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How to nail the perfect script, by The Colour Room’s Claire Peate

Autumn’s hottest film The Colour Room, a Sky Original film on Sky Cinema, is nearly here starring Phoebe Dynevor as pioneering 1920s ceramicist Clarice Cliff. We talk to its brilliant writer Claire Peate about pottery, writing tips - and how we should all channel a bit of Clarice

Your first ever feature film – and it stars Phoebe Dynevor and Matthew Goode and premieres on Sky. Not bad! How does it feel?

It’s amazing, I’m so thrilled! The Colour Room has been about five years in development and it takes such a long time to get things moving – getting the script into shape, then the casting and so on. But weirdly the pandemic seemed to just accelerate everything and we actually shot the film in the pandemic, during total lockdown. It was crazy.

Where did you get the idea for the film?

Growing up in the Midlands as I did, you can’t escape the factories and the potteries. I remember getting a little Clarice Cliff replica cup when Wedgwood were releasing replicas in the Eighties and I absolutely loved it – I couldn’t believe that this bright, amazing thing came out of Stoke. So I was intrigued. And then time went by and I started to ask myself more questions about Clarice Cliff because her life just didn’t make sense to me at all. And then when that happens as a writer, you think ‘Well, there’s a story there’.

In which case, how do you see her story?

A woman who beats all the odds. A working-class woman who becomes an art director really quickly. A rough and ready, unpolished woman who becomes the lover of a factory manager. And here is a woman who has an affair and is a professional in the 1930s. Here is a woman who cannot be stopped. But I think Clarice was also a breath of fresh air and good fun. She was tough but also caring – she would take the girls on her pottery team for a holiday every year.

We’re feeling empowered! How can we all be more ‘Clarice’?

I think not caring so much. Not caring what people expect us to be, or what society expects to be, or even what we expect ourselves to be. Just break the mould! And go for it, knowing you are going to ruffle feathers, but that’s okay. An artist from such a lowly background – and a woman – can take on the Art Deco world. Like Clarice Cliff, you can be anything you want.

After spending five years working on the film, what’s it like to see your vision come to life on the screen?

On location in Stoke: From left The Colour Room producer, Georgie Paget, writer Claire Peate, director Claire McCarthy and co-producer Thembisa Cochrane.

The director Claire McCarthy has done just the most amazing job. As a writer you don’t get much say at all once the script is completed but she did ask me who I had in mind for Clarice or Colley. I didn’t really have any idea – they were so in my head it was impossible for me to pin down one particular actor for each character. The only actor I could picture as a character was Bill Patterson to play the ‘establishment’ role of Gordon Forsyth, so I did ask if he could be approached. He said yes and I was so thrilled. I wasn’t allowed on set because of COVID, but I went to an outside shoot and I got to chat to Bill there, and that was just the best.

Did you get any feedback from the actors about your script?

The script went through a lot of development and one of the most interesting pieces of feedback was Matthew Goode’s changes to Colley Shorter. He really pushed on the fact that Colley had cancer – the idea that it would change your perception of how you feel about work, and leaving something lasting behind, because you are thinking perhaps of your own mortality. That brought out all the storyline around wanting Wilkinson’s to leave a legacy and a sort of twist on his existing story, so that was really helpful.

The Colour Room has a female writer, director and lead. How important is that to you?

I didn’t think it mattered so much – and then it increasingly mattered. I saw the benefit of it (except for the director and me both being called Claire, which made things trickier!) because we came at the story from a similar place. And of course the producers who optioned the script all those years ago are female. And the editor’s female. Actually I just got booked for a talk at a cinema and they were like, “Oh, your film is triple-F-rated” [the ‘gold standard’ rating where director and writer and lead actors are all female] and hadn’t really thought of the impact of that fact before – but this cinema was putting the film on because it’s triple-F rated. It’s sad that we have to mark out films this way, but I’m really proud that we’ve made it.

Much is made of the difficulties in telling female stories in TV and film. Do you feel it’s still a glass ceiling or an open door for female-centred or female-led scripts these days?

I think it is an open door. I was really surprised, actually, at how open people are, and how much they help you. When I won the New Writing competition BAFTA Rocliffe, I was given a mentor: Olivia Hetreed, who wrote Girl with the Pearl Earring, and she was incredible. She helped me so much. People are looking for female stories now which is great.

What are you writing now?

I’ve got four projects writing on-the-go at different stages but my favourite at the moment is a murder-mystery stately house screenplay called Death of an Era. I’m loving it, it’s really good fun! It’s about a group of friends who all get locked in a stately house overnight. And then there’s a murderer stalking the corridors, and they’re all in period costumes because someone’s stolen their clothes and phones, so it has the look and feel of a Thirties murder mystery, but in fact, it’s modern. The question it poses is how far we’ve come since 1936. The issues that were there then are still with us now, and it’s not going to be solved by treading lightly.

What’s your writing routine?

I’ll get the kids packed off to school, so at about 8.30am I’m ready to write. I’ll have breakfast and then just plan the day. I think it’s really good to say: today I want to have done ‘x’. Because you can get lost and just wander, can’t you? I’ll probably write for three or four hours in the morning, and most of my good work is done then. I have lunch and then, I don’t know, go to the gym, go for a swim, something like that. And then it’s the kids, and then the clubs, and I go into mum mode. Sometimes I’ll just plough on if it’s going really well — I could do six, seven, eight hours just writing, but that’s quite rare.

Er, sounds easy! Before we hand our notice in, give us your top tip for being a successful writer

Just try and turn up to the page, and if you don’t do so well, it’s okay. And you also have to give yourself permission to do badly – the first draft of everything is always shit! I think that’s why a lot of people stumble, because they think it should be polished straightaway. So practice like mad but do it for yourself – don’t write for anyone else and don’t force yourself to do something that you don’t like. Also, remember you don’t have to show it to anyone straightaway! I was expecting to be more successful early on, so I was quite disappointed that it took a long time, but it takes as long as it takes. You just have to plough on and say: no, I have something to say, I am valid, I am going to do it, and just have self belief.

Are you always inspired by women? We’re feeling inspired by you!

I write about men of course, but I do like looking at the female take on things, because to do a female take on something is to do a rebel take, because we are on the outside. And everyone loves a rebel’s story, don’t they? I think that’s why I love Clarice. She’s the ultimate rebel but hers is also a story of joy, and – oh my god, after the last two years we need joy, don’t we? We really need the equivalent of her cups and saucers in our lives.

The Colour Room, a Sky Original film, is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema 12 November

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