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A Talented Man... 

Charlot speaks to Stephen Bennett...

Sometimes in life, you meet an individual who seems to have more than their fair share of talent. When you do, your senses prick up as they're often inspiring. I was lucky enough to bump into one such character at Heffers Bookshop, in Cambridge, at an event way back when I first published POISON. Ever since then, I've been doubly lucky to call him my friend.

He's directed at the National Theatre, and at Shakespeare's Globe in London, is heavily involved in the Festival of New Writing at Downing College, Cambridge, as well as having written hundreds of episodes of TV. He's also an accomplished musician and painter! I wanted to introduce you to Stephen Bennett as I know his story will inspire you too. I thought what better way than in a Q&A. So please, meet Stephen...

Charlot: You worked at the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Can you tell us about that and about some of the plays were you involved with?

Stephen: Most of the time I was teaching acting and directing, as well as developing studio and touring productions. This was under Trevor Nunn at the NT and Mark Rylance at the Globe. During that time I did a version of the 'original' Henry V with Alan Davies at the George in Borough (which I think is on film somewhere), directed a kids’ production of 'The Tempest' with Jenny Agutter, all sorts of stuff. It was an incredibly supportive and productive environment to work in. Getting that buzz, energy, excitement (whatever it is) from working with a group of like-minded artists on a unique piece of theatre or music that you're going to be putting in front of an audience – and that will then, in most cases, disappear forever – is a tremendously rewarding and uplifting experience. At both places, you felt like you were part of something special – not always the case with television.
Charlot: You have written a lot, particularly for television. Can you tell us how you got into writing for TV and how much fun you had?

Stephen: I’ve written hundreds of television episodes; Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Holby City, Casualty, Peak Practice, Born and Bred, The Royal, Where The Heart is etc. Since then, I’ve done a few large-scale detective shows that were paid but never seen; a slightly odd feeling, that. Anyway, I was working at the above (Globe, NT) and was suddenly moved by the very un-artistic urge to actually earn some money. I had a friend who'd just written a film script, and he suggested I give it a go.

So I wrote a film for television – a 90-minute one-off romantic comedy (with music). It got me through a few doors (eventually), and I was picked up by an agent. Within a couple of months, I was writing on ‘London's Burning' – which I was hopeless at then, from there, straight on to ‘Coronation Street'. I was better at that – it was a world I grew up in. Was. These days, it's a world you wouldn't want to grow up in. Or stay in for half an hour, come to think of it. The soaps have changed beyond all recognition – and not for the better, in my opinion.

While I love the actual scriptwriting part – me in front of the computer, making stuff up – the rest of it can be a bit of a nightmare. Too stressful. And for every decent person you meet, there are a dozen career-building backstabbers (this from someone who’s had a mostly positive and successful experience).

Charlot: What is it like being a director and a writer. Does it make it easier to see stories from both sides?

Stephen: I think, in writing a script, you’re already directing it in your head, anyway. You’re seeing and framing the physical action in a scene as you write the dialogue. In directing someone else’s writing, you soon get a sense of how good that writer is by the ease with which the written script translates into movement and physical action. So much of the directing is already written into the best writing. Nobody does that better than Shakespeare. Though it's hidden (part of his genius – there are hardly any stage directions in Shakespeare's plays), his dialogue almost tells the actors where, when and how to move. It has to – they had very short rehearsal periods! 
Charlot: You also teach drama in Cambridge at Downing College. What would be the 3-5 tips you’d give any future actor, director and writer about breaking into the industry?

Stephen: I suppose I’m more of a guide/mentor, really. The students bring the energy/talent, and I provide the structure/organisation. Downing has a beautiful, purpose-built theatre and it’s a privilege to work in such a great space. Tips? Accept every job you can, no matter how insignificant it might seem at the time. There’s an old adage that you only get offered work when you’re working and I’ve found that to be pretty accurate. Beyond that, keep going and always turn up on time looking awake and engaged – not everyone does. For writers and directors, in particular, watch the work of the greats; Scorsese, Powell & Pressburger, Frank Capra, Aaron Sorkin, Billy Wilder – anyone you admire from any era. Then steal everything you can.
Stephen's painting of Downing College Library
Charlot: You also paint, and have produced paintings for Downing College. When did you first pick up a brush, and what medium do you most use and why?
 
Stephen: I paint detailed, naturalistic watercolours. Always have – much to the annoyance and frustration of my lecturers at art school in Manchester. I loved drawing as a kid and may have learned the basic rules of anatomy and perspective from Spiderman comics. I’ve done a couple of things for Downing that have actually sold quite well. I’ve done an awful lot more paintings that haven’t.
Stephen's painting of Alan Bennett
Charlot: You enjoy playing the guitar and have played some rather unusual ones. Can you tell us about that?

Stephen Bennett: I’ve been playing since I was about twelve and my love for just about any stringed-instrument going has led me to some interesting places. I've reviewed ‘high-end' guitars for a variety of magazines and met (in some cases befriended) a few of the world's leading luthiers. The weirdest-looking thing I own (or most beautiful, depending on your taste) is a harp-guitar made by Kathy Wingert in California, and I've played Pat Metheny’s 42-string, “Pikasso” guitar, made by my friend, Linda Manzer, but there’s no photographic evidence of that. Fortunately, there’s no sound evidence, either. I own far too many guitars. Or – again – not enough. Depending.
One of Stephen's guitars!
Charlot: What brings you the most joy and relaxation – writing, painting or music? If you could only take one to the desert island, which one would it be?

Stephen: Music, I think. Guitars would warp and break up on a desert island, but now they make brilliant, humidity-resistant, carbon-fibre ones, so that's the main problem solved. Plus I'd get loads of time to listen to my musical heroes – far too many to list  (though Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s Going On?” would be my Desert Island Disc).
Charlot: Have you read any good books lately?

Stephen: A brilliant history of America – in all its weirdness – called “Fantasyland” by Kurt Andersen. It helps explain some, if not all, of the current madness. My friend, Jim Kelly, has a new detective series set in wartime Cambridge – I learned loads about the city from the first one, “The Great Darkness”, apart from enjoying the usual engaging characters and watertight plotting. And I still love Tintin.
 
Charlot: Have you seen any good art lately?

Stephen: I’d like to go and see the Bonnard show at the Tate and saw the Whistler exhibition at the Fitzwilliam. He was a dodgy character, but he couldn’t half draw. Downing College has its own superb little gallery (the Heong) that’s featured some amazing work recently, especially by modern British artists like Terry Frost and Ben Nicholson. They had a fantastic Ai Wei Wei show not so long back. Quentin Blake's an alumnus, so there's always something going on with him (and/or his work). He’s a genius illustrator and a lovely man. Also, there’s a Barbara Hepworth sculpture just outside the room where I stay when I’m working there. That’d be a nice bonus in anyone’s garden, I think.
 
Charlot: What are you listening to at the moment? 

Stephen: I love the Milk Carton Kids. They’re Simon & Garfunkel with added guitar virtuosity so what’s not to like? And anything Chris Thile does, whether it’s solo, with Punch Brothers or in any number of collaborative projects. If Mozart were still around, he’d be jamming with Thile – or at least trying to keep up by writing impossibly-challenging mandolin scores. Chris would be unfazed as I suspect he, like Mozart, maybe from another planet. I seem to have a growing aversion to monotonous, bass-heavy noise and find actual tunes to be an increasingly rare commodity in ‘popular’ music but I did stumble on “The Lost Songs of St. Kilda” (which is, paradoxically, an instrumental album). There’s a great story behind it and the music – both solo piano and small orchestra - is sublime. 

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Thank you,
Love Charlot x
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