Bill and Lee’s excellent adventures

Bill Bryden is holding court in the green room at London’s National Theatre. Glass of red wine and filter tip in one hand, large-toothed comb in the other, he sweeps back his black, Byronic locks before going on stage to give a talk.

His appearance at the Cottesloe is to discuss his powerful production of The Good Hope, the Dutch playwright Herman Heijerman’s rarely seen 1900 melodrama, which has been adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall. Relocated from Holland to Whitby, it is a cruel story of exploited fishermen and the anguished, cost-cutting boss (Tom Georgeson in fine form) who lets them sail in an unseaworthy ship.

It is a typically emotional and politically charged subject for Bryden, one of a dying breed of left-leaning theatre directors with fire in his belly and the sort of dynamism that has had him tackling everything from David Mamet (he introduced the Chicago playwright’s work to Britain with the world premiere of Glengarry Glen Ross at the National in 1983), to The Mysteries and his site-specific productions at Glasgow’s Tramway of The Ship and The Big Picnic.

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Before the discussion, Bryden, former head of drama at BBC Scotland in the days when it won Baftas by the score, is surrounded by members of his crack company - the fiery Frances de La Tour, the Scottish actor Iain Robertson (who plays De La Tour’s doomed young son) and William McBain. Bryden’s "juve lead", Charlotte Emmerson, has just told him that her sister thinks he’s "very, very sexy".

"She thought directors were all old men," says Emmerson, revealing that her sibling thinks the craggily handsome Bryden another Al Pacino. "Just so long as she didn’t say I look like Tom Conti," he preens, while moaning loudly that "Four Eyes" - his nickname for the studentishly bespectacled Lee Hall - has left him to hold the stage alone. They were to have shared the platform, but the Geordie playwright is suffering from a head cold following the opening night of his Christmas show, Pinocchio, in Newcastle.

In the Cottesloe, the 59-year-old Greenock-born playwright, producer and director talks passionately and fluently about the radical fervour behind his production of The Good Hope, which comes to Scotland next month.

Despite his grumbles about "Four Eyes," Bryden has forged a visionary professional partnership with Hall. After the box-office success of Billy Elliot, Hall is on a roll. His next screenplay for Miramax will be an adaptation of the Dunbartonshire-born AJ Cronin’s novel, The Stars Look Down, the story of an idealistic miner’s son, who goes to university to study medicine, but temporarily forgets his political resolve when he marries. Bryden will direct.

Carol Reed’s 1939 movie version - there have been several television adaptations - ends with a rousing call for nationalisation of the mining industry, "to purge the old greeds". Bryden says he and Hall are determined to film the book, the rights of which are now being negotiated. "This is an exclusive for The Scotsman, by the way," he confides .

It was Hall’s seemingly effortless ability to mix humour and pathos, to tell sad and funny stories of personal struggle with unflinching honesty and a pervasive tenderness, that won Bryden over. Joseph Fiennes (who Bryden will also be directing later this year in the West End), will play the young doctor. Tara Fitzgerald will play his wife.

Bryden and Hall plan to start filming next winter. It will be made in gritty black-and-white, located in the Durham coalfield, where Bryden wants locals to be involved. "It’s a great tale, a John Ford movie. Lee’s perfect for it," says Bryden. "His writing has great warmth, which I like very much. Like The Good Hope, The Ship and The Big Picnic, it’s about the loss of a whole community; it’s theatre of memory."

The Dutch play was originally suggested to Bryden by two old Communist actors - Bill Owen, of Last of the Summer Wine, and Alex McCrindle. Both men are dead now, but had been involved in the left-wing Unity companies in Glasgow and London when The Good Hope was first staged there. Bryden recalled that conversation when "the Cloggies" (as he refers to the Dutch) asked him to open a theatre in Rotterdam in 1989. They expected him to choose a Shakespeare play; instead he selected one of their own classics.

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His National Theatre production is very different. Inspired by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s plangent photographs of fisherfolk in Whitby in the 1900s, Hall’s rewrite of the play is now less about heroes and villains. "It’s not a critic’s play," says Bryden . "The five who gave their hearts to it raved about it; the five who gave their minds to it didn’t. If you think it’s sentimental, get out of my house - I would love to direct a great right-wing play. There just hasn’t been one written yet."

A unique piece of agit-prop theatre, The Good Hope changed Dutch maritime law. "It’s amazing, a play that did something," says Bryden. Heijerman’s description - based on a true story - of a community devastated by the sinking of a leaky ship with all men on board had such an effect on audiences when it was first performed that the government declared all such "coffin ships" should be salvaged for inspection and repair. Political drama has rarely had such an impact. Only Cathy Come Home, the 1966 TV play that depicted social workers forcibly taking the children of a homeless family into care, and led to the setting up of Shelter as well as major changes in the law, has had such a profound effect.

"In a sense, it’s not a happy evening," says Bryden, "but it’s one that resonates today at a time when there is acute anxiety about how safe London Underground and air traffic will be after partial privatisation, and when pleasure boats and ferries are discovered to be unfit to go to sea." In addition, Bryden adds, comparisons have inevitably been made with Railtrack and the Hatfield disaster.

He has watched audiences leaving the theatre in both London and Liverpool weeping openly because they have seen actors giving their hearts and souls, particularly Frances De La Tour. She is wonderfully harrowing as the grieving widow whose family is starving to death and who has to watch her 17-year-old son being dragged screaming to the ship that he’s convinced will be the death of him.

"Yeah," says Bryden, "isn’t it ironic that I’m perceived as this macho director? Everyone thinks I’m this big, butch guy who just deals with men. It’s extraordinary. I directed Helen Mirren in A Month in the Country in the West End and how good was she in that? I’ve directed Tara Fitzgerald, the late Susan Fleetwood and now Frankie De La Tour in the performance of her career. Still, critics go on insisting that I’m a man’s man, that I only direct men."

Bryden has just directed his wife, the actress Angela Douglas, for the first time in a Radio 4 version of John Osborne’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, with Joseph Fiennes, Charles Dance and Donald Sinden. It will be broadcast in the autumn. He thinks he was probably unnecessarily hard on her in rehearsal. After all, he admits, she’s the woman who saved his life. She was first married to the actor Kenneth More, who was 26 years her senior, and for whom she sacrificed her own career in order to nurse him when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1982.

Bryden, who has two grown-up children, was divorced when they first met. "I adore my kids, but I remember thinking after the break-up, ‘Well, what are you going to do now?’ I could have ended up a libertine, but instead I found a safe harbour - Angela."

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They have been together for 13 years. "It’s been flabbergastingly right. My work is her passion, her work is my passion. She’s just been turned down for Coronation Street; they said she was too pretty, which is nice because it’s true. We certainly don’t see enough of her on stage or television. I think her problem was Kenneth More. She should just have got bigger and bigger like Julie Christie, but she gave in to a bully, albeit a very talented bully. I’m not a bully, so we never row. There’s no doubt that she saved my life because she saved me from myself. Angela’s a wonderful woman. She’s my love."

The Good Hope is at the National Theatre, London, 17 January until 5 February. It then tours to the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 12-16 February and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 19-23 February. See page 12 for Joyce McMillan’s preview of theatre in 2002.