Why did we ever come so far
Paul Buchanan’s voice delivered his own lyrics with a special quality which seemingly ranged from a resigned despair to a heartfelt celebration all in the space of a few lines..
One day this love will all blow over
Then came the line which in many ways changed my life and for which I can never be too grateful..
And hey, there’s a red car in the fountain.
The more I thought about this line and image, the more intrigued and puzzled I became by it. What was it about and what was it doing there? It didn’t seem connected to the song at all. No doubt the composer would have a straightforward explanation for it, something he’d observed or heard of. It may have been a mundane affair, an accident or an advertising stunt. I recalled a Conisborough garage from boyhood which always had a car on its roof. I loved to see it when we drove by and I always wondered how it got up there. But Buchanan’s motor may even have been a car of the hand, a child’s toy thrown or dropped into the water. Dinky or Matchbox or Corgi.
But what if it wasn’t so ordinary an event? What if it was a real headscratcher, a puzzle, a downright mystery indeed. After considering this for a while, the almost inevitable thought followed – why not take that unlikely possibility and use it as the basis for a story, a tall tale I could invent as I pleased? So it was that a serendipitous conversation in a pub metamorphosed into the second radio play I had been searching for.
But it is one thing to have an idea for a story and another thing to start it, shape it and build it. That’s called writing.
More often than not I start a piece from a title and feel at a loss from the outset if I don’t have one. It doesn’t matter what the form is, a play, a short story, a poem or a novel. A title I’m happy with helps to push the boat out, though in this case the boat had four wheels. So at least the start of my new project was easy as it couldn’t be called anything other than ‘A Red Car In The Fountain.’
I decided that my distinctly odd automobile would appear overnight and its impending arrival would be heralded by a city-wide power cut. The new morning would reveal the appearance of a red car in a very public fountain. Let the fun begin.
Naturally, a turn up for the books like this would clearly attract not only the attention of the local citizenry but also the incumbent authorities, especially the central copshop. Enter Inspector George Wright, a man for whom the world holds no insoluble problems - ‘Things happen and they can all be traced back to something.’ Enter Mary Wright, George’s wife, a woman who is waiting ‘for something incredible to happen.’ Clearly a conflict of marital proportions is on the cards.
As the narrative developed and the car in question displayed no signs of normality whatsoever, infuriating the logic-laden Inspector, I was inevitably faced with the big question, how would it all end? I could play safe and hedge my bets between George and Mary, leave it unresolved and hanging in the air, let nothing happen. Or I could go for broke and deliver on the prospects the strange contraption seemed to promise. For better or worse, that is what I decided to do, looking back to historical events in a very different time and place.
Whilst holding no formal or informal religious faith myself, I had long been intrigued by the story of the Marian visions of three young shepherds in Portugal in 1917. This culminated in a well documented and widely observed ‘solar’ spectacle which defied and shattered the laws of the physical world as we know and understand it. Many tens of thousands of people, believers and sceptics and scoffers alike, witnessed ‘the miracle of the sun,’ a collective experience which lasted up to ten minutes. Clearly, the real sun could not have behaved as the multitudes reported, but some phenomenal event occurred in the sky right above them.
Exactly what happened in the fields of Cova da Iria on October 13th, 1917, is lost to us now. Was it exactly as it seemed? Was it mass delusion based on months of expectation? Was it the greatest UFO sighting in history? Only the social story and the photographs of the crowd remain. But it is a great story and one which provided the denouement of A Red Car In The Fountain.
The producer, Andy Jordan (see Producers section of this site), called it ‘an urban Spielberg,’ though his films had never figured in my thoughts during the writing process. It was only a few years ago that it occurred to me that it was more like a very British X-Files, with George as Scully, the sceptic, and Mary as Mulder, the believer. But I had started the play in 1989, several years before that landmark series entered the public psyche, so I can quietly claim to have created the formula first. Not that it caught on. The piece went largely unnoticed by the media and the masses. It was, after all, just an afternoon radio play, not a big screen blockbuster.
The only audience feedback I got from the eventual broadcast was that I should be hung from the nearest yardarm for inflicting such dangerous nonsense on the international airwaves. I never imagined my little play would invoke such a strong response in anyone. It was never my intention to undermine a rational view of the world, only to beg a simple question: Even if Fatima really happened, even if an unworldy red car appeared in a public fountain overnight, what are those trifles compared to the phantasmagoria we see when we look out our windows in the morning, the everyday miracle we call the world.
Beyond the actual writing of the play, fond memories of it lie also in the production process. I was able to choose some music for it and not surprisingly turned to The Blue Nile. Some cast choices were also open to my suggestion and it was great to meet the late Diana Coupland and Christian Rodska. In ‘Bless This House’ and ‘Follyfoot,’ respectively, they had both been a part of my TV watching youth.
Beyond the broadcast there was a further sweet little twist. I had sent a copy of Red Car to Paul Buchanan, courtesy of his record company in Scotland. It seemed like a decent thing to do, given that he had unknowingly provided me with my first serious break in the writing business. I didn’t really expect a response, but a few weeks later I received a telephone call from north of the border. It was Jack Buchanan, Paul’s father. He thanked me for sending the copy and assured me it had reached his son. The singer was now living in Hollywood, he told me, with a famous and beautiful actress. I knew her name and face well and had to be impressed. She was gorgeous for sure. I asked if he had met her. ‘Aye,’ he said, with a father’s pride, ‘she’s a lovely lass.’
The whole thing seemed a hundred worlds away from the red-bricked Bristol terrace I was in, but it had a fateful ring to it. Paul had written a song about Tinseltown and I had written a radio play inspired by it. Now he was living there and had a copy of my play. How perfect was that? Not quite that perfect as it turned out. It was only a few years ago I realised that the Tinseltown of the song was not a reference to Oscarland but to the composer’s native Glasgow. That makes more sense and I really should have known.
Looking back now the whole venture seems blessed with a simple grace. How easy it all was. The writing was a stroll in the sun and the three day recording seemed like a gentle whisper of the promised land. In the studio, Dave Parkinson (grams), had told me ‘you’re in.’ This was a man who had demonstrated a better knowledge of my script than I had, so I thought he must know something I didn’t. All I had to do was write the plays and this kind of miracle would be repeated into my future. This writing lark wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought and I knew I could happily get used to it. But it never happened again.
It was a great and pleasant surprise to discover recently that A Red Car In The Fountain survives in a private collection. I am grateful to Nigel Deacon for archiving it.
Although there were no more plays I did have two short stories broadcast in 1997/8. I have recently recorded my own reading of one of them, The World Covered In Gold, and it is now on youtube. If you would like to hear this, and read the full text, along with some details of other works, please go to my page here.
Philip Corker/Diversity website
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