A Writer’s saviours.
IT TAKES a very bleak outlook for me to feel like giving up writing, but once I very nearly did.
Living by myself in a friend’s granny flat, my partner having died, my best friend having dropped me, my car having burst an engine gasket and been sold at bottom dollar for scrap, I was at a low ebb.
The idea of writing anything was the last thing on my mind.
Enter two dear friends – Yvonne and D’arcy – with a plan. Yvonne is a writer, having taken it up relatively late in life, and D’arcy knows the English language backwards, a natural editor like no other.
They wanted to enter a national TV screenwriting competition with an adaptation of one of Yvonne’s short stories. They knew I had experience in screenwriting. They were also wise enough to realise I needed something to keep my mind off the dreadful turn of events my life had produced.
I was a little dubious about how effective I’d be collaborating on a storyline, but after reading Yvonne’s story, Tea for Two, I could see immediately how this tale of revenge and bad behaviour amongst older people could be made into a riveting 30-minute drama.
So I said I was interested, as long as Yvonne and D’arcy agreed to tell me honestly if they thought it was no good. We’d only enter the competition, as a team, if we were all happy with the result.
Over cake and tea, we shook hands on it.
The competition had strict production criteria that submitted scripts needed to adhere to or get knocked out – limited numbers of characters, no scenes set at night (meaning no expensive night shoots), and a strong dramatic twist in the plot.
Yvonne’s story needed some adjustments to make it work as a screenplay – one location, and stronger character motivations to allow the story to take place in the 30-minute format – but it was fundamentally a brilliant tale about passion, poison, and older people, with a great ring of truth, because both Yvonne and D’arcy were well into their seventies when they wrote it.
I came up with a first draft in a few days and sent it off to them. This began a series of phone conversations and notes sessions, the likes of which I had not before (and have never since) been part of even with the most experienced collaborators.
All delivered, I hasten to add, with the kind of honesty, good manners and intelligence that all writers crave.
But these two went the extra mile. During one phone call, Yvonne’s voice sounded a little odd, like she’d been out jogging. When I suggested she sit down and let me call her back, she explained that she and D’arcy were entangled on their sofa reenacting the dramatic cliffhanging denouement of our script, with her dangling by a thread over the edge of the furniture, and D’arcy holding her.
“It won’t work, luvvie,” Yvonne said, sure and to-the-point. “We’ve tried it and there’s no way that character could see anyone up above the cliff while they’re holding on by their fingertips. Can we change it?”
There was no refusing such commitment . I duly rewrote with her notes in mind.
The poisoning element of Yvonne’s storyline was pivotal, and I was keen on having an overdose of viagra as the means by which the murder was executed, something I assumed would be in good supply in an independent living nursing home, where we’d set our screenplay.
But I needed some facts on it, and thought to ask Yvonne.
“We don’t know luvvie, D’arcy doesn’t need it,” she said, completely without guile. “I could ask down at the Chemist’s, shall I do that?”
Priceless, unquestioning support.
Within a fortnight we’d researched all the facts we needed and collaborated on a series of drafts, and after a month had our script on the page in a state we were all very happy with.
Tea for Two was a very Australian, very timely exploration of older characters who were three-dimensional and hungry for their last-ditch, last-chance grabs at life.
We were extremely proud when we got through the first round, mainly because we knew we’d artfully worked within the production parameters requested; but ultimately our collaboration got rejected. The TV series was made that year, replete with stories focussed on younger people dealing with perhaps less realistic issues.
I’d dared D’arcy to place one single hair inside the 3rd page of the screenplay – an old writers’ technique for finding out if your screenplay had even been read before rejection. When it came back to us, yes, the strand of hair was still there.
But Tea for Two made one bereaved writer and two older collaborators feel very relevant for one Autumn. We still laugh about it. I will never forget Yvonne and D’arcy for the gift of their collaboration, and because they kept me writing despite the odds.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.