Questionnaire on A Certain Age
These questions were put to me when the second series of A Certain Age went out in 2005. You will see there were a couple of questions I didn’t answer.
1. Did you find it difficult writing about men and examining relationships from a man’s point of view?
I think writing any monologue is pretty difficult! The idea is to get inside the way a person thinks and talks, then tell their particular story in a way that makes it sound real and will ring bells for other people too. I always think of myself as a writer, really – not as a “woman writer”. In fact, most of the jobs I’ve done as a writer have been more traditionally male – writing old-fashioned comic novels that aren’t about sex, for example; or doing sportswriting; or even writing about grammar. When I wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves, I found only one book about punctuation written by a woman, and dozens written by men. So my point is, I probably undertook this series quite lightly. The way I see it, I’m always writing characters, and men are characters just as much as women are.
2. How did you go about it?
It was important to me that the series should be as varied as possible. So each story should not only have a different voice and a different plot, but should also, if possible, have a different tone. So I planned it that some would be light, some deeper. Some would have resolutions, some would leave you hanging. The only thing these chaps have in common is a tendency to make lists (I didn’t notice this till the series was finsihed) and their age. As in the first series (the six women), all are about 42. We’ve tried quite hard to cast actors of the right age. It has sometimes been agony not to ask younger actors, but my producer Dawn Ellis and I felt we should be quite strict.
3. Was it easier writing the monologues for men, or women?
I can’t remember now, whether writing the women was easier. In between the two series, I wrote another six-parter called Full Circle (with three women and two men), which used the monologue form as well, so what I can say is that after writing nine long hours of assorted monologue, I don’t think it’s ever very easy. A monologue is a drama related by its main character, and that character must learn things as he/she goes along, unconsciously revealing important information to the listener, while believably talking to someone who isn’t there. In other words, it is a very artificial form, but has so much power that I can’t quite leave it alone. On the gender question, I think the main difference for me was that I had to keep reminding myself not to let it make a difference! I had an impulse to redeem these men – but when I looked back to the first series, I’d been sympathetic to all of the women but only two were actually happy at the end; the others were sort-of left to stew. So I’ve just tried to be equally true to the characters, because that’s all you can do. I think more of the men ARE still happy at the end, though. Damn. I’m such a softy.
4. Did you talk to any men?
5. Are the characters based on any men you know?
No. Although I did hijack the speech pattern of my next-door neighbour without asking. Writing these things is all about listening in your head to the character. And if you chuck in something “true” it generally stands out like a sore thumb. In the first series, “The Daughter” was distantly based on a true encounter with an old schoolfriend who made a remark about not being able to go to work because she had long straight hair that she had to wash every day, and since it took three hours to dry, going to work was out of the question. How could I not use that line? But in the end I wished I’d cut it from the finished script, because it was the one thing that didn’t sound true.
6. How did you go about choosing the types of men to write about
They aren’t really types. They are just people in particular relationships. The first series was about a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife etc. So this series is about a father, a son, a husband, a brother and so on. In each case, that relationship defines him, and his personality has to serve the story. So the father (played brilliantly by Douglas Hodge) is an anxious sort of person whose wife has died, and who resists any suggestion that his son isn’t coping. He’s a nice man, doing his best, but approaching the end of his emotional tether. By contrast the Son is a breezy, cheerful photographer for a national newspaper who goes on an assignment to take pictures of some mediums and starts getting messages from his dad – and the point is, the messages aren’t remotely deep or meaningful. Meanwhile the Husband is a Scottish roofer whose wife doesn’t visit him when he’s rushed to hospital. The Brother is a waspish gallery owner who hates his own name (Tim) and gets into a panic at the prospect of his older brother Julian returning from Australia to take his place as “head of the family” (there are only two of them). The Married Man is an American mystery writer living in London who regards himself as a successful secret philanderer but doesn’t seem to realise his wife doesn’t care what he gets up to because she’s having an affair with his publisher. And finally, the Pedant is a lonely, short-tempered “beardy-weirdy” who gets pushed onto a TV makeover programme and changes in an unexpected way. In the original proposal, one of these was going to be a South African vet with a feminine side that endears him to his clients, but I think I must have decided I didn’t know enough about a) vets, b) South Africa, or c) femininity.
7. Did you get any men’s opinions?
8. Where do you get your inspiration from?
9. Did you have any say as to who would perform your monologues on Radio 4?
Oh yes! My producer Dawn Ellis and I discuss casting at every stage, and in certain cases I write the piece with a specific actor in mind. In the first series I wrote The Wife for Janine Duvitski and the Other Woman for Lesley Manville. It’s a high-risk strategy because actors don’t sit around waiting for you to write a monologue for them; they often get quite well-paid work in films. But it does sometimes, miraculously, come off. For this series, I always wanted Douglas Hodge for The Father and was thrilled that he could do it, especially as he was just about to start rehearsals for Guys and Dolls. It’s a very big part of the writing-for-radio experience, hearing your script brought to life by clever actors. In a way, it’s your reward for spending weeks bent over a keyboard on your own. Last year I did a Classic Serial of Stella Gibbons’s 1943 novel Westwood, and we had Rosemary Leach as the narrator, and she did a fantastic job, sounding magnificently warm and wise. The only bad bit is when you go into the studio after the actor has gone, and find that he’s left his script behind. I always feel quite wounded when that happens.
10. Are you surprised by the success of the first series of A Certain Age?
Well, it’s out on BBC audio, which is marvellous; and it’s been repeated on BBC7 as well, but I don’t really know whether people will remember it! I know it must have had a strong response for Radio 4 to commission this second series – which got a bit delayed, unfortunately, by my very weird year last year, endlessly promoting my punctuation book. I do think monologues are bound to make an impression on people, though, because they are just pure radio. Just a person honestly telling you what’s happening to them.