I first met Roy Battersby in the early 00’s having been invited onto the Performing Arts Labs (PAL), created by the magnificent Susan Benn and run by much-missed Corinne Cartier. PAL was engineered to deep dive into screenplays, allowing the writers to get to grips with their first drafts.
To this end, 10-days were spent holed up in darkest Sevenoaks, with each day devoted to a single writer. Along with three others, I was there as an actor to provide rehearsed readings of each screenplay, then potentially workshop characters or scenes, as needed.
Roy, along with Roger Smith were the Writer Mentors. It was happy times, in a warm and supportive environment for the writers to feel they could fall flat on their faces, but yet learn and develop as needed, within a caring crucible of creativity, of focus that PAL afforded.
A few years later, after the sad demise of PAL due to funding cuts, I myself applied for the Film School MA in Screenwriting. Having then realised the long-term Screenwriting tutor left a lot to be desired on the warm and supportive front, I walked into Corinne’s new office (now NFTS Head of Screenwriting…) and asked whether it might be possible to get Roy and Roger to mentor me instead.
The next couple of years cemented our friendship and thereafter, Roy took me out to their place in Umbria to meet his Italian friends, spend time in front of the log burner, chew the fat and – most importantly, harvest the olives. This we did for several years, combining our small harvest with the neighbours and then divvying up the resultant oil, to bring home in a 5L can, suitably packed, on Ryanair.
Roy loved Umbria more than anything, the time he spent there made his heart sing. 20 or so years previously, he and Jude bought a very rustic farmhouse nestled in an olive grove, to then spend a lot of love doing it up, even converting the little pig-house into a writing den.
High on the valley rim, it sat in majesty above Bevagna, the fortified Gualdo Cattaneo off to the right, and mythical Assisi in the distance on the opposite side of the valley. Just beautiful.
Of course, I would pick his brain endlessly for stories from his career as a director of Plays For Today, of Leeds United, A Touch of Frost, Between The Lines, Cracker, Morse, etc.. a whole stack, back in the days when BBC made truly seminal drama. One of his pieces was decisive in curtailing old-school ECG (electric shock therapy) here in the UK. In 1999, he was finally awarded a BAFTA for Services to British Television.
Accordingly, Roy was a man for a yarn and boy, did he have a few. Whether of his childhood, his father, his work, the people he’d met over the years, family, friends, everything really. Though he would agree it had taken him a while to arrive there, I found him to be the most generous-spirited man, kind, patient willing to share. Most of all though, we would just laugh. He was the easiest of companions with whom to while away hours, sans TV, sans wi-fi.
One of the best stories that surfaced very much out of left field, was tied with the fact that he was once a sturdy spoke in the wheel of Seventies Socialism, back when it meant something. So much so that he met a good many world leaders in that capacity, including Yasser Arafat.
On one such trip to the middle east – I’m not sure where exactly, he told a remarkable story of being gifted a pen. Now, it’s said the pen is mightier than the sword, and in this case it most certainly was.
For this pen doubled as a miniature gun, firing one small round, at will: The idea being you got yourself close enough, perhaps sitting opposite your enemy, pointing the pen at their eye, then clicking the button.
Hooked, I put another log on the fire to retake my perch on a creaking wicker chair and the story then continued, something along these lines:
“So, what did you do with it? Surely you couldn’t get that back through Customs?”
“Well, I couldn’t very well leave it in the hotel.. I didn’t know quite what to do with it.”
“So what did you do?”
“Brought it home”
Now it needs to be clarified that this was in the days when international travel wasn’t the subject of x-rays and suchlike. One did however need to appear calmness personified, when under scrutiny at the desk.
“I decided to stick it in my jacket and walk it through Customs.”
“And how did that go?”
“Well, I was pretty nervous. I put the thing in my top pocket – hidden in plain sight as it were – but as I walked towards the Officer, more nervous than I thought, I’d been toying with the spare round in my pocket and, as I approached the desk I naturally pulled my hand out only for it to work its way out and drop on the floor, clacking about for all the world like a ball-bearing…”
“Oh, my God. What did you do…? Did you pick it up?”
“I carried on walking, maintaining eye contact with the man in front of me, and just… hoped for all the world he hadn’t noticed.”
“And he hadn’t…”
“It would appear not.”
A much-needed pause as I took this all in, the scene playing out in my mind’s eye.
“So. How many potential targets had you lined up in your head over the flight home?”
“A few..” he chuckled.
“So what happened? What did you do with it?”
“Well, I couldn’t just drop it, or… put it in the bin.. so it sat in the pencil pot on my desk for some years, with my other pens and pencils.”
“Hidden in plain sight..”
“Exactly. Then some years later, there was a loud pop and the bullet lodged itself in the ceiling.”
Of course, you never know when your last trip is going to be until it’s gone. I shall miss him keenly. Best friend? I don’t really know what that means if I’m honest. I find so many friends complement different facets of one’s personality. But he was the greatest of friends. His second favourite word beginning with C was ‘curmudgeon’ and he would most certainly profess to be that.
Roy was willing to share his darkness, that’s what I think really drew him to me. An immense mind, he was my compass. Most of all though, I shall miss his chuckle.
Roy died last Wednesday in LA, aged 87.