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Saturday, 27 January 2018

Watching the Detectives

I’ve always wanted to write a detective story.

As a teenager I was obsessed with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, Sarah Paretski’s VI Warshawski books, Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (and his other books in fact), Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently and the 80s TV series Moonlighting.

This love of detectives and crime drama (shared at least in part by Rachael), and teenage desire to actually be a detective, has surfaced in a number of other projects. It is woven into the childhood dreams theme of Class of ’76. It surfaced in the Twitter #Clues Game – which drew on more recent TV crime drama, Agatha Christie and what we now recognise (and catalogue on Instagram) as ‘distractions’, in the street. It was addressed head on (in a more autobiographical way than I was expecting) in Playing Detective, the piece I wrote for Slung Low’s 15 Minutes Live.

With The Department of Distractions, we’re finally telling that detective story. It draws on those teenage detective obsessions, as well as more recent examples of the genre such as The Bridge and The Mysteries of Laura, and detective fiction by Kate Atkinson and Donna Leon amongst others.

But when Paula and the team originally asked me to write a detective story for them, it was Moonlighting I went back to as a format model. Re-watching it a couple of years ago it was fascinating to be reminded just how innovative a show it was in many ways (they did Atomic Shakespeare, Big Man On Mulberry Street and The Straight Poop in the same season), whilst occasionally feeling incredibly dated. But I enjoyed its knowingness in relation to form and genre, and the fun it had in breaking with expectations and realism. I enjoyed the double act of the two detectives. And of course I enjoyed how, like the best detective fiction, it uses the act of investigation to explore other issues and themes.

The cast of The Great Book Of Tiny Details (as that first, Brazilian, version was called), asked me for four possible plots for a detective story, with the intention that they would choose their preferred one. I gave them one story with four possible endings. This story sat alongside the text about The Department, which in turn contained several other stories nested within it. The two main stories connected in a couple of ways, but this was not made explicit – a bit like the connections between stories in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.


With The Department of Distractions, our aim has been to integrate the two stories much more closely. Now the detective story – The Case of the Missing Traffic and Travel Announcer – is one of the stories that The Department tells. Working with Rachael as co-director, and Stacey Sampson as dramaturg, I returned to the timeline of the detective story only to spot a couple of plot holes. Tightening these up has meant knock-on effects days/pages later. It’s been really rewarding getting to grips with the intricacies of the plot – and understanding what the story is about better because of it. Often writing this show I have had the sensation of realising that something has happened, or is going on, rather than inventing it.

We’ve been putting the whole show together in residency at Northern Stage this week. I’m really enjoying seeing the characters and their work environment come to life. What I’m particularly looking forward to is finding out how audiences make sense of the plot. If we’ve got the balance of mystery and explanation and revelation right. If they pick up on the clues and piece them together.

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Photos are of Umar Ahmed, Nick Chambers, Stacey Sampson and Rachael Walton in The Department’s office (in progress), designed by Bethany Wells, in rehearsal at Northern Stage, January 2018.

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