In the late 1990s Gateshead-born Peter Straughan was a writer of great promise. He won the People’s Play competition in Newcastle – along with two co-writers – and landed a £2,000 playwriting bursary from New Writing North.
For a time it was the done thing to refer to him as “up-and-coming”.
A former musician (he was in a band called The Honest Johns), he once joked: “I wanted to be a pop star and when that didn’t come to anything I looked for where else the bright lights were.”
He studied English Literature at Newcastle University and took a play up to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Then professional theatre companies in the North East took an interest and started nurturing his talent for black comedy. His plays, Bones and Noir, were staged at Live Theatre and Northern Stage respectively.
Both were packed with memorable and funny lines and elicited great performances from actors who clearly enjoyed being in them.
In Bones, set in a seedy Gateshead cinema in the 1960s and centring on the kidnapping of a Kray-style gangster, Trevor Fox wore a ballerina’s tutu and Michael Hodgson a gorilla suit.
In Noir – an audacious attempt to tell a dark tale in a cinematic fashion – Hodgson, as a menacing shop security guard, uttered the priceless threat: “Don’t **** with Fenwick’s!”
“Well remembered,” says Peter Straughan on the telephone from Brighton, where he has lived for the past 10 years.
Well, who could forget such a delicious line?
Intelligent, funny and audacious, it always seemed likely that this ‘up and coming’ writer would arrive sooner rather than later.
Forever pushing at the boundaries, he wrote a play called The Ghost Of Federico Garcia Lorca Which Can Also Be Used As A Table – and got it staged as part of Northern Stage’s Lorca Festival, marking the centenary of the Spanish writer’s birth.
And now? Well, now I am talking to a Bafta-winning screenwriter whose credits include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Men Who Stare at Goats, a film adaptation of Jon Ronson’s funny-but-serious investigation into the US Army’s exploration of paranormal combat techniques.
The former earned Peter and his late wife, Bridget O’Connor, a Bafta and an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay,
His most recent film was Frank, an off-the-wall comedy starring Michael Fassbender in a title role that involved him wearing a beachball-like mask at all times.
It was in cinemas in May and critics loved it, one even remarking: “Fassbender’s performance is a master class.” That really is funny, given that you never see his face, but the ‘quote’ got on the cover of the DVD which is out next month.
Peter, who shares the writing credit with Jon Ronson, doesn’t find the critic’s assessment that strange. It was the fact that Fassbender, one of the best actors around, agreed to take the part in the first place that surprised him.
“We were amazed when we got the phone call saying Michael Fassbender wanted to do the film,” he says.
“I guess all actors like a challenge and having to perform with your face in a mask is certainly that.
“But he is a fantastic actor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do comedy but he did a brilliant job, using body language to compensate for the fact you can’t see his face.”
Frank tells the story of Jon, a young music lover who joins an eccentric band called Soronprfbs (no, that is not a misprint) which is led by the title character in that mask.
It may be fiction but it is clearly based on Frank Sidebottom, the comic, mask-wearing alter ego of musician and comedian Chris Sievey.
In the 1970s, Sievey fronted a band called The Freshies. The endearingly odd Frank Sidebottom came along in 1984, appearing on a number of TV programmes.
“Jon (Ronson) and I met when I adapted The Men Who Stare at Goats and we became friends on set while they were shooting in Puerto Rico,” recalls Peter.
“The first day on set is always the most exciting and the second the most boring. There’s nothing to do unless you’re directly working on the film so we were kicking our heels in the hotel.
“Jon had written this little article about the Frank Sidebottom band and I said there could be a film in it. We started talking and then writing. From the beginning we never thought it was going to be a faithful bio-pic. The one big idea was that the main character would wear a big false head.
“We never even meant to call it Frank but if you don’t get a title quite early on, it’s really hard to come up with one later. We never came up with anything better to replace it.
“They tried various designs for Frank’s head but the one that looked most like Frank Sidebottom worked well. There’s something about that expression. It really does make you think it’s the expresion of the person wearing it.”
Jon Ronson had a spell playing in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band.
“I think he was in the ents department at university when a phone call came in from the the manager of the band saying they couldn’t find a keyboard player. On the spur of the moment he said he could do it and the guy said, ‘You’re in’.”
But the film, as Peter says, is not a film about Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey, who died just before it was made. “We were really looking at outside figures in pop music and trying to imagine someone most people just didn’t get.”
Other influences were Captain Beefheart (aka American musician Don Van Vliet, who died in 2010) and Daniel Johnston, another American who has built up a cult following despite periods of mental illness, the first announcing itself dramatically in 1990 when he plucked the key from the ignition of a small plane being piloted by his father and threw it out, apparently believing himself to be Casper the Friendly Ghost. Both men survived.
With their own shared experiences of band membership, Peter and Jon embarked on what would would appear to have been an enjoyable project.
Peter’s first succesful play, the one which won the competition at Newcastle’s People’s Theatre, had a musical theme. A Rhyme For Orange and it was written with friends David Scott and Neil Blenkinsop, Tyneside-based musicians and composers.
Peter says if things had worked out differently he could still be in bands. “But in a way, being involved with a film is a bit like being in a band again because so many people are involved.”
Frank was the end product of a long process, says Peter.
“It wasn’t difficult to write but it was difficult to get made. The producer, who was right there from the beginning, said it was quite an oddball project. Having a main character wearing this giant false head meant it wasn’t easy to get it off the ground.”
Then came the thumbs up from Michael Fassbender and the wheels started to turn.
“It ended up getting an art house release which I always thought it would. That was OK. If we’d wanted to go for a mainstream audience we’d have had to make changes.”
Peter says he and Jon will probably do another film together.
In the meantime Peter is working on another project which almost certainly will reach a big audience. It is his adaptation of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about Thomas Cromwell, an important figure in the court of Henry VIII.
It is destined to be a six-part drama for the BBC, airing next year.
“I was offered the book a couple of years ago, so quite early on. I don’t think it had even won the Booker. I read it and loved it. I thought: I really want to do this.”
Peter says working on books with “really great writers” (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a 1974 novel by John le Carré) is particularly rewarding. “You actually feel liberated rather than inhibited because there is so much there.
“You can’t work slavishly to the book but great writers understand that. I met Hilary Mantel a few times and I’ve emailed her drafts of the script. She has been very supportive.”
Peter is enjoying his first major commission for TV and says he would relishe more.
“I’m in the early stages of talking to HBO (the American cable and satellite TV network) about something else. These days some of the really good writing is in longer-form TV, stuff like The Wire and The Sopranos.”
Other irons in the fire include Our Brand Is Crisis, a film Peter wrote for George Clooney’s company – which was also behind The Men Who Stare at Goats – and starring Sandra Bullock.
It’s a dramatisation of a documentary about the political machinations behind the controversial election of American-backed Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada as President of Bolivia in 2002 (he resigned shortly afterwards following violent protests and went into exile in the USA, paving the way for Evo Morales to take office in 2006).
With Bullock on board, a mainstream audience must be the target this time even if the story sounds complex.
An idle thought, though: does Peter ever get starstruck?
“I tend to a little bit,” he admits. “The first few times I probably feel exactly the same as anyone would meeting a star. But then the more you spend time with them, the more you can be yourself. When you’re all working together, you don’t have time to think about that.”
* Frank (certificate 15), directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is out on DVD and Blu Ray on September 15.