Interview: Ming Ho

Photo by Eloise Ross

Ming Ho is an experienced screenwriter, script editor, and active campaigner on dementia and carer issues. She began her career as Script Executive at independent Zenith Productions, working across a slate of British film and TV drama, including Hamish Macbeth, and later wrote for EastEnders, Casualty, Heartbeat, and The Bill. Ming took a career break to care for her mother who has dementia and has returned to the industry with a focus on original work for stage, screen, and radio.  Her moving play, The Things We Never Said, aired on BBC Radio 4 on 11 May 2017, starring Lia Williams and Siân Phillips and is available on BBC iPlayer until 10 June 2017.

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It’s well-known that carers tend to put their own needs last, because everything else is more urgent; add self-employment into that mix, and not only personal needs drop down the list, but career and financial stability.

Your moving BBC Radio 4 drama – The Things We Never Said – deals with the impact of dementia and beautifully captures a haunting but relentless sense of loss and longing to be remembered by your loved one. Can you tell us more about it?

My mum has been developing dementia for up to twenty years – maybe even more from the very earliest symptoms. She’s now in nursing care, but it’s been a long journey and a heartbreaking one for me as an only child. My dad died of cancer when I was a student, so mum and I have been each other’s only immediate family for nearly thirty years, and she was the only person to know much of my youth; now she doesn’t really know who I am.

Having been very close to her all my life, that’s hard to accept. But it also prompted me to consider the fundamental question of how we “know” anything: the maternal bond in particular is often mythologised as wholly instinctive, but what is instinct itself? A truly spontaneous impulse?  Or a reflex learned from experience and retained by memory?

I had been silent on the subject for so long while I was still supporting mum in our family home; after she went into care, I had an urge to let it out and thought it might help to imagine the situation from mum’s point of view too. Hence the title: The Things We Never Said.  It’s a series of imagined conversations that we can never have in real life.

It takes the form of a cycle of themed scenes, which bring us back to the starting point – a whole drama in one suspended moment. This is how I feel when I visit mum each week in the home; I’m generally there two or three hours, but most of that is spent in silence, rehearsing in my head so much I’d like to say. It was only after I’d written it that I realised it was akin to a song cycle; apt, given that mum was a professional singer before she married, with Lieder her core repertoire. I’ve written about the background on my blog.

In recent years, there have been quite a few works on the theme of dementia, notably the book and film Still Alice, the novel Elizabeth is Missing, and Florian Zeller’s play, The Father.  Soaps Emmerdale, EastEnders, Corrie, and Holby have also tackled it through regular characters. However, the focus is most often on external effects. I wanted to take the audience inside the characters’ heads, to explore the emotional and psychological landscape of a relationship; and ideally, I didn’t want the piece to be restricted to dementia. I aimed to write it in a way that never explicitly references the condition, so that listeners can come to it from different perspectives and interpret it in their own ways. As someone observed to me, it’s not really about dementia – it’s a story about love.

How did the play find itself on Radio 4?

My background had been in TV drama. I started out as a development executive at Zenith Productions back in the 1990s, working across a slate of film and TV drama and script editing series such as Hamish Macbeth (starring Robert Carlyle) for BBC1 and Bodyguards (with Louise Lombard and Sean Pertwee) for ITV. In the 2000s, I went freelance, co-creating a series, McCready and Daughter, for the BBC, and writing for EastEnders, Casualty, and Heartbeat.

From the mid-2000s, mum’s dementia came to the fore, and although I never intentionally withdrew from TV or wholly stopped writing, I fell out of circulation on those labour-intensive long-running shows. During that time, I became involved in the Writers’ Guild, serving on the TV Committee and Executive Council, and as Deputy Chair from 2012-14.  I was keen to use my experience in LRS to help improve working conditions, as well as contribute to the standard agreement negotiations.

The break also gave me perspective on my own writing; I had drifted from development into LRS without establishing myself with original work and felt the need to find my own voice.  In autumn 2013, the Royal Court Theatre, under the new aegis of Vicky Featherstone and Lucy Davies, opened its introductory Writers’ Group (formerly known as “Young Writers”!) for the first time to applicants over the age of 26, and I was selected from a 10-page sample of material. It’s not a structured course as such, but we each write a full-length play at the end, which is read by the Literary Department.  My play, Exhumation, was given an in-house workshop with Associate Director, Lucy Morrison, and a fantastic cast including Anna Calder-Marshall.

That play began with a central mother/daughter relationship based on me and my mum, but also had two male characters and a secondary narrative. I had been experimenting with timescale and verbatim but it fell between two stools of naturalism and impressionism. Feedback was polarised: should it be more narrative or more abstract? I let it percolate for a while, and realised that what I really wanted to explore was the interior life between mother and daughter and those big philosophical questions of identity and relationship: how do you know who you are or whom you love, when the bonds of memory erode?

Exhumation was still influenced by the story arcs I had learned in series TV. I knew I had to be braver in form. By this time, mum’s grasp of who I was had further disintegrated; I was struggling to come to terms with that. So I started again from scratch, focusing just on the two women and raw feeling of that situation: The Things We Never Said was the result.

I sent an early draft back to the Royal Court, but while I was waiting for them to read it, I bumped into BBC Radio Drama producer Abigail le Fleming at an event; she had been my first script editor on Casualty. I sent her the play as a sample of my recent work – and she liked it enough to put it into offers!

However, as a non-naturalistic play, it was a hard sell and took a long time to go through the commissioning process. I’m hugely grateful to Abigail and her team for championing it! Once it was finally commissioned, I reworked it specifically for the radio slot. I hope there may be a full stage production in future, as there is more still to be explored in live performance, with immersive sound and lighting.

Has the play been positively received by the caring community and has it opened up a line of communication for those who care for loved ones with dementia?  

The response has been phenomenal on social media and via my blog, (Dementia Just Ain’t Sexy).

Many listeners have said they are going through the same situation – it’s their story too – which I guess proves the adage that the personal is universal: the more truthful and specific you are, the more it resonates with an audience. While it’s sad to know that such heartache is so widespread, I hope the shared experience of the play will enable others to be open about it, and feedback suggests that it does.

While there’s more general awareness now about dementia in terms of outward symptoms and practical impact, the emotional and psychological losses are often hidden or suppressed through feelings of guilt and social pressure to put on a brave face. And it can be such a long road.  It has a massive impact on relationships and the carer’s own sense of identity.

For many years, when mum was still living at home and undiagnosed, we were both invisible to the outside world. I could never talk about her condition or my feelings – because, like many, I thought our predicament was unique and didn’t fully understand what was happening; I was desperate not to upset her and to respect her dignity and privacy; and because it was just too raw and all-consuming.

It’s only since she has been in care that I have gained perspective to express it – and feel ethically able to do so, now that mum is no longer aware of media or anything much beyond the moment. It’s taken me a long time to find my voice in every sense.

You have written for radio, stage, and screen. Which do you think is the most adaptable medium to work in whilst caring? 

It’s early days, but I have really enjoyed the directness of radio: a one-to-one relationship with the producer/director, actors, and ultimately with the listener. It was fantastic to be in the studio for the recording and have so much input. On TV series there may be a huge production team, many of whom you will never meet, but who may all be giving you notes; large story conferences (the writers’ room) can feel quite combative for an introvert – add to that a caring responsibility in the background, a tight schedule, and power dynamics of the production unit, and stress can be immense before you even sit down to write.

So far, I have only written for stage on spec, so there were no deadlines involved, but I would imagine there would be a bit more flexibility with a theatre commission. I know screenwriters such as Abi Morgan have said that film can fit quite well with child-care, as there are longer gaps between drafts and you can organise your own time around other commitments to some extent. (Though maybe it depends on your status in the pecking order!)

On the basis of past experience, I would say TV is probably the hardest to maintain alongside caring, because of the relentless 24-hour schedule and high financial stakes. If you fall behind, there’s no mercy; and, even if you don’t in terms of delivery (I never missed a deadline), so much energy has to be expended beyond the writing itself, in politics and pitching toward your next job, this is where I think you can really lose out if you have another 24-hour responsibility.

Do you think your caring responsibilities have informed your creative business practices and writing style? 

With regard to creative business practices, I would say the impact of caring has crystallised for me some views I had already formed during my time on long-running series: that a lot of it is needless stress, created by hierarchical production structures and schedules, rather than serving the creative ends of the project. In the heat of an impending shoot, it’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by collective melodrama, but however seriously you take your work, at the end of the day it is fiction – if it goes wrong, nobody dies!

I think it’s analogous to other professions, such as politics, medicine, and law, in that working practices have evolved from a different age and sometimes the observance has become divorced from the practical aim.  Any reform that would help carers to work more easily would probably give everyone else more civilised conditions too.

It’s too early to say how caring has informed my writing style, given that this is my first original work to be produced; but it has certainly changed the kind of things I want to write about and shown me that I can only truly invest in projects I wholeheartedly believe in and can write in a frank way.

You are an active campaigner for dementia and carer issues, what obstacles do you think are faced by carers who work in the film industry? 

Number one: freelance status!  The double-edged sword of the carer.  I went freelance when mum was in her early seventies (and not yet showing obvious signs of dementia), partly because I thought it would give me flexibility to care for her in emergency as she got older.  Well, it can achieve that; but it also puts you on 24-hour call to two masters: the person you care for, and the person who is paying you.

It’s well-known that carers tend to put their own needs last, because everything else is more urgent; add self-employment into that mix, and not only personal needs drop down the list, but career and financial stability. And of course as a freelancer you have no sick pay, paid holiday, maternity/paternity or compassionate leave, expense account, occupational pension (unless you sign up to one privately), or HR department to defend you.

If the person you care for is not in receipt of benefits (e.g. an undiagnosed person with dementia), you can’t even claim the £62.70 per week pittance of Carers’ Allowance (which Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green admits “you’re not supposed to be able to live on”).

Secondly, ageism – or perhaps more accurately, the drive for “hotness”. Success in any creative profession is ephemeral, and film and TV commissioners want one of two things: an established big name or a hot new property. If you’ve had to take time out to care for someone else in mid career, your chances of fitting into either of those brackets is slim.

There’s some appreciation of how this career break affects women who have had children, but it’s my impression there is at least a fellow feeling between parents in the industry (who share the routine of school holidays, parents’ evenings, and landmarks in their child’s development); whereas those caring for older or disabled people tend to be more isolated.  In an image- and fashion-conscious industry, having kids can be cool; having an elderly mum or disabled granddad, not so much…

Do you think attitudes towards caring in the industry are changing or are we far away from where we need to be? 

I think there’s a bit more awareness of childcare issues, though this is still far from solved!  Overall, however, I think it’s hard to legislate for carers’ rights in an industry comprised largely of freelancers, where there is no formal career structure (and indeed where musical chairs among commissioners undermines continuity of leadership). Other industries may be able to implement HR policies, but in the creative world everyone’s currency is of the moment and the wheels turn on personal relationships and fashion.

It’s largely a question of education: perhaps we need to make the point that diversity is not just about race, gender, sexuality, class, and disability, but age and life experience.

What advice would you offer someone who is both trying to hold down a career in the industry and be a carer? What changes would have helped you most in pursuing your practice?

  • Don’t try to go it alone. As soon as possible (when you know the situation you’re facing), put some outside help in place, at least as back-up; otherwise, if the person you care for is reliant solely on you, that creates huge pressure and is more likely to result in crisis – specially if you have to work away on location or travel at times.
  • If you don’t know where to look for that practical help, approach a signposting organisation – social services, charity, GP, independent consultant, or website. (I’ve collected some useful links on my blog.)
  • Ask your local authority for a Carer’s Assessment. This is now a statutory duty under the Care Act 2014 and should identify your needs, independent of the person you care for, who is entitled to a separate assessment. (There may be a long waiting time, but get the ball rolling).
  • Make sure you have applied for any benefits to which you or the person you care for may be entitled. If a person has demonstrable care needs above a certain number of hours per week, you can apply for Attendance Allowance on their behalf, even if they lack capacity to participate in the application (e.g. if they have advanced dementia).  Attendance Allowance is not means tested, so you don’t have to delve into the person’s financial affairs or worry about home ownership disqualifying them; and if they are awarded this monthly benefit, you can also apply for Carer’s Allowance, if you meet the other income criteria.
  • If you have any kind of staff job, don’t give it up! Go part-time, but stay on the pay roll to maintain a separate work identity and financial toe-hold and to keep up visibility in the business.
  • If you can afford it or get it on the NHS, go for counselling. (Training establishments offer discount private rates.) It helps to offload your feelings to a neutral person.
  • Once you have some external help in place, ring-fence time for yourself (both work and social life) and don’t feel guilty about it.  Easier said than done, but remember that caring can extend over many years, decades even – and the progression is unpredictable.  In the early stages, you may feel you have to put everything on hold for the person you care for; but you need to maintain your own independence, in order to support both of you in the long term.

    If you have found yourself in a caring position and in need of financial assistance to bridge a pay gap. Raising Films and the CTBF have collaborated on the Family Support Fund. A rolling fund which, is open to parent/carer professionals working in Film/TV/Exhibition and will contribute up to £75 a day towards the cost of caring arrangements, up to a maximum amount of £1,500 per beneficiary/per annum.For more information and how to apply click here. And learn more about how CTBF support can transform your work/life by reading our testimonials from screenwriter and carer Pete Jordi Wood and mum and Production Coordinator Kerri Burbidge.

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