Playwright Michael Cook records how his stage play about hunting has been adapted for school television's 'Scene' drama series. September 1993
Commissioned to adapt my stage play, Sab, for BBC Education's Scene programme. I have memories of schools' television two or three classes watching Scene in the hall; everyone trying to muck about at the back. I read the list of writers who've worked on Scene: Tom Stoppard, Willy Russell, Howard Schuman . . . (If we'd realised, I'm sure we'd have paid more attention).
This will be my first television drama, just as Sab was my first stage play a comedy about five student hunt saboteurs whose day in the country ends in violence and bitterness performed as part of 1992's Royal Court Theatre Young Writers Festival. The challenge then was to create rolling English countryside in the tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. I'm seduced now by visions of hundreds of thoroughbreds galloping across the television screen.
Meeting with the producer at the BBC. The big budget dreams will have to go. This is schools television after all we can have horses, just not too many. Write first draft. A rough guide in television is a page of screenplay to a minute of screen time. The first draft runs to 37 pages. Much too long.
Write second draft. The producer and executive producer feel a different ending may better suit television. They're right I'm clinging too closely to what's occurred on stage. Write third draft concentrating on telling the story in pictures.
Still too long. In the original, the hunt was a shadowy presence off-stage. Now we see Joanna, a huntswoman without a name in the theatre, in close-up and with her friends. It humanises her but it eats into the time we spend with the saboteurs. Have to be ruthless with unnecessary dialogue. This seems at the time like cutting all the jokes.
We have a director! Sent tapes of his previous work dark and moody and rather stylish. Meet in a West End hotel where we discuss hunt violence and political commitment to the sound of a cocktail bar piano. He's enthusiastic about the script, with detailed but constructive criticisms. He wants even more exposition through pictures showing rather than telling. Write fourth draft over Christmas, moving further away from the stage play.
The director visits a sab where the saboteurs are kitted out with video cameras and the hunt employ uniformed stewards with mobile phones. We could shoot part of the last scene through the sabbers' camcorder. Write fifth draft in a hurry. Filming starts in a couple of weeks.
Four days before rehearsals: A call from the executive producer. The director has left the production after "differences of opinion" with the production team. The producer will direct she knows the script inside out. Just one more thing could I write another draft to remove most of the previous director's ideas?
Rehearsal: This is almost my script. The BBC Schools' education adviser cuts some mild swearing, which I don't object to; and delete a single drug reference, which I do. They'll try and re-instate it.
Filming: Two weeks in Buckinghamshire commuter belt. Very authentic: cold, muddy, and the rain doesn't stop for the first three days. Apart from the location caterers and the make-up van, this could be a genuine hunt sab. It's a theme of the play: why do people put themselves through this painful discomfort and crushing boredom week after week? Crew and cast very professional. Even the stunt horse has played alongside Kenneth Branagh.
Finished videotape arrives in the post. For a small budget film, this looks lavish. The colours are beautiful vivid reds against the lush greens of spring fields and the misty greys of spring skies. The rain looks dramatic and moody rather than simply wet. They spell my name right in the titles and everything. I like it, but I'm surprised by it. Wasn't this supposed to be a comedy? It's not just the jokes that I'd cut. The power of the pictures make this a more harrowing piece than I'd imagined. There's humour here, but the strength of the images draws the attention. Thinking in pictures has made this different from the stage play.
It makes Sab a strong Scene film provocative and compelling enough to discourage too much messing around at the back. Only the education adviser is not convinced by the power of the pictures. Insists we dub on the line "Must you smoke?" after one character lights up. It's the only time I'm taken back to the schools' television I remember.
"Sab" will be broadcast as part of "Scene" next Friday, November 4, BBC2,