Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Tribute interview with Philip Shelley

Thirteen weeks later and like the circle of life we're right back where we began, talking to the man who put this whole series together, Philip Shelley. This time we're focusing on his brilliant, honest and heartbreaking episode, An Ordered Life. Before we begin I'd like to say a huge thank you to Phil, and all the other writers who have given up their time and been so open and honest in these interviews, exposing their grief and emotions we oftentimes bury, and also bringing forth many secrets of their writing technique and how their Tribute came together. It's been an interesting thirteen weeks, I hope to do it all again. As always, go and listen to An Ordered Life before reading the following interview.

1. You mention this is a thinly veiled fictionalisation, I've found this to be the case when interviewing a few of the other writers this series, and my own Tribute is included in this category. In what ways did you draw on reality and how did you mix that with fiction for this story? 

I suppose I’ve streamlined the story a bit, pushed the reality to clearer extremes in places, but it’s very close to the reality of my relationship with my father. The motivation for telling the story was probably a desire to exorcise issues I have / had with my father that remained unresolved after his death. There’s not much imagination in here – pretty much everything is taken from my life.

2. I love how the episode explores how we find it difficult to understand things at certain times, "as a child I found this odd, as an adult I understood it" and the way we struggle to understand the previous generation. I also love how the story explores ways to understand, like who your Dad learnt communication from. Is the story making a point that as we communicate non-stop in the fast-paced modern world we fail to stop and understand, so much like the past where they bottled everything up, we now have a generation that also doesn't understand others, or have I read that wrong?

I think it’s interesting that as children we accept everything – because we have no alternatives, so we accept everything at face value. And as we grow older, we look back at events from our childhood and adolescence and re-examine them in a different light. I think your interpretation is probably kinder than mine. I think I’m saying that there was something very particular about my parents’ generation and class that made them particularly emotionally closed-off. And with the benefit of hindsight how odd and sad this is. And that our generation is, largely, more emotionally functional and communicative. But it would be interesting to know how my own children think about me if and when they have families of their own to compare!

3. Being the creator of the Tribute podcasts you've probably thought about what a Tribute is a lot. Do you think the essence of what a Tribute is boils down to the respect you have for that person and the amount of time you will dedicate to understanding them?

What appealed to me about the format, about having each character give a tribute to a dead person who meant something to them, was the universality of it. Every life is rich, unique and absolutely distinctive to that person. The most ordinary lives are extraordinary in some way. At times in our lives, we will all think about how we will be remembered (or if we will be remembered!) after we’ve gone. But of course, most of the time, we live our lives in the present, day by day. I think it’s important and fascinating to try to look at lives as a whole. And yes I suppose a tribute is so much about the respect and love we feel for the person we’re talking about.

4. The tennis story is excellent and touches on the slipperiness of memory. "Part fearful, part hilarious" If this is from truth I wonder if when recalled it has been remembered both ways or if there is always a mixture to the memory? 

Yes, this is something that really happened. It’s so odd and interesting why, amongst the innumerable things you’ve lived through, certain things stick in your memory. But this is a moment that has stuck with me. I think it’s stuck with me because, for a brief moment, I was actually terrified. But once my father had thought better of whatever he was going to do to me and turned back to his side of the net, it became a story to share with others to make them laugh. It’s a moment I’ve re-enacted to amuse my own family – which is cruel, isn’t it? There are so many emotions tied up in that brief moment. And to me it says so much about the person my father was.

5. When we think of a secret life, everyone's thoughts first turn to the wild sex theories you mention here. Is an ordered life just as thrilling to discover though? I'm not sure if it's my own obsession with music which found that thrilling or if you did too.

If I’m honest, I didn’t find my father’s orderliness thrilling, I found it fucking irritating. It was like he sublimated all his passion for the music into lists and box files. He never shared his passion for the music he clearly loved – his way of expressing his passion was to make lists and keep programmes in neat box files. The absurdity and meaninglessness of this response was brought home to me recently when me and my two sisters had to clear out my parents’ house after my mother’s death. This process brings home to you just how worthless other people’s possessions are – even your own parents’ possessions. All my father’s well ordered opera programmes are now in the bin. All the stuff they accumulated over so many years, stuff which was part of my life, books and ornaments that I’ve looked at, walked past for decades – so much of it just went straight in the bin. I’m a big reader – I have a house full of my own books – and so did my parents. But of all their books, I think I kept two – the rest - literally a van load - went to a reluctant second-hand book seller for £200.

6. It's a really touching final line, did you always know it was building to that point or was it an ending you discovered during the writing?

It was an ending I discovered in conversation with Will! Thank you Will!

7. I won't ask which Tributes stood out for you but will ask what themes are you happy that the series explored, and did anything surprise you from the series - certain things you may not have thought of before, or stories you didn't think the subject would throw up.

This may sound like bullshit but I am immensely proud of all 13 of the monologues. I had a lot of choice – I received around 60 scripts, and I only chose the ones that I genuinely loved. But the process of getting really good actors to perform / read them elevated every single one to something more than I thought they could be. When you go into something like this, you’re always worried that the idea you think is interesting will fall flat on its face. But I am so pleased with how this has turned out. I think I stumbled across a very good format – and I think all you writers rose to the challenge brilliantly. The themes – the value of an individual life, and how do you measure that value? The nature of love. And the nature of memory – how pure is memory, how subjective is it? At the risk of offending the other actors – and I am so delighted with ALL the performances - I would like to pick out a couple of the performances because they did raise the scripts to level that I didn’t realise was there – Finty Williams for VALEDICTION FORBIDDING MOURNING. The emotion and clarity of her reading is exceptional – I’ve seen so many listeners literally moved to tears by the script and Finty’s reading. Patrick Brennan’s reading of REX is also exceptional – there’s such a strong sense of character in his reading – and of clarity, and of a rich, ambivalent relationship with this violent prisoner. And from a personal point of view, I will forever be grateful to Will Mount for taking it upon himself to read my script, and do it so incredibly well.

8. I feel I've learnt so much from interviewing the other writers, what's been your main takeaway from the interviews?

I’ve been so taken by the intelligence of the questions and therefore the answers. All of the interviews have revealed the enormous amounts of thought, commitment and emotion that have gone into these short scripts. The interviews have demonstrated to me many of the things you need to have to be good writers – deep thought and self-analysis of your work, a love of good writing in general, acute observation of people – and above all a generosity and openness of spirit.

9. What other projects are you working on, do they bear any similarity to An Ordered Life?

Recently all my time has been taken up by my script consultancy and the Channel 4 screenwriting course. I love working on both of these – but I’m also determined to do more of my own creative – producing and writing – work in the near future. As a writer, I dabble and I want to do more than this. I am in awe of the bravery of writers who commit so much of their time and emotion to projects without any guarantee that anyone will pick them up. But writing your passion project spec script is the key to screenwriting success. I have written a 25 minute monologue about a middle-aged / mid-life crisis vicar that I’d like to do something with, and am dabbling with several other ideas.

10. What would you want your Tribute to be?

Wow that’s a question and a half! I would like to be remembered with a smile by my family – my wife (we’ve been married for 37 years) and my 4 children. (It’s having my own children that has opened me up so much to thinking about my own relationship with my parents.) From a work POV, it would be nice to be remembered by some of the writers I’ve worked with, with some affection. But that’s not important. The only important ‘Tribute’ would be how I’m remembered by my own wife and children.

11. What next for the Tribute podcast series? Will there be more?

I’m pretty sure there will be more. And I think the format will be the same. But I need to get through my backlog of script consultancy work, and find the time to look for funding for series 2, and to think about how I can improve and build on the success of series one. All ideas welcome! I am a freelancer but also a control freak who finds it very hard to delegate – I need to find more time to stand back from my day-to-day work and strategise

12. Why do you think it's important to write about and discuss death? 

Another cracking (but difficult!) question. I do think it’s absolutely vital. I am quite morbid, I think death is such an important subject in art. I love the poetry of Philip Larkin, the music of Loudon Wainwright III and the (early) films of Woody Allen for this reason! Thinking about death – our own and other people’s – shines such a powerful light on life. All art is in some way an attempt to find a meaning in life. Stories are one way of making sense of our ultimately meaningless existences. All our lives are a story, a journey. The inspiration for this project came from doing a eulogy to my mother at her (humanist) funeral in March 2015. My mother had not lead an objectively spectacular life. But nonetheless her life was packed with deep love, happiness, tragedy, some terrible sadness and some of the most extraordinary events – so many stories of such rich oddness that you couldn’t possibly make them up. And all of this is true of every life lived. With both of my parents having died in the last 5 years, I often ask myself (not this clearly) what I can learn from their lives, what they got from their lives, and what my two sisters and I got from their lives.

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