Only yesterday I found myself on a pavement in SW19, looking across at a half-timbered mock Tudor house and a street sign that read Maple Drive. At number 52 live a family called the Farrs. Just three doors up is a person known as the Nazi Who Escaped Justice at Nuremberg. A few doors down, on the other side of the road, dwells a small ferret-like man who, every morning at eight twitches back his net curtains and performs the ritual known as Is the Mitsubishi Scratched Yet?
There is (I have to repeat this to myself several times a day) no such place. It exists only in the pages of a novel of mine, published four or five years ago, The Wimbledon Poisoner. The trouble is that this street and its inhabitants have suddenly come to life.
I am now sitting in the kitchen of the house listening to two of the characters from that book. They are in the room next to me tormenting each other with one of the only-just-plausible conversations which litter the pages of my novel. One of them (a rather dominating woman called Elinor) has just asked her husband (a rather hunted character called Henry) if he will go upstairs with her. As she makes this suggestion she gives an eerie, realistic, silvery laugh. In the garden outside - a steeply raked patch of Wimbledon bright with summer flowers - there is a man in dark glasses in a light summer suit. He looks a little menacing. As I look out at him he smiles grimly and says: 'Detective Inspector Rush. Shall we talk about poisoning, Nigel?
They are, in case you haven't guessed - making a film of The Wimbledon Poisoner. Setting aside the question, for the moment, of whether this is a good idea, it certainly is different from any of the other twenty or so television films I have been involved in over the past twenty years.
What makes filming the book such an extraordinary experience is that I'm never quite sure whether I did write the houses and streets that figure so largely in it; the streets, houses and parks of Wimbledon are the background for my last three novels. They are my raw material, the locations in which I have measured out a deliberately limited existence for the past decade. I have come to think of them as mine. And now, precisely because of that fact, they are being invaded by cameras, catering wagons, and men with mobile phones.
The consequent insecurity about whether I am seeing things or imagining them, transformed the suburban day into a kind of Berkeleian nightmare. Not only that - because the film crew park away from the locations where we're filming, and as larger vehicles are often parked in quiet spots, away from the traffic flow, I am constantly stumbling across the bastards when I least expect them to be there. By Wimbledon Windmill - where almost every morning I unload my two dogs and walk grimly to the golf course - I saw last Monday, at 7.30am, a double decker bus, a generator, four furniture wagons, three caravans and about 30 men eating bacon and eggs.
I was about to walk up to them and order them to stop polluting the sacred places of suburban pilgrimage when I realised they were my film crew. At the end of the road where I drop off my children at school, I came across a mobile lavatory. Without stopping to question why it was there I hurried into it and tried to make full use of the facilities. It is not often possible to pee in the street in Wimbledon Village at 8am without being dragged away by the police.
I was on my way out when I recognised one of the electricians. 'Found the honey wagon Nigel] he said, grinning. I tried to look as if I could cope with this bit of film industry slang. When I walked out into the street I saw my own children, two in black blazers, one in red, retreating into the gates of King's College School. They looked disturbingly like film extras.
Later that morning I stood in the street as the director, Robert Young, directed real extras, intended to evoke the atmosphere of suburbia. A milk float trundled up the road. Two schoolgirls walked past, giggling. Two boys on bicycles pedalled up the hill past a postman, and, in the distance, a paper-boy went up a path, delivered a newspaper, and then, on cue from the director, retraced his steps and completed precisely the same actions again and again and again. Actors in films, especially the small-part actors, have the weird quality of celluloid ghosts. As Robert started the action for the sixth time I found myself grunting angrily in his ear.
It isn't like this. You never get as much as this in a suburban street. You should have been filming earlier on.
Robert looked at me. He gave me a kind smile. He is nice to writers. When I talk to him I always feel I am in the hands of a skilled psychiatric nurse.
Depressed and frustrated I went back into the kitchen of the house where my hero, Henry Farr, is supposed to live. 'It isn't like this at all] I muttered to myself, 'it's all wrong. I should never have had anything to do with this.'
Still muttering I found myself in the kitchen of the mock Tudor house. The film crew had left it alone. There were no lights. It was littered with the touching, ordinary things you find in the homes of the people I try to write about. Like the home in Larkin's poem, it was shaped to the comfort of the last to go. On a noticeboard by the window, I saw a scribbled note where the mother of the house had reminded herself to take her daughter to ballet. Next to that was the calling card of a nearby take-away Chinese restaurant. It looked like the one we use at home. Above it was a scrappy piece of paper littered with the times of music lessons and, to the left the notice of a forthcoming concert at a girls' school.
I looked out at the garden. There was the lady whose house it was sitting on a wooden seat on the lawn, reading to her two children in a soft voice. Film, I said to myself, is a vulgarising form. How can it capture the subtlety of this moment? How can it start to describe the delicacy of this woman's life, and the thousand of small decisions and agonies that make it uniquely hers?
I looked back at that noticeboard that seemed to sum up how I imagined her life to be. It was only then that I realised that all these touching little messages and reminders were the work of the design department of Agran Barton Television. Or Leo, as we call him. This might have been the moment at which I rushed out to the crew and told them to hold it, when I finally found myself screaming, not only at Leo but also at Robert, and at Alison Steadman and Robert Lindsay, our stars. 'Don't do it] Stop now] You'll never get the flavour of real life on film. Life is elsewhere.'
It wasn't of course. It was the moment when I started to come to terms with the process. When I began to realise that, even if a film unit may sometimes resemble a brontosaurus lost in the forest, even if it seems clumsy, crude and invasive, its intentions are honourable, artistic ones.
The generator, mobile phones, camera, lights, dolly, scaffolding and cables are there to do the same job as the writer: to fool you into belief.
Although I may live in the suburb and conscientiously do the things Suburbs Man is supposed to do, I am not, and never will be, part of it. I am as much a stranger in Wimbledon as the serious gypsies of my film crew, with their weird traditional titles - the Grips, the Sparks, the Gaffer. . .
I looked back out at the lady in the garden, stroking her little son's hair, reading quietly in the suburban morning, as my wife used to do when our children were younger. It was a sweet scene, I found myself thinking. They'd arranged those toys on the grass almost perfectly. Her smile was just right. The little boy on her knee, even if they had gone over the top with his Aertex shirt, was almost convincing. Wardrobe had done a brilliant job on the lady's hair, although I was fairly sure no suburban mother would ever look that glamorous at story time.
I awarded myself a knowing sentimental smile. If I'd been an ordinary person I might have thought that they were real.
The Wimbledon Poisoner will be shown on BBC1 this autumn
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