A dramatic sense of place

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Award-winning playwright Richard Cameron has two sources of inspiration - his native Yorkshire and children. Nicki Household met him

It was while he was directing a school production of the musical extravaganza Dracula Spectacular at Thomas Sumpter comprehensive in Scunthorpe, Humberside, that Richard Cameron began to feel uneasy about the kind of material he was working with. "The show was terrific fun and had a cast of thousands, but it was irrelevant to the children's lives. I felt they deserved better."

He had similar doubts about the texts that he was dishing out to 14 to 17-year-olds in the classroom. "Some of those playlets for young people were unbelievably patronising and seemed to me to have been knocked out between one cigarette and the next. They bore no relation to the passionate ideas the children themselves were coming up with during improvisation sessions."

The solution, Cameron decided, was to write plays for the age-group himself. His first, The Haunted Sunflowers, (now published as Handle with Care) won The Sunday Times Award for best new play at the 1985 National Student Drama Festival. He has since written seven more plays for young people (including two more Sunday Times prize-winners), and won the Independent Theatre Award in 1990 with his first adult play - originally written for the Scunthorpe Youth Theatre - Can't Stand Up for Falling Down.

His first television drama, Stone, Scissors, Paper, winner of the BBC's first Dennis Potter Film of the Year Award, is tomorrow's Screen Two presentation. Set, like everything else he has written, in Cameron's native South Yorkshire, it stars Juliet Stevenson and Ken Stott as two lonely, though married, people, whose innocent romantic friendship wreaks havoc in their close-knit community.

A slow, lyrical drama, in which landscape is as important as character, it deals with what is not said and not done when feelings can't be expressed. "The characters are inarticulate, so a lot of the acting is between the lines, " explains Cameron. "The challenge for me was how to communicate what goes on inside people's heads."

As an 11-plus failure who left school at 16 to become an apprentice mechanical engineer, Cameron, now 49, had an inauspicious start in life. "I was a dreamer and did very little at school," he admits. "But I had the most wonderful childhood. We lived near countryside on the outskirts of Doncaster, and I was free to roam about, build dams, light fires, climb trees."

But the young boy, whose father worked on the railways, also loved poetry and stories and spent long hours in Doncaster Library. "It was one of my favourite places and I read everything and anything, especially American science books because they were so beautifully laid out. I could live in a book." He secretly wanted to be a poet, but couldn't admit it when interviewed by the careers teacher at Balby Secondary Modern.

However, four months in a factory were enough to convince him that mechanical engineering was not for him, so he persuaded his parents to let him do English and sociology A-levels at Doncaster Technical College and went on to do a sociology degree at London's South Bank Polytechnic.

After the open spaces and down-to-earth values of Yorkshire, London did not appeal, and he dislikes it to this day. "I was a shy lad and felt very lonely when I came to London, although once I met people and became part of the student scene, I quickly got initiated in every sense. But there was - and still is - something about London that makes me afraid. When I am in Scunthorpe I know who I am and what matters, but in London I start to lose that. It's so easy to get sucked into a false set of values."

He did, however, meet his wife Lorna (who now works in a paediatric hospital) in London and says that it's thanks to her that he became a drama teacher. "I probably wouldn't have done anything much if I hadn't met Lorna, because I had little faith in myself and no idea what I wanted to do."

During a one-year English-teaching diploma in Hull, Cameron joined the East Riding County Youth Theatre and, when the course ended, went with them on a five-week tour of India. "That was it, I was hooked!" says the playwright - who still, as he rolls his own cigarettes, has something of the air of an intense, idealistic, Sixties student. "I'd finally found something that meant something to me, although it didn't actually occur to me that I could teach drama, until Lorna said that was what I had to do."

He got his first teaching job at Thomas Sumpter School in 1973 and stayed until 1991, when he left to become a full-time writer. "To jack in my job at 43, when I had two kids at college, was a fairly crazy decision, but once again I had Lorna's backing. I was getting very fed up with all the report-writing and records of achievement and had become impossible to live with. Lorna said that if it would make me happy to write full time, then that was what I should do."

But he's still convinced that it was doing drama with children that fired his creativity. "One of the things that amazed me, working in groups with children, was the way they can take ideas in directions you never thought possible. I learned so much from them about imagination and integrity. Children care deeply about emotional and personal things and, even though they don't like to give much away in front of their friends, some extraordinary ideas will come to the surface in the drama room, if you work in trust and honesty. We tend to think children are inexperienced and know nothing, but it's all there, waiting to be unlocked. When they open up in improvisation groups, it's not you telling them how things are - it's them telling their own stories. That's why I think we're doing them a great disservice making them perform these endless musicals. "

Childhood has been a constant theme in Cameron's work. His first play, The Haunted Sunflowers, was set in a children's home, and Strugglers (written two years later for the National Student Drama Company), in a special school. "I wrote Sunflowers at a time when I was very caught up with the notion of the unwanted child, the child without parents, and I've found that when students work on it, they're always able to tap into the depths of sorrow and joy, even though they are not using their own experience."

Strugglers, scripted from an improvised student production, is about a group of children with learning difficulties who are about to go out into the adult world, and Can't Stand Up for Falling Down (with a cast of just three) deals with the memory and pain of childhood from an adult point of view.

A similar theme crops up in Stone, Scissors, Paper, when the troubled central character, Redfern (Ken Stott) seeks out long-buried childhood treasures to assuage his adult pain. Like Cameron, Redfern still lives in the area he grew up in, so his childhood haunts and their memories are an integral part of his adult life.

A sense of place is as crucial to Cameron as it was to Dennis Potter, who inspired the award he has won. "I don't know whether that consideration was at the back of the panel's mind, but certainly landscape and place are where I start from. I need to know exactly where I am, or I can't do anything." In Stone, Scissors, Paper, he is in Sprotborough, his boyhood home, and the cemetery featured in the story is the one where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather are buried.

Winning the award - which was judged on the basis of a four-page synopsis and an interview - gave him the time and resources (Pounds 10,000) to develop what was still only the bare bones of an idea. "Sometimes, when I've had plays on in London, television people have got in touch to say they're open to ideas. But I can't put ideas together on spec - it takes me months to structure them into something presentable. The award is a brilliant idea because it gives writers new to television a chance to find their own voice."

For Cameron, giving up teaching has not meant giving up working with young people. He still does acting workshops with GCSE, A-level and university students, and has strong views about the importance of drama in the curriculum. "Drama teachers have difficulty getting their subject acknowledged because there is a reluctance, on the part of the powers-that-be, to acknowledge that anything worthwhile happens in drama lessons. They like to see a photo of the school play in the local paper, but that's about it. I have never thought that drama teaching has anything to do with turning out actors. It is the most valuable lesson in the whole curriculum because it explores human psychology. It helps children to understand why we do the things we do, and why it is often the people closest to us who hurt us the most."

Richard Cameron's Stone, Scissors, Paper is on BBC2 at 9.35pm on June 7

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