Chris Trengove

Writing about writing

Archive for October 2011

A THREATENING BROWN TIDE…

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The second of two books written with Peter Lawrence and published by Quartet, ENGULFED IN A TIDE OF FILTH was described on its original dust jacket as “a technicolor nightmare of red revolution, black liberation, blue photographs and the ever-threatening brown tide.” It’s now available on Amazon Kindle, with a new preface by Peter Lawrence, reproduced here:

PREFACE

In the preface to our first book, ‘It’s Your Money In My Pocket, Dear, Not Mine In Yours,’ Chris wrote that times were very different then – that you didn’t need to write a Mission Statement to get a job as a hod carrier to a gang of wild Irish brickies. And as to getting published, I think Quartet, contacted via that proverbial man in the pub, was the first place we sent the MS. So I suppose that we thought getting ‘Engulfed In A Tide Of Filth’ published would be equally pain free.

We had been flattered by some good reviews; and already interviewed several times, forced to stare at each other blankly one memorable moment when asked if we would agree that our writing was rather tasteless. I can’t say I was surprised by the comment but I still had no real answer. Several older readers – men and women my current age, probably – had dismissed us as pornographers. My first responses had been to ask if these amateur critics had ever read Guy De Maupassant but when that drew a blank was reduced to explaining to one outraged wife that the book described a club and a life that her high-earning stockbroking husband probably indulged in on a weekly basis.

That such a mild narrative, by current standards, created substantial waves of outrage was a constant surprise but in the end I fell back on the satisfaction that we must have done something right to either piss people off to the point of apoplexy or make them laugh to that same medical condition.

But to return to the submission of ‘Engulfed,’ when we were summoned by William and John, it was a bit of a shock to have them present us with a list of scenes which they felt were questionable. Notable among them was the mistaking of a scooter’s spare tyre for a motorway café doughnut and, likewise, the unnoticed substitution of a quart of oil for a large coffee. Fortunately, even as our publishers were querying the ‘realism’ of the scene, they were crying with laughter – and so we passed that crucial test: if it’s funny, that’s all that matters. And we still feel that way, regardless of the waves of political correctness which threaten to engulf us all.

I can’t say that we were lionized but we did attend a number of publishers’ soirees at which some now very famous names pontificated and did their best to qualify for Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, despite the fact that William and John were quite removed from that kind of pretentiousness. However, it was enough to put us off and we declined all further invitations to Soho literary pubs. Boredom was probably the most telling factor but, looking back, I realize that we should have stuck it out, and rowed as vigorously as everyone else in that sea of London literati. Who knows, we may have become the Beaumont and Fletcher of the age – instead of which we sidestepped into advertising, which paid much better and was almost entirely – but not quite – lacking in pomposity.

A couple of years of that and we made another sideways leap into TV animation, working for a New Yorker who started out as Mr. Charm and ended as a costive prat. I can only think he was jealous of the fun we were having and, in particular, of Chris’s astonishing musical and lyrical talents.

Fun really is the key for us. When we were writing the first book, my wife of the time asked me if we ever did any work. Of course, I replied indignantly. Why do you ask? Because all you seem to do is laugh, was her answer – and she was right. For us, writing is a passion and we take it seriously – but it isn’t an excruciating, navel-gazing, brain-cudgelling exercise whose miseries are to be shared with that great cadre of authors and screenwriters for whom the process seems to be a cross between therapy and some kind of obscure dating game.

We really love what we do and are astonishingly lucky to have made a decent living at it for so long. Speaking for myself, I know I have a tendency to write too ‘heavy.’ My anger – particularly at the vacuity of politics and the sheer greed of super-capitalism – spills over and I begin to lecture. Then Chris will read the excessive words and suggest that we apply the ‘Ow’s yer father?’ filter – a device too obscure to describe here, but one which usually forces me to see that what should be funny, or moving, or frightening – or otherwise emotionally involving – has, in fact, become a polemic.

‘Engulfed,’ with its potentially serious political and social undertones, could so easily have become an angry spiel. Instead it’s a wild ride through extremism, in which we tried to make our points – whatever they were – through absurdity and laughter. Shockingly, some of our inventions which then seemed unthinkable – a black man joining an extreme right wing party, for example – have come true.

I hope you enjoy the read. And if you don’t, give thanks for the fact that our next MS was the most revolting, obscene and fundamentally accurate take on the music business. It was titled ‘All Time Record Gross’ and I’m sure that it would have been too much even for Quartet. Fortunately for them, Chris and I somehow managed to lose the draft before submission. I don’t recall how or why but no doubt it had some connection to laughing too hard…

Peter Lawrence, July 2011

Written by Chris Trengove

October 8, 2011 at 11:49 am

COMIC STRIP…

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On Amazon Kindle, I’ve just republished IT’S YOUR MONEY IN MY POCKET, DEAR, NOT MINE IN YOURS, a wild farce set in a Soho strip club, co-written with longtime collaborator Peter Lawrence and originally published by Quartet Books. It’s on sale at 86p, and I’ve written a new preface for it, which is reproduced below:

PREFACE
Even to acknowledge that we were around in the early seventies is something of a giveaway, but Peter and I wrote “It’s Your Money” when we were very young – five to be exact.

We’d just hooked up again after a few years – we were at school together – and discovered that we were both trying to make a living as writers. We decided to pool our talents, and at first concentrated on TV, coming up with a play about football hooligans entitled “Peanut”. It was almost immediately pulled out of the slush pile at London Weekend Television by an astute script editor, the lovely Patricia Larbey, wife of Bob Larbey of “The Good Life” fame. Imagine anything being pulled out of the slush pile these days…

But despite Patricia championing our cause, we didn’t get too far at LWT. We had ideas for two comedy series, about a girl band and a restaurant, but the then programme controller – later a very big TV wheel indeed – told us that the viewing public wouldn’t be interested in either setting. (A couple of years later “Rock Follies” and “Robin’s Nest” both became big hits. Don’t get me started…)

Instead, the LWT powers-that-be put us to work knocking out gags for camp comedian Larry Grayson. Trouble was, the gags couldn’t refer in any way to the star’s obvious and much traded-on homosexuality… which meant that we were stuck with something of a hard row to hoe. What next?

Well, I’d been subsidising my scribbling by working as a stage manager in a Soho strip club. The way it came about was the way jobs often came about in those days – casual word of mouth. A friend of mine met a stripper on holiday, and when they got back she got him a job at a strip joint just off Dean Street. Once he’d been there a while, a second job become available – or rather a second shift, the strip industry’s working day being divided up 12 to 6, 6 to 12. I was sick of being assistant editor of a printing trade magazine, and when he rowed me in, I jumped at the chance.

Go from a well-paid media job with prospects, to a poorly-paid job involving night work and women who wear tassels? Absolutely. Remember that Harold Wilson – the man who gave the Beatles knighthoods – was still in Downing Street, there was full employment and hippy idealism wasn’t yet dead. Actually, being career-minded was regarded as a bit infra dig, marking you out as a soulless ‘breadhead.’ And crucially, if you didn’t like your job, you could find another in a matter of days. Last resorts were working in Harrods and teaching – the latter, apart from a degree of some sort, requiring no special training then.

Anyway, I was changing lights, operating an ancient Ferrograph tape recorder and heating up a lava lamp to resemble an erect penis, while Peter was knocking out scripts for industrial films – what these days would probably be known as ‘corporate videos’. One evening over a drink I was telling him about my day, which culminated in me having to chuck out a punter who was fondling himself under a bowler hat on his lap. Peter – who had plenty of experience of West End lowlife himself – started to laugh, and said “That’s it! That’s what we do next – we take the lid off strip!”

So we started on the project, at first putting together a film screenplay. We’d got plenty of writing experience by now, and it didn’t take too long, but we quickly found out something that applies now as then – it’s very, very difficult to sell an original screenplay on spec (and we didn’t of course have an agent, nor had it occurred to us to try and get one.)

Long story short, we punted the screenplay around, getting the usual “thanks but no thanks,” and pretty much ended up hitting a brick wall. I guess we might have left it there, but something told us that this was a story worth telling, so we decided to start all over again, this time writing the story in novel form – the book you’ve just downloaded, in fact.

I’ve already implied that things often got done more informally in those days. If you wanted a job on a building site, the chances are the foreman would point you at a wheelbarrow and tell you to get on with it. You didn’t have to fill out an application form and tell him what you aimed to be doing in five years’ time. Nor would he have regaled you with Murphy & Co.’s “mission statement.” So believe me if I say that “It’s Your Money In My Pocket, Dear, Not Mine In Yours” found its way to a publisher via someone Peter met in a pub (he has no recollection of the encounter) who knew someone who knew someone who was starting up a publishing company.

That company turned out to be Quartet, under the aegis of former Panther Books execs William Miller and John Boothe. By modern standards, their taking us on was amazingly straightforward – they called us in, offered us cups of tea and said “we like it and we’re going to publish it.” No wading through layers of minions, no major re-writes… and they even offered a decent advance. (Belated thanks to them – sadly, William died in 2009, after a later career spent largely in Japan.)

And so it was, in 1973, that we found ourselves among the first releases of the new company, which was shortly to achieve a degree of notoriety with the publication of the frank – for then – Joy of Sex. We got a raft of good reviews from papers like The Times and the Manchester Evening News, and even did a radio interview along with the Chairman of the Soho Society. For a nanosecond we thought we had it made when legendary film director Joseph Losey showed an interest.

In the end, Losey passed – although we did get an offer from another, less distinguished, film mogul, who wanted to parcel up options into such small bits, spread over so many years, that we’d have been lucky to afford a packet of Woodbines with each payment. The fact that the address of his company was something like ‘Behind the Lockups, Balls Pond Road’ was also a clue that he was no David Lean in the making.

What the publication of “It’s Your Money” actually led to was one more book, “Engulfed In A Tide Of Filth” (also available on Kindle) before Quartet was taken over, becoming a respected but less radical outfit than the one that Willie and John had set up. There was apparently no room for snarky, smutty comic fiction under the new regime, and our joint book output was put on hold until the publication of our bio of Keith Moon, “Moon The Loon” (“Full Moon” in the US) in 1981. In fact we seem to have been air-brushed, Soviet-style, from Quartet’s official history – the company can apparently find no mention of us or our books in the company’s records.

So, almost forty years after its original publication, how does “It’s Your Money” stand up? Well, obviously it’s a period piece. It’s set in a world where stereo speakers were a bit of a novelty, computers were confined to James Bond films, and the idea of mobile phones was too wild even for science fiction. Flying cars, yes. Phones you can carry around? Much too far-fetched…

By the same token, Soho was a far cry from being the stamping ground of ad men, designers and video directors that it is today. In those days, not long after the gang wars of the fifties and sixties, it was a proper red light district, chock-full of strip clubs, clip joints, peep shows and business girls. Not to say that anything would happen to you if you took an evening stroll around Old Compton Street or Wardour Street, but you had to keep your wits about you – even if you were bent on legitimate pleasure, heading for Ronnie Scott’s, The Flamingo or any of another half-dozen music hotspots.

The strip joint that “It’s Your Money’s” Le Can-Can is based on was one of the classier establishments – which means to say that it featured sets, costumes, even a choreographer. It’s a tribute to the phlegm of the girls that not only did they have to hurtle back and forth across Soho to slot into the schedules of the clubs – which only employed a few dozen girls between them – they might have to get ‘em off whilst pretending to be Sleeping Beauty, Marie-Antoinette or Titilayo the African Princess and lip-synching to Petula Clark.

The punters didn’t care about any of that, of course, as long as they got an eyeful of what they’d paid to see. Not a huge amount, either – 50p if I remember rightly, and for that you could stay as long as you liked. We had one old gent, ex-army, who’d come in at 12 noon and stay until midnight, sustaining himself with egg sandwiches and leaving his seat only for toilet breaks. I had to sort out a terrible pensioner stand-off when another ancient punter took his place while he was doing his ablutions.

So yes, the book is set in a different, long-vanished world. Almost all of the ‘live show’ strip clubs are gone. For better or ill, Soho is now a lighter, brighter, more bushy-tailed kind of place, where you’d be happy to take your spouse – or your children – for dinner. Inevitably, because it’s a period piece, the book has dated here and there. Writing it now, we’d probably do some things differently, but not too many – and indeed, we’ve taken a more modern perspective on the place and period in our recent film and TV screenplays entitled “Flash Chord.”

All that remains to say is that I hope you enjoy reading “It’s Your Money” as much as Peter and I enjoyed writing it all those years ago. Welcome to Le Can-Can!

Chris Trengove, July 2011

Written by Chris Trengove

October 8, 2011 at 11:27 am