Working with Derek Walcott

On March 17, my daughter Anuradha Henriques sent me a message on WhatsApp to say Derek Walcott, Poet and Nobel Laureate had passed away.
Over the past few months I had been thinking a lot about Derek Walcott, from my home in Lagos, Nigeria where I now live and work with the Tony Elumelu Foundation. I wonder what he would make of Lagos and Africa Rising!
For Nigerians, the world literary figures with whom Walcott might be compared would be Wole Soyinka- playwright and poet- who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African to be honoured in that category; or Chinua Achebe, novelist, poet, professor and critic. His first novel Things Fall Apart, is the most widely read book in modern African literature!
I first became aware of Derek Walcott in the early 1980’s as a renowned playwright and worked with him in the early 90’s in St Lucia and in London. In the 1980’s the UK had a rich Black theatre scene with talented actors, directors, writers, production designers of Caribbean descent and a huge audience to support this creativity.
It was in my capacity as the Arts Officer at the Greater London Council, that I was able to provide funding for the production of many of his plays including two my favourite plays Dream on Monkey Mountain(1971), described by the New Yorker as “a poem in dramatic form”; and Ti-Jean and His Brothers(1958).
It was in 1991, that I would first meet Derek Walcott, in the early hours of the morning, sitting on a beach in his beloved St Lucia painting. In my capacity as Series Associate Producer of Developing Stories, a co-production between BBC and TVE, we had commissioned six films produced by some of the developing world’s most talented filmmakers on what they saw as the root causes of the world’s environment and development crisis for the UN Conference in Brazil in 1992. The series included films by directors from India, Philippines, Brazil, Palestine, Burkina Faso, and the Caribbean.
Banyan Productions, from Trinidad and Tobago, was commissioned to make And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, on the theme of the domination of Caribbean television by programs from the North, primarily the US. The film weaves together interviews, indigenous poetry, and music with clips from imported French and US television programmes to show how Caribbean viewers receive a distorted view of the world that alienates them from their own cultural heritage.
Also included was a look at how Cuba has tackled the problem and the US response in the form of Radio Marti. Directed by Christopher Laird and Anthony Hall, we were in St Lucia to interview Derek Walcott for this documentary as part of the series which was shown in 70 countries, winning many international awards. There was huge love and respect between the Directors and Derek who had lived and worked in Trinidad for many years and where he cofounded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop in 1950 with his twin brother.
It took Derek a while to adjust to the fact the person in charge was a woman and an Indian to boot! My job was not to impress Derek, but to ensure the Directors got the footage we would need to edit the final film. We spent several days and late nights with Derek and the all-male film crew from Trinidad! Holding your own with the charming chauvinism of Caribbean men was not easy, especially for someone who had only been working in the industry for 5 years!
However, during this time, I got to know Derek up close, came to appreciate his deep love for St Lucia, the famous Pitons his favourite place and his down to earth connection with the ordinary people of St Lucia. The compassion and tenderness he felt for the fishermen, café owners, the market women, taxi drivers was a joy to watch, forgetting he was this great poet.
We followed him up the mountains, back streets of Castries where he was born and grew up with his twin brother and his Mother. She was the first investor in his talent as a poet. What struck me was his voice, when he spoke, it demanded you listen. He was focused, disciplined, his dedication to hard work, a master of his craft as a poet, who demanded high standards of himself and others around him.
While filming at his home, he showed me his paintings and I learnt that in fact he had trained as painter! Painting was his form of meditation, a visual depiction of his beloved Caribbean.
My next meeting with Derek was in December 1992, again in St Lucia. My husband and filmmaker, Professor Julian Henriques was obsessed with Derek’s poetry, we have shelf full of all his poems ever published! Julian loved Omeros (1990), an epic poem reimagining the Trojan War as a Caribbean fishermen’s fight and which I came to know as he read aloud passages from this extraordinary work.
So, convinced was he that Derek would win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he had pitched making a film on Derek to BBC Arena. But the BBC executives would take a lot of convincing.
In 1992, Walcott was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel committee described his work as “a poetic oeuvre of great luminosity, sustained by a historical vision, the outcome of a multicultural commitment.” BBC executives finally commissioned Julian to make the film with the late Professor Stuart Hall as the presenter.
In December 1992, they both left for St Lucia, to film with Derek over Christmas and into the New year. I was 8 months pregnant with Anuradha, our second daughter, now 24, who sent the message with news of his death. Not wishing to spend Christmas alone, Mala Henriques, our first daughter, and I opted to follow as soon as she finished school.
I had not seen Derek since 1991, he had mellowed, thanks mainly to Sigrid Nama, his partner and devoted companion. He was relaxed, painting in the morning and filming during the day. The St Lucian government was giving him an Island to develop as a cultural retreat. It was one of the best Christmas, spent in the company of Derek Walcott, interviewed by another giant of the Caribbean, meeting the people and places that inspired Omeros, listening to music, eating good food and “liming” as they say in Trinidad with close friends.
BBC Arena broadcast the film, Derek Walcott: The Poet of the Island, in 1993. I do hope they will show it again to mark the passing of this great man.
In 1995, following discussion with Derek, I pitched the idea of making a feature film of his play Ti-Jean and His Brothers to the BBC. In Ti-Jean and His Brothers, Derek Walcott explores the power of good versus evil, poor versus wealthy and the search for what defines humanness. This folk tale, told by the animals of the rain forest through dialogue, dance, and song, tells the tale of a poor widowed mother, her three sons, and their bargain with the devil.
It is a compelling story and in 1991, I had seen the story in paintings by Derek and knew how much he loved this play, written in 1958.
The BBC commissioned Formation Films, my production company, the first draft script in 1995. Derek was delighted and began writing the script adaption of the play and delivered a first draft several months later. I read it and realised immediately that this would not be acceptable to the BBC. Like the play, it was written in verse! Sure, enough the BBC came back with notes, they wanted an adaptation with dialogue, not prose! I called Derek in the US to share their notes. Across the ocean, I could hear and feel his rage, “I am a poet, I write in prose, I don’t write dialogue” he screamed down the phone at me. Had I been standing near him, I am convinced he would have throttled me!
In that moment, I knew I had taken on more than even I could handle. There was no way I was going to disrespect Derek as the giant poet being reduced to write “dialogue” by the BBC. I went back to the Commissioning Editor and told her, “Derek is a poet, he writes prose, he does not write dialogue” If they were not ready to accept his radicle approach to telling the story in this style, then we should part company now. And we did.
One of the biggest lessons I learnt from Derek and the BBC experience, never compromise your creativity and integrity. With this the copyright went back to Derek but I held onto the dream that someday Ti-Jean and His Brothers will be made into a film. I was pleased to read that in 2015, Henry Muttoo, the Artistic Director of the Cayman National Cultural Foundation had directed a stage production of the play in which I can see Derek Walcott’s story board of the same for the film.
I hope that an executive from Netflix, Amazon or Disney was in the audience and have the confidence to turn this timeless play into a timeless movie. Derek Walcott, the hard taskmaster, I am glad to have known you, worked with you, learnt from you and to have journeyed with you. Through your work, your soul will endure.