“Lights! Camera! Crying!”

How my grief became a TV pilot

May 2022

It is the summer of 2014 and I am standing in a field near Watford watching Alan Davies pretending to be me. That is one of the things about working in television. Sometimes life gets a little strange.

As a TV writer, I’ve done that thing a lot of people say you’re supposed to do. I’ve written about my own experience. But in my case, that wasn’t anything small – a day at the seaside or a crisis at work.

I’ve recently lost my wife to cancer.

I say recently but time has become a very elastic thing. Reshaped by bereavement. Her death actually occurred in 2007. It’s just it often feels like yesterday.

Why did I write about such a personal and difficult subject? In a sense I couldn’t avoid it. Vikki’s illness and death were the most profound things that ever happened to me and I had to address them.

So, I started writing – a story about my bereavement. About a man starting his life all over again in the wake of his wife’s passing. It is a fictional version of what has happened – the lead character doesn’t have a young daughter as I do, his parents are different, his close circle of friends includes one or two comic oddballs I have put in for light relief. But there is a lot of me in there. It’s about a man in his forties in a new part of the country – North Norfolk. The man is trying to find his feet again in a new community. Trying to find his feet again in life.

The changes I made from fact to fiction weren’t very conscious. I just wrote it the way I felt able to write it at the time. Tried to get across what it felt like. What it still feels like. I just wanted to make it authentic. Thankfully others seemed to agree.

It was written as a comedy drama.  Grief might not seem the obvious subject for a laugh but from my experience there is plenty of humour in amongst the tears. Black comedy, even occasional farce. And that was reflected in the script I wrote; there is a counsellor who though well-meaning, puts the bereaved man in a fog of comic confusion; there is a local man who is so embarrassed by the idea of bereavement he turns into Mr Bean when trying to offer condolences. There are social embarrassments, people being avoidant, people putting their feet in it because they are trying too hard; someone even throws up at the wake because they’ve got a food allergy and have eaten the wrong plate of sandwiches.

It has taken many months and a lot of head scratching, too; what “real” material to put in the script and what to leave out; the worries about tone (Is this clichéd? Is it corny? Is there too much sobbing?). I’ve been concerned whether people will want to watch a man going through such tough times even if there is comedy in the mix but here it is finally unfolding in front of me. In sunny Watford, standing in for Norfolk because it is inside the M25 and therefore a cheaper location because the cast and crew can all get home at night.

A marvellous cast have been gathered. Alongside Alan there’s Alison Steadman, Dirvla Kirwan, Joanna Scanlan, Phillip Jackson, Una Stubbs. The venerable Sheila Hancock has amazingly agreed to participate despite having few lines and being the one who is required to throw up on screen. With typical dedication she spends part of her time investigating different kinds of stage vomit to see which one will show up best on camera. She is not the only one who shows total commitment – all the cast are utterly behind the project.

What is more they are unfailingly good too. Sensitive but with a light touch when required. And somehow able to perform not only in front of the camera but in front of a rather intense writer who is biting his nails and staring at them from behind a bank of monitors (my natural on-set expression, I have been told, is a cross between “serial killer” and “man on the edge of a heart attack”).

It is strange watching yourself being portrayed at any time – the only other occasion was when I wrote an autobiographical radio show about being a student but this is on a different scale altogether.

Alan portrays me in my widowed state brilliantly. Achingly over-sensitive. Gloomy and vague. Occasionally irascible. He conveys a wonderful sense of those first hazy months of bereavement.

But it is still strange watching myself grieve. It is sad. I can’t believe it is happening to him/me. He looks so haunted and vulnerable. I want to put my arm around him.

Occasionally I have to admit, I want him to cheer up too – not Alan’s fault I hasten to add, it is how I have written it. But now I can see my grief in all its grinding relentlessness. And for the first time, maybe I think about how really difficult it must be for everyone else.

Sometimes I laugh too, which is what I’d hoped from the script. The bereaved man gets cross and bewildered whilst speaking to the bereavement counsellor and I see his frustration. Because suddenly you feel that no one understands. Not even the experts.

Months on, post editing and a half hour comedy drama is born – my grief has become a TV pilot. Suddenly, though, there is some debate at headquarters. Is it comedy? is it drama? (The answer is of course both). Cracks start to appear. In typical TV fashion, its most enthusiastic supporter is no longer there, having changed jobs, and the people who remain want to move it in a different direction; they are suddenly worried about the whole death thing. It quickly goes from potential hit to languishing on a shelf.

But my grief won’t leave me in the months that follow. Its themes, its concerns run around and round in my head. One day, I start to write the story, this time the true, non-fictionalised version, this time as a book. It appears almost magically. One chapter then another, quickly and easily – as if written by an invisible hand.

I give it to a friend and ask whether it is just a family heirloom or something that might connect with the public.  She encourages me to look more widely.

I send it to my agent, a publishing deal follows quickly and “The Owl at The Window”, a memoir of my wife’s illness, her premature death and my attempts to rebuild after, is about to appear.

Now, as I look back, I wonder if fate played its hand.  Maybe it had to happen in that order. TV fiction first. Then the true story. I couldn’t have got to the real stuff initially. It was just too raw. Too difficult. Too brutal. Just too early.

Everything has its time.

What’s more, whisper it quietly, there is even renewed interest in the TV pilot from across the Atlantic in the US.

There’s a saying – blackly comic in the circumstances.

Nothing is ever dead in television.