Interview with Alan Bleasdale
Bleasdale is one of Liverpool’s most famous writers – a man
with a great talent for creating memorable characters and giving voice
to working class characters with problems almost everyone can relate to.
Nerve got in touch with him and discussed his career, his politics and
his current projects.
You’ve recently done some work for Sahir House - a local AIDS charity.
Why do you think the AIDS issue is particularly important?
B: Well, in the 21st century, I think there are two reasons. One of them
is the rise or role of fundamentalism, of all colours, creeds and characteristics
-whether it be Islamic fundamentalism or the Christian fundamentalism
either in Downing Street, or cowboy fundamentalism in the White House.
And I think that is something that is quite plainly terrifying - it should
terrify anybody with a sense of history of the world. And the other major,
serious threat that the world faces - I mean, it could be global warming
- but, the one that I feel most concern for is the threat of HIV and AIDS
- throughout the world - and I think it’s something that is swept
under the carpet and it shouldn’t be. You only have to be presented
with the statistics - that indicate its spread, in all people - of all
classes, castes, sexuality, and creed throughout the world. And the increase
here - for example in Liverpool and Merseyside over the last twelve months
- means that people have either forgotten, closed their eyes - or are
shielding their eyes... and, to cut a long story short, both Willy and
I, have been part of Sahir House’s work, for some time - quietly.
And in the end - I think this time last year - I said to Willy: “C’mon,
we should do a show together and see if we can raise money, and public
consciousness to the fact that HIV, AIDS etc is still a major problem.”
A: Do you think there is a particular reason why awareness of HIV and
AIDS has fallen since the 1980s?
B: I think people get used to things y’know, it just becomes part
of public health for some reason, and then a whole list of other things
come on top of it. I also think basically it’s, in our sexual nature
that however liberated and free we all pretend to be in the modern age
I think people are still very nervous about their sexuality and sexually
transmitted diseases. For example we’ll know something, but will
not exactly sit down in a wine bar and talk about it at great length.
You’re more likely to talk about the rise of fundamentalism, or
global warming - if you read the Guardian that is. Although I don’t
think any of those three are on a list of things to talk about in a wine
bar. But I think people are scared of it - if you’re scared of it
you’ve got to face it, and people aren’t facing it.
A: How did you get your big break in writing? And how do you stay motivated?
Our readers are interested in writing, so they’d be interested to
know how you got your motivation in [your] writing...
B: Well I had extraordinary good fortune - and - I think you do need to.
I think most people do have a reasonable chance of being discovered if
they have the talent. That is unless you really do hide your work in a
garage, and just don’t show anyone. It was thirty years ago, I’d
written about ten or eleven short stories, I was still teaching -I was
in a school in Huyton, called St. Columbus’ Secondary Modern. Well
it was New Year and I was about to leave with my wife, for the Gilbert
and Ellis Isles in the Western Pacific for an interview and I had these
twelve stories and – well ten or eleven...short stories, which,
I didn’t quite know what to do with, um...and so, in my foolishness
- and perhaps my innocence - I turned up at BBC Radio Merseyside, at 7
o’clock - in the evening - on New Year’s Eve and presented
these short stories - for which I had no copies - to the girl on the reception
desk, and said “Well I’ve got these short stories, I don’t
know what to do with them; maybe someone at the station would like to
read them”. Now, I now know enough about radio and television to
know that it was a distinct possibility that they could have all ended
up in the bin and all the people in reception could have gone off and
partied the New Year. She put them in a big pile of other people’s
stuff who’d obviously turned up with their short stories!
A couple of months later - and here’s where by extraordinary good
luck, y’know they didn’t end up in the bin. And then I had the extraordinary
good luck that a bloke called Victor Marmion, who was then running Radio
Merseyside asked a young Assistant Station Manager called Tony Smith…he
told Tony Smith that he wanted to do a project with him, a half-hour series
of short stories by local, unpublished, Liverpool writers. Tony was a
really nice bloke: very young, energetic and eager, and ambitious. He
read them all, rang me, no actually, by that time I was on a course in
Farnborough to teach English as a Second Language. And he rang my mum
and dad up - that was the address I’d given - and he said he really
liked the stories and could I come in and record them - he couldn’t
afford any actors- one Sunday morning! So my mum - who always believed
that I would be the best - either me or Graham Greene in writing, rang
me in a hysterical state of excitement, and then I rang Tony Smith ...and
Tony says, well...”you haven’t got any money”. “Well”,
I said, “I’m in Farnborough”! So he says I’ll
tell you what we’ll do: we’ll pay for the hire of a car for
a weekend, and your petrol, if you’ll come up and do it. And I still
vividly have it stored in my brain that it was £13.25 for the hire
of an Austin Mini and the petrol that went with it. And I went up, recorded
all these short stories and then drove the 240 miles back to Farnborough.
And two of those stories were about a 15-yr-old Liverpool tearaway called
Franny Scully, who I’d modelled on some of the kids that I was teaching
at the time in Huyton. They went out on the radio. By this time, I was
about to go to the Gilbert and Ellis Isles to teach English. It went out
on Radio Merseyside one Sunday afternoon - it thrilled my mum and dad
to bits - but what happened then was a bloke called Jim Walker who was
working for World in Action and a woman called Barbara MacDonald who worked
for the BBC’s Start the Week - were in Liverpool and Jim Walker’s
driving back to Manchester. He’d had Radio Merseyside on his car
radio - heard one of these short stories - which was Scully’s story,
thought it was absolutely wonderful –and - here’s what generosity
of spirits is - and this is so important for writers who are starting
now, that you need someone who has generosity of spirit. He rang Radio
Merseyside - of his own free will - when he got home, and said I’ve
just heard this story by a bloke called Alan Bleasdale - I think its absolutely
wonderful will you tell him to keep going! - and left his name and his
phone number. And then - Barbara MacDonald who was with him got hold of
two of the stories that she liked and she put them on Start the Week on
BBC Radio 4.
Now, it didn’t exactly set me up for a Nobel Prize
in literature, but what it made me do, Adam, - it made me realise that
somebody out there, who knew what they were doing.. liked the work and
that gave me the confidence, when I went to the Gilbert and Ellis Islands,
to start to write a novel which was about this tearaway from Liverpool
called Scully. Where I was teaching was right on the Equator so it was
unbearably hot, and a very small island; the only things that grew there
was the mounds of bird shit and Coconuts n’ that. We finished school
at a quarter to one in the afternoon, so I’d sit under a mosquito
net, and write for three or four hours. And then I sent this off to an
agent - whom I’d found basically in the Artists and Writers Yearbook
for 1970 - and he liked the work. But it was rejected by, I think, fifteen
or sixteen publishers before Hutchinson accepted it. But what I had done
- because I still didn’t have a great deal of faith in myself at
the time - was, I wrote the first 150 pages and thought, well I’m
wasting my time here - and in the letter I’d wrote to the agents
(A.M. Heath), I said I can't afford to send the whole book, it costs so
much for the airmail -but I do have the remaining 150 pages here - and
thought no more about it, but...one plane came a week - Saturday, to the
island and... came with the letter saying Hutchison had accepted the book
– “Please send the remaining 150 pages”. So, in one
week, between the planes coming and going, I had to write the next 150
pages - then it was published. And then I got a half-hour television play.
Then a woman who was at the Liverpool Playhouse - called Caroline Smith
–again sat at home in Old Swan listening to Radio Merseyside -heard
a short radio play I’d done and commissioned it for a full length
stage play at the Liverpool playhouse... all these things in trying to
frame; it’s a long story, but the heart of it all is: You DO Require
extraordinary good luck, and you need the kindness of strangers. They’re
two things I think you need, apart from a degree of talent. You’ve
- I think - heard the quote, its Anthony Burgess, that writing is 10 percent
inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, and the perspiration is as important
as the inspiration.
OK, What techniques do you think are especially important for writers
B: CHARACTER AND STORY; you’ve got to have good characters and you’ve
got to have a really good story, I mean that’s something that’s
been with us since...Shakespeare! - If you haven’t got them then
you’re in trouble. But I think the thing as well is - you know,
you have to be merciless in your questioning of yourself and your story
– don’t just sit there and think, ‘well this is good’.
You need to walk away from it for a while and then come back to it: and
then you will find out what’s wrong with it, because you add that
distance to it. It’s just application of whatever talents you’ve,
got you’ve just got to work at it.
A: You mentioned characters, and you’ve created some very memorable
ones... how do you get into that process of developing characters?
B: Well, to my concern for my mental and physical health, I am a binge
writer, when I’m working, and I work definitely long hours. I’d
take long breaks between work to think about it, make notes; there are
bits of paper all over the desk. And then I basically sit there, 11 o’clock
in the morning to 4 o’clock the next morning, day and night, for
as long as I can which isn’t particularly healthy! But it’s
the way I’d tend and just try to become the people I’m writing
about. At the moment I’m writing an adaptation of William M. Thackeray’s
Barry Lyndon, and the first part of the book is set in Ireland... And
to my great shame I can be found up - at 2 o’clock - around the
house, speaking in the dialogue with a person I actually have never heard.
A: What do you think it is about Liverpool that helped it produce so
many good writers?
B: I think it’s the influence of the Irish, the Welsh, and the Dock
economy, and the fact that nobody had proper jobs up to about a hundred
years ago. My mother’s family is from the Dingle and my Dad’s
family is from Scotland Road - that’s where they were born and brought
up. I’d…a lot of my mother’s family especially were
dockers, and when I was a kid, you’d go down to the Dingle and you’d
hear stories of these six thousand men in a pen, with 300 jobs, of a 6
o’clock on a Monday morning. And the 5700 men, who went back up
the hill - and they’d go into the pub... and play cards, and they’d
have the crack. And that was generally, in Liverpool, that there wasn’t
constant labour - like, say with the industrial revolution, like Manchester
or Birmingham and so there was an awful lot more time for people to talk.
To create stories, and to…I think Liverpool is very much a verbal
city, and surely it comes from the, y’know, the Welsh and the Irish,
and it comes from the fact that not many people had jobs a long time ago.
A: About the Capital of Culture: How do you think Liverpool’s Capital
of Culture status is going to affect the City?
B: Well I just hope it isn’t just proud wallpaper to cover the cracks.
I think the acid test for me is this: I have occasionally a serious ear
infection, and so I go down to the Royal hospital, say, three times a
week - Monday, Wednesday, Friday - get up first thing in the morning to
get my ears sorted, and I have to go through Kensington - which is where
I used to live, in the seventies with my wife and children - and in Kensington
- you’d find this in a lot of other places around Liverpool - it
has declined. As much as there are the bright lights and luxury apartments,
and the wine bars, in the centre of Liverpool, there is also a decline,
in places like Bootle, Old Swan and Kensington and areas outside of the
city. What I’m trying to say is, I would hope that - in the year
2008 - if I’m still going to the bloody hospital, that Kensington
will look a damn sight better than it does now because its…by culture
you’d still mean poets, and artists, and musicians, and actors,
and singers, these are cultural - it should be for the cultural benefit
of everyone in this city. And culture includes your culture - how you
live. And it will have failed if there’s still areas in Liverpool
that have just have got worse. And I know when I went to Glasgow after
the city of culture you could see the amazing affect it had on so many
parts of the city, I think it as a great success. I think the people who
are organising this have to be aware it’s for all the people of
How much do you think Liverpool’s changed since the work for which
you’re best known – Boys From The Blackstuff?
B: I think in many ways it has changed for the better just on the pure
level of employment, although jobs working for McDonalds may not be defined
as employment as far as I’m concerned. Though you do worry that
were not going to go down like the Titanic, and I think an awful lot of
it is there is a wealth in the city that wasn’t here before, and
quite frankly you have to question were some of that wealth is coming
A: What do you mean?
B: Well I think there’s a culture that isn’t exactly on the
side of the law in this city, I think some people have become considerably
wealthy on matters of substances that may be defined as illegal. But it’s
still a city I want to live in, I don’t know when I retire if I’d
like to live in North Wales or Cornwall, when I get older. I still love
living here – it’s like an old overcoat, when you go out the
house and down the drive, and you go down the road you know where you
are, and you know where your safe and where to go and apart from three
years in Gilbert and Ellis Islands and three years when I was doing my
teacher training this is the only place I’ve ever lived, so 51 out
of 57 I’ve been here.
A: Finally, can you tell us about the adaptation you mentioned earlier?
Well it’s a commission from the BBC to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s
Barry Lyndon which was a film in the seventies directed by Stanley Kubrick
- I’m a great fan of Kubrick - but this was something he absolutely
ballsed-up. If you’ve seen the film you would want to hang every
frame on the wall in your house, its absolutely staggeringly beautiful,
but the concept is just drivel; he turned Barry Lyndon into Long John
Silver, I’m surprised he didn’t end up with a bloody wooden
leg. So its an annoying film, concept wise it was drivel and the BBC have
asked me to add something that is more than a passing glance of the book,
and it does fascinate me, because it is about morality and values and
Barry Lyndon doesn’t have any morality and values and that is something
that is relevant to the society we live in now. A lot of people don’t
even understand what values and morality are. I’ve just finished
an adaptation of a wonderful book called English Passengers by Matthew
Kneale, which won the Whitbread prize in 2001 and that’s a feature
film I’ve been commissioned to write and I’m really happy
with it although the book is nearly six hundred pages long and I’ve
had to bring it down to one hundred and fifty. I became the mad butcher
of Mossley Hill murdering characters left right and centre, in fact one
of the characters that runs all the way through the book gets murdered
on page five, though I think I’ve kept the heart, the terror and
the philosophy of the book, the only problem is you need $60 to 80 million
to make that movie and it is set in the 19th century and a lot of it involves
the quest of a aboriginal boy. I’m not sure if Miramax or Hollywood
are going to be jumping up and down at that prospect. But I did it because
I wanted to do it and that’s another message I’d like to convey
to writers trying to make it: Do it because you want to do it, don’t
do it because you have a chance of three episodes of Brookside or something.