Six things we learnt at our epic Evening Standard Stories Festival

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Six things we learnt at our epic Evening Standard Stories Festival
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Ricky Gervais on how dogs will save humanity. The cast of Sex Education talking about intimate moments with their grandparents. Ed Balls (almost) treating editor Emily Sheffield to a Strictly-style lift on stage. The Evening Standard Stories Festival in association with Netflix this weekend was action-packed with talks, workshops and awards ceremonies at London’s Picturehouse Central. Here’s what we learned.

1. Don’t shy away from telling difficult stories

Stars from every corner of television turned out, including the producer of Netflix’s The Witcher, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. Top Boy producer Ashley Walters spoke on how being in prison kickstarted his career. There was one thing every conversation had in common: a determination to break boundaries and not shy away from telling real, often difficult, stories on screen.

“There’s this idea that you can’t write about cancer or suicide or depression because people don’t want to see it, but actually that’s what people want to watch and relate to,” Gervais told the audience of his black comedy drama series, After Life, which tells the story of a widower mourning his wife who died of breast cancer. “We are policing what people can watch. The truth can be really uplifting. It’s freeing. It’s liberating.”

Top Boy producer Ashley Walters (Lucy Young)
Top Boy producer Ashley Walters (Lucy Young)

2. Let’s talk about sex

For Sex Education’s creator and cast, this freedom led to some frank conversations from the unlikeliest of people. George Robinson, who plays Isaac, revealed a grandma came up to him and said the show opened her eyes to the realities of gay sex, and creator Laurie Nunn said: “I hope that there can be conversations which happen more in people’s homes and also school ... we’re going to tackle toxic masculinity and a more widespread understanding of consent.”

Bridgerton book series author Julia Quinn, Bridgerton producer Tom Verica and Queen Charlotte actress Golda Rosheuvel were all in attendance (Lucy Young)
Bridgerton book series author Julia Quinn, Bridgerton producer Tom Verica and Queen Charlotte actress Golda Rosheuvel were all in attendance (Lucy Young)

3. We still have work to do on race

Nunn also spoke about diversity and how she was “naive” when she started writing Sex Education. “I knew that I wanted it to be diverse but I think I was coming at it from a colour blind perspective,” she said. “As the series has progressed I realised that when you’ve got a white writer who’s leading the process, colour-blind doesn’t work — everything has to be intentional and specific.”

Meanwhile, Top Boy mastermind Ronan Bennett said that diversity in TV is “essential”, and Bridgerton producer Tom Verica said there are still fewer opportunities for actors of colour in the UK than in the US. But Queen Charlotte actress Golda Rosheuvel said she doesn’t need Bridgerton to talk about race. “Just put black and brown actors on the screen and let them live their lives,” she said. There were frank conversations with authors, too. Candice Brathwaite, who described her new book Sista Sister as “the manual for black girls I wish I had”, said that the publishing industry still has work to do on inclusiveness. “I don’t think this country has even begun to scratch the surface of the black British writing talent,” she said.

Author Candice Brathwaite (Lucy Young)
Author Candice Brathwaite (Lucy Young)

4. Crime sells

Bella Mackie, author of How to Kill Your Family, said: “There’s a little bit of snobbery but crime books are actually the ones which make the most money, you know.”

5. Gay stories matter

Will Young spoke about growing up with gay shame amid the backdrop of the Aids crisis and Section 28. Discussing his memoir, To Be a Gay Man, he compared the Government’s attitude towards Covid with the HIV/Aids epidemic of the Eighties. “We think these things were so long about but they really weren’t.”

Will Young (Lucy Young)
Will Young (Lucy Young)

6. The kids are our future

Novelist Kate Mosse emphasised that children have to be encouraged to read in an organic way: “That kind of pressure that reading is somehow morally better than anything else can put people off.”

This weekend also saw a host of upcoming talent step into the spotlight, from a trio of authors from Stormzy’s Penguin imprint #Merky Books speaking on their future page-turners to broadcasters Greg James and Chris Smith talking about their illustrated children’s book series Kid Normal. Among attendees of Thursday’s launch party were the two upcoming writers already making a name for themselves: the winners of the Evening Standard’s new writing competition, Belgian-born Londoner Pieter Dewulf and London-born Farah, who was born to parents of Syrian and Dutch heritage. Dewulf, 32, wowed judges with his short story called Jam Jar about a brother and sister’s difficult relationship, which he wrote alongside his job working at a deli. Meanwhile Farah, 13, was chosen as the winner of the of the young adult section for her story called Cooked Sushi, written as part of an assignment for school.

Further proof age is no barrier to creativity was found at a free Lego workshop held on Saturday and Sunday. Lego Rebuild the World let festival-goers aged four and up show off their flair for design and construction. This was a festival that celebrated today’s talent and showed that the future is equally bright.

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