Dancin' Thru The Dark...
Celebrating the DVD release of DANCIN' THRU THE DARK
PC: Am I right in thinking that ‘Stags and Hens’ was an unusual project in that it was originally written as a play but then started to be made as a film first (which was never completed) and eventually saw light of day as a play for the stage?
- WR: Stags and Hens was initially written as a film for drama students at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre. I wrote it for them because I was doing a year or so as Fellow in Creative Writing at the Poly and was asked by the tutor of this particular group if I could provide something for their film and television module. Because of internal politics, lack of funds and, I think, staff rivalry, the project fell foul of all kinds of obstacles and was never completed. Somehow the script found its way to Chris Bond who was artistic Director at the Everyman in Liverpool and Chris asked if he could present it there as a stage play.
PC: How close to the original Manchester film was your later script for Dancin’ thru the Dark?
WR: Although about 15 or 20 minutes longer than the film script, the stage version was still very close to the film. I deliberately restricted the amount of locations for the film knowing, I guess, that a student project that was relying on virtually no funding and very little internal support would stand a better chance of being realised if it was fairly self-contained. Added to this, the Capitol Building – in which the Theatre School was then housed – was a converted cinema and provided, with its ladies and gents conveniences, the perfect locations. Although the film didn’t get made, the fact of having chosen to set the action mostly in these two specific locations meant that the script was already something which could be realised quite easily in theatre terms whilst, at the same time, providing something of a minor coup de theatre in being the first stage play to be set almost entirely in lavatories!
PC: Were the BBC and Foremost involved from the outset?
- WR: Yes, as I remember it. I’d previously worked with Andree Molyneux (BBC) and with Annie Russell – (Foremost). Andree and Annie teamed up as co Producers and although there are various other ‘Producer’ names credited, it really was Andree and Annie who did the heavy lifting and saw everything through from the very first to the very last.
PC: What was the spark which ignited, twelve years after Stags and Hens, the making of Dancin’ thru the Dark.
WR: As is often the case, the spark was rather pragmatic, even mundane. I’d been approached by an American writer who wanted to acquire the rights in the play ‘Stags and Hens’ so that he could write it as a film set in America. At the same time, I was being approached by Annie who wanted me to write a film that she might produce. Added to all that, I was extremely conscious of having failed to deliver on an earlier commission from Andree. And, probably feeling rather obligated, I probably thought, well, instead of handing it over to be made as an American movie, why don’t I write the screenplay myself and see it made as a British movie, set in Liverpool.
PC: Mike Ockrent directed Dancin’ thru the Dark superbly and to great reviews at the time of its release. Was this the first time you’d worked with Mike? Did you personally choose Mike?
- WR: Mike and I had worked together years before Dancin’ thru the Dark. As well as being professional colleagues, we were the closest of friends. We first met in 1977 when Mike directed what was to become ‘One For The Road’ and then we co-wrote the screenplay ‘Band on the Run’ for Paul McCartney. In 1980 we were back together again with Mike directing the original stage version of ‘Educating Rita’ for the RSC.
Although a hugely successful stage director, Mike always nursed an ambition to direct film and later in the 80s he did the BBC directors training course. Mike’s first feature for TV was ‘Money For Nothing’, written by Tim Firth and produced by Andree Molyneux.
When it came to discussing directors for the film of ‘Stags and Hens’, I can’t remember discussion of any name, other than Mike’s.
After his cinema debut, Mike again got sidetracked by theatre and was the director as well as the driving force behind the massive Broadway hit ‘Crazy For You’. At the time of Mike’s death (from Leukaemia) in 1999, he was pursuing a number of film projects in New York where he was then living. Also on the stocks was another theatre project he’d developed – turning the film ‘The Producers’ into a stage musical.
Dancin' thru the dark is as vivid and accurate in it's observation of teenagers, as Shirley Valentine was of women." THE DAILY MAIL
"A funny, well-acted and deftly directed British comedy." SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
"Sharply-observed, full of humour, it just reeks truth."
THE EVENING STANDARD
“Glorious fun! It’s been a long time since I laughed so long and loudly.”
“If you enjoy a cripplin’ good laugh and you’re a Willy Russell fan, you’ll love this.”
NO 1 MAGAZINE
PC: The theme of superstition occurs in Dancin’ thru the Dark; “Bride & Groom shouldn’t see each other on the eve of their wedding”, as it does in other plays. Are you superstitious?
- WR: I’m ridiculously superstitious and have been so for as long as I can recall. I’m sure the psychologists would have a field day with the whys and wherefores of all this. I do know, though, from a very early age, I was acutely aware of the awful consequences that might befall one from stepping under the ladder, spilling the salt, putting shoes on the table, cracking the mirror etc., etc., etc. It probably didn’t help that I ended up working in theatre where superstition is, of course, rife and where something as, supposedly, innocent as whistling backstage can incur some really stern disapproval.
Many superstitions, of course, are routed in practicality – a ladder usually indicates that somebody will be working at the top of it and so walking underneath, you might be unfortunate enough to have a paint pot or a hammer or a dropped slate land on your head. And the reason that whistling backstage is so frowned upon comes from the days when the flymen (who control those features of the set that ‘fly’ in and out) used to communicate by whistling and if they were to hear a rogue whistle might drop in a piece of scenery at the wrong moment and cause serious injury.
I remain quite ambivalent in terms of superstition. Rationally, objectively, I can see it as being rather meaningless mumbo jumbo. But I also recognise its function and its place in the general lore that people carry and pass from generation to generation and which, like children’s street games and songs and the spontaneous chants of the football terraces continue to tenaciously hang on and thrive, even in this increasingly digitised world of ours.
PC: The number Dancin’ thru the Dark is such a good pop song, was it written specifically for the film and Con (O’Neill)?
- WR: Thanks for the compliment. Yes, it was written specifically for the film as indeed were all the tracks, apart from ‘Shoeshine’ a version of which I’d written some years earlier. In the film we tried to suggest that the song was not one of their own compositions but a kind of ‘standard’ that the band had covered.
PC: The film has a great cast. The chemistry between Con O’Neill and Claire Hacket as the main characters is very strong, and we all know someone like Eddie (played by Mark Womack). Were you very hands on when casting?
- WR: Yes, Claire, Con, Mark and many others in the film gave terrific performances and its good to have seen so many of those actors go on to have such successful careers. The casting process was, as is usual, a truly collaborative process with myself, Mike, Annie and Andree all involved in suggesting and seeing various actors, some of whom would already have been known to us – e.g. Con (who’d already played Mickey in Blood Brothers), Angie Clark (who Annie had first worked with when she was producing ‘Letter to Brezhnev’ and Julia Deakin, who had been one of the original Ritas’ at the Piccadilly Theatre in the early 80s. Other actors came through either recommendations or open auditions.
I remember thinking at the time that there were some really terrific performances in the film. A couple of years ago, the film was shown as part of the Clapperboard series of presentations here in Liverpool and I saw the film on the big screen again for the first time since the original release. It seemed to me that, with time, the performances were even richer, deeper and better than I’d remembered – with the one notable exception of my own cameo performance which almost had me fleeing the cinema!
PC: Thanks for talking to me. Personally, I’m looking forward to a digitally enhanced release of Dancin’ thru the Dark as my own copy is an ex-rental VHS which is well overdue for replacement!
WR: Thanks for asking the questions and thanks to you everyone who has badgered and requested and stayed so patient through all the years of trying to have this film made available once more – I hope you enjoy watching it again.
Dancin’ thru the Dark is released on 26th March 2012 and is available to pre-order now from your favourite on-line seller.