Sex, lies and manuscript

Stuffy? Boring? This one-off studio drama is anything but. By James Rampton
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Michael Custance, the producer of The Writing Game, regrets to inform us that his production contains not a single blue flashing light. His studio-based adaptation of David Lodge's stage-play also has a disappointing lack of car chases, helicopters, explosions, and gun-toting macho-men shouting "You're nicked!". In their place, The Writing Game, first performed on stage at the Birmingham Repertory in 1990, has a lot of thought-provoking dialogue about the nature of literature. As Custance candidly puts it: "If we were looking for the Number One spot in the ratings, we wouldn't have done this."

The producer, whose last television play was the equally challenging Party Time by Harold Pinter, elaborates that The Writing Game is "broadsheet rather than tabloid drama. Its appeal is based on the script and performances. It's a niche." Speaking down the line from Birmingham, Lodge takes up the theme. "There's not much of this sort of thing on television. One of the reasons we got this cast [led by George Segal, Susan Wooldridge and Michael Maloney] was that they were all sick of doing cops and robbers. The idea of doing something literary, where you can use long words, was unusual and appealing. There is a place for that on television."

The only drawback with filming a stage-play is that it looks like, well, a filmed stageplay. That is not a problem as far as Lodge is concerned: "Directors, who have most creative say, like the freedom and fluidity of film. A police series, for example, benefits from the flexibility of locations. But for more literary plays, there's no reason why you should go all over the country and film the same people in lots of different settings. The studio is the mode that best suits this play because it has a claustrophobic feel."

In fact he wishes there were more of them about. Since the halcyon days of Play for Today, the one-off studio drama has become as endangered a species as the white rhino. "I'd like to see a revival of the studio drama," Lodge asserts. "It's cheap, which means you can afford to fail. There's not the same pressure on you as with a million-dollar movie. If you want serious literary drama about contemporary issues, then the studio play is where it can be done." The television version of The Writing Game was certainly cheap. Set in a residential creative writing course in the New Forest, it was shot in a studio, on a microscopic budget, over a breathless three days.

The action hinges on a professional and sexual triangle played out between three tutors: an American professor (Segal) with writer's block, a witty British middle-class writer of bestsellers (Wooldridge) and a hipper-than-thou, goatee-bearded whizz-kid novelist from Cambridge (Maloney). "I once taught on a course like this," Lodge recalls, "and it struck me as a dramatic situation - people thrown together under high pressure to produce and create. It also has the classical unities of place, time and action. So I invented a story to develop the potential of the setting. And I've always been interested in Anglo-American conflicts. America is like a foreign country where I can be fluent in the language."

In contrasting scenes, all three tutors read out their work to the students. "That was a way of dramatising the business of writing," Lodge observes. "The challenge is, how do you dramatise something as private and mental as writing fiction?" His pen is particularly sharp about the competitiveness of the writers. "There's an element of rivalry between all writers," Lodge confirms. "If it becomes sexual as well, then that adds to the explosive theatrical mixture."

Critics might carp that Lodge has again reached for an academic setting, but after more than 20 years in universities (he retired from academia eight years ago), he knows that world best. "There'll always be academics in my fiction," Lodge avers. "They're articulate. They live by words. You can make them witty without losing touch with reality. Also, they teach people about beauty and truth while having all the natural human frailities, so there's a built-in contradiction which is nice to exploit."

Custance also defends Lodge: "Yes, people will say he writes about academics all the time - which in fact he doesn't - but that's his style. I could talk about other writers only doing 'blue flashing lights' scripts. He's an academic at heart, so his works come from that core. David is very much an individual intellect. He would never take a commission to do episode 26 of something." Yes, happily, we'll never see this credit: Thief Takers by David Lodge.

'The Writing Game', Sun 9pm C4