Sep 17 2011: My Dream Time North: An Interview With Alan Plater (Big Issue in the North, 1998)
This piece was written to coincide with the premiere of Alan Plater‘s play All Credit To The Lads at Sheffield Crucible Theatre in September 1998, but as the text shows, Plater had broader questions – about politics, writing for television and much else besides – on his mind. It was lovely to have the opportunity to speak to him, and he was a very engaging individual with a sensibility – one perhaps best represented by the characters played by James Bolam and Barbara Flynn in his own Beiderbecke Trilogy, made for television in the 1980s – that I suppose is passing from circulation as his own generation passes on. Plater himself died in June 2010.
Alan Plater’s latest play is “a hymn of praise to the anorak”, a tale of two sports journalists whose 30-year friendship and careers are destroyed by a Gazza-like footballer. Plater himself adds that All Credit To The Lads is about “obsession, football, laughter and redemption”. And apart from the football, you might say that these themes have made up the bulk of Plater’s renowned TV, film and stage work to date.
The obsessions of the northern, middle-aged man have long been a rich source of material for Plater, from James Bolam’s trad-jazz fixation in The Beiderbecke Trilogy to Alan Bates’ love of crosswords in Oliver’s Travels.
“I think it’s because I’m a bit of a middle-aged obsessive myself,” says Plater, a line that might have been lifted from one of his own scripts. It’s also a northern thing, he insists. “I’m interested in the mythology of northern-ness, the folklore you find in music and ghost stories, the heroes and villains people have in different regions. It’s not exactly the place that really exists. It’s a sort of Dreamtime North that can be located anywhere between Liverpool and Birmingham on one side of the country, Newcastle and Sheffield on the other. But it’s there.”
There’s also a steroetypically northern warmth and whimsicality in work like The Beiderbecke Trilogy and All Credit To The Lads that at first glance seems to belie the harder edges of Plater’s political past.
For him though, it’s just an evolution of the same concerns. “My work is always political. I think that if you talk about the north, that in itself is a political act these days. I did things in the 1960s about the coal industry, very upfront, harsh and quite stridently political work. I still have those concerns now, because so many of the questions we were asking then still haven’t been answered. I suppose the difference is that I don’t march them around the parade ground in quite the same way now.”
Much of that change in emphasis is directly related to the way the political rule-book of the 1970s was thrown out during the 1980s.
“The language changed for a start,” says Plater. “You couldn’t refer to ‘capitalism’ any more, you’d have to talk about ‘the market’ instead. It goes from being an economic and political idea to set alongside others to being a row of cosy stalls, so it’s fixed in the mind as a purely natural state of things before the argument even starts. That kind of shift makes it much harder to criticise than before.”
Besides which, Plater argues that the whimsicality his work so often celebrates can be an assertion of human values that has its own political purpose.
“In All Credit To The Lads, the games the characters play, like Scrabble and Fantasy Football, all demonstrate a care for language, and the idea of ordinary people caring for language relates very directly, in my mind, to the abuses George Orwell wrote about in 1984. It’s part of the point I’m making, I suppose, that the best resistance to these forces is rooted deep in our everyday lives, in the form of a basic decency and tolerance for one another. Without that politics on other levels can’t properly function.”
Current TV writing is another of Plater’s obsessions. “There are no plays on TV any more. It’s all formula cop-shows, doctor-shows and lawyer-shows. It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with any of them,” he adds, “some of them are very good. It’s just that some things won’t fit those formats and there’s not really anywhere for those things to go at the moment. I recently taught a course with 16 new writers, all hoping to make their way in television, and I just think they deserve a better deal from the medium.”
I suggest that there have been good things in serial form, if not many one hour single plays to speak of: Tim Firth’s Preston Front or Billy Ivory’s Common As Muck, for example.
Plater agrees. “The talent is there, there’s no question about that, but what will those writers do next? Will they get the opportunity to develop bodies of work and put new ideas out there on the kind of regular basis things like the Play For Today slots provided back when I was starting out? They don’t always have the opportunity to develop new ideas in the ways we did, which makes what they do achieve even more admirable, in a way, because it’s so often something that’s done against the odds.”
“I started in a wonderful period”, he continues, “with two or three original plays being broadcast each week, 200 plays going out every year, but now the industry just wants product – a 26-episode run of a guaranteed success, ideally – which often means things are shoe-horned into formulas. And if you’ve had a success, that doesn’t seem to earn you the right to do something new, or take a few risks on your next project. They’ll just want you to keep repeating that same thing because it’s already been successful once.”
“It’s all down to numbers, I suppose”, he concludes. “When you think about it, a million people seeing a play or buying a book or a record is a huge popular success by any standards, but in TV they’ll sit back, look at it and say ‘only a million?’ then cancel it if it can’t expand its reach and get even more. It’s a medium where a million people just isn’t considered a big enough audience, which means the expectations of how big audiences should be for writing on TV can be a bit unrealistic.”
Not that the demand for popularity is the problem by itself and Plater is happy to spread himself into other mediums if that’s what seems right for the idea. “I’m happy to be doing All Credit For the Lads in a theatre, where it’ll have small audiences by TV standards but can offer a more intense experience for those who see it. I was equally delighted to be doing Z-Cars in the 60s and episodes of Dalziel & Pascoe recently. Creative fulfilment and paying the mortgage can happily co-habit for a writer, even now. It’s just a lot harder to achieve than than it once was.”