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Interview: Norman Stone, film director

Making a film to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible was not without its travails, Scottish director Norman Stone tells Jackie McGlone

• Andrew Rothney plays King James VI in The Book That Changed the World, directed by Norman Stone, above

NORMAN STONE has decided to turn the other cheek, which is singularly appropriate given that this is just one of hundreds of precepts gifted to the English language by the King James Bible - "the book that changed the world," notes Stone.

This is also the title of an excellent, authoritative docudrama that the Glasgow-based, Bafta and Emmy award-winning film director has made to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the world's biggest bestseller. In addition, The Book That Changed the World is the birthday slogan of the quatercentenary, which falls on 2 May, next year.

Serious celebrations began at the end of last month with a party in Whitehall, hosted by the Duke of Edinburgh for the King James Bible Trust, which is organising a wide range of events across the country. Meanwhile, 72 plays inspired by the books of the Bible are to be staged in St Paul's by London's Bush Theatre; then there's James: the Musical and there is even a competition for new church music inspired by the KJB.

Indeed, Britain is about to go Bible bonkers, with radio programmes and several television documentaries (presented respectively by Melvyn Bragg and Adam Nicolson, who has said that the KJB is "a kind of national shrine, built only of words"). Shelvesful of books (The Book of Books by Melvyn Bragg, for instance) are promised.

There will be epic readings on radio, in churches and at literary festivals, as well as learned seminars, from Hampton Court (to be addressed, of course, by Bragg) to Aberdeen. But 64-year-old Stone - he's married to the award-winning broadcaster and author Sally Magnusson, with whom he has five children - was first off the starting blocks.

His 90-minute film is a model of storytelling, fronted with actorly gravitas by The Lord of the Rings' Gimli the Dwarf, John Rhys Davies, and stars among others, a stalwart of the Citizens' Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Paola Dionisotti, as Queen Elizabeth I.

"I needed somebody good because I wanted to kill off the Queen in the first reel," Stone confides. RSAMD student, Andrew Rothney, plays King James, spookily resembling every known portrait of the monarch.

However, to borrow more phrases from the Authorised Version, television's powers-that-be have proved something of a law unto themselves. Stone has hit a stone wall, despite the fact that his beautifully made film, told as a whodunit, wrapped months ago.

"Made entirely in Scotland, too," he says, adding that the dramatic scenes were shot in six days. He is just back from Los Angeles, where "an impressive array of American distributors - much bigger players than I ever expected - showed very keen interest in acquiring the rights. There's huge interest in the anniversary in the States. One company I'm dealing with is spending $8 million (5.1m) on publicity alone on various KJB projects."

Which is heartening for Stone since BBC bosses are "dragging their heels" on if and when they will show his film. Stone pauses and sighs: "I think next year when they aim to do a season on the Bible, they'll wish to have this on their box-screens smartly, because there have been some bizarre cases where they've left things until only ten days before a big anniversary."

M EANWHILE, he is releasing his film on DVD through Amazon.com, "because it tells such a great story". Broadcasting is changing tremendously, he continues. "We're being hit through lack of finance and by non-filmmaking executives who don't know which end is up. You run the gamut nowadays of increasingly interfering executives and editorial heavy-handedness. Unless you are one of the big ten indie labels, individual filmmakers are squeezed at every level, although I steer clear of the politics.

"There is, though, an opportunity for independent companies to make films separate from commission, then be responsible for distributing and selling their own products worldwide not just to the home market. It's become clear to me that instead of being a worker on the ship I can actually captain my own little tugboat.

"We've got digital downloads, DVDs and foreign sales, so while we wait for the BBC to decide at the last minute whether they want the film for their anniversary season, we're putting it out there," he says, explaining that it's a sign of the times - another phrase we owe to the KJB - that decision-making now goes through layer upon layer of executives.

"I think the problem is that the KJB film ticks too many of the Lord Reith boxes. He said that television was meant to inform, educate and entertain. Nowadays, it seems television exists to exploit, humilate and titillate. However, I do want this film to end up on the BBC. I'm always delighted to work for them and for ITV and Channel 4, but I think you have to adapt or die. The reality is we're all getting less money to make films, so I'm not going to sit there nervously like a beggar at the gate."

Nonetheless, is he down-hearted about the state of broadcasting? "Even my pessimism about it has an optimistic edge," he laughs. "Waves of interest in this film are coming in daily, so I'm rather chipper."

Stone has a distinguished track record anyway, after winning a mantelpieceful of awards for films, such as Shadowlands for BBC1 and classic episodes of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories, as well as last year's The Narnia Code and the acclaimed Florence Nightingale BBC biopic in 2008. He also directed the 2003 feature film, Man Dancin', starring Alex Ferns as a gangster press-ganged into appearing in a local Passion Play.

T HERE is less sympathy for Christian values in television now, Stone believes. "There's definitely an audience out there for such films - the Florence Nightingale film and The Narnia Code were both top of the hit parade when they were shown. There's a huge audience hunger for programmes like the old Miss Marples, say, or Downton Abbey, which, of course, wasn't shown in Scotland."

As long as he can make dramatic, powerful films that challenge and entertain, Stone says he'll be "a very happy boy", and he'll continue, as the King James Version has it, "to fight the good fight".

To that end, he's working on his next project: a feature film about another King entirely.

"It's a comedy about Elvis Presley being found alive and well, but bored, bearded and bespectacled, in a Cistercian monastery in New Mexico. The pioneering TV producer who introduced rock'n'roll to this country, Jack Good, wrote it as a stage play, which I've bought and am adapting," he reveals. Later this month, Stone flies to New York to finalise funding, most of which is already in place. There's another documentary he plans to make, too, based on his wife's latest book, Life of Pee: The Story of How Urine Got Everywhere, which Magnusson has just had published. He says: "I also want to make a film about St Columba, but unfortunately he was neither a zombie killer nor a vampire. Had he been one or the other, we'd have had the money to make it yesterday."

l KJB - The Book That Changed the World is available on amazon.co.uk from today. www.kjbthefilm.com

 
 
 

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