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Past/Present/Future for ... Tom McNab

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Tom McNab's play, 1936, which opened at the Arcola last night (7 April 2010), is a fictionalised account of the years leading up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It runs until 16 April.

McNab has had an amazingly varied career, as athlete, coach, novelist, film-maker, journalist and now, playwright. His achievements as a sportsman include playing football for Glasgow, competing in triple-jump at a national level, representing Bermuda at rugby while teaching there in the 1960s, coaching the 1980 British Olympic bobsleigh team and preparing the English rugby union team for the 1992 World Cup, where they ranked silver.

His first novel, Flanagan's Run, was an international bestseller and has been translated into several languages. McNab has also adapted the novel as a screenplay for the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In 1981 McNab made his first foray into cinema, as technical director on the 1981 film, Chariots of Fire, which went on to win four Oscars.

1936 is his first play.

PAST: I’d always been interested in movies. When I was a boy I lived in Glasgow for the first nine years of my life and there was nowhere in Glasgow you were more than 100 yards short of a cinema. Where I lived there were two cinemas, one next door to me and the other one across the road from me, so the idea of film was always central to my life. Getting involved in Chariots of Fire was a tremendous experience for someone like me, even though I was fairly old at the time. The very first film I was involved with won four Oscars. I was very lucky to get involved with such a good project.

I’ve always found it easy to have creative thoughts, it’s turning them into something that someone else would be interested in, that’s the problem. It’s one thing to have the idea for a book about a guy running 3,000 miles across America - that was my idea for Flanagan’s Run - putting it into a book lasting 400 pages is more difficult. I was very lucky to find a great coach in my editor, Richard Cohen. Without him I couldn’t have made it. Basically what you’re doing in editing a book is constantly scratching away at bits and tweaking a wee bit here, a wee bit there and that’s what you’re doing in sport all the time. I was quite happy with that procedure because I’d spent most of my life doing that with other people. In the end I had a guy who helped me shape a book from something that wouldn’t really have been publishable at all, I don’t think, to something that was a number one bestseller here and in America.

I think luck’s got a lot to do with how diverse my career has been. It’s about being curious. I’m a nerd with muscles. If I’m not in a gym working out or playing tennis or throwing a hammer, I’m sitting in a library somewhere, my nose in a book. I’m obsessed with reading books, so I’m one of these guys who’s got a vast amount of useless knowledge. So it’s putting all that useless knowledge together from time to time into a book or a novel or play or a film. That’s what interested me all my life. But I’ve never been interested just in doing sport all the time. I never found that was satisfying enough for me. I’m not saying anything against the guys who do find it satisfying, but there was always that little bit of me that wanted to be creative.

PRESENT: I was a young athlete, struggling a bit in fact, when I first saw Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and I was totally stunned by it. It’s a marvellous, epic, beautiful piece of documentary film and it really did get right into my heart and influence my life. It was a tremendous influence on me; it kept me in athletics really.

Later on, because I’m an athletic historian, I started looking at the history of the whole thing. Over a period of time I thought, there’s a story here. There’s a real drama. You’ve got the relationship between Hitler and Goebbels; you’ve got the International Olympic Committee and all sorts of chicanery and corruption there; you’ve got the American sports official Avery Brundage; and you’ve got this wonderful filmmaker Riefenstahl in the middle of it. You’ve got a whole cast of very big characters. We’ve only got nine actors, but they play about 20 parts.

I’d mugged up a lot on them. The characters begin to have a sort of life for you and then when you start writing they come off the page – if you’re writing’s any good anyway – and begin to have a life of their own. And once actors get hold of them, then that creates another life for them. Actors bring to life things in the script that you didn’t realise you’d written.

I’m really enjoying doing this because I like the business of working with actors. It’s a team activity and actors are really nice people. I like the whole business of all these actors and lighting people and sound people all coming together to produce something that grips audiences for a couple of hours on a stage.

FUTURE: I’ve just finished a play about Leni Riefenstahl – I say it’s ‘finished’, I put inverted commas around it –  I had this correspondence with her when I was younger and I’ve always been fascinated by her, so now I’ve written a play. She quite a remarkable person; she died when she was 103, got married at 101, took up scuba diving at 70 and was still doing it at 93. So I decided to have an oldish Leni of 90 talking backwards through history to a Leni of about 30 and these women sparring with each other across the decades.

 It was much more challenging to write than 1936. 1936 has a great narrative line in it because of the story of what happened before the 1936 Olympics. Whereas this is much more about looking through a women’s life. It’s an exploration of her inner thoughts. I don’t know if I’ve made it or not really but I’ve certainly got a first draft of it.

But I’ve put all thoughts of that aside until I’m finished with 1936. I’ll take it out, dust it down and have another look at it. Because often what happens when you leave things in the desk for a while, you begin to get a slightly different perspective on them, you see them afresh.

I’ve also got the idea of writing a novel of 1936 as well. The play stops in late 1935, whereas in the book I’d take us into the 1936 Olympics. I’ve got seven or eight chapters into that.


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