Michael Jacob is no stranger to new writing or the creative industries. As a BBC comedy producer, Jacob, whose credits include My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, is venturing into new and, potentially dangerous waters – as a theatre writer. With a few days left before curtain-up, did he think he’d be met by a shiver of sharks or would it all be smooth-sailing at the 24:7 Theatre Festival for his comedy-drama, Daylight Robbery? Lucia Cox finds out.
Why have you decided to start writing theatre now after several years as a producer for TV? And why the 24:7 theatre festival?
When I left the BBC in London and moved to Manchester two years ago, I got involved in producing live sketches for Cofilmic. Through that I met David Slack and volunteered to help with last year’s 24:7 festival, where I ended up working with two of the writers on their scripts. I loved the festival and the feeling around it, and thought it would be exciting to be part of it, though I had no expectations that Daylight Robbery would be selected.
I have done some executive producing and consultancy in television, including a weekend in Abu Dhabi teaching writers from the Middle East sitcom writing, but live work is very rewarding and I’m producing a new sketch troupe at the moment.
My first thought was actually to try a television piece, but with Whitechapel, and then Ripper Street, I thought I’d have a go at turning my ideas and research into a play for 24:7 instead.
How is it all going? Tell us about the piece.
Three people have described the play as ‘Brechtian’ which I hope is a good thing. It’s quite an odd piece because there are six actors playing 17 parts in 23 scenes, so in a way it’s attempting to put television pace into an hour on the stage, all in full Victorian costume.
When I came here I was researching local history and came across a celebrity detective, possibly the first celebrity police detective, called Jerome Caminada. He seemed a most interesting man so I bought his two volumes of memoirs to get a feel for him and his world, then invented a story for the play on the pretence that this was the story he couldn’t include in his books. He has to solve two crimes – single gentlemen in Didsbury are being robbed and there are no obvious clues, and a dead man is fished out of the River Medlock wearing a grey silk suit that is much too small for him.
Caminada was very much a lone wolf, calling in help from other policemen when needed, so there was no Dr Watson or Sgt Lewis. He was really a 19th century Columbo. He is surrounded in the play with characters including a feisty early feminist, a music hall singer, a femme fatale, the Chief Constable, an impressionable young policeman, a rather dozy sergeant, an informer, the landlady of a dubious pub in Deansgate…the aim is to try to recreate high life and low life in 1888.
Although I intended it as a drama with comic elements, it seems to have become funnier as we’ve rehearsed it more, so now I’m calling it an entertainment. But there are no overt jokes and I hope the whodunnit element is compelling. There are lots of twists and turns and I hope the ending will come as a surprise.
Is this the start of a new career-path for you?
Depending on how things go, the play could be the start of a new area of activity for me, or not. If people like it, that would be wonderful but with days to go before we open I’m in completely anxious mode, although the whole experience of writing and producing has been a wonderful roller-coaster. I have learned a huge amount, and I’d certainly like to put that knowledge into practice again.
I’m not actually nervous for me, although as a writer I naturally want my work to be loved and admired. I really want people to like the play, be involved in it, find the funny bits funny, and in that way reward the director and cast who are doing it essentially for love, and have been hugely committed.
What do you think about writing talent in the North?
The North has always been a wonderful source of writing and I think there’s definitely a Northern sensibility and use of language and attitude which comes through. I was lucky enough to work over the years with Susan Nickson on 2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps which is based in Susan’s home town of Runcorn. But going back to writers like Shelagh Delaney, Peter Tinniswood, David Storey right up to Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne and Simon Stephens, Northern writing has a distinctive quality.
Do you feel slightly nervous that your work is now up for discussion? The shoe on the other foot, as it were.
Of course, should any writers I’ve worked with over the years and who haven’t liked my notes on their scripts want to come and carp, then that would be fair enough. One thing I’ve learned in 22 years of working with writers is that there is never a perfect script, and I’m sure I’ll be sitting in New Century House on the first night wanting to tweak lines or seeing bits that could have been written better. In the end, the audience decides.
Interview by Lucia Cox
Where: New Century House, Manchester
When: until 25 July, 2013
More info: www.247theatrefestival.co.uk/shows/page/4/