If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

About the Arts…

I have worked in schools where Drama, Music, Art , Dance, Writing, Media and Performance thrived. I used to teach theatre. I taught students between the ages of 11 and 18 usually but sometimes I would be invited into primary schools to help smaller children fall in love with Shakespeare, and once in a while I would lead workshops at universities teaching undergraduates about Brecht or Buchner or Bent. Once I went to Guangzhou to teach Hamlet and I worked with a jali on a performance in the Gambia.. I taught GCSE, A level, PGCE students. I directed plays, I wrote scripts, and most importantly I interacted with musicians, film makers, dancers, actors, writers, designers, artists and photographers as a normal part of my daily life. It made me very happy.

Occasionally, I worked in an environment where the arts were considered ‘less’ in some ways. I detected a feeling in some people that studying theatre (and other Arts subjects) was less important than studying mathematics, language, science; that learning about performance and theatre somehow matters less. I am not one for buying into division. I incorporated writing, language and science into theatre. 

The arrival of Coronavirus hasn’t changed our love of the arts: it hasn’t changed the importance of arts subjects. They are still fundamental to learning, to growth, to developing who we are as people. What has changed is our opportunity to share them together. The biggest change is in public accessibility to the arts and in the loss of jobs of those working in the industry.

I’m not sure everyone appreciates how important the arts are, both to individuals and to our personal growth as people. That’s understandable: we can’t all understand everything.  

But it’s important now that those people who make decisions about the future of the arts don’t simply offer a token sum. While the emergency funding package from the government is very welcome, for the cultural and social survival of the arts, we need to consider the importance of accessibility to anyone and everyone, not just to the select few.

That means that we all should have the opportunity to be surrounded by the arts from birth, to be immersed in the arts in schools. Then, throughout life, having access to the arts becomes something we all have a right to, and creative enjoyment becomes something we can choose for ourselves and experience as part of everyday life. It will make us all happier people.

In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….