Exercising those muscles...
Directing television is a curly one. There are many things to celebrate in the doing of it. And many tiger traps too… but I’m not gonna talk about those today. My core delight comes from realising the Thing, the Image or Event, usually planted in my head by a script and dragged out (like a kid through a hedge backwards) and made to happen... of course, it never actually does ‘happen’. There is a foolish pleasure in the sleight of hand. My joy in the work comes from taking ownership of the script and so engaging the audience in the whole, that they have no choice but to believe the Thing is true and inevitably happened... which of course it it isn’t and hasn’t... not really.
The process is an arcane and superstition woven cloth, with hard nosed cash-pragmatics being the warp allowing the weft to curl and dance and mystify. The warp defines the length of the piece, the weft creates the dream. Tension and bias create an industrial-dream synthesis. It is a relationship with a chimera, a belief in ghosts. .
So making it, doing the thing, requires balance, knowledge of the tensions that run through the process and using them to pull the whole together. Like any tool, or piece of machinery, there is a learning. The ten thousand pots of the potter, or the ten years of practice at any chosen skill, accounting to portrait painting, demands stamina and determination, and the often a bloody-minded return to the place of insult and hurt. Know you will be ten years older; how lightly you carry that learning and graft will fashion how you do the following decades. It is where I learnt to recognise that there are no second chances. The process will repeat itself, and the second, third or fiftieth time around will never be exactly the same as its predecessor. To make hundreds of the same pot is not to create hundreds of exactly the same piece, it is to improve and make the present one the best it can be. You do not become a machine, you become a potter. The discovery is the importance of change and purpose. At the heart of all drama is curiosity and surprise... for the audience. Freshness and curiosity.
Television dramas are machines, rumbling onwards and onwards. Some are light on the ground, others not so light. Soap operas are the behemoth tankers freighted with story, eyes on a never reached port of calm and peace. They are hard to turn and impossible to stop... as long as the bums continue to hit the Draylon. The panicky call from Frank Zappa reverberates:”That’s right folks, don’t touch that dial!”. Working I focus upon how to create change, transition and surprise in order to keep my bit of the audience entranced and from exercising their need for difference. The implacability of the machine, however inspiring and innovative its origins, inevitably creates inertia and risk aversion of industrial proportions. The hours are long, hard and repetitious, the money is better in other parts of the forest, and inspiration and freshness are hard to find and tough to bring about. On a day in 1989/90 I saw silhouette of my producer, Michael Ferguson, disappearing around the corner of an endless soviet style BBC corridor. With my heart in my mouth I belted after him. My news, when I caught up, was the massive realisation I had to share, “Michael... this script is really shit.” He took a beat, a very short beat, “... and your job, Matthew, is to turn shit into gold”. There are moments when the sea fret clears and the true nature of the rusting tanker reveals itself... this was an early revelation. I didn’t make gold, I didn’t have a philosopher’s stone... still don’t... yet. But they did ask me back to keep the search going.
“Never mind the quality, feel the width”: I have made somewhere between 250 and 300 hours of prime time tv drama, all for a UK audience. It’s taken close to 30 years, and I have no intention of stopping... yet. But, at 63 (this all about numbers this piece!) I have been asked back to where I first was a paid director, onto EastEnders, even then it was five or six years old. Even then it had decided it needed new blood. I was trained up in the dark arts of multi-cam by a delightful director, William Slater, whose wife Mary, plaited different coloured wools together and stuck them to 2p pieces, so I could work out the cable knots a day of studio shooting should end by liberating. Bill was younger then than I am now, all I knew was that there were tectonic shifts happening in my career, I didn’t notice anyone else’s. Naively I didn’t realise, as I am sure he did, that I was being trained up to fill his shoes. He was mostly sweet about it, but the moments of bitter must have been his sea frets clearing away. I am now happily paddling about in deep fog.
The crews I now work are often younger than my children, which is a joy for me. And, maybe a security for them... However it swings out, I am in the extraordinary position of having another go. I am back inside the belly of Albert Square, and it is (still) great fun. And my expectations and experience and resilience are completely different. There came a point in ‘91 when I knew I had to leave. My career was defined by what I left behind me... maybe it still is. Now the simple pleasure of being asked to come back, brings the expectation of working with people I have already come to like, of directing actors who challenge me, playing characters I am getting to move forwards, in spaces the whole country knows. There is a muscle memory that twitches and asks,”what next?”, but, by and large, I am here in this place, doing this work that I value and recognise. The clay running through my fingers is familiar, and I know how to bring out the forms I want. Occasionally bubbles and lumpy bits add grist and deflections. Sometimes it will all collapse and I have to start again. And again my dad’s first rude joke comes back: the old bull and the young bull stand on a hillside looking down at a herd of cows, “Let’s run down and fuck one” says the young bull shifting from hoof to hoof. The old bull chews a bit of grass, “Let’s walk down and fuck ‘em all”. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate the gag. But its a good gag, because it feels true.
There is never an age when muscles that are exercised don’t increase in volume and strength. It’s all relative, but it’s also necessary to exercise as many muscles as you can lay your hands upon.
1 September 2019