How I Got My Story And Characters
I was going to write a rather complex and intellectual article about creating a range of characters for my story The Peep Show. A sort of pseuds guide to character development but after several aborted attempts it seemed sensible and wise to just to tell a story about how I found my characters because, the truth is, I didn’t create them, they existed and I only had to find them, or at least, stumble across them. They existed in the world ready-formed, waiting to be kidnapped by an unscrupulous story teller. The basis of the story is also usurped from life, and all I had left to do was muse over a drink and fill in the details, which was no cross to bear on my part. My two leading ladies were both of the nature any red-blooded male would love to contemplate.
I was instructing a group of recidivist offenders in an art group while working for the probation service. It was the wisdom at the time that encouraging offenders to be creative would somehow rehabilitate them, though those of us at the sharp end were not as confident as the theorists. My experience of offenders was that they were already creative, but in a very subversive way and saw subverting the intention of the program they were on, as a form of sport. The character who became Lucien in my story was in such a group and was determined to bring the subject of sex into every conversation, both because it was apparently the only thing he was interested in, and because sex as a subject was pretty much a no-go area because of the inevitable sexist content of such conversation and the politically correct nature of the probation service. It was pretty well nigh on impossible to make sex a taboo subject for the simple reason that once you banned the subject, it would raise its head through metaphor and innuendo.
It was while objecting to a conversation of a sexual nature, Lucien--I will refer to the real life character who became Lucien as Lucien--brought up the hypocrisy of the ‘bourgeois tyranny’, his term, that they (offenders) were subjected to. I made the mistake of asking him, what hypocrisy? He then proceeded to tell me why he was there, which was for a series of offences for keeping a disorderly house and living off immoral earnings, offences which were widely used to clamp down on the sex industry. Lucien told us about his brother’s peep show and a leading politician who frequented it. I was skeptical, not because I am naïve about politicians, but because I just couldn’t see this particular politician being so brazen as to frequent a peep show in what was more or less the centre of the West End of London. Still, Lucien insisted on telling the group his tale.
It was a while after I had stopped working for the probation service and I was in the West End looking for some secondhand art books down Charing Cross Road, I decided to take a walk down some a side street for no other reason than I fancied a stroll and wanted to see what there was to discover. Someone shouted my name, I looked around and saw no one and was about to carry on when I heard my name being shouted again. There in a nondescript doorway that you would struggle to find, even if you were looking for it, stood Lucien wearing a big sleazy grin, which was almost his permanent countenance. The doorway did have a small neon sign over it, but being in the day, it wasn’t luminous enough to attract attention. I walked over to greet Lucien and ask him how he was getting on. It was then he invited me inside and what I found became the foundation of my story The Peep Show.
Lucien led me through a claustrophobic sex shop that felt more 70s than end of the 90s, which was when this meeting took place. We went through some curtains at the back and along a corridor full of men spying through peep holes. One or two looked distinctly like they were surreptitiously masturbating. I did my best to ignore them but noticed a strong smell of semen. I followed Lucien through a door at the end of the corridor of cubicles and up a flight of stairs to a grubby office. He invited me to sit down and poured me a whiskey and was not just telling me about his brother’s business, which he managed but couldn’t resist bragging about his conquests he had had in that particular office. I moved the conversation onto the story he told about a leading politician (who he named) who frequented his establishment, which was only a brisk walk from Parliament. He boasted quite a few well known people were clients, but it was good business to allow them to remain anonymous.
It was then that the character who became Sharon came into the office. She was wearing a cheap Japanese type kimono revealing the shape of her full curves the garment was supposed to hide. She had a quick exchange with Lucien in her whinny East London accent and was about to leave when Lucien asked her to validate his story about the leading politician frequenting the place. She laughed and turned to me, “oh yes,” she said, “this was his second home, he couldn’t get enough but then, they’re all the same aren’t they (politicians).” She left us alone and I finished my drink with Lucien and said my goodbyes. He asked me to come again and I told him I would, knowing I wouldn’t. However, as I walked back into the daylight, The Peep Show was already formulating in my head but I was aware there was a character missing, a character who would be the catalyst.
The missing character would eventually be a young art student who I got to know when I had a studio in East London and used to frequent a pub that was popular with artists by London Fields. Late in the evening there was the usual gang of us having a drink and chatting about this and that when I noticed this new face in the group. She was dating a friend who was more than twice her age and he appeared to be a somewhat paternalistic figure in their relationship. Like the Olivia character in The Peep Show, she was from an affluent middle-class background and had been praised to the hilt by her parents and teachers, only to find out she couldn’t hack art college. She just wasn’t creative enough and couldn’t cope with the competition and criticism of her peers and the indifference of the lecturers.
It was quite a few years before I would put these characters into a story, even though in my head, there is a whole range of stories they inhabit, Lucien and Sharon in particular. The peep show seemed to be their world, the place where they were comfortable and the dramas of their small lives play out. It is a world in which they are, if not happy prisoners, then prisoners who are contented with their lot, which was the impression I got from my impromptu visit to the peep show. It is now a world that inhabits my head and where Lucien and Sharon really do exist and play out a whole series of dramas which my imagination ignites.
London's backstreet "peep show" acts as a crossroads for four fascinating people: Lucien, the misogynistic and perverse owner who takes advantage of his sexy employees every chance he can get; gorgeous, young Olivia, who performs in the peep show as a way of rebelling against her strict upbringing; Sharon, the curvy and lusty career stripper; and George, a politician at the end of his game who seeks a diversion at the peep show from his miserable marriage and career, and comes out with more than he bargained for. The story unfolds as the characters clash together and come apart, and come together again. In the end, for each of them, sex is both the problem and the solution.
Keith Brighouse was born in Liverpool, England, in 1955 and grew up in a coal mining village in Yorkshire from the age of four. On leaving school he traveled widely, working in many countries, mostly employed in menial jobs, fitting in his art education along the way, which all gave him an education in life. He also worked in the probation service for a time, offenders being an important source of many of his ideas and caused him to question many mainstream values. He now devotes his time to art and writing poetry, dividing his time between Rotterdam and Berlin. Writing prose is a new venture.
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