Thursday, 18 January 2018


I used to like watching what the media call "gritty dramas". I loved Prime Suspect, and vivid in my memory from ages ago (2010?) is Criminal Justice II; but I think my absolute favourites were The Bridge, and Happy Valley by the unbelievably talented Sally Wainwright.

I still hold those levels of writing, directing and acting in the highest esteem, but increasingly these days I find I cannot watch them. It feels as though too much of the world's sorrow is already inside me and I have no space for any more.

Sarah Lancashire starred in Happy Valley — she was brilliant — and right now she's starring in another gritty drama on UK TV, called Kiri. It's about a tragic situation where a social worker allows a child an unsupervised visit with grandparents, and the child is murdered.

I watched the first episode with the Badger, and then the second one aired last night, straight after Love It Or List It with Phil and Kirsty. 

Just at the present time I'm scrambling to finish writing a book. It has to be in to the publisher in March, and meanwhile that same publisher will any day now be sending me someone's novel to edit that carries its own deadline. 

Our household is made up entirely of quiet people (they do play French horn and trombone and bodhran and flute and violin and piano and harp and oboe and recorder, but the people themselves are quiet), but even so daytime requirements can be . . . turbulent. Writing goes best when I start early in the morning. I often wake around half-past three or a quarter to four, and I can get a solid chunk of work in if I start then. This has a knock-on effect of course; by half-past seven or eight in the evening, I'm often ready to turn in. I fell asleep in my armchair (not a pretty sight) before Phil and Kirsty finished, and there was no hope whatsoever of watching Kiri.

So it was my intention to see Kiri on catch-up TV; the first episode was so good.

But — does this happen to you? — sometimes you can notice-but-not-notice some reality of life. And wanting to watch Kiri made me consciously aware of something I'd noticed but not noticed for a long time. 

I couldn't watch it by myself. It has too much trauma. 

I sat and thought about this, considered it, played it through in my mind, asking myself why I wouldn't watch Episode 2 by myself if I saw Episode 1 with the Badger and thought it was great. 

And I became aware that when I sit in the same room with the others of my household, there's a kind of ectoplasm — like squid ink in the water or smoke rising from a slow bonfire or steam from a wet fence when the sun comes up — a subtle presence / ambience / aura / atmosphere exuded by the other person; an emanating strength. Being with them strengthens me.

When I write that down it doesn't read as astonishing at all. "Yes," you may think. "Of course."

But I hadn't really thought about it before. 

Such influence as we have upon one another! Its negative aspects are much discussed, of course — the effects of mental cruelty and psychological/emotional abuse in gradually eroding a person's confidence and self-esteem. Yet the positive aspects, less so; especially given the emphasis on individualism in contemporary society.

But in our household all of us find strength and hope and courage in doing things together. Even something as simple as watching a programme on TV in which a person suffers and is broken down, torn by distress and unkindly treated by their fellow human beings. Even though I know it's only a story. I need the quiet, steady strength of someone sitting beside me to be able to bear watching it.


Lynda said...

Interesting! I tend to prefer to watch on my own. Maybe I just haven't found the right person/people to watch with!?!

I also enjoyed some of the programs you mentioned. But am watching episodes of Midnight Sun (the setting got me in), and recently 'Suspects'...the unscripted TV series...very good! (not 'Prime Suspect' that you mentioned) xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Waving! x

Elin Hagberg said...

Musical instruments... I play tin whistle and I can play the recorder and once upon a time I could play the oboe too but I don't think I remember anymore but I probably could play a simple melody if I got to repeat finger placement and get my lungs to handle that much air. I dream of a low whistle but I am a bit scared of them too.

I am one of those people that crave both noise and social life and silence at different times. I get the wrong balance of both right now. The kids are noisy and I live too far from my family who is good at that balance. We can talk and make noise to the point that my husband sometimes falls asleep from the intensity of all the talking social people but then I can also sit in silence with them reading, watching TV, doing crafts and so on too. "A real friend is someone you can be silent with" is a saying from northern Sweden were silence is often praised and talking is meant to be about useful things. My family is talkative but because of the culture I kind of had to learn to talk in ways that were socially acceptable like telling stories and being entertaining but I am not that good at small talk because that is not as encouraged.

Pen Wilcock said...

"silence is often praised and talking is meant to be about useful things"

I love that!

In our household, we talk about everything! But there are long stretches of silence, too. We retire to our rooms early in the evening and emerge late in the morning, so all the conversation has to be packed into the middle, along with work, gardening, hanging out the laundry, cooking beans, sweeping, tending the fire, fetching the springwater, feeding the fox . . .

Jen Liminal Luminous said...

I can't watch an awful lot of TV these days - I blogged about Game of Thrones which I should love, all the things I like - dragons! Magic! But the violence and the threat of violence was just far too strong for me.

But I don't like even my husband being at home when I am trying to write, which is very problematic, as he works from home on one of my prime writing days. .

I do get up early, but not as early as you, I don't think I could bear too. Maybe I should...

Julie B. said...

I like the gritty dramas too, and sometimes am not sure why I'm so drawn to them. I thought Happy Valley was one of the best, and was so sad when it ended after 2 seasons. I so understand what you're saying about watching with someone. Have a blessed weekend, dear Ember. xoxo

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Jen — yes, that's the thing. When people are asleep it's as though they were not at home. Well they aren't, in a very real sense; only their bodies are there. As soon as they come hoe to themselves, like a murmuration of starlings, flying back down into their bodies and getting ready for the day, the house is arustle with presence, and the power of the emanations makes it harder to write. Getting up very early is a good ruse.

Hi Julie B — You saw Happy Valley? It was so good! I believe there is to be a third at some point.


Julie B. said...

Yes, Happy Valley is on Netflix here. It was so fascinating to see two actors from Downton Abbey play very different characters in Happy Valley! I'm watching the 3rd season of Broadchurch now. And Doc Martin.

Pen Wilcock said...

Have you seen Detectorists? I absolutely loved it.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely loved the Detectorists! Just finished the third season, hope some awards will be won. Love the gritty dramas as well, but unlike you, I always prefer watching alone. If someone shares my tastes we'll talk about it afterwards. But noone in my actual household does.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes — Detectorists was everything I always hoped TV could be and most of the time isn't — intelligent, inclusive, respectful, never salacious, funny, sad, human, thoughtful, honest; it's just lovely.

Nearly Martha said...

Ooooh. A Book on the way. Hurrah! I have lost the capacity to watch programmes with people in peril. One of the Scandinavian dramas that Head of House likes had a random man being tortured in a cupboard in an airport. I thought about it for days and then thought - why should I put myself through this? So I stopped watching anything like that. Unfortunately, it appears to mean that I forfeit seeing a lot of good writing and plotting which is a shame.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes — my problem exactly. I still haven't got over those prison wardens pouring boiling water on Keeley Hawes' character's hands in Line of Duty. I still flash back to it sometimes and how long ago was that? Never watched another series fo Line of Duty after that.

The book I'm writing is not very exciting — not even the title is, which will be "Another 100 Stand Alone Bible Studies", but I hope at least it will be very useful. The first one I did — called predictably, 100 Stand Alone Bible Studies — has found is way into a lot of home groups and kept them going for ages. It's like having a packet of Rich Tea biscuits in the cupboard; always there and , surprisingly, sometimes just what you want..

Thank you so much for your other comment. I decided after reading it I shouldn't publish it here because it contains too much that you would probably prefer to keep private. But thank you. x

Anekha said...

I have had similar experiences when it comes to television. There are shows I started watching and admired for great writing and acting that ultimately I had to abandon because I found it too traumatic. There is a point where you have to question it as entertainment right? No matter how brilliant or sensational it is. What would it say about me if I enjoyed seeing people raped and murdered etc... ? the trauma of experiencing these aspects of stories night after night too often takes over. There is less reflection and story and context in the writing. Has the film and television industry has lost sight of the fact it should be entertainment, or do we as a society so numbed to human experience that we need extreme violence or tragedy to shock us into feeling. Are these shows less a storytelling and entertainment and more a provider of catharsis? I think I could handle a story that had some big drama if it was contextualised and reflected on and made sense of in the story. But the violence and the trauma becomes incidental, casual. I find that disturbing.
I gave up on outlander after a few episodes even though I was interested in the story. In the end I did not want to watch people being abused and tortured and raped every episode. The hyper-realism in our cinema and television has taken away the nuance and elegance of storytelling.

Anekha said...

On a silly note my husband and I would watch a show called mystery diners... every evening. I think we were so sick of the violence. So we found a show that had the mystery but not the violence. They used secret cameras to solve a mystery about a restaurant. It was actually a real relief. I make a conscious choice to watch less violent traumatic shows.... but I miss the storytelling. I watch a lot of teen shows for that reason, they have the action, mystery and drama but are not aloud to be so violent. Wolfblood was a favourite for a long time.

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes, friend — you entirely speak my mind.

I am not averse to TV drama including some of the terrible and traumatic things that happened to people, but only if the main part of what we see is how to heal and help and put things right. To often the story seems to be almost entirely about the cruel and terrible aspects.

Life in the Slow Lane said...

I like Pie in the Sky. Great ensemble cast, not so dark.

Pen Wilcock said...

Thank you — that's not one I've seen. x