William Donaldson's Week: When in doubt, be Cary Grant

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The Independent Online
YOU'LL be wondering how the meeting went on Tuesday, at which a new Root series - commissioned just six months ago by Central Television - was pitched to someone at Marcus Plantin's office. Well, I wasn't there, so I don't know. There's no point in a writer being present at a discussion of his work. When the National Theatre wants a new play from Tom Stoppard, say, they prefer to have it described to them briefly by a business connection of Mr Stoppard's.

'Just the bottom line, thank you,' says Richard Eyre. 'I haven't got all day. Frayn's people will be here in half an hour.'

'I hear you, Richard,' says Mr Stoppard's connection. 'Imagine this. Enter two talkative mathematicians . . .'

'Next]' cries Mr Eyre. 'I'll be in touch.'

I've got my worries, then, but they don't stop me helping others - not least my pal Simon Holiday, who is having difficulties with Amy Jenkins, his beloved. Miss Jenkins is a brilliant young screenwriter whom I met recently when arrangements were being made to film my novel, Is This Allowed? I wanted Julian Mitchell to write the screenplay, of course, but he said he was too busy at the moment.

'Don't despair,' he said. 'I might be able to persuade Amy Jenkins to do it.'

I assumed he was bluffing. 'Fat chance,' I said. 'She's far too hot.'

'No harm in trying,' he said.

He sent her the book and by some miracle she agreed to do it. That was a month ago, and I was due to have tea with her on Tuesday to discuss the first draft. On Monday night, I was sitting at home when Holiday pitched up in frightful shape. Amy, he said, had become mysteriously cold and he suspected her of eyeing up the decorator - a rough sort, who wore cowboy boots.

He was probably imagining things, I said, but I did agree to do a little discreet research over tea, if an opportunity arose. Miss Jenkins would be there, after all, to discuss work in progress, not her private life. Tact would be needed.

'About the screenplay,' she said. 'I think it ought . . .'

'Never mind the pigging screenplay,' I said. 'Why are you treating my pal Simon so abominably?'

Miss Jenkins looked thoughtful for a moment and then suggested that there might be irreconcilable differences between her background and my pal Simon's.

'I'm upper middle-class,' she said.

'I'll take your word for it,' I said.

She was quite put out. 'Can't you tell?' she said.

'I'm afraid not,' I said. She seemed even more put out, so I explained myself more carefully. To a young person such as herself, I said, anyone over 30 would simply seem old. She wouldn't be able to tell whether they were 40, 50 or 60. It was the same with background, I said. To someone upper class like myself, everyone else was simply strange. I couldn't tell what class she was, only that she was commoner than me.

This went down badly, I don't know why. Miss Jenkins gathered up her papers and walked to the door.

'This is a waste of time,' she said. 'I'm off to see the decorator.'

Later that night, Simon dropped in at my place.

'Bad news,' I said. 'Amy is seeing the decorator.'

Holiday went as white as a sheet and began to tremble.

'I'll kill them both,' he said. 'And then I'll kill myself.'

It's easy to give advice, of course, when it's not you who has a knife through his heart, but that doesn't mean the advice is bad. If he wanted Amy back, I said, he should try not to behave like a hysterical teenager. He should become Cary Grant: poised, elegant, ironic. An amused presence if she needed him. It never works, of course, but behaving like Jerry Lewis doesn't work either.

'Thank you,' said Holiday. 'I'll rent some Cary Grant videos and study them.'

The next day, I asked him what had happened.

'I pissed in the decorator's boots,' he said.

'Oh dear. Cary Grant wouldn't have done that. What then?'

'Amy called the police.'

'She had you arrested?'

'No. She had the decorator arrested. She was impressed by the depth of my grief.'

I remembered this on Thursday when Alison, my beloved, who had just returned from a skiing holiday in the Seychelles with her father, stood me up that night because she was flying to Mauritius the next day with her fat American. I wept and pleaded and threw a brick through her window.

'Try to behave like Cary Grant,' she said.

I was trying to behave like Cary Grant, when Mark Chapman rang up to report on his meeting at Plantin's office.

'Did they like my proposal?' I said.

'They might have done if they'd read it.' 'Six months not long enough to read one paragraph?'

'In fact,' said Chapman, 'Central omitted to send it in. We've got to do it again.'

This could run and run.