One of the things I discovered when I first came to England to start my writing career in the late 70s was that many writers there were not limited to, say, being a novelist or a playwright. In fact, I knew this in advance, or at least had a sense of it, and so when we settled in London in our bedsit (one room serving as kitchen—meaning two hotplates and a tiny fridge—bed, a few chairs and, in the corner, a shower stall with a slow drain; the toilet, shared, was down the hall, and to make anything work you had to put a ten-pence coin in the meter every so often, at which point your radio would snap on and the lamp would sputter into life, and heat, that much-desired commodity, would glow forth from the little electric fire nestled in the long-useless hearth) I had brought with me not only the possibility of getting my then third (or was it fourth?) novel published by Little, Brown, then in Boston and employing an editor who had taken a fancy to my work, but also a 50-minute teleplay, written to BBC formatting standards. This found me my first agent, the redoubtable Margery Vosper, in business since 1931, and who had repped over the years numerous playwrights including John Osborne and Bertolt Brecht. The first time I met her she told me stories about Noël and Gertie—Coward and Lawrence, of course—because, in fact, she had known them. Her brother had been a well-known actor and part of Laurence Olivier’s and Ralph Richardson’s circle, and who drowned after falling from the S.S. Paris in 1937. So between the two of them, at least until Frank Vosper's untimely tumble, they had known pretty much everyone in the British theatre.
She liked the script and thus began my long journey as a screenwriter, though it began on the small screen. I mentioned that writers weren’t limited just to their one talent. Writers in Britain at the time also wrote stageplays, TV plays, radio drama, as well as occasional essays and even travel literature. Writers covered every base, simply because opportunities abounded at the time. For TV writers it was a true golden age. Authors such as David Hare, Alan Bennett, Dennis Potter, Simon Gray, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, et al. were all writing for radio and TV as well as the stage, and when Potter’s “Pennies from Heaven” series began, people stayed home to watch this show written and directed in a style that no one had ever seen before. It was imaginative TV, and it held us all until the end, six episodes later.
One of the virtues of British TV back then was its lack of censorship. Though extreme violence was frowned upon, full-frontal nudity and the liberal use of four-letter words were not. And if you kept your scripts economical, i.e. without special effects, excessive exterior shooting and so forth, you had a shot at getting it made. A long shot, but a shot nonetheless. I quickly learned (though I somewhat knew it from having taught modern British drama to my high-school students) that British drama can be violent without anyone raising a fist, pulling a gun or unsheathing a knife. Simply putting two people in a room and handing them the ammunition of language was quite enough. It’s taken me several years to learn the American way of getting characters behind the wheels of cars, careening headlong down freeway ramps and aiming their Glocks at the shadow down the alleyway. Now it’s second nature. But I can still do the two-people-in-a-room bit for thirty or forty pages at a stretch, with the occasional interruption of a compromising phone call or the mixing of a drink which may well end up in the other chap’s face. But of course I’d never sell such a thing over here.
So not only did I learn that there was such a thing as the Complete Writer, but I also learned that being young had no virtue whatsoever. With the odd exception, writers in Britain, at least back then, were often late bloomers, or at least unlucky for too many years before their first big break. William Golding, John Fowles, Beryl Bainbridge and others were either close to forty or over that magic age before they saw their first books published. I, who was much younger then, felt much, much better about not having been a boy wonder back in New York when I was twenty-three. Now I could spend the next twenty years sweating it out. Fortunately, I beat the odds by a few years.
I think what we all learned, trying out all these various channels for our writing, were a multitude of skills. I wrote many teleplays, none of which were produced, but which attracted the interest of several producers, so that when my first novel was published, I was commissioned to adapt it as a feature film. Which of course was never made. I also wrote the odd radio drama, also unproduced, but which forced me to write in such a way that the audience could, relying only on words and sound-effects, simply picture what was taking place in the little box by their bed or in their sitting-room.
In a way, we don’t have all of these opportunities here. Of course there are novelists who also write for the screen, and the odd screenwriter has also turned his or her hand to fiction. But back in England we worked in all of these media, increasing the opportunities, hopefully building our reputations, and wishfully leading to something good. I’m still glad I spent a chunk of my life there—writing opportunities, agents to call my own, a great National Health Service in Cambridge, and the seeds sown for what I’m doing now. Little, Brown never got back to me on my novel, by the way. Apparently the editor who so much liked my work and wanted to do a project with me disappeared one day and never came back. And so my thirteenth novel was first published by what was then the oldest publishing house still in private hands, housed in the same building it occupied when the ancestor of the then owner took hold of Lord Byron’s scandalous memoirs and laid them upon the flames in the same room where I had my first editorial meeting. The warm glow of history made all the difference to me.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports