BAFTA-award winning writer Geoff Thompson reflects on his new memoir Notes From a Factory Floor, ahead of an evening in conversation at the Belgrade
Following the launch of his new memoir Notes from a Factory Floor, the Belgrade Theatre is delighted to be livestreaming a special in-conversation event with Coventry playwright and BAFTA-winning screenwriter Geoff Thompson at 7pm on Saturday 12 December.
Known to Belgrade audiences as the writer of The Enemy musical We’ll Live and Die in These Towns as well as the intimate drama Fragile, Geoff will be discussing his life and work live from the Belgrade with fellow playwright Alan Pollock (One Night in November). Ahead of the event, we spoke to him to find out more.
Q: What encouraged you to write Notes From a Factory Floor?
A: At first I was scared to write it. I knew there’d be a lot to cover because it had been 30 years since I wrote Watch My Back, to which Notes From a Factory Floor is a sequel. I was nervous about it because I knew there was so much to remember and unpack, and I soon realised that in retracing my steps, I’d have to dig up a lot of dead bodies and relive uncomfortable things from my past.
This is a confessionary book. It’s celebrating all the things I’ve experienced, but it’s also an acknowledgement of where I’ve made terrible mistakes and hurt people. I can’t take any of that back, but I can take responsibility for it. It’s equivalent to what’s called a Burnt Sacrifice in the Old Testament. I was making a sacrifice of all my errors, consuming them in the writing. The book is potent because it’s brutally honest. As a writer, you have to be like a pin in a crab shell – going into the corners to get out all the juicy bits that you don’t really want to look at.
My brother, who was a really great writer, read my first book and asked me if I was sure I wanted to publish it, because I was so vulnerable in it, but I knew that I had to be if I wanted it to help anyone. We only connect to people at the level of our own pain. They say some wounds don’t heal, but a wound can also be a doorway, a line of enquiry. We can go into that wound and heal it from the inside. Saint Paul says, “When I’m at my weakest, I’m at my strongest”, and that level of compassion is where we really connect to people.
Q: How did you find the process of writing it once you started?
A: Although it was a lot to remember, it all came back to me quickly once I started. It was absolutely desperate to come out – I wrote 150,000 words in eight weeks and filled 14 Moleskine pads! It released something in me. I finished writing Notes From a Factory Floor on a Friday, and the following Monday, I started another eight-week project where I wrote another 150,000 words. After that I was absolutely spent!
In my day-to-day life, I’d been bumping into people who were addressing me at the level they remembered me – Geoff the factory worker, the kid from the comprehensive school, the labourer, the bouncer, the martial artist. As I was writing, I was revealing truer aspects and reclaiming parts of myself. I wanted to tell those people that this is where I am now – I now live a deeply spiritual life. Everything I write about is from a very muscular, spiritual point of view about changing the world by changing yourself. That’s really who I always was, but I had to go through lots of phases and reclaim those parts of myself – the ignorant part, the violent part, the undereducated part, the falsely pretentious part, the part of me that didn’t feel worthy, the person that believed in class. I had to win all those parts back and go to war with those concepts and beliefs, to reveal who I really was.
Q: Who inspires you in your writing?
A: I’ve been inspired by lots of people over the years. I’ve been led along an amazing path through film and theatre, and people have always suggested I write books. I was in a Young Writers group at the Royal Court and read so many people who inspired me, including Jim Cartwright, a West End playwright who picked up on some of my earlier work including my first book. I loved his writing and recognised that he had a real voice. There was a great exercise that Graham Whybrow (Artistic Director, Royal Court) did which I’ve never forgotten. He had a handful of pages and each page was from a different playwright’s work, but none of them had names on. As he threw them onto the floor and they scattered, he said if you have a voice, it should be so original that you could pick up any one of those pages and you will know who the author is because his voice is so unique. I picked up the first page and started to laugh, because I knew instantly that it was Jim Cartwright. Having your own voice is so important, so that really inspired me.
I worked recently at the Belgrade on We’ll Live and Die in These Towns and I was massively inspired by Hamish Glen (Artistic Director). There is such a quiet genius about him. I watched how he dealt with it in big chunks, and then in smaller and smaller chunks, until he got down to the minutiae. Right at the very end, he said to the actors “That’s all I’ve got. I’ve nothing else. What have you got? What do you want to hear?” and I loved that honesty. I thought it was a good way to deal with the play and also to deal with life. I was also working with Tom Clarke, who I’d listened to when I was working as a bouncer. It was such a privilege to find myself at the Belgrade Theatre, sitting with him every single day, while he played those songs from my past.
I’m also massively inspired by Saint Paul and by parts of the Bible like Revelations – not so much by their literal meaning, but by the richness and power of their poetry. I’d also include the Bhagavad Gita and the concluding pages of the Holy Qur’an, they’re so profoundly rich and beautiful. I’m inspired by the sound, the rhythm, and the depth of the words – the beauty of the language is on a level with reading Shakespeare. When I was studying those books, I found them very healing and it inspired me to find rhythm in my own work.
Q: How has growing up in Coventry influenced your work?
A: It’s all about the poetry. If you sit in Coventry Market and listen to people talk, the rhythm of the language in Coventry is so beautiful and poetic. Coventry is a melting pot of people from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Caribbean, India and more. Blending these cultures together creates something so rich. I used to work as a bouncer, and I’d listen to people talk every single night, unedited.
Although I discuss universal themes – repentance, forgiveness, inspiration, aspiration – I think in everything I write, there’s always a Coventry rhythm. There’s an incredible energy and poetry that comes out of Coventry, so you can always tell a Coventry voice if you read it. I have Irish heritage too, and I feel a lot of that in the rhythm of my own writing.
My brother Ray, who died aged 42, absolutely loved Coventry. I created an homage to him in We’ll Live and Die in These Towns. He considered himself to be a Coventry poet, and he loved the city and everything about it. I really looked up to him, but sadly my brother and sister both died from alcoholism, which is a tragedy I try to bring into the work I’m doing and honour them as much as I can. Writing is healing for myself and for my family. It helps me to understand it.
Q: You’ve worked with some of the biggest names in television – Alison Steadman, Anne Reid, Maxine Peake, and even Orlando Bloom. Do you have any particular career highlights, either from television or from other projects?
A: Well first of all, how narcissistic is it that I’ve written a film based on my life and I got Orlando Bloom to play me?! My wife giggles at it.
I’ve loved working with all of them. I remember standing in a pub in the West End of London with Pete Postlethwaite, and he was reading from a play I wrote. You could feel the richness timbre of it. It’s great when you get to see what an actor does with your words.
Some of the monologues Orlando Bloom delivered were just beautiful. It’s so great to see it come to life, it can be really powerful. We also did a 10-minute film called Brown Paper Bag, which was inspired by the death of my brother. The actor Ronnie Fox gave a heart-breaking performance, which led to the film winning a BAFTA. There’s one monologue which made me think, “This is what I’ve come into writing for. Just to feel this,” because everything around you stops. It’s like you suspend the world and realise how incredible it is. That’s where the collaboration comes in, so it’s really great to see what a really good actor can do.
Q: How have you been spending lockdown?
A: Lockdown hasn’t really changed life for me. I’ve been on a 5-year sabbatical which was just about to end when the world went into lockdown. It was normal for me, I’ve been writing. The only thing I’ve missed is sitting in a café. You can’t go to a theatre, you can’t make a show – all of that has stopped. But it hasn’t stopped me being able to write books. I’m currently writing another film, so lockdown has really just made me double down.
However, I am acutely aware that a lot of people are suffering. I look at the news and see people who’ve lost their jobs and you can feel how much that affects their lives. We’ve all had that feeling of waking up at 4am worrying about money, and there’s a lot of people in that situation now.
Q: Why should audiences tune in to Notes from a Factory Floor: In Conversation with Geoff Thompson?
A: I’ve been around for six decades now, going into my seventh. As my Irish ancestors would say, I’ve been around a few corners, and I’m brutally honest. So this event will be informative. I’m going to give people the essence of my life within an hour’s talk. I’m going to give them everything I’ve learned and know, and that might lead them into their own lines of inquiry. I think it’s very rare that you meet people these days who have no agenda – and I have no agenda. I just want to tell the truth, I want to pass on as much as I can. So I think it’s worth tuning in just for that.
Notes from a Factory Floor: In Conversation with Geoff Thompson will be streamed live for free via the Belgrade Theatre’s YouTube channel at 7pm on Saturday 12 December. Copies of the book are available to purchase by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.