Thanks very much for taking time out, Alice, to do this email interview for endeacott.com, it’s great to have you here. I realize that I could just Cut & Paste biographic info on you from Wikipedia and the like, but that would just be lazy of me. Besides, it’s a wee bit boring that way!
So, to start with, please tell us about yourself, such as where you’re from, where you live, etc etc.
Originally from Burnley but have lived in Leeds since 1982. I moved here to live in shared squat with the rest of Chumbawamba. I’m not exactly sure how I ended up in the band, we wanted to live communally with shared money and tasks. It was a moment where we all wanted the same things… ie: massive social and revolutionary change. Made sense to be in a band together. For years we spent all our times either on demos or playing benefits. When it became harder to be on the dole, we had to start treating the band as a vocation and a job.
Haven’t lived communally for over 15 years now. When we decided to have a baby, we (Keir) and I, wanted our own space.
And tell us about your writing career so far (books, stage, television, radio …) and of course your music career with Chumbawamba.
I was in Chumbawamba for almost 23 years, which as a non musician is quite incredible really. We were a gang and did a lot of creative stuff together, we weren’t just a band we were mates. And incredibly hard working, always either making albums (11 by the time I left) or touring. Bands have a natural life cycle and the electric band was turning towards folk – although still entirely political. Dan, Harry, Dunst and I left to do our own things. I’d always known I was a writer. Always done it… although I’d left school at 15 and didn’t know where to put a full-stops for a few years. But (apart from a stint at Leeds Other Paper) band commitments had never allowed me to write full time. And I was 43, I felt it was now or never. So I went for it, aware that I had to make up for lost time. But the good thing about being older is that I had things to say and the confidence to attack it. I started with plays because I thought I’d have more chance of getting work on (doesn’t cost as much to produce as TV) but I knew I was aiming to work across theatre, TV and radio.
I’ve been writing fulltime for 8 years now. I’ve had 4 produced theatre plays, Love and Petrol, Foxes, Where’s Vietnam? And My Generation. West Yorkshire Playhouse have been incredibly supportive of my work and I’m writing another play for them at the moment.
I’ve had two radio plays on, Snow In July and My Generation (which I adapted for stage too) but I’ve mostly worked in TV. I was lucky, Jimmy McGovern spotted me and took me under his wing, so I’ve written for several of his series, The Street, The Accused and Moving On. But I’ve also worked on quite a lot of other stuff from Casualty to The Mill (with John Fay who I also admire). And last year I worked with Simon Beaufoy (Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) and learnt a lot from him. I see working with other more established writers as an apprenticeship. I try and learn what I can, and it’s only this last year or so that I actually feel I know what I’m doing.
TV is ruthless, you get commissioned for stuff that ends up not getting made. Some of the people I’ve worked with are great, others… well, you wouldn’t want a beer with them.
I seem to have become known as somebody who can write political/period drama so I get offered a lot of that. I’m currently writing a couple of Eps of The White Queen (Tudor women) and then it’s back to developing my own stuff.
It’s easy to get stuck in development hell and I like to see things I’ve written on screen, so I tend to try and balance the two.
In writing, what are you most proud of?
Probably the screenplay I wrote about Bernard Manning ‘For One Night Only.’ It was for the Curse of Comedy slot, only the cuts descended. After it had been commissioned they decided not to make any more of the series. I wrote about how fear of the big wide world turned him into a racist – universal really.
Please tell us about the ‘Pendle Witches’ and your namesake Alice Nutter.
I wrote a play ‘The Power’ about the Pendle Witches that’s never been produced. The director I wrote it for didn’t like it and I’m reluctant to let it go unless it can be done as a full production with seven women on stage. There is a myth that thousands of women were persecuted for witchcraft in England, actually it was probably less than 200 (though in Scotland it was about 3,000) and a very particular set of circumstances led to the Pendle Witch trials. Ten people were hanged at Lancaster in 1612. Alice Nutter was the only middle class woman to hang, probably because she was in a boundary dispute with the Magistrate, and my Sunday school teacher was one of her ancestors. While in the band we all adopted names to avoid the dole finding out we were making records. Only I changed my name by deed poll. Nutter was awkward and I grew up in the shadow of Pendle Hill, so I felt an affinity with her.
‘The Power’ is currently being developed for BBC with Touchpaper (an independent company.)
As a writer, do you have a regimented routine for writing and do you have a set workplace?
I write everyday, generally I go for a run at 8 and I’m at my desk by 9. Near a deadline I start at 5.30 AM. I try and work to around 6PM. Sometimes later but I don’t think as well at night. Weekends I just do about three hours a day. Generally I aim for at least 4 pages a day. And I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
If I come across a problem I can’t solve I leave the house and walk. Sometimes I don’t let myself come back until I’ve solved it.
Do you generally work alone or as part of a team?
Well, I have to write alone but once the words are on the page and rewritten God knows how many times (my first draft is actually at least my 4th) I work with a script editor, producer or director. Depending on which medium the work is for. I move between TV and theatre so I can keep doing my own ideas. After being in a band for so long I’m reluctant to co write. I value the freedom of making my own decisions. And as Eric Morecombe would say, I like writing all the words.
Do you ever ‘get in character’ like an actor does, when you’re creating roles?
I get into the world rather than just one character. I do a lot of research into whatever I’m writing so I know the environment. I can imagine where they are, what they’re doing. I hear their voices and I read work out-loud to see if I’ve caught them. I mull over script problems before I sleep and often I have an answer in the morning. Or at least know what’s shit and what to cut. I do a lot of cutting.
How did you commence your writing career, and are there any moments on this ‘journey’ which you regard as a Turning Point?
It was getting on the So You Want To Be A Writer course at West Yorkshire Playhouse. Which to most people would seem like nothing because there were no promises or anything. Just 12 or so people who wanted to write in a room and the Tutor was Mark Catley. But I knew it was a chance to make West Yorkshire Playhouse notice I could write. I got Foxes on at the Playhouse from that. After McGovern read Foxes he offered me a job.
Favourite films, music, books, television programmes? Hobbies, pastimes?
Peter Bowker’s Marvellous, was well, Marvellous. Nothing else like it on TV and so much to admire.
Wolf Hall was so under-stated. The writing and the acting were inspiring. Peter Straughan adapted it, he did Smiley’s People too, he’s always good.
The series I wish I was as good as is Deadwood. I watch a lot of the American series and aim to write for them one day. They use the writers’ room format to story-line and map out series. The American series have much longer story-arcs (13 to 20 episodes instead of Britain’s standard six) so the characters undergo profound changes in a way that seems natural. If Walter White had been a British character he would have been Heisenberg by episode Three. The work that comes out of those writers’ rooms is a cut above. Brains move faster when they’re linked. I don’t want to co write but I want to be part of co thinking.
I run a few times a week. I’m addicted to cooking programmes and I’m a good cook. Don’t go to many gigs anymore, used to all the time… but I can’t listen to music while I’m writing, so sometimes feel like part of my life has been amputated. I have a daughter and a partner who put up with my head being in my work. In return I try and be supportive to them and play nice. And I like walking, talking and drinking with friends.
Your short and long-term hopes, if any?
I want to live long enough to write something really good and be there for my daughter for as long as she needs me. I had cancer in 2007, my first thought on diagnosis was, ‘I’ve got a kid, I can’t die.’
Back to writing: are you ‘self-taught’ or did you study some form of creative writing lessons and the like? Do you have an ideas ‘process’?
When I first left Chumbawamba, I started an MA in scriptwriting. I was learning more on my own so I left. They offered to give me the degree anyway if I paid the money. I didn’t need it to get work so I didn’t bother.
What if anything (!) do you find as most enjoyable about the whole writing process?
Chiselling away. Paring down to as few clear words as possible.
Do you have any preference in writing literature or stage or TV?
I enjoy the actual writing, telling stories with pictures for the screen. But I love stage rehearsals and being involved in the process. Being in a gang again. An intelligent actor helps you rewrite though they may not know it. Harry from Chumbawamba usually does the music for my stage plays. Suppose that’s why theatre stuff has a bit of a being in a band again feel.
Whose work or music do you admire?
Singular voices. Nina Simone, Robert Wyatt, Maxine Peake, Peter Bowker, Sally Wainwright, David Chase, David Milch, David Simons… all the Davids.
Do you think you will ever retire?
Wasn’t planning on it.
What motivates you?
I’m not as good as I know I could be. And Iwant tell the stories that experience has taught me – for a middle aged woman I’ve been in several riots. Part of the reason I put so much work in, is the fear of someone I respect reading something I’ve written and thinking: what a pile of shit.
And I’d rather fail spectacularly than be on safe ground.
Any advice for ‘new’ writers or artistes?
Stop trying to network and actually write. Study other writers; see how they do it. Don’t be satisfied with a first attempt. When you first start you think everything you do is great, least I did. And then you realise that talent isn’t enough, it’s the hard graft that follows; learning the craft that makes your work less hit and miss. And the hours you spend writing when it’s sunny and you’d rather be out. Or the nights you go home early cause you can’t write with a hangover. You have to give it your all. And do it with confidence. I knock out pages so I have something to rewrite. Nobody else has lived the life you have. Use that. Put your heart and mind into it.
Finally, what are you working on currently and any planned projects you can tell us?
After I’ve written these two Episodes about Tudor women, I’m back on adapting The Power and My Generation for TV. And there’ll be a break to write a play about Barnbow Munitions Factory (WW1) for West Yorkshire Playhouse. And then I’ve been asked to work on somebody’s American series, but I can’t say what or who because it’s all hush hush.
That takes me to at least the end of next year. Not all of it will come off. So you have to enjoy the process as much as the end result.