Monday, 18 January 2016

Shadows of the Past: Remembering Leonard White, by Catherine Czerkawska

Lovely Leonard in work mode & woolly hat, top left.
Sheila Johnston and myself (+ big bump!).
Early in the new year, an email dropped into my inbox to tell me the sad news that an old colleague, Leonard White, had died on 2nd January. I hadn’t known just how old he was – he always seemed supremely youthful to me – but it turns out he almost made his century. He was born on 5th November 1916 and died on 2nd January 2016.

The first time I met Leonard was when he produced my television serial, Shadow of the Stone, for STV, back in 1986. It was broadcast the following year. Having written many hours of drama for BBC Radio 4, I had embarked on writing stage plays and that, in turn, had led to three short one off plays for Scottish Television, on the encouragement of the head of drama, Robert Love, who liked to promote new writers and new writing. Thereafter I managed to secure a commission for a six part Young Adult serial at a time when YA wasn’t really a thing. Shadow of the Stone is a spooky tale of witchcraft, possible possession and burgeoning adolescent sexuality, all set in picturesque Gourock and Greenock on the Clyde. A young girl, Lizzie, becomes fascinated by the story of Marie Lamont, who was burnt as a witch in seventeenth century Scotland. Lizzie has a troubled family background and thwarted ambitions to sail, so when a yachtsman arrives from America, having navigated the Atlantic alone, Lizzie develops a crush, not just on him, but on his beautiful yacht.

The cast was amazing: a very young Shirley Henderson, an almost as young Alan Cumming and a handsome American, Nic D’Avirro. But the star of this particular show was the producer, Leonard White, who held everything (and us) together, with his particular brand of efficiency, kindness and generosity. He was one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with and could spot an upcoming star, witness his inspired casting choices. He also knew a lot about sailing and the sea, which was very helpful in the circumstances. My husband, Alan, was then working as yacht skipper for a charter company and he skippered the camera boat, a fifty foot catamaran called Simba of Largs. Nic played the yachtsman, Steve, aboard a beautiful Freedom yacht with unstayed masts – and fortunately, he too was a good sailor. I was quite heavily pregnant at the time, but happily hauled the ‘bump’ on and off boats. And the whole serial looked beautiful.

Handsome Nic d'Avirro, between boats.
And the most vital part of any production: the 'chuck wagon'.
The bacon and black pudding rolls were legendary.
I also rewrote the screenplay as a novel. The publisher, Richard Drew was way ahead of his time in publishing Young Adult novels but the network’s scheduling of the drama was woeful – they kept changing the times around, sometimes showing it an hour earlier than scheduled and thus irritating the viewers. Scottish critic Joan Burnie loved it, kept recommending it, but complained bitterly about the scheduling, which of course nobody involved with the production, neither Leonard nor Robert, could do anything about. This was also at a time when, with a reasonable background in writing drama, I could approach a different television company with an idea for a paranormal series to be told that ‘nobody is interested in the paranormal.’ Just before Buffy and Angel took the television world by storm.

I was very happy to work with Leonard again though. In the early nineties, there was a Scottish series called Strathblair, made by BBC Scotland – a sort of everyday story of Highland folk, two series of ten hour-long episodes. After the first series, which had involved a number of starry writers with not much knowledge of Scotland, Leonard was brought in as producer and commissioned some Scottish based writers to add to the mix. I had been trying to punt rural dramas for years – and I suppose now I’m still trying to punt rural novels!

I wrote two episodes of Strathblair, and once again had the great pleasure of working with Leonard. One of the first things he did was to compile a ‘bible’ for the series. This is the vital collection of all the information about the fictional world, so that when a new writer needs to know where one farm is in relation to another, or which characters know each other, and what their back story is, that information is always to hand. If you are writing episodes of an ongoing series, there are all kinds of things you need to know if you are not to make howlers like having people walk impossible distances or go off to milk cows when they only farm sheep. I can only imagine what the 'bible' for the Archers looks like, but somebody, somewhere, must be keeping track of it all, because the listeners and viewers certainly do! Memories like elephants.

Sadly, we never met again, but we certainly kept in touch. We sent Christmas cards and the occasional letter. He remained interested in my subsequent career and encouraging, even though I never wrote for television again. I had a couple of abortive attempts at ‘developing’ television dramas but it was a waste of time and creative energy, and eventually I turned my attention almost wholly to novels with some theatre thrown in from time to time. His cards and notes were always welcome, and I remember him with a great deal of affection. Working on drama in whatever medium is a peculiarly intensive experience. You form a close group for a limited time. Depending upon who is in charge, that group experience can be positive or negative. I have had a couple of negative experiences and wouldn’t want to repeat them. But when it works well, there’s nothing quite like it. And Leonard, who managed to couple skill, knowledge and a lifetime of experience with kindness and concern, seems to have given a whole lot of people a great many positive memories.

Now, he continues to be an inspiration for me not least in that he kept working, kept producing excellent projects even when he was older than I am now. He’ll be much missed, but I’m so very glad to have had the privilege of working with him. 

A very young Shirley Henderson on the Clyde. 

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9 comments:

Penny Dolan said...

What a gift of a man to have known! I think every writer needs such people in their lives.

Bill Kirton said...

A nice tribute to him, Catherine, and a telling comment on what the Beeb has lost by its post-Birt insistence on characterless committees, tedious conformity and 'management' rather than creativity.

Mari Biella said...

A lovely tribute, Catherine, and a bit of a surprise for me, as I remember watching Shadow of the Stone when it was broadcast. I had absolutely no idea that you wrote it! A great series, and - as Bill suggests - possibly not one that would make it onto our screens these days, more's the pity.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks, all. He was a lovely man as was Robert Love, although he's still with us, I'm glad to say. Yes - Shadow of the Stone was mine. You used to be able to watch it on YouTube but I see it has disappeared, all except the trailer. I don't think it would be made these days. I keep thinking I'll revise and publish the novel - I even had it scanned and it's sitting on my PC, but it always gets pushed to the back of the list! Maybe this year ...

Lydia Bennet said...

A warm tribute and a lovely memory not just of him but how the broadcast media sometimes used to work. But so many original ideas are rejected and then taken up from elsewhere! very frustrating.

catherine white said...

Thank you Catherine for your wonderful tribute - it is much appreciated by his family and all who knew him - best wishes - Catherine white

Dennis Hamley said...

A wonderful tribute to a remarkable man and, as Bill says, a telling comment on the creeping death of creativty.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thank-you all, and Catherine especially.

Sandra Horn said...

What a wonderful post! Some lives touch ours and nothing is ever quite the same again. Thank you, Catherine.