I’m writing a Woman’s Hour series on Ida and Louise Cook. These amazing sisters who lived an outwardly very quiet existence in Wandsworth in the early nineteen thirties, spent about five years providing financial guarantees for Jews fleeing from Germany, and sometimes smuggling out jewels and fur coats, the only source of portable wealth that might provide their refugees with future security. Their cover story was their passionate love of opera, and helped by their friendship with the conductor Clemens Krauss and several opera stars, they would travel to German or Austria in their woolworths cardies and sensible tweed skirts, see an opera, then return via a different route to avoid the suspicions of the border guards, often laden with jewels and furs.
After Kristallnacht in 1938, Nazis began to openly attack and loot Jewish homes and businesses and their victims were only given thirty days to get out of the country if they were able to escape at all. But once into Britain, a refugee child had to be ‘adopted’ by a British citizen until the child reached 18. A woman could be brought over on a domestic permit. It was much harder for men because they might have a job waiting in the UK or US but would still have to apply for a Visa from some pompous little Nazi in order to get out of Germany.
Once in the UK a refugee over eighteen would then be put into another queue for Emigration to the US – a queue which could stretch to over three years wait. During this wait, again, they would be the financial responsibility of a British citizen. For refugees over 60 this responsibility would last for the rest of their life. Oh and if it seems as though the UK was doing everything they could to keep Jewish refugees out, it was because they were. When you think about attitudes to refugees now, it seems little has changed.
Using the cover of their operatic passion, Ida and Louise would travel back and forth to Germany. They went in and out using different borders to avoid becoming too familiar with the guards. In Germany they stayed in big hotels with high ranking Nazis to show they had nothing to hide. And why would anyone suspect two giggly spinster sisters? Under this cover they saved twenty nine lives. And as Ida was a prolific Mills and Boon writer she used her earnings to provide sponsorship for her refugees. It was a time where £25 would buy someone’s life.
It’s difficult writing about heroism because nobody decides to be a heroine. The word conjours up marble bust drama – I don’t want that. Living through it is one thing – talking about it – something else. And it’s such a big story that I can only concentrate on a small part of it. As I often tell my students you have to decide what you want to say – what you want the story to be about, regardless of genre.
I think I want this to be about two sisters, who can only do their work if they think of it as a romantic adventure and not a series of terrible risks.
I find scene breakdowns the most onerous part of writing because (to me) it’s the bricks and mortar. If your foundations are dodgy, it doesn’t matter how nice the furniture or the carpets, because the house is likely to totter and collapse. This is a big story so I have to be very careful about what I cover. And with radio – you can’t have loads of voices either – it’s usually a maximum of five per Woman’s Hour episode. I went away and wrote a scene breakdown and showed it to my producer who gently reminded me that I only have thirteen minutes to squeeze in a shitload of story. Start again.
So my basic rule is to start close up then pull back and reveal and finish each episode on a cliffhanger. And not have episode four and five as ‘tidy ups’. The whole story has to have a narrative arc but each episode also has to have a concurrent narrative arc and be interesting enough so a listener can drop in at episode three and have a clear idea of what’s going on.
This is so hard and I’ve only got thirteen minutes to fill! You know – over Christmas (I’m always late to catch up with Must Watch stuff – I STILL haven’t watched the box set of The Killing or Borgen) – I finally watched Series One and Two of Downton Abbey. And loved it. And wondered: How on earth does Julian Fellowes manage to sustain a narrative arc for each episode, within which are about fifteen characters all with their own storylines, laying markers and red herrings for future episodes AND creating an overall arc for the entire series, and finishing on a cliffhanger? Like juggling with spaghetti. I’m merely juggling with er . . . large pieces of pasta – you know – the big shell ones. But it’s still hard.