Arts: The grit between the teeth

Jonathan Myerson is sick of reading novels about lovelorn graduates in Hampstead. He lives in Clapham. Well, it's a start
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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Myerson likes causing unease. "I like the theatrical tradition of discomforting your audience," he says. "A happy ending makes you feel that the world is all right."

It would be easy to assume that Myerson's world was indeed all right. We're sitting in the sunshine at a Thames-side cafe, near the National Theatre where Myerson once worked as a director. We're in Southwark, starting point for the Canterbury Tales - which Myerson has adapted and is currently directing, in an animated version to be broadcast soon on BBC2. But in case that all sounds too comfortable, remember this: we're also close to the principal haunts of London's homeless, who figure prominently in Myerson's first novel, Noise.

Published this month in paperback, Noise could almost be the book of a film by Ken Loach. Written in transparent prose, it tells the story of a hospital doctor's struggle to come to terms with the death of her young son - in a car accident - and a husband who, far from supporting her, descends into alcoholism. Escaping from London, she finds herself among society's refuseniks in the wastes of East Anglia and eventually falls into trouble with the law. It's exceptionally well imagined, one of the benefits of less than extensive research: "I've never even been to Lincolnshire," he says, "but I've been to Holloway prison, and I've read about road protests."

It's that gift of empathy (or bluff) that enables Myerson to be one of the few male writers who can successfully portray a female protagonist. He's even brave enough to tackle a rape scene. Before showing it to his agent, or his publisher - both of them women - he sought the opinion of his wife, the novelist, Julie Myerson.

Noise is dedicated to Myerson's father, Aubrey, a barrister who'd hoped his son would follow him to the Bar after reading Classics at Oxford. But that didn't happen because the Oxford Playhouse commissioned a play, and Jonathan never looked back. But in his next novel, he intends to examine his father's influence: "It's about how sons turn into their fathers, as I have."

By which he might mean he has inherited a highly developed sense of social responsibility. "My father used to get something out of being a poor man's spokesman," he says. Not having qualified as a barrister, Myerson can't do that, but he does something similar: he sits for 26 days a year as a magistrate at Balham Youth Court. "You can convince yourself that you're changing defendants' lives, that it's not too late," he says. "I do feel slightly evangelical. I want to change people's thinking and people's lives."

With few exceptions, English novelists fall short of Myerson's ideals. "I'm sick of reading about graduates in Hampstead," he rages, "wondering about having an affair. Recently, successful English novelists have all tended to be showing off. Noise refers to no other work of literature. There's no witty murderer referring to Nabokov as he commits his crime!"

Before writing novels, Myerson enjoyed some success as a playwright - notably writing an adaptation of diaries by the Sixties writer, Joe Orton, which played at the King's Head in Islington and then transferred to the West End - but earned a crust writing for TV, "because Richard Eyre didn't say: `Come and write a new play for the National,' amazingly".

While working as a "jobbing scriptwriter", he was offered The Canterbury Tales. The two 30-minute films are co-produced by S4C, BBC2 and BBC Education (for schools the films are being dubbed into Chaucer's English, with modern- language subtitles). Part one features The Nun's Priest's Tale, The Knight's Tale and The Wife of Bath's Tale. Part two comprises The Merchant's Tale, The Pardoner's Tale and The Franklin's Tale. Both have already been sold internationally, and Myerson is working on a third.

The Canterbury Tales starts with the pilgrims (filmed in 3D, stop-frame animation a la Wallace and Gromit), then moves into the tales (which are drawn). Myerson enjoys the potential of a medium, which, until now, was unfamiliar to him: "Animation, like pop music, can say things with speed."

He cast the voices himself: Sean Bean as the Nun's Priest, Robert Lindsay (the Host), Tim McInnerney (Pardoner), Bob Peck (Chaucer) and Billie Whitelaw (Wife of Bath). An additional layer of interpretation went into the writing: "I based Chaucer on Michael Caine in Alfie," he says, "looking at the camera every so often to say, `And this is the Miller...'."

His experience in writing for TV came in useful. For Chaucer's low-life characters, Myerson reverted to the language he previously used when writing scripts for ITV's The Bill - language he might also have come across in court. "I like the grittiness, the sex, the pissing and so on."

Momentarily relaxing, Myerson gives a glimpse of something more playful: "I have been in a gritty phase for a long time," he concedes, "but I'm hoping to grow out of it."

`Noise' is published by Review, pounds 6.99. `Canterbury Tales' will be broadcast on BBC2 later this year