Our Day Out...
- 20 years old but still bitter sweet
- Playwright Willy Russell tells Terry Grimley why it has taken 20 years to adapt his classic film script for the stage.
- You may have seen Willy Russell's Our Day Out on stage before, but you certainly won't have seen it the way it will appear at the Belgrade Theatre later this week.
Exactly 20 years after its original incarnation - as a filmed television play produced by the BBC 's drama department at Pebble Mill - this bitter-sweet comedy about a bunch of no-hope inner city schoolchildren on an end-of-term outing is finally about to be seen in the stage version Russell always intended.
"I wouldn't describe the version that has been done before as provisional. It was a finished version but not the one I always wanted to do of it," Russell explains.
He remembers that the original film script was written very quickly, over about four days. These were heady times at Pebble Mill, where vintage productions were flooding out to fill the innovative Play For Today slot.
- Increasingly they were being filmed on location, under the guidance of David Rose, head of English regions drama, who would later establish Channel 4's film-making tradition.
"Would that David was back in the position of power he held in Birmingham," Russell says. " It was a completely different world then, when people like me and Alan Bleasdale could write a play on spec and send it to David."
"We lost a lot when we lost the single television play. It was quite a unique form. People discussed what happened in those plays on a Thursday night. They were watched by a massive number of people - it really was like electric theatre, whereas today the method of watching and receiving television has changed.
- "I'm not a Luddite or anti-progress but I don't see the destruction of the BBC as inevitable. You could say that it's an inevitable product of the move towards global thinking, but safeguards could have been in to support the BBC so that it played on a world stage with its integrity intact.
Our Day Out was one of six BBC films from the 1970s chosen for a retrospective season a couple of years ago, but within a few years Russell was thinking of recasting it in a different mould.
"I had been asked to write the book of a West End musical that was going the rounds at the time. I wasn't interested in doing that sort of musical, but it led me to question, if I was doing a musical what would I do? And I realised that in Our Day Out I had a potential musical story I wanted to tell on stage."
- "So I started to think about it, but then I was commissioned to write a play that became Blood Brothers."
At this point in the saga, enter Bob Eaton - now (1996) the recently appointed artistic director of the Belgrade, the artistic director of the Liverpool Everyman.
"Bob had independently seen that Our Day Out was potentially a musical - a simple story with an in-built chorus. I told him Blood Brothers would take me three months. Idiot! It took 18 months, by which time Bob's time at the Everyman was almost up.
- "So he asked if I would allow him to do a one-off workshop version with the Everyman Youth Theatre. We had a meeting and amazingly Came back about two weeks later with a lot of songs already written.
"Then I had to go back to Blood Brothers and I was a bit worried about this thing because I hate doing things by committee."
"When the show finally hit the stage, however, Russell was relieved by what he saw.
- "It wasn't quite what I always thought it should be, but it nevertheless worked. Because of the way it had been put together it had an energy and rawness to it which might not have been there if I had sat down and written it the way I intended."
"So, for that reason, when other people saw it and wanted to do it I agreed, with the proviso that one day I would come back and do the job I always intended on it."
The original version was even staged at the Belgrade some years ago. But this time Russell has taken the opportunity to revive the collaboration with Bob Eaton to finish the job.
- "One example is that on film you can have a lot of characters who just have one line, but on stage it's better to telescope those to make one. I've also been junking some of the musical numbers that frankly always embarrassed me and to some extent Bob."
"I've been writing some new numbers and extending some I thought deserved it. There's one song Bob wrote, which I had nothing to do with at all, that's just a wonderful tune and any audience would want to hear more of it.
"I've written some completely new stuff and there was a scene in a zoo which didn't work at all and I've completely rewritten that."
- Since Russell has been working for some time on two novels, the revised Our Day Out is his first work for the stage since the hugely successful Shirley Valentine. And, of course, he writes music as well as words, although many people seem to have a block about recognising this.
"I wrote a musical that's been running in the West end for ten years and people still ask me who wrote the music!" he laughs.
"I taught myself piano about 15 years ago, but people who write words and music are few and far between. People are used to seeing different credits for book and music on posters."
- So how does Russell sum up the relationship between the final stage version of Our Day Out and the original?
"One thing that remains the same, sadly, is the politics of the piece. The kids now have less to look forward to from society than the ones I was writing about in 1976, and I had to rewrite it to take account of that; there's a speech where Mrs. Kay, the teacher, says that they'll end up with some lousy job. You can't say that any more…
"We have an underclass, children who are the children of the unemployed and perhaps unemployable. So the story hasn't changed, but the way it is told on stage has."
- "It should be bigger, more full, more robust, more potent, in a sense."
"I'm fingers crossed when I say that, because what I'm thinking about is the intention, and a play only lives when the actors speak it on stage. But we'll know this time next week."