On Gaza

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Monday 18th June

I’ve spent the weekend avidly reading the newspapers, and one story has me totally transfixed – the armed rising by Hamas in Gaza. On Monday morning I read the daily papers, absorbing the various stories that will dominate the week – Glastonbury, an EU conference, Blair and Brown, and so forth. My job this week is to write a 15 minute play based on one of these stories – but I don’t yet know which one…

Then, when I arrive at Bush House, temporary home of BBC Radio Drama, I see a cluster of people on the pavement in a weekly vigil in honour of BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who is being held captive Gaza. It is a touching, and quietly shocking sight.

Inside Bush House, I’m involved in a brain-storming session with the creative team who currently run the innovative BBC show, From Fact to Fiction. Their brief is to create dramas inspired by current stories – and each of their dramas is conceived, written, recorded and broadcast in a week. By the end of Monday afternoon, we have resolved to write about a) Russia b) Gaza or c) something else…

Tuesday 19th June

I’ve been given an office in Bush House, in the palatial, luxurious radio drama offices overlooking the bins. I’m suddenly acutely aware that no one can do any work until I come up with an idea. Executive Producer Eoin O’Callaghan has a disarmingly laidback style (‘No pressure, then,’ he says, gripping my hand in a vice-like grip and staring ominously into my eyes.) The producer is the delightful energetic Sasha Yevtushenko, of Russian origin, and the composer-in-residence is Nicolai Abrahamsen. I lobby hard for the Gaza story, which I find has entered my blood. It’s a tragic dilemma of a people divided by civil war, when they should be united in a common cause.

I spend the day researching on the web, and phone a Palestinian academic to get a potted history of the conflict. His cynicism is palpable; did Hamas jump, or were they encouraged to jump? I’ve spent all my life being hostile to conspiracy theories; now, in these troubled times, I will always tend to believe the worst of any global conflict. It’s always about money, and power, and the needs of the very powerful; and the rest of us are pawns.

Wednesday 20th June

I write a 15 minute drama – it comes in a single burst, and I’m about a few hundred words short. My approach to the time constraint is to have as much story as I would put into a feature script. I have three entire storylines, interwoven, but with no action climaxes…these are brief snapshots of people in crisis.

The joy for me is that two of the actors in the Radio Drama rep company – John Dougall and Simon Treves – are already familiar to me, because they were in my play Breaking Point.

Thursday 21st June

This is the day I really started getting tense. What if the play doesn’t work? What if my stories are glib, or untrue? I spend the day obsessively learning all I can about Gaza, downloading maps and imagining walks and learning what Gazans eat. I listen to a remarkable radio play called The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, which analyses the conflict by asking Israelis and Palestinians to cook a meal. And I read the blog of a Palestinian journalist trying to raise a child in a hell-zone. (Raising Yousuf, Unplugged.)

Ideally, I’d like to go to Gaza, spend months researching, and live and breathe the people and the place before putting pen to paper. But this kind of drama is all about immediacy….And it’s fast, fast, fast.

Friday 22nd June

I meet the cast in the Green Room, opposite the legendary Studio N41. Simon seems genuinely pleased to see me; having been cast as an evil interrogator in the last play, it’s a relief for him to be cast as an evil MI6 agent…

Jasmine Callan has a double role as a little girl, and the girl’s Palestinian mother. And Souad Faress is compelling as the mother-in-law, based on all the mother-in-laws I know and have heard about.

The three stories seem to intertwine pretty well, and John and Simon savour every last vicious insult in their scenes together. Half way through recording Nicolai strolls in carrying a CD with the music he has been recording…it’s that tight. Colin Guthrie and Keith Graham run the tech side of things – rather to my surprise, they seem to have swapped jobs since the last time I worked with them. Instead of being the Spot, Colin is operating the Panel and doing the Grams (sound database), while Keith is now the Spot, ie doing the spot effects such as rustling clothes, or cocking a rifle ominously.) These are multi-talented individuals….I leave at lunchtime, while Sasha sits down to do the edit.

Saturday 23rd June

It’s 6.45pm and I’m in a taxi on my way to a party when someone remembers the play is being broadcast…the taxi driver kindly turns on the radio and I manage to catch the last few minutes of the play in real time. To my delight, the taxi driver laughs at the jokes…

Sunday, 25th June

And finally, I listen to the whole play, in an afternoon repeat…normally it takes 12-18 months for a radio play to go from commission stage to broadcast stage. With screenplays, it can take 5-10 years to get the script made. So it’s a unique experience for me to go from ‘haven’t got a clue what to write about’ to hearing the finished play, in just 6 days….

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