Father Ted writer Graham Linehan tells Claire Black about his robust yet reverential approach to a colourful adaptation of black comedy classic, The Ladykillers
THERE’S no point asking Graham Linehan how he reckons his stage adaptation of the classic Ealing comedy The Ladykillers will be received when it arrives in Scotland next month because we know already. Following its West End run, the show, directed by Sean Foley, was nominated for five Olivier awards including Best New Play, Best Direction, Best Set Design and Best Sound Design. It was a smash. So, how about a different question. What if someone wanted to adapt one of Linehan’s works – Father Ted, maybe, or The IT Crowd (which he also directed), how would he feel about it?
“I don’t know.” He pauses. “To be honest with you I think it would be most likely I’d be dead.” He laughs. “So it’s kind of like asking, ‘Have you ever thought what it would be like to be dead?’ ”
I’m not against a question with a philosophical bent, and if anyone could offer an interesting answer it would be Linehan, but even for me that’s taking it too far. Maybe it’s best to stick with a gang of robbers masquerading as a string quintet and coming to a sticky end at the hands of a rose-cheeked, lavender-scented old lady.
Written by William Rose, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness as the sinister Professor Marcus, 1955 film The Ladykillers is one of finest black comedies to emerge from Ealing Studios. Set in rundown post-war London, as well as being “delightfully different entertainment” (the original way it was billed since comedy didn’t quite capture it), it’s also an allegory about a country in transition. Kindly Mrs Wilberforce represents a tradition of innocence and gentility, while the criminals (including Peter Sellers as Harry the spiv) are ciphers for a nation in decline, threats to the national character. So how do you bring this to the stage?
Linehan kept the outline of Rose’s screenplay but jettisoned the black tone for something more farce-like, a little, he says, more “pantomimish”. He found a way to weave in contemporary references but he also wanted to mine the story for more laughs.
“It was the reason it felt worth doing,” he says. “If the film had been a complete laugh riot from beginning to end then I wouldn’t have been interested in doing it because it would’ve just been transcribing. The only thing that made it creatively interesting was that we could pull it apart a little bit and remake it in a new kind of image.”
Perhaps the most apposite metaphor is remodelling a house, given that Mrs Wilberforce’s rickety King’s Cross abode is a key element of the story. Linehan wasn’t after a bit of redecoration, changing the curtains and freshening up the woodwork, he wanted to knock down walls and remodel. The only thing he didn’t want to do away with was the foundations. He kept those intact by thinking about Rose and Mackendrick as he wrote.
“I wanted to make sure there was nothing that contradicted the themes of their story. I didn’t want it to acquire a cynicism that wasn’t there in the original. Mackendrick said after they made it that he realised their theme was that innocent England will endure because of its innocence.” He laughs. “That theme of Britain will survive these jokers, I didn’t want to contradict it. In fact I wanted to add to it a little bit by trying to ring some bells that had a more modern significance.”
He explains that at one point he has the Professor say “we’re all in it together”, referencing David Cameron’s regrettable phrase. He also set the action over the course of the Suez crisis because he says that felt to him like the closest thing from that period to “our recent adventure in Iraq”. The difference, though, is that rather than the danger being criminality as it was in the film, for Linehan it comes from deceit.
“I wanted the danger to be from people lying to you,” he says, “people who are lying to you all the time just to further their agenda.”
Ealing comedies might be caricatured as cosy, comforting Saturday afternoon fare in which the little people always triumph, but they had a subversive edge too. Sir Michael Balcon, who headed the studio, was responsible for The Lavender Hill Mob and Passport To Pimlico, but he also helped launch Hitchock’s career. Mackendrick said of The Ladykillers that it was an “ironic joke” about the decline of Empire. Linehan says he is no expert on Ealing comedies, but reckons this has actually helped him to create a fresh adaptation.
“I find in Wodehouse adaptations, no matter how well they’re done, they often seem to lose the most important aspect, which is P G Wodehouse himself. By trying to be respectful they invariably do him a bit of a disservice because they don’t try to translate his wonderful sparkling prose into a visual language. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to The Ladykillers. I didn’t want to be so respectful of the work that it died on stage. I wanted to make sure it had extra life so that in a hypothetical situation in which Rose and Mackendrick came back to life and happened to come and see the play they might not curse me for not helping it along in that way.”
When I tell Linehan that Mackendrick described his own sense of humour as “malicious”, he laughs. It seems almost the complete opposite of Linehan’s comedic output – the surreal whimsy of Father Ted, the fact that IT workers loved The IT Crowd. Linehan’s own description for what he finds funny is “surreal awkwardness” – dropping characters into tricky situations and then watching them work their way out of them. It’s a skill he honed while writing comedy sketches after quitting his job as a music and film journalist. He and Arthur Mathews wrote for Alexei Sayle and Harry Enfield, Brass Eye and The Fast Show. And then came Father Ted.
Linehan speaks so eloquently about his experience of The Ladykillers that when I ask whether the experience has ignited an interest in doing more work for the stage I presume he’s going to say yes. He doesn’t.
“I don’t think so. Overall I didn’t really enjoy the experience. It wasn’t really fun so, no, I don’t think so.” I tell him I’m surprised. “I think I prefer TV,” he says simply. “One thing I find in TV is that it can be the way I want it to be, which is something I’m used to by now. The writing of The Ladykillers was fun. But once it goes out of your hands it’s not fun, especially for someone who is used to being hands-on like me.”
Famously, the idea for The IT Crowd came to Linehan when he called someone out to fix his computer at home. I wonder if ideas always emerge as randomly as that?
“It’s terrible,” he says. “I’m very slow at getting things off the ground.” He explains that he’s started a production company, Delightful Industries, with Lorraine Heggessey, which he hopes will help him to get more projects on the go.
“I don’t want to end up just doing one sitcom every two years, or one play. I want to try to keep more balls in the air. I think it’ll be more fun for me. Being creative is fun, the alternative is soul destroying. Sitting down and writing a script or even a summary of an idea or whatever it happens to be, that’s the most enjoyable aspect of the job and it’s something I want to do more of.”
In the meantime, he’s working on a Count Arthur Strong sitcom for BBC2 with Steve Delaney.
“The problem with this job is the job and the brilliant thing about this job is the job,” he says. “You have to do a lot of grunt work that is very boring and annoying. You have to sit at the computer and you have to fail. Part of the job involves thinking about things and eliminating them. You spend a lot of time coming up with ideas that are terrible and hating them and hating yourself.
“But the good thing about the job is that once you’ve done enough of that kind of work something pushes through, something that does look like the thing you want to write. And when it does that it’s like a big central idea that attracts millions of other ideas to it like a magnet. That’s really pleasurable.” He laughs.
The Ladykillers is at The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, from 5-10 November; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, from 12-17 November; Glasgow Theatre Royal from 14-19 November