In 1978, the BBC screened my play Cries from the Watchtower as part of their Play for Today anthology drama series. It was set in Sneinton Market and was inspired by my best friend’s father – a Mormon who repaired watches. He had a stall on the market and he’d sit there with his black eye glass on, fiddling around with the watches. It was fascinating – a man locked away in a very small world yet at the same time surrounded by a swirl of people and noise. He one of the lonely souls on the market and less expressive than most, but his absorption drew me in.
Of course, the trade that he did was about to disappear with the introduction of digital watches – skills and craftsmanship were being eroded. The play was filmed against the backdrop of the clock tower – Cries from the Watchtower felt like a fitting metaphor.
There was a vitality to the market – particularly the guys with their patter, turning their job into a stand-up comedy routine. With my early interest in acting, I thought they were brilliant. Stan Stennett, a rather legendary comedian, played one of the guys on the stalls in Cries from the Watchtower. Those stallholders had some of the best put-down lines, always insulting their audience jokingly – they were free entertainment.
When the play was produced, we took over the market – the stallholders got paid to stay away for the day and extras were drafted in and paid a couple of quid each to act as customers. The funny thing was that most of the extras were my family, including my Aunt Hilda, who was even louder than Stan Stennett! If you wanted the loudest people, it was my family you wanted around!
The play was well received – one review by the critic Nancy Bank-Smith stands out in my mind. She wrote, “I hope this young man doesn’t sit next to me on a park bench and yell ‘Socialism!’ at me for hours, but otherwise it was a good play.”
In 1985 I started writing for the soap Albion Market, which was set in Salford. I became very interested in the way that markets operated and the way that in our culture, markets are the essence. We always talk about the market place, Slab Square, where the fairs and the events are – it’s one of the great communal spaces like the church, only it’s open, democratic, and diverse. I worked on the soap for two years and wrote over half the episodes. It was great fun going back to Sneinton Market for research, listening to the stallholder’s stories. Albion Market came out around the same time as the BBC launched EastEnders, which was also based around a market, with the addition of murders and dead bodies. While Albion Market documented the mechanisms of market life well, we didn’t really get to the stories until about episode twelve – it took some time for us to realise that what the audience truly craved was drama. Despite this, Albion Market had a good running. I then went on to write for Coronation Street, which of course didn’t really have a market – it was a shame that I was never asked to write for EastEnders!
I’ve written a number of plays in my native accent, including the women’s voices in “Touched,” which is a very significant play for me. My exposure to the market and the interactions I observed down there from a young age definitely helped me to write authentic dialogue – aged eleven I’d stand outside the Dale pub, too young to get in, waiting for my dad to bring me a packet of crisps and a lemonade if he remembered – I soaked up a lot hanging around there, watching the customers come and go.