Tag: writing

Slaters gonna slate: scriptwriting for Llechwedd Slate Caverns

At the beginning of my freelance career I decided to call myself a “copywriter, content creator and creative thinker”. You need something to put on the business cards after all. It alliterates in satisfying fashion and its internal rhythms remind me of the clickety-clank of an old mechanical typewriter. Not that I can remember such things…

But does it really tell the whole story? Well, sort of… assuming you take the catch-all term “content” to mean every kind of writing that isn’t traditional advertising copy. Blogging, journalism, arts reviews… I do all these things and more. They all involve the creative use of language. In this buzz-wordy digital age, they’re all “content”.

And then there’s scriptwriting too. I’ve done my fair share of that.

Video scripts for Toyota, radio ads for MBNA, even short plays performed at theatres such as the Sheffield Crucible and Liverpool Everyman – from shameless sales pieces to serious art, I’ve scripted them all. But one of my most exciting script projects of recent times was completed just a few months ago, and the end product was finally launched at the end of March in the same week as my first freelance anniversary.

Llechwedd Slate Caverns is a historical visitor attraction sunk deep into the mountains below Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales. Since 1972, the caverns have been telling the story of the Welsh slate mining industry, welcoming visitors into the chilly voids 500 feet below ground and leading them through these spectacular man-made spaces.

The new deep mine tour at Llechwedd Slate Caverns scripted by Damon Fairclough.

In June 2015 I went along to the caverns to experience the tour for myself. I learnt that the old audio-visual technology – equipment which had done sterling service in aid of the Llechwedd story for a number of years – was going to be replaced by some far more up-to-date kit. And I was invited to develop a new script for the Llechwedd deep mine tour – a story that would bring the slate miners’ tales to life and help create an emotional bond between the present and the past.

Whether writing for TV, film, radio or stage – or slate mine – scriptwriting is often a matter of working as creatively as possible within parameters established by budget and technical capability. In this case, the project was being managed by Anthony Roberts of ZED Creative, who talked me through plans for high quality projections, animations, audio and augmented reality – all offering a world of possibilities – balanced by restrictions on where certain equipment could be placed, time limits and so on. The aim was to develop a visitor experience that would be both educational and seriously entertaining – something that would live long in each visitor’s memory while never skimping on the historical facts.

Once I knew how many caverns were involved and where certain activities had to be located, I could begin to add some storytelling flesh to the technical bones. My story would be set in 1856, seven years after slate was discovered at Llechwedd. After travelling down into the caverns via the steepest cable railway in Britain, visitors would follow the voices and images of a single slate mining family; by listening to these individual experiences and witnessing some vivid visual effects, I hoped that the Llechwedd story would come alive like no other tour of its kind.

I’m not going to give away any details about what we achieved, as like any decent drama, much of the pleasure lies in discovering the surprises for yourself. You can find Llechwedd Slate Caverns on a map here, and no doubt Google will be able to tell you the best route from your house. But rest assured, there are surprises. Quite a few of them in fact. There’s also a lot of cutting-edge equipment – and I don’t mean the blades they used to finish off the roof slates. Projection screens, iPads, explosions and smoke effects – they all play their part in telling the tale I wrote.

This fresh new deep mine tour opened to the public on March 23 this year, but like some kind of velvet-rope-dodging hanger-on, I was there the previous day for the VIP launch. There was still a little last minute nipping and tucking under way – as expected for such a technically complex underground installation – but I was shivering with pride as I emerged into the deep dark world of the first cavern and heard – and saw! – my miners come alive for the very first time.

And that’s the thing about scriptwriting. When I completed my part in this project, the script was just words on a screen. But in the subsequent months, those words were filtered through the creative minds of actors, video makers, animators, sound engineers and audio-visual experts, and only by experiencing the tour in those atmospheric underground tunnels can you actually understand what my carefully constructed words have now become.

So if any readers do make it to Llechwedd, I’d love to hear what you think. And you can speak freely, because like most copywriters, when it comes to taking criticism I have a thick skin.

I definitely hope you enjoy it. But I’m not afraid of being slated.

The new deep mine tour at Llechwedd Slate Caverns scripted by Damon Fairclough.


Images and videos by Anthony Roberts/ZED Creative.



Human after all: how a copywriter’s dream came true

When I took the first steps on my freelance copywriting journey back in March (first steps as a freelancer that is; as an agency copywriter, I’d already circumnavigated the marketing globe) I had a few modest goals in mind.

Naturally, I wanted to do great work for wonderful clients, helping them achieve big things through the power of well-picked words. I also quite fancied seeing inside a bunch of agencies and businesses having previously been at the same desk for <mumble mumble> years. And, ultimately, I hoped to earn enough cash to ensure that beans-on-toast remained a snack rather than a staple, and to afford the odd bottle of very strong, eccentrically-hopped craft ale.

Modesty and/or shame forbid me from detailing the ways in which I may or may not have hit these targets, so instead, let me round off 2015 by talking about one project I would never have dared hope might come my way.

The Human approach

Sheffield’s Human Studio is one of the creative outfits I’ve followed from afar for years. Another would be the unfeasibly influential Designers Republic – the same studio where Human founder Nick Bax worked for 17 years. Another favourite of mine is Build, founded by Mike and Nicky Place after Mike left, erm, the Designers Republic. There’s a theme, certainly.

Human Studio badges

I say I’ve followed Human from afar, but in fact it has sometimes been from quite close. When I created a sci-fi backstory for the Sheffield electronic music label Central Processing Unit, it was Human who were creating the label’s super-minimal branding. I’d met Nick Bax too, once upon a lifetime ago, when I was creative writer at the games developer Psygnosis, and the Designers Republic were working with us on the game Wipeout.

But although we were known to each other, Nick Bax’s email in June this year still came as a surprise. He wanted to know if I was interested in working with Human on a project – an exhibition catalogue springing from their work with a gallery in Tokyo.

As an ad industry professional, I felt I should perhaps remain calm and measured in my response. As a hopeless fanboy, I felt I should perform the email equivalent of a high-five while simultaneously punching the air.

Guess which side of me won.

Sheffield to Tokyo

The job was briefed one memorable afternoon in July when I travelled to Human HQ in Sheffield’s Park Hill flats. (I could take this story down another diversion at this point, as those flats have exercised my thoughts on many occasions over the years, not least in this recent interview with the painter Mandy Payne.) Nick explained that they were planning to create a collection of 3D objects for the exhibition – sculptures I suppose – but that instead of transporting them to Tokyo by air or sea, the objects would be sent as digital files to be 3D printed at an event in the Calm & Punk gallery.

3D objects by Human Studio

So what was required for the introduction to the Human catalogue? Nick was pleasingly, yet also worryingly, vague. I inferred that he didn’t want a conventional studio biography or ‘explanation’ of what the work was about, and that was a good thing. On the other hand I felt the tantalising creative terror that comes when you know something is expected of you, but you’re not entirely sure that you’ll be able to work out what it is.

However, all the best projects begin that way, and my thoughts were duly set in motion.

I won’t detail the night sweats, mood swings and general creative thrashing around that accompanied my efforts to come up with an executable idea. Suffice to say, I delivered the goods on time and, six or so weeks later, I had colonised the first six pages of the exhibition catalogue, in English with side-by-side Japanese translation.

The storytelling urge

My piece was a short story about matter transference – or rather, about the way that the transfer of physical objects between Sheffield and Tokyo might evolve over the years. It took the form of three conversations: the first was concerned with events 40 years ago when a friend’s dad brought a calculator back from Japan; the second detailed Human’s use of 3D printing in the present day; the third speculated about where this technology may lead – in this fictional case, to the transference of humans at the press of a button.

Sheffield>>>Tokyo+<3 catalogue cover, Human Studio

The exhibition, called SHEFFIELD>>>TOKYO+<3, took place in October 2015: the files were delivered, the objects were printed, the gallery put them on display. The catalogue is slim and seductive; it is beautifully designed, of course, and adds context without over-explanation. If the objects and their mode of delivery raise questions, the catalogue doesn’t answer them; rather, it raises a few questions of its own.

For me, working with Human Studio and creating this piece remains one of 2015’s biggest thrills. Had I allowed myself to believe that work like this might come my way, it’s exactly the kind of job I’d have dreamt up. It’s my hope that this kind of storytelling – not a world away from the kind of work I was doing 20 years ago with Psygnosis – feeds back into every project I’m involved with, as even the most functional copy can come alive when you add a little storytelling magic.

As I said, that’s my hope. It’s for my clients to decide whether it’s what I achieve. But it’s what I’ll continue striving for as my professional odyssey continues in 2016, and my tentative freelance steps become giant creative strides.

Sheffield>>>Tokyo+<3 catalogue, Human Studio


You can read more of my words about Sheffield’s Designers Republic here.


When meaning wears a mask

One way I love to keep in touch with the world of words is to go to the theatre. I do it quite a lot. Indeed, I’ve written a few long articles in the past about theatres I’ve known and loved – the Sheffield Crucible and the Liverpool Everyman in particular – but those pieces tended to be about the buildings first, the words and the performances second. I’ve always felt that theatres as physical spaces cast their own spell just as much as the work that takes place within them, but of course, that doesn’t mean that the words that make up each play don’t matter. Unequivocally, they do. And if you want to experience language in its infinite variety, regular theatre attendance is an excellent way to do it.

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan

Last week I saw Terence Rattigan’s 1941 play Flare Path at Liverpool Playhouse, a drama set in a small hotel near an RAF airfield during one night in World War Two. The hotel is frequented by airmen and their wives and girlfriends, and when the men are called to carry out a bombing raid on Berlin, we experience the stresses and strains for ourselves – but vicariously, via the partners left at home. While the production itself never quite hit its target – perhaps the piece is simply too of its time to really cut through the fog of the intervening years – I was interested in the way that the brittle wartime dialogue used understatement and euphemism to conceal, and yet also communicate, the extremes of human emotion.

The inability of the British to truly speak their minds was one of Rattigan’s regular themes, but it seemed particularly heightened in this play, dealing as it does with Bomber Command’s terrifying nightly sorties into enemy territory – journeys which for many would turn out to be one-way trips. In our day and age, we might expect that such emotional torment would result in outpourings of verbal anguish, but in Flare Path, there are pursed lips, a few pink gins, and banalities about having to muddle through.

I thought about the way that in my professional world, it’s the precise use of language that matters: the copywriter’s task is usually to convey a specific meaning in an artful yet also functional way. It’s always worth remembering, however, that specific meanings can come in many guises, and in spoken conversation, the words we utter are often filtered through layers of deliberate obfuscation and perceived propriety. During the time of Terence Rattigan’s great success – and of era-defining films such as Brief Encounter, among many others – it seems that inner emotional eruptions could be signified by the use not of highly explicit and demonstrative speech, but by using feeble words – language with its wings clipped. Sometimes, not saying what you mean can serve a purpose, and to a copywriter, there’s more than one way to mean what you say.