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By Martin Keady · January 28, 2019
Famous Screenwriters is a new series by The Script Lab for the new year, in which our resident cinema historian, Martin Keady, looks at the great screenwriting cities of the world – those that have produced many of the world’s greatest screenwriters. For this inaugural piece, he looks at his own home city of London.
As the city of Shakespeare and Dickens, London is rightly regarded as one of the great literary cities of the world, but it is also a great screenwriting city, as some of the finest screenwriters ever have called it home. Not all of them were natives of London, but they all lived in “The Old Metrop” (as P.G. Wodehouse christened London) and, more importantly, wrote in it. In the process, they contributed to London’s extraordinary cinematic legacy.
Here, in no particular order, are 10 famous London screenwriters.
Dennis Potter hailed from the Forest of Dean in the south-west of England, and growing up in an actual forest – the setting for so many fairy-tales and myths – clearly fed into his imagination, as it became the setting for so many of his great works for film and television, especially Blue Remembered Hills (1979). However, like so many British (and even European) writers, he soon headed to London to make a living as a writer, first working with the BBC on documentaries and then graduating to drama.
Potter never wrote specifically about London, but the city was still a key component in several of his finest teleplays and screenplays, from Stand Up, Nigel Barton! and Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (both 1965), his electoral dramas in which the hoped-for end-point was always Parliament, to The Singing Detective (1986), in which there are flashbacks to the Nazi Blitz that nearly destroyed London, and even to one of his two final works, Karaoke (1996), the story of a TV writer whose works seem to be coming to life in a contemporary London of expensive restaurants and lavishly appointed film studios.
KEY LONDON WORK: THE SINGING DETECTIVE (1986)
Bridget O’Connor was a product of the “Paddyaspora”, the great waves of emigration from Ireland (from the famine of the 1840s right up to the present day) that took so many Irishmen and women around the globe. The No.1 destination for many of those emigrants was London, especially when it was being rebuilt after World War 2. Thus it was that Bridget O’Connor’s parents, who were both Irish, ended up in Harrow, just outside of London, where Bridget was born in 1961.
Tragically, Bridget O’Connor died of cancer in 2010, when she was only 49, which was also an artistic tragedy, as she was just coming into her own as a screenwriter who often co-wrote with her husband, the dramatist Peter Straughan. Their three fine co-writes were Sixty Six (2006), a comedy-drama about a boy’s bar mitzvah that takes place on the same day as one of the most famous events in London’s history, namely England’s triumph on home turf in the 1966 World Cup Final; Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution (2007), another comedy-drama in which a British family relocate to East Germany at the height of the Cold War; and, continuing the Cold War theme, the superb big-screen adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011). For Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, she won a posthumous BAFTA (alongside her husband) for Best Adapted Screenplay. That award was entirely deserved for the masterful job that O’Connor and Straughan did of adapting a legendarily dense and knotty novel for film.
KEY LONDON WORK: TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
The great Graham Greene was born in the historic market town of Berkhamsted, in Hertfordshire, which is one of the “Home Counties” – the leafy, semi-rural counties that encircle London and constitute much of its commuter belt. However, it was not only in his many novels but in his few screenplays that Greene exposed so much of the agony and atrophy that lay under the apparently respectable surface of London and its hinterland.
If The End Of The Affair (1951), the story of an illicit love affair set against the backdrop of the Blitz, is Greene’s great London novel, then The Fallen Idol (1948) is his great London film. Based on one of Greene’s own stories, The Basement Room, it is the story of a young boy who unwittingly betrays the butler who has been more of a father to him than his own absentee father. It also forms the centerpiece of the remarkable “post-war trilogy” of movies that Greene wrote for director Carol Reed, the others being Odd Man Out (1947), the account of an injured IRA terrorist on the run from the police, and of course The Third Man (1949), in which Greene showed that whatever the damage that the war had wrought on London, it was as nothing to the devastation of Vienna and much of continental Europe.
KEY LONDON FILM: THE FALLEN IDOL (1948)
Like Bridget O’Connor, Sharon Horgan is “London Irish”, the term (taken from the rugby club of the same name) that is often used to describe Irish emigrants to London and even their offspring, who are sometimes rather less charmingly referred to as “Plastic Paddies”. However, Horgan is less “plastic” (or artificial) than most, in that she was actually born in London (in Hackney, in east London) before her parents made the unusual decision to return to Ireland to run a turkey farm. However, once she was old enough, Horgan returned to London to study and write.
Horgan’s brilliant comic output for television has been a kind of chronicle of the coming of age (if not maturity) of young women in London in the early 21st century, from the sexual shenanigans of twenty-somethings in Pulling (2006-09), to the coming together of unlikely bedfellows (a young London Irishwoman, played by Horgan herself, and a Bostonian, who follows her to London) in Catastrophe (2015 on), to Motherland (2016 on), which was co-written with the equally brilliant Graham Linehan and depicts the often harsh reality of becoming a parent.
KEY LONDON WORK: CATASTROPHE
Bruce Robinson is something of a rarity on this list in that he was actually born in London, just after WW2, but he was brought up in Broadstairs, on the Kent coast, with a wicked stepfather who subjected him to the appalling mental and physical abuse documented in Robinson’s “semi-fictional autobiography”, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman (1998). However, Robinson returned to London at the first opportunity, initially to act and then to write, most famously his account of trying to survive as an actor at the end of the 1960s, Withnail and I (1986).
Even though it only begins and ends in London, and spends most of its time in Cumbria (at the other end of England), Withnail and I is one of the definitive London films, in that it depicts the kind of utterly unglamorous squalor that was still the reality for many Londoners at that time. In an early scene, Marwood (the “I” character and narrator) sits in a typically greasy London café, watching a woman trying (and failing) to eat a fried egg sandwich, and wonders how a city of so many millions can possibly survive. Then, at the end of the film, Withnail and Marwood take their final stroll together (as Marwood leaves London to take the lead in a play in Manchester) in the pouring rain, culminating in Withnail’s stunning rendition of a soliloquy from Hamlet to a pack of wolves in London Zoo, proving, contrary to all the evidence that we have seen earlier in the film, that he actually is a talented actor.
KEY LONDON WORK: WITHNAIL AND I (1986)
Jane Goldman might not quite be as great a screenwriter as either William Goldman or Bo Goldman (the screenwriters of All The President’s Men and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest respectively), but she is still a highly accomplished and successful screenwriter. She was born in Hammersmith, in west London, and several of her best screenplays, notably those for the Kingsman series, examine classic London and British ideas and characters, and update them for the 21st century.
It was on Stardust (2007), a romantic fantasy, that Goldman first worked with Matthew Vaughn, who directed the film as well as co-writing it. Since then, she and Vaughn have formed an impressive co-writing partnership, working on about half a dozen films, including the Kingsman films and Kick-Ass (2010), a black comedy about a young superhero. Goldman has also written several films on her own, including Miss Peregrine’s School For Peculiar Children (2016). However, the most intriguing film that she has written is The Debt (2010), a thriller about Mossad, the Israeli secret service, which she co-wrote with Vaughn and Peter Straughan.
KEY LONDON WORK: KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014)
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Like several other entries on this list, Hanif Kureishi is not just a screenwriter, having also written novels, plays and even non-fiction. And like several other writers on this list, he was not born in London but in nearby Kent. However, it is as the writer of such superb London-set films and TV series as My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and The Buddha of Suburbia (1993), which he adapted from his novel of the same name, that Kureishi has proved himself to be an archetypal London screenwriter.
Like Bridget O’Connor and Sharon Horgan, the Anglo-Irish writers on this list, Kureishi is the child of an immigrant and his Anglo-Asian (or “brown British”) stories have all drawn on his own upbringing as the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. In the process, he has done much to expand the whole idea of what an “English” or “British” writer is and can write about, escaping the Dick Van Dyke stereotypes to show the world, and London itself, that London is now as multicultural a city as any in the world.
KEY LONDON WORK: MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDERETTE (1985)
Emeric Pressburger was the greatest of all the great European screenwriters and directors who fled to London (sometimes en route to Hollywood) as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s. Eventually, he became almost an Englishman from abroad, such was the success of his remarkable film-making partnership with director Michael Powell and his adoration of all things English. In the process, he and Powell became as English as fish and chips, or even tea and milk.
The Powell-Pressburger partnership is quite simply one of the greatest ever director-writer partnerships in the history of cinema and it may well be the most famous. Among their many masterpieces are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946). The last one, in particular, was a fantastical but fascinating examination of the entire history of England and in particular its role in the creation of the British Empire. And if it does not immediately appear to be a “London” film, it is worth remembering that the “stairway to heaven” that David Niven’s pilot ascends (which gave the film its US title) was actually constructed by London Underground engineers.
KEY LONDON WORK: A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)
Harold Pinter is probably the greatest British dramatist of the past half-century but he is also one of Britain’s greatest screenwriters. In addition to his extraordinary and singular work for the stage, such as The Caretaker (1960) and The Homecoming (1964), he also wrote numerous screenplays, including The Servant (1963) and The Go-Between (1971), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
In much of his work for both stage and screen, London is so omnipresent as to be almost another character. It is the big and threatening city in which so many of his stories are set, and from which so many of his characters, such as the eponymous Caretaker, seem to seek shelter. In particular, his screenplay for The Servant, the astonishing account of a power struggle between an aristocrat and his butler, embodied the conflict between the “old” London of bowler hats and noblesse oblige and the “new” London of working-class characters (such as the titular Servant) on the rise.
KEY LONDON WORK: THE SERVANT (1963)
The definitive London screenwriter might just be not Pressburger or Pinter, but a man whose name is largely forgotten today (sadly, like so many great screenwriters of the past). His name is Thomas Ernest Bennett Clarke, but he was known either by his initials or his nickname, “Tibby”. And the reason why he might just be the definitive London screenwriter is that he wrote so many of the greatest London-set films, or, as they are more commonly known, “Ealing comedies”.
It is fascinating that it should be a relatively small and short-lived British studio, rather than one of the far bigger, richer and longer-lived American studios, that achieved such success that it gave its name to a whole genre, but that is the case with the great Ealing comedies of the 1940s and 1950s. And Clarke wrote so many of them, including Passport To Pimlico (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and the film that might just be the greatest Ealing comedy of them all (even if it is relatively little known in comparison with several other Ealing comedies), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). London is not so much the setting as the subject matter of these classics, including The Titfield Thunderbolt, in which a group of villagers try to secure the future of their local railway line and in particular its invaluable commuter route to London.
KEY LONDON WORK: THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951)
Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.” http://theshakespeareplays.com/