Saturday 5 January 2019

In Conversation with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais

Ian La Frenais, Sally Wood (producer of Chasing Bono) and Dick Clement

Chasing Bono, the latest play from writing partnership Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, is currently playing at London's Soho Theatre. The play is loosely drawn on the autobiographical recollections of Neil McCormick, who grew up, and was schoolfriends with, Bono. Both young men shared a passion for music, but only Bono went on to achieve worldwide fame.
The play's authors, who in their pomp delivered some of British television's finest writing, now reside in Los Angeles and it was a joy to speak with them, not only about Chasing Bono but also about Porridge, its stars and their own remarkable writing career.

JB:    Gents, what drew you to turning Neil McCormick's story into a play?

Dick & Ian:    Well, as you know we had tackled the story once before in a movie (Killing Bono in 2011) and so we thought the theatre would give us a chance to focus on the core theme, which is really chasing fame and the fact that Neil had to change. There had been this one interview he had with a gangster which was the pivotal moment in his whole life and which changed his life around. And we thought there was a way of putting that into focus on the stage in a clearer way, and a totally different way. That's what appealed to us. 

But this all started when Sally Wood (the play’s producer) spoke to Ian at a Rolling Stones gig in Paris and said, "I wish you and Dick had a play." 

And then we discussed it. We’ve always liked the idea of doing Chasing Bono as a play, because it's a lovely witchy, wise, rock-n-roll fable. And we didn't feel that the movie captured that.

The movie had moved in a different direction. It was about sibling rivalry, but we always felt that a much more interesting conceit was that of the rivalry of two best friends, one of whom went into the stratosphere and one of whom made every mistake it's possible to make in the music business.

And that was the central premise of the story and we felt that it made a wonderful idea for a stage play. Because essentially that conceit can be done quite economically in a captive situation, with flash backs. 

JB:    You have written some of the finest crafted television drama. How does the process differ between writing for TV and writing for the stage?

Dick & Ian:    Actually, the the bigger difference is between film, which we've written a lot of, and theatre. When you're writing a screenplay you get a little edgy if a scene goes on more than three pages, because people like to say you gotta keep it moving, moving, make it more visual.

The challenge in the theatre is that you don't have that restriction.  The theatre loves words, and really doesn't mind if a scene goes on, as long as it's still riveting. So it gives you a chance to be more articulate than the movies and you can certainly do that on TV as well. And so much is being developed now for the stage that used to be the province of cinema.

Take a play like "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime". A brilliant adaptation that is not an obvious sort of subject for a play at all. The same director (Marianne Elliott) did "Company" recently, which is also quite brilliant. The theatre really is quite liberating at the moment.

Our play of course is small with a cast of six and one basic set, which adjusts to other sets. There are no technical challenges to Chasing Bono and that gave us a chance to not compress everything like we have to do in screen plays, and rather enjoy the words. 

JB:    The strength of your work stems from your ability to recognise how human beings relate, or fail to relate, to each other and the comedy / tragedy / irony that arises therefrom. Where does that inspiration come from? 

Dick & Ian:    It was pointed out to us that much of our work was basically about captive situations. The Likely Lads originally were trapped in a social environment; Porridge was the ultimate trap. Auf Wiedersehn , Pet saw builders trapped in their situation. And then, in more recent years, we've done a lot of music based films. So, in a way, Chasing Bono is the perfect marriage between our interest in music and the captive situation. 

As for the social observation, well that's just something that comes to us. Fortunately we've done it rather well, but it's just part of our interest and mindfulness of everything that's around us. 

Of course, it gets harder sometimes to live in America and do a contemporary series now set in Britain, because you just lose touch. You lose touch with the Zeitgeist, you lose touch with the references and every day speech patterns of Britain, whereas if we did a period series, we wouldn't have those problems. 

We went back a year and a half ago to do the new Porridge and that was much harder than the original Porridge because of that separation between us and Britain. We have to focus very much more carefully on getting speech patterns because things have changed so much. And diversity was of course an element.

And also, we were noticing speech patterns in Britain, in London especially, were so different. There was a kind of patois. It was a different kind of accent. There was a different vocabulary. It was much harder doing the new Porridge than the original. Because when we did the original, we lived there. 

JB:    Was the original Porridge written for Ronnie Barker? 

Dick & Ian:    Yes. Because we'd done a series called Seven of One where Ronnie played seven different parts. Dick and I wrote two of them, and one of them was called Prisoner and Escort and it was about a man being taken to prison with two guards, prison officers. And in fact, then that was the decision was made to develop it as a series. And the two prison officers were in the series, Fulton Mackay and Brian Wilde. 

JB:    So, that trio formed the genesis of where the series came from?

Dick & Ian:    Absolutely right. And then the brilliant addition of Richard Beckinsale.  

JB:    Richard Beckinsale – his was a a talent that was so untimely taken. His was a short, brilliant career that burned so brightly

Dick & Ian:    Oh my God, yes. It's still painful. We thought Richard would have been such a major factor. 

JB:    As a teenager I recall learning of his death in 1979, and feeling that his was the first celebrity in my life, the news of whose death actually touched me, rather than it just being “just another news item”. 

Dick & Ian:    Oh, really? That's interesting. There was a documentary made about two or three years ago about Porridge and about Dick and I, and Kate Beckinsale (Richard’s daughter) happily agreed to be on it, and she was being interviewed. She was five when Richard died. 

And she said, you know, she said, "I got to know my father through Porridge." She said, "I watched the reruns and I watched the repeats, and that's how I knew my dad."

We did a rewrite on Pearl Harbour, which was one of her first big movie roles, and we were out in Hawaii, and the first thing we wrote was a scene for her, actually, the same day we arrived. But she said she found it very reassuring to have this connection with her father while she was actually making a movie. 

JB:    What are your views on where comedy has moved to in the modern era?

Dick & Ian:    That’s very hard to comment on,  People keep asking us, "what about British comedy?" They keep asking about the “golden days”. We don't know.

The only thing perhaps in the last few years is that comedy has become a little crueller. Had to become a little unkinder, and become harder edged. There was a lot of piss taking in comedy, certainly, about ten years ago. But it's very hard to make some glib statement about the state of British comedy, especially if you're not watching it every night. 

But there's still some great stuff around. I mean, here in America, Curb Your Enthusiasm is fantastic. Veep has been amazing, Silicon Valley is very very good. I mean, there's very good stuff. I'm sorry those are all American examples, but in the UK there are Mitchell and Webb, Catherine Tate, for example, and we've been watching their work.

People tend to remember the best shows and forget the ones that were dreadful. And there were plenty of those. Was the “golden age” really that gold?. 

JB:    And finally, back in the day, who were the writers that inspired you? 

Dick & Ian:    Oh, Galton and Simpson and that new wave of British Cinema had enormous influence on the first things we wrote. We loved that social realism. We suddenly realised the drama was about working class theatre, and not posh people. 

But they had written Hancock and Steptoe And Son and we thought “oh my god, we wanted to be like Galton and Simpson”

There was Frank Muir and Dennis Norden who we also admired enormously, but their style was different to ours. The thing about Steptoe was that suddenly, there was real down market, working class people in that. And they felt real. Even more so than Hancock. Hancock was much gaggier, even though it was bloody brilliant. But Steptoe was a big big inspiration. 

And then there was the seeds of what would become the Pythons, and Marty Feldman, but that wasn't us also. Although we loved The Goons! But we never wrote sketches. We couldn't write sketches. 

What we found early on, however good a line is, is that nothing beats a good situation. You know, if you suddenly have a really good situation, then that is worth gold in terms of milking laughs. No one line will ever give you quite something like that. So, we were always looking for really good situations.

We admitted that when we first started, we used to read Richmal Crompton's William books a lot. We both discovered that we liked them and had read them as kids. And Crompton was great with plots. It didn't matter whether William won or lost, as long as it was a good, satisfying ending.

Chasing Bono plays at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 19th January.
Click here for my review of Chasing Bono.

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