By Their Small Talk Shall You Know Them…

I went to the tip the other day to get rid of a busted door and a load of polystyrene. Thanks to lockdown it seemed like a massive expedition. And as for a trip to Waitrose, well, the best day out I’ve had for … three months.

Somewhere near the fruit and veg we realised that the previous day was our wedding anniversary. In what is now a fine tradition for us, we have never remembered a single wedding anniversary, not even the first, on the day it occurred. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. We pushed the boat out and bought a box of Ferrero Roche, mainly on the grounds that our Chinese daughter-in-law has an endearing problem pronouncing the name. Her version still better than my Mandarin pronunciation of any word you care to choose…

So it was back home with the Ferrerrero Roche (as Chelsea calls it) to more telly. I’ve been avoiding like the plague repeats of my own stuff. Seeing that an episode of this or that is on is like being hit over the head with a milestone, so I steer clear of it.

We homed in on “The Secrets She Keeps” on iPlayer. It’s an Australian adaptation of a novel by Michael Robotham and it’s a big, tense story – pigeon-holed as a psychological drama. I’ve not read the book but I can imagine that the author relished the dark narrative. The dramatisation, however, is oddly unbelievable, removed from reality, for one very basic reason. The small talk, which is the life blood of any novel or dramatisation, was either absent or simply token stuff of the “Hi, how are you?” kind. There are precious few exchanges of sharp, natural or poignant dialogue which means that we hardly get to know the characters. And if you don’t know them, why would you care about the mayhem they’re going through. The actors (some of them superb) spend their time either demonstrating or telling the story when we should really be reining that in through what they say to each other over the breakfast table and beyond. That’s the dramatic convention which made British soap operas so successful. The big ones, starting with the brilliant “Coronation Street”, were full of people who spoke in the viewer’s language. So credible were they that you wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they’d moved in down the street.

 The Secrets She Keeps book by Michael Robotham

Not so with the characters in “The Secrets She Keeps”. For all that the six episodes were crammed full of story and intertwining relationships, the thing finally fell flat because you wound up not believing, not remembering a damn thing about it. As a well-known TV producer used to say, “there wasn’t a memorable line in it, darling.”

Compare it to another Australian drama, again an adaptation from a book, “The Slap” by Christos Tsiolkas. It was made and shown in 2011 but I can recall great swathes of it simply because the dialogue was so natural, so believable and it surrounded, indeed it fed, the central path of the story. That narrative began as a small event, some would say a trivial one. At a barbecue an adult slaps a friend’s child and slowly, slowly all hell breaks loose. The parents of the child call the police and those present at the barbecue begin to take sides. The drama which ensues is made believable by the revealing chit chat, the conversations with hidden hidden stings in them, the casual exchanges that turn out to be crucial … all disguised as simple small talk. I can’t remember the book in detail, but I can remember wanting to stop the characters going any further, to just keep their mouths shut and move on.

As in all good drama or literature, they didn’t.

I feel that we have, at the cottage, settled into a necessary acceptance and routine with regard to this wretched virus and the situation we find ourselves in; for me it involves – writing – dogs – bonsai – online pilates etc. I hope that you and your nearest and dearest have found your own ways to settle into what looks like a long haul ahead of us all.

The next Hawk book will be on the way very soon.

Until then, stay safe, look after each other, and of course, get yourself the Hawk series on Amazon!



Douglas Watkinson is an English novelist, playwright and screenwriter.

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