What’s your poison? Documentary aims to find out

It started with a chance remark while eight of us were spending a weekend away on a canal boat. It could lead to a TV documentary that’ll be shown around the world.

As we sailed serenely through Staffordshire, one of our number advised us not to stop in Rugeley, the home of the Prince of Poisoners.

Back on dry land I discovered as much as I could about Dr William Palmer, also known as the Rugeley Poisoner, who was hanged in 1856 for murdering his friend John Parsons Cook. He was the first person to be convicted of murder using strychnine as a poison.

Palmer was also alleged to have bumped off his wife, drunken brother, mother-in-law and four of his children, although there’s no evidence to prove he was a serial killer.

The first person I contacted was Dave Lewis, author of the definitive biography about Palmer. For more than 30 years Dave has been researching Palmer’s life; there’s no one who knows more about the doctor than Dave.

Once he was on board, I got in touch with a former colleague, Sean Riley, who had recently left the BBC to join Beeston company MEDIAmaker. We’re now working together on ideas for a documentary – I’ll write the script and Sean will direct – which we’ll be pitching to several channels.

So how are we going about it? The plan is to film a four- or five-minute teaser which will be sent out in the hope that one of the channels will commission the documentary. We’ve already got a presenter lined up; we’ll be interviewing Dave Lewis and an expert on criminal law in the 19th century who’ll hopefully give a fascinating insight into William Palmer and how those close to him died in suspicious circumstances.

Watch for updates on this site and we’ll let you know when filming will be going ahead.

Marlowes take Jane Eyre to new level

Mark Pardner (Rochester) and Felicity Freeman (Jane Eyre)

The Marlowe Players are this week performing Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Nothing unusual about that, you might think – just another hard-working non-professional drama group doing what they enjoy and hoping their hard work will be appreciated by good audiences.

But having seen the dress rehearsal, I have to say this is one of the most exciting and well-produced plays I’ve ever seen by a local society.

I’ve had more to do with this production than previous Marlowes plays, partly because it’s the first that Sue has co-directed. She and Janet Townes have done a tremendous job – but it’s very much a show that’s built on team work.

All the actors give everything, not just the two playing the lead roles of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Some have multiple parts and have worked so hard on their characterisation.

Sue and Janet have also come up with the innovation of having Charlotte Bronte on stage throughout to speak the words of the narrator.

The staging is hugely impressive while the backstage crew cope admirably with all the scene changes. The lighting is really atmospheric and there’s a tasteful use of music in all the right places.

It’s been a hard slog for everyone over the past few months; I’ve really come to appreciate just what goes into a production – scenery, costumes, props and all the little things which often go unnoticed by an audience but are so essential to the smooth running of a play.

The Marlowes have won awards for previous productions; I’d be surprised if this doesn’t do likewise.

You can catch Jane Eyre at Darley Abbey Village Hall until Saturday (November 5th).

It would have been a crime to miss it

For everyone who’s been asking me lately how I fared in the Alibi TV search for a new crime writer competition, you’ve probably guessed that I was a finalist rather than the winner.

But I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about my time in Harrogate where the winner was unveiled.

As part of the prize for reaching the final, I was given free entry to all the workshops on what was known as Creative Thursday.

The first seminar was with established author Dreda Say Mitchell, who also chaired this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, and her writing partner Tony Mason.

Talk about being taken out of your comfort zone! Dreda asked a group of us – which, incidentally, included several journalists – to write for three minutes on the theme I entered the room and saw . . . You didn’t have to worry about grammar or punctuation, there was no stopping to read what you’d already put – you wrote the first thing that came into your head to get your creative juices flowing.

Anyone who knows my passion for correct English and my insistence on making every word count will realise how difficult this was.

There were discussions about what makes a memorable character and how a story might change when a particular situation was introduced.

The next workshop, Getting to Yes, was just as useful but from a different perspective. Two experts from the book industry explained what agents and publishers are looking for: they gave examples of a good submission letter and synopsis so that you’ve got a good chance of getting your novel accepted.

The afternoon session started with two witty but incisive authors, Stuart MacBride and Allan Guthrie, leading a workshop called Show Don’t Tell. They suggested that your writing improves if you show readers what’s going on rather than telling them – and you should take out words such as thought, wondered and realised so that you can show what’s happened in your story.

The final session was delightfully called The Dragons’ Pen. Mark Billingham was the host and introduced two agents and two publishers. Would-be authors had two minutes to pitch a novel and the Dragons gave their feedback. Some writers were told their plot was too complicated or too cosy, others were invited to send a synopsis and the first couple of chapters to see whether their book is worth publishing.

Quote of the day came from agent Jane Gregory who on a couple of occasions demanded: “Where’s the murder? We want death!”

So Creative Thursday was a day to remember. I’m now looking at my writing in a new light and taking into account many of the tips I picked up at Harrogate. I’ve got a few ideas for characters too which, as far as I’m aware, haven’t appeared in crime novels before. All I need to do now is write my first novel, all 100,000 words of it!

Mind your language!

The British Library wants the public to tell it how pronunciation is changing in Britain.

The Library is asking volunteers to record a chapter from a book so that it can see how words and accents have changed.

Anyone who knows me will realise that English is one of my pet subjects. I’ll go on incessantly about how the language is changing – and not for the better.

The Library says youngsters are more likely now to say “haitch” rather than “aitch” when pronouncing the letter H. They often say “mischeevy-us” rather than “mischievous” and “grievious” rather than “grievous”. But when I went to school there was no “h” in aitch, no “i” in mischievous and no “i” in grievous – so why should one appear now?

Today the influence of American television is everywhere. That’s why many youngsters say “skedule” rather than “schedule”. But I can’t see how the practice of using the hard-sounding “the” before a vowel – for example, “the end” instead of “thee end” – has become so common.

It’s a huge fault of the English education system that the language has been allowed to get into such a state. I realise that English is an evolving language and grammar is changing. For example, infinitives are split all the time: “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is heard at the beginning of Star Trek episodes and no one complains too loudly about the poor use of grammar.

But my argument is you should be aware of the rules of grammar before you choose to ignore them. I always use the phrase “30 miles an hour” because it’s more colloquial than “30 miles per hour”. I know when I’m breaking the rules – but so many other people don’t.

It’s time we stood up for grammar and its proper use.