Twitter Facebook RSS Feed
No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Saturday 26th April 2003

Under the Whaleback / Scenes From the Big Picture / A Reckoning / Three Sisters / Ancestral Voices

The Spectator - 26th April 2003

In the past year or so I've been struggling to master various forms of dramatic writing. I've been hired by three different film companies to adapt books for the screen and I've been actively involved in adapting my own book for the stage, the results of which will be reviewed by Lloyd Evans next week. Rather predictably, I've taken several courses by Hollywood screenwriting gurus, including the famous Robert McKee, and this has influenced my reaction to the plays I've seen in the course of doing this job. I often become rather irritated when a play flagrantly disregards the rudimentary principles of dramatic writing as set out by these gurus, and yet the corollary doesn't always apply. Sometimes, I'm equally unimpressed by plays that follow the rules.

Take Under the Whaleback, for instance. One of the golden rules that's been drummed into me again and again is that a dramatic story must begin with an "inciting incident"--a key event that sets the narrative in motion--and that this incident must occur within the first 10 minutes. Now Under the Whaleback, a new play set in Hull about three generations of fishermen, has an "inciting incident" but it doesn't occur until midway through the third act when the protagonist, Darrel, is confronted by the son of a former shipmate who holds him responsible for his father's death. Still, Under the Whaleback isn't a complete disaster. The writer, Richard Bean, has created a marvellous character in the form of Cassidy, a wild, free-spirited drunk who dominates the entire play, even though Bean kills him off at the end of the first act. Needless to say, this is another textbook error.

Scenes From the Big Picture, a new play set in Northern Ireland by Owen McCafferty, displays a similar disregard for the rulebook. It's an ensemble piece with lots of different characters and multiple storylines, yet rather than follow the conventional rules when it comes to this sort of story, rules exemplified by films like Gosford Park and Magnolia in which the various narrative threads eventually come together, McCafferty has opted for a soap opera structure in which the storylines never really converge. This is suited to an open-ended TV series like EastEnders, but not to a stand-alone drama like this. (We want closure, damnit!) The result is a sprawling, two-and-a-half-hour mess, yet it achieves its aim of showing you how every layer of society in the province has been poisoned by "the troubles". Paradoxically, Scenes From the Big Picture is meticulously well designed, even though McCafferty ignores the basic principles of story telling.

A Reckoning, by contrast, is a textbook example of "good" dramatic writing. It's a two-hander in which a troubled, 27-year-old girl confronts her father, accusing him of "emotional abuse". She dredges up half-forgotten memories that seem to suggest he may be guilty of other, more serious forms of abuse and, this being a play set in America, they end up facing each other in court. From the gurus point of view. A Reckoning has everything going for it--an "inciting incident", an "arc" for each of the characters, a "turning point" at the end of each act--yet it's strangely unsatisfying. With it's conventional, Hollywood structure and afternoon talk-show subject-matter--False Memory Syndrome--it feels like a movie-of-the-week circa 1995. Jonathan Pryce and Flora Montgomery do their best to inject a note of ambiguity into the proceedings, but we're never really in any doubt as to who's guilty and who's innocent.

The Three Sisters, too, exemplifies the principles of "good" story telling as set out by people like Robert McKee, but unlike A Reckoning it's an out-and-out masterpiece. This is an excellent new translation by Christopher Hampton, superbly directed by Michael Blakemore, and it's easily the best thing on the West End stage at the moment. What makes Chekhov's characters so extraordinarily vivid is the sense you have of their inner lives, revealed more by what they don't say than what they do. There's a quote from Stanislavsky in the Penguin edition of Chekhov's plays that sums it up: "His plays are full of action, not in their external but in their inner development. In the very inactivity of his characters a complex inner activity is concealed." Of course, it helps if you have an actress of Kristin Scott Thomas's calibre in the cast. Somehow, she manages to convey more in a single moment, in which she remains absolutely motionless, than most actresses do over the course of an entire play.

This is a problem faced by the authors of one-handers like Ancestral Voices. How can you include those dramatic moments in which a character does nothing when there's only one character on stage? Ancestral Voices is an adaptation of the diaries of James Lees-Milne by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd and if ever a play was tailor-made for Spectator readers this is it. Lees-Milne is, by turns, snobbish, nostalgic, rueful, splenetic, mischievous and stoical, each mood perfectly captured by Moray Watson. But is there any meaningful subtext? Unfortunately, Lees-Milne is too self-aware to leave the audience any room to discover anything about him for themselves; he's a sphinx without a riddle. The very best storytellers communicate as much by what they leave out as what they include and, as anyone who ever crossed Lees-Milne's path will know, he left absolutely nothing out.

[ FIXED LINK ] Bookmark and Share

Twitter RT @The sheer chutzpah of this! Don’t recall @UKLabour consulting the general public before replacing Harold Wilson with Jim C…  (1 hour ago)


Cambridge and the exclusion of Jordan Peterson by Nigel Biggar -
The shocking truth about Jordan Peterson by Wesley Yang -
The intellectual dark web by Bari Weiss -
How identity politics is harming the sciences by Heather Mac Donald -
The fall of the German Empire by Ross Douthat -
How Tom Wolfe became Tom Wolfe by Michael Lewis - Vanity Fair
The neuro-diversity case for free speech by Geoffrey Miller -
The Age of Outrage by Jonathan Haidt -
The Warlock Hunt by Claire Berlinski -
Is classical liberalism conservative? by Yarom Hazony -
The Implosion of Western Liberalism by Patrick Lee Miller -
The Eton of the East End - Daily Mail
The reactionary temptation by Andrew Sullivan -
The book that scandalised New York intellectuals by Louis Menand -
To understand Britain today, look to the 17th Century by Adrian Wooldridge -
The crisis in France by Christopher Caldwell -
A Visit to Michaela School by Patrick Alexander -
Why parenting may not matter by Brian Boutwell -
Trump Establishment's Cultural Significance Explained by Michael Wolff -
Branching histories of the 2016 referendum by Dominic Cummings -
Putin's Real Long Game by Molly K McKew -
The Flight 93 Election by Publius Decius Mus -
How the education gap is tearing politics apart by David Runciman -
What's wrong with identity politics by Graeme Archer -
Grammars and the grain of truth by Jonathan Porter
Anti-Brexit: Britain's new class war by John O'Sullivan -
The English Revolt by Robert Tombs -
Democracies end when they are too democratic by Andrew Sullivan -
Human beings really are making progress by Steven Pinker -
What ISIS really wants by Graeme Wood -
A society ripe for Submission by Douglas Murray -
Why I'm a Conservative Teacher by Jonathan Porter -
Corbyn's Inconvenient Truth – He wanted the IRA to win -
Why I've become Tory scum by Tony Parsons -
Inside Westminster's free school -
Robert Conquest obit -
Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite – it's so much worse than that -


Andrew Lilico
Andrew Sullivan
Arts and Letters Daily
Bagehot's Notebook
BBC News
BBC Sport
Benedict Brogan
Brendan O'Neill
Bruce Anderson
Coffee House
Conservative Home
Damian McBride
Damian Thompson
Dan Hodges
Daniel Hannon
Ed West
Frank Furedi
Guido Fawkes
Harry Phibbs
Iain Dale
Iain Martin
James Delingpole
James Wolcott
Joe Murphy
John Rentoul
Labour List
Mark Steyn
Matt Drudge
Mehdi Hasan
Melanie Phillips
Michael Wolff
Nick Cohen
Nick Robinson
Nikki Finke
Paul Waugh
Peter Hitchens
Political Betting
Right Minds
Rob Long
Rod Liddle
Sophy Ridge
Stephen Pollard
The Arts Desk
The Corner
The Daily Beast
The First Post
The Omnivore
The Onion
Tim Shipman
Tim Stanley
Tom Shone


AA Gill
Aidan Hartley
Allison Pearson
Allister Heath
AO Scott
Boris Johnson
Charles Moore
Cosmo Landesman
Daniel Finkelstein
David Brooks
Fraser Nelson
George Monbiot
Giles Coren
Henry Winter
James Delingpole
Jan Moir
Janan Ganesh
Jeremy Clarkson
Jeremy Warner
Jim White
Jonathan Freedland
Lloyd Evans
Manohla Dargis
Martin Samuel
Mary Ann Sieghart
Matthew d'Ancona
Matthew Norman
Maureen Dowd
Michiko Kakutani
Owen Jones
Patrick O'Flynn
Paul Krugman
Peter Bradshaw
Peter Oborne
Philip Collins
Polly Toynbee
Quentin Letts
Rachel Johnson
Rod Liddle
Roy Greenslade
Tim Montgomerie
Trevor Kavanagh
UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • UK Book Cover

  • Buy the book on

  • Buy the book on

  • Audio Book Cover

  • Buy the audio book from
    Whole Story Audio
  • DVD Cover

  • Buy the DVD from

  • Buy the DVD from

  • IMdb Page on the film