From a subterranean station below Piccadilly station, a tram sweeps over canals and through rejuvenated industrial landscape. It glides, swishes, stops, warbles a reedy warning and then sweeps off again: Piccadilly Gardens, St Peter's Square, Deansgate. Outside the traffic has come to a stand still, but the tram glides on. Salford Quays, Anchorage. It is a regal way to travel. At some precise time later it comes to a smooth stop and the doors open. The end of the line. Step out and look around you. Salford's MediaCity, the new home of the BBC.
Gleaming towers. Smooth lines. Sun setting on water, mirrored planes and the word 'Studio' in big bright letters. The old mill town has become the future.
There are just a few steps over newly-laid turf from the terminus to the studio.
The door - more like an opening in the wall of glass is marked 'Sitcom Showcase'; but I am directed to follow the man in front (who looks as though he might be important) to another entrance. As part of Authors North I have become a VIP. My name is checked against the guest list, and I am given a crimson armband as proof of status.
Upstairs there is a table of wine, beer, juice, water, a couple of waiters and the other VIPs: comedy groups, writers producers and actors. It is like being at a publisher's party or in a Literary Festival Green Room. I chat with a member of a troupe from Newcastle until the Authors North party arrive. The voices become louder. Down stairs the rest of the audience mill around Dr Who's tardis which has landed by the window.
After the rest of the audience is seated, we are escorted to our seats. In front of us is the set representing the interior of a flat: chairs, sofa, ironing board and laundry basket. Around us are video cameras pointing into the audience as well as the stage, and above us a false roof not quite hiding supply lines of cables. People, lots of them, some with clipboards, all of them with tense faces, stand waiting to the side.
There are two acts. The first is called 'Single White Male'. The laughs come without pause, and a pair of hamsters are so convincingly squashed in their cage that I find my hand pressed against my mouth. Then there is a Shakespearean style mix-up that is brought up to date with the involvement of a computer.
The second act, Up!, is about a group of university students which turned out to be an exceptional funny and successful take on a familiar theme. The characters are wistful and well-developed. Some of the lines delivered by an actor called Eric Lampaert
are delivered with a sort of lyricism.
After another short sojourn in hospitality, it is time for me to leave (although I do manage to tell Eric exactly what I think of him). Back I am back on the tram, then the train and looking forward to the main event in the Lowry Centre - just across a small wharf from the MediaCentre.
We have a room with a view: a river with skulls and the odd, unexpectedly large, steamer loaded with tourists and their large cameras.
Next door is a room full of ballet dancers. We can see them practising in silhouette through partly obscured windows. Across an internal bridge is the main theatre; the only sound from this is the announcement telling the audience to enter. At lunch-time I see a bride and groom drift leisurely and alone around the empty spaces, and I have the odd impression that I am seeing ghosts, or maybe stars on a film set, but they are just the main performers of the real-life drama of their wedding in the function room below. We are isolated and yet can see everything: an excellent venue. Anna Ganley, attending her last meeting as our secretary, begins to tweet the proceedings ( #authorsnorth
I gave the chair's report, and then a couple of excellent talks followed. Gary Brown, the Sony Gold Award-winning producer told us that it was an exciting time for drama in the northwest, with radio a particularly good medium for writers. Almost a million people listen to the Radio 4 afternoon play, and the BBC is the biggest commissioner of new drama in the world. Amidst all this gleaming rejuvenation and optimism I was finding it difficult to remember that I was still in the recession-hit UK.
Using examples he gave us tips on how to structure our work, how we should aim to write visually, and the importance of a strong narrative. He looks for plenty of scene changes when he encounters a manuscript, and recommends that 'the start' should be as late as possible in the story line. 25% of newly commissioned work is by writers 'new to radio', and he recommends that anyone interested should submit via the Writers Room
(found on the BBC website). However, he stresses that it is tough to get commissioned, and writers generally had some sort of track record - if not in radio then in other forms of writing. Helen Shay, who introduced Gary, said he was an encouraging and supportive to new writers, and I should think he'd be a marvellous mentor.
After lunch Nazrin Choudhury (introduced by John Rice) gave us an impressive talk about her life so far as an award-winning screenwriter. Apart from making her mark in this country writing for various soap operas, she has also won a 'Focus on Talent' award for her first screenplay, Scum
, and in 2005 her radio play Mixed Blood
won the Imison award. She is now off to the United States to establish herself there, having acquired a specially dispensed green card. She spoke of the importance of courses and awards to her career, and recommends competitions and awards as a way of getting one's name 'out there' .
The day ended in the Seven Oaks Pub in Nicholas Street, in Manchester City Centre, where we heard The Liars League
read out a series of previously submitted short stories (800 - 2,000 words ) on the theme of 'Blood and Guts.' The writing and reading was topnotch - and suitably gruesome. Altogether it was a hugely entertaining finish.
Added later: To see the speakers and members of the audience in their cartoon glory I advise you to go straight to Radiocartoon's blog
. By some magical means he manages to make themmore like themseleves than they already are.
Thank you Anna Ganley, Rachel O'Mally and Lisa Dowdeswell for organising such a great weekend.