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Confidencia: The Ben Richards Interview

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Andrew Stevens interviews Ben Richards for 3:AM.

3:AM: You worked as a housing officer and then an academic, what made you decide to write fiction full time? What of those two jobs found their way into Throwing The House…?

BR: A bit of both. I left my job as a housing officer and went to live in Chile for a year, under the pretext of writing a PhD on housing under Pinochet. When I returned, I was writing up my PhD and when I got bored I would do the novel instead. But like many first novels, it draws heavily on personal experience and I made the central character a housing officer.

3:AM: So at that stage you weren’t ready to stray outside the realms of your own intimate experiences in London and do a Chile novel? Or had that not occurred to you? Were you intent on becoming an academic or a writer at that stage?

BR: At that stage? I wasn’t really intent on anything much. I expected to become an academic and treated the novel as a bit of distraction. I incorporated aspects of Chile into the novel but I was more interested in Chileans resident in London at that stage.

3:AM: Yes, that comes across quite strongly, obviously. Why was that?

BR: Well, Chile was my big cause célèbre. I knew a lot of Chilean refugees. And my wife (at the time) was Chilean with parents in exile.

3:AM: Did you meet her before or after the trip to Chile? Was your interest aroused through Chile’s political circumstances between 1973 and 1990 or the circumstances of the exile community in London at the time?

BR: I met her before — we went together — but I had visited the country before that (and before meeting my wife). My interest had always been in Chilean politics and I got involved with the exile community after my first visit. That’s when I met my wife.

3:AM: James Flint’s review for your most recent said that you had been “hampered by [your] insistence on dealing directly with political themes, a tic that was not considered media-friendly in the lifestyle-obsessed 90s.” Yet I’d say your first two were as wrapped up in the spirit of the era in London, albeit the fag-end council estate part, as they could have been. Do you agree?

BR: Yes, I write about politics in all the novels in one way or another. But I wouldn’t see any of them as Political Novels. I’m far more interested in capturing a moment or a time, the prevailing mood. When I started writing, it was very much the Britpop era and the early novels were very influenced by that — there was still quite a playful feel to the times, as if you could still have fun. The election of Blair was very much a background event — partly because I never had high expectations of him at all, I only really chose to explore Blairism directly (in its pre-Iraq manifestation) in A Sweetheart Deal. Having said that, I think Jim Flint has a point — people have never really known how to categorise my novels and they were mismarketed at times. My fundamental interest — in the early novels at least — was in character and how that is shaped by circumstances.

3:AM: What issues did you want to cover regarding the Chilean community in London at that time?

BR: I don’t think I really wanted to cover “issues”. I’ve always been interested in London as a city of different nationalities and this was an area with which I was familiar. It was very much an outsider’s view of a Chilean exile family but I sometimes think that can be advantageous. I also used it for comedy — the difference between a Chilean who has just arrived and her cousin who is completely anglicised.

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3:AM: Moving on to Don’t Step on the Lines, this seemed much more of a conventional London novel to me. I also detected some cynicism about the organised left as a political force in there, as a minor tangent. How much would you agree about my take on it? What writers influenced you at this stage of your career?

BR: It’s very much a London novel and it corresponded to a very particular time in my life. I had moved away from the kind of organised political activity I had been involved with in the early 90s and was having a pretty hedonistic time. At the same time, I wasn’t particularly disillusioned with politics — I have a bit of the Jessica Mitford in me and just grew quite bored and weary of it and its personnel. I still think it’s a novel with many political concerns — how we attempt to give our lives meaning and purpose, the difference between generations and their aspirations, and also the gender issues — I had always wanted to write about the way certain men attempt to control women. I’ve always been a fan of James and my favourite villain is Gilbert Osmond because he is a quiet and polite psycopath. I wanted a bit of him in Robin — unflappable, a moral void. I was also reading a lot of Alice Munro stories and, although I wasn’t particularly influenced by her style then — that would come a little later — I loved the way that she approached character.

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3:AM: The Silver River also carried political themes and reintroduced the impoverished circumstances of Latin Americans in London again, particularly the cheek by jowl nature of those they work for, in this case the cleaner and the journalist. Did you feel the Independent‘s hashed review likening it to a cross between Nick Hornby and Garcia Marquez was a lazy attempt to communicate your agenda here? What was your agenda with this book and how did you feel it was received?

BR: I didn’t mind the review although I hate comparisons as we’ll discover when it comes to TV and the sheer bollock-clenching idiocy of those who slagged off Party Animals for not being a “satire” like The Thick of It.

I don’t think I had an agenda as such but I was fascinated by the world of cleaners and the hidden worlds they represent. And as you say our cheek by jowl existence with them. I also dabbled more with suspense and plot than in the previous novel. At the time I was also fascinated by the Latin American guerilla movements of the 1970s and the fate they met. For me, the massacres of the 1970s in Latin America — particularly in Argentina — have still not been fully understood in their scope or horror. The book was largely ignored — partly due to a monumental production cock-up by the publishers — although where it got reviews they were usually positive. Film people tend to like it a lot — Antonia Bird and I talked about adapting it for the screen. I loved writing it but it’s not now among my favourite novels although some people have told me it’s their favourite. (My favourite novel is easily A Sweetheart Deal which is also the least succesful sadly — although there is talk of adapting it for TV now).

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3:AM: With A Sweetheart Deal I detected, again, a note of political disillusionment, a sense of once people get into power, even radicals, they automatically become part of the system and turn on their former allies. Was this a reflection on New Labour, the betrayed promises, the machismo environment?

BR: I don’t think disillusion is the right word. It’s far more an interest in the nature of compromise. New Labour had a perfectly valid point that you simply won’t get elected if your platform is to nationalise the top 200 monopolies. The novel was written in that fascinating interregnum between Blair taking power and the “war on terror”. In that time I think there was a lot of confusion. The big tragedy was Blair’s second term when they just seemed to be standing still and could have done so much more. I’m not interested though, and never have been, in stereotyping New Labour as a bunch of control freaks barking into mobiles and “spinning” policy. That doesn’t seem to me to get anywhere near the nature of the Blair/Brown project — sure it went on but there were far more interesting trade-offs and struggles taking place. A Sweetheart Deal was about an individual trying to do the right thing within the constraints set by her personal and political enviroment. That’s always been a theme of my books but never more so than in that one which is probably why it remains firmly my favourite and Mel my favourite character. She is unhappy and, yes, perhaps a little disillusioned without being a whinger or incessantly negative. She still loves life and its pleasures, is still intrigued by the world, which is why the final image of the lone swallow/swift is so important for her.

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3:AM: Why did you decide to return to Chilean politics as a subject matter for Mermaid? Was the whole Pinochet in London drama a factor here?

BR: I went to Chile again for three months around 2000. It was there that the idea really took hold. I wanted to reconcile the desire to write about Chile’s past with how I saw the country during its move towards democracy (its current ludicrous electoral system stretches that word somewhat). Pinochet in London wasn’t really a factor at all though. Some critics have accused the novel of having a travel guide feel but I think they missed the point. One of the two principal characters is an obsessive about the country like myself — the whole novel is about the totality of a beloved country, from its historical origins to the colour of the metro lines in its capital.

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3:AM: For me, Confidence was a return to the earlier novels, in terms of its setting, the characters and the Patrick Hamilton references. Yet in his review, James Flint says that you’d “pretty much given up on the printed page and turned instead to writing TV drama” and that Confidence was actually “a far tauter, snappier piece than Mermaid“. Would you describe it as a Hamiltonian narrative, given the milieu he worked with and his other vocation as a dramatist like yourself?

BR: Certainly it was a return to London and a different kind of morality. Hangover Square is one of my favourite books and I guess the references to it were meant to suggest a world of frustrations and thwarted aspiration although I didn’t think that too consciously at the time. I hadn’t really given up on the printed page — TV just pays so much better, it becomes addictive! Confidence was more fun to write — although I had to stop it from a) becoming too self-referential and in-jokey and more importantly b) offending important people who might offer me work in the future.

TV writing has taught me a number of things though. It’s not illegal to try and entertain through your story. Structure is important and pretending it isn’t doesn’t make you smart… Thinking about your audience/readers isn’t vulgar. I guess that’s why I’ve always had an attraction for writers like Arnold Bennett and Patrick Hamilton. Who I believe are still underestimated by snobs and charlatans.

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3:AM: With your work on Spooks, you were actually collaborating with others, having to work with plots and characters devised by others and in the knowledge that others would pick up where you left off afterwards. How did you find this following a decade or so writing novels as sole author?

The series has been criticised by some for its ham-fisted depictions of Muslim communities [the episode where the imam recruits suicide bombers], an obvious storyline given the profession and its environment. Does the heightened geopolitical environment bring any pressure to you as a writer, given previously you were commenting on things safely in the past? Or do you just treat it as a writing assignment, given your prominence within the series is diminished and you’re less likely to be held publicly accountable?

BR: I’ve just finished a Spooks episode this morning! I love writing as part of a team, I really enjoy the meetings, find notes useful rather than annoying and I’ve been lucky to work with clever and agreeable people who have never really offended any “aritistic sensibilities”. The episode you mention was written by Howard Brenton — a pretty accomplished dramatist hugely informed on religion, certainly NOT anti-Islam — and I didn’t think it was ham-fisted at all. Since then, I think we’ve tried very hard not to become just fixated on Islamic terrorism although the fact is that it is the current big terror threat so you have to incorporate it somehow in a show about the intelligence services.

There is pressure that comes with Spooks though. We had to re-edit the first scenes of one episode I wrote because of 7/7. But I certainly don’t want to cause distress to people of any type or community as the result of a TV show. We do quite extensive research into each epsiode even those that seem more far-fetched. As a dramatist I am always more interested in whether something COULD happen than whether it is likely to.

But the thing to remember — it’s a TV show not a docudrama.

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3:AM: With Party Animals you actually had the chance to shape a whole series and set of characters without having to work as a part of a larger writing team. How did this compare with Spooks? As you mentioned, some critics charged that it failed to deliver in the satirical mould like The Thick of It. What kind of programme did you envisage it being and do you feel it accurately portrayed the state of politics in 2007?

BR: I think that some of my best writing (and that includes the novels) is in that show. The scene where Scott and Danny dance around to ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ because it was their dad’s favourite song still makes me go a bit misty-eyed. Scott asking Ashika to dance to ‘Take On Me’ still makes me laugh. It wasn’t a “satire” it was a series of interconnecting love stories both between Scott and Ashika and between the two brothers and between Danny and his boss and his unrequited love for Kirsty etc etc… I thought it was quite a fragile and often sentimental show which is why I was dumbfounded by some reactions to it. We were so lucky with our cast, Shelley Conn who played Ashika brought both grace and beauty to her part and handled the moral complexity of her character really well. I love the way the two very different brothers argue and yet care for each other so doggedly. People who said the show was about coke or about sex in an attempt to grab viewers just weren’t watching. There was actually rather little of either.

Sometimes though I think the only way you’re ALLOWED to do politics in this country is through cartoons and grotesques. ‘Satire’ is often a pursuit of the privileged classes but it wasn’t our agenda at all in spite of some of the lamentations at its lack of satirical purpose. We got some good reviews for the show and some bad ones — the bad ones were much more painful than usual because — as you say — it was my head above the parapet. And, of course, bad reviews are badder for the writer than good reviews are good. Also because some of them were bollock-clenchingly stupid and wide of the mark. I felt truly embarrassed by a couple but more for the critic than for myself. One though made me very angry. My only message for the kind of people who go on shows like Newsnight Review and pull other people’s work to shreds in such a lazy and facile manner is that — especially when some of them are novelists themselves — they should think about the impact it has, the terrible sleepless nights they cause. Why do it? I genuinely don’t understand how anybody, but especially other novelists, could need attention or money so much they would descend to such snideness about other writers. (I’m not just talking about my show here — I watch open-mouthed at the vitriol sometimes.) And they really shouldn’t giggle while they’re kicking stuff aimlessly about as it makes them look so unattractive by enjoying it so much.

Luckily, most of the initial bile was thrown after Epsiode One it tended to blow out and the show went on to hold a loyal audience and gain a lot of supporters by the end. One early harsh critic grudgingly admitted to having been entertained. There were quite a few papers and magazines calling for a second series and Grazia is currently running a campaign for its return. Mel C apparently lists it as one of her faves. She was always the thinking man’s Spice Girl.

3:AM: Will there be a second series?

BR: We don’t know what is happening — the viewing figures were relatively low (albeit utterly consistent — it never started high and plummeted which is far worse) but it had a tough 9pm slot that made life hard for it and it won’t run there again we do know that. The BBC were supportive throughout and they’re still talking about its future and possible rescheduling which I’m pleased about because there was a time when I thought it was dead in the water (Mark Lawson did read the Last Rites after Episode 2). There’s a big problem now with British TV drama insofar as you only have one shot at things. People should remember that This Life got poor ratings and bad reviews at the start. In today’s climate, it probably would not have gone on to become the hit it did because there would not have been a second series. And building a character drama does require some time — you can’t — or shouldn’t — just write it off after Episode One.

3:AM: Would you be interested in returning to academia or does writing have its hold on you for life now?

BR: I’ll never return to academia — I’m way out of that loop now.

I’m currently working on a show for ITV that I’ve created with Kudos and that will be shown next year. It’s very, very different from Party Animals and involves a group of misfits who work “unofficially” for the police in a bid to disorganise crime.

And some time soon I’ll start work on another novel.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Ben Richards was born in 1964 and has previously worked as a Housing Officer in London and as a University Lecturer (Birmingham University). He also spent several years in South America working and travelling.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 23rd, 2007.