David Belbin writes: William Ivory is a playwright and the scriptwriter behind popular TV dramas such as Common as Muck, Burton and Taylor, Torvill and Dean and (my favourite) The Sins. He was a patron of our successful UNESCO bid and is a Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at NTU. When I saw that he’d written one of ITV’s new series of short lockdown drama, Isolation Stories, I had to ask him to contribute to this series. Mike and Rochelle is on ITV tonight at 9pm and I have our TIVO set to record it. Below he talks about how and why he wrote the piece.
14 what, I don’t know. I’m not good with the units for words. Units for alcohol – I’m your man. Then again, they’re simple: stay around 30 a week, you’re laughing, up at 90 (where I was before I stopped) you’re laughing even more. But it’s that crying laughter where you’re also frequently curled up in the corner of your room, naked, having lost interest in a wank and wondering how it came to this. Anyway, that’s a digression – the alcohol units. Not the fact that the piece you’re now reading is in Book Antiqua (if indeed it is, once David has transposed it –Editor’s Note: it’s not, our website uses Overpass exclusively as a font, but William’s favourite can be viewed here)
You see, I’m a man constantly in search of distraction. I struggle to focus on my work at the best of times. So now, the challenge of concentrating on anything other than the current predicament feels an agony of impossibility – and accordingly my procrastination antenna are out and more highly attuned than ever…which is how I’ve spent the last hour and fifteen minutes choosing the bloody typeface.
Of course, the fact I’m finding it especially difficult to bash out a few bon mots or bless the world with another witty aphorism or two, really is neither here nor there, not in the grander scheme of things – not while nurses and doctors and delivery people and bin men and shop workers and a host of others, not only carry on regardless, they do so in pursuit of outcomes which actually matter in our traumatised and needy world- yet even accepting that, it is a truth that within the scope of what we do do, it is a troublesome time to be a writer.
I was speaking to the poet Rory Waterman on the phone the other day, and he summed it up beautifully: “You can’t write about this. But you can’t write about anything except this.” Exactly. Yet in my case, that truth ought to be offset by the fact that both of the screenplays I’m working on presently were started before the pandemic broke out and are set in the past anyway. Ergo, I should be able to carry on regardless. But I can’t. Because the air which used to oxygenate my blood is a little changed, all around, and even though I’m not directly affected by the coronavirus, I, like everybody else I know, feel different.
I’m still getting up at 7 and writing from 9 until 1 and then having a break and then reading a book and then going for a run but nothing is the same. Ironically, all of my friends have been ringing and suggesting just the opposite: “Nothing changes for you, does it? You’re on your own at home all day in the normal run of things, so you’ll just carry on the same as ever.” But you don’t because of that feeling – of difference. And because of the low drone of fact which sits on top of flights of the imagination and intricate plots and frivolous dialogue; the low, relentless note which intones: I am here. I cannot be ignored. And yet I am beyond comprehension. And you cannot write what you do not know. What you do not understand. And you will not understand me for some time yet…
Well, that was my position until very recently. And then Jeff Pope who wrote Stan and Ollie and Philomena (and who is a genius) rang me and said: “I want you to write me something about the pandemic. You’ve got three days. Then, we’ll cast it over the weekend, shoot it Monday and Tuesday, edit ‘til the end of the week, then go out the week after that.” I immediately told him I couldn’t; told him of my reservations; said that while I’d be more than happy to lock horns with the bloody thing on page, as it was all I could really think about, I simply didn’t have the distance to make sense of what was happening and therefore to know what to say about the pandemic. Jeff, as is his way, said: “Don’t be a wanker. Just give us fifteen minutes of what it feels like.”
And that was it, more or less. Forget understanding or significance or meaning, just write how it is, now – and in my case that meant being locked up and worrying and hypochondriacal and vain and…and it was liberating. A chance to NOT be dominated by this thing – to be rendered voiceless and impotent by its implacable presence – and to say to the world, ‘no, it isn’t over yet, we don’t know what it means, we don’t know how it will end but for now, this is how it makes me behave – and if you see something of yourself in that behaviour and if that recognition makes you smile, then already, we’re learning the language of resistance together.’
Isolation Stories: Mike and Rochelle is on ITV tonight (Wednesday 6th May) and available on ITV Player shortly after.