I threw the cistern of his dead mother’s toilet into a barge on the Thames. I turned to James Hanning and said, “This is a bit fun.” He had ceased to be the deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday that week because the print edition folded. To cap it off, his mother had died and he needed to urgently remove the contents of her partially renovated home. “No, Tommy,” he said. “This is not fun.”
Writing a play, rummaging for the research to inform it, regularly involves a glimpse into another person’s agony. It requires sensitivity – mine had momentarily crashed with the childish glee of being allowed to break stuff. James had courteously replied to my emails to explain his horrible month and why it would be near impossible to meet. I asked if he needed a hand at the dump. “If you could face chatting while I drive around,” he wrote back, “that would be great.”
We hauled all morning. There was no way this guy could have managed it on his own. The windowsill alone required two, and then there was the shower recess and the crates of brick. He had been putting off this mournful task. I wasn’t there just to be kind, but he thanked me for providing a distraction. It occurred to me: only a stranger could have helped get this done.
As one of the lead reporters of the phone-hacking saga, Hanning was a close contact of Mary-Ellen Field, the woman who inspired my protagonist. He admitted to me that some people probably still doubt her claims. Mud sticks. I need not have expressed my outrage. He knows Field cleared her name, that she did so in the most remarkable way. I tell him, “That’s what my play’s about. She proved them wrong.”
The project began months earlier in Sydney. The clomp of Mark Colvin’s walking stick preceded his entrance. He moved with his rocking gait, then fell hard into his office chair opposite me. I had been permitted to shadow him as he prepared to host PM, his nightly current affairs program on ABC Radio. His years of chronic illness are apparent but Mark is a stoic. He kept working through dialysis years earlier when his kidneys were operating at 5 per cent. In his familiar resonance, he said: “I consider myself a fairly fatalistic person.”
Later, his son William urged me to ask Mark about the time he bartered his life for cigarettes. “Oh God,” Mark responded. “Benson & Hedges. I remember the gold cartons. Uganda. 1981. Checkpoint. With Les Seymour. Soldier both drunk and stoned: eyes like a red road map.”
Mark’s email reply was typically prompt and tantalising. “… As we drove off, he let his AK arm drop downwards, forgetting the safety catch was off, and fired several rounds into the tarmac.”
In the central African city of Goma, amid a humanitarian crisis in 1994, a man came at Mark with a machete when he tried to cross a stream in the volcanic rock. Mark’s life was spared on that occasion because he could argue in fluent French and apply past lessons dealing with “arseholes with guns”. It was there, covering the aftermath of the genocide, that Mark caught a rare illness. His body ballooned with fluid in hospital back in London. His family were notified. There were bedside expressions of love and farewell. Mark lived. He emerged from the hallucinatory effects of the cortisone they pumped into him – a lifesaving dose that would turn his joints to chalk.
In ABC headquarters in Ultimo, as the deadline for his show ticked closer, Mark was astonishingly relaxed. He patiently told me stories. He told me about narrowly failing to board a ferry, MS Herald of Free Enterprise, from Belgium in 1987. It sank. One hundred and 93 lives were lost. Mark went from would-be victim to reporter in an instant. It was a lesson in empathy. He recalled knowing who wanted to talk, who needed to talk.
He applied those instincts when he sent a tweet in January 2011 to the then mostly dormant account of @maryellenfield. “A shot in the dark really.” He needed an Australian angle to keep the phone-hacking saga at the forefront of PM. “To tell a story,” he said, “you need people.” I concealed the notepad I was writing in. “You’re telling me, mate,” I thought. There was already a title scrawled on the page: Mark Colvin’s Kidney. I wondered when and how best to obtain his permission.
Striking a rapport is key, Mark told me, especially when the interviewee is uncertain about the process. Something unique occurred when Mary-Ellen Field responded to Mark Colvin’s tweet. More than the requisite rapport, conversation drifted to a shared love of poetry, art and history. Distance afforded a fast intimacy. Their correspondence became invaluable in Mary-Ellen’s darker moments as she fought for justice.
“You may well have heard about the saga in the UK of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday tabloid the News of the World and its widespread hacking of celebrities’ phones and voicemail messages,” Mark said in his intro for their first interview, now a monologue in my play. “What you may not have heard so much about is the collateral damage to people in the celebrities’ orbits.”
Mary-Ellen had been sought after as an intellectual property expert. She landed top international corporations as her clients. Even the United States Treasury called on her skills, as did the supermodel Elle Macpherson. In a card to Mary-Ellen, she wrote: “You changed my life in ways you never know.” In October 2005, that same looping cursive praised Mary-Ellen for her endless days of dedication both to Elle personally and to her brand. “I really really respect and appreciate it.”
Then it all fell apart.
That card is telling. It is sent the month before Elle accused Mary-Ellen of being an alcoholic. It displays the close proximity of matters personal and commercial. Mary-Ellen’s advice was valued for more than deals and lingerie contracts. She attended meetings with the family lawyer. She was a confidante to call in tears in the middle of the night. Elle’s card also makes claims of love and respect. Those claims are true. Elle believed she was acting properly when the leaks happened. The evidence before her was a newspaper article quoting an unnamed source. The contents and the distinct idiom pointed to Mary-Ellen. Elle did not then know that she was the victim of hacking by News of the World. Nobody guessed it, despite the simplicity of the hacker’s trick. In the early and mid-2000s many did not bother to alter the factory-set pin on their phone. Elle’s messages, when accessed remotely via that pin, proved a treasure trove of caring, secret advice from an articulate business adviser and friend. Unsuspecting of the malicious eavesdropping, Elle concluded that her loyal lieutenant would only stoop to such betrayal if she were suffering from addictions and mental collapse.
Mary-Ellen was sent to a celebrity rehab in Arizona. Her discharge summary lists the referent as “Ell Macpherson”. It notes 33 days of treatment spanning Christmas 2005. It was concluded that Mary-Ellen Field was neither an alcoholic nor in an untrustworthy frame of mind. She only agreed to the rehab to protect her job, a decision that was ultimately futile and served to feed rumour. Mary-Ellen returned to her workplace to discover Macpherson had withdrawn her account with the firm. Mary-Ellen was soon shown the door. She had been at the peak of her career. Now her reputation was in a nosedive and so was she. She started to blank out without warning. It was a significant impediment for a woman seeking employment and to disprove alcoholism. Doctors spent years trying to diagnose her vasovagal syncope, a neurological condition aggravated by stress.
I contacted her and tried to apply the Colvin technique. Establish trust. Listening is crucial. The best question is often, Why? With her permission, I recorded our Skype conversations. I began: “So can you tell me how this went from a tweet to an organ donation?” I heard her terrific laugh for the first time. “As you can imagine, journalists were not my favourite people.”
A film festival soon gave me the opportunity to meet Mary-Ellen in London. She insisted we go bike-riding to cure my jet lag. I was pedalling among the deer in Richmond Park with my protagonist, asking question after question about a privacy that had already been violated. She would follow up our chats by forwarding the documents she kept, including exchanges via text, email or Twitter with Colvin. She had learnt to archive evidence. “Woah,” I thought, “I’m effectively hacking this poor woman.”
This time, however, it was Mary-Ellen’s choice. She wanted the story told, just as she had as a core participant at the Leveson inquiry or when she attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue News International, the owner of the now-defunct News of the World, in the Royal Courts of Justice. “All one can say is that you’ve correctly described your own position,” Lord Leveson told her. “The collateral damage of what somebody else did to the person for whom you worked.”
As her quest for justice gathered pace, as revelations of a hacked murdered schoolgirl’s phone had Murdoch on the ropes, as the police and parliamentary committees probed the full extent of the crimes, the “penpal” helping Mary-Ellen tell her story faltered. Septicaemia had returned. Dialysis failed. Mark Colvin was at risk of developing a resistance to antibiotics. He was contemplating death once more.
Mary-Ellen stared out at a misty sunrise on the other side of the world and set her sights on a new objective. She was sure that she had been put on this earth to save Mark’s life. She wondered even if the turmoil she had endured had all led to this moment. “I couldn’t understand why I had such strong feelings about it, we’d only ever spoken on the phone, emailed and texted each other.” She made her offer of a kidney via text message. Mark ignored her. Then, when pressed, flatly refused.
He feared for her health, given her various complications. He worried also that the way they had met – hadn’t met actually – would suggest coercion. We’ve heard of cash for comment, what would that make this arrangement? Her claims of some spiritual certainty only fuelled Mark’s professionally trained scepticism. “She had to batter down my defences.”
The process of organ donation in Australia is famously strict. The doctors assessed Mary-Ellen, physically and psychiatrically. She went through the wringer to prove her gift was purely altruistic. It was conclusive that the tissue match was like that of siblings and that Mary-Ellen was never an alcoholic. Mark was within days of death when the donation occurred. And Mary-Ellen Field gained much. “Giving Mark my kidney fills me with such joy every day. Knowing I saved his life helps me to cope with the terrible injustice I’ve suffered. It’s very hard to find out that some people are above the law. I have completely lost faith in the justice system, which I now realise only works for the rich and powerful. I know I will never get justice and it does get me down, but I try to offset that with the knowledge that Mark has had already four years of life he would not have had. So something good has come of it. Murdoch and Elle will never be held to account but then they’ll never know what it feels like to save a life.”
Now it’s for others to inhabit the characters I’ve tried to know. Stage management memos grant a glimpse of Sarah Peirse’s Mary-Ellen. “Ms Peirse has requested that for this scene she is wearing the flat sporty shoes that she wears in act one, scene six. This is due to her needing to do a controlled fall, which she cannot do in slippers.” It often starts with the shoes, getting the feel for another’s stride. “Mr Howard is very fond of a particular walking stick,” reads another note. “It is marked with white tape.”
I attend a rehearsal room run. The actor John Howard clomps his prop across the electrical tape on the floor that indicates the dimensions of the Belvoir St Theatre stage. He makes his entrance, summoning Mark’s rocking gait. He sends that tweet. Their relationship begins.