In 2009 the BBC writers’ room ran one of its periodic competitions to find new talent in the Northwest of England in the slightly condescending way that it does. The pitch in this case was for a synopsis of an hour-long television play for BBC3, and occasionally deluded as I am, and fancying myself that season as a writer of plays, I submitted the following plot.
The humble hero, Kessler (played by Clive Owen), finds himself temping at a real estate firm in a new office complex on the edge of Manchester’s latest city centre, multi-purpose development, Spynningfields.
Spynningfields represents the cutting edge of urban planning, incorporating the offices of a number of blue chip companies and banks, the leading the FT to enthuse that "London has Canary Wharf and Paris has La Défense, Manchester has its own modern financial centre in the form of Spynningfields”.
It also contains a plethora of leisure facilities, from a number of franchised sandwicheries and upmarket restaurants, shops and an outdoor cinema, as well as, inexplicitly, a ski lodge as a centrepiece with a year-round ice rink and a huge abstract statue called “The Freedom Of The Press”.
At first, Kessler enjoys his time working there, his work is undemanding, his workmates all attractive and motivated and he enjoys the futuristic glass and steel vista from his large open-plan, subtly fragranced office. He likes the relative cleanliness and calm of Spynningfields compared to the rest of the city and takes his lunch outdoors from the branches of Nindo’s and Sissi where he is impressed by the sense of industry and calm purpose of those taking their leisure around him.
As Autumn draws in, he retreats to the Café of the John Rillands library where he amuses himself by watching miscreants going in and out of the Magistrate’s court and playing “Guess the crime” with a pretty colleague (played by Kelly Reilly). As the weeks go by he starts to notice the same faces and realises that there are only around 20 criminals who seem to use the court, but who use it on an almost daily basis, and this causes him to muse on the nature of recidivism and the revolving doors of justice.
What first piques his suspicion about Spynningfields is the scene inside the Royal Bank Of Cornwall as he walks by; someone clearly an entrepreneur, expensive suit and fitted shirt, no tie, slight stubble and frameless spectacles warmly shakes the hand of a slightly more formally dressed man, presumably the bank’s business manager, and they smile broad, white, satisfied, despite-the-recession-we’ve-got what-it-takes simultaneous grins. For reasons he can’t quite pin down, senses that something is wrong with this scene, something contrived. When he walks by a second time exactly an hour later, and sees the same handshake, enacted the same way, by the same people, his suspicions are confirmed.
The orderliness of Spynningfields is something that had always intrigued Kessler as he looked down from his office. Aside from the customers of the court, and the jovial and suspiciously healthy looking Big Issue seller by the MEN building, the hoi polloi never really seemed to encroach on the spotless plaza. It was as though an invisible shield surrounded the area, keeping the riff raff at bay. The occasional drunk would get through, only to be surrounded and gently led away by the surprisingly well-spoken and well-groomed security staff employed by the Spynningfields Corporation. One rainy October lunchtime, Kessler deviates from his normal route back to work, taking the back way down the river he sees a man, respectably dressed and perfectly sober in demeanour, up ahead of him. At first the man is walking purposefully towards Prát in the centre of the square but starts to lose his balance and stagger, appearing suddenly intoxicated, eventually coming to rest, breathless, against a pillar, at which point the gentle security personnel appear and escort him away. Kessler decides to follow, as they lead him towards the rear of the ski lodge, where, now unconscious, the man is roughly manhandled through the goods entrance and the door closed behind.
On returning to his office, Kessler explains to his pretty colleague (played by Kelly Reilly) what he has just seen. She doesn’t believe him and the conversation is overheard by his line manager, who pulls him up and asks him to report to occupational health immediately. He finds himself flanked by two security guards smelling strongly of Michel Germain séxûal pour homme Eau de Toilette, and escorted towards the ski lodge.
Once inside reception he distracts them with a Chinese firework and dashes towards a staircase leading down into the basement. He finds himself in a room of video monitors, some showing CCTV feeds, others showing recorded footage.
He hits play on a video recorder and watches footage shot at 3.41 AM the night before in the central square of Spynningfields. A kangaroo hops around, drugged, wounded and distressed, pursued by bank staff and estate agents with spears and grass skirts over their pinstriped trousers, their white shirts stained with gore, their eyes wild with bloodlust. He watches as his line manager and his pretty colleague (played by Kelly Reilly), approach the terrified marsupial, and while she runs her spear through it’s pouch, he decapitates it with a meat cleaver. They kiss passionately, coated in kanga blood, while the carcass is dragged towards “Giraffe” to the sound of bankers beating bones on the ground. Kessler feels betrayed. The door bursts open and Kessler is overcome by aftershave. It all goes dark.
Kessler awakes to find himself in the lair of Geoffrey Wheatley, the mad psychiatrist, who’s brief tenure as resident shrink on Big Brother has sent him into a subsequent spiral of power-lust and mania. Also, due to an overly competitive approach to weight training, he has developed a pair of giant metal arms. Spynningfields, it transpires, is his invention and his fiefdom, funded by a secretive Swedish research fund, the Stockholm Alliance. He laughs wildly as he explains how The Stockholm Alliance feigned bankruptcy with Spynningfields half finished, requiring the City Council to pick up the tab for its completion. He explains that the “Legion Of The Lanyard”, a secretive order headed by Wheatley himself, effectively runs Spynningfields. Hedge fund managers and junior solicitors from Hale Barns provide Spynningfields’ security gratis in their free time, their acts of depraved torture and macabre experiments committed against random members of the public in the chambers beneath the ski lodge facilitating a calm disposition in their day jobs and firm but fair parenting skills at the weekend.
The whole project exists as a living experiment in behavioural science, testing the idea that giving vent to our most violent urges in a controlled setting allows us to be happy, motivated and successful for the rest of the time. Wheatley sees Spynningfields as a beacon for the city, a means by which the populous can learn to unleash its inner potential, a blossoming lotus of enlightened enterprise.
As Wheatley cackles and waves his metal arms around, Kessler distracts him with a Chinese firework and escapes down a secret tunnel where he goes to see Lord Mayor Howard Goldstein (played by Colin Firth), explains what he has learned, and the two of them commandeer the Council Tank and head down Deansgate to destroy Spynningfields. (Possibly a big musical number at the end-Elbow in khaki? George Sampson?)
I did at least receive a reply from the BBC, stating that they found my plot outline interesting, but were a little concerned about the production costs and possible legal action from the estate of J G Ballard and a company called Allied London. I’ve no idea who they are, or why a company from London should take such an interest in a piece of pure fantasy set in Manchester, but the BBC people were pretty insistent that they might. Having spent the best part of two months on this project, I was a little disheartened and decided to explore other avenues. God help them when they get to Salford.