The Road to False Accounts - writing a dark satire on the biggest miscarriage of justice
This is my blog, so they tend to be long, if you want the short versions of my thoughts, just read my tweets. I do about 20 Tweets a year, and they're much shorter than this. But if you want to get to know me a little better, then read on. Lance Steen Anthony Nielsen July 2022
'At the turn of the new millennia, another new computer system called Horizon would be installed in every Post Office across the United Kingdom. Horizon was overdue, over budget, and full of bugs and many of the Subpostmasters did not welcome its arrival. But they had no choice but to give up the old way of doing things and embrace the new technology. So the scene was set for what would become the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history.'
The above quote is actually a section of text spoken by the character of 'The Narrator', a young woman who leads us into the story of my latest stageplay 'False Accounts'. This play is the latest work of The Outcasts Creative,
the actors' company Dickon Tolson and I set up in the summer of 2019. (See my previous blogs for a full account of how The Outcasts Creative came about) One tranche of the Creative was our commitment to do at least one play a year. (In lockdown we did 5 live online instead of just one on stage - a good compromise!)
The road that led me to do this play is rather a long and convoluted one but without the correct context, my motivations for doing what I do, would not be easily understood. And with more and more Subpostmasters following me on Twitter every day, I expect some of them are wondering who are these people and what is their take on our story going to be? And quite rightly so. I would be wondering exactly the same in your shoes. I've spoken to a small number of persons impacted by this scandal, but only at a time when I'd already been researching the story for some time and knew where I stood on the matter. I always like to know where I am heading when touching on narratives of this nature, then I can answer any questions because I already have a clear vision for the production. With my considerable background in tackling narrative topics with themes of social injustice, the desire to take on this subject was already there but ideally, I wanted to do it with the support of a major arts institution. I'd followed the story since the imprisonment of Subpostmaster Seema Misra, sensing from my previous experiences of working on similar narratives, that she'd been fed to the wolves. Reading between the lines, this assessment turned out to be far more accurate than I had fully anticipated. I thought the whole topic warranted further investigation and it was tabled as something for me to come back to at a later date. In 2010 I had just started writing a script for what would turn out to be an uber tiny independent feature film, called 'The Journey', and with my friend Jason Flemyng, I was exploring how to best get it made into a film. It took up the next four years of my life to make that movie and it appears to be taking the rest of my life to try and get it a decent release. All this while simultaneously prepping the world war 2 set epic, Pegasus Bridge, a film which, had it happened, would have taken my career (and others) to an entirely different level. Sadly, this project got into the hands of the wrong people, which entirely derailed its momentum and a ton of work in the process. In the tricky interim period, I turned my focus to novel writing, hoping to keep my head above water by other means. I'll admit I had little desire to return to stage work, as I had done so many well-intended pieces of drama in the past but rarely saw any real fruits from my labors. It was never about the money, but one does have to survive and lately, I've barely been doing that. It's hard for everyone right now, so only a crazy, stubborn creative person would take on such a project at a time like that. Enter Lance Steen Anthony Nielsen, stage left. Nearly all of my theatre projects had been undertaken without any proper funding and got on the stage more through sheer force of will, rather than with the appropriate levels of professional support in place which most Theatre Companies or directors would expect as the norm. (Especially these days) Nevertheless, I missed doing stage work, developing the characters with the actors, and the organic process of the rehearsal room. All the while, as I started my career as a novelist, more and more stories appeared in the press with ever-increasing regularity about the growing numbers involved in the Post Office Scandal. After the first Panorama (2015) program on the subject, I contemplated writing a two-handed stage show, set in a prison cell, with two women characters (one of a former Subpostmaster, the other a petty criminal, who'd been abused at the hands of the authorities) sharing their stories. The working title was 'False Imprisonment' It would be a simple play and easy to stage, yet somehow it felt inadequate in scale as the scope of the scandal continued to grow ever larger. However, with my Pegasus Bridge film appearing to be greenlit at the time, all my smaller projects, much to my regret, were shelved in favour of this potential big win for my career. By the end of 2017 however, the writing was on the wall for that project, so I was looking for other things in the interim. It felt like the right time to apply for a place on the writer's scheme at The Royal Court. Such a venue could really give a voice to such an important story, as they had done with HIV via The Normal Heart back in 1987. The sort of work I had tackled would fit right at home there and if I was going to take on the Post Office Scandal, I could think of no better place to stage it. Despite being reassured on the phone they welcomed applicants of all ages, and even with four amazing industry references, (including some of the actors who had performed there), I did not even make their shortlist for an interview. Thus at the end of 2018, despite valiant attempts to get different film projects off the ground, applying endlessly for funding, numerous grants, writing positions, and programs with prestigious theatres, all of these different endeavors were not successful. That is not to say the time was unproductive, but it was a very difficult period on many levels. At that time my 50th birthday was just a few short years away and there was a constant trend in the arts towards finding or funding the next new young thing. My small clusters of awards and relentless work ethic appeared now to count for little. I wondered exactly how many times I was supposed to prove myself in this business before someone was going to give me a real chance. It was becoming self-evident to me, that not only did I have the class element to deal with, within our industry (If you ain't at the top, you ain't getting in) I was now also on the wrong side of middle-age and just didn't tick the boxes that people were looking for on any given application. This was (and still is) frustrating on two levels. Firstly as a writer, I felt more competent to bash out a good screenplay or play, than I ever have. Something achieved through years of hard graft and honing my skill set in this regard, by actually doing it, not just talking about it or being given it on a plate. Secondly, while I'd had some excellent mentors, throughout my whole career I'd never been professionally backed, supported, or guided by such established pillars as The National Theatre, Royal Court, or Young Vic. I'd won some nice awards early in my career, but beyond that, such doors always appeared closed to me. Occasionally an outsider would get a hand up onto the wall above, but it felt as if I'd missed my chance after my extended time in hospital with a serious brain injury. By the time I felt confident to direct and write again, I was five years older and a little slower. Yet, I did not give up. The support that had been instrumental in my own small achievements thus far was primarily from the various fellow creative individuals who'd come on the journey with me and my projects at different times. Sure these were symbiotic relationships, but they still took a punt on me. These included all the crew who did the thankless tasks no one else wanted to undertake as well as all the actors who breathed life into the characters that inhabited my plays and indy film projects. To quote one actor I worked with three times 'You're a doer Lance, you get things done.' False Accounts will be my 15th play, I'd written 13 of my own and adapted another by 2018.
Normally when one reaches this upper-middle age in their career, one wants to give back to people, especially to those who have helped you along the way. You want to be able to ring up that actor who did you a solid once and say 'Hey, I've got a nice little paid gig for you...' (or even better, a big one) Oh, how I long for that to be the case one day and perhaps I will be in that situation sometime soon. Who knows? Not being able to do that for people, has been one of the most frustrating aspects of being an indy creative, at least so far in my career. This is one of the reasons why I have always gone out of my way to help people in the industry, in any small way I can. It's karma and I believe it will come back to me. The one thing I do have the power to do is choose which projects I take on and how I spend what time I have left on this little blue dot in the bit of space we all occupy.
(early concept poster for the original play planned for 2022, with the old title, it's now called 7 Magnificent Egos)
The original plan for 2020 / 2022 was to do a fun play about the making of the classic Hollywood Western, The Magnificent 7, in which the cast would play all seven actors, along with the producers, writers, director, and Mexican extras, and so on. I must admit, having worked the script over relentlessly in a lengthy development process, I was really looking forward to it. However, then the Post Office Scandal started to bust wide open, as did the pandemic that would grip the nation. During the lockdown, The Outcasts were more creative than we'd ever been, and we read a huge number of scripts online and I began writing at a relentless pace. When I get passionate about a topic, as I did with Hillsborough, Marchioness, Kent State, Bloody Sunday, and others, it's never a case of if, but when I will decide to do something about it. With the full depth of the scandal now so apparent it was time to refocus. If there was a time to do the play, I felt it should be now. The Magnificent 7 would have to wait. So, I find myself once again putting on a play about an extremely important topic, which requires a careful approach and a ton of research with bugger all funding. (We are actively seeking Angel Investors to back the show, so if you would like to, please get in touch) Once again, we are reliant on the goodwill of other creatives to say: 'Yeah, that sounds good, if the commitment is not unreasonable, I'll jump onboard'. I'm pleased to say, several very talented people have jumped on board, and I am working harder than ever to try and find a way for them to actually get paid for their efforts. In fact, more people wanted to do the play than we had parts available and for their commitment, I am very grateful.
So let's talk about the play itself. (I bet you were wondering when I would get there eh?) Recently several current and ex Subpostmasters have begun to follow me on Twitter and I also have been following several of those whose names came up in my own research. They must be wondering if I understand the huge responsibility that comes with such a story? Its complexity would be challenging to even the most experienced of playwrights. I do not underestimate this undertaking in the least, and I am also aware that the play will not be the type of narrative that everyone is looking for. From the moment The Outcasts Creative went public about our intentions to take on this topic my original plan was for the play to be called 'The Post Office Monologues' - I'd written already a rough outline of five-segment monologues, for six Subpostmasters, telling their journeys from taking over a rural Post Office, through to the stress of mysterious Horizon shortfalls, the humiliations of visits from auditing and security teams, through to prosecutions and in some cases, imprisonments, to the final road to justice and vindication in the courts.
There are, I understand, at least two television dramas in the works about this subject and I know they will give the narrative the wider forum it so richly deserves. So there was really no point trying to do in theatre what they would achieve on screen. This play has two different strands and one of those is satire. Satire is not a safe ground for me and a more traditional approach to a true story narrative was the norm in my previous work. It was, however self-evident fairly early on that this approach to the material would not work. It needed something else. This earlier incarnation of the play had none of the Subpostmasters I included based on any single individual. I felt it was better to base each character on amalgamations of two or three individuals so that a deeper cross-section of experiences could be told, and their stories became more recognisable to a wider cross-section of those hundreds involved. It also gave me greater freedom with the content. The portrayal of the Subpostmasters in the final play has not changed, although we really only get to meet five of them. (the sixth is a minor character) However, this dry singular approach to the story wasn't really working.
(Our original poster and title for the play which was changed early on)
This scandal was for all those involved, a long and difficult journey that left complete destruction in its wake. Some did not live to see the end of it. I've lost a lot of good friends in my time, many of them who went before their time, all who should be here now. I know about the deep loss and the damage their departure leaves behind all too well. Those lost to this tragic tale should also be here today, and they could have been, had it not been for the actions, or inactions of others - God, this alone made me so fucking angry. One of the problems is that this scandal is a tragedy of such epic proportions that at times it might feel to the lamen as almost unbelievable. You can shout the same message in a play again and again, from multiple perspectives but it doesn't always make it sink in any deeper. While choosing, rightly, to make the focus of the piece about the stories of the Subpostmasters, this did let the bad guys (and bad women) of the tale, off the hook rather easily. I speculated out loud 'If they're not portrayed we can't really show the blatant absurdity of it all and the atrocious behavior of the self-entitled, smug, self-assured, blind idiots that allowed it all to happen.' I am of course talking about the Post Office hierarchy, who after a period of what I can only call total stupidity, were finally in public at least, forced to admit they got it wrong, while still failing to give personal real heartfelt apologies for their own reckless and tragic decisions. Let's be honest, some of it was just a plain cover-up, because, in the words of the Rock Gods Genesis, they were 'in too deep'.
So, a fresh approach was required. The truth is this story is heavy and every element of it is truly horrible. Finding lighter moments in most dramatic narratives I've taken on, is normally not so difficult. But this was just so plain awful, my main concern was that the audience would leave the auditorium, wanting to forget about everything they'd seen as soon as possible. This is not what good theatre is supposed to achieve. Battering people over the head with a single message baton is far less effective than entertaining people and hitting them with the hardest message of all when they're not really ready for it. That is what I hope to achieve here. A good play has the after-show bar alive with chatter - debates going back and forth about the meaning of all that has been revealed and digested in the previous two hours is the primary goal of any such show. You want people to talk about it for days and ideally weeks to come. You want them to remember this experience and you want them to do their own research, and ideally discuss the topic again with others. That is the ultimate goal of any true story drama, to further spread your truth. False Accounts, as it is now so appropriately named would need a style of writing that I was not previously familiar with. Yes, I had written comedies, but a satire that would walk a comedy 'tight rope' akin to Spitting Image - that was completely new ground for me. You, the audience, and you, the Subpostmasters, who were so grievously wronged in this story, can tell me if this way of telling your story has achieved even a shadow of the justice that it deserves. Trust me when I say the humor that is included in the play is there to serve a purpose. It is not there to diminish the emotional hardship that any single Subpostmaster went through in this whole experience and I don't think it does that. It is there largely at the expense of those who didn't give a shit about your plight. Those who were happy to stick their heads in the sand, ignore the facts and close their ears to your crying voices. These are the same people who were happy to take their fat pay cheques and congratulate themselves on what a great job they were all doing while people's lives were destroyed by their brutal indifference.
Yeah - this makes me angry, it should make anyone angry. You see this story is about more than just the Post Office, it's about the core issue of human decency. It's about how those put in charge to steer the big ships that would line their pockets, and pay for their big houses in Suffolk and Bedfordshire, have no moral compass. One of those involved was a Priest of religious convictions, who absolutely should have known better, and yet even now, she is so self-deluded that she still thinks she did nothing wrong. Nothing was her fault, it was the fault of everyone else. Excuse my language, but fuck off. With great power comes great responsibility, and these people in POL were responsible and they did nothing to prevent what has become the biggest miscarriage of justice in British history. They need to go to prison, it's that simple.
Our play is small and I am sure it will be considered by many to be insignificant. But if just one Subpostmaster comes to see it and tells us we gave them a voice, then that is no small thing at all. Hope is all that some people have left these days. Hope is important. You can't put a price on that, which means the Post Office wouldn't have a clue what it means to someone.