I first met Alan Plater in the mid-1980s and if you can ever pull it off, this is the way to meet someone who’s going to become a friend: I interviewed him. It was for a long piece in the BFI’s television magazine, Primetime, and it was thirty ways exciting: my first long piece, my first writing about drama, actually one of my first pieces of journalism, and certainly the first time interviewing someone I was a fan of.
That doesn’t always go well, mentioning no names Trevor Eve, but it did then. I was a little bit starstruck. I remember right now this moment, talking to you, that I was drawn then to the walls of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had in the flat they lived in at the time. And I realise right now, just glancing up, that I went the same way, that I got the shelves and I got the books and they mean everything to me.
Never got a dog, though. I can picture Shirley bringing Alan and I a cup of tea and being surprised that we’d got down to the interview so nervously fast. And her not being surprised that their dog, the Duke, had plonked himself across my feet, pinning me down and just being so warm that it was lovely.
It’s perhaps too obvious to say that the whole afternoon was much the same but I’ll say it anyway. The Duke was very heavy. The interview was not. The peg for the piece was that The Beiderbecke Connection was due shortly on ITV, the third and final of Alan’s four tales about a woodwork teacher and an English one. If you’ve seen the Beiderbecke trilogy until your off-air tapes have worn out, get the DVD: it includes Get Lost!, a precursor to the show you remember.
I learnt all this on that day and, really, next time you meet someone, interview them. Somehow the brief for the piece ranged very wide and I pumped this nice guy for details of everything, his entire career and life. Yet still we had time to meander off onto other topics. He was adamant that he’d never change from a typewriter to a word processor, adamant. Also remarkably persuasive: I was then a nascent version of the geek I am today and even I could see his arguments.
The next time I saw him he’d bought a PC. I helped him onto a Mac later but never got him onto an iPhone. Shirley secretly fancies an iPad, I can tell you that.
I don’t remember anything else about the second time we met. But it was dark when I was leaving their flat that first afternoon and it must’ve been December because I can still picture Shirley at their door, asking if I minded popping a pile of Christmas cards into the postbox downstairs. I can picture the corridor outside their flat, I can just about picture the cards. I can’t see the postbox so clearly. I’m suddenly worrying about that.
The article had two mistakes in it. All these years later, I remember the mistakes. But then that’s little to do with Alan and Shirley, I just remember mistakes and berate myself in the middle of the night for errors ten years in the past. You can’t believe the cockups I did once or twice at BBC Ceefax; I can see my editor there, the dear and tremendous Lucie Maguire, gently starting to tell me what I’d done and I can feel my legs going the way they did.
I see a lot, don’t I? Remember a lot. Strikingly clearly, sometimes. Not always over important things, not always for an understandable reason. But certainly over people and times that matter to me.
Such as the handwriting on the letter that so sweetly told me I’d made those mistakes: Shirley and Alan having no interest in whether I got something right or wrong about them, but keen to make sure I knew my jazz history. If you ever find the BFI piece online and read it, let me know so I can tell you what I got wrong about Ellington.
Strange to think of handwriting and letters when it feels now as if Alan, Shirley and I have always emailed a lot. That letter’s long gone, I’m not one to keep mementoes and anyway what would’ve felt like one then doesn’t now: at some point and quickly, Alan went from an interviewee to a friend.
He read my first ever stab at a script, a piece called The Strawberry Thief. Still a good title. Still a rubbish script. And he said so. But he said so in such a way that I was inevitably going to pick myself up and have another go. He told me then that the stage directions I’d written had often made him laugh out loud and that I should get that into the dialogue where viewers would see it. When I did, he told me it was a great step for writerkind.
It is to my now permanent regret that I didn’t get further with my writing while he could see it. I can point to a hundred things I’ve done, including television like Crossroads, certainly to all the journalism and stage pieces – years later Alan and Shirley came up to Birmingham to see my very first one, came during a busy time, came for just about exactly the two hours it took to see my play and get back to the train – and not only can I point to these things, but I do and I will. Still I’ve not achieved what I wanted, what I think he wanted for me, what I sometimes like to think he expected. You didn’t have to say much on the day he died to make me choke, but a text from a friend did it and does it still: Andrea Gibb told me to go get drama work in his memory.
I will. I should tell you immediately that for all regret and all hope for the future, it is to my permanent and cherished and unshakeable pride that I am a better writer because of Alan Plater.
After my brother died, I took my mother to Leeds to see a play of Alan’s and to finally meet him and Shirley. While I was at the bar, they talked to her about writing and writers and how there are some people who have it, who are writers, and there are those who just don’t and never will. They told my mother that I had it, that I was a writer.
As much as that means to me, it also amuses me that I know because they very soon blabbed to me that they’d said this and my mother eventually mentioned it too. There were other things going on, other things rather monopolising thoughts but I also think she was processing it. I am too.
A quick, unexpected memory. I once gave Alan a lift from a talk he had given, one of the myriad talks he gave to writers everywhere, and the conversation became unexpectedly awkward, I felt for a second like I was right back to being the fan interviewing a hero. And I realised why: we had such similar views on whatever the conversation was about, doubtlessly drama, that I sounded sycophantic. “Thank God I don’t like football,” I told him, “because otherwise we agree on everything.”
The last time I saw Alan he was trying to watch the World Cup and to explain something or other to me about football, again. I promise I waited until the little men with the ball thing had finished, though I’m not always sure what’s a highlight, a repeat or just the same boring patch of grass. Might’ve been a goal. Then while he paid as little attention to ITV1’s presenters as everyone else, we meandered again.
For some reason, and I do not remember why, we meandered onto the topic of Misterioso. I knew and you know that Alan wrote a stunning amount, that his body of work is incredible. I knew that then and I was still surprised to hear at the funeral how little I knew of it all. Hundreds of pieces of TV, stage, film, books, music. Any single one piece of which you’d be exultant to have written yourself. And when, inevitably, there is debate over what was his best, the contenders are lined up from here to the Mexican border.
I can’t tell you if Misterioso is his best, it’s probably not: the version that means so much to me is the original novel and that’s a quiet, soft, gentle piece I’ve only read twenty times since it came out. “Bless you,” said Alan on that last time I saw him, “I haven’t read it since I wrote it.” I informed him then that it wasn’t his any more, it was mine. Tough. It’s long felt like that: I know I can hear his voice in the writing but it’s that story and that way of telling it with these characters that make this a book I hold close to me. I’ve probably recommended it to you already, that’s how much I like it. And you’ve probably been disappointed because it’s not been in print for years and you’re never getting my hardback.
Nor has the TV version been released on DVD. Alan and Shirley got me a copy a few years ago and it is at this moment on my iPad. At the time they were both disappointed that the project had become a one-off instead of the serial they’d intended and I should have been disappointed because this was a TV adaptation of a book I loved. That rarely works out but here it’s as if I have two Misteriosos, one a dear book and one a dear TV film. Come round my place some time, with all its books and bookshelves, and I’ll show it to you.
Bring lunch. You’ll have to watch The Beiderbecke Affair too. And Fortunes of War, the joyously beautifully perfect Fortunes of War. The last lines of which made me cry then and do today, do right this second as I remember them: not because they’re sad, not because they’re a weepie melodrama, but because they are right.
I told you I’m not one for mementoes. I told you that Alan Plater became a friend, became family really, and so much so that it’s hard to remember just being a fan all those years ago. But there is a memento, just one.
The watch I was wearing that day I met Alan broke a short while afterwards but I kept it anyway. Because I’d worn it that day. I wore it again last Monday at his funeral.