We went to find Chris, currently working on the film ‘Hound’ portraying the life of the poet Francis Thompson, outside his favourite coffee house to hear about his latest project, the early days of Wet Paint Theatre Company, some of the names he has worked with, what inspires his writing and to gain an insight into the life of the man himself.
LORRAINE: Hi Chris, when we last spoke you were quite excited at the progress being made on your latest work ‘Hound’; how is it coming along?
CHRIS: Yes, well, its proceeding slowly I suppose, which is about all I can hope for at the moment. We have a producer and plan to have things in place to start filming around late next spring. It will be great to do something with a little bit of financial backing this time. You see, it’s an eccentric and diverse kind of casting and I think it’s commercial but it’s the backers, the people with the money who will make that decision. I mean there are a lot of cameo roles in it, it’s a very colourful piece, it has got that in common with Nina Hamnett, but it’s extremely different. It’s more where Nina was quite visceral this is more spiritual and that doesn’t sell well does it. You know, when they ask you “What’s the angle, how can we sell it?” and you say “Well it’s spiritual”. Their reaction isn’t exactly to reach for their cheque books. Do you want me to tell you a bit more about it?
LORRAINE: Yes please
CHRIS: Well I was really fascinated as they were people who again….we’re back to the timeless thing, I mean Nina Hamnett could be now, if you took away all the accessories from the period…and I think Francis Thompson as well. I’ve only done three biographies, the ‘Vigo’ and these two. I think it’s about identity, people who can lose their identity in one sense or want to, or else are adequately able to do that yet still to all appearances they haven’t. It’s almost like they’ve willed their mind to transport itself. I mean, because we are all interested in people who mysteriously disappear and we think “where are they now? It’s been 20 years and what happened to them?” But what’s so fascinating about these people is that they disappeared but were still there if you know what I mean. They were a contradiction. They lived in an almost parallel universe. He was begging on the streets and was a vagrant addicted to laudanum and he successfully erased completely his former life, which was this middle class life. He was from Preston and his father was in the medical profession. He was groomed to follow in his footsteps, instead he dropped out and went completely wild, just became a street beggar who used to sign himself, whenever he sent any messages “My address is between Heaven and Charing Cross”. He just didn’t; know where he was going to be, homeless, on the streets and yet this family took him in. He sent off a poem to this periodical because he converted to Catholicism. They were patrons of the arts and they just thought he was a genius and so they went to seek him out. But half of the film, well the majority, three quarters of the film is actually his life on the streets and all the varied characters who existed, but they didn’t have names and they didn’t; have all the personalities that I’ve probably invented or how I imagined them to be. So again, he’s very much now, like a street poet who you could come across in a pub or maybe hanging about outside. So again, he’s one of these characters who could be around now if you cared to notice.
LORRAINE: I think with characters that belong to a certain period in history and are remembered for a certain thing, we tend to remember them as having ‘made it’, whereas they were actually really struggling. Both Nina [Portrait featured here] and Francis suffered from addictions, do you see that as part of their running away and blocking out their former lives?
CHRIS: I do and I suppose, yeah, forgetting who they were and not having to deal with it. I think Nina Hamnett especially found it very difficult. She wasn’t as superficial as the other characters around her so to deal with it I think she had to block it out and reinvent another identity, like a dual personality. She had this reputation of being all these things yet no-one would dream that she was this other Nina Hamnett that existed, creative and turning out extremely important work instead she was just known for all the people she used to know. I think that is also another thing, which I find interesting. You just have to look, there’s a lot of characters around that time that are far more well known than Nina Hamnett. She just became this person known for knowing other celebrities really in the long run. Yet a lot of these people we have to build up “because they were artists they must have been so exceptional”, but in reality they were just very much like you and I and like everybody else that you meet. I think a lot of the famous are debunked in that way in ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?’ For instance, we portray Alistair Crowley just like this guy who had this weird sense of humour. I think people forget that quality about him. One ‘fan of his’ came to see it and said it was really interesting because most of the time all we get is the serious and demonic side of him and in the film, he was cracking jokes and taking the mickey out of himself and I think…yeah, a lot of big names weren’t exactly what they were cracked up to be. Some of those, lesser known, actually had far more integrity and perhaps that’s why they never actually made it. Because they didn’t want to take phoniness to the extreme. Every body seemed to have a gimmick. I find now that a lot of that….in all of the arts, there’s a gimmick. There’s something to sell them. The people I’ve written about were just themselves and only had their work and they thought that their work spoke for them and I think that’s a very unfashionable thing to be to actually want to go through life like that, and often a tragic and difficult one too.
LORRAINE: Yes, I think it must be quite a battle to remain true to your self while wanting recognition and success.
CHRIS: It was interesting what you said that we think a lot of these people struggled, that they were starving in garrets. I mean I’ve had this all my life with Wet Paint Theatre Company as we’ve always been on the periphery, never making great sums of money to finance stuff, and you always come up against this argument “Well think of so and so, and what they had to go through ‘and all that, but if you do your research about them they nearly always had some little benefactor tucked away somewhere. There was always some-one to help out just in case. They didn’t actually starve. But there were certain cases, and again this could be one of the reasons why these people aren’t better known, but where they really did have nothing and I think Francis Thompson and even Nina Hamnett came from these wealthy, quite a well to do middle class families. She was a colonel’s daughter who became a pariah. She intentionally made herself into one, so any money was just cut off from that side of things.
LORRAINE: You mentioned the cast in Hound would certainly get tongues wagging. Are you prepared to divulge any names?
CHRIS: Yeah - well a couple are the usual Wet Paint regulars. That’s Clive Arrindell, who I am thrilled about having as Francis’ benefactor Mr Meynall, he was also Alistair Crowley in ‘Drunken Sailor’ because he was someone who just came along for the part and I’d seen him when I was a kid at The Roundhouse in Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie which was such a great production. He played the lead and he was much younger obviously…and so was I….and the mother was played by Gloria Graham who used to play wisecracking gangsters molls in Hollywood 50s films. I think she was in ‘The Big Heat’ with Glenn Ford and people like that. She was quite legendary, she played the mother and she lived in England towards the end of her life. Anyway, it has this amazing cast in it and hardly anyone turned up to see it. That’s why I always remind the cast in the theatre as obviously you always have limited audiences. Compared to being in a band it’s a smaller appeal really, fringe theatre, and the venues are quite small so when the cast are ready to go on I say “Well The Roundhouse was vast, you think of twenty people in The Roundhouse”. It really struck you, so I tell them pleased “You’re lucky!” (Laughs).
So with Clive, when he came along I said to him “Oh my God, I actually saw you when I was a kid and it was one of the most amazing productions I’ve ever seen”. Well he’s done loads. I mean in the 70s which was the heyday I think, I was lucky when I was growing up I think, to watch the television in those days. It wasn’t, you know, X factor and so on. It was like you’d be alone with the television set and get Aldous Huxley serialised at about 8 o’clock in the evening on a Sunday. Not perpetual Dickens or Bronte’s over and over again. How many versions have you seen of that? This was really obscure and on mainstream TV. If you did that kind of thing now you’d have people running for the hills. You’d probably cause a revolution if you stuck that on the television, it’s so dumbed down. Clive was in all these things when they were doing Shakespeare. He’s very Shakespearean with a rich ‘plummy’ voice and all that jazz.
Also, I’m going to have Jenny in it who was in one of my plays, ‘Gods Drumming’, Jenny Runacre who was in Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’. Sometimes when I think of all the directors, she’s worked with. Again she’s somebody who doesn’t blow her own trumpet really….Cassavetes, Pasolini, Antonioni, she was Jack Nicholson’s wife in ‘The Passenger’ to name a few. It’s like a who’s who of the cinema and I say “You never tell anybody about that film”. I often sit with her for hours trying to prise them out of her, the stories. So there are those two who I had in mind for a long time, from when I was writing it really, and then there’s Elkie Brooks you see, because I’ve always wanted her to play this blind ballad singer called Lady Poverty. That was inspired by Frehel, from that wonderful film Pépé le Moko, which is one of those French 30s gangster films with Jean Gabin, there’s this street singer played by Frehel who was a music hall star, but she became fat. She grew grotesquely fat. She was taking what you stick up your nose which eroded her septum, till she was reduced to pulling a scarf through each nostril as a party trick. Kind of tragic as she was very glamorous when she was younger. It’s a very wonderful scene from the film because she’s just in this hovel and she starts singing with this fantastic voice, that’s the kind of idea I want for Elkie Brooks. When she sings jazz and blues, there’s no-one quite like her, it’s really excellent, and then there is all her history which goes way back from Vinegar Joe when she was with Robert Palmer in the 70s, it’s so vast and anyway, I thought it’d be quite fun to do what they all did. The Smiths had Sandie Shaw, The Pet Shop Boys had Dusty Springfield, so why can‘t Wet Paint have Elkie Brooks!
Then Donny (Tourette) wants to do something else as well. I love Donny; he’s so dedicated to acting. I mean he had this reputation before of being a complete waste of space and I feel sorry how he got that. He played up to this image which they gave him, from the record companies and everything else, a throwback from The Pistols era and all that, and running around with Peaches Geldolf. He was devastated when they split. But anyway, he was so dedicated to acting it was unbelievable, apart from the day when he turned up and was so nervous I had to get all the lager cans out of his pockets, but actually he was word perfect and everything and so serious and he quotes Francis Thompson poems to me on the phone constantly, especially The Hound of Heaven, that’s his famous poem, because he was a hounded character, hounded by religion, hounded by his drugs, hounded by you name it. That sums him up.
LORRAINE: Hounded by God…
CHRIS: Yeah, yeah, well that’s how it opens up, the film opens up with him being chased by the police because he used to sell matches as well and a bit of petty thieving so the police are chasing him through the cobbled streets and we have that poem at the beginning and then we switch to where the couple are opening up this battered parcel. They got it through the post, this battered, filthy parcel with his poems in and that’s when they had to go and find him. He did live for a while in the East End….he was suspected of being Jack the Ripper like everybody else was at that time. It’s really funny how there’s nobody who’s not well known. He’s number 7 on the list and he did actually live in the Whitechapel area with this prostitute called Little Flower, charming name.
I haven’t really cast Thompson yet so it’s going to be an interesting task ahead because a lot of people wanted me to go for Pete Doherty it’s a clichéd choice really, he’s apparently all clean now and he’s done this film in France. I did have a sort of semi near meeting with him about three years ago. At the Vibe Bar down Brick Lane and he was actually interested in doing a play but I think it must have been a really un-together period because we arranged three meetings and this guy turned up called Johnny Headlock who was apparently his ‘minder’. I was told “Sit down here, he’s on his way” eventually I did get a phone call but I never got the presence of the great man himself. I just got phone calls. “Hello its Pete”. I’d say “Hello, how are you? You were meant to be here half an hour ago”. He’d go “Yeah, I’m up a chandelier at the moment. I’m in a bar, it’s not far away”. I said, “So where is it? Can you get here because this is a bar as well?” He’d say “Yeah, but I’m up a chandelier. Look, listen Chris, I can squawk like a bird”. “That’s really fantastic,” I said, “But that’s not the part you’re going for”! But anyway, it was quite a laugh but we didn’t realistically get down to anything definite. Everyone was saying that he has that image of almost being the character I suppose, people think “Oh well, a vagrant poet and he was addicted”.
LORRAINE: But does it necessarily work like that, that because someone may have lived a similar life they are the best person for the role?
CHRIS: Well yes…I often don’t think so. I think with anything people either instinctively have that and want to do something and have an imagination. It’s like saying, you know, if you’re writing something you can’t …you know, you have to have experienced it totally. I mean I think to a certain extent but it’s like The Bronte’s, they never went out of their house did they really (Laughs) yet they created all this world of imagination, that’s lived for god knows how long. Actually I was fascinated with The Bronte’s when I was younger, I don’t know why I’m knocking them, it’s just that they’ve been done too much. I think they should be laid to rest. A lot of Shakespeare should. How many times have they done Shakespeare now? They’ve done it on the moon, they’ve done it in every different kind of thing, although I love Shakespeare
LORRAINE: How much of yourself would you say is in your characters, or how much is empathy, and observation or again how much based on real people in your life?
CHRIS: Again, all three, all three. That doesn’t really answer the question does it. Yeah, well because I’ve often not wanted to be myself (Laughs) But the thing is how do you achieve that as it’s something you almost cannot physically do, or….mentally. Physically I think you can do it to a certain degree. Mentally, you can do it, you can block stuff out. I remember, I went through a really bad time in my life for about two or three years. It was after I had the first two plays - when I was very young, the one with Jobson, ‘Demonstration Of Affection’. We went into the West End, it was the time when there was the big Time Out strike and the Brixton riots so business was pretty bad, it was a very different kind of thing from what was on in the West End. There were these four people in a squat who are all mad about each other and scared of actually leaving, breaking the bonds that they’ve got together, so it ends in real tragedy and they can’t break away. We revived that recently, about four years ago at The Foundry. It was great as it hadn’t dated at all. It had a whole new audience all that time after. It was almost our anniversary, 25 years since it had been done originally and we were busy every night.
That was a wonderful place The Foundry. I don’t know if you ever went. Old Street, Shoreditch, where the road used to split. Outside you could sit on beer barrels with wooden planks and stuff. You would go in and they had installations downstairs and used to have exhibitions. You would walk through the door and it was timeless. It just had a buzz about it, made you want to do something and of-course it was a great place too. It was just one of the places that set you wanting to work and to do things creative and unfortunately, it had been going years and years, and eventually they decided to force them out. There was a big petition to save it. It was on Newsnight. They got some celebs out of the woodwork to try and save it. Eventually it was knocked down and they’re building a big skyscraper Japanese hotel there. Sorry, how did I get into that? ( Laughs)
So, after these plays were on and I was really wide eyed with it all, because I mean, gosh, I was in my late teens and Jobson was in the play. I was sat one night watching the play, I had Annie Lennox on one side of me and Hazel O’Connor on the other. Then there was Siouxsie Sioux popping into the flat when we were around there and it was a weird and wacky time for me. I was consuming loads of alcohol with Jobson as he was a right drinker at the time….which I don’t think he is now. It was all a blur of all these names that I’d only watched on Top of the Pops and all the punk icons I was mad about as well. I saw also the other side of how he had to live his life surrounded by all these people. The clubs were all going then, it was all this superficial world and how he would be surrounded by these so called friends, all these ‘yes’ people saying “You’re wonderful, you’re wonderful” using you and not caring about you as a person. Seeing all this, after a while this world I’d dreamed about being involved in, which I thought was going to be magical was the most disgusting, I felt it was absolutely vile. I just wanted to run away from it. I had a bit of a gap then I wrote a play, ‘Plastic Zion’ straight after about a guy who is in a band that is on the way out. The Skids were disbanding then. I was even there when he met Mariella Frostrop. I witnessed all this and it was all based on that. Actually they are both treated wonderfully sympathetically and beautifully because there’s these wonderful poetic passages, but, it was mainly about that terribly superficial world, rotten within, and I suppose I got it out of my system.
Funnily enough, the theatre world was also pissing me off as well so I went towards the anarcho punk staging scenes from plays at gigs between bands. It was all like one great big family. It was all very embracing and secure. A bit too sometimes, but it was inspiring and the theatre world was far way… I went to The Arcola theatre the other day and I was watching a play and I kept thinking “Is there actually….” it was very busy, packed, but I kept thinking “Who is a member of the public?” “Has anyone walked in off the street to see this really?” The majority of the people were friends of friends of the cast and loads of drama school students or people in the business and it was like preaching to the converted, which I just don’t think is very challenging or life giving.
When I talk about life, I mean I equate work and my life as one thing I’m afraid. I don’t separate it….mostly why people think I’m a nightmare, but it’s the fact that with theatre at that time, you couldn’t reinvent. You couldn’t experiment. You couldn’t; do something which you felt was different. So actually just taking straight theatre, which we used to do, for twenty minutes and then there’d be a band. We’d be doing that in the most crazy places and it was exciting! It was breaking away from traditional theatre and it wasn’t easy because we weren’t meant to be there and I said to the actors we’d got together, what a lovely idea “We’re going to be like a band”. I’d always wanted that, so it was going to be great. Wet Paint weren’t a theatre company anymore, we could be like a band if we wanted to be. We got an old backcloth and all the props we needed and we just did a scene and said, “If you want to come and see the full length play, here’s the address, come and see it.
I mean our very first one, was at Leicester University with Bauhaus where everyone got very, very, drunk, and then five nights in Amsterdam with among others, King Kurt. In the early days, self-discipline wasn’t our strong point we’d been smoking too much, so the play only meant to last an hour and a half ended up as three. I ended up having a go at them afterwards, but they were too busy tobogganing down the stairs all night. We were like a band you see so it didn’t really matter and when the King Kurt fans arrived from Brighton, we had a play ‘Amphibious Babies’ on and they all looked at each other like “ What’s this? What language is this in?” Not being into poetry, they had no idea we were speaking English. There was The Bluecoat Boy at the Angel which was a real skinhead stronghold, really a hell-hole. I told some mates we were playing there and they said “You can’t do that” and I said, “Why not? we should take it everywhere. We’re not scared of anything. Well we got things thrown at us, spat at, drenched in beer. I remember a girl; she came to me afterwards and said…I always used non trained actors at this point… “I’ve had a pint of beer thrown over my head. I’ve had all sorts”! So I said “just remember, your concentration will be supreme next time you ever perform in front of an audience. You will never suffer from stage fright ever again in anything you ever do, if you can take that, and manage to get through unscathed and alive. It’s something to tell your grandkids”. (Laughs).
No, but it was quite amazing. For that time it was like trying to opt out, but I did it creatively. I opted out of what I was doing without going completely over the top. But there was the period I did. My sister was very close to me, she died quite young and I went through a really, bad time and I decided “I don’t want to be Chris Ward anymore”. I tried systematically to work on this one, how I was going to do it and I thought, “Right, I’m going to do this” so I actually did, I really dropped out. At one point I could be found slumped in a doorway. Guess, it was my ‘season in hell’ I went completely over the top and I didn’t want to be…..friends would come up to me and say “What’s happened to you?” and I’d go “Sorry, I don’t know who you are”. I had actually convinced myself quite affectively that I was no longer myself and I remember it vividly and I remember the sense of a real thrill that I’d done it. It was a right buzz because I thought Yeah,that wasn’t hard, I can do it”.
I think that’s where the fascination comes from with people like Nina Hamnett who tried to do it, and live in a parallel existence, then Francis Thompson affectively could do it, sort of switch between the two lives. I think any artist really does feel anyway, regardless of those two particular examples, that they are living two lives, most of the time anyway. Because you have this side where you are creative and people think this of you and have this image of you and sometimes the utter despair of it because you have the other side, of how you appear to others which I find so ironic. I bump into people I haven’t seen for a while and they go “We’ve been reading all about Wet Paint, it must be fantastic” and you go “Yeah, do you want to come back and have baked beans on toast?” And they can’t get it. They can’t get that there are these two complete opposites you have to live with. Success and despair. For some reason, people always associate success with financial gain…and consequently it doesn’t always run hand in hand.
LORRAINE: Reading about your plays Chris, there is often a common setting in that the characters are often ‘holed up somewhere’ and defending themselves against what they perceive as some form of injustice. It seems to me that although there is a physical confine in the surroundings it is almost symbolic of their own mental confines as they are often battling their own inner conflicts, demons, morals or beliefs, which make it almost difficult for them to live alongside other people in the real world. Do you think that is something that affects us all, do we all do that? Do you see it as a symptom of being human?
CHRIS: Yes, if you gravitate to like-minded people, which I probably do, which can be disastrous and can be rather wonderful, it’s creating a family of some kind, making an ideal world in a world that isn’t. I think we all try to do that to some extent. I think Wet paint was a lot about that kind of thing. Trying to find where all the people were that were feeling like us, the same way. At one point it was a kind of cultural drop-in, people would seek us out in our theatrical heyday I suppose, which was more middle 80s/early 90’s. We would just have people turning up, from music papers. We used to get a lot of people from ads in music papers actually. People used to hear from another person, word of mouth.
LORRAINE: I wondered how they would find you….
CHRIS: It was great; people would just turn up on the doorstep of the theatre and say, “I want to join, I’ve left home with my bags”. I’d go “Well that’s ok, so I will put you up and you can join”. It was just fabulous it was great like that. We even had fan letters and people coming out of prison to join. This guy, used to write to us, so we got him down. I had no idea what he’d been in for. He just came to a gig and completely went mad, as he’d just been released that day. It was a pub gig and there were a lot of bands on. Anyway, the long and the short of it was the landlady’s parrot died - apparently we killed it. Well the noise of the bands and this guy created havoc so the police arrested him and took him back into prison that night, his one day of freedom was spent with Wet Paint anyway. Sorry to state, I can’t say we rehabilitated him and put him on the right track.
LORRAINE: With the mixture of trained actors and non-trained actors alongside musicians, I would expect there to be quite a few egos. I was going to ask if that ever proved problematic, but I think that answered the question.
CHRIS: Well yes, but he wasn’t an actor.
LORRAINE: What I mean is does the unpredictability add to the dynamic?
CHRIS: I love it when you mix individuals from all different backgrounds and experiences together because it becomes something that you can’t really quite define…this feeling of spontaneity, of uncharted strangeness, an awkward unique real life moment of personal history.
LORRAINE: I guess it’s almost theatre within theatre…
CHRIS: Yes, yes, absolutely and it almost gives the work a strange real/unreal quality. I don’t think there’s ever really been a problem. I’ve found out that some people have turned out to be more professional, like Donny, than some of the trained actors, and they learn off each other as well. They bounce things off each other, but they have to be a particular trained person to want to have to work with them. I mean like Clive took to working with people who weren’t trained like a duck to water. Clive is the most punkiest, anarchistic guy we’ve probably got working in the film/theatre company yet he was with the RSC. I think he must have always have had that spirit in him all along as he’s always been very anti establishment in his way. Although he’s achieved a certain amount, he could have gone a lot further as he was part of the same school as people like Anthony Hopkins who went on to be Knights of the Realm and other big Hollywood names and his stumbling block I think was very much his view point quite often.
I first actually directed due to Beki Bondage, from Vice Squad. I was virtually doing it before, in all but name but I’d seen so many people who had been Jack of all trades and master of none. I believed my first course in life was to really be a writer and I thought that writers should be writers, directors should be directors and never the twain should meet. I suppose this was all naïveté in the beginning, but I could see what a hash everything was becoming and what a mess was going on as no one could interpret anything I was trying to say, what I wanted to try to achieve, and that was a constant disappointment, this disillusion made me feel so bad that I wanted to give up writing so I had to think of something. Also, my plays were staged and these directors were so staid with no imagination whatsoever, so the work wasn’t coming across at all. We were getting really, bad reviews.
The first time I did go ahead, I was forced to take the plunge, Bekki, to who I will be forever thankful, she was in a play and the director was telling her “You must get very angry with your boyfriend in this scene; you’re obviously going through emotional stress, go over and get a cup of tea”. Bekki’s face was really a picture. It was fantastic, the expression she had, like “Oh my God, who is this woman?” She went straight offstage, got the teapot, and tied it to this studded belt and just clanked back in and went “Personally I’d just smash him one” and I thought “Yeah, she would”, because this is the whole point, there’s lots of emotion in our plays, they’re passionate. Eventually the director walked out, protesting about Beki being late for rehearsal and all Beki would say in that great big West Country accent, “I can’t do it, Marilyn Monroe was never on time” or something to that effect. So, anyway the director stormed out, and everybody said “Ok Chris, now you’ve got to take over”. So I did and then it was really my family, so I’d finally got what I wanted and now I can’t imagine not having it.
Beki attracted a very hardcore punk crowd that was fine as what we were trying to achieve was to get people who never attend the theatre to go. Now at last we had these very people going down to this fringe theatre where they had to book a ticket, to sit in a place they wouldn’t normally set foot in. We were getting the big audience we wanted, but the theatre owners wouldn’t have it. They closed the play after four nights and said we “Attract undesirables”. Well I mean who is undesirable, f they want to go and see the play and are paying their money…..
LORRAINE: By appearance only…
CHRIS: Yeah, by appearance only….and some of the antics they got up to (Laughs) but I don’t really care about that. They wanted to go and see it. It just shows you, you were getting the audience you wanted to do and thinking “That is what theatre should really be all about” and then they are turning around and saying, “No, we don’t want it. We want our precious little clique and that’s the way it’s going to stay”.
LORRAINE: You have been described by Time Out as one of the “leading revolutionary playwrights of the punk generation”. They didn’t actually call you a “punk playwright”. Considering the whole idea behind punk being anti label, what did it actually mean to you? Was it something that affected you profoundly in your attitudes and stayed with you or was it more of a brief, explosive period in time?
CHRIS: No, it’s just like you say, it’s an attitude, it’s whatever you dress like, whoever, whatever you are and it’s got nothing to do with the image that the media projects of it. You know, to me Nina Hamnett’s a punk. Francis Thompson was a punk. There were punk’s years and years before punk ever happened, because it’s something that has a timeless quality. It’s an attitude and we use the word ‘punk’. I think that’s where we go wrong. In the very beginning, when Wet Paint was called that, I didn’t mind because it was getting us a lot of publicity and bookings for the theatre, but then I realised it was a very clever underhand way, of actually writing us off and putting us away in a box and so actually alienating our new found audience. So. by giving us the label ‘punk’, we had actually had theatre goers not wanting to go because they thought it was all about gobbing up or swearing. In the end, it got to the point where I thought that was one of the worst things that could have happened to us really, even though at the time I remember thinking “Oh great, we’ve been labelled something. It’s not too bad”. I was thinking they meant it in the way you or I are saying it, attitude, something new and explosive, but no, it was used in a very clever way and the label stuck and it actually wrote us off for a while.
LORRAINE: How about now; with so many punk bands reforming and getting a second life; has that affected you?
CHRIS: Well, apart from Selfridges giving out our leaflets for a play once when they had their ‘punk week’. I always wonder if we’re the kind of people who, if there is a boat to miss, we’ll miss it. Back to the question, I don’t know any band from that time that hasn’t reformed and aren’t doing the rounds somewhere. The big festivals they have, I think it’s Rebellion or something, are packed and now there’s new kids going I suppose. Thing is, you don’t want to be a part of something, once it starts to become a trend. Maybe it’s me being contrary again.
LORRAINE: I read you describe discovering books as being like discovering a room full of explosives. What did you mean by that and what did it mean for you in terms of unlocking yourself?
CHRIS: I suppose because I didn’t really have any conventional education….I know that sounds crazy, especially in this world where even now you have to fit into what university you went to, I mean I didn’t really have any. I was always taken away, I didn’t stay at any school very long. It was like a few days here and a few days there and my parents were both quite eccentric, well my mum was. My mother was quite an adventurer, passionate and highly strung and I take after her a lot, it’s terrible how they scar you for life you know. As they were always taking me away, I could never form long-standing friendships as most kids do. My brothers and sisters were all grown up and married, so I was like an only child yet still had this vast family. Mum would think nothing of waking up one morning and saying “Come on, we’re all getting in the car and I don’t care about school”. We’d drive, nine in a car sometimes, running out of petrol and she’d go “We’re going to France, we’re going to Spain, we’re travelling”, wanting to do all these mad pursuits and my poor dad would just be dragged along to do the driving and be a calming force, he’d have to leave his work.
It was all very chaotic and I don’t know how it went on for so long, Eventually it disintegrated as all those mythological empires do. Anyway, they did open up great things to me, books and maybe that’s what life’s all about, the search for immortality and books seem to have the answer to it sometimes. There’s a great passage by Cocteau who is one of my idols. He was a master of the Arts, you know, books , films, poetry, plays whatever he turned his hand to he was pretty much a genius. There’s one bit especially I remember reading as a kid that made a great impression, it sent shivers down me. “As you read my book the expression on your face will turn into mine but only for a moment”. It’s very spooky but it’s brilliant. I think the fact that you can create something whatever that may be, that lasts as long as humanity must be rather special.
LORRAINE: How does the process of writing begin for you and how does it unfold? Do you lock yourself away for weeks?
CHRIS: When you get possessed, yes. Eventually it takes hold of you doesn’t it, and the exorcism process is wrestling it out. For instance, Francis Thompson, was all notes. I’m terrible like that, I write notes scattered all over the place and also lines set you off. You think of characters, you think of people, then you’ll hear a line, you’ll just be walking down the street. I’ve heard people say that happens with lyrics. When I first started out, even before I started to write a play I wanted to write lyrics. I thought poetry, lyrics, they were my favourite things, with the Thompson it was odd as it was written all in my head virtually in the form of a jigsaw that had to be put together, to make the pieces fit. It was too long in gestation if you know what I mean and instead of sitting down and doing it I’d prevaricated which I’m always doing. It was a most painful experience but as people always say when you’ve finished “This is the best thing you’ve written”.
LORRAINE: Do you feel that?
CHRIS: Every time you do something there’s always somebody who says “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written” the times that has happened. So many, it’s become meaningless, but I think it’s extremely different from anything I’ve ever written. I think it’s very well constructed. Sometimes that’s been one of my limitations because with plays I like them to be very free-wheeling. They obviously have a story and they have a plot and they have the characters but, it’s the characters that are more important than the plot sometimes in the plays where this has to be very carefully structured, like a beginning and an end and I’m very proud of how that’s done.
LORRAINE: Is that because it is a factual character? Does that make a huge difference?
CHRIS: Sometimes, it makes it easier to give it a structure although with this one which I was quite pleased about, there’s not so much known about him, so you have to interpret, there’s a lot open to interpretation about his life on the streets. ‘He was with a prostitute who he lived with.’ That one line alone gives great range to your imagination. So, you know there are these characters that existed and you can actually create whatever you want for them and also it’s a great way of incorporating people that you’ve encountered, plundering your experiences because I’ve had the equivalent of that situation. Also a subject that has romance or tragedy in equal measure always grips me. Sometimes I read stuff I’ve done, some of the earlier plays, when I was younger and I remember being really moved when I was writing, to the point were I was really wound up. I thought I was very proud that I had been able to wrestle that emotion out of me. I had been able to give an expression to something that I thought would really move people, I hate coldness in film and theatre. I think it’s something that we don’t do enough, express emotion. I think it’s something that we shy away from yet its so powerful. We talk about breaking boundaries in all sorts of different areas and there’s taboos galore to be broken in that field in order to really depict human suffering. It sounds like theatre of cruelty doesn’t it, the emotion, the rawness of how people feel, love and all these different things. That’s an area where we don’t go far enough. There’s far greater breakthroughs ahead that people could make in that direction and I was pleased as I could still summon up those resources because as you get older you think you do become a little bit more cynical.
LORRAINE: That kind of leads into my next question, I have a quote of yours where you say “Being an artist living has to be your inspiration”. Do you think that suffering is an integral part of that?
CHRIS: Well I don’t know, gosh. I felt I suffered before I knew what suffering was! It’s funny because I was writing about things sometimes, when I think about some of the early work and I hadn’t yet experienced them. Yet somehow I was still able to tune in. That’s a curious one because sometimes I thought “How weird is that because I’d predicted how I felt. I often pick up my work and think “How could I have written that when I was twenty something?”. When I had no idea that subconsciously I was mapping out my destiny, that life situation would be happening to me at forty or something or forty-five it’s quite disturbing. It’s not predicting it, it’s like you must have been able to feel it. I don’t know whether if you are an artistic person then maybe you feel those things anyway and suffering when you hadn’t experienced the real thing, but you knew how it was going to be. You knew how you would feel to lose somebody and all this kind if thing. I think it was from observing other people around me, even though I wasn’t directly suffering I saw the suffering through other people and then I did suffer. Then I felt suffering, sometimes I think writing is a question of wanting to preserve feeling, you’re wanting to mummify an emotion for eternity aren’t you and how you actually felt at one given moment. You want time to stand still so you can keep that moment.
LORRAINE: From what you’re describing it’s almost like we, or some people, are born with the capacity to feel certain emotions, so it’s almost as if you re feeling them before having the experience that relates to them. The way you have described it is that we get it from other people. It’s an empathic thing.
CHRIS: Yes. I don’t know if you will them on yourself either, that’s another weird one, because I do actually in real life find myself in the situations that I write about all that time ago. How can that possibly be, did I foresee what was going to happen like a psychic or did I actually will it on myself because that’s what I would experience, that’s what is going to happen to me as I would end up in that situation. It’s quite disturbing as well. I worry about what I’m going to write next. I think that’s the only reason I’ve ever picked the subjects I have because I’ve felt such a strong empathy with them that they just had to be done. I’ve always been obsessed by history and figures I admire but they had to be interpreted, by Wet Paint. There was no-one else who could do them, no-one else has ever touched them because of the outcasts they were and also I felt if they were knocking around, well they are although they are not those exact people, but if the exact people were knocking around now I’d know them. I might have met them somewhere because it would have been fate, It sounds very pretentious but I do feel there’s a lot of elements of a séance going on.
LORRAINE: So what do you believe spiritually?
CHRIS: There must be something of that nature taking place. For example, I’ve woken up in the morning and I’ve got a whole paragraph written in my head and I have no idea where it’s come from. So I have to write it all down, really fast before I forget it. It’s a fascinating area, where creativity comes from. Spooky really, but it’s quite exciting when it does happen. It’s like going round for six weeks when you’re writing something like you’re stoned. People will be talking to you and you’re not listening to a word they’re saying. You’re so out of it and even when you go out everything appears fantastic. Everyone you meet is fantastic and the whole world is fantastic. Sometimes I don’t know why I deprive myself of writing so much. It’s almost like I’ve got a masochistic streak in me somewhere “Punish yourself Chris, deny yourself the pleasure” I’ve never been able to work that one out. That’s something for some psychoanalyst maybe.
LORRAINE: What is the true story of the Julien Temple film Vigo which was based on your play ‘Love’s a Revolution’. Is it true you were watching it, and thought “Hey, that’s my play”?
CHRIS: No, what happened was, it was originally a screenplay. I did it when I had to leave the film school, it was one of the things you could submit to get your diploma. It was very funny at the film school. They told me that you had to go on script writing courses, which is what I entered for to find there was no script writing courses at all. I was with all these rich kids from South America and Europe and there were only three of us from this Country who got grants. Everybody else had cameras around their necks, wanting to make James Bond movies. It was very hard, I nearly had two breakdowns at that school, because you sit around and you come up with your idea about something and they’d all sit around, you know, other students and you’d be put in a group and they’d want you to do these things I had no interest in. When I came up with anything you were just shot to pieces, and I remember going home and you’d feel so depressed. I just thought I could never do anything artistic in this place or creative. Their minds were just on commercials, they just wanted to make commercials and that was their be all and end all in life.
First person I met with my ‘Vigo’ Script, - ‘Love’s A Revolution’ was Lindsay Anderson as his movie ‘If’ was based on Vigo’s film, ‘Zero de Conduite’. This was all before he died and he was very interested in making it, he had all Charles and Di mugs around his place and he was meant to be really anti establishment so it was all very strange. Anyway, he was very interested and there were all these other directors now dead who and it was going through them all and I really wanted to have a go myself. I had all these ideas, Nick Cave was going to play Vigo and the great Kathy Acker was to be involved in it but we couldn’t raise the money and then I thought “Well ok, I’ll adapt for the stage” so we did it at The Scala. It was a massive cast. I don’t know how we did it. It was all authentic costumes from Portabello Road, using music and dance with slides projected from Vigo’s films, which were screened the same evening. We followed that up with The Ritzy, Brixton. Vigo turned out to be every film directors favourite, he was the director’s director. I had a post card from Ken Russell who was interested in reading it. I thought “Ok” I do admire a lot of his stuff, he has this extravagant, flamboyant mind and he’s got his own personal style and we don’t have people like that, it’s rare. I used to love the fact that he used to do historical subjects. I used to run down in the 70s to try to see his films. So, he was into it and he’d just done ‘The Rainbow’ which was a D H Lawrence adaptation. Funnily enough, his producer was also the producer of Julian Temple. This guy instead of giving it to Ken Russell, gave it to Julian Temple. He rang and said, “Oh I’m very interested in it and I’d like to possibly do it” and would I like to meet the producer. I went to him and met Julian, he wanted to do it and then they started fluttering money at me and I was desperate. I’ve learnt my lesson now. He said we’ll pay you so much, we like your script the way it is, then more money started coming in, then they wanted to have another writer and then it turned out, he was putting money in himself so it changed beyond recognition.
You see, I had the female lead Vigo’s wife Lydou really strong, Vigo would never have made a film without her, it was such a fantastic love story, almost unbelievable that no-one had cottoned onto it before. Trouble was the writers they’d roped in made her like a meek, little housewife which was completely different if you read all the letters that I got translated where they didn’t want her on the film set because she’d rip peoples heads off. When he died, she ran to the balcony to throw herself off and to try to kill herself. In my original script, there was this great scene, which I can’t remember if I interpreted this way, or it was actual fact now, as it was so closely aligned to the story, she became him after he died, for the last five years of her life. There were scenes where she dressed up like him, when people used to come and ask for him she’d go “I am Jean Vigo, hello, how are you?” It was wonderful, beautiful really.
So yeah, Julian Temple, he was the one who got the film made in the end. I got the credit on screen I wanted, that I settled for. So as long as I’m not bunched with a load of other writers and they say the film is based on the original play ‘Love’s a Revolution’ I’d be satisfied with that and that’s how it stands. Anyway, it wasn’t a success and did pretty lousy business. I saw it on a Sunday morning in Leicester Square, I remember that.
LORRAINE: You also worked with Derek Jarman
CHRIS: Strange, I’ve been omitted from all the biographies and I worked with him extensively over a number of years and collaborated with him on several projects. What I liked best was leaving film school at 4 o’clock in the afternoon you’d be invited round for tea wouldn’t you, and tea would consist of all these people, anybody who was making a name for themselves in the Arts. At the time when he was trying to make most of the films, people wouldn’t entertain him financially. I remember going into offices with him and they were openly laughing at him behind his back. I remember these things now when I meet people and they say “ Oh you worked with Derek Jarman”…oh bow down, scrape the floor, they really are unbelievable, it’s like you’re talking about God and he wasn’t treated like that by them back then when I knew him, and you know, that’s just crazy. I knew him about the point in the 80’s…just before he did Caravaggio, post - Jubilee.
We were going to make a short film from my play ‘Camberwell Beauty’ with Toyah, [Wilcox] then this one about Jean Cocteau, for The South Bank Show. But I think his greatest legacy at the time, was the get togethers in his tiny flat on Charing Cross Road and I think I was so fortunate to be invited round and be part of that when I was so young and still at film college. It was like one of those literary salons from the days of Marcel Proust or something. There was everybody who was anybody on the scene, the London scene, were all radiating towards his flat for these teas and you’d meet everybody who became somebody really. It was great for some-one young and you met people who you collaborated with on other projects and it was great for getting people together and for the creative arts which I think is missing now. When I was working for him, I got to know him very, very well. He used to ring me up at 2 in the morning sometimes “Chris I’m nervous about tomorrow will you come down with me as I’ve got to meet my Father”. He adored his Mum who died when she was young and his Father was a dreaded figure to him really. There were these awkward silences between them, and he was a little man with a military moustache. He was ex RAF and Derek was terrified of him, absolutely terrified of him at his age, [he must have been about 40 something], and of going out to dinner with him that he had to ring me up at 2 in the morning to be there. It’s just there’s far more about him that’s not in these biographies. People are always asking, “Why isn’t this in any of the books” and it does seem rather a shame, because he was such an important figure, certainly to my development as an artist!
LORRAINE: Finally Chris
CHRIS: Cigarette! I need a roll up (Laughs)
LORRAINE: If you were going to write an autobiographical play, assuming that you haven’t of course, what would be the setting and who would play you if you could chose anyone from any period in history?
CHRIS: Oh no, that’s impossible, how can anyone answer that. Probably a brain that resembles a prison cell, something like that, that sounds pretty depressing. (Laughs) A prison cell that’s a brain, so you have to make your own freedom out of it and even though you’re incarcerated in it, and can’t change it, you can change how you think about things. Is that figure from history?
LORRAINE: Anybody, who do you think could play you?
CHRIS: Somebody that wasn’t me!
Interview by Lorraine 05/01/12
Photos by Lee Longworth