On writing a ‘new’ Zola
by Oliver Emanuel
Appropriately enough, I was on holiday in Paris when I get a call from Dan Rebellato, one of the lead writers on Emile Zola: Blood, Sex & Money (Series 3).
Dan was phoning with a problem. He said that we had run out of books.
This seemed like a bad joke. The series is, I believe, the largest adaptation that BBC Radio 4 has ever done – 26 episodes over 3 series totalling over 24 hours of broadcast. There are 20 novels in the Rougon-Macquart series and none of them could be described as short. We had had to be ruthless in our adaptations thus far.
The fact remained that in our final series, between adaptations of The Earth and The Debacle, we had a single episode gap and no book to fill it.
Our solution was that I would write a ‘new’ Zola, an original story that would fill the space and take us towards the final weekend of episodes that concluded the series with the great disaster of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
But where to start?
How do you write a play inspired by a novel that doesn’t exist?
There were a few things in my favour. The first was that by this time I had read a lot of Zola. I had also written five episodes for series 1 and series 2. He was in my head. I would never claim to understand how Zola thought but I had started to get a grip on how his stories worked. The second thing was that Zola often used real historical events as moments in his own work, for example the Orsini assassination attempt that plays a major role in His Excellency (and my adaptation, Politics).
Dan suggested I take a look at the story of the Ems telegram as a starting point and see what I could come up with.
The result is Fate, a fictionalisation of the diplomatic scandal that lead up to the Franco-Prussian war in which Eugene Rougon – the most power hungry of the family – inadvertently leads his country towards catastrophe.
This new play is also an opportunity for me to conclude the story of Eugene, a character previously seen in Politics (Series 1), Power and Family (Series 2), and brilliantly played by Robert Jack. Despite his obvious awfulness, I’ve loved writing Eugene as well as developing his hate-hate relationship with his grandmother and our narrator, Dide. In the novels, we never find out what happens to Eugene but I thought the opportunity to finish his story too good to miss.
It was an odd experience to adapt a book that was never written. While I was writing, I often found myself reaching for the original book to check over what I’d written only to remember that there was no book to check.
I held to several guiding principles. Firstly, Zola’s characters are rarely aware of their own failings but rather their actions often act as catalyst for disaster. When given two choices, a Zola character will almost always choose the one that will do her or himself the most damage in the long term. For me, Zola is a master of tragedy, albeit a naturalistic tragedy. Secondly, what happens in a small, private space can have repercussions in the wider world. Especially in his role as a diplomat, every word that Eugene expresses can have immediate and devastating consequences. Lastly – and something that we’ve pursued relentlessly throughout the whole series – at the root of everything is family. Family is a word I think I’ve written and considered more than any other.
Since finishing the script I’ve often wondered what Zola would make of this new story. I believe I’ve stayed true to the spirit of his work and characters but I’ve also certainly taken great liberties. We set out to create new and dynamic plays from the river of words that Zola left us. Although he never wrote the book called Fate, I hope he would enjoy the continued life of his characters and vision.
A quick round of thanks.
It’s been an enormous privilege to work on all three series of Emile Zola: Blood, Sex & Money and to have collaborated so closely with my fellow writers: Dan Rebellato, Martin Jameson and Lavinia Murray. I want to thank them for their brilliance and support throughout the two years we’ve been writing these plays. Thanks too to the other producers at SparkLab and in Salford. Thank you to the fabulous studio staff at Salford, London and Glasgow. We’ve been blessed with amazing actors throughout the series, too many to name here, but special mention must go to Glenda Jackson who created a whole universe with her performance as Dide.
Lastly, I want to thank my producer and friend extraordinaire, Kirsty Williams.