In our blog this month, 2015 Tinniswood Award winner Morwenna Banks give us a look over her shoulder at her January diary.
A very good friend once gave me some excellent advice: ‘Write yourself out of this hole’. At the time it was the last thing I felt I could do.
I was an out of work, broke, depressed, actor-slash-writer and I wanted some deus ex machina of an acting job to scoop me up and transport me to a better place – like Pygar the angel-type man in Barbarella.
I wanted to get into the TARDIS with Dr. Who and step out into a different universe. I wanted to not be inside my own head. But there was no alternative. So every day I wrote and wrote. Wearing the kind of elasticated comfort clothes that you should only be seen in if you’ve got a skin condition, I sat at my table and tapped away at my old computer. Most of what I wrote was utter rubbish but some of it I managed to actually sell. Slowly I climbed out of that hole. So when things feel challenging I often think of my friend’s wise words.
So, hello and goodmorning, it’s January 2016. My desk has last year’s scuffed diary on it and this year’s diary fresh and shinily open. And so I am instantly catapulted back a year. And a year ago I was at a funeral. A dark icy day where the event that had dominated our Christmas and our lives – the sudden shocking death of a loved one – reached some sort of bleak conclusion in a London crematorium. Soon after I had to fly to Los Angeles to attend to various pending work commitments. Whilst in California, feeling lost in the land of sun and opportunity, I received news of another family emergency.
On the overnight flight back home, the darkness and dry hum of the engines were the backdrop to my fear. Coincidentally – the first proper cut of Miss You Already – the film for which I had written the screenplay – had also just landed in London with our director Catherine Hardwicke. A screening took place in the few hours between my getting home from the airport and getting the train to West Country. I watched the film for the first time in a daze of jet lag and adrenalised anxiety. Seeing the beauty of the cinematography and direction, the brilliance of the acting was thrilling but the film contains several hospital scenes and they fused in my head with the real life events I had witnessed and those about to unfold. Later that night, on the sleeper, unable to rest, the grinding rhythm of the train track created a pleading poem, a secular prayer in my head willing my loved-one to ‘Hold On’. The next few days were spent sleepwalking around a hospital in permanent twilight, waiting for news. Waiting for a miracle.
At this time the rest of the Miss You Already team were assembling notes and discussing possibilities. Ordinarily this can be an intense but exciting time for a writer. A time when you need clarity. But I wasn’t there. I was miles away. Blessed with an incredibly sensitive producer (Chris Simon), nurturing executives and an extraordinary agent (Katie Haines, who always knows what to do) everyone tried their utmost to bother me just the right amount. I had been incredibly lucky thanks to the producer and director – to be on set everyday during filming – to feel part of the process. They knew I wouldn’t want to abandon ship now. But another ship was sailing. My loved one was embarking on their final voyage and as the days and nights melded together my ability to be coherent left me and the only place I could be was holding hands at the bedside as we all gathered for the storm.
The second funeral, barely three weeks after the first, found us on another cold cold day, this time by the winter-blue sea. And so we said goodbye. One more time.
Back to the present. My messy desk. The next diary entry in the 2015 volume was the BBC Audio Drama awards. I can’t remember actually deciding to go. I just remember travelling alone in the minicab to the radio theatre, woefully under-dressed for this delightfully elegant event. I wept delayed tears and wondered what made me think I could cope. I had been nominated for both the Tinniswood and the Imison Award for my radio play Goodbye. A play about death and loss. In the dark warmth of the BBC radio theatre I had no feelings about winning or losing. Which was lucky because I lost one (the Imison) and won one (the Tinniswood). But once I’d bumbled through my brief unfocused acceptance speech and made it back to my safe seat I felt a massive sense of relief and gratitude. It made me reflect on the fact that when someone dies nothing good can ever happen to them again. But in all of this, winning the Tinniswood was an unequivocally good thing. Not only could I share some positive news with my family and those connected with the radio play but being acknowledged by the jury and coming home with a trophy was a clear indicator that those hours, weeks and years spent hammering away at the computer had been worth it.
The year that followed – 2015 – was truly a year of darkness and light. But the one consistent thing that saved me from my darker self was the writing. Miss You Already was released – we all gathered for the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, then the London and New York premieres as all-round incredible women and our stars Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore donned their breathtaking gowns and shone on various red and pink carpets – I loitered some distance behind in a range of age-inappropriate outfits.
Still in the haze of bereavement two new comedy series for Radio 4 were co-written. Shush was written with the incomparably wonderful Rebecca Front who carried me along, lifted my grey spirits and agreed that it was ideal to eat as much popcorn as we could in every meeting. I was also reunited with my band of brothers – the ‘Absolutely’ team – for a new radio series of our sketch show, I felt borne aloft by their Celtic kindness and professional patience. ‘I’ll write something funny soon,’ I pleaded at each writing meeting – and they believed me. So writing turned into a safe place. A place of trust.
Now in 2016, the pages of the new diary are filling up. And although the anniversaries are raining down hard and David Bowie’s songs haunt and add to the overwhelming sense that it is January and not April that is the ‘cruellest month’, I’m looking forward. There’s a new radio drama to write and new series of both Shush and Absolutely. I’ll be venturing into TV land, writing a comedy series with my friend Jo Brand. And there’s another film in the offing – a comedy screenplay that addresses the issues around women and procreation. Life after death, then.
So I thank my friend for those words of advice. I learned – despite often falling back into a muddy pit of despair – to write myself out of a challenging situation. And I know that ‘awards don’t matter’ and et cetera and blah. But for me the 2015 Tinniswood Award did mean something. It spurred me on to keep going when once again I felt like giving up. I’m now a writer-slash-actor. And much as there are days when I’d still like Pygar to transport me, I know that it’s the writing that gets me out of the hole.
About Morwenna Banks
Morwenna Banks is an actor, writer and producer. Her acting credits include roles in Skins, Shameless and The Thick of It and she has been twice nominated Best Female Comedy Performer at The British Comedy Awards.
As a writer, her first independent feature The Announcement won several international awards. Her radio drama Goodbye starring Olivia Colman won last year's Tinniswood Award for Best Scripted Drama, and was also nominated for the Imison Award.
She has written extensively for television; recent projects include the comedy Damned for Sky Arts (co-written with Jo Brand) and Up The Women for BBC2.
Miss You Already is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 1 February. Order now >>
Photo credit: Ray Burmiston