I wrote a script once called Wasps. It did very well for me: opened lots of doors, got me some of the attention you need and it was also very validating. I wrote that, it was received so well, I thought yes, maybe I can do this.
But one thing that kept being said of it was that it showed so clearly that I had done my research. On a Doctor Who once I was told I shouldn't be afraid of showing my library card. You've learnt all this stuff, use it and show us. Wasps was a police drama in a new setting (yes, there really is one) and was quite apparent that I had spent months with this unit.
In truth, I hadn't gone farther than my kitchen. It was a spec script, I'm always more interested in characters than anything else, I wrote real people in a setting that I'd research if we ever went to series.
But it did read as if it were true and I'm not saying this to boast to you. Well, I suppose I am, but it's a pretty feeble boast and if I came in thinking I was great for fooling producers then I'm now uncomfortably embarrassed that I didn't put the work in and even pick up the phone to the police.
What I think I got right was authenticity. The characters were people. There was also a lot of jargon and I don't mind jargon, I think having a short techy word for something long and complex is essential in certain conversations and really handy in drama. It's rare that as a viewer or reader you actually need to know what a spindizzy is and how it physically works. It is the opposite of rare, it is mandatory that you know the character knows. And that it means something, both literally in the sense of the definition of the jargon term and more importantly in that it matters to them.
I'm good with dialogue and I've been around enough jargon that I can hear it both as the rhythms of someone's speech and as the technical words. So for a placeholder, I made up some terms for these police characters. It was a helicopter unit and I've flown helicopters – now, doesn't that sound like a boast? It wouldn't if you knew how little I'd done. Man, the cost. Rotor time is the easiest way to burn cash outside of an Apple Store.
But did you see what I did there? I admitted an interest, an effort, a failing and gave you a glimpse into my financial state – and I used the term 'rotor time'. Odds to onions, you hadn't heard that before. Doubtlessly you can work out what it means but you didn't bother, you read it and accepted it. It sounded real, it sounded authentic.
It was. It is. I knew all the helicopter stuff so all my characters knew it too. Whereas I have not one possible clue where the phrase 'odds to onions' just came from but I accepted it, didn't you?
(Quick aside? Jargon's jargon, fine, but sometimes it is gorgeous. The rotors on a helicopter spin 600 times per minute and they are attached to what's called a mast. You can imagine the forces going on there as that machinery spins. It's as likely to wrench the whole helicopter around one way as it is to spin the blades the other. That's why you have tail rotors: they fight the machine being spun. And two-rotor choppers like Chinooks don't need tail rotors because their two main rotors are spun in opposite directions.
Still, imagine that torture on the helicopter. Pounding, pounding stresses.
And there is a nut and bolt that keep the rotors attached to the mast. Pilots and engineers call it the Jesus Nut – because if it ever fails on you, the next person you'll see is Jesus Christ in heaven.
Isn't that wonderful? That's what you get from real research. So I'm not knocking real research at all and therefore I really am not boasting that I fooled a few people by making up onions.)
What I am saying is that Wasps was authentic.
Authenticity: if you can fake that, you've got it made.
This is all on my mind and I wanted to talk it through with you because I was in a conversation last night with a friend who had a play on at the Rep Foundry, a night organised by the Birmingham Rep theatre. His piece is a true story and, wow, you can tell. It really takes you somewhere new – new to me anyway – and into a slice of recent history that is teeming with drama. But in chatting afterwards, he was arguing that writers have to be true.
I completely agree.
What I couldn't quite articulate with him last night, because I don't think I realised I thought it, was that there's no reason you can't lie about being true.
There's truth and there's reality. A key reason I prefer drama to journalism is that in journalism you try to make things simple: this person did that for this reason at that time. In drama, you embrace the fact that there are no facts. That this person or that person may or may not have done this or that. And if they did it, they may not know why. The world is an utterly delicious mess and drama gets that.
I was watching an episode of the US legal drama Suits this week and something bad happens to a key character. I don't know if Suits is technically and legally accurate, I do know that it feels authentic, but this bad thing – I don't want to spoil it, sorry to be vague – cut into me. Lawyers in New York, it cut me even though it could not be a more alien world if it were Star Trek.
Though, that's a thought. There was a gimmicky Star Trek once where Scotty came back and guest-starred in The Next Generation. Fine, whatever. Gimmick. Only, here was this starship engineer recalled to life through transporter technobabble and facing intergalactic peril yet it was moving. Nuts to all the Starfleet uniforms, all everything did in that setting was get us to where the story really was. This Scotty had been the ace engineer – "the engines canna take it, Captain!" – and here he was decades in the future where his skills have been superseded. Where he is a curiosity at best and a danger at worst.
He wants to help save the day in whatever the story of the week science fiction threat was against the USS Enterprise. That was the plot but the drama was that he couldn't. This science fiction trope of a character was suddenly an old man burning to recapture glory days that had ended so soon and before he'd noticed. He was worker who could no longer work. Everything this character was and needed now wasn't.
It was desperately moving. I think it had a Starfleet-happy ending and naturally the Enterprise survived whatever it was. Can't remember. Don't care. But twenty years since I've seen it, I remember the feeling.
Because it wasn't real, but it was true.