4 August 2014

A Ghostwriter Writes: article on publishing industry website Bookbrunch

A piece about working with Freddie, written for for publishing industry website Bookbrunch.

Anthony Teague admits to being a novice ghostwriter. But he brought a playwright's sensibilities to his co-written autobiography of comic Freddie Davies

Today, 31 July, the autobiography of veteran comic Freddie Davies, which I have co-written, will be published by Northern indie Scratching Shed. It's the end of a three-year journey which began when I wrote a blog post about Freddie, a childhood idol, and sent a link to his website. Within about six weeks of that initial contact I found myself walking across the bridge at Pitlochry Station in Perthshire to meet, as he put it in an email, "an older, fatter version of me".

I am not a ghostwriter by trade. If I think of myself as a writer at all it's as a playwright, so I suppose you could say we were taking a chance on each other. There was no one to guide us through the terrain: Freddie hadn't approached a publisher so we had no commissioning editor to administer the odd friendly or forceful nudge. Over the months which followed, the book proceeded at its own pace, gradually assuming a shape.

Listening back to our early interviews I can hear a lot of extraneous banter, though it now seems a necessary part of the process of getting to know each other - and Freddie is a comedian, after all, though younger readers are more likely to remember a straight role in cult film Funny Bones. When diversions creep into later recordings we are noticeably more apologetic about them, though even then they have a function: a way of letting off steam before returning for another go at the matter in hand.

Whether or not the book took longer than it might have done, I think the process we hit on was a good thing. With no talk of deadlines the writing never really felt like work-work to me, and the published version remains essentially what we both willed into being before any outside help. Though I will admit it was lucky that the fiftieth anniversary of his TV debut, a handy peg on which to hang publication, was several years in the future when we started.

There were fewer surprises than I expected about adjusting to a different sort of writing. I'm not sure whether playwriting counts as a transferable skill for ghosting in general but it was certainly a factor in building trust between writer and subject on this occasion: Freddie said he could relate to me as part of his theatre world. He also suggested early on that I see him as the protagonist in a play, which was a liberating instruction. From then on I had no compunction about inventing words for him, and in moments of doubt I would simply summon up an image of Freddie speaking. He has said that he recognises his voice in the book.

I have a vague feeling that I may have started this project expecting that results would be achieved more quickly and easily than my other work. With plays, I had been used to keeping it physical in the early stages: writing in notebooks, delaying the moment I had to turn to the computer screen and make it all official. I think I initially assumed that such a method needn't apply to this new project and I could rush ahead, doing all the work onscreen, saving oodles of time. In the event, I found it impossible to assess the mass of material objectively that way and eventually had to resort to buying children's scrapbooks, physically arranging and rearranging the snippets of Freddie's words and my own; for a time I thought of the book as The Pritt Stick Chronicles.

Was all that physical stuff really necessary or was it merely a case of my unconscious buying me time in order to delay decisions about structure? I can only say that it was a method which worked for me. I found it impossible even to begin rewording the language of transcribed interviews until a definite shape for a chapter announced itself through all that paper arranging. 

This may have been the legacy of a painful lesson learnt after two years' work on a play. The dialogue in individual scenes had been burnished but I'd overlooked the fact that after all that time I still didn't really have a clue about the overall shape. "The trouble with your play," writing guru Tim Fountain told me, "is that it's like this" - he drew an oval - "and it ought to be like this." I stared down at the crude arrow he had drawn. 

Yet despite the time and effort involved in working on the book in some ways it has been the easiest thing I've ever written, running with Freddie's suggestions, building on his transcribed and written words. Like that old Woody Allen gag about cheating in the metaphysics exam, it's so much easier to look into someone else's soul. And having someone hungry to read what I'd made out of all that material was also a huge incentive to give of my best - a zeal I may say I've rarely seen displayed by literary managers.

When we finally felt that the book was ready to be seen a kind journalist friend got us an introduction to a publisher well known for showbiz biographies. By this time, however, that all-important TV anniversary was rather nearer, and his lists had already been finalised for the coming year. But the letter we received seemed to offer genuine praise for the book and there was cause to feel encouraged. By that time both Freddie and I had become aware of a small Northern company called Scratching Shed. I had phoned them with a research enquiry as co-founder Tony Hannan had written a history of Northern comedy. I mentioned in passing that we were pitching the book, and he asked us to think of his company as a safety net.

We did, and around two and half years after we had first begun to work together on the book a contract was finally signed. The manuscript we handed to Tony, thanks to our slow but steady efforts, required only minimal editing, though there was a certain amount of back-and-forth at the proofreading stage. At times I found myself in the distinctly peculiar position of having to defend the voice of Freddie which I heard in my head to the real-life Freddie - a bit like the director who dared to give a note to Harold Pinter, acting in one of his own plays.

But these tussles were testament to what we had agreed on the day we first met: that we would both attempt to make the book as good as it could be. True, there were times when I envied another ghostwriter who told me of his comedian subject, content to talk into a tape recorder then leave all the rest to him, but our book is, I hope, better for Freddie's full-on involvement. 

And, I daresay, the lack of involvement of certain other parties. One agent whom I talked to early on gave the impression that what he wanted to see was an anecdote-laden funfest; we didn't pursue negotiations with him. The book is rather more than that: it's not afraid to be serious and sombre when occasion requires. And I do think it is a more interesting read for telling the whole story, including the years after his intense TV fame of the Sixties and Seventies ebbed away. Freddie has had to reinvent himself over the years but he remains a survivor - in all senses. Even a recent heart attack couldn't quell him for long: the evening after he had a second arterial stent fitted he was onstage, wowing them at Cromer.

Now we have to wait and see how it goes. I have tried to write with all the craft and love I can muster. The result is, I hope, as smooth, easy and, above all, as musical a ride for the reader as possible. But whatever its reception, it has been a privilege to work on it and to feel that I have repaid, at least in part, the debt my childhood self owes to entertainers such as Freddie. Put simply, they make life better.

Buy Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones from amazon (paperback) or direct from Scratching Shed Publishing (paperback or limited edition hardback); read an extract here.