15 October 2009

Claptrap 7: On location


This is the seventh in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap by Granada Television.

The two most common questions I’ve been asked since the Claptrap programme was first shown are (with answers in brief):

1. How long did it actually take to coach Ann Brennan to make her speech?

Ans: A few hours on five separate days.

2. Which parts of the process played the biggest part in her success?

Ans: They were never filmed or shown.

FIVE DAYS ON LOCATION

  1. Voice coaching at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London rehearsal rooms.
  2. Oxford & Stratford upon Avon: John Heritage and I showing Ann the main rhetorical techniques; Cicely Berry coaching her on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (by far the busiest single day).
  3. Ann & I watching Arthur Scargill in action at the TUC in Brighton
  4. Ann’s encounter with Joe Haynes, Harold Wilson’s former speechwriter.
  5. Filming the speech in Buxton (plus Scargill speech analysis that had had to be deferredfor reasons explained HERE).

The most important parts of the process that were never shown were the actual writing of the speech (as opposed to the sequence in which Joe Haynes, former speechwriter for Harold Wilson, came up with some brilliant lines) and Cicely Berry’s work with Ann rehearsing the speech the night before she gave it.

THE SCENE THAT NEARLY WASN'T

Before the meeting with Joe Haynes, he’d been sent a copy of Our Masters’ Voices and asked to write a speech using the main rhetorical techniques described in it.

As the camera was being set up, Ann was asked to read through the draft. Her initial reaction was to that Haynes was trying to put Labour words into her mouth – to which he retaliated by accusing her of being a ‘closet Tory’, and it began to look as though there might not be anything to film that day.

So we asked her to go through it again and mark anything that she liked or might feel comfortable saying.

If only the camera had been ready by then! Because if it had been, it could have have shown a close up her hand marking particular lines with comments like “I like this bit” and “Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to say”. Viewers would have been able to see the same fascinating sight that we saw – it was as if the contrasts, puzzles and three-part lists that were later to have such an impact on the audience in Buxton were already jumping off the page and having an impact on her.

And that’s how the lines recommended by Joe Haynes on the film were selected for when the camera started to roll.

THE TWO MISSING LINKS

The final text of the speech took a whole day to write at a meeting attended by Gus Maconald, Ann and me at the Macdonald’s home in Islington with no cameras present. We were careful to weave in some of the lines from Joe Haynes, and very careful to make sure that Ann felt comfortable with every word we wrote.

In other words, contrary to what some critics later tried to make out, we merely translated the messages she wanted to get across into rhetorically effective words, and were determined throughout not to put any of our own views into her mouth.

Apart from the script, the other most crucial part of the exercise took place in a hotel room in Buxton on the night before Ann gave the speech. Present were Cicely Berry, then head of Voice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Gus Macdonald and I - and it was in that hour or two and I learnt almost everything I know(and still teach) about the importance of rehearsing speeches.

Not present, unfortunately, were any cameramen. Otherwise that particular part of Cicely’s genius could have been made available to an audience of millions. And that’s why I think that the omission of the rehearsal was the film’s biggest weakness.

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