When Mike Cullen wrote his play, The Collection, he was riding high on the back of his debut work, The Cut. Where that play had looked at the aftermath of the 1984 miners strike, The Collection focused on the equally gritty if somewhat murkier world of debt collectors preying on the most vulnerable sector of society. That was in 1995, when the gap between rich and poor was widening by the day. As Rapture Theatre revive The Collection some eighteen years on for a Scottish tour, the austerity culture that has become the norm for many now make the themes of Cullen's play appear more pertinent than ever. As with The Cut, the Tranent-born former mine-worker's second play came from a very real place.
“It came from my personal experience in the 1980s when I was on the dole and in debt,” Cullen explains. “One company in particular, the tactics they used were pretty dodgy. I remember one time my young daughter getting to the phone before I could, and the guy from the company engaging her in conversation and asking her all sorts of questions.
“Since then I've done loads more research, and I know that the play is far more relevant than it was when it was first done. There are all these high interest loan companies operating legally, but on TV all you see are debt collectors represented as these cartoon characters. So although The Collection came from my personal experience, I was kind of driven, and still am, to try and make all of my plays modern classical tragedies.”
For this production of The Cut, following an earlier revival by Rapture in 2006, Cullen has revisited the play for the first time since it was first done.
“I hadn't read it for years,” he says, “and going back to it was a bit like looking at a photograph of yourself from twenty years ago. You're the same person, but so much has happened that you're completely different, so you have to think yourself back into your younger self. There were practical things that needed looking at, like how in the original the main character uses cassette tapes to record his conversations, whereas now you can just do that on your mobile phone.
“Other than that, I basically gave the play a good edit, and got rid of the crap. I just felt it was time to address it. The Collection was my first full commission by The Traverse, and after the success of The Cut, it was my difficult second album, and if it had been my first play it might have fared better critically. As it was, some people were maybe expecting something different. The kind of person I was, that whole world of commissions and deadlines was new to me, and by the time we put it on the play wasn't really finished. I hadn't had time to fully understand it, and I don't think I fully understood some of the characters either, so coming back to it after all this time, I can see it more clearly.”
Cullen first fell in love with language while at school, before becoming an electrical engineer at the Tranent pits. With no idea of what he wanted to do, Cullen quit his job, played in bands and signed on with the intention of becoming a novelist. An avid reader of horror and pulp fiction, Cullen attempted to do something similar, but found he didn't understand enough to make his own prose work.
Cullen took an access course and went to Edinburgh University to study linguistics. While there he attended writing workshops at the Traverse Theatre, then based in the Grassmarket. This led to a mentoring scheme at the Tron in Glasgow, where he came into contact with actors Kenny Glenaan, Frank Gallagher and Jim Twaddale. The trio worked on early drafts of The Cut, and, with both the Traverse and the Tron declining to produce the full play, offered to do it under their own steam. The company that became Wiseguise turned The Cut into a hit that opened doors both for them and for Cullen.
“The first scene of The Cut was the first dialogue I ever wrote,” Cullen remembers, “just as an experiment to see if I could do it, and that's still the first scene.”
Cullen's follow up to The Collection came in 1997, when a young Vicky Featherstone directed Anna Weiss, again for the Traverse. Despite the success of a work that pivoted around the psycho-therapist that gave the play its title, and which looked at the ambiguities of repressed or false memories, Cullen hasn't written for the stage since. For the last fifteen years or so, Cullen “got lost in TV la-la land,” penning assorted crime dramas, including McCallum, which starred John Hannah as a forensic pathologist, Robson Green vehicle Touching Evil, and The Vice, featuring Ken Stott. Cullen also wrote Donovan, which starred Tom Conti as a retired pathologist, as well as episodes of Taggart, Primeval and supernatural thriller, Afterlife.
While there is much here for Cullen to be proud of, Cullen also found himself caught up in a money-orientated treadmill, while many of his original treatments are still languishing in development hell.
“I got caught up in that whole world and TV lifestyle,” Cullen says now. “It all became about mortgages and money, and when you've spent most of the eighties skint, as I had, you can understand the appeal of all that, but in the end I became dependent on that kind of money coming in. TV's a very different world to theatre. As a writer you're brought into someone else's idea, which is fine, but it's not exactly cutting edge drama that you're doing. Look at TV now. If you're trying to make a point or write something with depth, it will be considered too risky, and no-one will touch it.”
With such observations in mind, Cullen has downsized, and is now living with his family in a cottage in the Penicuik woods. With a small-scale production of Anna Weiss preceding Rapture's take on The Collection earlier this year, Cullen sounds hungry to write for theatre again. Without seeking out any kind of commission, Cullen has already begun work on two pieces.
“I've changed my lifestyle so I don't need TV money anymore,” he says. “I want to write a black comedy about a serial killer and the people who satellite around him, and I want to write a five-act epic, a massive thing that's like King Lear, but contemporary. Mind you, I'll probably do it and no-one will want to put it on.”
The Collection, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tonight until Saturday, then on tour.
Mike Cullen – A Life in Words
Born in Tranent, Cullen left school aged sixteen with dreams of being a rock star.
After a stint as an apprentice electrician at the local mine, Cullen quit to go on the dole, where he attempted to write two novels before studying Linguistics at Edinburgh University.
Cullen's first play, The Cut, set in the aftermath of the miners strike, was produced by Wiseguise, who toured it extensively in 1993.
Cullen was commissioned by the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh to write The Collection, which appeared in 1995.
In 1997, Cullen wrote Anna Weiss for the Traverse, featuring Anne-Marie Timoney, Iona Carbarns and John Stahl. A new production, starring Catherine McCormack, Shirley Henderson and Larry Lamb, appeared on the West End in 1999. An Italian language TV film was made of the play in 2002, with Cullen providing the screenplay. A new production by Rekindle Theatre appeared in Glasgow earlier this year.
Since Anna Weiss, Cullen has written extensively for television, including episodes of Taggart and Primeval. He also created, wrote and executive produced crime drama, Donovan, in 2006.
Cullen is currently working on two stage plays.
The Herald, September 10th 2013