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Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall on the tales yet to make the screen

Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall talks to David Whetstone ahead of a series of readings of screenplays yet to make it to the big screen

Lewis Arnold Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall
Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall

Lee Hall may be most famous for Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, but he has written much, much more than that, as a new series called Live Screenplays clearly indicates.

It features a series of his screenplays that have yet to blossom into actual films. Some are first drafts, others have been reworked several times. Directed by Max Roberts, they are to be read by actors at Live Theatre over the coming months, beginning on Thursday with a co-written account of the life of cricketer Harold Larwood.

There can be no clearer indication of the workrate and fizz of ideas that have helped to make Lee, born in Newcastle, one of Britain’s most successful and sought-after writers.

On the phone this week, he explains that these are just his pet projects rather than the commissioned work that he accepts. He’s in the fortunate position of not having to take everything he is offered – which, if he did so, would result in an impossible workload.

“I’ve always got two or three things on the go and I suddenly realised, over the last year, that I’d suddenly got five or six things,” he says.

“They’re screenplays – not that they’ll all ever get put on screen – but I thought it would be a really nice idea to share them with other people. I spoke to Max at Live Theatre and luckily he agreed.

“It’s so hard to get films made and these are labours of love really. George Orwell means a great deal to me and this (Down And Out in Paris And London) is one of my favourite books. The Messiaen (Quartet for the End of Time) is one of my favourite pieces of music.”

In fact, just before we speak I have lost an 800-word article with a misplaced finger on a computer keyboard. It wasn’t the end of the world. But I wonder if this has ever happened to Lee.

“I lost a whole script last year,” he confesses cheerfully. “I thought I’d had it backed up but I hadn’t. It was the Messiaen.”

Undaunted, he sat down and wrote it all over again. “Actually, it worked out quite well in the end because the second one was much better. I knew it wasn’t quite working out.”

His screenplay For The End of Time tells of the French composer Olivier Messiaen who composed his famous piece and premiered it in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

It will bring the metaphorical curtain down on the Live Screenplays series with a reading on June 20, accompanied by a performance of the work by musicians of the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

But the series opens with Harold Larwood, which might lead you to suspect that Lee, despite having grown up in a football-daft city, is a fan of cricket and the sound of leather on willow.

Not so. “I really didn’t know much about cricket but I was at Cecil Sharp House (London home to the English folk music archive) researching another play about folk music that I haven’t worked out what to do with yet and somebody told me about Harold Larwood.

“I know cricket is something people know everything about, every team and every Test match, so I told a friend of mine, Simon Beaufoy who wrote The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, and we decided to write it together. He knows about the cricket and I know about the miners.”

Paul Norris Playwright Lee Hall
Playwright Lee Hall
 

Harold Larwood was the pint-sized Nottinghamshire miner who became one of the country’s best bowlers and acquired an undeserved notoriety during the so-called ‘bodyline’ Test series of 1932-3 against the Aussies.

Under orders from England captain Douglas Jardine, Larwood adopted a new style of bowling designed to intimidate batsmen. While the aggressive bodyline technique wasn’t illegal, it was deemed unsportsmanlike by the Australians.

What drew Lee to Larwood wasn’t so much his cricketing exploits as the fact he was prepared to stand up to the English cricket establishment who put pressure on him to apologise for his actions on the pitch.

“He stood by his principles and wouldn’t apologise for what he didn’t think was his to apologise for. He considered he had been doing what he was told to do so he faced up to the establishment and it cost him a great deal, his international career, his job and, really, his health.

“The story that is definitely not known about Harold Larwood is how the establishment ruined his life because he refused to take the blame for what had happened.

“Everyone, from Jardine to the MCC (England cricket’s governing body), was trying to pass the buck down to Harold and he just wouldn’t have it. It’s an amazing story.”

Lee says it was Australian cricketers touring England at a later date who were responsible for getting Larwood back on his feet again. In the late 1940s they found him on his uppers in Blackpool and persuaded him to emigrate with his family to Australia, which he did, eventually dying in New South Wales in 1995, aged 90.

“I think this is what drew me to the story, that here is this little man who stuck up for himself,” says Lee.

So far, so good. Even Lee’s first venture into co-writing proved a success. “Neither of us had written like this before and I was really scared that we’d fall out because we’ve known each other for 25 years. But the opposite happened and we really loved it.

“But this is an on-spec piece so we’re just sending it to directors at the moment.”

Lee’s adaptation of George Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris And London follows on Friday with a very different kind of protagonist.

Orwell, also a writer, had been to Eton and was one of society’s ‘haves’, but his left-leaning principles saw him setting out to experience life among the ‘have nots’ for this, his first book.

March 13 brings Rocket Man, reflecting on the life of Sir Elton John “from birth to rehab”, as Live Theatre put it.

With actor Tom Hardy lined up to play the famous rocking pianist, this is likely to be the first of the Live Screenplays offerings to make it to screen. Filming could start at the end of the year, reckons Lee.

He has known Sir Elton for a long time, ever since he started writing the music for the smash hit Billy Elliot: the Musical.

“He came to me when we were working on that and said he’d like me to write about his life, but he wanted a warts-and-all thing. He started telling me about his childhood and how he went to the Royal College of Music when he was about 11 and trained to be a concert pianist, but then he discovered rock and roll.

“He told me the most unlikely stories, about going into rehab as a kid and all the crazy things he’d get up to. Some of it was a bit eye-popping but I think he’s had so much that he doesn’t really care any more. He gave me anything I wanted so this is a musical version of his life.”

Another measure of the prolific nature of Lee Hall, writer, is that at relatively short notice one screenplay, The Hare With Amber Eyes, has been replaced by another, Victoria & Abdul. In terms of bizarre real-life tales, this surely tops the lot.

Lee says it tells the little-known tale of Queen Victoria’s controversial relationship towards the end of her long life with an Indian manservant called Abdul Karim.

Lee heard someone talking about it on the radio a few years ago and was entranced. The way he tells it, Abdul, who worked in the jail in the Indian city of Agra, was “plucked from obscurity” to be Queen Victoria’s manservant for a day as a sort of Diamond Jubilee present.

“In a platonic sense – she was in her 80s – she fell in love with him. She asked him to stay here and he taught her Urdu and about the Koran because he was a Muslim. He also made her curry and she had it for the first time. She actually adored curry and it was served regularly after that.”

Needless to say, perhaps, others in the royal household loathed this favoured upstart and after Victoria’s death, poor Adbul was bundled out of the country. “He was her constant companion for the last 10 years of her life, and was the last to see her body, but he died in poverty.”

Like Larwood, this character from another cricket-mad country was an underdog and therefore much to the liking of Lee, champion of the little man.

More than 10 years ago, Live Theatre gave a special reading to a Lee Hall screenplay called Dancer which resulted in the BBC providing funding for what would become Billy Elliot. Lee hopes the public will enjoy the current crop but says: “This could be a really important step, definitely.

“Various directors and producers attached to the different projects are coming up. It gives the work a real platform.”

It will be a chance for him to see what works well off the page but may also result in the all-important thumbs up from a producer and another mention for Lee Hall on the opening credits.

Harold Larwood is at Live Theatre, Broad Chare, Newcastle, on Thursday and Down And Out in Paris and London on Friday, both 7.30pm. Box office: 0191 232 1232 or www.live.org.uk

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