Thursday, October 28, 2010

Heidi Thomas nimbly avoids the trapdoors of affectation and false modesty

19th October

There’s a definite sense of excitement in The Cornerhouse tonight, a kind of genteel thrill reverberates around the foyer. The atmosphere is somewhere between an opening night at the theatre – appropriate enough, given Heidi’s background – and the anticipation between the support and headline acts at a concert. You would not be entirely surprised if dry ice was to be deployed. As it is, when Ms. Thomas takes to the stage, she is preceded by a showreel of her ‘greatest hits’, or, as far as I can see, her greatest hits for the BBC.

This, however, is more chat show than Top Of The Pops, with Kate Rowland, the BBC Creative Director for New Writing, ably filling the chair that Parky used to sit in; the one that allows the guest the full focus of the spotlight.

Few would argue with Heidi’s gifts as a writer, whether as an empathetic adaptor of other authors’ work, as with her interpretations of Ballet Shoes and I Capture The Castle, or, as with Lilies, a teller of her own tales, but how will her gifts as a raconteur stand up in front of an audience?

As it turns out, marvellously well. Ms. Thomas is as witty and articulate as any of her creations, nimbly avoiding the trapdoors of affectation and false modesty.

Naturally, we are guided through a potted history of her career, from her early days as a playwright in Liverpool – her first play written, romantically (if inconveniently) enough following a bout of hepatitis – to a television apprenticeship on Soldier Soldier, into a present in which Cranford looms large, and on towards a future encompassing both what (thankfully) nobody on the evening calls a ‘reimagining’ of Upstairs Downstairs and a feature film adaptation of Middlemarch for Sam Mendes.

Along the way, we learn of Heidi’s low opinion of would-be academics who quote the interviews on DVD box sets and (eighty per cent of) television script editors. We are encouraged, too, to consider the striking parallels between a dreary family caravan holiday in Wales and the last days of the Romanovs, awaiting execution in the aftermath of the Revolution.

The latter is deployed as a neat illustration of the way a writer now associated with the past finds a connection with former times. For Ms. Thomas, the important thing is to always remain aware that the period setting is the characters’ present; their future, though knowable to us, an uncertainty.

As the past has become the country in which her writing has been increasingly set, so the adaptation has become the genre by which she has most often journeyed there. Her route, to overextend the metaphor, is to locate the essence of the novel through the ‘sacred moments’ in the absence of which it is no longer itself. These, it emerges, are quite often the scenes she describes as ‘sleevetuggers’; a phrase which paints the picture of the passionate devotee of the book earnestly pulling on Heidi’s cardigan in order to demand that a certain moment simply must be included.

Heidi recounted her satisfaction at being congratulated on the felicity with which she had depicted the harpsichord scene in I Capture The Castle; a scene which does not appear in the novel.

Although she did not develop the theme, she also described adaptation as an act of surgery, peeling away skin and limbs, to create something new in the image of the original. In retrospect, it would have made a good question from the audience; given her facility with period drama, and her talent for bringing characters to life, has she ever considered a Frankenstein?

Perhaps the excitement in The Cornerhouse air was the electricity of creation, after all.

By Desmond Bullen

Desmond is a graduate of the MA course in Screenwriting at the University of Salford. He is a mental health nurse working in substance misuse.

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