Like minds meet in the gutter

January 7, 2000

When Adrian Mourby asks creative writing students to submit a screenplay he finds a trendy obsession with sex, drugs and violence, but no originality

I have never believed that one can teach creative writing, so it came as something of a surprise last year to find myself sitting in a seminar room with eight young people who wanted me to tell them how to do it.

That day was a unique experience, although I had no idea quite how unique it would prove to be for I never saw all my students again. Over the following weeks they came and went in different combinations. One of them, being offered work experience elsewhere, went out of my life entirely but he did still manage to present a complete portfolio of work by the end of term.

Ungenerously, I could not help hoping that what he had written - unaided by any contact with the alleged expert - might prove grossly inferior to what everyone else produced but no, it was very much the same stuff. No matter what story my students chose to tell, they came up with remarkably similar scripts.

Perhaps I should explain that I was in Cardiff teaching screenplay. My qualifications for this job lay in the fact that, while working for the BBC, I had produced screenplays written by other people. I had also been commissioned to co-write what was considered, in 1994, to be one of the best television plays not produced by the BBC that year.

Finding it easier to get novels published than put my screenplay onto the screen, I went off in the direction of prose, which is how I now earn my living. The reason I was teaching screenplay at Cardiff University was because I was asked to fill in at short notice.

The screenplay is perhaps one of the least personal of creative art forms because it is a recipe awaiting ingredients, a set of instructions for other people to interpret. I have always reckoned that I could recognise the text of a Pinter play, but I would never have attributed The Last Tycoon to him.

The same goes for Frederic Raphael, a splendid, witty opinionated writer, but you would never guess that Far from the Madding Crowd was his work. I did not say any of this to my students. Maybe I wanted them to find it out for themselves.

But, in the time-honoured tradition of pedagogy I think it was me who did the most learning. Our initial discussions threw up a wide range of film types that the students wanted to write: a road movie; a Famous Five-style adventure story; a heart-warming tale of elderly love on the Solent; a boulevard comedy of the kind that Tom Hanks might bring beautifully to the screen.

I gave my class the idea of what a screenplay is supposed to look like. It is as well to follow form when you are writing such a document. No marks are given for originality of layout in Hollywood. The students then went away and wrote their treatments, which included a synopsis of how the narrative line would develop.

But when I read the treatments warning bells started to ring. The problem was that all these different genres seemed to be mediated through some kind of Irvine Welsh or Quentin Tarantino filter. Hanks was foul-mouthed even when he was in a situation to which Cary Grant would have responded with eloquence. The two old ladies falling gently in love on the Solent were assailed by a man who fired dumdum bullets and expletives at them in equal measure, and the road movie frequently ground to a halt while our heroes upbraided each other with their preferred euphemisms for female genitalia.

As if these unpleasantries were not bad enough, the other common factor - shared by all eight screenplays - was drugs. There was rarely a character in any of the scripts who was not out of his head at some stage in the story.

The two old ladies were not on anything stronger than gin and tonic, but it turned out that both of them - and all but one of the Famous Five - had been abused as children.

I was at a loss to understand quite why my students took such a bleak view of humanity's behaviour. Although I may have detected one hangover during my term of teaching in that little room, I did not get the impression that any of them were seriously experimenting with drugs.

Their language to me - and each other - was impeccable and not one of them stood up to claim s/he had been molested when I took issue with the prevalence of such abuse in their screenplays.

My students had an image of what the screenplay involved that went beyond form. It also embraced content. Happy endings were impossible. Love led to exploitation. Humour requires profanity and someone has to bleed to death or choke on his own vomit before the end of the third reel.

What was a teacher to do? If only one of my students had wanted to create an ersatz Irvine Welsh world of drug, child and language abuse I might have done what I could to facilitate such a bleak world view. But when they all took the view that the only view from the gutter was that of the gutter itself, it is difficult not to detect a whiff of fashionable pessimism and to start marking down the next scene in which a foul-mouthed teenage tearaway lying face down in his/her own excrement suddenly realises s/he was driven to this by long repressed images of daddy's groping hands.

I do not mean to diminish child abuse but, if anything, treating it as a staple ingredient of drama - along with car chases, romantic clinches and a man with a gun saying, "OK don't nobody move" - is doing just that.

In the end I found myself sounding off like some spokesman for the moral majority, which had not been my intention.

Were there not courting couples and birdsong outside the window? Was not the English language capable of communicating more than the break-down of communication? Did not anyone ever have a happy childhood? Certainly we were all left with unresolved issues from our upbringing but that did not mean that every character in a drama had to be scarred for life.

It is the duty of teachers to inculcate original thought, I argued to myself, and that means standing against fashion if we feel it is an inhibitory factor in the intellectual development of our students. It is even the duty of teachers to appear unfashionable to their students if that is the only way that current precepts are going to be kept in perspective and genuine originality of thought developed.

As teachers so often say, I learned a great deal from my students: about current dramatic fashion and about the pedagogue's dilemma. I think I may have learned more than them in fact. After all, I was the only one who came in every week.

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