Helen Duncan – the greatest true story never brought to screen?

How many writers can be working on the same story at the same time? About 7,643 it turns out.

Imagine a story that brings together World War II, the supernatural, suspected fifth-columnists, Ian Fleming, Winston Churchill and a government cover-up. It sounds like a genre-mashing fantasy thought up after a dream and hastily scribbled on a pad – only to be deciphered and rejected in the cold light of the morning (as so many of bedside scribblings will testify…).

But it’s a true story – and possibly the most gripping, intriguing one I’ve come across. I won’t regale you with all the amazing ins-and-outs of Helen’s story – and the huge injustice of what happened to this innocent Scottish woman – you can read about her story here, here and here. And in lots of other places as well.

Helen’s story popped into my mind again this week, and caused me to dig out a spec script I wrote (my first) where I adapted the story, obviously without knowing anything of copyright, story rights etc. Instead of bothering with any possible legal issues, I lustily took to typing – pouring out my enthusiasm for the story into a weighty 130-page screenplay.

For reasons I can’t now remember, I ridiculously decided that there wasn’t enough intrigue in Helen’s story, so further mashed it up with another WWII story I was obsessed with at the time – that of the supposed great Gardnerian witchcraft attempt to repel Hitler’s Nazi army from Britain. Anyway, that was a story mash too far, and my poor first script collapsed under the weight of its (by now) 873,587 themes and fell heavily into a drawer to be forgotten.

A ship
If you’re a Helen-o-phile, you’ll know exactly what this is.

But I wasn’t able to completely forget about Helen’s story, so I took to tinkering with it again a year or so later – and by this time, I realised I might have to look into the rights to Helen’s story. I got in touch with her descendants and guardians of her story, and was surprised to learn that Helen’s story has passed through the hands of several writers and producers in recent years – including (apparently) one S. Spielberg. But still Helen’s story hasn’t made it to the big or small screen, other than in documentary form.

Since that time, I’ve come across – or heard about – three other writers who have adapted Helen’s story into screenplays for film or TV, but I still haven’t heard of anything approaching production anytime soon.

My time with Helen’s story is done – amazing though the story is. Perhaps I need to now set up a support group for all of the other writers who’ve become as obsessed with Helen as me. Are you one? Please get in touch, and bring ectoplasm.


Pegasus Opera Company: Unpacked and Reloaded

I was very proud to be part of Pegasus Opera’s Unpacked and Reloaded event last year (where has the time gone?!)

Pegasus is the UK’s leading professional multiracial touring opera company, based in Brixton, south London. They have a long track record of staging high quality productions and developing works that appeal to both traditional opera audiences and those unfamiliar with opera.

In 2014, I was asked to pitch an idea for a new opera libretto, not something I’d done before. After immersing myself in the world of opera stories, themes, characters – and of course, music – I came up with an initial idea, which I pitched, and then fleshed out with Lloyd Newton of Pegasus. I’ve worked on the story solidly since then, with numerous story drafts, workshops and lots and lots of listening to music from Purcell to Mozart, Puccini and many more.

The aim of my story – Let The Music In –  is to develop a new audience for opera, particularly from diverse sectors of the community, while marrying some contemporary musical idioms to the traditional in an original contemporary narrative.

Working with the opera libretto form

I wanted to write a story that fits with Pegasus’ vision of appealing to all audiences, and also brings opera to as wide ranging audience as possible through a compelling, universal story. Having watched, read and re-read many opera librettos, one (obvious) thing stands out – they are incredibly dramatic, dealing mainly in the biggest themes of love, death, betrayal and hope. The voices of the singers, and the chorus underscore the emotional depth of the story – in short, it’s a completely different way to convey a narrative. Opera certainly wears its heart on its sleeve!

As a screenwriter and playwright, I wasn’t used to writing in such broad themes, so it took a change of gear for me to get the story where I wanted it. After working the story into shape, several scenes of Let The Music In were staged in front of a live audience as part of the launch of Pegasus’ new suite of productions in the summer.

Breaking a larger story into key scenes for the evening’s showcase was a tricky proposition, so using the narrator was key – in the full performance, this function would be taken by the chorus.

The scenes were performed by the powerhouse voices of Ronald Samm, Anne Fridal and Bernard Abervandana, with Christopher Rodriguez as the narrator, accompanied by Waiyin Lee, and I must thank them all for giving everything on the evening!

We’re now developing Let The Music In for a full production in the near future.

Find out more about Pegasus here >