Here is a letter from Nick to a potential commissioner at the BBC, regarding an unfinished project entitled 'Postcards'.
We've published it here because we think it gives a fascinating insight into Nick's thoughts on the playwriting process, and the intense detail he always brought to his work. It also illustrates many of the prevailing concerns of many of Nick's plays - particularly his feelings about tourism in Cornwall.
Tel/Fax: 01841 520393 21/01/98
Further to our telephone conversation the other day I thought I’d put some of my reactions to your development documents down on paper:
Although I’m ready to accept that there are Cornish women who have lived the life that is described, there arn’t many and my problem is that in your scenario Susan is the sole representative of Cornish women of that age. It is inappropriate that this character should be ‘a bit fluffy’ ‘a wild child’ a ‘flaky businesswoman’. If she ran a cafe on a beach at the height of the season with those credentials she would be dead in a week! Susan wouldn’t survive if she was not fit, sharp-witted and aided by at least three experienced assistants. Running a beach cafe is an incredibly demanding business! It is physically and mentally shattering! You’d open at eight and not shut til six or eight at night and during that time you’d not have a chance to sit down. Turnover would be enormous, re-stocking after a busy day would last until ten or midnight and you’d be up at five the following morning to prepare the day’s food and open up for deliveries. You say she’s a ‘soft touch for hard-luck stories’ - when is she going to find the time to listen to any?
It would be more interesting and realistic if Susan had a wide knowledge of the local geology, history, archeology etc and a withering scepticism for the ‘myths and legends’ crap she stocks by the skipload on her bookstands.
Why is Paul apparently incapable of making a decision/passing an exam/adding up a balance sheet/pulling a babe? Is it because he happens to be Cornish? Why not make him intelligent, cool, academically bright and indispensable to his mother? The really stupid ignorant unhip uncool drug-befuddled slow-witted fuckwit losers in Cornwall tend to be the people who visit the place.
The idea of giving Paul the ice-cream franchise and shoving him outside for the summer and saying there you are get on with it doesn’t ring true.
Why would Paul idolise Andy? He might hang round the lifeguard hut, play volleyball, go out on the rescue board but idolise? Please give these people some dignity and intelligence.
It would be much better to make Neil a shellfisherman. If he had a 20’ boat (decked, with wheelhouse), locally called a tosher, he would work say 150-200 inkwell pots on the spidercrabs, which is the main inshore shell fishery from June - September in Cornwall. He would also work three or four tiers of parlours on the lobsters and brown crab. He would land once a week _ - 1 ton of spiders at 80p per kilo, and maybe a basket or two of lobsters at £8.50 per kilo. This would earn him about £1200 per week in the season. If he worked this gear on his own he would take out running costs such as deisel + bait, then he’d pay the boat 1/3rd, the gear 1/3rd and himself 1/3rd of what’s left. This is share fishing. He’d probably be left with about £350 before tax. He will maintain this income for at most 14 weeks (the length of the spider season) if he’s lucky, not counting foul weather. If his boat was 30ft he’d have a crew with him, they’d work 300-400 pots and catch concomitantly more, they’d still make the same money though, when the extra share and running expenses are taken into account. It is very rare that a boat working out of a port like St. Ives has more than two aboard. If they land to a lorry their landing quota would be restricted by the capacity of the vehicle and the number of other fishermen landing to the same firm. (there are generally three or four merchants who run lorries between ports - at least two of them transport the spiders direct to Spain) Although lobsters are a by-catch in the summer their higher price tends to make it important that their volume is kept up. Each year fishermen are having to work more and more parlours simply to keep up with last year’s volume, it might be this year that Neil has decided that he needs to work an extra two or three tiers of parlours in order to break even, and for that he needs a crew to work with him, he could then add another tier of inkwells and increase his spider catch. Its only worth taking on somebody who is reliable and who you know isn’t going to leave half way through the season to seek his fortune in Plymouth, so that boils it down to his blood relative, Paul.
Thus Paul is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea - his mother, to whom he is indispensible, and his father who can provide him with a better income which would give him more funds for university.
Paul would earn £3.50 an hour max in his mother’s cafe. He would have to work a 60 hour week which would earn him £210 for sweaty, menial, demeaning work. On his father’s boat he’d earn £350 per week working very hard at an enjoyable, exciting job which provides him with more cash, more spare time and some dignity. Please don’t dwell on the ‘dangerous’ aspect of fishing. Everybody who fishes knows it is dangerous but the danger is much reduced by caution, experience and knowledge. It is rarely, if ever, mentioned in conversation unless an incident occurs which demonstrates how dangerous it is. Many more holidaymakers die in the sea in the summer than do fishermen, making tourism a more dangerous occupation. There would not be any dialogue between mother/son, father/son, mother/father about how dangerous it all is. This is the stuff of Wycliffe and soaps.
Its highly unlikely that Neil’s boat would qualify for de-commissioning as it only applies to boats over 10 metres which spend 190 days or more at sea catching pressure-stock fish. Spiders and lobsters don’t fall into this category - yet. If he were able to de-commission his boat, most of the capital he received would go on paying the debts he would have inevitably accrued. After capital gains tax is taken off he’d have precious little to pay for Paul’s education.
It would be great to show the fishing industry in a positive light. OK it’s back is against the wall but everything including tourism is in difficulties these days, and fishing is a surviving industry in Cornwall. Most fishermen don’t go round bemoaning the fact that their back is against the wall, they get on with the job and if the spiders drop off they go whelking or dredge for cockles.
The character you describe seems to be somewhat anally-retentive and again, if he is your sole representative of the Cornish male of that age-group, why choose one like this? There are so many other Cornishmen who would be more representative and better able to illustrate the culture. Why shouldn’t your man, who is past retiring age, have a local knowledge which is not got from books and meetings of the Old Cornwall Society but from a lifetime of living in a place and experiencing the environment. Instead of a wages clerk in a local tin mine - an implausible occupation, why not make him the ex-mechanic of the lifeboat, who would have to have retired at 55 anyway, and who would have an in-built knowledge and understanding of the sea and the local terrain.
If Andy is 29 he has several lifeguarding years left in him so long as he keeps fit. He can teach surfing until he is sixty and travel the surf trail to Indonesia, SA, Hawaii etc in the winter until he’s well into his forties. The idea that he is over the hill as a surfer at the age of 29 in this day and age of fast, light, hand-shaped thrusters and two millimetre smooth-skinned titanium-lined super-composite soft-textured wetsuits, glued, blind-stitched and heat-taped to perfection with helmet, gloves and bootees to match is absurd. Andy has got it made, and at 29 he’s probably happily married with a wife who makes jewellery, a couple of kids at the local primary school and a golf handicap. By not making him a council lifeguard you are missing so many tricks, he would have command of a bullhorn, a whistle, perhaps a landrover, a rescue board, a walky-talky to his fellow lifeguard, a hut and a thing called a red flag, which is shown when sea/weather conditions are considered too dangerous for bathing. This is when the fun starts, and you should devote an episode to it, perhaps call it “Red Flag”
There are many tourist deaths in Cornwall in the summertime and any 10 part drama series which did not feature at least two completely avoidable fatalities would not be an honest representation of the Cornish tourist trade.
Does the fact that Scott comes from London and is black make him automatically more hip and cool than Paul and Nicky? It does not chime with my experience. Most young Londoners/Mancunians/Liverpudlians who come to Cornwall to work or for a holiday get pissed/stoned/e-d up in exactly the same way as everybody else. If Scott is so fucking cool why does he spend his summer working in a godforsaken guest house in Cornwall for £3.25 an hour including tips?! If he lands the job of barman at this hotel (unlikely) he would have his work cut out serving, re-stocking, cleaning, washing glasses, changing barrels. Its a full time job. He wouldn’t be part of a team, he is the team. He would have very little time to spend on the beach. The Scott/Andy relationship doesn’t ring true at all.
Nicky looks fine as far as she goes, and its quite likely she’d opt for a Leisure and Hotel Management degree, but why not psychology, it would stand her in better stead. Its unlikely that the Jarrets could afford the luxury of paying somebody to do management or administrative work (see below), the profit margins in a guest house are too tight. They would have a book-keeper come in a couple of hours a week and do all the rest themselves. Nicky gets left with chambermaiding, waiting table, gardening, pool cleaning etc. and is paid £3.25 top wack (there were chambermaids in Harlyn and Polzeath last summer, and barstaff and chefs, who were being paid less than £3 an hour.) Its an employer’s market.
MARTIN & CHRISTINE JARRET
-If the other characters are off the mark this is where we go into orbit. The hotel is fine, with ten rooms and two self-contained flats its a good size. The fact that its their first season is great and they are new to the ‘hood, but the rest is fanciful. The probability is they’ve got a £50,000 - £80,000 mortgage to pay off, Christine will have spent £7,000 upgrading the kitchen to her requirements, they’ve re-decorated the dining room, replaced the bed-linen and the guttering and painted the flats inside and out. Once the season starts they won’t know what’s hit them. Build a boat? This guy won’t get a chance to eat! If he does build a boat and if she sits in the bar drinking gin and flirting with men the business will go bankrupt. If that’s the scenario you want, fine, but why did they move here in the first place? Buying a guest house in Cornwall is an extremely high risk. They go bust all the time. Martin and Christine would have been advised, begged, bribed by their accountant, bank manager, building society manager and overdraft controller to stay put in Lancashire. They must have had a real and genuine passion to move West so where’s the sense in throwing it all away? The boat idea is plain daft, give him an ambition to own a boat by all means but to build one during his first season? And he wouldn’t have time even to think about organising a maritime festival and even if he did he couldn’t. The safety precautions for any event involving the public and the sea are awesome. The organisation of a festival like that would be taken out of his hands before he could say Maria Assumpta. Speaking of which, the wreck of the sailing vessel is ridiculous. And to have Martin and Andy go out to save the crew is naive in the extreme. The only contribution Martin would make is dial 999. Andy, unless he had access to a rescue boat, wouldn’t leave his post. A helicopter would be there in minutes, the lifeboat might be launched and the local D-class would certainly be called out. The Coastguard cliff rescue unit would also be deployed. The operation would probably be co-ordinated from the clifftop by the Coastguard. But if you are going to have a disaster, and I think you should, please make it a real one - a child or surfer drowning, people getting cut off or stuck halfway up a cliff or falling off a cliff - these things occur regularly throughout the summer.
You are making the guest house the nucleus of your holiday community - it wouldn’t be. The camp site would be the heart. Seasonal workers like Scott live in tents throughout the summer on campsites, in the evening they light fires, skin up, play guitars and sing. Most holidaymakers choose to camp.
I find the absentee landlord concept a bit novel. I’m sure such a creature does exist but he’s not typical. Few beaches are privately owned. Beach shops and cafes tend to be owned by those who operate them. The intertidal zone is owned by the crown and the foreshore by the Duchy. The foreshore is leased to the district council, who are responsible for lifeguard cover and litter removal (a highly controversial activity by the way, and a very interesting one which raises all sorts of issues). Watergate has two lifeguards but the bathing area is extremely restricted, the lifeguards use quad bikes to range the wide beach and their cover is as effective as any beach in Cornwall.
There is no great competition between locals and outsiders for work. The locals get the pick of the jobs because they are around pre-season to go and ask for them. The outsiders arrive and pick up what’s going. Most tourism-related casual labour is made up of local schoolchildren or university students coming home to earn their next term’s tuition fees. If it wasn’t for the fact that we parents provide their food and a roof over their heads they would never be able to live off the wages they are paid, and certainly not save for the next term. The stark reality is that kids and their parents are propping up the Martin and Christine Jarrets of this world, and without that hidden subsidy the tourist trade would collapse.
I’ve made a list of accomodation, in descending order of popularity:
Campsite/caravan park situated on cliff or walking distance from beach with no roads to cross. Rudimentary facilities
B&B, often on farms
2nd homes, used by the owners or rented out to middle-class professionals at exhorbitant rates (a 2nd home on a cliff with direct access to beach which sleeps 6 will cost you £800 a week in August)
Guest houses - glorified B&B with some self-catering accomodation
Big hotels - cater for all-in family holidays, includes indoor & outdoor swimming pools, gymnasia, saunas, games rooms, kids’ rooms etc. Expensive.
Friends visiting residents for a free holiday - the best scam of all
You should feature visitors who stay in all these places, but make the campsite and the beach the hub and feature the owner of the campsite, a farmer. The pub is also a vital ingredient, the bar of the hotel is no substitute. In fact Martin & Christine’s place would probably only have a private guest license anyway. There would be tension between the pub and the local people who take umbrage at the loud live bands every night playing till gone midnight, the yelling and raucous behaviour of the clientele, the theft of gates and all things wooden to provide fuel for beach party fires, etc.
Don’t forget that 99.99% of people who go on holiday are extremely tense, tired and run down when they arrive at their destination. These symptoms generally take at least a week to disappear and only if the holiday works out as expected. The trouble is now that Cornwall is becoming so crowded in the peak period that few people are able to fully unwind. The lanes are clogged and dangerous so every journey in the car, however short, is fraught with tension. The beach is packed to capacity and so is the sea when you are bathing. If the weather is even slightly bad most tourists take the kids to Flambards or a historic garden or some tin mine heritage rip-off where there’s little to do or see. These excursions tend to burn a large hole in the wallet and are therefore one-offs - no-one comes to Cornwall to spend money. Cornwall during the holiday period is not a happy place, its a hectic madhouse.
Tourism is not an industry, its a trade - industry implies the manufacture of a product and in the case of tourism the product - Cornwall - already exists. Tourism is the commercial exploitation of that product and as with all things that are exploited the result is degradation. To anyone who was born and bred in the place, who loves it in the sense that implies knowledge, intimacy and understanding, what is being done to Cornwall in the name of tourism is nothing short of criminal.
Tourism is not an alternative for any kind of serious employment. The only ones who benefit from tourism are the property owners and coastal farmers. For the rest - the bar staff, KPs (kitchen porters) chambermaids, cleaners, chefs, shop assistants etc, the pay is appalling, the work is menial and the season (mercifully) very short. I don’t know a single person who works at any of these jobs in the summer who gets an iota of enjoyment or satisfaction from their labours.
The money generated from tourism falls into the hands of a very small number of people. A farmer with two fields and a license for 140 pitches + 50 overspill at £4 per night for the peak six weeks alone will make over £30,000 with few overheads and no staff. Nobody benefits from that except one individual and his family. The Newquay Safeways, thanks to its holiday trade, has the biggest turnover of any Safeways store in Britain, where does the profit go? Straight back up the A30. Tourism operators pay business rates but when you take into account the burden on Cornwall’s infastructure - the cost of lifeguard cover, litter clearance, road repair, sewage disposal, extra policing, ambulance and medical services, search and rescue facilities (a simple Sea King helicopter rescue costs £6,000) - the tourist trade’s figures, seldom challenged, just don’t add up.
Raft races are well-organised events and entrants usually have to register some time in advance. Even the most rudimentary raft is hard to visualise and more difficult to assemble. For a group of holidaymakers to find the material and the wherewithal to make it is implausible, particularly if they’re staying at the hotel. They would get no help from the hotel owner, he’d be too busy. Litterbins as floats are out of the question, you need something which is watertight to float. And anyway, you’ve got three characters who come here for a fishing holiday - why not have them go fishing? There’s so much scope for hilarity and potential tragedy in this. They could hire a boat (plus skipper) for a day and go wreck fishing for pollack, bottom fishing for turbot and ray, they could take their beachcasters, buy some bait (rip-off), light their hurricane lamps and go shore fishing at night for bass, or fish off the rocks for bass and skate - its the perfect scenario for a little hitler and his reluctant accomplices - it happens time and time again, there are thousands of them - the fishermen who think they know it all, who lay out as much as £1500 on carbon fibre rods, state of the art Penn reels, luminous gut, fancy lures, rod-lights, rod-holders, headlamps etc etc and catch nothing. When I go down at low water at 1 or 2 am to look to my bass nets (outlay £30 max) I’m often accosted by irate fishermen who have spotted me pick up a bagfull of bass and mullet with no apparent effort.
The cardsharp scenario is more redolent of a South or East Coast Resort like Eastbourne or Margate, in fact many or your characters and scenarios would be better suited to these places - perhaps you should change your location?
The Canadian on the quest for her roots is a good idea, she would have done her homework before arriving, written letters, phoned, faxed and set up meetings with her distant relatives. Perhaps this is the episode where we discover that all the indigenous local Cornish people in the parish are related? She would have a vivid but off-centre picture of the place. Please try to avoid people “wittering on about the idyllic Cornish landscape and the romance of the sea” You’re missing a trick if she looks in the churchyard. Make her ancestors Methodists and take her hunt for headstones to the chapel cemetery, its more distinctively Cornish.
The furze-burning episode doesn’t have much credibility. Furze burning is an ecologically acceptable, regenerative operation if carried out at the correct time of year. If burned in the spring or early summer damage is done to the flora and fauna etc. A farmer who burns off furze in order to reclaim the land for cultivation at the height of the season might incur the wrath of the council’s health and environmental departments as well as choking everybody on the beach, creating a smokescreen which is dangerous for the lifeguard, etc. but its still far-fetched, I’d forget it.
The other suggested story-lines are not specific enough to your chosen theme. Why not tell stories about events which could only occur on or around a North Cornish beach in the summer?
Saturday, change-over day - all quiet on the Western Front because the holidaymakers are incarcerated in their cars either going home or travelling down, but feverish activity behind the scenes, the busiest day of the week for the hapless workers - particularly cleaners of second homes, the Olives of this world, who are abominably treated by their Volvo-driving employers. How about a double-booking?
The Paul/who should he work for, Mum or Dad, dilemma
Recurrent vandalism to boats, gates, garden furniture etc. The culprit - a youth staying on the campsite. The police show up to investigate the day after he’s gone home. His captor and punisher is more likely to be Andy or Paul, or both.
Holidaymakers’ paraphernalia - nobody goes to the beach any more, they go to war. They take beach blankets to protect them from the sand, windbreaks to protect them from the breeze, wetsuits to protect them from the sea, sunblock to protect them from cancer. The experience of being on a beach, of going into the sea and catching a wave with nothing but your own body is prehistoric. This has serious consequences. Seaweed, instead of being seen as a natural part of a beach is deemed an unsightly, messy, smelly health hazard which has to be completely removed. Beaches are raked every morning to give the effect of a uniform, cosmetic perfection. The North Cornish Coast is sold as an artificial, manicured Mediterranean paradise. The place is changed and moulded to suit the demands of commercial exploitation. The environment and ecology are destroyed in the process.
The rescue/tragedy - drowning, cliff fall, dog rescue, lost child etc - include in this the role of the lifeguard, the auxiliary coastguard who is a local shopkeeper or equivalent, the crew of the D-class inshore lifeboat (could be Paul) etc.
The pressure and misery that an enormous number of people suddenly descending on a place and taking it over for themselves can inflict on local residents.
The fishing party - covered above
The second home owners - the Volvo-drivers and their dubious relationship with the place and the local tradespeople. This is a vital strand for any series about Cornwall.
I have many more scenarios, anecdotal and thematic, in fact the list is endless.
It would not be difficult, given the stage you’re at now, to rethink your material and replace it with something which is properly representative of Cornwall, which tackles the real issues presented by tourism and shows Cornish people in a positive, human light.
You should hire Cornish writers where possible (would you consider asking English writers to contribute to a series set in Ireland, Wales, Scotland?), and cast authentic Cornish actors to play the indigenous Cornish roles. Martin and Christine originate from Lancashire, will you hire actors from Essex to play them?
For myself, as I said on the phone, I would like to contribute to the series, to write a week or two but also to advise and act on a consultative level. Remember, no playwright alive is more qualified to work on this project:
Born and bred on a cliff on the North Cornish Coast
Lives in house of birth, direct access to beach, owns a small portion of beach
Father a farmer and fisherman
Made sandwiches, washed up and waited table by day in Mother’s beach cafe throughout teens, worked behind bar in country club by night
Avid surfer in youth, still possesses Bilbo longboard though too dinged to surf now (the board that is), good friends with current hardcore surfers in Newquay
Fisherman - owns a punt and works lobster pots and bass nets throughout the year
Launches boat off beach in summer, comes into daily contact with holidaymakers
Occasional crew for PW240, Diligence, a Padstow crabber
Vice Chairman St. Eval Parish Council (father was Chairman for 35 years)
Chairman, Parish Hall Commitee
Son at University in London is a hotel worker in summer, as are son’s girlfriend and all their friends
Founded and DJ’d Cornwall’s first ever discotheque in 1965
Ancestors were wreckers, line unbroken down to present day, considers wrecking to be a great and noble skill
Fierce critic of tourist trade and its purported ‘benefits’
Written about Cornwall for 20 years, including radio plays broadcast on R4, BBC films, stage plays for National Theatre, RSC, Royal Court and many more. Hugely successful stage play The King of Prussia (set in Mounts Bay) soon to be adapted and broadcast on R4. The Riot, about the Newlyn Riots, commissioned by the National Theatre, scheduled for production in the Cottesloe Jan 1999
Bard of the Gorseth Kernow
Fierce critic of TV series such as Wycliffe and Poldark which mis-represent Cornwall and its people whilst ruthlessly exploiting its landscape and history
Would hate to see same thing happening on radio
+ Browse the Archives
Ideas for ‘Postcards’