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My first plays were all for radio, and happened at about the time I began writing, in the late 70s. At the time I had been seconded to BBC Radio Sheffield to write and produce programmes for schools, and in those two years I learnt a great deal from the education producer, Dave Sheasby, about radio drama. I soon began writing plays for BBC Radio 4 as well, starting with original plays and then moving on to dramatisations of my own novels, then on to adaptations of children’s classics. I think radio is a wonderful medium to write for, inviting as it does both writer and listener to use their imaginations, to ‘see’ with their mind’s eye. Later I began writing for theatre and television too, and they all have their own challenges and excitements.
Questions from Brian Podmore (Writing in Education)
Q Tell us about the moments when you realise that you are wanting to take an idea/germ towards drama rather than towards poem or story/novel.
A When I began writing I was interested in drama rather than fiction. More often than not, these days, plays that I write are commissioned and the novels/stories/poems just happen. My first play was for Radio 4 (The Drowned Village) and at that time (early 80s) radio was my great love. It didn’t even occur to me to write it as a novel – I could hear the voices, the sound effects etc – I just knew it was a radio piece. I was then commissioned to write a play for Sheffield Crucible Theatre (Vanguard), and from then I’ve gone on writing plays for theatre, radio, television and publication at about the same rate that I’ve been writing fiction, but most have been commissioned and many have been dramatisations of my own or other people’s novels. The exciting thing about play-writing, for me, is in developing a drama from an idea that already exists in another form. It’s a technical challenge, and it’s a very creative process. But to get back to the question, my moment of choice would be entirely intuitive, just as the choice between poetry or novel or short story would be.
Q Does a principal pleasure and impetus for playwriting (as against other forms of writing) come from anticipating a) the collaboration involved in bringing a play to fruition or b) the subsequent audience response?
A The actual first lonely process of writing a play is a pleasurable one in itself. A play by its very nature has to be very much more structured than a novel (a commission will specify length, size of cast, performance space etc). I never plan novels but I plan plays very thoroughly. A huge part of the enjoyment then comes from the discussions/developments with the producer and director, the designer and composer and all the members of the production team who bring their own skills and care into realising the play, and then, wonderfully, from the bringing to life of my characters by the actors. I can’t begin to tell you how exciting that is. Seeing the play in performance, sitting with the audience, whether in a theatre or a school, is a terrifying and deeply rewarding experience.
Cotton Grass Theatre commissioned me to write a ghost play set in Derbyshire, where they and I are based. We talked about the many haunted houses and the various legends about ghosts in the county, but felt it would be exciting to write something completely original. I live in the dark peak, just below the brooding Kinder plateau, and I became interested in the many rumours and factual evidence of plane crashes in the area. I visited the site of one and was moved to discover that so much remains after sixty years that it has become a place of pilgrimage and reflection. It is easy to imagine how a plane could get lost up there on the high moors. Often when planes fly along our valley a trick of light or a swirl of curtaining mist will make them appear to fly right into the side of the mountain – I have seen this myself many times, and have caught my breath in disbelief.
Not far away, over the Pennines in Manchester, AV Roe was designing and building aeroplanes at the beginning of the twentieth century. I went to see a replica of his famous Avro triplane in the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology and there it was, waiting for me – the inspiration for my play! It is a dragonfly of a plane, beautiful and terrifyingly fragile. How could anyone dare to fly in it, so exposed to the elements? It had a range of only half a mile – but my play is fiction, and the pilot of my story may or may not have been alive, after all.
Thin Air 2012 tour of England, Feb–April:
Director: Joyce Branagh
- Tony: Laurence Aldridge
- Collie: David Westbrook
- Sophie: Helena Coates
- Will: Mark Roberts
- Helen: Susan Daniel
…Densely plotted, numinous, atmospheric, and just the right blend of the quotidian and the supernatural. A great evening.
Thin Air was brill… very emotional… I even shed a real tear. All this despite the difficulties the space (stage) presented… I thought the acting was superb.
My wife, our grandson and I were at the performance on Tuesday in Derby. We thought every aspect of the drama was superb, the writing, the acting, the ingeniousness props and the use thereof. Such powerful acting also makes elaborate scenery a distraction. There were magical moments in your performance and we cannot think of any single thing we would have altered.
Dramatisations of my novels
See my novel The Snake-Stone.
Fifteen-year-old James is mad about diving and trains hard. He has a natural talent and his dad encourages him to aim high. But James has always known he is adopted, and now he decides to find his birth mother and his true identity. He sets out alone, on the journey of a lifetime…
The idea for The Snake-stone came from one of my other novels, Dear Nobody. I was asked to dramatise it for the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and one day in rehearsals the actor playing Chris, the teenage hero, said to me, “There’s a line you give me in this play that reminds me of a week in my life.”
“What’s the line?” I asked, already fascinated. “And what was the week?”
“The line is ‘I’m nothing to my mother now. I’m a speck of dust, and I’ve blown away.’ And the week was when I took a break from college to go in search of my mother. I’m adopted, you see.”
He had me hooked. I decided that my next novel would be about a boy going in search of his natural mother, and that the journey he makes would be a journey of self-discovery. But I also wanted to write the story of his mother, and I decided to make her the same age as he is now, both fifteen. The novel was published by Hamish Hamilton and is a Collins paperback, and then OUP invited me to dramatise it for this series. At the end of the play there are several pages of related activities.
This is the full script of the play, based on my Carnegie medal winning novel about a teenage pregnancy, winner of the Writers Guild Award for Children’s Theatre. It was commissioned for the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, and first performed there in 1991.
Resource material researched and devised by Rachel O’Neill.
Deals maturely and illuminatingly with a vital subject for young people… ideal for school production… highly recommended.
Times Educational Supplement
Sadly, the play edition of Dear Nobody is no longer available, although you may be able to find secondhand copies on Amazon or elsewhere.
A dramatisation of my novel (about a homeless urchin who meets up with Doctor Barnardo) with many parts for classroom or full stage production use. Resource material for schools is researched and devised by Stephen Cockett.
Adapted with Cotton Grass Theatre. Extensively toured in 2011.
Sadly, the play edition of Street Child is no longer available, although you may be able to find secondhand copies on Amazon or elsewhere.
Granny Was a Buffer Girl
A dramatisation of my Carnegie medal-winning novel.
It is the day of Jess’s departure for a gap year in France – her opportunity to get to know herself and to enjoy a freedom that her parents and grandparents never had. Family secrets are shared, bringing the past vividly to life. Many speaking parts for full stage or classroom use. Extensive resource material devised by Stephen Crockett.
Sadly, the play edition of Granny Was a Buffer Girl is no longer available, although you may be able to find secondhand copies on Amazon or elsewhere.
A dramatisation of the RD Blackmore classic, with resource material devised and researched by Toby Satterthwaite.
Sadly, Lorna Doone is no longer available, although you may be able to find secondhand copies on Amazon or elsewhere.
A short play for Juniors in which the ancient guardian of a field chooses the right person to buy it.
Sadly, Morgan’s Field is no longer available, although you may be able to find secondhand copies on Amazon or elsewhere.
- Home (Unwin Hyman Education Stage Write, 1982)
- A Case for Probation (Hutchinson Education, 1986). Originally written for radio, about a teenage girl who sets fire to the local community centre.
Plays on other media
Plays on video
- White Peak Farm (BBC schools). Originally transmitted on BBC Children’s television, directed by Andrew Morgan. It is based on my novel about a farming family who begin to go their separate ways. It can currently be seen on YouTube: episode 1 • episode 2 • episode 3
- Children of Winter (Channel 4 schools). Based on my novel about three children who survive the Plague of Eyam.
- Dear Nobody (adapted by Richard Cameron from my novel) (BBC schools)
- Zzaap and the Word Master (BBC schools). Accompanied by a novel and story book, the adventures of two children trapped inside a computer game by Victor Virus.
Plays on audio cassette
- The Water Babies (adapted from the novel by Charles Kingsley), with Tim West (BBC Audio Tapes)
- Heidi (adapted from the novel by Johanna Spyri) (BBC Audio Tapes)
Full list of plays broadcast and performed
Plays for television
- White Peak Farm, BBC 1, 1988
- Children of Winter, Channel 4, Jan 1994
- Zzaap and the Word Master, BBC 2, 2001
Plays for BBC Radio
- The Drowned Village, BBC Radio 4, 1980. My first radio play. This was a thirty minute play directed by Kay Patrick, and is a fantasy based on the drowned village of Derwent under Ladybower reservoir in Derbyshire.
- Requiem, BBC Radio 4, 1982. Directed on location by Kay Patrick. This play began as a short story and later became a full-length novel (Penguin group). An Irish girl rejects her Catholicism, her home and her family as she tries to discover who she really is.
- Sacrifice, BBC Radio 4, 1985. Directed by Kay Patrick. Began as a short story for Radio 4. A group of young people hold a weekend party in remote Scotland. They intend to sacrifice a pig, but one of the children goes missing.
- There’s a Valley in Spain, BBC Radio 4, 1990. Directed by Kay Patrick. An adaptation from my theatre play Return to the Ebro, about a Manchester man, Sam Wild, who joins the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. As an old man, he looks back on what mattered to him in his life.
- Dear Nobody, BBC Radio 4, 1993. A dramatisation from my novel.
- Dear Nobody, BBC Radio 4 schools
- The Snow Queen, BBC Radio 4, 1994. Directed by Janet Whitaker. With Diana Rigg and Dirk Bogarde. A dramatisation from the Hans Andersen story.
- Heidi, BBC Radio 4, 1996. Directed by Janet Whitaker, dramatisation from the Johanna Spyri novel.
- The Water Babies, BBC Radio 4, 1999. Directed by Janet Whitaker, with Tim West. Dramatisation from Charles Kingsley.
- Unlucky for Some, BBC Radio Sheffield, 1980
- Numerous short plays for BBC Radio Sheffield schools from 1979–1982
Plays for BBC4 schools’ radio
- Home, BBC Radio schools 1982 (published) Unwin Hyman Education Stage Write, 1982
- The White Bird of Peace, BBC Radio 4 schools, 1983
- Morning Coach to Morgantown, BBC Radio 4 schools, 1983
- A Case for Probation, BBC Radio 4 schools 1983 Hutchinson Education, 1986
- Miss Elizabeth, BBC Radio 4 schools, 1985
- The Mouse and his Child (dramatisation of Russell Hoban’s novel) BBC Radio 4 schools, 1986
- Dream of Unicorns (later Spellhorn), BBC Radio 4 schools, 1988
- The Sad Poet, BBC Radio 4, 1982
- Children of Winter (dramatisation of my novel), BBC Radio 4 schools, 1988
- Granny Was a Buffer Girl (dramatisation of my novel), BBC Radio 4 schools, 1990
- Street Child (abridged by Alan Brown), BBC Radio 4 schools, 2003
- Children of Winter (abridged by Alan Brown), BBC Radio 4 schools, 2004
Plays for theatre
- Return to the Ebro, first performed Manchester Library Theatre, 1986
- Dear Nobody, first performed Sheffield Crucible Theatre 1983. Directed by Mandy Smith. Winner of the Writers’ Guild Award for Children’s theatre. Collinseducation Plays plus 1996
- The Sleeping Beauty, New Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, 1993. Directed by Rob Swain.
- Sleeping Beauty, performed widely.
This appeared on Facebook recently and I found it really interesting as I hadn’t seen it before. It brings back very powerful memories of the research I did and the connections I made when I was commissioned to write the play. Thanks to Mike Wild for letting me use the image. His father was Sam Wild, whose story inspired the play.
If you’d like more information and to listen to the play ‘Return to the Ebro’, see this blog.
Plays for community theatre
- Smells and Spells, Sheffield, 1980
- Howard’s Field, Sheffield Crucible 1979, (later Morgan’s Field, CollinsEducation 1995)
- Tilly Mint and the Dodo Dac, Doncaster schools tour
- A Growing Girl’s Story, Yorkshire Art Circus tour, 1989
- The Amazing Journey of Jazz O’Neill, Hull, 1984
- Memories, Halifax, 1992