Monday, 22 December 2014

Season's Greetings From Elvis

If like me, you’re an Elvis fan, and have a copy of the new expanded two-disc edition of Elvis's original 1957 Christmas Album (released by the One label), and are wondering about the story behind the Special Christmas Program on the bonus disc, here is some info about it...  

The program was first announced in Billboard on 2 December 1967, just one day in advance of the broadcast the following day. It was broadcast by 2000 radio stations in the U.S under the title of Season’s Greetings From Elvis.  Most of the radio stations that took part had received their special program kits a month earlier, which contained a sealed 7 1/2 - i.p.s reel-to-reel tape in a box with a four-page booklet featuring the complete script, and a separate copy of Elvis’s then latest Christmas single, If Everyday Was Like Christmas. The half-hour programme, presented for the holiday season in association with RCA Victor Records and Colonel Tom Parker’s All Star Shows, included Elvis’s new single, plus nine other selections from his original 1957 Christmas album and the two sacred albums, His Hand In Mine and How Great Thou Art. As a bonus to the radio stations carrying the program, RCA also handed out copies of Elvis’s complete record and 8-track tape cartridge catalogs, 100 x Elvis Christmas cards, 50 x 1968 Presley calendars, and a package of Christmas seals and handbills. In addition to the program, RCA also mailed out four-colour posters and ad mats to record stores for local tie-ins by dealers and radio stations.

Overall it seemed like nothing more than a massive promo stunt to push Elvis's new Christmas release. After all, there was nothing particularly special about the contents, which in hindsight consisted of several old Elvis Christmas and Gospel songs, spiced up with a brief seasonal greeting from the King on the beginning of I'll Be Home For Christmas, that was strangely enough, later placed on top of Silent Night on a couple of Christmas compilations in 1982 and 1994, on which the beginning music of I'll Be Home For Christmas, and not Silent Night, can still be heard in the background as Elvis wishes listeners a merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year. But the program became so rare that it prompted some collectors to think that it was only officially produced as a reel-to-reel tape, despite there being some produced as vinyl albums. As Mark Paytress noted in his December 1994 Record Collector article, Christmas With Elvis, when RCA distributed the radio special, they probably had no idea that collectors, all these years later, would pay a four-figure sum for copies, with script and programming information intact, even though it had appeared for a time as a 10-inch bootleg!

In some quarters, it is said that the concept for Season's Greetings From Elvis was what the Colonel had in mind for Elvis's Christmas television special that aired exactly one year after the radio special. And that is probably true. As far as I can work out, the new expanded Christmas Album is the first time it has been released on CD. And although, it may appear to be pretty lame today, it is always good to be treated to something that some of us have never heard before, and despite it missing the inclusion of If Every Day Was Like Christmas and How Great Thou Art, it is still good to have and hear after all these years.  

As a guide for those wishing to compare the One label version with the original broadcast, according to the script in the booklet that accompanied the tape, the original programming ran as follows: Intro: Here Comes Santa Claus/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/Here Comes Santa Claus/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/Blue Christmas/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/O Little Town of Bethlehem/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/Mr. Robertson/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/Silent Night/I'll Be Home for Christmas/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/I Believe/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/If Every Day Was Like Christmas/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/How Great Thou Art/His Hand In Mine/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/Background Music: I'll Be Home For Christmas/Announcer (Buzz Benson)/Elvis: Special Christmas Message/I'll Be Home for Christmas/Announcer (Buzz Benson).

Monday, 28 July 2014

Before Instagram

Before Instagram became the  latest way to share photos, there were Polaroids, which were only shared with friends and family, so you can probably imagine how excited I was to discover the ones of Winona Ryder I was alerted to recently. They were all taken during the late 1990s and early 2000s. The first one I found was a test shot for W magazine, which was taken by Sofia Coppola in early 2002! As many film buffs and Winona fans will know, Sofia took over Winona's role of Al Pacino's daughter in The Godfather Part III when Winona  feel ill on the first day of shooting in Rome, collapsed in her hotel room, and had to drop out of the movie.

Although Polaroids now seem a thing of the past,  in their day they were the best way to shoot an instant photo that were ready within minutes. The joy of them was that you didn't have to take your negatives to the chemist for developing or run the risk of having your pictures seen by everyone at your local pharmacy, or have them laugh or gawk at the shots you were embarrassed about. In those days, before digital cameras liberated our need to share instant pictures, taking a picture was much more of a private affair. 

Like the Polaroids that Robert Rich took, they were seen only on the walls of his office. Robert was the manager of the Marc Jacobs store on Mercer Street in 
New York, and Sofia Coppola spent what felt like a good part of the late ’90s and early 2000s there in his basement office. On the W magazine Tumblr page Sofia recounts of how it was back then. "Instead of stepping into the luxurious dressing rooms, actresses, models, and special clients tried on clothes and posed in Robert’s crowded space behind the stockroom, which was covered in Polaroids and pages torn from magazines. Winona Ryder and Lil’ Kim donned court and premier outfits, Kate Moss undressed, Selma Blair pouted. Robert gave Sofia a framed photo of Bill Murray when she was trying to meet the actor for a movie she wanted to make. We spent hours hanging out, dressing up, and posing for him, when there was nowhere else we’d have rather been, and we didn’t have as much to do." After years had passed, Robert let Sofia  go through a box of his photos 
and remember that moment in time. She recently posted a number of those Polaroids online for all to see.

You can see the photos here

Monday, 21 July 2014

Ten Out of Twenty

When you are considering buying a book, are you one of those people that always takes it off the shelf and reads the first paragraph to get an inkling as to whether you'll like it or not? I certainly am - and as a writer, I most certainly like to write an opening that will give browsers that same kind of inkling. So, as a celebration of the first paragraph and to celebrate writing 20 books and 20 first paragraphs, here are my opening ones from ten of my biographies...

It’s twenty past three in the morning, and Kylie Minogue is crying. She is tired. And all she wants to do is go to bed and sleep. She tried earlier, about an hour or so before but her mind was racing. Now she’s up, out of bed and in the kitchen of the pad she once shared with a girlfriend, not far from Parlophone, the record label she is currently signed to. The same one the Beatles made so famous. She flicks through the newspaper on the table until she calms down and can go back to bed.

Backstage at the Dorothy Chandlier Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, March 1996, Winona Ryder is still shaking from her walk along the red carpet near where the crowds have been gathering since dawn for a place close to their idols on the most important date of Hollywood’s glamorous calendar. For the last hour or so, the stars have been arriving for the 69th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. Goldie Hawn had told her how to handle that sort of crowd, ‘Turn your head and smile, but don’t stop.’

There are times in everybody’s life when, suddenly and inexplicably,everything seems to go wrong. As Demi Moore neared her thirty-sixth birthday, she was closer to that state than she had ever felt before. She kept on going, simply because she didn’t know what else to do. But other people might have preferred to have a breakdown.

Saturday, 22 January 2005 was Christian Slater’s last night as Randle P McMurphy. It was the night that followed a supposed (and later denied) knife attack on Christian outside the stage door and was a typically cold winter’s day in London. Although by evening the temperature had dropped below zero, the chill didn’t stop anyone from turning out to see Christian’s final performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Gielgud Theatre in the heart of London’s West End.

Fearne Marie Cotton was fifteen years old. She had just won an audition to be a presenter for the Disney Channel in a national search for talent. Not that she had any intention of becoming a presenter; she had always had her mind set on being an actress. And that, to all intents and purposes, is the role she thought she was auditioning for. It had been her dream for the last ten years, ever since she started taking drama and ballet lessons, in and out of school.

Ray Winstone is gutted. It was 1 July 2006, the day England blew their chance to win the World Cup, and, like every other supporter, he couldn’t get over how on earth they had been knocked out of the most important football competition of all. Was it really possible that England, the favourite team to win in many people’s eyes, had just lost out to Portugal in the quarter-finals with a 3–1 defeat in a simple penalty shootout? It seemed it was.

David Tennant is heartbroken. It was Sunday, 15 July 2007, and he was heartbroken. He had just watched his mother, Helen MacDonald, pass away from cancer of the colon after five years of battling the terminal illness. For an entire week, work on the Doctor Who Christmas episode had been suspended while he returned to his native Scotland to be with his family and to attend his mother’s funeral in Paisley, Renfrewshire.

Davina McCall was 15 years old when she turned up at school wearing black leather trousers and a T-shirt ripped across the waist. She had dyed her hair aubergine and was wearing Gothic make-up. It was ‘mufti day’ at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, West London, and, while most girls came dressed like Bananarama wannabes in ra-ra skirts and legwarmers, Davina went punk.

Benedict Cumberbatch is about to be executed. Kneeling on the ground with a duvet over his head and his hands tied with shoelaces, the actor is now in the classic execution position as he awaits the gunshot that will end his life. It would take Benedict another five years before he could recount the story of that dreadful night when three gunmen took him hostage.

Outside the home of his publicist one cool Sunday evening, in February 1997, Johnny Depp is on his best behaviour. He looks like a kid dressed up to meet his girlfriend’s parents. A dark blue sports coat, grey polo shirt, tan pin-striped trousers, and black lace-up shoes. His famously long, tousled hair has been shorn into a Fifties-style buzz cut and he is all charm.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Man Who Sold The World

Every time I have a new book out, I am always asked if I have a favourite passage and what is it. This is my favourite excerpt from my biography of Benedict Cumberbatch, it comes from the latter stages of the final chapter, The Man Who Sold The World (named after the working title of The Fifth Estate) - and if you love Sherlock, then hopefully you will enjoy this...

On a stormy and bleak New Year’s Day in 2014, Benedict was back on the small screen for the third series of Sherlock after a two-year absence. The new episodes completely outshone any previous episodes and the series became the most watched non Doctor Who drama on British television since 2002. It knocked the ratings for Call the Midwife and Hayley’s departure from Coronation Street for six, with more than nine million people tuning into watch it on the night, and another three million watching it on catch-up TV. No previous episode could match that. It was another four million up from the last series opener A Scandal in Belgravia. Everyone was thrilled. ‘When we began Sherlock, and it was an instant hit, we thought it couldn’t get better,’ raved producer Sue Vertue. ‘But each series has outdone the last and this is our biggest rating yet. Trying to believe this is really happening is a job in itself!’

Unsurprisingly, the first episode was the most anticipated episode in the history of the entire programme. It had been two years since Sherlock had apparently leapt to his death in The Reichenbach Fall at the end of series two, and then showed up at his own graveside to catch Watson and Mrs Hudson grieving for the man who had changed both their lives. Now, two years on, it seemed everyone in the world wanted to know how he survived the jump. The producers were so keen to keep the secret that pages explaining how he pulled off his vanishing trick were blanked out in some copies of the script to protect any leaks. This is not surprising when you consider that, whilst still in pre-production, The Empty Hearse was said to have 13 different possibilities to explain Sherlock’s survival, although only three would actually end up in the show. We had TV illusionist Derren Brown putting Watson under his spell for the few crucial moments that allowed Sherlock’s helpers to position Moriarty’s body on the pavement in Sherlock’s place as Sherlock burst through a dow where mortuary registrar Molly Hooper stood waiting, Moriarty and Holmes faking the whole thing in order to get rid of Watson and finally, Mycroft and Shelock’s network of homeless individuals faking Sherlock’s death to save his friends.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also witnessed Sherlock being interrogated in a room in Serbia, getting rescued by brother Mycroft, winging his way back to London to prevent a terrorist attack, being reunited with a livid Watson and meeting Watson’s bride-to-be, Mary Morstan, played by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington. It was, raved most critics, a triumphant return for the most charismatic and fun character on British television. As Sheryl Garrett pointed out in her January 2014 article in the Telegraph, filming the episode was not without its problems. It was a grey, rainy day in April 2013, when Benedict climbed on to the roof of Barts Hospital in London, and jumped off. He had done this before, of course, two years before. Even the red phone box outside the hospital was still covered in tributes, mourning his character’s fictitious death. Between takes, Benedict had an umbrella to stop him getting too wet in case it ruined the shot, which resulted in a string of predictable ‘Sherlock Poppins’ headlines when the photo appeared in the tabloids the next day.

The constant scrutiny took its toll on Benedict. ‘It means you can have a lot less fun on location,’ confirms Benedict. ‘Before, I might have pretended to swim while I was hanging up there, or played about more between takes, but now you’re very aware that you’re always being watched.’ Normally at a shoot like this, there will be a few bystanders, people who happen to walk by and are curious to see what is going on but, wrote Garrett, ‘the second day at Barts is gloriously sunny, and as well as the paparazzi, there are about 300 fans making a day of it, standing behind crash barriers and watching avidly.’ This was despite the fact that, for much of the time, the most interesting thing to see was crew members hosing down pavements so that they would appear to be as wet as they did the day before. According to Garrett, the crowed were ‘too far back to hear any dialogue, but this still feels like street theatre” and when Darren Brown appeared, there was “an audible intake of breath.’

Of course, pictures of all of this appeared almost immediately on social media sites, along with the usual speculation about what their significance was. Sue Vertue had the job of monitoring the fans and asking them not to give anything away. For the most part, says Vertue, ‘they’re terribly charming and polite and self-policing.’ Amongst the fans, there were groups from China, the US and Japan who had timed their visits to London to match the shooting schedule for Sherlock. Once again, the third series was as short and sweet as the first and second with just three episodes. But perhaps that is the secret success of the show, to limit viewers to just three episodes per series. The second of the 90-minute episodes, The Sign of Three, was quite different to past episodes and took the show off in a completely new direction. Even if it wasn’t regarded as the strongest story of the series, it was an ideal opportunity to mix comedy with drama around the centrepiece of John and Mary’s wedding and to move away from the usual open and shut case that viewers had come to expect. While this one didn’t follow-up on the brief glimpse of new baddie Charles Augustus Magnussen at the end of The Empty Hearse, viewers were treated to some superb character pieces with the focus clearly on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, setting up what promised to be a grand finale.

While Sherlock doesn’t understand the significance of marriage, he is supportive, and determined to be an exemplary best man. There is no plotting to sabotage proceedings despite the fact that a longing glance at Watson’s empty chair in their Baker Street flat tells us all we need to know about how he feels. The wedding itself is skipped over entirely and we see no shenanigans, lost rings or unexpected problems which threaten to derail the proceedings. The episode did away with any and all the familiar wedding cliches, although we do get to enjoy a closer look at how Sherlock went about ensuring that nothing went wrong by threatening an ex and bribing a child with pictures of dead bodies! As Neela Debnath noted in her review in the Independent that January, ‘The Sign of Three was packed to the rafters with wit and comedy. There was plenty to leave viewers howling with laughter, mainly thanks to Sherlock’s general apathy towards humankind, which despite his revulsion to any sort of sentiment or nostalgia, his best man speech was, at times, quite touching as he revealed just how much John means to him.’ Certainly, continued, Debnath, ‘This is the most we have seen the pair express their feelings for one another, usually they are too busy saving the day to let something as trivial as emotion get in the way.’

The final episode of the series, His Last Vow, was seen in the UK on the same weekend that the news had started to be dominated by stories of wretched weather and the misery that was beginning to be inflicted across the country by the torrential downpour of rain and resulting floods. Although it didn’t quite pull in the same number of viewers as the first two episodes, it did become the most tweeted about single episode on Twitter, and even if it should have been just what the doctor ordered to cheer the nation up on a wet and windy Sunday evening, many thought the show had lost its way and had strayed too far from its original formula. As some correctly noted, viewers should not have to concentrate too hard to enjoy Sherlock.

To others though, The Last Vow, was in many ways, the best episode of Sherlock so far, as it offered a greater insight into Sherlock and Watson than ever before. According to a review in the Mirror, if anything, the episode focussed on the relationships between its characters and even introduced us to Sherlock’s parents, played by Benedict’s real-life mum and dad. ‘With some amazing visual sequences, a number of clever twists, a truly detestable villain and a strong story, [that led Sherlock into a long conflict with the Napoleon of blackmail, and the one man he truly hates], Sherlock continues to show why it is simply one of the greatest TV shows of all time.’ In one of those twists, after the end credits had finished rolling, viewers were treated to an extraordinary hallucinatory scene in which a video message is being played over again on every TV screen across the country. ‘Did you miss me?’ asks a straight-jacketed Moriarty as if announcing his return from the grave. It was the perfect climatic surprise to end the series with, and an equally perfect reminder, that yes, Sherlock would be back.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My Story of the Essoldo

Because I dedicated my biography of screen hardman Ray Wintsone to my childhood mentor, Nellie Mercer, of the Essoldo Cinema in Tunbridge Wells, I often get asked about it and why and how she instilled in me a true love and affection for film and cinema. I first met Nellie when I was about 13 and had popped into the Essoldo on my way home from school one afternoon to try and get a lobby card from the film that was coming to the theatre the following week - Elvis's Girls! Girls! Girls! The poster and lobby cards were already on display in the foyer, and it was when I was about to slip one of the lobby cards out of its frame that a disgruntled voice from behind me asked me what I was doing! That voice was Nellie!

Although she appeared somewhat grumpy at first, when I told her I was an Elvis fan and had come to look at the posters and lobby cards, her  fierceness quickly disappeared. She was standing on the left hand side of the foyer by the door to the room where she kept most of her cleaning equipment along with dozens of quad posters, lobby cards and other film promotional materials. It was like stepping into an Aladdin's cave of cinema treasures. Nellie, probably in her sixties at that time, looked liked you would expect a cleaning lady to look, with a typical patterned overall and a head scarf that was common for the period. At the time I had no idea that we would become good friends, and would remain so for the next four years until I moved with my family south to Glynde. In the years that I dropped into see Nellie at the cinema after school, usually 3 times a week, she would give me an array posters, press campaign books, hanging cards (that advertised the week's film) and dozens of lobby cards, all of which were usually meant to be returned to the exhibitors offices after the film had finished its run, and whereas some did go back, a lot of them ended up in my private collection. Almost every week she gave me a handful of lobby cards and quad posters to take home. She also gave me her weekly complimentary staff ticket so I could go and see the movie that was showing that week as long as she considered it was a film suitable for me to see.

On other occasions, we went to the restaurant above the cinema, which in the days before we moved to Tunbridge Wells, when the cinema was a Ritz, was the Florida Restaurant - where David Bowie's parents were said to have met each other - and where Nellie invariably treated me to a milkshake during her coffee break. In my day, it was simply known as the Essoldo Restaurant, and was open from 10am to 8pm for morning coffee, luncheon, tea or supper every day except Sunday. It was decorated with framed giant sized publicity pictures of movie stars, including one of Elvis, which Nellie said she would one day get for me, and although she never did, she gave me loads of other goodies that I never dreamed of having. She was such a generous, sweet lady, who simply wanted me to have and enjoy the thing I loved most, which at that time, was anything to do with movies, cinema and Elvis! Our conversations were mostly about films and cinemas, and how things, even then, had changed over the last decade. I discovered and learnt so much about the history of cinema, movies and movie stars - old and new. Nellie always told me how each film, every week, was doing at the box-office and how cinemagoers were reacting to them. It really was my education, more so than anything I was meant to be learning at school. It was an incredible way to spend three after-school afternoons each week, and an incredible way to grow up, albeit briefly for four years or so, during my teen years.

There was such a different atmosphere about going to the movies in the 60s. My most memorable recollections are when Elvis's Kid Galahad and the third James Bond film Goldfinger were showing. We had to queue for both films before the doors opened, and the line stretched halfway down the distance of Mount Pleasant towards the railway station. Once inside the cinema, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. We sat through the black-and-white B-Film, British Movietone News, the Pearl & Dean adverts, the trailer for next week's film and an intermission before we got to the main features. For Elvis, there was the usual hysteria of teenage girls yelling, screaming and applauding every time he was on screen, and for Goldfinger, it was so popular, the cinema crammed in as many people as they could, and even allowed people to sit in the aisles, which would be unheard of today, and probably be considered a health and safety hazard.

Prices of admission ranged from 1/9d and 2/6d for a seat in the stalls to 3/6d in the circle upstairs, which today is equivalent to about 17p! I can't remember if we thought that was expensive at the  time, we probably did, but compared to going to see a movie today, we got a lot more for our money back then; two movies, cartoons, Movietone News and sexy looking girls selling ice creams in the intermission. I remember choc ices were always a popular choice! The Essoldo held about 1600 people, had four projectionists, a restaurant, a stunningly polished foyer and was described as one of the most luxurious cinemas in Kent. The films were usually shown for just one week with continuous performances but for the epic movies like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, there were two separate performances daily, and it would usually end up with an extended run of two weeks. In those days, of course, we didn't give it much thought, it was just the best cinema in town we went to for an afternoon or evening at the pictures. For me it became the place that still holds some of my fondest memories of my teenage years, and growing up in Tunbridge Wells, not only for the films I was fortunate enough to see, but also for being privy to some of the things that went on  behind-the-scenes of running a cinema, and of course, the fabulous posters and lobby cards I collected from my friendship with Nellie. I can't remember exactly what happened to them all, or how they got lost, but I am guessing they probably got left behind when we moved to Sussex.

The Essoldo also became notorious for the pop shows that visited the town. Stars like Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and Joe Brown all appeared on the stage for one night only when the live shows replaced the film. It was also where Dusty Springfield gave her debut performance when she went solo after leaving The Springfields. Usually there were two performances at 6.20 and 8.30pm and the ticket prices were a great deal more than the regular price for films. I saw a great number of classic films at the cinema, which without Nellie's kindness of giving me her ticket each week, I would not have seen. And of course, I never missed an Elvis film, which were hugely popular in those days, right up to Harem Holiday in 1966, which was the last of the Elvis movies I saw at the Essoldo, after that, when the Elvis films started to lose their popularity, they were relegated to the other cinema in the town, the Opera House, which was nowhere near as luxurious as the Essoldo. Today the Opera House is a Wetherspoons eatery, and the building that once housed the original Essoldo auditorium, where I sat in the dark with so many others, to share and experience the magic of film and cinema, is sadly nothing more than a derelict and much vandalised site that still awaits demolition.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Fibro, Sex and a Bestseller - Part 2

Here is the second part of my article and interview with Sarah Darling, the author of Pure Filth...

Despite the difficulty of finding an agent, Sarah did get herself one, even if it was for only three weeks, but then, she laughs out loud, ‘he very politely dumped me. He explained that he thought the story was “far too explicit” for the main market but too good a story to be “lost” to erotica as he put it. He said he had no idea how to pitch it. And then came along 50 Shades which told me that the market did indeed want explicit and that the “main market” could cope with it. That’s why I titled it Pure Filth. I wanted to make it clear what the content was. What I understood from my research was that publishers have projects ready in advance to release over a period of time, and they all have different time scales to work to. I also understood that, yes, my book would be too explicit for some, so I attempted to tone the sex scenes down a little, but it didn’t feel like me, it didn’t feel quite right, and I wanted it to be true and honest, and that was what I was comfortable with.’ And so it seemed, did one of her six daughters. She read it through as if she was an editor, armed with a red pen and marked it up.

‘There were times she sat me down and said, “that was a pile of crap, you can write that again, only do a better job of it!” or “mum, that’s shit, start that paragraph again.” It sounds pretty brutal, but it really wasn’t. It was just the thing I needed to help me write in a much better way and indeed to find my style.’ 

At the beginning, before she had written a word, she went on a creative writing course but after three or four sessions she gave it up. ‘I thought it would help, but I felt the course I was on would stifle me and get in the way of my thoughts and of what I really wanted to say. The fact that I was a teacher I think was a big help as I was used to putting together lesson plans and prepping hand-outs. So I did have a structured way on how to deal with the book as a whole, and for each chapter within it. For example I would have the framework for the whole story and pad it out with other individual smaller storylines as I went. But when so much of it is true it’s more about remembering than making things up. I don’t have to worry about storylines and plots that say a thriller might have.’ 

For the first eighteen months, Sarah continues, ‘I had a blank page and a synopsis. This was a very important part of my writing although I hadn’t written a single word. I had to decide how I would portray characters, but the biggest struggle was how would I portray myself, how honest was I prepared to be? Having left full-time school at the age of twelve to work full-time (because my parents thought I should pay for my keep now that I was old enough!) I missed vital foundation blocks within my education. On top of that, my family had moved a great deal so I had already gone to eleven different schools by the age of twelve. The day of the National Curriculum hadn’t yet arrived so I read about the Romans in one school, and then again in the next, and the next and completely missed the Vikings. This also was the case for English, Maths and every other subject. So I couldn’t possibly write as people should - I simply didn’t know how. In saying that, I believe my weakness is also my strength as I throw away convention and write exactly as I feel. I write as I think or feel and my readers get it, maybe because I’m just Joe Blogs, Miss Ordinary, Miss Nobody and so is everyone else - or a good many at least. The other factor which plays a part I think, is that I read Military History almost every day of my life. It’s largely memoirs or war diaries. What interests me most is why did they do this rather than who did what, when and where, when it came to the battles... No! I am far more curious about how they felt about it, what impact did it have on them? Those are questions that I ask myself a lot about my own life, but I guess that’s the therapist in me.’ 

Sarah describes her book as sexual comedy that has an underlying story of change and sexual empowerment. Based on her own life, it is, she told me, about ninety-seven percent true. As with any novel names and certain places have been changed and the only character in the book with their real name is Sarah herself. ‘Every character is based on someone I know. Most of the storylines are also true, but for legal reasons, true identities had to be protected. When I have spoken to people at my book signings, many people have said that they have had very similar stories or situations in their own life, some of my reviews on Amazon also confirm that. I think that for today’s world, my story is that of many others.’ 

A few days after our interview, I call Sarah to talk about some things that we didn’t have time to discuss during the interview. She has just returned from a weekend of book signings in Bridgwater. Both were organised by Sarah herself. ‘They are quite involved to arrange, but I do enjoy them as they give me the opportunity to gauge a lot of feedback from readers, which is a great help to guide me in the right direction for my next book as I’m able to identify what readers like about my writing.’ The reaction, she says, has been tremendous. ‘I thought women of my age might be interested but I have found that men and women, of all ages and sexuality, are loving the book. A gay friend of mine was laughing all through a reading I did, and another gay friend said he felt he related to so much of it. Young women are enjoying it as much as older ones, I’m truly surprised but thrilled to bits. Again, it’s because of just how truthful it is. I think people can relate to it. At one of the earlier book signings it became clear to me that people are not just reading the book, but devouring it. One gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I just want to ask one question, how is your youngest girl as I’m very worried about her,’ he knew my book inside out. People don’t seem to read it passively. Another person, a man, bought if for a lady friend he had, who he thought was going through a similar circumstance that I depicted in the book, he was hoping she would have the strength to leave the situation because of it. I don’t know if she did. Someone else, a lady, came up to me at another book signing, she had already downloaded the book, she was on her own and quietly came up to me and said, she just wanted to say “thank you” for understanding her. She gave me a real hug and somehow I felt my book helped.’ 

As a film buff, and a biographer of movie stars, one of the things I was itching to know is which actress would Sarah have to play her on screen if her book ever gets turned into a film. She tells me Sandra Bullock. ‘In Miss Congeniality, she is both elegant and lovely and damn right clumsy - on a good day that’s me! I strive to be elegant but somehow I never quite pull it off, it’s not an act. The other day I was having a drink in Costa’s with a friend, all dressed-up in a pretty dress and wearing my lippy, when my mobile rang, as I went to answer, it slipped from my hand straight into my hot coffee. We then walked to my car for something, and the heel of one of my stilettos found the grill of the gutter and I went head first into the front of my car! That's daily life for me.’

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Fibro, Sex and a Bestseller

Are you one of those Kindle owners that browse Amazon and download a sample from a book to see if you are going to enjoy reading it, and then, if you do, download the entire book? Well, that's what happened when I came across Pure Filth by Sarah Darling. The reviews were mostly 5-star and each one of them raved about just how good it was! I read the first two chapters of the sample, and was immediately hooked. Once I started I couldn't put it down! It was one of the best books I had read in years - well constructed, written - and honest. After finishing it and feeling somewhat sad that I had, I found a page for the book on Facebook, messaged Sarah and ended up interviewing her, from which I wrote a sort of Vogue cover story type piece, which is currently doing the magazine rounds. But in case it never makes it into print, here is an excerpt...    
Sarah Darling is lying on the floor in a red bikini and matching red stilettos with ankle ties. Her legs are crossed and propped against the wall while she waits for the photographer to stop fiddling with her camera. It is late in the afternoon, and she has been at the tiny little photo studio in Southampton since lunchtime. She is now tired and is stretching out when the photographer tells her to hold that position and snaps her resting. Its the best shot of the day and absolutely perfect for the cover of her first novel, Pure Filth. ‘That photo really was an accident,’ she tells me when we talk about how and why her book has just taken off here and in America and is fast becoming the most talked about book since 50 Shades of Grey. It is the first in a three-part series, following Sarah’s journey from being an overweight, middle-aged and fed-up wife and sex therapist to a slim, divorced and sexually adventurous lady. It merges threads of Fifty Shades with Sex And The City and Shirley Valentine.

She continues to tell me about the photo shoot. ‘I went with a friend to have a girly photo shoot in a studio. We were asked to take several outfits and have different kinds of shots. I wanted to do a bikini shot so I took one along. I felt very awkward in some of the shots, you know, arms crossed and rather clumsy, it didn’t feel natural. It was only when the photographer had to do something with her camera and I had to wait a while she sorted it out that I felt a bit of a lumux and sat down to be more comfortable. Time went by and I got bored so I turned myself around and put my legs up against the wall and started to stretch out, yawn in fact, and that became the photo that you see on the book.’ 

What’s surprising about all of this is that Sarah has Fibromyalgia. Anyone who has the condition will know just how bad it is. It’s the sort of disorder that leaves its victims tired, exhausted, in pain, forgetful, have dietary issues, not have sleep for a few years, suffer with heat and cold sensitivity, and be in absolute ‘bloody’ agony in one spot that was fine before, but now has ‘the whole damn lot in one go, every day!’ As a sufferer myself and well aware of its effect on daily routines, I am still prompted to ask Sarah how, with fibro, she managed to write the book and do all the marketing and publicity that being a self-published author entails. ‘It was tough.’ she says. ‘The only good thing about it is that I can write as and when I like. I only have myself to answer to so that might also be a good thing about not having a publisher as the only deadline I have is whatever I choose to impose on myself. So if I can’t write one day, it’s not a problem and if I wish to write until four in the morning, it’s okay as I’m writing for me. Anyone who knows anything about Fibromyalgia knows that everything you do is painful and exhausting, so I frequently come away from typing with hands, finger, neck, back and everything else killing me!’ 

But that’s not the only reason it took ‘forever’ to write and publish the book. Sarah started putting pen to paper in 2002 while she was still going through some of the things that happen in the book. ‘Something would happen that would be so funny it seemed a shame almost to not write about it. Once that idea got into my head I found that when certain ‘adventures’ happened or a very comical incident or situation occurred, it became clear that there might be enough to write a book about it.’ The birth of the book, she tells me, really came about when she started to jot down notes to remind her what had happened to make her laugh or cry. ‘I wrote them on any bit of scrap I had to hand. I am still working through these scraps of paper, packs of receipts, and envelopes. It was important to make a note of everything because Fibromyalgia plays havoc with your memory, so it was just as well that I did write these notes. Sometimes the real life Annabel and I have chewed the cud on something that happened and she would say “Oh! Did you see the look on so-and-so’s face” or “Oh yes! And then...” which has indeed reminded me more fully. She told me that when she read the book it reminded her of some of the things that happened. She doesn’t think it was very different from how she remembered events other than when it’s obvious to her that something was changed for legal reasons, but she’s still recognized the situation.’

After finishing the manuscript eight years after she started, Sarah then spent another three years trying to get the book published. And that’s when she came across her first stumbling block. She discovered she wasn’t able to approach publishers directly as many of them didn’t accept unsolicited ideas or manuscripts unless it was submitted through an agent. Sarah went out and bought a copy of the Writer's Yearbook and worked her way through the agents listed, and also did some additional research online to find an agent that would be best suited to represent her book, but as any author will tell you, finding an agent is no easy task. Another hurdle that Sarah faced in trying to place her book was that some agents weren’t happy to look at her work if she was approaching other agents at the same time. And oh yes, most them were unlikely to respond much within three to six months. So Sarah followed the rules and faithfully followed each agents requirements and waited the time they asked for. ‘The rejections were always very polite but not always disheartening. Many would send the standard rejection but would biro in a comment such as “loved it, but not for us” or “please keep writing as I really enjoyed it but we are booked up for the next two years.” There was always a feeling of genuineness because somebody had bothered to encourage me to continue.’