The Art of Icon Calling

Lego figure holding a quill in front of lined paper
Published by

Imogen C.

17 March 2021

Several months ago, I was given two series briefs. The first was to discuss the variety of roles within the heritage sector. This has since developed into a partially animated deep-dive into the careers of staff at English Heritage, under the guise of a mockumentary, cunningly titled What Do You Think You Do? It’s going to be developed by our Young Producers later this year and I cannot wait to see how it grows with their input and creative direction. However, it is the second brief which has guided me through my time at Shout Out Loud (apologies, I may have misled you on the contents of this piece by hyping up the first brief too much).

Brief two had wider implications and space for more creative nuance – what would life have looked like for those from underrepresented backgrounds in the past? How would their personal heritages have altered the trajectory of their aspirations, achievements and realities? This is a question whose answers are threaded amongst the policies, laws, societal expectations and prejudices in which we are tangled today.

From a writing perspective, I first had to think about this brief episodically. I wanted to tell true stories rather than imagined ones which were the result of some research that then amalgamated into fictional characters. There are plenty of examples of brilliance in humanity and this felt vital to capitalise upon for a show which aimed to engage young people in history and heritage. The episodes would be able to sit in amongst historical fact without existing in a way which bent the truth or misrepresented people.

English Heritage runs the Blue Plaques scheme in London and this system seemed like a simple and accessible way to episodically delve into the lives of historic icons from underrepresented backgrounds. These are stories that are essential to tell, and so it quickly became apparent that using Blue Plaques as the core route through which to explore these histories would not be deviated from. But, as a writer, I then had to carefully think about how I was going to interpret these people’s lives without overstepping the mark. I am a British, white, cis-woman and I have no right delving directly into the intricacies of the life of Battersea’s first black mayor with a creative licence.

It’s important when telling any story, that you make it clear to the audience what perspective you have approached this narrative from. Otherwise, you open yourself up to having to deal with particular situations within a plot which you’re not qualified to write about. This can be a scary thing to consider, because on the surface, that sounds like no one should have the creative freedom to explore anything other than their own lived experience. What it actually means is that you have to understand the parts of the story you haven’t experienced and contextualise within a space where they and things you do understand have reasonable common ground. This is how you build bridges between characters and how you make your writing as accessible as possible. Putting this work in early means that you have subconsciously laid out rules for yourself. It’s worth saying that the more vague your perspective is as a whole for the format, the more versatile your stories can be.

So, in Plaque to the Future, the new YouTube series I’m delighted to be announcing to you in this essay, the protagonist Ada (who is, at times, her own antagonist) is a modern teenage white cis-woman. The fact that she is a white cis-woman is circumstantial. She is alive now. And she is a teenager. By mentally setting aside the other parts of her existence, I have more than doubled the size of my figurative audience-fishing net. But how do you mentally set aside facts which are so clearly visible on screen? You have to ensure that none of those attributes are intrinsically linked to the character’s predicament. When stripped down to their cores, all of the problems which Ada faces throughout the series stem from being a young person who’s forgivably naïve about the way the world works.

Whilst on a residential trip, Ada discovers an old telephone which has the ability to connect her to icons of history (who all just so happen to have Blue Plaques). Due to a slight miscalculation on her part, Ada assumes that she is able to use this phone whenever she faces a problem with her college work or with something in the wider world. It is these bathetic* hiccups that seem to permeate Ada’s life which draw connections with the much worthier trials of each of our six episodes’ subjects. And it is therefore Ada’s perspective through which we learn about these iconic figures’ achievements and the societies in which they lived. By ensuring that the connection between Ada and the Blue Plaque recipients is purely derived from teenage life and worldly fears, we are able to create a dialogue which has more similarities than differences and confidently exhume these fantastic lives with a flash of relevance that will hopefully grab us by the collar and not let go. I started using the agent ‘we’ in that sentence because this task is now a collaboration with you, the viewer.

Do Ada’s comparatively minuscule daily troubles make a mockery of Blue Plaque recipients’ achievements? This was a question which I consistently asked myself and I’m pleased to say that it is not the case. Within the context of a comedy-drama, Ada’s staggering normality in the face of conversing with historic geniuses is enchanting and opens up the opportunity of drawing bold parallels which help us to (albeit briefly) develop a truly understanding connection with figures of heritage. A particular favourite example from the series is Ada interpreting the love letters sent between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West as a WhatsApp conversation. A WhatsApp conversation is, of course, nowhere near as romantic and doesn’t factor in the views surrounding queer relationships in the 1920s, but in 21st Century Britain, we all have the advantage of hindsight, and Ada’s unsurprised reaction to Woolf’s relationship is what makes the conversation engaging, and what keeps the great author on the phone.

I wanted to answer the question posed by Brief Two with humour and authenticity and the best way to do this was by looking at these lived histories through a very modern gaze. This made it simple to quickly bring to the fore the key things about these incredible people’s lives that would realistically engage a modern teenager who has no interest in history. It also allowed us to contextualise events in a way that was light-hearted, easy to break-down and, at times, incredibly current.

So… what have we ended up with? A comedy-drama! I know the tone of this essay might have made this project feel like a serious observation of the parallels between modern life and the experiences of living in the 19th & 20th Centuries, but I promise that this project, all in all, is about fun. It’s about humility, naïveté and the strange curse of clumsiness that human beings seem to have had placed upon them. It is simultaneously bizarre, complex, hard-hitting and filled to the brim with silliness. Nevertheless, I have greatly appreciated this opportunity to talk to you more forwardly (and possibly indulgently (sorry again)) about what this format and creative process has allowed Shout Out Loud to do, and me to learn.


film poster depicting a girl in a library with a phone


I can’t wait to see the next few months unfold as we drop these six chapters of intrigue, reflection and joy onto YouTube. The existence of each and every frame is down to the following people and their startlingly brilliant personalities.

Firstly to all the participants! – The invisible puzzle piece. Your voices and input are what has solidified this show’s tone, humanity and character dynamic. It’s not easy collaborating on a project and creating a show remotely during a global pandemic, but your faith in the project has made telling these histories a total breeze. I can’t wait to have you all in one zoom room for a final session and sharing event!

Frankie – For stepping in at very short notice and enabling us to film what we wanted – and not once questioning the, quite frankly, ridiculous scenes I’d written.

Amy – For gifting me with the opportunity of choice. There was a seesaw moment in this process where the easier route looked so much more appealing. But you trusted me to make the right (and, annoyingly, harder) decision and that is solely down to your trust and willingness to support all of the placements and youth participants in our frighteningly ambitious aspirations. That takes real courage, real experience and real understanding.

Kirsty – For your support and words of encouragement, no matter how I was feeling about the scripts. Despite project managing the rest of Shout Out Loud, you, on multiple occasions, dropped everything to have a chat and fully comprehend this project with all of its complexities. Your humour and warmth don’t go unappreciated and it is those qualities that spur all of us on to do our absolute best and push SOL to the limits of its capacity.

The SOL Team – My dudes! What a shining example of kindness and collaboration. All of you have (for some reason) continued to wave flags of support for this series and it wouldn’t be here without that simple act. Kerina – there would be no Covid-safe set without your attention to detail and logistical support. Claire – your sustained interest in the scripts helped to instil a healthy dose of confidence within me when taking the texts to set. Fiona – there would be no show! If you hadn’t (bravely) stepped up to joining us in the pilot, and been a key part in, what was then, a fiercely different format, who knows what decisions and alterations we might have made.

Howard – It’s been so fun pulling all of these histories together and trying to re-highlight their significance for a young audience. I have really appreciated having your input over these last few weeks – it’s allowed me to feel confident in my ability to integrate fact into my writing and also strengthen and expand my hopes for how far I want this piece of work to go.

Gerard – Thank you so so much for supporting me through the process of getting all of these scripts written (under what I now realise was an extremely tight schedule I made for myself!). I know, full-well, that I am incredibly fortunate to have been afforded your time and experience. The series would not look anything like it does now without your considered input and I wouldn’t feel half as confident about releasing these stories into the world. I have learnt an immeasurable amount.

Louise and all the staff at Kenwood House – thank you for giving us a SET! Without your patience, supervision and support – this show would have ended up being yet another scripted Zoom call; and no one wants to see that.

Family – For eagerly pushing me forward whilst not really knowing what on earth I was talking about (spoiler-preservation is a talent and a curse).

Martha – Marty, total dream. There has never been a marketing meeting where I have been worried or apprehensive and that’s simply down to your mystically cohesive understanding of content and imagery. If nothing else, I know the posters for Plaque to the Future look heckin’ sick and that the way people get to find out about this strange little endeavour of mine is a way which feels proportionate, fun, fresh and bloomin’ beautiful.

Eleni – An icon in the flesh. What a rocky trip this has been! From a pilot that only we seemed to understand, to a pilot that no one understood, to a series that we understand, the team understands, and some people will probably still find baffling. We did it! There were countless moments where the only logical decision for you would have been to walk away from PttF, but you didn’t. And I am eternally grateful to that highly prized aspect of your glamorous personality.

Yusef – Crikey. They actually let us do it, mate! I’ve already said this to you but it’s worth reiterating FOR ULTIMATE PUBLIC GRATITUDE – your joyous character and magic spark of humour are the foundations of this series and my experience of this placement at Shout Out Loud as a whole. It’s not easy to step into a creative role and be paid to think of stories and scripts. But it could be made so much easier if everyone had you to lean on. Your attitude towards PttF is what made me feel comfortable enough to explore such bizarre and hilarious concepts and feel correct to do so. Your insight and kindness are priceless assets.