by Wilfred Okiche
In the space of 10 years, Tunde Aladese has become one of the biggest names in television. From writing on the soaps Tinsel, Edge of Paradise and the newly created Hotel Majestic, to appearing on stage in the V-Monologues as well as an appearance in the award winning film, Confusion Na Wa where she emerged as a quiet scene stealer, Aladese has emerged one of the hardest working women in show business.
We spoke with her and attempted to peel back some of the layers.
Let us start from the beginning. How did you come into professional writing?
Like most writers I have been writing since I was a little girl. There was a fantasy version in my little head then that I would live by a lake in Spain or somewhere and eat grapes while I clack on a typewriter in my spare time. Even when my family was entertaining and everyone would be in the kitchen preparing the meals, I would just be in my room with a book. In another corner of my mind, I was also a rock star and that still persists till today. I went into university, mostly because they said I had to go. In an ideal world, what I would have loved to do after secondary school was travel the world and write some more because I had been doing some writing then but I stopped writing prose about that time. At that time, part of me knew that a lot of what was lacking in what I was writing was truth. There was a lot of writing by numbers. I knew the tricks and the twists to make a tale but the heart and soul of the stories were lacking. I knew nothing about the experience of falling in love for example. This is not the question you asked me. I don’t know why I am rambling.
We were talking about the origins of your writing.
Okay. Because I felt like I needed some life experience I stopped writing prose for a while and did some poetry and song writing. I wrote some poetry for a course in my final year in the University of Ibadan. While I was leaving school, a friend of mine told me his sister worked for a magazine that paid money for poetry. This magazine was Farafina online and they were just setting up their offices. I welcomed the opportunity and I met one of the board members who told asked me to join a radio programme production company after I mentioned I had auditioned for Cool FM. This was while I was doing clearance and I don’t think I ever finished that. I have no certificate, no proof that I went to school. I started this job where I was a producer and there was a lot of nothing happening. I did not think of myself as a writer then, I mean I did some writing, but most of it was coming up with ideas that ended up in a file somewhere. My boss met with Hakeem Mogaji who was about to start the BBC Radio drama series Story Story and I was invited for the writers workshop. I was driven to Akodo Resort and was paid N8,000 to stay in a room by the beach for 2 days and what amounted to work was to come back with a character after visiting Epe market. One thing led to another and they needed female writers for the second season and during the workshop, for the first time, they pointed out to me that I was a writer and I needed to start introducing myself as such. People began to remember that and would call me up for jobs. I got my first television writing gig for an NGO funded series that didn’t see the light of day. At a point most of what was coming in was television work, with the odd movie here and I became a professional writer.
It is interesting how you say that you didn’t know to introduce yourself as a writer. Did that realization come to you with some difficulty and when does a person qualify to call themselves a writer?
That’s a good question. It wasn’t like it was difficult for me to arrive at, it was more that I felt no one could make a living as a writer in Nigeria. It wasn’t something we grew up believing. I knew I would write no matter what I did but I was happy to have it end up in a box under the bed.
For the second question, it is kind of hard to say. I ran into a friend last week who writes, but does other stuff also. She described me as a real writer because I make a living out of it. But I don’t agree that I am just because. In the same way, there are people who say I am a hack and feel I should apologise constantly because I have not published a novel. I think it is subjective. I don’t think of my friend as not being a writer because she isn’t constantly working. There are so many kinds of writing and I am greedy in that aside from advertising copy, I want to try everything else. If I had the time, I would partition my life in stages where I write the one great album, the great novel, the great television show etc. There is a girl I knew in secondary school who never finished anything she wrote and doesn’t work as a writer today but I consider her a more of a writer than some people who are being paid to do so.
You have been head writer on the soap, Tinsel for a while now and I assumed you were still on Tinsel till you mentioned you had left. What is the story there?
I stopped head writing officially for Tinsel September last year but I had eased out of the process gradually through a transition process that began in April. By October, I had gone full time into Hotel Majestic.
Was Tinsel no longer challenging for you on a creative level?
Not to belittle anything but Tinsel has been an interesting journey. There were times we loved it and times we hated it but for the period I was head writer, it swallowed my life. From 2005, there has never been a time when I have been idle. The appeal was that the job would give you the flexibility to work on different things at different times but the reality is a lot of bulls__t meetings, lots of rejection and drudgery. I wanted to do other stuff like record my album. But from the time I became script editor on Tinsel, I had no life. I would go to sleep on my laptop and wake up on it. We try to make it into our show, the way we conceive it but the truth is that everything has to be within a certain limit in terms of budget or the kind of show that it is, because it is a daily soap. Also you have to work around actors schedules, those who want to leave. So you find that you are trying to build into this beautiful, grand thing and real life intrudes. If someone came to me with a magic wand and said to me, create the kind of show you want to be working on for 4 years, the result would not have been Tinsel. And I say that with no negative connotation. Having said that, I enjoyed working on it and it was quite rewarding for a writer in Nigeria. I enjoyed the financial safety that it afforded and I am thankful for that. But yes, there was some stasis because it became this thing where there was nothing but Tinsel.
There is this notion that creative people are immune to discipline. Aside from the pay check, would you say Tinsel also taught you discipline?
I think that I had learnt discipline from my days on Edge of Paradise. I and IK who was Tinsel head writer before me had worked on a number of projects together. Femi Kayode challenged us on the Edge of Paradise workshop to submit first drafts in record time and we did it so I learnt then that it can be done. What I learnt on Tinsel instead is that there is always a story. And this is difficult because at the time I left, we had done over 1,200 episodes and you are sick of some characters. In season 2, at 200 episodes, we had already started feeling that there was no longer any story to be told. But we did over 800 more, imagine that. What happened is I was made script editor in season 3 and was thrown into the deep end, where I was forced to immerse myself in these characters lives. I knew everything they would do and what I wanted to see them do and these revelations came to me gradually.
Having said all these, what characters on Tinsel do you think need to be rested and which plot lines or story arcs should go away?
I don’t think I should answer that question. But maybe an explosion should just explode on Tinsel town and everyone should just die.
Aside from Hotel Majestic, what television series or movies do you wish you were on the writing team?
I don’t think I work like that. Not to be modest or anything but when I think of all the shows that I like or love, I don’t necessarily feel like I should be on the team, I am happy to enjoy them as a fan and maybe even learn a thing or two. If I were living in New York maybe my answer would be different but I just want to create a show that everyone can love not to be on an already existing show.
– Note: This interview has been condensed.