So there I was sitting in the second from the front row of the Market Theatre in Newtown Johannesburg waiting for Emma Thomson and Stephen Fry to take an all day workshop on Comedy. Yes, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. In South Africa. And I was going to be in the same room. And I had a plan that was making my heart beat wildly.
It hadn’t been easy to get there. I’d just returned from Cape Town where I’d been flown by a producer to discuss turning two of my plays into an M-Net drama and a TV series that I received the press release about the workshop. Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry were coming to Joburg. The workshop was supposed to be about Comic Writing and there was something included in the press releases about the premiere of a film about Ingrid Jonker too. The workshop would start on the 13th Feb and would go on til the 14th and the premiere of the documentary about Ingrid Jonker’s life would be screened on the following Sunday night at Rosebank. It seemed too soon after my Cape Town trip and I was still broke after the Christmas drought and my scriptwriting lectures were due to start on Tuesday 12th Feb. But it was Stephen Fry and Emma! I’ve watched almost every film or TV series they’ve made. I couldn’t miss them.
But how could I afford a trip? Where would I stay? I don’t have anyone to stay with in Joburg now that Ian has sold his house. And I couldn’t bear to impose on anyone I didn’t know well enough. I couldn’t see how I could do it. But still, I answered the press release seemingly emanating from Ster Kinekor who organized the workshop at such short notice. Ever the optimist, I booked for the Thursday workshop when Emma and Stephen would be talking on comedy.
On Monday before the workshop I still had no idea where I would stay or even how I would afford the petrol for the trip. I felt it was all beyond me somehow. And then the phone rang and a sweet person on the line asked me if I would like an overdraft on my account. I told her she was an angel from heaven! I decided to increase my overdraft just enough to cover my petrol costs and two nights stay at the cheapest B and B I could find. And then I emailed the editor of Screen Africa to ask if she wanted me to cover the story for her publication. She said she would love me to write about it. This would cover the cost of my new overdraft. My cash flow problem was sorted out! Suddenly everything seemed possible again.
I left on Wednesday morning, found my B and B just off Jan Smuts Road and met a good friend for a late supper. We tired to ignore that we were surrounded by Valentine’s Day lovers drowning in each other’s eyes.
And then it was D-Day. I was in the Market Theatre in a seat second row from the front. After all, I didn’t want to appear too eager, although I was more than eager underneath my apparently calm exterior. Apart from being in the presence of the hallowed two and having to write an article for Screen Africa, I did have an ulterior motive: I had one of my best plays in my bag and was determined to give it to either Stephen or Emma to pass on to their agents. And how I was going to do that completely audacious thing made my heart beat three times faster than normal.
It was quite – I won’t say surreal – remarkable to see ET and SF in the flesh. They were accompanied by Greg Wise, ET’s dishy husband and his sister, head of the UK film council and producer Clare Wise, as well as the writer of the screenplay on Ingrid Jonker as well as maker of the documentary on her life, Helena Nonguera. And the strange thing was that no one sat in front of me in the front row. I had a direct line of eye contact to the revered ones.
People whooped with delight as their highnesses made their entrance. The Queen herself - the real one and not Helen Mirren - would have received no less an enthusiastic response. Malcolm Purkey, head of the Market Theatre, introduced them to the audience. And then the workshop was underway. Apparently, the prestigious panel had been attacked the previous day for being too "colonial" in holding court and "telling" the audience what they thought. All I can say is thank goodness I wasn’t there to see it. I would have died of embarrassment to hear these gracious and generous people accused of paternalism. To counteract the previous day’s attack, Emma and Stephen acted out scenes from Helena Nonguera’s screenplay based on Ingrid Jonker’s life and then asked for the audience to give them advice as to how to play the roles better. Two times Oscar winner, Emma, listened patiently while an apparently twelve year old drama 101 student lectured her ad infinitum as to how she could act better. I sank my head onto my chest and couldn’t help catching ET’s eye as I did so. I was mortified by the young girl’s arrogance. Especially as she was speaking such utter rubbish! Emma held her pose of rapt attention while the girl rabbitted on until the audience told her to shut up. After a brief moment of silence, Emma turned to the girl and asked her if she planned to be a director. The irony was huge.
Emma then continued. "All I can say to those of you who want to become directors, remember two things when you give advice to actors: 1) Keep it short and 2) Be practical." Amid hoots of laughter, she continued: "Sir Laurence Olivier was directing a young man who was completely lost in how to play his character. He came up to Sir Laurence and asked him what to do. Sir Laurence turned to him thoughtfully and after a long moment he replied, ‘Your character is very… hot.’"
And Miss Thompson and Sir Laurence left it at that. Masterful. All potential grade twelve directors in the audience were silenced.
Another cringe-making moment in the morning’s workshop came when pompous ex-academics began to pontificate on the life and times of Ingrid Jonker. Seven syllabic words abounded as the academic high up in the audience made us aware of her doctorates and accolades. I turned to see who was embarrassing me yet again, catching Stephen Fry’s eye as I did so. We shared an ironic smile. I wasn’t too surprised to see it was an academic who recently left UKZN and who was secretly referred to as Miss Lavish for her self important ways. I smiled even more. Emma answered the academic’s vague question, and Malcolm Purkey congratulated Emma on not using the words Post Modern or Post Colonial once! Another shared smile between those on the podium and me in the second from the front row.
Stephen and Emma re-enacted the same scene again, taking the advice from those less pompous advisors and turned it into a very moving piece. The scene was between Ingrid and her father. She was telling him she wanted to go to University and he was saying that girls don’t need to as they will marry and have children. Ingrid also mentioned in this scene that her mother slit her own wrists. I had said nothing until this point, swearing that I would only speak when I had something life-alteringly important to say. Now, all I wanted to say was that the line from Ingrid about her mother slitting her wrists didn’t quite ring true to me. It was too ‘on the nose.’ People spoke about all manner of random things and I kept trying to catch the eye of Craig Higginson, Literary Manager of the Market Theatre, who was chairing the session.
Higginson saw me near the end of the Q and A and said that he would take my question after the next script reading. I stated very strongly that I needed to be heard right then as it had everything to do with the section they had just done. "Please please please please," I shouted. And he relented. And so I spoke for the first time that day.
"I love subtext in a script," I said passionately. "And your comment earlier, Emma (she looked up surprised) about the woman saying to her husband at the table, ‘Pass the butter, dear,’ when she is in fact saying, ‘You have ruined my life,’ is meat and drink to me. I love finding the motivation behind lines of dialogue more than anything. And Emma and Stephen," I continued boldly, "I just love what your work, but my question now is for Helena, the scriptwriter." Helena looked very surprised as no one had spoken to her the whole day. "Helena, I love what I’ve seen so far but I’m just wondering about the whole idea of reality and interpretation. I know one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story but I’m just concerned about Ingrid being as blatant about her mother’s suicide as she is in the script as it’s written now. She states blatantly to her father, in a 1940’s repressive Afrikaner household, that her mother cut her wrists which is a direct contradiction to him saying her mother had died of cancer. That worries me."
At that moment Stephen Fry interrupted both of us by holding up his script and saying querulously to Emma, "Emma’s been reading that line wrong all morning."
Emma looked up very annoyed. "No I haven’t" she said.
"Yes you have," he continued. "Look," he said, holding out the script to her. "The father says of the mother, ‘She died of cancer,’ and Ingrid says ‘It was very sharp,’ and then her father asks, ‘What?’ and Ingrid replies, ‘It cut her wrists.’ You’ve been reading ‘She cut her wrists.’ That’s very different."
"Stephen’s version’s much better!" I shouted from my seat in the second row.
"My script doesn’t have the new line," shouted a wounded Emma.
It was a recently made change which Stephen’s script had and Emma’s script was still the old one. I spooked myself a bit realizing I’d picked up the single script change, made for the very reasons I’d objected to in the first place, in a four hour session. Emma still looked a bit miffed but looked at me thoughtfully.
I went on to discuss how much one should change one’s script to please a funder. For example a funder wants to sponsor my film about a real person but he wants me to change the ending so that the person who is supposed to be a martyr for his cause doesn’t die. Clare Wise went on to answer me by saying that you have to ensure that the funder has the same vision as you have. She spoke about the film United 93 which was made in Britain as the producers were sure they would be forced to make the plane not crash (even though it was about one of the planes hijacked on 9/11) just to make sure it had a Hollywood ending if they received funding from the USA.
I laughed and breathed again and watched the next session without saying a word, satisfied that I hadn’t made a complete fool of myself. Yet. I still had that script in my bag. And my heart raced at the thought of handing it over to the illustrious ones.
The afternoon continued with a so-called Comedy Workshop. Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks joined ET, SF and GW on the stage and the session was chaired by Alan Swerdlow. The audience was full to capacity now with comic actors of great stature in this country. Tobie Cronje, Bill Flynn, Grethe Fox, Desmond Dube, David Kau, Irene Stefanoui, to name just a few were there with the cast of the new comic film Bunny Chow which has just been released in Toronto. The Bunny Chow cast sat in the front row and included Kim Engelbrecht and Kagiso Mtwewa. The afternoon was about comedy in general and I made extensive notes for the article which I kept having to remind myself I was writing for Screen Africa. I was embarrassed a few more times. And the eye contact continued with the now tired looking Stephen, while Emma kept encouraging some of the younger actors to come on stage and strut their stuff. Some of them were the cause of the embarrassment, it has to be said. I think I will say no more on the subject except to say thank goodness for Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks. They showed their intelligence and didn’t make South African humour seem like a complete oxymoron.
Then Malcolm Purkey asked if any press were in the audience. Cautiously I raised my hand. Stephen then looked at me and said "A pox on the press!" with a wry smile. I shook my head at him and said a quiet, "Now, now, no need for that…" but he continued to smile and say rude things about the press. Purkey cleared the auditorium so that the rest of the press could come in, but I’d been there all day and just HAD to have a loo break. So I asked him to wait until I returned before he started the press conference. I know how monstrous the press is in Britain, and could never quite get over the viciousness of the Tabloid press in all the five years I was there, but I still felt a little wounded by Stephen’s comments. Especially after all those moments we’d shared…Shouldn’t eye contact count for something?
Anyway, as I rushed to the loo, realizing that the script hand over would have to take place as soon as possible after the press conference I felt abject fear. I knew it would be my only chance to make contact with people I felt such an affinity to, whose advice to young writers was exactly the same as that I give to my script writing students. And I had no idea how to do it. As I ran to the loo, I prayed to God, my ancestors, guardian angels, and any off duty positive deities who might have a free moment to help!! me!! As I went past one of the many Honours’ boards in the building my eye caught the name "Richard E." It wasn’t Grant but it made me think of him. Aha! I had it! I should tell Stephen that I know Richard E. Grant! Of course! That would be a point of contact. SF had cast him in his film Bright Young Things. I thanked the deities for their advice and concentrated on getting into a very full loo, and back into the auditorium in five minutes.
Once back in my seat, second from the front, Purkey prepared for the press conference. Cameras had been there throughout the day with telephoto lenses the size of small planets and now there were even more. Stephen kept looking at me and muttering rude things about the press with a wry smile all the while. Mics were used now for people in the auditorium and the first person who spoke was a young girl from 5FM. She asked Emma something fairly innocuous about what she thought of South Africa. I can’t remember her answer. I was by now rehearsing my opening line which I’d planned days before.
Then it was my turn. I took the mic and looked at Emma and Stephen who were literally cringing on the stage. I suppose they expected me to ask them about their sex life and whether they frequented toilets in the hope of finding rent boys. I don’t know. But this is what I said.
"Hi. My name is Janet van Eeden and I’m from Horse and Hound." I think Emma and Stephen must have thought I’d said a foreign name or something because they didn’t respond at all. But Greg Wise got it. He turned towards me and simply BEAMED! For the first time in the day, irony was coming from the audience. He got the reference to Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill when he poses as a journalist for Horse and Hound magazine. I felt encouraged.
I went on hoping that at least Greg would continue to get the irony. "I must say, however, that I have been deeply wounded by His Highness Mr Fry’s rude comments about the press."(Frozen cringing from ET and SF on stage, much beaming from clever and dishy Greg) "Especially as I am a full time screenwriter and playwright and do journalism only to cover my costs, having come all the way from the provinces to be here for this workshop. In this instance I am writing for Screen Africa, the national film journal for whom I write quite often, and which is the final word on film in this country. And so – (addressing Emma and Stephen directly now) – Emma and Stephen, I WORSHIP your work, but I’m going to ask Screen Africa-type questions now, and I’d like to ask Helena how she managed to get Clare to produce her film, and what the production schedule is like, and so on."
I went on to ask very business-like questions ofHelena and Clare Wise – only the second time in the day that they’d been addressed – and Emma and Stephen sat in stunned silence.
The rest of the press conference rattled on and I heard Fiona Ramsey (Ohmigod did she hear me say such silly things!?) and a few other familiar voices ask very unthreatening questions. Then it was over. Just before Purkey thanked everyone, Stephen thanked the press for not being like the British Press, and Emma then said that we should be congratulated for not being like the British Press. I told them so, I said with my eyes.
And then everyone was supposed to go home. This was it. My moment. Almost incoherent with fear, I remembered that I still had to take photos with my tiny digital camera. Okay, so that’s the first step to get onto the stage.
I pushed through the people who were all wanting to touch the cloak of the famous ones, and finally made it to Stephen. He turned towards me and beamed hugely. I told him that in Afrikaans my state of the art (not) camera is called a Mik en Druk – a Point and Press camera so I had to get really close to take reasonable pictures. He beamed like the star he is. And that’s when I took my chance.
As he was packing up his bag I said casually, "I’m a friend of Richard E. Grant’s."
"Oh yes, Richard," he answered warmly. "He’s from Botswana isn’t he?"
"Swaziland, actually," I smiled forgivingly, "but it’s easy to get them confused. And Richard is the person who first encouraged me to write."
"Is he?" he answered, still not completely bored.
"Yes," I said. "And look, there’s no easy way to do this, but I’ve brought a script I’d really love you to read. I’m sure you would enjoy it."
A little more wary now but still very kind. "Alright, as long as it’s not too long. I don’t have much time, you know."
"Oh no, it’s great fun and it’s a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. I’ll just fetch it then?"
Remembering to take Greg Wise’s pic on the way of course. I turned to Greg and said something deeply meaningful like "I think you’re just wonderful," to which he beamed as I snapped.
And then to Emma, who seemed to be having her ears pinned back yet again by another twelve year old girl. Maybe this one was telling her how to write this time? As I stepped towards her, Emma turned to me with what I think was relief. She also lit up and gave me 150% of her incandescent presence. She really is remarkable in that way. Also she’d spoken throughout the day about her feminist work, even when Stephen didn’t know what she was on about and told her to stop wingeing. But I related to it hugely. Now I said that I had to take her picture, and she gave me seraphic smiles. And then I spoke to her too. From the bottom of my heart.
"You are just iconic to me, Emma,".I said. "Really.Your work has meant so much to me over the years and especially your feminist work. I’ve really related to it."
She accepted my adulation with much grace.
"And," I continued, "I feel like such an arsehole asking you to do this, but I can’t see any other way. I’m giving one of my scripts to Stephen to ask him to read it and I wondered, if you thought it was good enough, if you would pass it on to your agents? I know it’s a really terrible thing to ask but I’m desperate here. I have a script for you too if you’d like?"
"Of course!" she said warmly. "Don’t worry about giving me another copy. I’ll get it from Stephen – I’m with him all the time - and I promise I’ll give it to my people…"
"Would you really?" I said, almost crying with relief now.
"Yes, I will. Promise."
And I think I thanked her and I remember giving my script to Stephen who said (a little grumpily now) that it looked very long and me telling him quite firmly that he could shoot me if he didn’t enjoy it and then getting Clare Wise’s business card before finally leaping off the stage. I left the auditorium as fast as I could to dash to the loo where I sobbed for a solid ten minutes.
I was so overwrought by the whole experience. And yes they could throw my script in the bin and yes perhaps they thought I was a complete idiot but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t taken the chance. As my friend Ian said to me later when I sobbed through the re-telling of the whole story, it was a calculated risk, and I had to take it. And take a risk I did. It took me days to recover. And my work and the deities now have to do their bit.