WHEN Whitley Bay Film Festival made its debut three years ago, a highlight of its programme was an Ian La Frenais night which celebrated the work of its home-grown star.
A follow-up event proved just as popular last year and this time the writer, now festival patron, will be there in person to talk about his work.
“I’ve never been able to get to the festival before,” says La Frenais who now lives in LA, as does his writing partner Dick Clement, and at the age of 76 continues to work every day.
Those TV classics – The Likely Lads, Porridge, Lovejoy and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – are, of course, what the pair are famous for. But they have written lots of films too and it’s these that are the focus of the festival events which are hosted by media historian Chris Phipps.
Tonight’s will include a screening of Across The Universe – their 2007 love story which incorporates 34 songs by The Beatles – followed by a Q&A session, “then hopefully the bar!” says La Frenais who’s also hoping to show a trailer, if he gets clearance in time, of new work The Spies of Warsaw, starring David Tennant.
This adaptation for the BBC of Alan Furst’s Second World War-set novel was filmed in Poland and is now in post-production. “Hopefully it will be out in October-November this year,” he says.
Music features heavily in the duo’s films such as The Commitments, Still Crazy and Killing Bono – “we don’t like Killing Bono very much; we don’t talk about it,” he says – while others include Goal! and Flushed Away.
“It is a wide range of stuff,” he agrees, but that’s what keeps work interesting.
He and Clement live just a couple of streets from each other and are constantly working on scripts and screenplays: new ideas, adaptations or rewrites. Is it different, I wonder, writing for a US audience compared to a British one?
You don’t focus on the audience, he answers. “With TV you do but we haven’t done any TV in America for a long time,” he says, mentioning The Tracey Ullman Show they did there.
“With films, if you started thinking about the audience, you’d be writing films for 13- year-olds. Most films are for that age at the moment. It’s not what we like writing.
“They’re looking for franchises – Twilight, The X-Men – three to four movies and a bloody theme park at the end of it!
“They’re not our kind of film.”
Theirs are “grown-up movies” for which they work at “making the script as good as possible”.
But the changing face of the marketplace does make life more difficult these days.
“The Bank Job (their 2008 British crime film starring Jason Statham) took years to get made,” he goes on. “It’s harder and harder to get finance for films unless you’ve one or two saleable stars.
“That’s why it’s a joy to come here and do mini series like The Rotters’ Club (their 2005 BBC adaptation of Jonathan Coe’s novel about a group of Birmingham teenagers in the 70s).”
He’s enjoying the more civilised experience of The Spies of Warsaw with the BBC but adds: “There are not that many broadcasters in England – BBC, ITV, Sky. There’s more TV in America and I’d like to do a mini series there.”
There are some brilliant ones around, he says, citing Homeland, Mad Men, US versions of The Killing and The Bridge, and our Sherlock.
“There used to be a lot of work around in the marketplace but there’s less now because opportunities are less and there are far more writers and directors chasing far fewer projects. It’s quite cut-throat.” Even so, it seems he and Clement remain hugely successful in pitching new ideas in Britain. He reveals that filming is about to start on a documentary they’ve written, supported by entrepreneur Simon Fuller, creator of the Idol franchise and former Spice Girls manager.
With Michael Caine as narrator, it will reflect the actor’s take on London during the 60s, a decade of massive changes in society and, says La Frenais, the era of the working-class hero.
“Michael was brought up in a rough part of London then eventually, when he got the right role, he managed to gate-crash the party – most of us weren’t at the party!”
He adds: “I’ve known Michael for years.”
There probably aren’t many people in the entertainment world of doers and shakers that La Frenais doesn’t know.
Dave Stewart, the former Eurythmics star from Sunderland, who has just cancelled Monday’s home-town gig, also lives in LA and is “a great friend of mine”. The city is also where North Shields-born director Tony Scott, brother of Sir Ridley, recently jumped to his death.
La Frenais knew both film-makers. “I was at the funeral with Ridley, who’d had to close down filming in London.”
He talks about the Scotts’ North East background and his own memories of “getting the trolley bus every day” to attend Dame Allan’s Boys School in Newcastle.
He’s looking forward to being back in Whitley Bay where he still has lots of family: “Armstrongs, my mother’s side.”
He visits regularly, most recently in February when he was in Newcastle for the Sunday for Sammy fundraiser at the City Hall.
This one’s a bit of a whistle-stop visit, as he and his wife are next off on holiday to India.
“I love travel. Well, I like it when it’s related to work – then it’s paid for!”
After that, it’ll be more work although he and Clement do less in summer, he jokes, when there’s Premiership football on. And he enjoyed the Olympic coverage. He’d been negative about it beforehand “but I was absolutely wrong”.
They’re currently rewriting for a film and have penned a screenplay for another. Involving producer Jeremy Thomas and director Julien Temple, this one’s about The Kinks, the seminal band formed by Ray and Dave Davies: “It’s more about the relationship with the brothers. We work every day,” he adds. “We’re always writing!”
:: An Audience with Ian La Frenais, with the film and introduction by Chris Phipps, begins tomorrow at 6pm in the Playhouse Whitley Bay. Visit www.whitleybayfilmfestival.co.uk for details.