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.