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20 Questions With...Tim Firth

Playwright Tim Firth, whose play The Safari Party has just opened in Scarborough, explains the differences in writing for theatre versus TV & how he 'found' the book for the upcoming Madness musical, Our House.

By • West End


Tim Firth first began writing at the age of 18 when he attended an Arvon Foundation course in Yorkshire run by Willy Russell and Danny Hiller. After studying at Cambridge for three years, his first professional commissions were Heartlands for Chichester Festival Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes, and A Man of Letters for Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Amongst theatregoers, Firth is probably best known to date for his 1993 hit comedy Neville's Island, which also premiered in Scarborough before transferring to the West End, where it was nominated for four Olivier Awards.

Firth has also written extensively for television, most notably the award-winning series Preston Front as well as Money for Nothing, The Rottentrolls, The Flint Street Nativity and the screen adaptation of Neville's Island, which starred Martin Clunes and Timothy Spall.

This year, Firth returns to the stage in force, with two major projects. His latest play, The Safari Party, has just opened, once again at Stephen Joseph, while the autumn will see the world premiere of the new Madness musical, Our House, for which Firth is providing an original book.


Date & place of birth
Born in Chester in 1964.

Lives now in...
Eight miles east of Chester towards Warrington if you take the old road.

First big break
For stage it'd be Neville's Island, although technically the "break" was the one act play A Man of Letters which prompted Alan Ayckbourn to commission it.

Career highlight to date
Getting amateur royalties from Spain.

Favourite actors
For some reason, every time I try to think about this question my brain crashes. I know I wish Leonard Rossiter was still alive. And Richard Beckinsale. And Charlotte Coleman.

Favourite directors
Sam Mendes, Connal Orton, Jeremy Sams and Alan Ayckbourn. Why? Because all of them wanted to do my plays.

Favourite playwrights
Living... Mamet, Ayckbourn, Stoppard....There's more. No preaching. No jokes. No depressing lull halfway through the second act.

What play (by someone else) would you most like to have written?
David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. It's like haiku.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
The Young Vic doing Monkey - theatre for children that never sat down and consequently kept 300 children sitting down.

What differences do you find writing for the stage versus television?
Writing for stage means you are largely dealing with people who love the medium and understand it. This is increasingly uncommon in television. Theatre is the most rewarding arena for a comedy writer because you find out how you're doing immediately, rather than three years later in the back of a cab.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Go.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Swapping places with someone dead seems a bit of a bum move. Alive... I'd like to be head of the innermost sanctum of the palace to find out if that story's really true about Harry being the son of James Hewitt. And Andrew being the son of Queen's stable master. And Prince Philip having a mistress with two kids etc etc....

Favourite books
Currently Not Now, Bernard (by David McKee) , English Passengers (by Matthew Kneale) and The Story of L!ve Television which was an excellent tip off.

Favourite joke
Sorry. It involves actions.

If you hadn't become a writer, what would you have done professionally?
I'm told I'm very good at drying people's hair.

What was your inspiration for The Safari Party?
Having the room I was writing in pulled down round my ears due to a land dispute. The play is a comedy born in bitterness and vile revenge.

What's your favourite line from the play?
You won't get it. Currently it's a line of very little intrinsic merit but which, when delivered by the actor has made me laugh at every single rehearsal. It goes "So. D'y think they got on, then? Bridget and...whatsit? Them lads? D'y think there's any...y'know? Animal....whatsit?" See? Told you.

What do you like about working at the Stephen Joseph Theatre?
Put it this way. While my play is on in Scarborough, the competition for an audience comes from Live American Wrestling, an Abba tribute band, the beach, two thousand arcades and the Sea Life Centre. Writing for a resort has a formative effect on the way in which you pitch the serious heart of your work. Having said that, it's not an elective choice. It's the only way I can write and I'm lucky to have found a theatre with the same ideas as my own.

What can you tell us about the story & creative development of Our House?
The band and the producers approached me. I was a fan, but then again I was a fan of The Smiths and I wouldn't rush to write that musical. I'd always thought there was an irony that everyone remembered Madness as the nutty boys, but that was generated largely by the videos. The songs were actually just witty. And moving. And about something. And felt like they were part of a musical already. I still don't think I wrote the book of Our House. I found it.

What are the different challenges of writing a musical's book vs a straight play?
In a play, a scene can advance a huge number of ideas. In a musical, a scene can advance one idea.

What's your favourite Madness song?
There were two songs in my childhood which stopped me in my tracks because I had never heard anything like them before, musically or lyrically. One was "This Charming Man". The other was "Our House".


The Safari Party continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough until 18 May 2002. Our House opens at the West End's Cambridge Theatre on 15 October 2002, following previews from 16 September.


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