Wednesday, 30 March 2011

RADIO PLAY: The Disappearance of Jennifer Pope

Matthew McNulty as Stefan Pope

I first heard the story of Jennifer Pope nearly two years ago. It was, slightly oddly, in the context of a R4 'You & Yours' magazine piece about high-street banks' indifference towards families whose loved ones were missing or lost. Even then in a few short lines it was compelling. Jennifer was an English nurse who disappeared while touring in Ecuador in 2005. She had been in regular contact with her family by e-mail and one day, the e-mails stopped.

Her husband David and son Stefan knew that funds had been withdrawn from her bank account and her credit card emptied long after she disappeared, the assumption being that her card and details had been stolen, or that she was being held captive and forced to withdraw funds.

Mike Harris has worked in collaboration with Dave and Stefan in writing this hard-hitting radio play which tells the story of their journey to Ecuador to find out what happened. Dave and Stefan realise that the prime suspect is the security guard at the last hostel Jenny stayed; a man with a violent past who carries a gun and a machete in his car, whose bank account deposits match exactly those of Jennifer's 'withdrawals'.
Listening to Radio 4 afternoon plays can sometimes be a lottery (prizes of dubious value). Not here. The Disappearance of Jennifer Pope is what radio drama does best - taking you to places you probably don't want to go and placing you in situations with the question: what would I do? The story's directness and Mike Harris's typical economy makes it all the more real. Ultimately this is a life affirming story of how a father and son's loss and their confrontation with a seemingly unresponsive legal system forges a determination to find justice for the wife and mother they both love.

'The Disappearance of Jennifer Pope' is repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra, Friday 22nd January 2016 at 11.15am. It will be available on the BBC's listen again facility for the next week. 


Saturday, 26 March 2011



AT THE END of the garden, a boy sits on the swing. His eyes close and he unpicks each sound from the summer afternoon: insects; birds; a neighbour’s children; paddling pool splashes; a hand-pushed lawnmower. His sister’s stereo plays David Bowie. The boy opens his eyes and the sounds dissolve. He presses against the ground with his feet. The swing creaks and flakes of rust fall on the back of his neck. He brushes them away, shades his eyes and looks up into the sun.

What used to be a vegetable patch has been given over to weeds and grasses as high as his shoulders. Sometimes mice scurry from the grass, disappearing under the shed. In bare patches the earth is baked hard and cracked like a ginger biscuit.

At the beginning of summer, mum’s friend Hazel came with her children, a boy with a scabby elbow who was ten and his sister, a girl in a blue dress who was seven. The girl had wandered, finding a bamboo garden cane behind the shed. At first she whipped it through the air, then slashed through the long grass and weeds, sending dandelion seeds and broken stems flying. It looked a good game. Then she stopped. “There’s a paper bag in the grass,” she said. The boys looked up. She prodded gently at the paper bag. Nothing much happened. She gave it a sharp poke. The paper bag tore. From the tear came a wasp. Other wasps poured from the bag. She stood rooted, not connecting the torn bag, the cane in her hand and the wasps fizzing around her ears. She was stung on the cheek. She screamed and ran into the house.

Mum apologised to Hazel for the wasps. It wasn't his fault. The next day the Council came and got rid of the nest and after a couple of days the boy was allowed back in the garden. Dad cut down the long grass and weeds. Now they have grown back and tickle his bare legs as he passes.

The lawnmower noise stops. The sun has disappeared behind thick cloud. The sky looks like it might burst at any moment. From the swing the boy sees the cane, halfway down the garden where the girl in the blue dress threw it away. The boy begins to swing forwards, slowly at first. He looks down, watching the ground pass beneath his feet. He swings higher, barely gripping the chains, trusting his balance; a dare. Suddenly he takes hold, kicks hard and swings higher still. Soon he is swinging as far as he can. The rusty chains complain. The wind rushes through his ears. Each of the swing’s four feet with its bolts deep in the dry ground, strains at the earth, shuddering at the highpoints of every arc. He swings high and fast until he feels dizzy and sick. He closes his eyes and throws himself forwards.

He lets go.

The ground will hit him, rip the wind from him, break him, bruise him, make him bleed. But it doesn’t. He opens his eyes, spreads his arms to control the glide as he makes it easily over the apple trees, the chairs on the lawn, the roof of his house. He is above the street, flying over rows of terraces, the flats, the shops, the empty school. He banks left over the high-street where Louise still lives. He looks down and sees the world waiting for rain.

NT 2011

Friday, 18 March 2011

LIVE REVIEW - David Rovics at the Adelphi, Hull

David Rovics is a rare thing, an unashamedly politically charged singer/songwriter. For the most part he aims his guitar at corporations, governments, injustice and hypocrisy and lets fly, taking his cues from ‘Masters of War’ era Dylan updated, suffused with punched punk rhythms and tight acoustic licks. Songs about Palestine, Bradley Manning and Somali pirates hit the mark, but what silenced the audience at the Adelphi tonight were a couple of lovesongs – aching, tender and all the more touching in contrast to the politics.
I hadn't seen or heard Rovics before tonight's show (promoted by Hull's Off The Road collective) but I hope I’ll be seeing him again. If you get the chance, catch him around the UK. His songs of hope, love and revolution have a direct line to the 21st century's conscience and we need that now more than ever.

To find out more, check out

Monday, 14 March 2011

GET CARTER - Cult Classic Hits the Stage at Brighton Festival

Nick Bartlett as Jack Carter - photo courtesy SP Productions

With Ted Lewis’s classic Brit-crime novel as its starting point, the stage version of Get Carter (written by Jonathon Holloway for Red Shift Theatre Co. in 2005) takes a short cut to the cold cruel heart of what makes Carter as gripping now as when Lewis first put pen to paper.

Fantastic news for crime fans and Lewis admirers is that James Weisz and SP Productions are staging Carter as part of this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival.  

Taking the role Lewis created and Michael Caine turned into a career-defining performance in Mike Hodges’ 1971 film is a challenge for Nick Bartlett. It’s an uncompromising part for the established tough guy actor who worked with Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York. As Bartlett said in a recent interview:  “It starts off very tense and violent and carries on the same way. I don’t think it lets up for a second.”

James Weisz, who is directing the play, based in part on a notorious 1967 gangland killing is a long time film and crime fan. “As a theatre director it’s fantastic to combine my two passions of film and theatre. And when I saw it was the fortieth anniversary as well, it was an ideal opportunity.”

Get Carter is well worth a trip to the south coast this May. Weisz is looking to tour the production after the festival, so who knows, we may well see Jack on his way back to Humberside one more time.

‘Get Carter’ is at Hove Town Hall for the Brighton Fringe 10-13 May 2011. For full details or to buy tickets contact:

See you there!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

BRIGHTON ROCK – A Vicious Little Brit-noir

Andrea Riseborough and Sam Riley - pulling a moody

Spoiler alert: I might say stuff about the film.

Picture the scene: a bunch of broadsheet hacks are at a preview of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock. They hook up in the pub for a post-screening carve up: ‘You do the – it’s not a patch on the 1947 original; I’ll do the botched classic novel and over-cooked catholic shtick. When Phil comes back from the bog we’ll give him setting it in the sixties doesn’t quite come off and Sam Riley’s too old to play Pinkie. Your round, Pete.’
Of course six pints later no-one remembers who was covering what. Cue carbon-copy lukewarm reviews as enlightening as last year’s kiss-me-dick hat. When a reviewer talks about ‘mods on mopeds’ you just know he ain’t getting it.
I must have read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock half a dozen times: faultless characterisation, riveting story, seriously sharp cinematic prose. The 1947 noir movie, co-scripted by Greene and Terence Rattigan was the first of its kind made without the establishment breathing down its neck. The pre-war censors were blocking anything that might suggest a homegrown gangland.
The updated Brighton Rock is a vicious little Brit-noir.  A little ragged at the edges, but with menace in the shadows. Like Mona Lisa, London to Brighton and its post-war antecedent, it makes a feature of Brighton’s tatty backstreets  as the setting for gangland feuds and evil deeds.  
Andrea Riseborough is captivating as catastrophe waitress Rose, witness to the preliminaries of a grab and smash on hapless Fred Hale. Gangster Pinkie is despatched to find the girl and ensure her silence. Which he does, with spite. The two bond over lemonade, mutual need and Catholicism. If it seems an odd match, a visit to Rose’s dad leaves you in no doubt. This girl needs away, at any cost.   
Inevitably, the mods and rockers beach fights backdrop calls to mind Quadrophenia’s ‘Sawdust Caesars’.  Briefly, Pinkie is the real thing, at one point finding himself unintentionally ‘riding up in front of a hundred faces’. But he’s no mod – his hair’s wrong for a start. The Lambretta he rides is stolen; the parka with fish-hooks sewn under the lapels (nice touch) is borrowed. Pinkie belongs to no in-crowd. The mod thing is a uniform of convenience as he carves his own bloody path to hell and damnation.
There’s a world of dark suspense in Brighton Rock, a gripping climax and a faithful re-creation of one of the great cinema pay-offs. The story is true to its roots and whilst not perfect, it deserves more than lazy journo comparisons. A great addition to the Brit-noir canon - well worth a go.    

Thursday, 3 March 2011

DISTANT WATER - Stories from Grimsby's Fishing Fleet

There are times in the writing process when there’s nothing else for it but to stop everything else and immerse yourself in the work. And sometimes the work itself demands that you stop and think. The book in question is Distant Water – Stories from Grimsby’s Fishing Fleet – due to be published in May.
This is my third time out working on heritage publications as co-author, researcher and editor. Mainly, as in this case, the books work with the words, voices and experiences of those who lived through a part of Britain’s industrial past to tell their story and that of the industry.
The last few weeks I’ve got down to  the nitty-gritty of transcripts and sound files of forty separate conversations with (mainly) men involved in Grimsby’s long-gone fishing industry. The majority are proud to have been fisherman, deck hands doing the heavy work on ships in the worst North Sea conditions. It’s no secret, when the industry was at its height the mortality rate for fishermen was 14 times that of coal mining.
We’re in Ken Loach territory here. For the best part of 150 years, the fishing industry operated on the fringes of society, unchecked by the niceties of a safe workplace and frequently without the guarantee of a fair day’s pay. This story this sits firmly on the shelf alongside Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. You don’t have to look hard to see where the profits went – just take a short walk around the area of Grimsby that used to boast a thriving industry. When the trawler owners shipped out in the mid-80s, they took their cash with them – more than £1m from the government and whatever they got from selling ships on for scrap or to oil companies as standby vessels. Fishermen, always classed as casual labour and therefore, expendable, received nothing. For many, the fight for compensation goes on.
As the book comes together in the few weeks, the words of fishermen will tell their own stories. Some say, that’s just the way it was, and, it was all part of the job. But that doesn’t make it right.
Distant Water by Nick Triplow, Tina Bramhill and Sophie James is published by North Wall Publishing on the 5th  May 2011. An accompanying exhibition will be on display at Grimsby's Fishing Heritage Centre throughout May and June.