Paula Milne: My life, as seen on TV

Her TV drama 'State of Mind' painted a bitter portrait of marital infidelity. Here Paula Milne recounts how her writings came to mirror her own life, right down to her husband's bedroom confessions
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The Independent Online

People often say, when writers admit they've drawn on personal experience in their work, that it must have been a cathartic exercise. This, like many other clichés about the writing process, is actually a myth. If it were true, then writers would be robust, stable individuals, free of neurosis and self-doubt, all their demons exorcised.

People often say, when writers admit they've drawn on personal experience in their work, that it must have been a cathartic exercise. This, like many other clichés about the writing process, is actually a myth. If it were true, then writers would be robust, stable individuals, free of neurosis and self-doubt, all their demons exorcised.

Screen-writing is especially guilty of perpetuating its own myths about human behaviour. How many times have we seen dramas where someone wakes up in bed, feels the vacant space beside them and knows instantly their partner isn't there? Or where someone hangs up on a character during a phone conversation, and the person on the other end looks accusingly at the telephone? Dramatic clichés such as these are like batons, handed from one dramatist to another, until the audience finds itself responding to its own life events like the myriad characters witnessed in television dramas. Rather than drama reflecting life, life itself starts to mirror the worst clichés of drama.

My ITV drama, State of Mind (transmitted last Sunday night, concluded Monday), was based partly on the break up of my marriage. The bizarre circumstances of how I discovered my husband's infidelity (he talked in his sleep calling for his mistress) were depicted word for word, as was the moment when we told our young son that the marriage was over. In the wake of the ruckus over Edwina Currie's "kiss-and-tell" revelations, I knew when I elected to write about my marriage break up that I could be in for a bumpy ride. Indeed, the Radio Times previewer described the scene where the husband talked in his sleep as "preposterous". It seems that, for some soap-opera aficionados, fact can all too easily be dismissed as television melodrama.

In writing about how my marriage ended, I had no desire to expose my ex-husband's failings or denigrate him, but the experience of that fateful night had indelibly marked me. Unquestionably, writers are shaped by their experiences, which inevitably in turn shape their work. The response of family and friends, when they learnt about this strange incident of my husband talking in his sleep, haunted me also. Unanimously the verdict was the same: "God, you couldn't write it, could you?" You could naturally assume from this that I took such remarks as a kind of challenge, but my response was more complicated. Somehow it seemed that the events of that night happened to me because I was writer.

Throughout the turbulence of my marriage ending, as I confronted the inevitable feelings of betrayal, anger and loss, I felt the spectre of The Politician's Wife hanging over me. When I wrote that drama, some six years before, my marriage was apparently intact and happy. I wonder now, if the empathy I felt for Flora's anguish in the face of her husband's betrayal was quite as theoretical as it seemed at the time. Its prescience was now chilling.

Pop psychology would say that my husband, unable to confront the prospect of admitting his unfaithfulness, summoned his unconscious to do it for him in his sleep. Had I used my own unconscious, in the same way, in the story of The Politician's Wife and Flora's inability to forgive? I re-read the scripts recently and observed that I sometimes described Flora as: "motionless, like someone asleep, standing up". I wonder, now, if the unacknowledged tension in my own marriage was really the imperative that prompted that piece of work. If Flora was a sleepwalker, then so was I.

Psychologists also often say your unconscious mind is your friend, manifesting in dreams as warnings about dilemmas too difficult to confront. Now, six years later, I have to face the possibility that I ignored the warning in The Politician's Wife. If that was a mistake, a greater one would be to dismiss as mere coincidence the fact that my life was now mirroring my work.

That Grace Hazlett in State of Mind was a psychologist is also no coincidence. The producer, Eileen Quinn, asked me to help her devise a drama series about a criminal psychologist, but determined that the emphasis of the story should rest on why a crime had been committed, rather than simply who had perpetrated it. The engine of the piece was to explore the complexities of the mind, both psychologically and neurologically, within the thriller genre.

It was suggested that I "smuggle" in aspects of the end of my marriage to counterpoint and refract upon the murder case Grace was investigating. In portraying her failing marriage, we hoped to imbue the piece with the veracity it needed to distinguish it from the litany of other crime thrillers on television. In any event, that was how I justified it. However, while I was writing the screenplay, I began to perceive that the real issue Grace had to confront was, yet again, that of forgiveness. A character says to her, "If you love someone enough, you can forgive them anything."

In the drama, as happened to me in reality, Grace was woken up in the middle of the night when her husband talked in his sleep. Their young son was in the same room, as ours was. Grace, like me, was concerned that the boy would wake up and hear his father, so wakes her husband with the ruse that his mistress is on the phone.

In the drama, this scene took place in the marital home. In reality, we were staying in a country pub hotel after attending a wedding. There was no phone in the bedroom so I told my husband his mistress was on the phone in the corridor outside. After I confronted him and heard his admission about his affair with a married woman, we had no choice but to return to the hotel room, saying we would discuss it further when we returned home to London.

Now this is the bit you really couldn't write. He went back to sleep and repeated the whole incantation again, the same calling for her, the same adulations about her sexiness, her classiness and so forth. Fortunately our son, (then aged eleven) had downed his first pint of lager at the wedding reception, and snored right through it. I remember lying there thinking, "Why am I having to hear this all again? If there was a purpose in such suffering, surely it was served the first time he did it?" It was then that I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that the marriage was over, just as Flora did. I knew, like her, that I couldn't forgive him. The repetition of him talking in his sleep had served a purpose after all.

When writing State of Mind, the line about forgiveness suddenly appeared on the page, as can happen when you're writing dialogue. I looked at it and reflected on that strange night once again, and my own trenchant inability to forgive. This raised another disconcerting possibility: maybe I just didn't love my husband enough... Perhaps somehow he knew that, which is why he had strayed in the first place. These are not comfortable truths, impeaching the whole fabric of how you've predicated your life. Not least, your ability to deceive yourself that stability and pockets of contentment are a fair trade for happiness.

During the divorce, I tried to take comfort in the fact I had the moral ground, that I wasn't the guilty party. But later, through writing State of Mind, I realised that cause and effect cannot be ignored. In a less tangible way, I was as guilty of the failure of the marriage as my husband. I had ignored the prescient warnings in my writing and left him to do the dirty work for me. Now I was paying the price.

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