Anna Kennedy chats with previous Autism Hero Awards winner, writer Sam Grierson about diagnosis, grief and her new film

 

Sam it’s great to chat with you again, you won the Anna Kennedy Online – Autism Hero Award for Creative Arts and Media Award in 2022 – how did that feel?

Hi Anna, wow yes, that was amazing. I remember sitting with my eldest daughter as the results came in, I had been unable to attend in person, my friend Madge was there and was keeping us in touch. The winner was announced live and they sent a video to us, we watched it and my daughter leapt into my arms and shouted “we did it!” and she was right. She has always been my driving force, she was diagnosed first at the age of 6 and I followed a while later at the age of 43. Being acknowledged for the writing and plays that I have created was a real privilege, especially to share it with her, my inspiration.

The plays that you wrote and produced were around later life diagnosis of autism and ADHD, which were deeply personal to you?

Yes, when I was first diagnosed I was feeling very angry and cheated that I had spent my whole life not knowing and being confused at my feelings and behavior. And almost like in a dramatic movie lots of things collided at once.. so of course… I went on a writers retreat.  I hadn’t written since university and I sat down in true hyperfocus fashion and wrote a play – “Crocodile”. I remember the first lines coming into my head “My name is Crocodile Armitage. Most people call me Croc. I probably have some other name on a birth certificate somewhere, but no one could remember such a detail”. When people tell me that they are going through an autism or ADHD diagnosis I send them the link to the Audioplay of Crocodile as it captures every emotion of diagnosis and it’s not pretty. I still get emails from listeners saying “thank you for putting into words my diagnosis roller coaster”.

Heather Peace plays Crocodile in the audioplay version which you recorded in lockdown, how was that?

Heather was fab, so easy to work with and really keen to understand all of the motivations of the autistic / adhd character. We would talk through exactly why I had written the text and she would listen and then deliver an explosive and brilliant performance. This was my first solo audioplay and we recorded using handheld devices remotely and uploaded the files once finished. It was very old school but I think that raw quality added something, when I listen back now. It was self funded, low budget and driven by absolute passion and conviction to be heard.

You then went on to write and produce 3 more, working with other big names, how did you manage all of this in Lockdown?

My next play Mole was set in Wales, I had covered Yorkshire and London in Crocodile and wanted to work with other regional voices and dialects. I also wanted to explore age and the dynamic that brings. Crocodile was in their 30s. Mole is in her 50’s and tackles difficult subjects of loneliness and grief, specifically the loss of a child. It’s heartfelt and hard hitting but shows the power of friendship and acceptance. We recorded this remotely and had an absolute blast with Sharon Morgan, Richenda Carey and Gillian Thomas. During recording I began speaking to Miriam Margolyes about a role for her and I realised quite quickly that she would need her own play and her own setting, hence Kitty was born. Kitty is set in Scotland, as is Miriam’s heritage, and tells of her diagnosis journey at the age of 90, along with her 2 granddaughters who end up on a road trip with her across Scotland. We recorded it at her house in London, masked up, which was a riot (a stressful riot!) and an absolute joy, the effervescent Lorraine Macintosh (Deacon Blue) and Jenny Hulse joined online and we recorded the play. 

Your final audioplay has quite a dramatic title?

Ha! Yes, How to drop a piano. I had finished my trilogy of later diagnosis plays and wanted to write something different. I met the lead character on facebook, Mabz Beet and I got chatting about our autism diagnosis and I thought to myself I want to write them a play. They were an aspiring actor and didn’t want type casting, as often Trans actors are, so I wrote a comedy set in Stratford Upon Avon which involves a parrot, a seance (which is actually very spooky!) and of course we throw a piano out of the window. It was fabulous to work with Jane Asher who is Ambassador of the National Autistic Society and Lesley Joseph who leaves me in fits of laughter every time we speak. I had a great time making the play, but as we wrapped and released it, I knew it would be my last one. It was time for something else.

Time for something new, so what happened next?

Well, unfortunately, my best friend took her own life. I remember the phone call from her partner, when I saw his name come up on my phone screen, late at night, I knew before I even answered that she was gone. We had been friends since we were 4, navigated schools, university and jobs together and now nothing. She was always the person that I sent my first draft to, she was the one person in the world I wanted to read it and hear her views – usually direct, yorkshire and withering – just how I liked them. I went into a void. I didn’t want to spend time with anyone else as it felt disloyal to her. I’m not someone who has lots of friends, my world became small. I stopped writing, anything I tried I hated because I couldn’t send it to her. She always used to say “stop writing serious things, use your dead pan yorkshire humour and make people laugh”, now I couldn’t find anything to laugh about. So I stopped writing for nearly two years. Even my children kept asking, “mummy what are you writing at the moment?”, as they were always involved in my projects giving me ideas and convoluted sub plots. But I just couldn’t write anything. I began a podcast interviewing neurodivergent and queer change makers who were standing up and “Daring to be Different”, this was a great way to connect with people and tell stories without having to actually write.

So what changed, how did you manage to recapture your inspiration? 

I was distractedly watching TV one evening when Michelle Jeram came on the screen as DC “Monty” in the BBC’s Granite Harbour and I said to my partner, “who is that?”. We googled and looked her up and I was so taken aback by the character that she played I reached out to her. Over the next few weeks we started chatting and I opened up about not being able to write anymore, she said to me “we all lose our mojo at times, give yourself a nudge”.

Over the next few months I began discussing my writing with a friend, Kayleigh, who had also personal experience of suicide and grief, we talked about our shared experiences and I developed a strong urge to write about it, in a way to give this grief that we both had so close to the surface an outlet.

A few weeks later I found myself on a sunbed in Croatia in 40 degree heat unable to sit still and focus on “relaxing”. I got out my ipad and began to write a short film script, channeling my grief both from the loss of my best friend but also from my later life diagnosis and the fallout that had ensued, combining stories and thoughts from conversations with Kayleigh into a deep and emotional plot. I had given myself a nudge and unlocked a story in my head.I sent the raw drafts to both Michelle and Kayleigh and said, hey, how about we make this film?

As simple as that?

Ha, well almost. I have never made a film before so I had to assemble a team of great people to work with who shared the vision. Michelle, herself later life diagnosed as autistic, loved the script and the controversial plot twist at the end was enough to engage the Bader Media team to sign up also. Kayleigh was by my side from the start of the idea with her ability to make me consider “the details”, a noble challenge. I approached the wonderful singer and songwriter Megan Black, whilst still writing on the beach and said.. “I’ve had this idea….” and she began to compose the title song for the film. My next text was to Sherise Blackman who had played the deadpan best mate Beau in Crocodile, would she be interested in playing the AI robot…? She replied “count me in”…  We are a diverse team of people, across many spectrums and minorities with a passion for telling stories that matter.

What is the film about?

Its called “The Programme” and it tells a story about who we are and our understanding of neurodivergence and the idea of seeking a “typical existence”. Michelle plays the non binary lead character of Drum – “Subject 3756A/b1” who has been chosen out of 4.3 million profiles to be interviewed by ‘The Programme’ on the subject of loneliness. Throughout the film Drum, delves deeper into their world, and we are reminded of our connections and perception of belonging, choice and identity within an increasingly disconnected world. As we learn more about the research of ‘The Programme’ we question our current reality and what could so easily be our historical future… 

A dystopian, what if? Short film. So when can we see it?

We are recording in January 2024 and seeking funding at the moment. As with all of my projects it’s low budget and high impact. If anybody would like to support the creation of the film even with £20 towards our crowd funding project it would be massively appreciated. Funding for the arts is so difficult to come by and also tricky to access when you are neurodivergent, this is why I have previously self funded all of my projects – I am terrible at filling in forms and completing all of the paperwork that goes with it.

Do you have a link we can go to? 

Yes, you can visit our site on

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/the-programme-short-film-neurodiverse-queer

It would be great to hear from your followers any thoughts you have on the film and your personal experiences of diagnosis.

What are your plans for the film once it’s made?

Once we have made the film, if we raise enough money, we will be hosting a Private Film Premiere  (tickets will be available and sponsorship of the film provides access to this) where we will be doing a meet the cast and question & answer session, where we dig into the “plot twist” and discuss the moral dilemma that it raises.Then we will be joining the Short Film Festival Circuit before we release wider.

Sam, I wish you all the best with your project and look forward to seeing the film in the New Year.

Thanks Anna, much appreciated. 

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