There are many reasons why writers have dreams. They are often about fulfilment, the acceptance of ideas so precious to your creative energy that you imagine that no-one in the literary/media world can fail to see their commercial viability.
My dream remains unfulfilled after 25 years as a full-time scribe. A screenplay; a movie. There are two projects which always seemed to me to run on solid gold legs. One was a dramatization of my biography of WW1 submarine hero Captain F.N.A. Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918), Honoured by Strangers. Submarine warfare, the Russian Revolution, espionage, an illicit love affair and murder – the story has everything. It would make a superb documentary at least. But after 20 years of attempted communication with production companies, directors and studios it seems that my faith and enthusiasm have no value.
The other great failure is the true story of Captain William Kidd (1654-1701). It was my good friend, artist and writer Mark Chamberlain, who shared his enthusiasm for Kidd’s story with me back in 1998. Kidd is remembered today as a pirate, yet his story is more complicated. He was a trough Scottish navigator and extraordinary seaman who fell for the blandishments of the British establishment in the late 16th century when he was hired by a cabal of the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic as a privateer, his mission being to attack pirates and arrest them in the Indian Ocean who were causing havoc to the trade of the East India Company. His mission was financed by members of parliament and the governor of New York, but it went spectacularly wrong. With a mutinous crew, no prizes captured, plus Kidd’s fatal attack against one of his crew, resulting in gunner William Moore’s death, that turned his mission on its head. He turned pirate more or less by accident after attacking a rich Mogul vessel, the Quedah Merchant with the intention of taking it and its valuable cargo back to America. But once the news of his activities reached Britain, he was listed as an outlaw. His treasure was never found; he was arrested in New York and shipped back to London for trial, where he was hung at Wapping in 1701. Mark and I completed the first draft of our screenplay entitled Kidd! Late in 1999 and began sending synopses and sample scenes out to various companies. One company, Penumbra Productions in London, invited me down to discuss the project. I recall walking up and down their office acting out various lines of dialogue. Penumbra ‘optioned’ the script for a year while they tried to find finance and a director. Mark and I were over the moon. But nothing happened.
In 2000, I received a phone call from a gentleman at the Greenwich Maritime Museum. They had planned to recreate Kidd’s trial in their Great Hall to mark 300th anniversary of his hanging. They said that they had heard that we had an available screenplay, and that a film company on America’s eastern seaboard were interested. We asked if there were any ‘names’ involved with this; one name came up: Mel Gibson. Naturally, we were extremely excited. So, we sent 2 copies of the script off. After several weeks of waiting, I called the museum and was told that our ‘unsuitable’ script had too much bad language in it. I remonstrated by outlining that these were cutthroat pirate characters, and in any case, Hollywood screenplays by then were replete with the ‘f’ word. But the project died for a while. I then had an idea; why not try and interest a star directly in the story? Kidd was a 50-something Dundee-born sailor who had spent a lot of time in Glasgow. A portrait of him existed in the Captain Kidd pub in Wapping. When Mark and I stood by that painting, we both exclaimed – ‘Billy Connolly’!
We wrote to Connolly’s management, Tickety Boo, sent the script. They said they’d pass it on. We heard nothing, so we decided to track the man down. He was appearing at the Hammersmith Odeon. We booked in a nearby hotel and went to the gig. We waited in the dark by the stage door. When it opened, we were greeted by none other than Billy’s American friend, Robin Williams. We chatted briefly and then Billy came out. We presented him with the screenplay and he was very generous with his time. We talked for perhaps 45 minutes during which he regaled us with stories about his home in Scotland and asked about the character of Kidd “Does he wear those lovely 16th century shirts wi’ the huge floppy sleeves?” We assured him he did. He said he’d check it all out and Mark and I went away and got drunk. Weeks passed.
Tickety Boo got in touch. Billy had too many commitments and they weren’t interested.
Then, in late 2001, a TV documentary appeared; The Quest for Captain Kidd narrated by … Mel Gibson. So; the Kidd project joined the slush pile with Captain Cromie as suddenly cinemas were alive with the hugely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise starring Johnny Depp. We had been told by some media ‘experts’ that like westerns, pirate films were a commercial no-go area. Tell that to Jack Sparrow.
I had one last attempt at a screenplay; Wintercount, a comedy about a dying lottery winner in Hull who wanted to blow his millions by making a western based on the life of Chief Crazy Horse … in Yorkshire. It got close, going back and forth to Ken Loach’s Parallax Films for re-writes, until in the end it fizzled out to nothing.
On April 1 2021 I will be 78. The screenplay dream will die with me. So, for those writers who actually made it onto the screen, I take my battered hat off to you. For the rest of us, ponder on this; the story you think is ‘the one’ is worth a try. But in most cases, if you haven’t the energy or the undiluted desire to waste hopeless hours of creative effort, just write what you know and nothing else.