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Dancin' Thru The Dark: The DVD coming soon...

Con O'Neill and Claire Hackett

Stags & Hens in its 30th year 2008 at the Liverpool Royal Court

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Willy with Bob Eaton (director)

You can now buy a cd of songs from the musical OUR DAY OUT.

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Drew Schofield & Michael Starke

Our Day Out

sophiefraser_abbymavers_Bradleyclarkson

Mickey as the bus driver

Gillian and Mickey

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NEWSLETTER - December 2009

 

PC:  Dancin’ Thru the Dark is still one of the most requested films on the website, so I can’t really avoid asking if there is any news on the release on DVD?   Do we have any news?

WR: I was about to refer you back to earlier Newsletters and report on no further progress when I received an email informing me that distribution rights in Dancin’ Thru The Dark have just been settled with Hollywood Classics. I don’t yet know details of when and how they plan to release the film but this is really good news and I’ll make sure that you have all further information as soon as it becomes available.

 

PC:  Of your other projects, do we have any news.  I’m thinking in particular of Blood Brothers – the film? 

WR: We’ve had a degree of interest from a number of sources and discussions continue. As I’ve said previously Blood Brothers, the film, will be a large budget affair and both Alan ( Parker ) and I are prepared to be both sanguine and patient. If the right circumstances come into play then the film will be made – in the world of film, though, such circumstances are not created solely by the writer or the director.

 

PC:  You have over the last few years, built a relationship with the Royal Court theatre in Liverpool and renewed a working relationship with Bob Eaton. Several plays have been performed at the Royal Court, some of which have been updated and/or reworked.  I’m thinking of Stag’s & Hens – The Remix, Shirley Valentine (with Pauline Daniels) and Our Day Out – The Musical. What is it that draws you to this theatre and its team…

WR: It was Bob ( Eaton ) who initially persuaded me to overcome my misgivings and explore the possibility of working at the Court – something for which I’m now extremely grateful. For me theatre is not just about buildings but about the people who inhabit and work in those buildings. In the case of the Court, Kevin ( Fearon ) and his team have an energy and open enthusiasm for what they do and what they’re trying to achieve. I like the ‘can do’ attitude that permeates the place and I like going to work with people who exude a relish for the job and a desire to get it right – for the play, for the theatre, for the audience, for themselves. At the Court I feel that I am part of that, a player in that team; and it feels good – feels as if, after a long time, I’ve found a theatrical ‘home’ once more. That sense is crucial to my writing. I’ve only ever written plays for people – never the building or the company but because there was something about the people in a particular building to which I could relate and with whom I could try and make a particular kind of theatre happen.

There’s also, of course, a real sense of danger at the Royal Court where the very large stalls area functions as a thriving restaurant/bar before the show and where the ‘cabaret’ style seating and tables remain throughout the show.   This makes for what can sometimes be an extremely lively and even vocal audience, one which is quite capable of reacting, accordingly if it feels in any way short changed by what is happening on the stage. At the first night of ‘Our Day Out’, old friend (and now poet laureate) Carol Ann Duffy came along with daughter Ella.  Taking in the atmosphere and buzz in the unique stalls area, Carol Ann observed that it was “like nineteenth century Paris meets modern day Liverpool.”

I remain really excited by what’s going on at the Court and what everyone there is trying to achieve.

 

PC: Stags & Hens – The Remix performed in 2008, was a great success, with fantastic acting from all the cast.  What decided you to update the script?

We have reproduced this essay from the intro to the new Methuen Edition of “Stags & Hens – The Remix”.

This version, Stags and Hens – The Remix tells exactly the same story as its predecessors which, variously, have been an aborted student film, a stage play, and a feature film, Dancin’ Thru The Dark. In borrowing from music culture and calling this version The Remix I wanted to acknowledge that although emphasis may have been shifted and tempo altered it was not in an attempt to replace the original but to look at the original afresh. Although retaining the original 1977 setting I wanted the play to ‘move’ at a kind of pace that was more in keeping with a theatrical tempo that has significantly increased in the thirty years  since the play was first seen. Some might disapprove of  such tampering seeing it as catering, even pandering to the demands of an audience whose attention-span has become limited and must increasingly be spoon-fed. I vehemently disagree. There are playwrights – extremely celebrated playwrights – who have been happy to characterise the audience as their enemy. What arrogance is this ?  Without the audience there can be no theatre. Certainly audiences can be lost, baffled or confused, alienated, outraged, made ecstatic, apoplectic, incensed, spiritually enraptured and transported. But an audience is always there to be won - not beaten; for if an audience is won then it can be taken anywhere, from the blackest pit of the soul to the beautiful heights of affectionate shared laughter at man’s endless capacity for folly. And because an audience is there to be wooed and won I welcome the opportunity of looking anew at Stags and Hens and turning it, for a twenty first century audience into Stags and Hens – The Remix  re-pacing the action, replacing the euphemistic ‘frig’ and its derivatives, cutting and making as lean as possible those speeches which would benefit; and getting rid of jokes which although admirably earning their keep in the nineteen seventies had, in the intervening years lost their meaning and therefore their impact because the references upon which the jokes were built had disappeared from  public consciousness.

You can read more from this essay here:

 

PC: Pauline Daniel’s performance in Shirley Valentine, directed by Glen Walford drew great reviews.  The piece has attracted some wonderful women playing Shirley Valentine and, of course, the Movie Connections programme on BBC early this year (2009) reminded us all what a great work it is.  How do you react when people say you should write a ‘follow up”?

WR:  You’re absolutely right about Pauline’s performance and Glen’s production – hopefully this is going to be seen again at the Royal Court in 2010.

I thought the Movie Connections programme was really well done. I’d seen lots of other things done by the same team – Comic Connections, earlier Movie Connections and so knew their work was thoroughly researched and excellently made.

I’ve never really had any interest in follow-ups, sequels, or spin-offs or that kind of thing.   Once I’ve finished a piece of work then, really, that’s it for me and I’m more than happy to let the audience speculate as much as they want as to whatever may or may not happen subsequently to the characters.   For me, though, there is nothing left to say – If I’ve not said what I wanted and/or needed to say in the play itself, then the play will have failed.   If I’ve succeeded in my intentions, though, nothing further needs to be said (at least by me) on the subject. One does, of course, inevitably re-visit themes and ideas and obsessions but I only want to do that in other works and not by extending or writing a sequel to a work which already exists.

 

PC:   Lots of visitors to the site have a huge amount of affection for Our Day Out and the work is constantly reinvigorated each year in schools across the country.  You used the production at Liverpool’s Royal Court theatre as opportunity to refresh the play for today’s age whilst at the same time completing the transition from play to musical.  This must have been a tremendous amount of work.   Do you find it difficult to revisit something you’ve written years before?

WR: I don’t find it at all difficult to re-visit a piece of work if, in the process that follows, it’s going to become a new piece of work – and that’s exactly what I think ‘Our Day Out - The Musical’ is.   I see it as a new work.   Of course, it is entirely based upon the original film ‘Our Day Out’, has the same characters and the same plot but the means of telling is now very different in that, for example, whereas the film is told through dialogue and moving image, the Musical is told through dialogue, music, lyrics and dance. It was a tremendous amount of work but a deeply rewarding kind of work – the kind that gives back more energy than it takes up.

Before embarking on what I knew would be a huge project, I spent considerable time in discussion with Bob Eaton, Kevin Fearon and the rest of the creative team, establishing what our approach would be to the making of this show. Before committing to even do the show I wanted to know that we could approach it with the kind of preparation, planning and time that I knew we’d need if we were going to create a true musical. I made the following notes at the time ( Nov/08 ):

I’d like us to rethink the entire working approach to this show. Traditionally, in the kind of regional subsidised sector where most of our work has originated, we have somehow been content to accept the kind of production schedule whereby the show rehearses for three to four weeks, techs for ( usually ) two or three days and then opens – and this largely regardless of whether the show is an intimate one-set two-hander or the premiere of an elaborate multi-set, ten-song musical. Such scheduling is, of course, largely a result of economics but might also, I suspect, be part of a certain mindset which prevents us from demanding ( or even expecting ) that our work be afforded a similar kind of planning and rehearsal schedule that you might see at the National, the RSC and in some commercial (usually musical ) productions both on Broadway and in the West End.  This is no plea for indulgence and we can all cite examples of the kind of profligacy and preciousness which usually result in very bad ( if very costly ) art.  But, equally, I think we’ve all seen examples of ambitious, regional-originated shows which fail and flounder in part  because, for whatever reason,  they have  been denied the kind of planning, time and attention that that very particular theatrical beast – the musical – demands if it is to be fully realised.

To fully realise Our Day Out – The Musical, I think we have to commit to a different approach and a new way of working. In particular I think we have to start production work almost immediately with the aim of putting together a company with which we will then workshop and rehearse prior to the start of rehearsals proper. The aim would be to:

To create and develop a company style and identity and physical ‘vocabulary’.
To create, choreograph, score, hone and set the show’s principal production numbers – eg Opening Sequence, Boss of The Bus, I’m in Love With Sir, Animals, No One Can Take This Time Away etc. ( along with other significant production numbers still to be written )

Discover with and through the show’s designer, a look and style and design which is organic to this particular company and this particular production.  

 

 

Just seven weeks after writing those notes we had our first day at the Royal Court with scores of young performers attending a session involving acting, singing and dancing workshops. What I’d not anticipated was just how fundamentally that day would affect the way in which I’d approach the writing/composing of the show. I’d never been a particular fan of dance and had never used it in anything I’d previously written.   At that first workshop, though, Bev (Edmonds-Norris – our choreographer) began working with the kids, very, very quickly sketching moves and routines which the youngsters then had to tackle – and all of this to various high octane house and rap tracks played at decibel defying levels.   The first thing that struck me was how almost every youngster was able and willing to move; I saw that dance – or at least street dance – was an almost natural part of their vocabulary.   By lunch time I’d realized that it would be a criminal oversight not to include dance in the show and that with a choreographer as talented and as inspiring as Bev, it would be possible for me to explore writing through the language of dance.   No sooner had I realized this than I also became aware  (along with Bob Eaton my co-composer) that I’d have to move out of my own musical comfort zone and write at least some of the Our Day Out music in the contemporary urban styles that formed the soundtrack to the kind of dance I was seeing.

As composers, Bob and I were extremely conscious of the real danger of writers of our generation trying to compose convincing music in a style and form that belonged to a generation so very much younger than ourselves.   We dreaded either of us becoming the embarrassing uncle dancing at the disco!   Equally, we didn’t want to throw out existing songs such as ‘Boss Of The Bus’ and ‘I’m In Love With Sir’ and so the whole process became one of trying to successfully marry the different musical elements in such a way that, for the audience, it would sound and feel cohesive and stylistically consistent.   I think that one of the key things that allowed us to do this was the realisation that a lot of rap, house and urban music shared the same DNA as the kind of primitive playground song and chant that is itself of the street.  

Somehow, in dealing with all this, we soon came to realise that, being forced to think in terms of dance and contemporary rhythms and sounds had given us the route we needed to make Our Day Out truly into the musical we’d always wanted it to be.   Quite interestingly, all through rehearsals and, indeed, through the run of the show, we found all the musical moments beginning to expand as we learned to let the music and lyrics do much of what had previously been done by dialogue.

Of course none of the kind of detail mentioned above means a fiddler’s fart unless you’ve got the cast and crew that can make all of that come alive on stage.   In our cast and crew we were blessed with consummately talented and hard-working performers, be they adult, child, professional, non professional (or feathered, four-legged and horned!).   I don’t know who first coined the phrase about never working with animals or kids but, in my experience, it was a constant source of quiet joy to watch and be amongst young performers who worked unstintingly on the show for many, many months and all of whom observed an impeccable professionalism throughout the run.

 

PC: In the TV play, Mrs Kay is an older, wiser, ‘seen everything’ sort of school teacher, but in the musical version she is a much younger ‘full of love’ and very much ‘in tune with the children’ character.  Had you planned this change for some time?

WR: The question of the age of the teachers is interesting.   Of course in the original TV film, Mrs. Kay was – as played by Jean Haywood – the oldest of the characters and Mr. Briggs, one of the youngest.   There was never any reason why the original was cast in this way, other than the suitability of both Jean and Alun (Armstrong) for the respective roles.   When it came to casting ‘Our Day Out – The Musical’, we felt perfectly at liberty to cast the roles of Mrs. Kay and Briggs at any age – there’s nothing in the script that prevents Mr. Briggs being older than Mrs Kay.   By casting Drew (Schoffield) as Briggs and Gill (Hardy) as Mrs. Kay we weren’t seeking to radically shift the emphasis but did remain aware that this would, inevitably, bring its own shift in focus.   I certainly rather liked the fact that our Mrs Kay was much, much younger than is usually the case.  

 

PC:  Do you have immediate plans for Our Day Out to be performed again?

WR:  I’m absolutely delighted to say that ‘Our Day Out – The Musical’ will be opening again at the Royal Court in 2010 for a run of about six weeks.   At the time of writing, I don’t have the exact dates but these are to be announced in the very near future. Along with the rest of the creative team, I’m so looking forward to working on the show again.   Although delighted with so many aspects of the show, there are, nevertheless, still some elements which we feel need further improvement and even re-thinking here and there.   I’m also delighted to say that we are planning to make a cast album – featuring all the show’s songs and music – which will be released to coincide with the 2010 opening.

OUR DAY OUT - THE MUSICAL: Dates now confirmed as
27 August through to 9 October 2010

PC:  Pete Hart (on the guestbook) asks if there are any plans for another CD or live gigs? 

WR: Well, I’d love to say that I’ve got both a new CD and tour coming up but it isn’t the case. I certainly hope to release more music in the future but, at present, the priority seems to be composing music for others to sing on stage.   I did have lunch with Tim (Firth) earlier this week and we were saying that we’d still love to find a way of doing a show involving words and music as performed by ourselves but perhaps on a smaller scale than was the case with ‘In Other Words’ and ‘Singing Playwrights’ – where the scale was such that we could only really play the very large venues.   Ideally, we’d like to put together a show that we could tour to the more medium sized houses and which perhaps involved just one additional multi-instrumentalist/vocalist.   Hopefully this will happen some time in the future. Will, of course, keep you posted.

 

PC:  The website receives many requests from would-be-writers who want your advice, or want you to read a script.  Some even want you to listen to their idea for a play and for you to collaborate in the writing.  I know you don’t collaborate when you write.  What advice would you give to people who find those first steps difficult to navigate?

WR:    The problem with being asked to read and critique scripts that are submitted to me is that it takes up an enormous amount of time.    Apart from the time involved in carefully reading a script, one then has to spend time organising ones thoughts and communicating these in as lucidly informative and helpful manner as possible – perversely, this is more so the case with the least successful scripts where one is then somehow sucked into trying to help its creator to see what works and what doesn’t and how his or her efforts should be purposefully re-directed.   Given the time that something like this takes, I do hope its understandable why I have to seriously ration the time that I can actually give to such endeavour.   The inescapable fact is that, if I were to read and comment on everything that is sent to me, there would simply be no time in which to pursue my own writing or, for that matter, even life itself!

In terms of collaborating, I would strongly urge anyone considering approaching me to re-consider and avoid wasting time.   I simply do not collaborate, other than when I ask a fellow professional to join me in working on something which I have originated.  If somebody writes to me on speck asking me if I will help them write their screenplay or memoir, the answer will be no.

 

PC:  Peggy Ramsay was very influential in your early career.  Can you tell us how she guided you?

WR:    Rather oddly, I knew of Peggy Ramsay well before I became a professional writer.   I say oddly, because before you’re a part of the business, I don’t think you’re generally aware of figures such as agents.  I’d heard of Peggy, though, because Michael, my father in law, had been a librarian at St. Pancras and I’d remembered him telling me about a slightly eccentric but fascinating and extremely widely read woman who came to the library.    Michael had explained that she was a literary agent – something which, as I say, meant nothing to me.  When, however, Michael mentioned that she was the agent who represented Joe Orton, I suddenly paid much more attention and the name Peggy Ramsay must then have lodged in my brain.   The connection, of course, was Beatles related – I knew that Joe Orton had been commissioned by Brian Epstein to write a screenplay for the Beatles, which he delivered in 1967, around the time of the release of Sgt. Pepper.   The press had made much of this Orton/Beatles connection, not because of the screenplay but because  later that year Joe was murdered by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, (who had  then taken his own life) and at Joe’s funeral, the coffin had been brought in to the accompaniment of the Beatles’ A Day In The Life.

In 1973 I had my first TV work accepted and was also asked to do my first ever professional theatre work, adapting an Alan Plater play to a Liverpool setting for a production at the Everyman.   I recall talking with Alan who said it was about time I had an agent and that I should approach his agent, Peggy Ramsay.   My reaction was that Peggy Ramsay was far too grand a figure for a fledgling such as me to approach.     I did, though, follow up Alan’s suggestion that I should try to find representation – I recall writing to Harvey Unna, asking if his firm would consider taking on a young playwright who had a couple of credits to his name.   I received a polite letter saying that Harvey Unna and Associates “were not currently taking on new writers”.   Just a year or so later, when John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert was running in the west end and winning all kinds of awards, Harvey took on another young Liverpool writer called Alan Bleasdale, who subsequently told me that a framed copy of their rejection letter to me hangs on their office wall!

In the end it was another Peggy Ramsay writer, Hugh Whitemore who proved to be instrumental in bringing me and my work to Peggy’s attention.   Hugh was on a judging panel for a BBC bursary – for which I’d been shortlisted, but didn’t get.   Hugh felt that I’d been rather shoddily treated and in a very kind effort to make some kind of amends, unknown to me, took the play I’d written for this particular competition to Peggy who, somehow, tracked me down two days later and telephoned Shorefields school, where I was teaching at the time, instructing someone to get me out of the classroom immediately so that she could speak with me.   That was the beginning of the most important professional relationship of my life.

And whilst I’m aware that I haven’t even begun to answer the question as to how I was guided by Peggy, I’m also aware that if I want you to have this Newsletter before the end of 2009, I’d better postpone more on Peggy until next time.

 

Guestbook:
In finishing I’d like to pass on my thanks and appreciation to all those emailers who’ve taken the time and trouble to post their comments on the Guestbook. Whilst I’m not able to enter into lengthy correspondence I’m aware that some contributors ask specific questions and for some of those, the following:

Duncan Ryan asks about painting the houses back to their original colour in ‘Terraces.’ And suggests it wouldn’t be possible because the houses are made of stone’. Wow! Well it was either sloppy screenwriting on my part OR, the houses were actually made of brick – it being a terraced street – and therefore quite possible to paint the brick red. I leave Duncan ( and anyone else ) to make up his own mind.

Claudia Puri also mentions Terraces and wonders about obtaining a copy. Given what we’ve done with Our Day Out and Break In here on the site, perhaps we can make Terraces available in the same way. Incidentally, on songwriting courses I sometimes use the plot of Terraces as the basis for a group-written musical called Britain In Bloom. The students write all the numbers and to date there have really been some outstanding songs to come out of this process.

Royston UK suggests that I have the ‘power to arrange a new CD’ of Blood Brothers. I’d be quite delighted to see a CD featuring Lyn ( Paul’s ) excellent Mrs Johnstone ( as well a CD featuring every other excellent actress/singer who has played the role ). Cast CDs are, however, commissioned ( and financed ) not by the writer/composer but by the management.

Matthew Marshall asks the name of the Huyton secondary school I attended – it was known as Knowsley Woolfall Secondary. It was disgraceful place, an affront the very idea of education. I was grateful and relieved to leave there after just one year of its awfulness.

John Parry asks the name of the beach which features in the film of Our Day Out. Both the beach and the cliff sequences were shot at Cemaes Bay on Angelsey.

I was really touched to see the post from Jacqueline Lucas who so superbly played the roll of Linda Croxley in the original Our Day Out. I hope that her post found a response from those castmates she mentions. As I’ve said before, the film of Our Day Out remains my favourite of my filmed works.

Touched, also, to see a post from Paul Wilkinson who was one of the Cateysaints company and proved himself an actor of great skill and quality – I always wondered if Paul continued to act. Likewise Liz Lever ( nee Chester ) who I was really pleased to meet up with again when I was doing the The Wrong Boy bookshop tour – I hope the reunion was a rich one.

Through the combined efforts of Steve Williams ( also former Cateysaints ) and Rob Russell I now have decent resolution copies of contact shots from the 1972 Blind Scouse production and if any former Cateysaints would like copies we can arrange to upload these and make them available via Flickr ( or similar ).

Nice to see Terry Jones’s post about Sam O Shanker. With another Burns night beckoning, here’s a reminder that the poem can be found here (place link) comes in handy if any non Scots find themselves called on to make a Burns night contribution but don’t feel quite able to get their vocal chords around the density of some of Burns locution.

Sian Smith asks if Mickey deliberately shoots Eddie in Blood Brothers. As I wrote it, no. As Mickey says, he’s not even able to do that. He also says that he doesn’t even know if the gun is loaded.

Sophie from London asks about the term ‘Chuckie egg’ and arrives at the right answer without any help from me. Shirley’s assertion that she’s cooked the chips in oil is probably now passe´ - when written the implication was she was cooking not in inferior lard but the healthier and superior ( and more expensive ) oil. If claiming the same kind of superiority today she’d probably have to use ( trendy – very Saturday Kitchen )  goose fat!

A number of posts mention the possibility of school visits. Sorry but it’s something I rarely do on the basis that if I were to accept one or two such invitations I’d then feel bad about all the others and I get so many requests that to accept them all would mean that I’d never have any time to do the one thing that got me invited in the first place – ie, write.

Jasmine and Laura ask about interviewing me. I do, occasionally, give interviews to students although this is usually when the student is writing a dissertation/thesis and where I’m satisfied that the kind of information being sought is not already widely available via publications, websites etc.- and where I’m satisfied that the student has already done his or her homework, researched and prepared as fully as possible.

I refer Dot Clarke to elsewhere on this site where there is a full and clear account of the situation regarding the granting of rights in Blood Brothers. But in the absence of such rights and the desire to do something other than ‘overdone’ shows why not explore the idea of creating a musical of your own ? Is there not someone in your group or your circle who isn’t secretly wanting to have a go at something and who perhaps needs nothing more than an expression of interest and faith to get him or her going ? I’d certainly never have written Blood Brothers ( or anything ) without knowing that there were people who wanted plays and musicals to do.

Sadie Jarvis asks about the contradiction between how we perceive Mrs Johnstone and how the narrator describes her.  Sadie, I’m sure that as part of your studies in creative writing and applied drama you will come across the term ‘dramatic irony’ – of which the point you raise is one example. If your tutors have no plans to introduce you to this aspect of dramatic writing then I suggest you enquire why. Thank you for your questions – and for your kind comments.

And thanks to everyone who has contributed to the Guestbook with questions, comments and observations – through your contributions I always think of this as a truly ‘live’ site; and for that my great thanks, also, to Paul ( Cary ) who is both the real brain and the equally considerable brawn behind willyrussell.com

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