BLOOD AND INK ON THE FLOOR

Alan Bleasdale is the most powerful writer in British television. But that doesn't put him above the editor's knife. Our reporter sees his new work, 'Melissa', undergo major surgery in the cutting room
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The Independent Culture
The cutting room is a cruel place, where writing that may have cost blood to commit to paper is kneaded and pummelled like so much insensate clay. For reasons made abundantly clear in Dennis Potter's Karaoke, scriptwriters almost never stray here. When Potter's dramatist, played by Albert Finney, penetrated this mysterious laboratorial sanctum, his only notable act was to punch the director's nose.

Alan Bleasdale has long had a taste for entering the lion's den. "It's as murderous as you'd expect it to be," he says, "but you're involved in a team game and you've got to work with the team. Otherwise go away and write a novel." On one occasion he actually did go away and write a novel, but the vast unpublished tome mutated back into GBH. It was from this landmark success, on which he first took a credit as producer, that he somehow acquired a reputation for being a bit of a bully. For several years now, whisperers within the industry have fanned the rumour that he throws his weight around in the cutting room, kicks the director out of his chair and tyranically revels in his hard-won status as the most powerful writer in British television.

When I ran into him at a party before Christmas, Bleasdale confessed that he had always been hurt by the stories of his megalomania, and agreed to let me sit in the cutting room while his latest work, Melissa, was knocked into shape. The idea was to let an independent witness measure the extent of his artistic muscle-flexing.

Recent projects have certainly helped to give credence to rumour. After GBH, he used his clout to make Alan Bleasdale Presents ... in which feature- length opportunities were granted to four writers new to TV. No matter that his instincts were entirely generous, he was seen, perhaps enviously, to be doing something that writers just don't do. Then came Jake's Progress, a portrait of a mid-life crisis which shared the symptoms it anatomised: blindly self-indulgent, it was Bleasdale's Blackeyes, in which, as writer, producer and editor, he somehow found himself wearing too many creative hats to make the hard decisions that need to be taken in the cutting room.

Bleasdale insists that he got embroiled in the editing of Jake's Progress only because the director Robin Lefevre, predominantly a theatre director, felt his job was done once the film was in the can. "I didn't want to do what I did. It's just there seemed to be no option. I've always been very involved in the editing at the request of the producer. I've been invited to participate, and inevitably if you're passionate about something you'll say what you think. I would have much preferred with regard to health and sanity not to have been so deeply involved in the editing of GBH and Jake's Progress as I was. But it wasn't me taking advantage. It was demanded of me that I be there. And so I was. And that's why I decided I might as well have a job title, because there's nothing worse than being on a set day in day out without having a pretend job, so I pretended to be a producer. This is a depressingly hierarchical business. If you're wearing the hat they see the hat, and the hat counts. I'd always felt that I'd done what I did without the hat, but if they wanted the hat I'd wear the hat."

THE BALANCE of creative power has been redistributed for Melissa. Bleasdale was on set in London for some of the shoot but after a few weeks a bad back helped him to the realisation that "I'd been of use to the director for less than 35 seconds in one week." He left, "very happy to be surplus," and now returns strictly as an opinionated visitor to this poky room on the fourth floor of a building in Soho.

The windowless suite wasn't designed for crowded meetings, where the sense of constriction is compounded by the shelves full of reels and boxes. Bleasdale, just down on the train for Liverpool, is in a sofa by the sliding door, soothing nerve-ends with Diet Coke and cigarettes. His producer Keith Thompson, a softly spoken, teddy-bearish Cumbrian, occupies an armchair which he vacates at the summons of his mobile's bizarre symphonic ringing tone. Up at the desk sits the director Bill Anderson, tall, crop-haired and adrenalised, and the editor Colin Green, who is short and laconic. Both have been here for three months, fuelled by exotic fruit throughout the attritional ordeal of tautening eight hours' worth of material into six. On the desk is pounds 100,000 worth of computer-editing technology, the machine employed to cut Melissa to ribbons.

Melissa is an adaptation of, or enlargement on, a 1960s drama series by Francis Durbridge. Durbridge's name was once as umbilically connected to television drama as Bleasdale's is now. "Whenever there was a Francis Durbridge thriller on the television," says Bleasdale, "it was absolute automatic viewing in our house". Bleasdale had long nursed an ambition to write a detective series, but understood that he lacked the crime writer's ability to be mercilessly succinct. During the longueurs of filming Jake, he went back to the old Durbridge scripts for source material and opted for Melissa. "Durbridge had the ability to produce the most brilliant jigsaw puzzles and crosswords," he explains of this unusual collaboration across time with a writer who has given him full permission to tear up the original, "and there was a possibility that whatever I can do and he can do could be married". The result is an expansion from Durbridge's six half-hour episodes to a five-part series comprising two episodes of 75 minutes and three of 52.

The first three parts are basically Bleasdale's prequel to Durbridge's plot, fattening out characters who were more sketchily drawn in the original. Melissa, played by Jennifer Ehle, is a publicist working for Paula (Julie Walters), while Paula's agent husband Graeme (Adrian Dunbar) looks after the careers of a mediocre comedian, a moderate racing driver and an alcoholic chanteuse. The balance of this curious but close-knit menage is upset when Melissa falls in love with Guy (Tim Dutton), a dashing but damaged foreign news reporter who resents the friendships he seems obliged to marry into when he and Melissa tie the knot. Guy's intrusion into Melissa's life coincides with a series of murders - two in part one, one each in parts two and three, which we know are all committed by one of the above.

This is the point in the story where Durbridge's original began. "The first three episodes are completely mine," says Bleasdale. "If you don't like the first three it's my fault." We join the editing process at the beginning of part four, just after the final and most crucial murder has taken place, and the first task of part four is to break the news to the other characters (hereafter referred to as "X").

Colin Green now runs the first section of the episode. No one knows better how delicate these sessions can be. He edited seven and a half hours of Jake's Progress with its author sitting next to him. He was, he says, "in quite a tricky position. Alan was really close to the material."

Anderson, who arrived on Melissa fresh from directing and editing his own work, confirms that "a really healthy feature in the cutting room is huge irreverence to the material. Like 'What wanker wrote this?' Part of you has to look at the material like you're someone who's being forced to watch it against your will."

"I'll try not to smoke too much," says Bleasdale as the first 20 minutes of episode four begin. He torches up after three minutes. His body language, as he leans forward in his seat, then slumps back, speaks loud and clear, and he punctuates it with the occasional sigh and one stark expletive of surprise. When the gap for the commercial break arrives, he looks at his notes, pauses, and delivers his verdict. "You haven't half thrown it about, have you?"

The cause of Bleasdale's grievance is two-pronged. In his script, episode four resumed where episode three left off, at a birthday party given for Don Page, the racing driver. This was conceived as one of the big set pieces of the drama, with a line-dance peopled by celebs for hire, like Lionel Blair, Victor Ubogu and Ian St John. The police arrive at the party and interrupt the line-dance to tell the lead characters that X is dead. Director, cast and crew went to great lengths to choreograph and film the line-dance, but Anderson has unsentimentally skewered it. Another scene, in which the news is broken to the assembled characters, has also gone.

"I didn't know where I was," says Bleasdale, "and I wrote it. I was really baffled by that."

"I think that first part is still slow," says Anderson cautiously.

Keith Thompson chips in: "I know there was a lot of argument about not having much of the party, but I do miss some of it."

"What do you miss out of it?" asks Green.

"I miss the police arriving."

"I miss that," adds Bleasdale. "I was absolutely shocked when it wasn't there. We know what's happening. It's not necessarily so that an audience will. You have to go to the party."

"The party's over," counters Anderson with some emphasis.

"The audience will have forgotten about the party as soon as they've seen the shooting at the end of the episode, rather than the fag end of the party, which just serves the purpose of telling the other suspects about the death. What do we gain by seeing them being told something we already know? And the answer is not very much."

Bleasdale sighs heavily. "That introduction is more settling than what we have at the moment. At the top of this episode we have to bring these people back, and if we go down the line that we've gone down now, my instincts tell me that that is wrong for the whole five or six hours of the piece. It's worth at the top of this, having seen a quite startling and brutal death at the end of the last episode, that we can take that time to bring these people back, because we know as an audience, even if we don't have a clue who it is, that someone amongst these people has done these murders. We need to see the round-up of the usual suspects. There they are."

"I seriously don't," says Anderson, perceptibly suppressing the vexation in his voice. "This is just two policemen procedurally rounding up some people, taking them to a room and telling them that their friend's died. We're just saying, 'Here they are. You got five minutes, everybody?' "

We have reached an impasse. Neither writer nor director are prepared to give way, and there is only one solution: send it to arbitration. "I tell you what I think we should do," says Anderson. "I think we should show it to Peter without the party."

Peter Ansorge, whom Bleasdale first came across in the corridors of BBC Peeble Mill in the 1970s, is the commissioning editor for drama at Channel 4, and has been his executive producer since GBH. In situations like this, Ansorge is granted the casting vote. Anderson's argument is that Bleasdale only misses the party because he knows it exists. It's his hope that Ansorge, who was sent an assembly of all the filmed material at the time of shooting, will have completely forgotten about the party, and won't mourn its absence. "Peter," says Bleasdale, using a favourite phrase of approbation , "is by no shadow of anyone's imagination anyone's fool. He's always on the money. The only trouble is that I've tended to lose every fucking argument."

The rest of the episode is viewed with relative equanimity, and after tossing in the old minor quibble Bleasdale repairs to the production office to nurse his wounds. His hands are shaking as he cracks into a fourth can of Diet Coke. "It can be more heated than that," he says, "but not much more. You see me at what is a very naked time for me. These are terrible things to go through ... It does hurt when things are on the floor." He says he feels acutely conscious that Anderson is "much more articulate than me. I feel in his company occasionally that I'm some kind of idiot savant. But if somebody's got a better argument than me I'll shut up. The thing that has made me twitch in the past is if I've lost and I've been right."

Ansorge will see the directors' cut at 5pm the following day. This will be his second stint in arbitration. Anderson won the first.

I RING Bleasdale later to get the result, and he calls it "A one-all draw. Peter Ansorge saw the director's cut and then we said 'Here's what's been left out,' and he leapt upon the round-up of the usual suspects. I was very happy for the line-dancing to go, but we had to keep that in. And Bill immediately said, 'Great, fine, I'll go with that.' " So there we have it: though he was resigned to conceding defeat, the most powerful writer in television gained a small victory in the executive producer's office. And that is the extent of Bleasdale's omnipotence. Far from the thug of popular myth, he has about him an air of care-worn humility, a hang-dog defencelessness, that has plainly been nurtured by the demands of the collaborative process.

There is a peripheral comic turn in Melissa in the person of Charlton Foulkes (played by Bleasdale's old mate Andrew Schofield), a abrasive, self-obsessed novelist who bruises easily. He is something of a repetitive device, because Schofield also took a cameo role as an unscrupulous dramatist in Jake's Progress. But Bleasdale can only have revived so dramatically redundant a stereotype because he wanted to ram the point home. While sending up the venial vanities of his profession, he is also pleading his own innocence. "That's what I think people think that I must be. Other writers haven't been able to get into the position that I've got into, therefore they must ask how he's got in that position. The reason must be that he's a bastard. And he stamps on people. I can't think of many things I've done in the last 20-odd years that have given me this reputation. Except that I will fight. I won't fight for me. I'll fight for it. And it is more important than me. "

! 'Melissa' will be shown on Channel 4 in May.

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