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Julia’s most successful adaptation for television was the ‘quietly radical’ secrets-and-lies drama Cold Calling. Originally written for Live Theatre as Attachments, the double-hander made a natural transition from stage to screen on Tyne Tees Television. Cold Calling was described by Julia in Eating the Elephant and Other Plays as ‘one of my most dramatic pieces, full of movement and conflict and all those things that theatre is supposed to have, whereas some of my other works show the definite preoccupations of a poet and a fiction writer.’

The comic play was inspired by two elements: a friend’s experience with a door-to-door hoover salesman who she couldn’t get rid of and Julia’s own meeting with an ex-prisoner who could only find work selling vacuum cleaners. From this source material, Julia formed her memorable characters: feisty Davina, an anesthetist grieving the sudden death of her boyfriend, and chipper salesman Bobby, doing the rounds with his Platinum Deluxe. Their encounter was dramatised as Attachments, part of Double Lives at Live Theatre, in 2002. The event also featured a piece by Sean O’Brien, Julia’s fellow writer-in-residence at Live.

Attachments was written for Charlie Hardwick and Trevor Fox who Julia described as actors working in harmony. ‘They create a kind of electric charge! As soon as we got into rehearsals the play became tighter and wittier and altogether livelier thanks to Charlie, Trevor and Jeremy Herrin, the director.’

A year later the play was adapted into a 30-minute screen comedy as part of the Hothouse series co-financed by Northern Film & Media. Charlie and Trevor also starred in the TV drama, set in a kitchen where Davina is listening to Alanis Morissette and piling up sandwiches. Cold Calling retained its stagey feel, directed by Live Theatre’s Jeremy Herrin and Max Roberts, produced by Peter Mitchell and filmed live in front of an audience.

Cold Calling was published by Methuen in Six Plays from the North East (2003) in which the writer Lee Hall observed that the play examines prejudice and loneliness. He writes: ‘Julia Darling’s play is about selling one’s self, among many other things, and finds in its examination of sexuality a way of talking about the much larger forces that are shaping this particular moment of transition. But again it is by turns funny, sad and quietly radical, and is an example of Live’s links with television.’

Toronto-based film director Peter Mabrucco based his short film Attachments (2011) on Julia’s script, with one significant alteration to the plot. This slick abridged version of the play, filmed in two days, focuses on the black humour within the text. Set in an upmarket apartment, Attachments features a glamorous Davina surrounded by so many mountains of sandwiches that a ‘sandwich stylist’ was required. Although certain context is lost the film retains important moments such as Davina threatening Bobby with the Plat Del: ‘Can it suck up lies? That would be a useful appliance, wouldn’t it? A vacuum that could get the shit out of men.’ Attachments continues to be shown at international film festivals.

Julia’s first appearance on television came ten years before Cold Calling, when her short story ‘Beyond’ won the Tyne Tees Television Put It In Writing competition. She was awarded a glass trophy and a prize of £1000 live on the evening news magazine programme Tyne Tees Today. Also in 1993 she was interviewed for a series called In a City Art. At that time Tyne Tees TV broadcast from studios in a converted warehouse on Newcastle’s City Road, not far from the Quayside’s Live Theatre. The studios had a special place in the cultural life of the city and produced entertainment shows, documentaries and series including music shows The Tube and Razzmattazz. In a City Art (directed by Peter Chapman) was produced by Merlin Films and the series of six films focused on a different urban centre in the region. The programmes looked at the ways in which professional artists were engaging with young people to make theatre, music, art and literature. The episode about arts in Gateshead included poetry by Julia.

Film director and designer Sally Arthur was inspired to create a short animation based on Julia’s poem ‘Picassoesque’, after seeing The Poetry Virgins perform their work in Newcastle. The poem ends:

so look down
to your sturdiest joints
turn away from
insignificant ankles
in glossy magazines

and you too could be voguish
in your wide and beautiful curves

Sally’s animation opens with a picture of ankles being photo-shopped for a product called ‘naturankle reclining gel by Christian Liar’ complete with slogan ‘fat is scientifically dispersed’. The film illustrates Julia’s poem with a voice-over by Newcastle-based singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams. Sally writes of her short film Picassoesque, which she developed in 1997: ‘It is about wide ankles and the sense of liberation one can feel when they have been embraced!’

Julia was asked to write a poetic narrative for short film The Three Languages (2000), by Newcastle-based Siren Film Productions. The Three Languages is based on the first part of a Grimm Brothers folktale about a dreamy boy who is sent to three different masters to learn his lessons. The film’s narrative opens with:

‘Once upon a time there was a king who had a son who wouldn’t learn. The king was exasperated. He tried everything to make the child learn mathematics, scripture, Greek and Latin. But all the child did was look out of the window.’

Made by Wendy McEvoy (Siren director) and David Eadington, the film is documentary in style, following the lives of three children in the classroom and with the animals they love. The Three Languages speaks of children’s connection with nature, the pleasures of day-dreaming, and of how ‘time is a knot for small fingers’.

The first child is a boy pigeon fancier who wants his birds to fly from their loft. Julia’s narrative explains:

‘How do you persuade a bird to fly? He whispers to it in a tongue that lifts and flutters like a wing on air. He won’t give up, he perseveres, ‘you can do it if you dare’… He’d like to tell the teacher how he tries… about his birds. But it is a hard thing to explain when all you’ve got is words.’

The second is a girl who walks her dog Boss around her tough estate, scared to let him off the lead for fear he runs away. Boss is the girl’s shield, her bravery

‘though he’s scared of the sparrows, the drip of the rain, the stare of a cat. The birds eat his food and he hides in his kennel until she comes, his girl, his keeper and his saviour’.

Third is a boy filmed in the ponds by Sunderland Waste Centre searching for newts.

‘They first spoke to him in his nan’s garden, an ancient tongue calling him until he found them, rare as diamonds. They whispered of a world before people, he knew they were speaking to him. Now he hears only them and he can tell you anything about what comes from mud, about what is underneath, of webbed feet, of the beautiful patterns of skin, of amphibian dreams… he is searching for the perfect shape of history.’

Julia’s concern about Britain’s treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers was reflected in Warmth, a Film in a Week for Live Theatre. The short film was developed in 2003 and focuses on the meeting of terrified new arrival Maya with the about-to-depart Hal at Newcastle’s Monument. Underdressed for the North East, Maya unwittingly picks up a discarded Sunderland scarf on a Newcastle match day. The film charts a hostile welcome into uncharted territory for which the cast list requires ‘three male extras for snarling purposes’.

Screen became personal for Julia when she agreed to the BBC filming an Inside Out documentary about her life in the summer of 2004. Julia was given a camera so she could make video diaries and the BBC filmed her daily family and working life in Newcastle. Writing in her blog in June 2004 about the documentary, she commented: ‘I want it to be about poetry and health, and how writing can sustain someone through illness.’

Speaking on Inside Out, Julia said: ‘Poetry is essential, not a frill or a nicety. It comes to all of us when we most need it. As soon as we are in any kind of crisis, or anguish, that is when we reach out for poetry, or find ourselves writing a poem for the first time. I have been exploring how creative writing, particularly poetry, can be used in a health context. I got involved with this kind of work through my own experience. I have advanced breast cancer, and poetry is what keeps me afloat. Without poems my journeys through chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and the general ups and downs of illness, would have been unthinkable.’

She added: ‘In this country thousands are going through a similar experience and yet most of us don’t have the words to deal with it. I suppose, I want my legacy to be that they will be able to talk abut cancer and death, because for most it’s still a taboo. I’m trying to help people find the right words as it can make such a difference.’

The film shows Julia running a workshop for GPs at the Buddle Art Centre in Wallsend where she asked participants to describe pain using the vocabulary of music and by writing about fruit. Julia used similar techniques while working with medical students at Newcastle University. She wrote in the introduction to the anthology she co-edited, The Poetry Cure (2005): ‘So much can be lost or misunderstood in a medical consultation, and often doctors and patients cannot find a language to communicate effectively with one another.’

Interviewed for the Evening Chronicle before the Inside Out broadcast in October 2004, Julia said: ‘The more descriptive language you can use about pain, the better you’re going to communicate what’s happening and in my experience it means you can control it better.’

Inside Out followed Julia to Old Jesmond Cemetery where she was filmed in conversation with artist Peter Furlonger, who was asked to design and carve her headstone. By that time she had booked a plot under a willow and was agonising about how the lettering should read on the stone. After her death her family chose the words ‘She Electrified the Ordinary’ taken from her poem ‘End’.

It was English tea time, with the kind of light
That electrified the ordinary. It had just stopped raining.

Asked in 2016 about working with Julia, Peter observed: ‘The determination to confront her ‘going hence’, to record and communicate it, and so to shape it – this, I Iearned, was Julia. This was both her style and her mission. There was a lightness of touch, even a gaiety in the way she went about it, always curious to know about new things, and how they were done; and always with humour. I can never picture her face without that mischievous smile, and I can never think of her without remembering her warmth and her courageous humanity.’

Julia was also filmed reading from her collection Sudden Collapses in Public Places, including the poem ‘Too Heavy’ which refers to the terminology she has been given by her doctor:

I’ve been leaving them
Crumpled up in pedal bins
Where they fester and complain
Diamorphone, biopsy, inflammatory.

And then you say
Where are your words Mrs Patient?
What have you done with your words?

There was a phenomenal personal response to the broadcast of Inside Out and in a week of ‘feeling very visible’ Julia was recognised while buying knickers in Marks & Spencer. In her blog she wrote: ‘Many people have got in touch via email who have the same disease as me, and who are taking the same drugs, even seeing the same consultants. I feel a huge connection with my compatriots out there, as I normally never meet them. I feel as if we are calling to each other through the pipes… We talk the same language and have the same relationship with our bodies. So that has been lovely, and made me feel less alone.’

A short film, Two Lighthouses (2005) was made in tribute to Julia, by her friend Tina Gharavi, founder of Newcastle-based filmmaking company Bridge + Tunnel. Tina’s lyrical film is based on the titular poem by Julia Darling, published in Apology for Absence. The poem was inspired by the two lighthouses which reach out to each other on the North Pier and South Pier at the mouth of the River Tyne. Interviewees, including sociologist and broadcaster Tom Shakespeare and writer Margaret Wilkinson, talk about the healing power of poetry and how art can help in crisis situations. One interviewee says: ‘When art is at its most powerful it is universal. It touches everybody. There is something about the doing of it which is good for the soul.’

The film also touches on poems bridging cultural divides and bringing peace of mind in times of trauma. Another interviewee comments: ‘The poetry I wrote was some sort of catharsis. It was the things I would like to tell people that I never felt I could tell them, so I wrote them down and ramblings became poems.’ Julia’s poem ‘Two Lighthouses’ is read by her friend Jackie Kay and set to music by Tim Dalling. It opens:

I would like us to live like two lighthouses
at the mouth of a river, each with her own lamp.

We would see each other across the water,
which would be dangerous, and uncrossable.

Two Lighthouses is available to view on Vimeo by clinking on the link here

The animation of Picassoesque is available to view on vimeo by clicking on the link

Copyright Tamzin Mackie

Photograph copyright Keith Pattison