B wanted to leave. A is finding it harder to stay. If you can’t rely on society to change, the only option left is to change yourself.“
Exit Strategy script is here. (Very strong language warning)
Catching up a with a couple of shorts I’ve done of late (after saying I’d not do any across this year…).
The first was a Come To Where I’m From for Paines Plough, in collaboration with Tamasha. I’d heard about this before and I’d always wanted to do one so was chuffed to be asked. The deal with these plays is that not only does a writer write about where they’re from (in whatever way they interpret that) but they also perform the piece themselves. Writing and life wise I was still going through a tough time so I wanted to set myself a task to do something I’d never done before. In this case, it was drop my trousers in front of a crowd of people and try and make that meaningful. I definitely managed one of the two. I was terrified I was going to catch my boxers on the way down and whip out my balls in public (which I’ve done as an 18 year old in front of several members of the Evangelical Christian Union – a story for another time) but thankfully any shocks were limited to the words themselves.
The other writers performing that night were Miran Hadzic, Adam Brace, Roy Williams, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Sandra Townsend – all pictured below. Their pieces were a proper lovely mix, which you don’t always get at a shorts night. Japes, wine and fun times. Gave me the nudge I needed. Glad I did it.
Come To Where I’m From, performed at the Oval House Theatre, 4th July 2016, as part of Paines Plough’s Come To Where I’m From
The blurb: “As a biographer posthumously sets out the key moments of the long-dead Vinay’s life, fifteen year Vinay takes to the stage, keen to make some corrections.”
I’m going to preface this by saying I realise a lot of what I’m talking about below comes under the heading of “small violin problems”. All I can say in defence is that since starting this blog five or so years ago I’ve always wanted to document my writing journey (ugh) as honestly as I can. I hope there’s enough about the topic that’s clear and possibly familiar, despite the lens through which it’s looked at. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while, but held off until I was feeling a bit better and now here we are.
So. I really wanted to write one of those beautiful pieces about working through depression – you know, the ones with a lot of wanky water metaphors, illustrated with a cute little picture of a stick figure staring at a black dog (who’s in the water?) or similar – but I don’t know how to do it since the main problem seems to be that I don’t think or feel as keenly as I used to. For me, when I write, I sit at the computer and the images form like on a little TV in my head. For the last half a year or so that TV has mostly been screening static.
It’s an insidious process watching the person you understand yourself to be slip away in increments. Eating a bit more. Running a little less. Cracks from your housemate about how you’re sleeping late. Flagging instead of answering emails. Seeing your pile of work build up and up – work you solicited to get – and having no desire to touch it. Wondering when you last had a thought, an actual thought. Not answering party invites. Until one day you realise your clothes, the ones you’ve bothered to wash, don’t fit and you could be quite accurately be described as a lazy person who doesn’t care about anything very much. Wait. What? I love parties. I love people. I love my job. I’ve worked so hard to get here. This is not me. Or is it? Does this goes back or is this me now?
I don’t quite know what sent me in this direction, and I’m not sure if looking for trigger-cause links is particularly useful. It’s post-rationalising, isn’t it? There are things that seem likely, but how can you ever really know? Nevertheless, here are some things I suspect:
1) Getting to thirty. This was a psychological barrier for me as my mum didn’t make it to that age (29 years, 3 months) and I’ve always had a thing about doing as much as I could before I got there. Now I am, I guess the future feels a lot harder to formulate since, in a way, I figured thirty would be the end of it. I hear athletes can get a bit fazed after tournaments, even if they win a medal, because their whole life has been geared to make sense of that one moment. When it goes, it can be hard to replace it. Maybe it’s a bit like that.
2) The process of making Murdered By My Father. I’m less sure about this one, but the intensity definitely did a real number on me and I’d like to use this space to reflect on that whole experience so bear with me. It feels pathetic to talk about it in these terms considering the subject matter – especially since the incredible people we worked with at the charities deal with it every day – but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what it would entail. MBMF was my first piece of television and I knew it was going to be quite a visible one. Plus the turn around on it was, from the perspective of someone coming from theatre, ridiculously short. PLUS I already had two theatre commissions to work on that I also needed and wanted to throw myself into.
So there were a lot of balls to juggle, but MBMF by necessity of its looming shoot date became my main concern. I had two maxims floating in my head at all times whilst working on it. The first, “Do right by the victims” the second “Don’t fuck up the honour killing drama for the BBC, Vinay, that would be really, really bad.” It was a hell of a privileged position to be in, I knew that, and it sucked up every thought, every feeling and I became monofocused like never before. I was very, very neglectful as a person during that time and probably not much fun to be around. I’m not going to seek out confirmation of that, but finding myself sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of an AirBnB room in Edinburgh during the Fringe (familiar to the Fringe, perhaps, but I didn’t even have a show on) told me all I needed to know. In way, this is the level of dedication a project like that needed, I don’t regret that at all, BUT! But…you can still probably approach it better.
I had an interesting conversation one day on set with Adeel where I asked him how he managed to play a character like that and still keep himself sane. I had so many dark nights writing him. Adeel told me that there was a tiny part of his brain that he didn’t let that character access. The part which had everything he cared about in it. Shahzad could take over every part of his mind apart from that part. At the time I think I dismissed it as an actor-y thing, but thinking on it later, I wished I had known how to do that myself.
I don’t think I fully grasped how much MBMF haunted me until it actually came out and I felt all the anxiety again but ramped up further still, exacerbated by the responsibilities you have to take for it existing. I love theatre deeply (despite my moaning) but it hadn’t prepared me for the very public responsibility that comes with television. TV can and does go anywhere and everywhere, which is both its strength and its curse. There’s the potential to be judged not just for your take on a topic but on your reasoning for doing it and that judgement can come from literally anyone on earth with access to an internet connection.
Within the production, we had had discussions about staying off social media for the duration of its launch. That was a sensible approach, but I vehemently disagreed with it. I don’t think you can drop something like that show on people and then not be out there, so everything that happened was stuff I was asking for, I accept that. No one forced me to be involved. But it felt necessary and part of my job to take responsibility for what I had helped create. This was no Roland-Barthes-Death-of-the-author stuff. We wanted it to have an impact, so I felt like I needed to take the resulting “hit”. It also was – somewhat contradictory to this post – the first thing in ages that gave me a sense of purpose and frankly I was grateful to grasp it. I did all the interview requests that came in, I wrote articles, posed for some pictures, the lot.
I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response that piece got, but within that there are things that stick and you have to take the good with the bad and sometimes the line between the two isn’t that evident. There’s the man who finds you on Facebook to tell you it reminds him of his own father’s abuse in 1950s Wiltshire and how that experience traumatised him forever. You can’t ignore him, but are you qualified to talk to him about that? Do you risk hurting them even more? There’s a woman who tweets you to say that her Pakistani friend in Northern Ireland was approached by a stranger and asked “Is this what you all do to your kids?” The friend was shaken and furious. My response that I was sorry to hear that (and I was) but sadly, this mostly stems from a lack of diverse representation on TV beyond dramas on these issues, felt truthful but still handwring-y. There’s nothing you could’ve done about it, but it’s still partly your fault.
The few out-and-out bright spots from this time was watching all types of kids take on this issue fully and discuss it with nuance. I also got to chat to so many young adults making their first forays into journalism and fiction writing and activism. I got to do interviews with them (and I liked them way more than the ‘bigger’ ones). I got to read some beautiful response poems. I got to go to an event in a pub in East London where what must’ve been near a hundred young women and men gathered to hear talks and performances about what feminism was and want they wanted it to be.
I was particularly heartened that so many of them were Asian too. It’s everything I wanted to exist when I was a kid and had tentative dreams of wanting to work in the arts but wasn’t sure how to ever make that happen. There was no path that was clear to me. How lovely then to engage with kids who see many different paths ahead of them.
Considering my low bar for MBMF was “don’t start a race war”, this was all a massive bonus. But making it wrung me out and responding to it wrung me out more and was a lesson in being careful in both how you approach a project and how you decompress from it. I was very lucky that by this point I had taken my misery to a GP (it took me getting drunk and swearing aggressively at some nice strangers for me to do that) and I had started four weeks of CBT just before it came out. Those sessions acted as a buffer against the worst of it.
3) Burn out. Again, a bit vague, but I suppose it makes sense. When I first told people I felt a bit off in October last year, just after MBMF had wrapped, they were very insistent that I’d been Working Very Hard For A Very Long Time and that I Needed A Holiday. I’d been on a couple of trips the last few years, mostly for weddings, but I genuinely couldn’t remember when I last went on a proper holiday. I wasn’t even that sure how you did it anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather have spent it in my pants, on the sofa, playing the PS4 I had bought but had not unboxed any games for because there was too much to do. I was then convinced by others that this wasn’t good enough.
So I tried to have a holiday. A few weeks later I found myself in a hotel room in Barcelona, quite a nice hotel room since I’d decided that I Deserve This. It was ok. I walked around a lot and listened to podcasts. But I found the stress of finding vegetarian food in a hugely carnivorous city enormous. I couldn’t bring myself to get on the subway. The football team weren’t even playing that week. I found myself on Diwali night sat in an Indian restaurant alone, overhearing a furiously red-faced Englishman explain curry to a patient Spanish woman, and all the while I wishing I was back home on the sofa, in my pants, playing my PS4.
The morning after I sat in my hotel room all day, writing an email that still sits in the drafts of my inbox that I never sent but can’t bring myself to delete. It was a long plea to my friends to not hate me if they didn’t hear from me for ages because I wanted to just disappear. I didn’t know how to be a good friend to them or how to be present in any meaningful way. I loathed everything about myself in that moment, probably more than I ever have.
So maybe it was this stuff. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just lingering concerns I have about my personality, my inconsistency, my ability to be a functional adult human enlarging themselves til they clouded out everything else. But what’s the upshot of it all?
The bad is that I’ve turned down loads of projects. I’ve even paid back a commission. I chastise myself for not being able to take better advantage of or more enjoyment from this moment in my life and career which by all measures is going fine. More than fine, pretty damn good. I want to grasp every opportunity, I want to be able to have a Jack Thorne-esque level of consistency and productivity but the truth is I can’t really handle it and it’s been better for me to consciously step back and sharpen my focus on fewer things. I might manage to get myself back to spinning lots of projects at the same time, but definitely won’t be doing that soon. It hurts me to say no, but I know it’ll hurt me more to say yes.
The good is that the CBT has started to give me a bit of a framework to make a comeback from. The hourly journalling of mood let me see when I was best placed to operate. Setting tiny goals has been an unexpected revelation. When the big goals disappear as a source of drive and value, I’ve found pushing yourself to consistently do the little things really does help. Cooking a meal for my housemate. Making the time to ring home. Read a book (until this month, it’d be nearly a year since I’d read a work of fiction that wasn’t a play. And even then, not many of those).
Slowly by slowly, through diligent little acts of humanity and progress, the static is coming into focus. I’ve even started using wanky metaphors myself.
I’m currently writing what is, I think, my first explicitly genre piece, a play called Known Unknowns, that I’m billing as a “radicalisation rom-com”. I really, really enjoy seeing those words put together because I think the story premise and the experience it suggests you will have is quite clear.
I’m an unashamed lover of genre stories and particularly rom-coms and I’ve always wanted to write one. Now that I am, I’ve spent a little time thinking about why I love it and how I hope to use genre as part of my broader aim of creating more inclusive stories.
What is so compelling about genre as a tool of inclusion is that, in the mix of elements that will satisfy an audience, the narrative and thematic expectations of a genre tend to overwhelm the need for strong character identification. So if you have a character whose experiences/background you think a broad audience will find more difficult than usual to get on board with, by placing them in a well-wrought genre story you can give them those characters, be truthful to their experiences *and* satisfy reluctant viewers.
The hope then is for a legacy of identification via familiarity. The next time that viewer encounters a similar character, perhaps in something more challenging, (and, being a bit grand, perhaps in real life) they’ll more likely stick with it because of them having a greater pool of empathy, drawing as it will from the previous experience. One they potentially didn’t even realise they were getting.
Genre is just a widely-understood set of story tropes and our innate knowledge of those tropes bridges what ever boundaries exist between us.
There is a moment from my year as an MA writing student that haunts me and I bring it up a lot because, for lack of a less wanky phrase, it was a moment of social awakening.
As part of the course, we were split into groups and had to individually develop characters in a sitcom. I got given the everyman lead character in my group, and I made him black. I remember that decision clearly because when doing it, it felt like I was being deliberately antagonistic. Which was a bloody weird way to feel. Like I’d internalised the neutrality of whiteness and any other race as “statement.” I’d already caught myself saying “I want to write stories about Asian characters, but also normal stories as well” earlier in the course and wanted to throw up over myself when I realised I’d done so so I stuck with the decision, interested to see what would happen.
We went back into class the next week and explained how we had enriched our respective characters. When I mentioned the details of what I’d done with mine, both the tutor and a fellow student said words to the effect of “Oh no, I didn’t see him as black.” And no-one else seemed to find this a problematic statement. To be clear: it would not have impacted the narrative in any significant way. It wasn’t a show about race. Yet that was the casual reaction from my peers. From my instructors. Now I don’t think they’re bad people for that, it just demonstrated to me how deep the unconscious bias sits. Characters of Colour (as it were) feel unable to be platforms from which to tell “everyman” stories. It’s not quite a “yuck factor” but in the moment it really didn’t feel far off.
It isn’t just me worrying about this, of course. On a scheme I was a part of last year, I had a long conversation with an American writer of Mexican extraction. He was a phenomenal writer (who’s doing big things now so kudos) who said he wanted to write something about his family, but felt it wouldn’t be considered American enough. I was very much “Dude, America as a state is an immigrant nation – any story is American. The lives of Mexican-American families are for everyone to know, indulge in, consume, enjoy.” But of course I know what he meant. You probably know what he meant too, right? It’s inside and out.
Bearing these stories in mind, I want to explain why Aziz Ansari’s new sitcom (?) Master of None is such a big deal to me and why I can finally (hopefully) exorcise that MA story from my mind. You can enjoy MoN as a sharp and witty and insightful sitcom about being a middle-class thirty something in the Big City. And it is that. Kids! Weddings! Friends With Real Jobs! Nothing groundbreaking story-wise. You could watch it all on a long weekend afternoon and have a nice time.
Yet I think for me watching it has been a seminal moment in my writing career and, heck, life. It’s the positive anti-thesis to that awkward classroom five years ago. Does that sound too grand? Right from the opening I knew I was watching something that would mean a lot to me, even if it seemed small potatoes to others. In that first scene, there was a straight Asian man on my screen, existing as a sexual being. I realised I’ve actually seen more gay Asian male characters given sexual characteristics in drama than I ever have hetero characters which is brilliant in one way of course, but I simply hadn’t clocked how much I’d felt that absence.
An idle “checking out” of the series, rapidly turned into an instant binge watch. By episode six I kicked my knackered housemate’s door down and demand he watched it with me. Having both (relatively) recently broken up with people, we cringed in recognition as the broader comedy gave way to hard truth in the brutal arguments Dev had with Rachel, his girlfriend. We both recognised ourselves in that relationship. Both of us. Keep that in your head, it becomes important later.
I should probably state right now that I don’t say this all as an Ansari fanboy. If anything, knowing him mainly from his standup, I used to find his delivery mildly annoying and his whackier physicality (and voices) not particularly funny. In contrast, I laughed out loud a lot whilst watching Master of None. It might be that I grew familiar with Ansari’s style and accepted it, it might be the more humane touches that he applies to the work that lets you in beyond the “front”. You can feel the Louie influence in this series, even if this is very much its own beast.
But I also think though I was just enjoying being able to fully identify with a lead character’s predicaments for once, in nearly every sense and having their predicaments in their entirety be the central point of empathy for the show. I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones. Here, in this show, was the first time I’m properly seen a modern Western Asian character in the mainstream that a majority white audience would have to engage with as their anchor in a show. The “mainstream” part of that is important to me.
Here is an admission that is likely not music to the ears of people who I am currently under commission to. As a writer, I’m more driven by the roles I can create, the cultural artefacts that I can make exist than the stories themselves. That’s not to say I don’t care about stories, of course I do, but it’s the potential social shift around them as well as within them that really gets me going and drives me through the doldrums. This is part the stories, part audience development, part placement/marketing and doing all of this in attempt to mainstream marginal narratives seems one of the most important you can do. It feels radical to move those stories into a non-radical frame within the industry/people’s expectations. And when I say I want to mainstream, I mean it to include the entirety of the lives of those characters within those narratives.
That’s a distinction I’ve been making to a lot of my writer friends of late, particularly theatre ones: What I want most of all is not parts that could be played by anyone, I want what I guess I would call the possibility of Stage Four diversity. What are Stages One, Two and Three, you ask? Here is a rough guide that I just made up.
Stage One – Ethnics exist. Somewhere. Usually at the back. They may be doing some cleaning, or maybe have a couple of lines. If they’re in space, they will likely do both before dying horribly by airlock/alien/asteroid.
Stage Two – Ethnics exist. They’ve a significant presence. And an accent. They’re downtrodden folk from a land elsewhere…but hopeful! It might be great. It might be a “crossover hit”. But it’s mostly in a box. In the corner. And it’s something you usually feel like you should see rather than something you want to see. This is more likely than not an art house movie. You probably saw it on a date. It was probably nominated for an Oscar that it didn’t win (or if it did win, people will question why).
Stage Three – Ethnics exist as a main character. Usually not quite the centralcharacter, but up there as significant in a gang show. If they aren’t the lead, they might still have a funny accent. Crucially, if they are the lead, their ethnicity/background doesn’t affect the story in any way. They are led by the plot. They might have been called “Dennis” and renamed to “Dinesh” to meet ethnic quotas. Or a “Gary” that could easily have been white, but you’ve let a black actor play. Less cynically, think Luther. Now there’s a lot to be said for Stage Three. it’s a great and useful space. It’s important that it exists.
Just many consider this the “everyman” space, the Promised Land, and it sort of is. Sort of. But the true everyman experience is…*bing*
Stage Four – Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.
This is the important part, so I’ll say it again with a little more oomph: The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world to the extent that they are not interchangeable but said background doesn’t dominate the broader context and concerns of the show.
To me, this is truest form of integrative, empathetic diversity in storytelling you can create. Everymanning with detail, not erasure. It’s saying in a more complex way than the blank canvas of stage three “Hey! This is someone that doesn’t look necessarily a lot like you or you mates, some of their ways are alien to you, but it’s still you in there.”
Master of None does this, and well. It doesn’t compel you into the character’s journey via an integration story, it’s an intergrated story. It doesn’t ignore the racial/cultural specifics of its characters yet the show is so damn generous with its invariably niche material when it delves into it. For a large part, that’s because it runs said material through its comic set ups which we all get because we all understand comedy. Like the pre-titles sequence of episode two with the two Asian dads (South and East) is amazing and funny and a little heart-rending if you recognise those characters from your life. But as a comic beat, it’s presented as a “parents work hard and kids are such assholes in comparison”. You don’t need to be Asian to recognise the structure of that joke, even if the detail might be lost on you:
On a couple of smaller notes, can I just take a second to say this series *looks* great too. Mostly filmic and the only times this looks like TV is when it wants to. (Even though that aesthetic difference has collapsed in recent years…anyway, for another blog, that). I also love how each episode functions as its own explicit exploration of themes that all feel relevant to me as a young(ish) tech-head in the city. In its construction, it references work I adore, including the awkward character comedy of (good) Woody Allen and the humane pacing of Richard Linklater. There’s even a quasi Before Sunrise episode.
Of course, whilst I think the show is ambitious and interesting beyond its central characters, it isn’t in any way perfect. The very segmented episodes can leave the wider show feeling a little bit uneven. The non-actor parents might annoy (Nida). I love them for their awkward performances, the mum in particular reminds me of my own gran’s discomfort at being filmed, but I get that at least. And yes, Dev is still not quite me. He’s not even the same kinda Indian (Tamil and Gujarati folk being found at complete other ends of the subcontinent) but the cultural identification was still strong. Honestly, even just the visual identification felt like a rush. I don’t think my TV has had to hold the colour brown in the centre of the screen so frequently since I last watched the beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
Master of None nails and transcends everything I’ve wanted to do in my writing, particularly with True Brits, and it *probably* torpedoes a couple of things I had in the works. It probably does what I’ve wanted to do better than I ever will. I don’t care. This feels like a fucking great moment. Maybe this is how some of my friends felt when Girls turned up (Or, for that matter, Michaela Coel’s excellent Chewing Gum, currently on E4.)
I exist in the world that I love. In a way that doesn’t deny background but that anyone can empathise with. And just fucking enjoy if that’s all you want to do. People of all sorts have too, and that matters. It’s rocking it, critically and ratings wise.
Watching Master of None has refreshed me more than a holiday I’m about to go on.