Sunday, 12 October 2008

WHEN LINDSAY ANDERSON TORE ME A NEW ONE

Ah, Cherie! The Blessed Cherie Lunghi. I had Sunday lunch with her, many years ago, when I was what you might call a callow youth.

She exuded femininity. She radiated softness and perfume, like a living ad for fabric conditioner. It was intoxicating. I just wanted to snuggle up to her. I would have gladly let her stand on my chest, if she'd suddenly felt the need to do so.

I went more or less straight from Sunday lunch in Kensington with the lovely Cherie to afternoon tea at Lindsay Anderson's place in Hampstead.

Two things I quickly spotted about Lindsay Anderson's house. 1) he was a fan of John Ford, and 2) his home life was rather chaotic.

I should explain. One of my best friends at drama school had an uncle who was a movie star. Said movie star had seen some work of mine and wanted me to write him a movie. Basically, he wanted to play a cop. American or British, didn't matter. Something a bit 'noir'. Oh, and he wanted a treatment.

A treatment?

What the feck's a treatment?

I tried to find out. There didn't seem to be many books around about screenwriting (my, how things have changed!) but I deduced, from an old copy of 'Writers and Artists Yearbook', that a treatment was between 30 and 60 pages long.

I had to write between 30 and 60 pages about my script - without actually writing the script. Okay, cool ...

After Sunday lunch in the presence of the eternal feminine (ah, Cherie!) we were off to see Lindsay Anderson, who would be going through my crude attempt at a film treatment with me. We sat around a large, round table in the corner of a large, somewhat old-fashioned kitchen - me, movie star, Anderson - and he started pulling my work to pieces.

A few minutes in and I thought that maybe the best thing all round would be if I politely excused myself, stepped outside and put a bullet through my brain.

I told myself that I was not going to cry, not under any circumstances.

I even began to stand my ground. I would suppose this was about 30 to 45 minutes into the mauling. I didn't get belligerent, because I was convinced that Mr Anderson was perfectly capable of sticking a big pin through me, dipping me in formaldehyde and displaying me in a glass case as a warning to other young screenwriters.

After an hour or so, movie star himself started standing up for me. I was young - I was from Birmingham (which, back in those days, counted as a Special Need) - at least I'd written something, unlike Anderson's regular writer, whose speciality was not actually writing things.

But, evidently, my treatment was an object lesson in everything that a treatment should not be. I think it was possibly about the right length, but that's it. Everything I had come up with was unfilmable. (At one point, sniggering, he turned to movie star and said, 'Maybe we should send this to what's-his-name, down the road - Nic Roeg - see if he could do anything with it.' So callow, so naive was I, that I didn't see the heavy irony in this; I just thought, 'Do you think Nic Roeg would be interested?')

Anyway, Lindsay Anderson treated me and my script treatment rather like a Rottweiler might treat a soft toy. He became a bit more avuncular towards the end. But I had been roasted, dissected, slapped and poleaxed, repeatedly run over, forwards and reverse, and given a darn good pasting.

I didn't cry. I wrote a screenplay - which had nothing to do with my treatment - and that got me my first five years of professional script work.

Treatments are a complete waste of time, as I will prove in some other posting.

But, on many a future occasion, in a script meeting or on the phone to a script editor, whenever I heard the words, 'We're sorry about all these notes, it sounds like it's really wrong, but the truth is we think the script's great, it's just that ...' I would always say, 'Look, it's okay, nothing you can say about my script can hurt me. I had afternoon tea with Lindsay Anderson.'

Impervious to criticism? No, not quite. Ignorant criticism is actually very destructive - and pervasive, in the industry these days. But Lindsay certainly toughened me up. Perhaps that had been what the exercise was all about.

As for Cherie Lunghi, someone really should name a hospital after her. And there's that spare plinth in Trafalgar Square ...

2 comments:

ted stratford said...

I once met Sussanah York who had exactly the same effect on me.
However you missed out the bit about feeling totally inadequate.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I really hate writing treatments so much, it's like pulling teeth out.

I'd rather write a one-page synopsis, thankyouverymuch.