Today we travel to London to chat with Alex Pearl about how copywriting, British advertising, public toilets, reading novels, lunchtime recitals, cooking, English Heritage, Hogarth Worldwide, Oxford Castle Unlocked’s prison, and being accidentally locked in a local record shop come together as part of Alex’s past and current life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m a retired advertising copywriter living in London, UK. And I’ve turned to writing fiction in the twilight years of my writing career. My first book was a novella for children – ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’, which has just been selected by the Indie Project to become available to public libraries across the US and Canada. My recent full length novel, ‘The Chair Man’ is a thriller set in 2005 following the terrorist attack on London’s transport system.
How many published books do you have?
I consider myself a novice novelist. To date, I have only written one novella, one short story and one full-length novel. For my entire working life, I was employed by advertising agencies as a copywriter. And the only reason I became a copywriter was because my creative partner at art school could draw better than I could, while my punctuation was a little more proficient than his.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
It sounds strange but I only really fell in love with the craft of writing copy when I was thrown into the world of advertising at the beginning of the 1980s. While at art college my creative partner and I had admired the creativity of British advertising in print and TV and had attempted to emulate it by creating our own campaigns for various products. Perhaps one of our most successful attempts was for Diocalm diarrhea tablets, which featured a series of holiday snaps of public toilets around the world. If memory serves me correctly one of
the headlines read ‘Tourist spots to avoid this summer.’ One of these loos was distinctly skew-whiff and below it read the caption ‘Tower of Pisa’. And the strapline was: ‘Don’t let your stomach upset your holiday.’
Anyway, it wasn’t until I started writing body copy for clients that I really began to appreciate the craft of penning witty and pithy text. My first creative director, a lovely man by the name of Ken Mullen was inspirational. He is in fact the only copywriter to have had his headlines (for The Times) quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations. (These included gems like ‘Our sages know their onions’ and ‘No pomp; just circumstance.’) Thanks to his wit and energy, I was encouraged to immerse myself in great copywriting, as well as brilliant writing in the form of cinema, theatre and of course, literature.
This said, it would take around 30 years before I would attempt to write my first work of fiction. And it began towards the end of my copywriting career. At the time I was working for a large American agency that was being merged with one of New York’s oldest companies, FCB. The merger was something of a nightmare and was described amusingly at the time by a certain commentator as being akin to ‘the Hindenburg coming to the rescue of the Titanic’. The process was long and painful and many of the agency’s clients jumped ship in the process.
Work during this period dried up completely, so to occupy myself I began to write a novella for my children. By the time I was eventually made redundant, all I had to remove from my office was a portfolio of laminated press ads, a Collins Dictionary and a tatty manuscript entitled ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’, which made it into print in 2011.
What are you currently reading?
I have just finished reading ‘The Last Lemming’ by my good friend Chris Chalmers who, like me, used to be an advertising copywriter. This is his fifth book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It’s an engaging yarn that combines mystery, humour and a dash of romance to great effect. In Mr Chalmers’ inimitable style, we are introduced to the lives of two disparate central characters: in the form of TV naturalist, Prof Leo Saunders and Claire Webster, a young Personal Trainer with aspirations to become an investigative journalist.
There are two distinct threads to the narrative: one set in the mid 1980s and the other in the present-day narrated by our amateur female journalist. The plot involves Saunders admitting on Youtube just before dying that his one claim to fame – the discovery of the Potley Hill lemming – was in fact a hoax, and that a certain advertising luminary had ‘blood on his hands.’ While the stunt is eventually written off as nothing more than unreliable ramblings of a sick man, Webster decides to investigate and use her findings for her dissertation on her journalism course.
This entertaining and deftly plotted tale involves a cast of colourful characters including some of the furry variety. It’s a skilfully woven yarn with some lovely descriptive passages that establish time and place. And in the best tradition, there are, of course, dead bodies.
The other book I have just started is a dystpoian climate novel ‘By the Feet of Men’ by Grant Price. This is a new genre to me, and this one is certainly compelling and well written. My next book in the queue is the bestselling ‘Beneath a Scarlet Sky’ by Mark Sullivan. Set during the second world war in Italy, the novel has received rave reviews and I have been meaning to read it for some while, so I’m looking to get stuck into it shortly.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
Seven years ago my wife suddenly became very ill and ended up in a wheelchair. It’s been a tough journey for the whole family, but my wife is a very strong and resilient person and it was her strength of character that sparked the idea behind my novel, ‘The Chair Man’ whose protagonist is the victim of the London terrorist attack in 2005.
My central character is also a strong and determined by nature, and the idea behind the storyline grew from this kind of determination to succeed against all the odds. And, of course, I have inevitably come to know a reasonable amount about spinal conditions and the very real challenges of being wheelchair-bound; as well as the impact it can have on family dynamics. At the same time, I wanted to write a thriller that revolved around Islamic terrorism.
So combining these elements seemed like a good idea. The fact that very few wheelchair users take central stage in modern thrillers was also a huge incentive to redress the imbalance.
Tell us more about ‘The Chair Man’.
‘The Chair Man’ revolves around Michael Hollinghurst, a successful corporate lawyer living a comfortable, suburban life in leafy North West London. But on 7 July 2005, his life is transformed when he steps on a London underground train targeted by Islamist suicide bombers. While most passengers in his carriage are killed, Michael survives the explosion but is confined to a wheelchair as a result.
Coming to terms with his predicament and controlling his own feelings of guilt as a survivor conspire to push him in a direction that is out of character and a tad reckless. In a quest to seek retribution, he resorts to embracing the internet and posing as a radical Islamist in order to snare potential perpetrators.
Much to his surprise, his shambolic scheme yields results and is brought to the attention of both GCHQ and a terrorist cell. But before long, dark forces begin to gather and close in on him. There is seemingly no way out for Michael Hollinghurst. He has become, quite literally, a sitting target.
What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?
I spend my time reading novels; browsing the internet; watching movies; listening to music and going to lunchtime recitals in London; cooking; and pretty mundane household chores.
Before COVID19 struck, I also volunteered as an Explainer at Kenwood House, a historic house owned by English Heritage. Here I’d explain the house’s history to visitors and give the occasional talk about the house’s art collection. I love history and art. During COVID 19 I gave a presentation to 120 members of English Heritage on the subject of John Constable and his place in the history of landscape painting. You can view the presentation here:
What is the most amusing, crazy or inspiring thing that has ever happened to you?
There is one fairly surreal episode that comes to mind. When I was in my teens I was something of a classical music enthusiast and an avid collector of vinyl records. During my Joseph Haydn phase I was keen to collect recordings of all the symphonies written by the great maestro – he wrote no fewer than 106. Anyway, on one of many visits to the local record shop one Christmas Eve, I spent a very pleasant hour or so browsing through the shop’s collection, reading the sleeve notes, and deciding which recording to spend my pocket money on.
When finally deciding on a particular disc, I took said record to the counter and waited patiently for someone to serve me. The shop had been pretty quiet, so I imagined staff were taking it fairly easy in the back room with tea and festive mince pies. Some minutes passed and still nobody materialised, so I began to cough loudly in an exagerated fashion to advertise my presence. But still nobody came. Finally, and with some indignation, I went behind the counter and stepped into the back room. It was empty. The place had been abandoned.
Dumbstruck by this bizarre state of affairs, I reluctantly put down the the disc and stomped over to the front door and yanked it hard. In doing so, I very nearly pulled my arm off. It was locked. I was alone amid the twinkling lights and Christmas tree, and it looked as if I’d be here for the duration of Christmas and Boxing Day, and would have to forego Christmas turkey, not to mention Christmas pudding and custard.
Fortunately, the shop did have a telephone (this was well before the days of mobile phones). This was to be my lifeline. I immediately called my father and he got onto the local police, who eventually tracked down a caretaker who possessed a set of keys. Trouble was he lived some considerable distance from the shop, and it was at least two hours before he arrived with the keys and was able to release me from my temporary prison. Needless to say, I never did manage to collect all 106 symphonies by Haydn and my enthusiasm for his compositions was never quite the same.
What is your most extravagant form of book marketing?
My most ambitious form of marketing was filming a trailer for my first book. Here’s the story behind its production:
There I was in the bar of the Holiday Inn in Welbeck Street with my old partner in crime, John Mac who is an advertising photographer, when the subject turned to my children’s book (Sleeping with the Blackbirds), which I’d written some little while back.
John has boundless energy and is always looking to get involved in interesting projects, and it was his suggestion that I try and market the thing. I should explain here that the book was originally written for my kids and published by Penpress to raise money for the homeless charity Centrepoint. But following the publication and the drafting of a commercial participation agreement that released me from any tax liabilities, my wife became seriously ill and the book was put on the back burner and received precious little in the way of marketing.
As it happens, I had already written a script to promote the book that had featured a letter written by the tale’s protagonist, 11-year-old schoolboy, Roy Nuttersley that appears at the beginning of the book. As an ungainly young boy who’s being tormented by bullies, Roy writes to Amnesty International (only he refers to the charity as Amnesia International) pleading for their help.
I shared my script with John who loved the intrigue of it, but wasn’t entirely convinced by all my visual thoughts, which were pretty static. “We just need something more visually dynamic,” he said while scratching the top of his head.
In the letter narrated by Roy, we learn that his tormentor, Harry Hodges is the son of a criminal who is in prison, and it was this section of the script that excited John. “We have to find a prison to film in mate. Then we can move away from beautifully lit domestic still lifes and into atmospheric interiors with eery sound effects.” I could see exactly where he was coming from and nodded in agreement. This was to be John’s first valuable contribution.
His next visual idea concerned the very last scene in which Roy talks about offering his services free of charge for any future publicity. My original visual was a simple newspaper headline taken from the book. But John hated it – quite rightly. I didn’t much care for it myself. He gave me one of his funny looks and I could tell he was deep in thought. “Look. It has to end with a dramatic crescendo – a flourish.
I know… we can have a load of paparazzi shot against a black background firing off flashes in quick succession followed by a dramatic shot of a newspaper falling onto paving stones in slow motion.” The thing with John is that he makes it all seem so easy.
But he hadn’t quite finished. “And to finish the whole thing, why don’t we have a flock of animated blackbirds flying across the screen, forming a black background out of which we could reverse out some nice reviews?”
Most conversations of this nature would probably have just ended here. After all, the logistics of producing a short film like this to John’s exacting standards would require a huge effort. But as with everything John throws himself into, he doesn’t just do ideas; he carries them through. Within a couple of days he had produced an exquisite black and white storyboard that he had photographed himself and had arranged a meeting with his contacts at Hogarth Worldwide – London’s premier post-production house. Needless to say, they loved it and were keen to produce it.
From this moment onwards the project began to take on a life of its own. I found myself playing the roles of location scout, stylist and casting director, all rolled into one.
First off, we had to find the right voice for our eleven-year-old protagonist Roy Nuttersley. So at John’s suggestion I ran an ad on the website Star Now, and set up an audition in the bar area of the Regents Park Holiday Inn. This is a perfect space for voice auditions as it’s large, quiet and free. Ten parents answered the ad on behalf of their 11-year-old sons, along with one chap of 40 who was keen to audition for the part himself. Needless to say, we politely declined his offer but arranged to audition all the other candidates.
We were very fortunate to have so many young actors to choose from, and by mid-day, we had pencilled two possible candidates, but following lunch this changed with the arrival of Jacob Tofts. His mother deliberately sat at another table so as not to distract her son, and Jacob took a quick look at the script and then proceeded to read it with such natural expression and feeling that John and I knew immediately that our quest was over. We’d found Roy Nuttersley. The following week we arranged to record Jacob at one of Hogarth’s lovely sound studios. Jacob is not only very talented, but also utterly charming and personable. I have no doubt that this young lad has a very bright future ahead of him.
Finding a prison to film in isn’t one of life’s easiest tasks. John’s initial idea was to use the prison set at Wimbledon Film Studios – the very same set that had been used by TV productions like The Bill. But we soon discovered that the studios had gone into liquidation in 2014 and that the film set had been torn down.
So I looked into finding decommissioned prisons that one could hire out. But the trouble here was that these looked too modern for a suburban fantasy, were miles outside London and were also prohibitively expensive to hire. Most locations charge for the day; we only needed to film for a couple of hours. So it was with enormous relief that I stumbled upon Oxford Castle Unlocked, the 1,000 year old site that comprises various historic edifices including a crypt, and yes, a prison – or to be more precise, Prison D-Wing. The gaol was built in the 1800s and remained in use as a high security prison until 1996, and the whole site is now run as a museum. I was on the blower right away and discovered that we could film for an hour before the place opened to the general public. With these facts quickly established it was time to arrange our first recce.
As we thought, the prison with its corridors, creaky gates and Dickensian cells was absolutely perfect for our purposes. The only problem was that John was going to need a minimum of two hours to set up and shoot at least four sequences, so he took the manager aside and suggested we double the fee if the museum could double the filming time by opening up 2 hours earlier.
It worked, and two weeks later we were back, this time with camera, lenses, lighting equipment and a fully kitted out prison guard in the form of one Philip Francis. Phil does a lot of film extra work and looked the part in his prison guard’s uniform, which I had managed to secure from Foxtrot costumiers and ebay. While John positioned his camera and lighting for the first shot Phil told me about his previous jobs. Among other things he’d been a gardener and had lovingly tended the late Douglas Adams’s garden.
With the central section of the film in the can, we now had to find props and a studio for all the other scenes. My first port of call would be The Stockyard in the less than salubrious NW10; an extraordinary Aladdin’s Cave of a place. Whatever you need for your film production, you’ll find it here, whether it’s great big Grecian columns, Norman arches, statues, water mills, petrol pumps, bus stations – you name it. With the constant stream of vast articulated lorries coming and going and carrying off enormous quantities of props for some far-flung multi-million pound productions, I felt something of a fraud. After all, all I needed was a couple of antique book shelves, some old books and a few fake rubber flagstones. The lovely Reg who’s been part of the place man and boy helped us find everything we needed and arranged for a couple of strapping lads to put it all in the back of my old jalopy of a car.
Then I had to spend the best part of a week tracking down all our other props – everything from flooring and tablecloths to camping stoves, teddy bears and kettles – all of which had to look right in camera in black and white. This entailed trawling the internet where possible, but more often than not, traipsing round fabric suppliers, DIY warehouses and specialist shops.
The studio we chose to use was Photofusion in Brixton. It’s a good space, and being Brixton, doesn’t charge West End prices. It took John three full days to shoot most of our set-ups here, including the paparazzi, one of whom was yours truly minus spectacles.
The opening shot of the clock was shot in John’s living room, and the final setup of the stack of newspapers falling onto the paving slabs was filmed in my garden at night. For authenticity, I mocked up the front page of the fictitious Echo that appears in the book and even went as far as setting the type for the editorial.
John was keen to create a rain machine for this scene to add atmosphere, but as luck would have it, the heavens opened for real. This, however, was very bad news indeed, and caused John to swear and curse profusely, as it meant he’d be unable to use his very expensive tungsten lighting, which would be open to the elements. The alternative was battery operated LED lighting, which was fine until John realised that he’d need some ‘fill-in light’ to highlight the side of the newspaper stack. After much further swearing and cursing I offered my mobile phone, which has a powerful LED torch. Surprisingly, it worked beautifully.
While my son helped operate the Heath Robinson rain machine, I had the unenviable task of dropping the stack of newspapers onto the fake paving stones while being rained on by the rain machine as well as the real thing. I think we did about 30 takes, and my son had a lot of fun soaking his old man in the process.
With everything filmed, it was back to Hogarth to talk about music and sound effects. From my own experience of making commercials, music can often be something of a sticking point, but in this event, we got lucky from the outset. Andy the brilliant young sound engineer at Hogarth played us two tracks that he thought had the right feel. The first one was very good, but the second was absolutely perfect, and John very cleverly suggested building a ticking clock into the rhythm section to tie in with our opening scene.
A couple of days later, we were invited by Vee, Hogarth’s senior editor to come and have a look at the first rough cut. Seeing this on the big screen for the first time was quite something, and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It worked really well, and little Jacob’s voice sang out as clear as a bell, while both music and sound effects added just the right level of atmosphere and intrigue.
The animated blackbirds sequence was the last piece of the jigsaw, and as John rightly said when he had the idea in the first place, it would be “a beautiful and memorable way to finish the film.” It’s mind-boggling how much work goes into producing a two minute film. But you know instinctively when it gives you goosebumps after the first viewing that you’ve done something right, and that all that hard work had been worth it.
You can see see the result of our efforts here:
It was great to have you on MTA. The ‘Sleeping with Blackbirds’ trailer is fantastic! I really enjoyed it. Wishing you all the best, Alex! – Camilla
Reading from ‘The Chair Man’
Where to find The Chair Man:
The book is available from Amazon as a paperback and ebook. It is also available as an ebook from Nook, Apple, Kobo and Smashwords.
Reading from ‘Sleeping with the Blackbirds’ by Nigel Havers:
Social media: https://twitter.com/AlexBPearl
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