Manor House Station to Gibson Square

Perhaps ten or twelve years ago now, there was a comment on the internet that was wrong. I know. But this one stuck with me because it was so wrong that I took it as a personal affront even though it wasn’t directed at me, wasn’t about me, wasn’t about anything or anyone that had the slightest connection to me.

Except it did. It was a comment about drama and specifically about Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 television play The Knowledge. If you saw it, you remember it. This is the one following a group of people learning to become London cab drivers. The Knowledge is the name for the real-life process cabbies go through, a stunning test of human memory.

From Rosenthal’s script:

BURGESS at the wall map

BURGESS: As laid down by the London Hackney Carriage Act of 1843, all the Knowledge means is that you commit to memory every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. Every street – and what’s on every street. Every hotel, every club, every hospital, every department store, every shop, government building, theatre, cinema, restaurant, art gallery, park, church, synagogue, mosque etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And etcetera. You name it, you’ve got to know it.

This is all true and it still is today but here’s Rosenthal talking about turning the Knowledge into a drama:

“…it sounded a fascinating idea. Or – as usual – half a fascinating idea. I took a cab back home to sit and worry about it in comfort, and a few weeks later, the second half shyly suggested itself. It was simply to people the story with characters who, in doing the Knowledge, would achieve some glimmering of self-knowledge.”

That quote is from his book, The Chain with The Knowledge and Ready When You Are, Mr McGill. It’s a trio of scripts in a book I’ve had for thirty years and have re-read so often that it’s dog-eared. It’s a favourite book and I’m minded of it now, talking to you, because I’ve been trying to read a script a day this year.

You can argue that this resolution hasn’t gone well. Today is the 130th day of 2018 – sorry to break that to you – and I just finished reading my 299th script. It’s a failure of discipline but I can live with it.

Script number 289, last Saturday, was The Knowledge. I’ve got the broadcast show somewhere but I think on VHS so I had a look for some clips on YouTube. I only found the entire play there. When I play this now the video leaps to about 24 minutes in. I didn’t ask it to. Scroll back to the start and get yourself some tea.

I’m uncomfortable that someone’s work is just chucked on YouTube for free but I did buy the script, I did buy the VHS, I don’t believe The Knowledge is commercially available and, besides, there was no possible way I could stop myself watching.

You can over-praise something but, on consideration, The Knowledge is perfect. Well, I’m not certain about the theme song, I feel that’s dated a bit, but otherwise it’s perfect in the way that I think television drama should be. You’re just entirely and completely with these characters in that story, you’re not conscious how well constructed it all is.

By god, though, it’s a masterclass in writing. Every beat, every syllable is precisely placed and then I think also precisely acted. Nigel Hawthorne played Mr Burgess and that speech of his about what the Knowledge is ought to be death for any actor.

It’s exposition and if you think that’s a long speech, it is only a fraction of the full thing. Hang on, let me check. Burgess enters on page 86 of the paperback and with flashbacks to how various characters got to be there, he finishes his speech on page 94.

No current television drama would allow that and they’d say because it’s too long, too boring. I’m afraid I think Rosenthal is evidence that the reason is few people can write that well. The flashbacks are substantial but still, the sheer tonnage of information Mr Burgess gives out is overwhelming yet beat after beat, line after line, pause after pause, it is mesmerising.

Then just to demonstrate his skill in dialogue, Rosenthal will next have a scene with maybe one exchange between two characters. Just one exchange but it tells you a bit of plot if necessary plus you get the entire character of both people, you understand their world view, you see how they’re actually diametrically opposed and yet also how they don’t realise that.

And then the lead character of the play, Chris (Mick Ford), will set off on his scooter to learn the first route that London cabbies have to know. Manor House Station to Gibson Square.

CHRIS: One down. Only four hundred and fifty-nine to go.

Here’s the internet comment that so rankled me that it came back to mind the moment I knew I wanted to talk to you about The Knowledge. Someone somewhere said that to enjoy The Knowledge at all, you have to be a London cabbie.

For the first and I believe last time, I replied to an internet eejit. I wrote a sentence giving the letter F a three-star rating.

When I pitch a drama idea or even when I’m just thinking about one, the first thing I’m likely to say is what it’s about. But then I say that as fast as I can because what I really want to get onto is the next part: what it’s really about.

Thirty-nine years after it aired and after I first saw it, I’m still trying to write as well as The Knowledge. And I’m also still intending to go from Manor House Station to Gibson Square one day.

The joys of YouTube being what they are, though, someone has already done it for me.

Back to the past

On Monday I went back to what was BBC Television Centre, one of those iconic buildings that you know will last forever – and instead was closed down five years ago. I thought I’d never go back because I thought it would never be there: I believed that it was going to be knocked down and replaced by luxury flats.

It’s been partly knocked down and mostly replaced by these flats. But the facade remains and when it’s fully reopened the statue of Ariel will still be in the centre of what was called the doughnut. That was the famous circular centre with production offices, that was the circular centre I spent months walking around before finding I was going the wrong way.

I am really deeply torn.

You can’t conjure up an atmosphere in a building, you can’t make it famous and important. You can throw all that away and I do think the BBC did: they sold it off, rented it back for a while and then let it go.

Only, now they’re renting a bit of it back.

If you stand in the front of the building and look ahead, you see the old circular doughnut done up with new red cladding. Look to your right and you see an entire, huge section of office building has been replaced by an identically-sized stretch of apartments.

But look to your left and you’ve got the old studios 1, 2 and 3.

The old TC1, TC2 and TC3 are still there. And now they’re being used.

I think Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two goes live to air five days a week from TC2 and I think some music show is shortly to launch in TC1.

But I can tell you that on Monday and for the next couple of months, TC3 is home to Pointless. Because that’s what I went to see.

Okay, no, I went to see Television Centre. But I was expecting to be profoundly unhappy at seeing the shell of this building and I needed something I’d like to see or I wouldn’t have gone. Wouldn’t have been able to face it.

And Pointless is fun: I think it’s startling that I saw the recording of something like episodes 1,221 and 1,222 but I had a good time. A head-jolting time as I recognised one of the production team from when I was back at TVC before.

That was disturbing. That reminded me that I know it’s better to be crew than passenger, that it’s better to be making a show than watching one.

But I also left reasonably contented that for the moment, TVC retains its slightly falling-apart feel. True, it used to be because it was slightly falling apart and now it’s because they haven’t finished rebuilding it.

If all of this truly had to happen then I think they’re doing it well. I just miss that place and I miss the me that used to work there so very much.

Shelve your ideas

So some preposterous number of years ago, I interviewed Alan Plater at his then home, a spectacular flat in London. I was very young and rather nervous but wowed by how massive this place was and, especially, how full of bookshelves he and his wife Shirley Rubinstein had it. I wanted the flat, I wanted the bookshelves.

I particularly wanted the bookshelves. I’m not sure I could’ve vocalised this then, I suspect I just drooled, but it seemed a pretty perfect kind of place to live in.

Did I mention the size?

I came away thinking that London flats are superb and that bookshelves are fantastic. I was right about one of those things. While Alan and Shirley’s flat was glorious, it was actually two flats. They were knocked together into one long one and in fact few people in London live like that.

Shirley and Alan became close friends of mine after this but I never went back to that flat. They moved to a gorgeous house – and this time the knocking through and building on turned it into an even more gorgeous house with more levels and rooms and crinkly corners than can truly be appreciated in one sitting. Oh, and book shelves. Lots and lots of bookshelves.

I’ve just realised: when I watch Grand Designs or lesser property shows, my lip does curl just a little at those houses that have no bookshelves. Not fit for purpose, if you ask me.

But I like that I never went back to that flat. It makes that place and that moment a specific little bubble. I’ve never been one for lusting after houses and cars – possibly I have a bit for some Apple gear but give me a break here – but those shelves, that bubble, I wanted it. It felt inextricably bound up in what I wanted my career to be. I did lust after being a writer, even as I thought that was something other people did. Not me. Couldn’t be me.

Turns out, it could.

And all of this came back to me this week as I did a mentoring session over Skype. (I do mentoring for The Blank Screen and Other Stories now. It’s a thing.) During the natter, there was an oooh. Look at the shelves behind William.

I turned around, winced at how I’d forgotten to tidy up, but there they were.

Floor to ceiling bookshelves. Crammed.

Nowhere near as organised as Shirley and Alan’s, but bookshelves aplenty and akimbo.

I haven’t thought about this much in recent years but I’m thinking about it today. Because I look at those shelves of mine and I want them. Just as I wanted Alan and Shirley’s, all that time ago.

And I’ve got them.

A couple of them have copies of my books.

How in the world did that happen?