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Straughan: 'I know that I don’t know anything'

BAFTA-winning screenwriter [pictured] spoke at the BFI Southbank last night as part of the BAFTA and BFI Screenwriter Lecture Series.

It’s the bane of a successful writer’s existence: once you gain notoriety, you are expected to explain yourself, reveal your secrets and enlighten the rest of the world.

Screenwriter Peter Straughan came under the spotlight after the release of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for which he and his late wife Bridget O’Connor won BAFTAs for Adapted Screenplay and Outstanding British Film. Now he’s writing a BBC mini-series based on Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, making him an ideal candidate for the BAFTA and BFI Screenwriter Lecture Series, with Straughan speaking last night (Oct 24) at the BFI Southbank.

But Straughan is no fan of self-congratulation or, well, lectures. Onstage he was more of a waxing poet than a film industry veteran, quoting the words of French filmmaker Robert Bresson or Hitchcock and admitting his nervousness. “I know that I don’t know anything,” he informed the audience between gulps of water. “This is not a lecture, more like a 30-minute apology.”

He was quick to point out his own flaws, one of the more unbelievable ones being that he knows less about screenwriting now than he did when he started. And refreshingly, he didn’t kid any budding writers seated before him – on the contrary, he argued that the industry is harshly separated into those who have it and those who don’t. As for how to get it, Straughan didn’t offer lengthy bouts of advice other than to practice writing rather than imitation.

Fairly standard, yes. But where he excelled was in one-liners or quick comments that revealed the magnitude of his writing capabilities. “I had a sense of the world being very compressed and concentrated,” he said, describing the first time he was lit up onstage.

Other comments on the night included “the Oscars are creative inbreeding,” “writing plays felt like constructing machines to trap people,” “the meaning of a film isn’t in what’s being said - it’s in the complicated and subtle play of what’s being said and what isn’t,” and that a successful writing experience feels like a transcription of a film rather than a construction of one,

It was in these moments that we truly saw Straughan as a writer. I pictured him seated at his home desk, headphones plugged in, doing what he did with Tinker Tailor and all of his past projects – transcribing an image and idea. Only this time the subject was himself, a self-described “structured” screenwriter who is too quick to lambast his own work, a romantic who is sometimes ashamed of adaptation and listens to a single Latin American track while writing his Wolf Hall scripts.

This is the beauty of the Lecture Series. No one can expect to leave such an event with improved writing techniques or inspiration for the next international blockbuster. All anyone can hope for a glimpse into the particular makeup of someone whose individual formula or creative genius has transferred to success.

Luckily, Straughan was able to give us that.

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