WRITER’S ROOM: DAVID CUMMINGS ON WRITING HIS NEW BBC2 SERIES WITH PAUL WHITEHOUSE AND ESTHER COLES

By David Cummings

Arguably the genesis of ‘Nurse’ goes back decades. I met Paul at the University of East Anglia in Norwich when we were both eighteen years old. Upon graduation we shared a flat together in Hackney for seven years or so. Living together like that you tend to develop a shared language, shorthand phrases and running gags.

So Ray, one of the characters in ‘Nurse,’ is a direct product of our love of the Troggs Tapes. If you’ve never heard these do yourself a favour and head over to YouTube now. An engineer accidentally left a tape running as the band members were chatting informally in a recording studio. What he captured on tape is hilarious. We know it by heart, having heard it scores of times.

As we were knocking ideas around, Paul realised he really liked the idea of playing multiple characters. The notion of writing about a Community Mental Health Nurse came up. She would provide an ideal link between diverse people of all ages and backgrounds.

Early on in the writing process Paul suggested that Esther Coles would be perfect for the role of the Nurse. We met Esther and by chance it turned out that she knows several CMH Nurses. This seemed like a good omen!

How did we create the characters? Graham Downes, the morbidly obese Service User (as patients must be called these days) was already fully formed. Paul had invented him for the Radio Four series ‘Down The Line.’ Certain mental health conditions suggested who the character should be. So when writing about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder it seemed obvious to use a young man in his twenties who had served with the Army in Afghanistan.

With other characters the voice comes first. Paul is a gifted mimic and we can build a person around the way they speak. Some of the other characters are drawn from our own lives; people we know or situations we have found ourselves in. It is important to note that none of the characters are based on a single real individual. Years ago we did a series together called ‘Happiness.’ Our friends would say ‘Well obviously that character is based on so and so.’ In every instance they were wrong! But I was quite pleased as it meant people were finding things in the scripts that we hadn’t consciously put there.

And so to the nitty-gritty of our writing day. I usually get round to Paul’s house at the crack of ten thirty. We then head to a local café for a cup of coffee. Back at Paul’s we chat away about friends, the news, politics; anything really but actually start writing. Whilst all this shooting the breeze looks like classic displacement activity, we do find that we often stumble across ideas that amuse us. One of us will say ‘That’s great. Put that in!’ or ‘That would be a perfect idea for Herbert.’ As morning turns into afternoon I might open the laptop and create a few folders. Move a few documents about; really important and essential admin that has to be done before we can go out for another cup of coffee.

As and when (or indeed if) we do get down to actually writing, we take turns on being ‘the pilot.’ That is, the person doing the actual typing. With a character like Graham Downes I nearly always type. Paul improvises away furiously and I struggle to whack it all down. We then go back and tart it up afterwards. But mostly I would say the actual typing is split up pretty much fifty/fifty. With a character like Cat Lady each sketch is based around one idea; make the point, get the laugh, get out. With Herbert his erudition mixed with his confusion means each sketch can range over a number of subjects. We are always at pains to make sure the sketches don’t feel too ‘written,’ that you can believe these people exist and would talk like that. And, as every writer knows, you must avoid cliché like the plague.

Anyway, we toil away at the coal-face, sometimes as late 4.30 pm, then call it a day and head home for a well earned glass of wine. Some may feel that I’m exaggerating for comic effect. Unfortunately I’m not. As Gertrude Stein said ‘It takes a lot of time to write for half an hour.’ Not that I’m comparing us to Gertrude Stein.

The writing process is slow at first as you are getting to know the characters. That’s why writing a second series of anything is usually easier than the first. After we had written ‘Nurse’ for Radio Four, we knew these people. Now that it’s a TV show, we know what they look like as well.

When you get to our age, the bleak stuff is funny too. Linking the sketches is of course the character of the Nurse. Esther created the Nurse’s troubled personal life (the character’s marriage is on the rocks) and her additional dialogue was invaluable.

I have co-written with virtual strangers and it can be terrific fun and really fruitful. But nothing beats writing with someone you know really well. Neither of us takes offence if the other suggests changes or cuts. We share the same sense of humour and when we write together it usually comes out as ‘bittersweet.’ I don’t really know why. Maybe because life is like that. When we were shooting the second series of ‘Happiness’ the BBC sent a nineteen-year-old IT boffin over to the set. He was going to set up a website for us. He said ‘I’ve read the scripts and they’re a real mixture of bleak and funny. How do you get the balance right?’ I said ‘When you get to our age, the bleak stuff is funny too.’