The annual Scriptwriting Awards, the ZeBBies, happened recently at Dublin’s Sugar Club. Named in honour of Western actor O.Z ‘Zebby’ Whitehead, a big supporter of Irish Theatre, the ZeBBies are now in their sixth year. A fun and funny night, it comprises of five awards for TV, Short Film, Theatre, Feature Film and Radio Drama.
Master of ceremonies for the night was, once again, Senator David Norris who remains as animated and as enthusiastic as he was at the first ZeBBies back in 2008. He is an authority on the history of the ZeBBies and he told me how they came about. “Well, they’re in memory of the late O.Z. Whitehead. He had a little money and, for thirty years, he very kindly sponsored an award for theatre. And after he died, the screenwriters’ guild (now the Writers Guild of Ireland) put together this prize.”
The Senator then went on to tell me how he continues to be impressed with the Irish writing and film-making communities. “The amount of talent in this country is quite amazing. With short films, there are 6000 world-wide; we contribute 250 of them which is absolutely disproportionate. It’s great to see the film industry developing again. An old friend of mine, the late Ciaran Hickey, a superb film maker and recognised all over the world, had to rely on Channel 4 and the BBC for funding as there was no film industry here at all.”
Senator Norris reminds me that there is a TV series currently being shot in Dublin.
“It’s about Jack the Ripper, so they had to dolly up North Great George’s Street, to put it back looking like a slum, which is enormous fun, considering how much time was spent bringing it back to life. But it’s good for the street and our wonderful chair-person Muireann Noonan has managed to extract a few bob from a film company. The filming has also helped us in that, as Dublin City Council sanctioned closing North Great George’s Street for the film, we persuaded them to sanction closing it again for Bloomsday.”
I asked the Senator what he makes of the ZeBBies Awards night.
“I think that they’ve done a really good job here – it’s not a fluffy old sentimental thing, it’s something that really goes to the core of celebrating the arts and celebrating the industries. And this evening is always immense fun. The fact that it’s live and things can go wrong and there’s a little bit of pantomime. They write a script for me, and I get it the day before or on the day so I improvise. There are wonderful things like they get me to die on stage, and it is just such fun.
‘And I thought it was lovely that we have representatives from the Painters and Carpenters Guild here, because their talent is so essential in terms of building sets, along with the electricians, cameramen, sound people – all absolutely essential.”
I took the opportunity to ask Senator Norris if the recession has had a detrimental effect on the film industry.
“Oh I’m afraid it must have. But there are still films being produced in this country and the most important thing is, despite the economic climate, we have the talent in all the areas. Look at our writers, look at our actors – they’re international stars. If you look at the Oscar nominations for actors and for short films, like that lovely one about the Book Of Kells that did so well. It’s just remarkable in such a competitive industry.”
I also managed to snatch some time with a few of the night’s winners. First up was Stuart Carolan, creator and writer of the crime-drama phenomenon Love/Hate. I asked Stuart if he found it a particular challenge to write the pinnacle 3rd season finale, the episode that took home the Best Television Script ZeBBy.
“No, it was the opposite,” he told me. “I wrote the sixth episode first and then wrote backwards. So I knew what was going to happen. What I often found is the first episode is often the hardest because it can go in so many ways but as the series goes on the options are just narrowed a bit more. But I generally know what the ending is.”
I’m always keen to ask TV and film-writers, especially series-creators, if what has ended up on screen came close to their vision.
“It was really great,” Stuart said, “it was perfect. One of the big things on Love/Hate is that I work very closely with David Caffrey, the director – we’re very good friends. The producers, Steve Matthews and Suzanne McAuley are great so we have this core team. It grew – a lot of the cast are working together for four years so we’re very very tight.
‘On those crucial final scenes, we had to film first thing in the morning so people wouldn’t be taking photographs on camera phones. And we had a final location that wasn’t overseen – logistically it was very tough. Also we had to pray that it didn’t rain. We filmed the whole scene, we had a camera on a crane and, at the end of it, after about an hour and a half, it started to rain. One of the big things is the crazy weather. Sometime you go out and it’s fine and then it hail-storms. A few times we’ve had situations where had to change location really quickly because of bad weather.”
This piqued my interest in this particular aspect of TV production and I asked Stuart to tell us more about what’s involved in picking locations.
“We try to pick particular locations as described in the script. There are a huge amount of locations, a huge amount of different scenes. So, logistically, it’s a massive beast. We had great location managers but it’s tough and they have to beg, borrow and steal. We owe a lot of people, regular people – we borrow their houses. For example, for Nidge’s house, we’ve been able to use the same house for four years because the man who gives us the house four the few days is kind enough to do that. It would be a headache if he turned around and said ‘I’m done with you this year’. We rely a lot on the goodness of the people who help us out.”
From the silver screen to radio and Christine Murphy, whose radio-play ‘Kicking The Air’, about a gay student from Iran facing deportation from the UK, picked up the ZeBBy for Radio Drama. I asked Christine how the play came to be. She explained, “I became interested in the case of a young Iranian, Reza Mostafai, who was going to be deported back to Iran. He was facing the death penalty if he went back home. I started to investigate this and found how the system fast-tracks gay asylum seekers out of the country, how nobody knows the names and they’re forgotten about. So I decided I wanted to write about that person. Someone I know put me in contact with a barrister who represents asylum seekers and we got together and discussed it. I realised that there was definitely a story that had to be told.”
I asked Christine if she wrote the play on her own or if it was a collaboration. She told me, “I wrote it on my own and sent it to the barrister. He corrected where I was going wrong, things that we wouldn’t know about. A lot of these things aren’t public knowledge so you’ve got to go to the source to find out exactly the truth of the matter, of what happens.”
I was keen to find out more about Christine’s writing background and if she has another radioplay in the pipeline.
“I have a companion piece to ‘Kicking the Air’,” she tells me. “While ‘Kicking the Air’ is about how do you prove your sexuality, the companion piece is about how to prove that you’re sane. Another difficult subject, especially if there’s a time frame, or you’re incarcerated in some way.
‘I’ve written mostly television. I’ve done Eastenders, Emmerdale, Doctors. I did a feature film called ‘Cupcake’, which was produced in Northern Ireland. I’ve done some theatre, but I found the best experience I’ve had was writing for radio. It was just amazing. I felt I had finally found my home.”
‘The Goddess of Liberty’, a play centred around the 1896 Alaskan Gold Rush, won the Best Theatre Script award for writer Karen Ardiff. She told me, “The first time I encountered the story was about 12 years ago, I was touring America as an actress; I was in California and I went into a second-hand store and came out with a book about Alaska, about the Klondike Gold Rush. Then, a couple of years later, my mum had a stroke and became silent. And the idea for the story came out of that. I was trying to write a story at the time and I was trying to think of a place that would be without sentimentality. Your humour, as in your mood, and also your sense of humour are different when you’re dealing with something like that. It’s less sentimental than everyday life. I tried to reflect the lack of sentimentality that you feel when you’re dealing with illness.”
I asked Karen if, given the play’s grounding in her own personal life, she found it therapeutic to write it.
“I don’t think it was therapeutic. The setting of the play, Alaska in 1896 during the Gold Rush, is a grasping place where you just have to survive and where there are imperatives present. That was what my experience of illness was. When you’re in the midst of it, what you want is some place where you can actually use your black humour, where you can talk frankly and without sentimentality. I just needed a little hook to place that on.”
Another brilliant night was enjoyed by all and, personally speaking, it was great to see so many people from the TV, Film and Theatre industries in attendance. And with the pizza laid on by Domino’s, there is little question that we starving writers will be back at the ZeBBies again next year.