Friday, October 12, 2007

Of Poppadoms and Marmalades …

I visited UK in 2003, to attend a week-long course in 'Writing for Television' conducted by the Arvon Foundation ( at Moniack Mhor (, a Writers' Centre situated in the picturesque Scottish Highlands, fourteen miles off the city of Inverness.

I arrived at Moniack Mhor around 9.30 pm in the night, on a Sunday, towards the end of July 2003. Bright daylight, a deserted dark cottage and curious sheep grazing in the adjoining rolling fields greeted me.

Earlier in the day, early morning in fact, I had arrived at Heathrow International Airport, London after a monotonous & tiring flight from Mumbai, with a longish break for a changeover at Abu Dhabi.

It took me a subsequent eight hours train journey through England and Scotland to reach Inverness, the main city of Scottish Highlands. I travelled without having made a prior booking. However one could find a vacant unreserved seat without much hassle. That was a surprise.

Another surprise was that one could keep the larger pieces of one’s luggage in the unlocked space provided near the coach entrance without bothering about their safety. In fact the lady in the seat next to me was quite amused to find me checking the health of my suitcase (kept near the door) at every station the train halted.

She turned out to be the granddaughter of the person who had founded the Glasgow Film Theatre, then called Cosmo, in the 1940s. Later in my travel, post Moniack Mhor, I was scheduled to visit the Glasgow Film Theatre!

The taximan at Inverness, a tall well-built genial Scot with an accent, was waiting for me at the station with a Moniack Mhor placard. His friendliness made me feel less nervous about the forthcoming overnight stay all alone in an unfamiliar land in the middle of nowhere.

I had actually arrived a night earlier than the scheduled course beginning. The original plan of staying overnight in Inverness itself was foiled due to unavailability of hotel accommodation, it being a weekend. Hence the Moniack Mhor people had graciously offered me their space instead. The only catch was that there wasn’t going to be anybody around.

“We will leave the house key in the post box on the wall outside the office. We will leave a note on the table telling you which bedroom you have, and we will see you Monday morning about 9:30. Enjoy the peace and quiet” - they had said.

So here I was, near the end of my FIRST day in UK, searching for the keys of an isolated Scottish farmhouse, seemingly situated miles away from civilization & help, in broad daylight at night!

The course proper began the next day in the evening. There were 12 participants in all (though there was room for 16), 10 of them being women. The other man beside me was a Scot working as a manager in a multinational firm in Hongkong. Most of the women were in their late 30s or early 40s. Many of them were mothers of young children, the majority living away from their former husbands.

The youngest participant was a college student, in her early 20s, studying History of Art. The oldest was in her 60s, a folk & cabaret singer by profession. Few of the participants were school teachers. Some others were working in the media, in the non-creative side. One woman worked as a driver of a tourist double-decker bus in Glasgow.

It was interesting to see this mix, from all over UK. One wondered what drew this heterogeneous group to Writing for Television. And all of them found my presence, having come all that distance from India, equally intriguing.

Initially getting used to their accents was a problem for me. Though English is spoken in many different tongues in India, and one is used to negotiating a wide variety of speech eccentricities in one’s own country, the English of the English (especially in a rapid-fire conversation) took some relearning. And the Scots speak the language in a different but fascinating folksy way. Thus an ordinary ‘Hi’ becomes a melodious ‘Hi-yay’.

The two tutors Marc Pye and Mamie Lang started by showing episodes of some of the television serials they had written for - principally HIGH ROAD, a soap opera (Marc & Mamie), and THE BILL, a cop drama (Marc). They also shared some of their work experiences in the field.

Both had made it in writing after a long struggle. Mamie’s story was particularly inspiring. She started writing only in her mid 50s. Before that she had been a nun, a mother, a singer, a snooker hall entrepreneur and many other sundry things in between. Hers had been a hard life, but her constant energy & cheerfulness hardly betrayed that.

In fact what distinguished both the tutors was their willingness (in fact, positive enthusiasm) to listen and to share. Their course didn’t really have a formal structure (I would have preferred a more specifically laid-out roadmap, what with some of the participants being beginners) but they tried to be useful by being available for one to one tutorials as & when and as often required. Since they were also residing on campus, it included late-night sessions as well.

Thus the course was largely participants driven. Marc tried initiating the rank beginners by giving a simple seed plot (a bald boy taunted by classmates ultimately triumphs as the rest catch head lice) to write a script on. Later he shared his own version of the script.

Marc and Mamie, 2nd & 3rd from left; Stevie, 3rd from right

I faced a block while trying to write. Having been teaching scriptwriting myself, I became self-conscious about the responsibility. Plus, all the ideas coming to me lent themselves more to a one-off movie rather than a TV series. Also the incredibly beautiful surroundings (the air smelt pure oxygen and the wind softly whistled through the nearby pine forest, leaving a delicate trail of divine silence occasionally interrupted by the distant of grazing sheep) was proving to be a distraction.

As the course drew to a close, some participants did manage to reach the end of their (short) film scripts. The credit for that must be shared with the tutors. Mamie Lang was almost like a fond mother. One day, seeing my plight at being daily saddled with the British version of vegetarian food (principally, boiled potatoes in various garbs), she quietly drove down to the nearest small town and bought packaged Indian curry from the local supermarket for my benefit.

I remember the loud peals of laughter (loudest of them being Mamie Lang’s) which illuminated the desolate beauty of Moniack Mhor for those five days, lending camaraderie and purpose to a disparate group. Many of the single mothers participating in the course led otherwise difficult lives (there was real-life drama midway through the course, when one of the ex-husbands angrily called up castigating his former wife for leaving the child behind). It was wonderful to see them loosen up and enjoy their creativity.

Kirsten, the tough one

An appropriate reaffirmation of the bonhomie that was generated during the course was the play/film script MANIACK MOOR (a deliberate pun on Moniack Mhor) that was enacted on the last night, with all the participants (and the two tutors) reading out a specific character’s lines from the play. The play was penned by Stevie (one of the single mothers) as part of her learning through the week.

It was a funny piece, about a group of unsuspecting unrelated hopefuls visiting a spooky writers’ retreat for a course and being tricked into eating the wrong marmalade twice over, with unexpected hilarious consequences. I spoke out the part of ‘Ranjit Kapoor’ - the famous Indian writer, who writes top stuff and who is fond of spicy poppadoms (British for papads or papadams), which are so hot that no British constitution could possibly take them and survive.

A version of this article first appeared in 'Cut Here' - the NID Moving Image Magazine ( Photos 1 & 3 by Arun Gupta; photo 2 source Marc Pye.

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