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Clement and La Frenais on adapting Spies of Warsaw for BBC Four

Alan Furst’s novel Spies Of Warsaw will air as two 90-minute film adaptations in January on BBC Four. It has been executive produced by Richard Fell for Fresh Pictures and Chris Aird for the BBC, co-produced by Apple Film for TV Poland in association with Arte France and BBC Worldwide.
Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talked to the BBC about adapting the novel.
How did you originally come across Alan Furst and his series of novels?
DICK: Ian gave me one of his books and it happened to be Spies of Warsaw. I had never read Alan Furst at that point. But, as a result, I went out and read them all. I had a binge. Read the lot.
How involved has Alan been with the adaptation?
DICK: We’ve been in touch with him a lot. Though when we asked him recently if he would like to see the scripts he said, “Not really – I know that you have to change things when you switch from a novel to the screen, and I trust you.” So that was very nice. We also sent him some stills from filming, and I think those really whetted his appetite.
Does the film live up to the idea that you originally had in your heads?
DICK: I think it looks terrific. We were both knocked out by it. It looks really rich and moody. It’s got the period detail just right. It’s got everything, really. I think Alan will love it.
What was it that attracted you to Spies of Warsaw, in particular?

IAN: The period really intrigued us. It really is another world. A world of apprehension. And a different Europe to that which any of us are familiar with. I mean, you look at the maps in Alan’s novels and they have all these countries that don’t even exist anymore. DICK: We particularly love this pre-War period because it’s rarely covered in films.
And what do you make of the story’s hero, Jean-Francois Mercier?

DICK: Well Alan feels that the whole secret to Mercier is that he’s a French aristocrat. This idea that he’s a ‘chevalier’ and that he comes from a family of chevaliers – there’s a difference of attitude about him, I think, and we talked to David [Tennant] about that before he started filming. It’s that thing of coming from money. And with a sense of honour. He’s a gentleman, and I think there’s a romantic, slightly old fashioned quality about that which makes him very appealing to modern audiences.
It’s a very different role for David, isn’t it...
IAN: Yeah – you really see that on film. DICK: He’s quite tough, too. There are several scenes where he has to be really quite steely, and he does that very well. It’s very believable. David takes his job very seriously, and that’s important because his character is far more concerned with the upcoming war than a lot of the other people around him who are saying, “Oh come on, it’s not going to happen...”
Your previous projects have generally been set in the modern day. How did you find writing for the 1930s period?
IAN: Well, you have to remove the anachronisms; we never say “dude” in these scripts [laughing]. But seriously, modern words can easily slip by. “OK,” for example. Something that simple. Or “I’m on it...” DICK: We certainly wanted the dialogue to seem as natural as it can possibly be. Whatever the period, you’re always trying to create something that feels easy for the actors to say, and for modern audiences to listen to. IAN: But of course people did talk in a slightly more foreign way in the 1930s. I mean, the conversation between a man and woman who had just met for the first time would be more formal than it is now. There was more propriety in men’s approach to women. Obviously if the dialogue sounds too stilted, it will damage everything. But of course these actors are so good, too – they can make it all sound like conversation.
There seems to be a vogue for spy thrillers at the moment. Do you think that says something about the times we’re living through?
DICK: I think it might do. I certainly hope so. People suddenly seem to be more into this period than they were. IAN: Yes, there seems to be a wonderful nostalgia now among the public and novelists for the Cold War and so on. I think real spies must feel that things were so simple in the old days. So much simpler than the enemy you face now, in the ‘War on Terror’. And of course the technology is so different. DICK: No computers, no cell phones... IAN: There isn’t a cell phone in sight! DICK: I hate those endings to movies where everyone’s hitting the computer keys, trying to get the bank transfer before somebody blows somebody else’s head off. They’re really not very sexy, computers, for that kind of thing. Going a bit further back in time is much more appealing.
Could you imagine returning to this world for future adaptations?

IAN: We would love to do more – although Mercier isn’t in any of the other novels. Alan Furst tends to use different heroes in different novels. That’s just  his way. DICK: So we might be forced to write a sequel to this, taking it on without Alan Furst’s help. Because we leave Mercier at the beginning of the Second World War. We haven’t covered wartime in this one whatsoever. IAN: So it’s a question of whether we do ‘the further adventures of Colonel Mercier’, or whether we go on to make other films in the Spies brand – Spies of Budapest and so on. It would be nice to put a sort of seal on it, so that audiences could think, “Ooh, good, THAT’S coming back...”

Posted 21 December 2012 by Pippa Considine

William Boyd on adapting Restless for BBC One

The two-part adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Restless through Endor productions is airing on BBC One this Christmas. Filmed in South Africa and the UK this summer and directed by theatre director Edward Hall, with producers Hilary Bevan Jones and Paul Frift, it tells the story of Ruth Gilmartin who discovers that her mother has been living a double life and is a spy for the British Secret Service who has been on the run for 30 years.

William Boyd, who also acted as executive producer on the drama, talked to Channel 4 about adapting his book for the small screen:

Restless is the fifth of my novels to have made it to the screen, following Stars And Bars (1988), A Good Man In Africa (1994) Armadillo (2001) and Any Human Heart (2010). The first two were movies, made by Hollywood studios. Armadillo was a three-hour three-parter made for the BBC. Any Human Heart a five-hour four-parter made for Channel 4. I wrote the scripts for them all and I definitely prefer television.

The main and obvious reason for this is length. For the writer, the great appeal of a TV adaptation is room to move, time to breathe and the possibility of characters being allowed to express their character rather than be subject to the rigours of the time-frame of a conventional film – almost always trapped around about 90-120 minutes, in my experience, whatever the length of the original novel or source material. The inevitable and brutal cutting down of a novel that then occurs when the story makes the move from page to screen always seems exacerbated when it’s destined for the cinema. But on television, Armadillo, for example, was the equivalent, more or less, of two movies. Any Human Heart added up to three generous ones. The same applies to this three-hour version of Restless. For me, speaking as both author and screenwriter, it is a most alluring bonus.

At root, the problem of all filmed adaptations of novels lies in the difference between the two art forms. The novel is a world of infinite freedom – you can do literally anything in it and with it. Film (and I include TV drama in the categorisation) is a world of compromise, of parameters, of impossibilities. Film is photography, remorselessly objective as we look through the camera lens at the world that is being created. As a novelist moving between the two media I am very conscious of leaving my world of infinite freedom for a new world of omnipresent constraint.

Over the years of adapting my own novels, other writers’ novels, and non-fiction books for the screen I’ve tried to come up with a compelling analogy that captures this thorny and taxing process of moving between the two art forms, of formulating some sort of thought-experiment that will allow non-writers to understand something of the strange and complex transformation that is involved. The problem of adapting is further complicated when the writer is adapting his own book – there’s a familiarity with the material that is unique and so this new thought experiment I’ve come up with takes this factor into account.

Imagine you are standing in front of your own house. Moreover, this is a house that you have built yourself, with your own hands. There it sits, complicated or simple, an architectural folly or a model of classic restraint. In any event, it’s all yours and it’s all coming down. Your next task is to demolish it and, from the rubble of the demolition, to rebuild it anew. One can imagine the result. Damage will have occurred to the bricks and mortar, the beams and roof tiles, as the house was demolished. Not everything will be recoverable. The garage will have to go, forget the greenhouse and the games room. Also, the rebuilt house will have something of a ramshackle, knocked-about air. Bold improvisation will have been required to reproduce the elegant curving staircase and that lovely dormer window with balcony. That chimney is stumpier. Some of the guest bedrooms are missing. Not all the plumbing will function as well as it did. And so on. The house stands there, rebuilt on the same site but it will inevitably both be smaller and different. Out of something old you will have made something new - similar but not identical. However, if you’re lucky or clever enough to work with skillful fellow-builders then your newly reconstructed house may, from certain aspects, look even more charming and intriguing.

I think this thought-experiment replicates pretty much what we did with Restless. My key fellow architects in the rebuilding enterprise were the director, Edward Hall, Hilary Bevan Jones, Tom Nash and Paul Frift – later aided and abetted by a world-class crew and a cast to die for: Hayley Atwell and the legendary Charlotte Rampling playing the older and younger selves of the heroine and spy, Eva Delectorskaya; Rufus Sewell and Michael Gambon doing the same for the charismatic spymaster, Lucas Romer, and Michelle Dockery, playing Eva’s daughter, Ruth, looking on as the secrets of her mother’s Second World War espionage life come to haunt her own, 30 years later. For the novelist, seeing his imagined characters embodied in the living, breathing forms of great and compelling actors is one of the sweetest recompenses of film-making. It is one of those aspects of the demolition/rebuilding job that actually enhances the finished project, I feel.

When the great Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov first saw the film that Stanley Kubrick had made of his unfilmable novel Lolita he refused to judge it by reference to the original source. Film, Nabokov said, should aspire to be a “vivacious variant” of the original. A film has to be a variant, as we have seen, because of the very nature of the difference between the two art forms. Vivacity comes from the people who create it.

In the fraught and compelling three hours of Restless we explore the human consequences of what it is to be a spy. What price do you pay when you have to live in a world where nobody can be trusted, even those people you love? Eva Delectorskaya’s long journey from the jeopardy of the Second World War to the restless watchfulness of someone living a totally secret, underground existence touches on emotions we all inevitably encounter as we explore, through the course of our own lives, what it means to experience the human condition.

And so the new Restless has risen from the demolished rubble of the old – metaphorically speaking – and, different as it is, reconfigured as it is, I have to say I am totally delighted with the look of the new building.

Posted 21 December 2012 by Pippa Considine

Sky's Coogan & giant crab in battle of Xmas animated films

In the battle of the animated Christmas specials, Sky Atlantic HD is entering the fray with Uncle Wormsley’s Christmas on Christmas Eve.

While the BBC has put its money on witchy capers with Room on the Broom and Channel 4 is investing in the sequel to the wintry but heartwarming The Snowman, Sky will air the tale of a decayed old man with a monstrous crab in his dungeon, narrated by Steve Coogan.

Produced by Baby Cow, Uncle Wormsley’s Christmas is described as “an animated children's cautionary tale with a dark heart.”

Uncle Wormsley is a grey, decaying old man who dedicates his life to the care of his only friend, a monstrous crab called Crabsley who lives in a dungeon under his house. Across town lives Johnnie Goodington, a rich boy who has everything money could buy except one thing – a giant monstrous crab. One Christmas, Johnnie's father strikes a deal with the mysterious and shadowy Crab Catchers. Johnnie shall have his Giant crab, but dark forces have been unleashed.

Uncle Wormsley’s Christmas
is voiced by Julian Barrett, Julia Davis, John Thomson and Ben Baker, alongside Steve Coogan as the narrator.

The thirty minute animation from Baby Cow Productions is written by Joel Veitch and Tim Gallagher, and directed by David Shute. The producer is Tim Searle.
The animation forms part of Sky Atlantic’s Comedy Mondays.

Room On The Broom is produced by Michael Rose and Martin Pope of Magic Light Pictures (The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Chico & Rita). The Snowman and the Snowdog is a Snowman Enterprises film, made with Lupus Films and directed by Hilary Audus.

Posted 03 December 2012 by Pippa Considine
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