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Jun 09

Jack Bowman On Directing Stephen Fry and the Wireless Theatre Company.

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from left to right: Jack Bowman, Stephen Fry, Sue Casanove, Nick Lucas, Adam Hall, Mariele Runacre Temple.

Jack Bowman, actor (he plays Jamie in my film Prose & Cons), director, writer and all-round brilliant guy recently directed Stephen Fry. He was then lovely enough to give Frost Magazine the low-down;

What was it like directing Stephen Fry?

An enormous honour and incredibly exciting! No, really, even my dad was impressed, which doesn’t happen that often…! One of the most amazing things about Wireless Theatre is how willing Mariele Runacre Temple – the artistic director – is to give good, new talent a chance. It was a combination of her trust in me and pure luck which meant this project AND Stephen’s involvement in it happened to be the one that ended up on my slate as a director. When Mariele forwarded me the email, I couldn’t believe it, honestly, I just couldn’t. And what’s lovely is, this isn’t a one-off – it’s happened to other directors as well; it’s a massive testament to the quality of the work in attracting the best talent and ethos of what Mariele instills in Wireless Theatre from the top down.

Were you nervous?

I don’t think I ever was – though once the initial excitement passed, however, there was more a nervous concern that something might occur which meant it wouldn’t happen. He’s got QI, he’s been filming the Hobbit, hosting the BAFTAs, writing a new book, Tweeting constantly, he’s about to appear at the Globe… and so on. He makes the hardest-working people look lazy. He has such amazing energy and work ethic. But would something happen? Would something else come up? And yet, it all came to pass with the exact timing, as scheduled, some four months previously by his brilliant reps. Who knows what they are doing, to the hour four, months from now? That’s a man who has a brilliant agent and keeps a perfect diary. Wonderful.

Was it intimidating?

It could have been, as the man is a national treasure. However, I know a few people who have worked with him before and assured me I had nothing to worry about, that he was a lovely man and a true gent – And no-one gets to be a national treasure unless they are anything but wonderful as a person. And he was! Ultimately, thanks to the experience I’ve gained from Mariele and working with her and at Wireless, I know how to direct my actors and what she expects from them. Also, the quality of the new writing means we’re always able to offer great scripts to great actors, known or unknown. Once you have the experience of having met and worked with 160+ actors, passionate about what they do, passionate about Wireless, and often wanting to return time and time again, you quickly realise that there’s no difference between a ‘name’ and anyone else. We work so hard to look after our various casts, and it pays off. Everyone, barring Stephen, in the session was returning cast, so that made things easier, each was playing a returning character, and I’ve all worked with them elsewhere. I know what Adam Hall, Nick Lucas and Sue Casanove can do and trusted them all. It’s another fun day with good, talented friends.

And then, suddenly, you realise that five years of Wireless have gone by, now Stephen Fry is in the studio coming along to play too. Yet you never feel worried or intimidated in any way. He’s another addition to what’s been a very happy, transitory and ever-growing, professional family.

What I have to do – as part of that family at that particular time as a director – is to serve the script by getting the best out of the cast. If you approach and support any actor with that attitude, that sense of play, then you have nothing to fear from anyone. With that in mind, just before we began recording, I simply asked Stephen if he had any ideas on how he wanted to approach his opening scene, and he simply said, “no, I’ll do it and you tell me what you’d like.” And that’s how it worked – he’d do a blissfully wonderful take, and once he hit his stride, I’d give him the freedom to play around some more. There’s one scene that I wish I could tell you more about, but in it Stephen started ad-libbing and we were all in hysterics. The words, “oh God,” have never made me laugh so much…

How did you get him to do your project?

Right at the very, very start, when Mariele Runacre Temple first launched the Wireless Theatre Company five years ago, she started to write a list of people to approach – and Stephen was the very first person she asked to be involved, given his love of the spoken word. However, he’s an incredibly busy man, and despite a lot of support from his agent, we began to wonder if it would ever happen.

Then Sue Casanove revealed she had an idea for a sequel for her audio comedy, We Are Not The BBC, which I directed last year. The central gag of We Are Not The BBC features Christopher Timothy, of All Creatures Great And Small and Doctors, sending himself up. So, I asked Sue who she was thinking of in that sort of role for the next installment and she said, “Stephen Fry.” Knowing it had been tough until now, I thought, “it’s going to be tough, but if Sue’s script lives up to the quality of the first one, we might just stand a chance here you know…” We had a meeting in London, she knocked some ideas back and forth and off she went, back to Wales.

A few months later, the script arrived and I was blown away. Sue had knocked it out of the park – I couldn’t put it down. I text her straight away, saying, “if the first one was A New Hope, this is your The Empire Strikes Back.” By that, I mean, this wasn’t as good as the first one, which was great, it was better, absolutely better than what had come before. It was so, so clever; darker, smarter, more ambitious. She’d told me where it might head, yet I didn’t see this coming. Having evolved from what she’d told me, beyond what I imagined, it gripped me from start to finish.

And I let Mariele know that maybe, just maybe, this might be the one Stephen might say yes too. Mariele dispatched it to his agent, we waited nervously and then, some months later came the message, out of the blue – Stephen loves the script. He’s free for one hour, June 6th, it’s in his diary.

Were you a fan prior to the recording?

Oh gosh yes! Who isn’t? Yes, I grew up with him from the days of Blackadder as a child. However it’s been wonderful to watch him have such an amazing career since – A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, Me And My Girl, Wilde, Bright Young Things, QI… The funny thing though, my favourite Stephen Fry memory is not one most people may even remember, but it’s the time he affected me the most deeply. He was presenting the BAFTA Film Awards that followed 9/11, and in his final speech of the evening, he spoke from the heart and talked about the need for film to spread hope and love across the world, as it would enrage the heart of anyone who struck out in anger in the way we’d seen on that terrible day. There’s so much to love that man for, and his work, yet that for me is the pinnacle.

Tell us about the project.

It’s called We Are The BBC, and is a sequel to We Are Not The BBC, which saw a Welsh Am-Dram group try to record a BBC-style audio play while the politics and egos threaten to topple the production, not to mention confuse poor Christopher Timothy. A lot. We Are The BBC picks some time later, when Stephen, playing himself, wins a BAFTA for his performance in a script by a promising new celebrity writer who used to belong to the same Ad-Dram group. However, it’s quickly clear that all is not as it seems and Stephen finds himself at the centre of the intrigue as things start to unravel…

And, touch wood, we’ll have another name joining the project next week too… But I can’t say anything yet.

How long did it take?

Wireless works exceptionally fast and Mariele always runs a slick studio – something that often surprises anyone new to Wireless! We had a professional cast and crew and Stephen’s exceptionally good at what he does; just as well, because we were allowed one hour of his time! Even with several retakes, we were able to get Stephen’s material all down in 40 minutes. Not only did he respond wonderfully to direction, he did that rare thing and with each note; he’d elevate it into something even better. Combine that with the well-oiled Wireless machine, and it was job done – which was just as well as he was straight off to record QI that afternoon after finishing with us. What’s even more extraordinary was on arriving, he apologised, revealing that he was suffering from flu symptoms. Yet he still turns in a barn-storming performance. When you see that happen first-hand, you realise why he’s as loved and respected as he is.

Do you think Stephen will stay in contact?

I hope so! At the very least, I’d love him to follow Wireless, Sue and myself on Twitter -@wirelesstheatre, @suecasanove and @realjackbowman, in case he reads this! At best, we’d love him to come back sometime in the future and work with Wireless again, even if it means we have to find an hour of our time five years from now. It was an amazing pleasure!

Who else do you want to work with?

ooh, well… On my list as a director… Michael Sheen, David Suchet, David Tennant, Sir Derek Jacobi, John Simm, Adrian Lester, Dame Judi Dench, Tom Hollander, Simon Russell-Beale, Samantha Bond, Imelda Staunton, Paterson Joseph, Joanna Lumley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Firth, Bill Nighy, Keeley Hawes, Patrick Stewart, Idris Elba… Also, one day, I’d love to direct or act alongside or write for Sophie Aldred. I can 100% tell you I would not be here today if it wasn’t for her inspiring me into acting, and would love to repay her until the end of time.

I know Mariele would love to work with Rik Mayall, who’s amazing. Again, who remembers his 90’s anthology series, Rik Mayall Presents? Three specials, and two of them broke your heart…

The thing to strive for, though, is that even if I’d love to work with X, the questions always have to be, “are they right for the role,” “does casting them serve the story?” There’s no point in shoe-horning in X for the sake of it, because then you don’t do the script any favours, the cast any favours and your reputation any favours. The right actor gets offered the role because they’re right for the part. Simple as. It’s tough, as recently two real heroes of mine have recently turned down the chance to work with Wireless on our acclaimed Springheel series. They were perfect fits for the material and you see that rare thing of a dream part for one of your dream actors, hope for the best, cross your fingers, ride your luck… and it doesn’t quite happen, often because of scheduling. However, you just have to say, ‘it’s always for a reason, and you have to remember that’, and when you look back on what happened, rather than what could have been, it always worked out for the best. I cannot wait for what Wireless Theatre and Mariele ends up sending my way next time.

We Are The BBC, starring Adam Hall, Andrew MacBean, Sue Casanove, Nick Lucas and Stephen Fry will be available to download from www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk later in 2012.

It is written by Sue Casanove, directed by Jack Bowman and produced by Mariele Runacre Temple for the Wireless Theatre Company.