TELEVISION / 'Dialogue. Always': Alan Bleasdale has a new job - as a talent spotter. He told Robert Butler why he was happy to read 2,000 scripts

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The Independent Culture
HIS FIRST television script wasn't much good and the BBC was kind enough to tell him so. 'Basically, all I had was one very good idea,' says Alan Bleasdale. 'I knew it was a good idea because I'd pinched it from real life.' The BBC was also kind enough to produce Scully. 'They said it had a glimmer of hope.'

This was in those misty, far-off days - the Seventies - when new writers got a leg-up from the BBC drama department at Pebble Mill, Birmingham, headed by David Rose. Bleasdale was one; among the others were Willy Russell, Mike Leigh, Alan Plater and Peter Terson.

In the years that followed, the Bleasdale glimmer turned into a blaze with Boys from the Black Stuff, The Monocled Mutineer and GBH. The man who put 'gizza job' into the nation's phrasebook found one where he had few equals.

Fast forward, then, to 1991. Bleasdale finishes GBH and Channel 4 asks him (as channels do, when you win them awards) what he would like to do next. Bleasdale had been saying to his wife, Julie, that he would like to go back to teaching. He trained as a teacher and taught disturbed children in Huyton before taking up full-time writing in 1975. (He maintains that teaching is harder than writing, if done properly.) His wife suggested that he take a look at what teachers are paid these days. Bleasdale went back to Channel 4 and, persistent teacher that he is, said what he would like to do was give new writers the chance he had had. Gizzem a job, in fact.

Fast forward another two-and-a-half years. In this period, the only work of his own that Bleasdale has done is rewrite the last 20 minutes of his play On the Ledge, which was then staged by the Nottingham Playhouse and the National Theatre. The rest of the time has been spent reading 2,000 scripts. Four of these have been made into television films. The series, called Alan Bleasdale Presents, starts this week. When it says Presents, it means Produces - he has been involved from first draft to final edit. The question is this: when he is writing he produces the goods, but when he is producing, how good is the writing?

Bleasdale telephones from the south of Ireland, where he is filming, to talk about the series. What were the other 1,996 scripts like? 'There was an awful lot of Hampstead adultery and child abuse,' he says, as well as scripts by old ladies whose suggested casting was Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

Bleasdale wasn't looking for star vehicles, he was looking for 'dialogue. Always. You can work on a plot.' He was looking to read 'stuff that just throws itself off the page and lands on your lap'. To come across dialogue that does this he was prepared, he says, 'to read stuff that was almost unreadable'. An awful lot of it.

One script that threw itself off the page arrived at his house by taxi. A Liverpool theatre company, Altered States, wasn't sure whether to stage Self Catering, a play by Andrew Cullen. So they asked Bleasdale to read it. If anyone's state was altered it was Bleasdale's. He ran down two flights of stairs to tell his wife that he'd found a writer. When the theatre company rang up to see if he had read it, he told them he had bought the film rights.

Cullen, now 29, is the youngest of these four new writers (new here means new to television): Jim Morris, who wrote Blood on the Dole, is 41; Raymond Murtagh, who wrote Requiem Apache, is 44; and Christopher Hood, who wrote Pleasure, is 51.

As a group, they're not really young and they're definitely not female. Bleasdale was 'twitchingly aware' that there were no women writers. 'All I can give you,' he says, 'is the assurance that if a Catherine Hayes (who wrote the acclaimed 1982 stage play Skirmishes) had arrived on my desk I'd be even happier than I am now.' He kept one of the four slots open until the last minute, just in case. 'But we didn't find a female writer of that quality.'

Bleasdale's approach was hands-on. Like a teacher. 'Some people can bruise very easily,' he says. 'You must be careful you don't fracture confidences.' Others you can be tougher with. Christopher Hood says he spent several days going through the first draft with Bleasdale. 'He was very good at saying, 'Why are you doing this? Why? Why?' but never telling you how. He won't tell you what to do.'

If you didn't know Bleasdale was involved, you might not guess it. He wanted 'no Bleasdale clones'. One play is set in the British Virgin Islands, another in northern France, another in the Suffolk countryside. Okay, the fourth is set in Merseyside, and has a scene at the job centre, but what Bleasdale likes about Jim Morris is that he writes dialogue like a poet. (Imagine storming into a Hollywood executive's office: 'Hey, we've got this great new screenwriter, he's a Merseyside poet . . .')

Channel 4 spent pounds 4.5m on this series. If you leave aside Brookside, that's a third of its annual drama budget. What this buys is top-notch casting: Alfred Molina, Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair, Kenneth Cranham. 'I swear to you,' says Bleasdale, 'that my name might have been an advantage to get them to read it, but they wouldn't have done it because of that.'

I had seen Self Catering two years ago on the cramped stage of a London fringe theatre and quite missed its appeal. But hand those self- absorbed, bickering speeches over to Horrocks and Sinclair (both of whom are extremely funny), give the situation (a plane crash on a desert island) the full visual breadth of six weeks' location shooting in the Virgin Islands, and Cullen's witty allegorical purposes become painfully clear. 'I didn't have any doubt about the script,' says Cullen, 'but Alan was able to convince anyone who did have any doubt.'

The four films have similarities. They are discursive, quixotic, individual. Narrative pace - even, at one or two moments, narrative coherence - yields to tone, mood, language.

There are occasional overlaps too. Julie Walters sings the closing credits in each film, and has a cameo appearance in one. Jennifer Ehle is an innocent in Self Catering and far from innocent in Pleasure (a film inspired by a line from a Raymond Chandler novel and the storyline of Madame Bovary). Psycho is referred to in two films. Robin Lefevre makes such a sinister appearance in Requiem Apache that you worry for the cast he directed in Self Catering. But if there is one persistent Bleasdale strand that unites the four films it is that even in the dark stuff, there's humour.

Will Bleasdale do it again? 'I'll wait two years,' he says. He's in Ireland, staying in Dunmore East, a village near Waterford (where he has discovered his ancestors lived), filming Jake's Progress. It's a pounds 6m series for Channel 4 (another big slice of that budget), starring Julie Walters and Robert Lindsay, which will be broadcast late next year.

It's a relief for Bleasdale to be responsible only for himself. With the new writers, 'I knew if I made mistakes I would damage their livelihoods. That I found to be a heavy burden.' But new scripts are still arriving. He's just received one from a construction worker in Peking. 'It's a real page-turner.'

'Alan Bleasdale Presents' begins with 'Self Catering', 10-11.50pm Tues C4.

(Photograph omitted)

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