Tuesday, 14 July 2009

If you like a lot of brassware on your coffin, Join Our Club!

Today was a momentous day at Hale Villas (albeit the sign next to the door reads, rather more appropriately, Wits End). I had the nod from Andy the builder that the work on the front of the house is now complete and the scaffolding can come down. Within a day or so, I shall take tea on my newly-refurbished balcony, but for now I contented myself with a small sherry by way of celebration.

A very good friend (you know who you are!) told me the other day that sherry is an old person's drink, which seems appropriate, because there is a lot of chatter about the cost of caring for the elderly at the moment. The government is looking at ways of funding care for an increasingly ageing population, whether it be by taxation, lump sum payments out of retirement gratutities, or some other method. Most old people (those who own property, and can still afford sherry) fear that the home they intended to leave to their nearest and dearest will be sold to fund the cost of their nursing care which, in some cases, seems to run at about a thousand pounds a week. And what happens when the cash runs out? Do they get thrown onto the streets?

None of this is new. The elderly have always had a fear of being alone and destitute. Back in the days before the advent of the nursing or care home, the next stop for a poor old widow or widower was the Parish Workhouse. This doleful place features in the novels of Charles Dickens (especially Oliver Twist), and it is hard for us to understand the abject terror that struck the Victorian elderly at the thought of being uprooted and placed in the workhouse. As a charitable businessman told Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 'Many would rather die' than be subjected to the tender mercies of the Parish.

Going hand in hand with the fear of the workhouse was a great horror of the thought of a pauper's funeral. Victorians excelled in the celebration (if that's the right word) of death, with plumed horses, mutes (professional mourners) swathed in black, and elaborate and expensive coffins. The pauper's funeral was generally marked by a cheap, re-usable coffin, trundled to church on a handcart, mourners in ordinary clothes, and burial in an unmarked grave. And it was these fears that prompted the rise in popularity of so-called Burial Clubs amongst the working classes.

Burial clubs were often operated from public houses by pub landlords. This wasn't an altruistic public service on their part; they knew that money would be spent on beer for the 'wake' when the death benefit was eventually paid out. The working man would toddle off to the pub, pay his dues (often only a few pence) into the club, and his subscription would be marked up in a register. He could contribute for himself, and for his wife and children, if he could afford it. And, when the sad day came (provided it was more than two years after the start of subscriptions) the family would collect the money, which would help to defray the cost of a decent funeral. Having a respectable send-off was so important to the Victorians that, according to historian Audrey Collins, they were prepared to go without in life so as to be well provided for in death.

Of course, things didn't always go smoothly. Some collectors embezzled the money, so that there was nothing left when a grieving family member went to collect the benefit. Some companies (echoes of modern day here!) tried to wriggle out of paying the money over - in 1836 the Globe Public House Burial Club in Covent Garden refused to pay Sarah Forrest the £5 she was due, because (they said) her husband had died 24 hours before two years had elapsed. She did eventually get her money, but had to go to law to do so. But, most chillingly, husbands and wives were murdering their spouses and, in some cases, their children, to claim the burial money. In 1854 'a prosperous town' which is not named had a working class infant mortality rate of 56%; this is set against the 18% for children of the better sort in the same town, and was four times higher than the child mortality rate in rural Dorset. And the reason - parents were killing their children for the burial money. A few years earlier, in 1851, Essex girl Sarah Chesham was convicted of murdering her husband, her two children and another unnamed party, and all for the cash from the burial club.

In these more prosperous days, there is less likelihood of any one of us being on the receiving end of a pauper's funeral, and as a result burial clubs have pretty well died the death, if you'll pardon the pun. But not quite. Watch any satellite or cable station for more than ten minutes, and you'll be exhorted by some ageing celebrity to buy 'peace of mind' insurance in exchange for a cheap DVD player or some Marks and Sparks vouchers. For 'peace of mind', read 'save your kids from having to stump up the cost of your funeral.' And speaking of ageing celebrities, I've heard of a couple of bizarre variations on the burial club theme, courtesy of a former colleague. One is the Celebrity Death Club, where you nominate a well-known personality whom you believe to be on his (or her) last legs, and pay a couple of pounds a month into a 'kitty'. When your favoured celebrity finally bites the dust, you claim the money that has accrued since the last fatality. The other involves a group of ageing friends in a Buckinghamshire pub, who place informal bets upon which of their number will be the next to die...

You will, I hope, be pleased to hear that I haven't seen fit to buy my own 'peace of mind' insurance yet. I have absolutely no intention of dying, I don't need a DVD player and I've got a full bottle of sherry in the sideboard.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

I need to get out more

Ask me if I'm a soap fan and the likelihood is I'll say 'Of course not! What? Watch that rubbish? I've got better things to do with my time!' However, take me to the pub, buy me a couple of pints of Harvey's Best Bitter (brewed nearby in Lewes) and then ask the same question, and you may get a very different answer. Because soaps are not only very popular and successful, but also (in my opinion) extremely well written. My own favourite, were I to have one, would be Coronation Street.

The Street, or Corrie, if you prefer, has been on our screens since the 9th December 1960. Some of the earlier episodes were broadcast live; something that many present day actors would probably baulk at. I remember Corrie in the sixties as a grim, gritty, black and white piece, populated by women in snoods and hairnets, and men wearing cloth caps and waistcoats; a bit like Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, but without the humour. Back in the sixties the dark satanic mills were still milling away like crazy; this was long before most northern industries closed down, unable to compete with imported goods, and the factories were sold off as stylish apartment blocks.

Of course, there have been a good many changes to The Street over the years; most of the old 'well I'll go to the foot of our stairs' characters have gone, replaced by brash underwear manufacturers, corner shop magnates and serial adulterers/adulteresses. But the scripts remain strong and, moreover, take themselves far less seriously than in the early years. But I can't help feeling that, despite the humour, The Street is more akin to a Greek tragedy than anything else. Sophocles couldn't have written anything better. Back in the old days, Corrie had a proper chorus - Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst, three old ladies, holed up with their milk stout in the snug of the Rovers, commenting upon the things taking place in their narrow world. Then there's the way the characters are constantly punished by the gods...sorry, I mean scriptwriters. Eileen finds herself a boyfriend (again); won't be long before she discovers he's an escaped lunatic, a fraudster, or he gets murdered. Jack Duckworth wins a fortune on the horses; his betting slip is bound to go missing, get eaten by a pigeon, or used as loo paper by an elf. And don't even get me started on the misery, mayhem and bloodshed that inevitably accompanies every soap wedding...

I understand that scriptwiters prefer their soaps to be called 'serial dramas' now. I suppose it makes them sound more like serious pieces of work. And some of them are serious. Take Casualty, for example. You can't get any more serious than that. But Casualty is unintentionally funny, because it is filled with (in my opinion) stereotypical medical drama characters, bizarre coincidences that wouldn't be out of place in a Dickens novel, and patients/others who effect such swift about turns in their attitudes and relationships with others it's a wonder their heads don't spin. Set in a hospital in Holby (because the writers couldn't spell 'Bristol') it deals with the lives of the doctors, nurses and patients who are unfortunate enough to either work there, or wind up on a trolley (at which point they invariably go into 'VF', whatever that is, even if they only popped in to ask about an ingrowing toenail). All the stereotypes are there; overbearing consultants, senior administrators banging on about finances and waiting times, loopy doctors, cheery, empty-headed porters, stroppy patients, demanding relatives...

I'd quite like to write a Casualty script. There needs to be a sub-plot running, which later impacts on the main action. There have to be a couple of new characters, introduced early on, who either get killed or maimed and have to visit aforesaid hospital as a result. And someone's life/views/attitude has to be changed beyond all belief by the end of the show. Here goes...

1. A group of hooded teenagers are hanging around Holby town centre, drinking cheap cider and swearing at passers-by. One elderly man (war hero, with medals) remonstrates with them and is floored by a cider bottle slung by one of these ne'er-do-wells. A young and openly gay man challenges the youths and then runs to render first aid to the elderly man, who says, 'Get off me. I won't be touched by your sort!'

2. An ambulance is called to deal with the above and loads up the casualty. As it drives off, it is pelted with bottles and windscreen is broken, putting it out of action. The paramedic's hands are badly cut by flying glass. Another ambulance attends and the crew of the first waits for a breakdown truck.

3. Meanwhile, across town, a plate glass salesman is saying goodbye to his wife: 'Won't be long, dear, I've just got to walk this huge sheet of glass across town. The pond's frozen, so I think I'll use it as a shortcut. It should be fine.'

4. Back at the hospital, loopy doctor has been invited to deliver a lecture on pulmonary embolisms to a group of visiting GPs. She agonises about said lecture to at least six colleagues, all of whom say, 'you'll be fine'. Loopy doctor eventually takes a copy of something she has found on the internet.

5. On the other side of town, a tanker driver is receiving his day's orders. He has been told to take a tankerfull of nitric acid to Holby Docks. He punches the details into a brand new satnav, and is given a route which is set to take him past the Holby Glycerine Works.

6. Back in the town centre, the police spot the youths who assaulted the old man. The youths run off and one of them is knocked down by a car, right in front of the disabled ambulance. The paramedics, being heavily bandaged, are unable to save his life and he dies at the scene.

7. Back to our plate glass salesman. Whilst crossing the frozen pond, he accidentally drops the glass and it breaks the ice, tipping him into the freezing water. He apparently drowns.

8. At the Hospital, loopy doctor is delivering her lecture. Unfortunately, in the audience is the writer of the article she has stolen from the internet. He challenges her and she becomes distraught and hysterical, running out of the hospital, intending to kill herself.

9. Whilst driving past the Glycerine works, the tanker driver has a heart attack. His vehicle crashes through the gate and into the factory. The resulting fireball and huge loss of life sets the scene for next week's episode.

10. Loopy doctor decides to drown herself and runs down to Holby pond. But she sees the plate glass man under water, forgets about her own miserable life, and saves his.

11. Gay man tries to visit the elderly gent in hospital, but the latter tells him to go away, citing his lifelong hatred of homosexuals.

12. Nurse overhears elderly man and engages him in conversation for a few minutes, seeking to explain the error of his ways.

13. Elderly man's eyes are opened for the first time in ninety years. He embraces the gay man as if he were a long lost grandson and invites him to tea.

14. The dead youth is brought into casualty. As he is taken through to the mortuary the heavily bandaged paramedic realises that it is, in fact, her brother's son. She tries to phone her brother on his mobile.

15. We cut to a mobile phone, ringing in the cab of a blazing lorry outside the glycerine factory...

Well? What do you think? Is there a career for me in the heady world of serial drama? Or should I just stick to blogging...?