The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

On Interviewing

I took early retirement from teaching in 1993 to write and, within days, was in a temporary post as English advisor for BBC Education. While I was there, Geoffrey Strachan at Methuen Drama approached me to do a schools’ version of Tuesday, which Edward Bond had written and directed. I was given a free hand and decided I would interview Edward Bond and two of the actors, Natalie Morse and Bob Peck. I interviewed Edward and Natalie in a studio at the BBC. Edward was completely focused on his work. At that time he was disillusioned with the English theatre but he was revered in France and Germany. I’ve never met a more uncompromising man; he never became heated and his words were always measured but he spoke with passion about the obscenity of having a tortured man as a symbol for Christianity. His objection to the Gulf war was absolute.

I met Bob Peck at his agent’s office in Soho. He had acted in Bond’s plays and had just had a popular success as Ronald Craven in Heart of Darkness for TV and as the game warden, Robert Muldoon, in Jurassic Park. "Eaten," Bob said, "By a dinosaur. A sticky end, but the money was good." Bob seemed at the height of his powers; five years later he died from cancer.

Methuen then asked me to do Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. I interviewed Willy for about two hours in London and then went to his office in Liverpool to go through his archives. These consisted of two cardboard boxes into which he had chucked everything about the play: programmes, press-cuttings, letters. Willy was relaxed but we both got somewhat agitated during a discussion of children and guns. I said I had never allowed my children to play with anything that looked like a gun and I suggested to Willy that Blood Brothers glorified guns. It doesn’t, of course, but the discussion was animated. When I went to Liverpool I took the family so that they could do some sightseeing. Willy settled me with his ‘archive’ and took my wife and sons in his car to show them the sights and drop them off in the refurbished docks area.

I became a staff writer for Community Service Volunteers (CSV). My first project there was Video in View. The idea we were promoting was service learning: students serve the community on projects that will enhance the work in the classroom. John Westwood at Mayfield School had a thriving video club that made videos for use in the classroom but, in his words, he “couldn’t write for toffee”, so I did the writing for him. One project they were given was to video the Connections Showcase at the National Theatre. Connections was, and still is, just about the best value-for-money arts project in the UK. Every year ten writers are commissioned to write a one-hour play for young people. Schools and youth groups select a play for production and there might be twenty or thirty productions. These are assessed and the best production of each play is brought to the National Theatre. Thousands of young people take part and the showcase week is a feast of talent. When I got involved it was, I think, the second year of the programme and Suzy Graham-Adriani, Connections director, asked me if I would interview each of the twelve commissioned writers. This was 1995 and the list included Christopher Hampton, Snoo Wilson and Lucinda Coxon.

My job was specific and simple: interview each writer and produce a 1,000-word introduction to each play for an audience of actors and directors, to be published in time for the showcase.

Often I would get the plays from the National Theatre only a day or two before the interview; later on I was able to download them from the Connections website. I read them carefully, picked out about ten short quotations that seemed to be important and found out as much as I could about the writers. I then prepared a list of questions based around the characters and quotations.

In the early days I arranged to meet the writers at their homes or, if they were out of town, I found a date when they would be in London and saw them either at my house in Primrose Hill or at the National Theatre. I visited Christopher Hampton at his ‘office’ in Notting Hill. It was the most spacious flat I have ever been in and the room we sat in was huge. After my meeting, Christopher was having a production meeting for the film he was working on, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and all the surfaces were covered in scripts and papers. It was obvious that Christopher was up to his eyes in work – he told me he always worked simultaneously on one of his plays and on a translation – and now he had added film. But he gave me the hour he had promised, without any indication he was rushed or that the interview was any less important that his other work.

My interviews usually last an hour or ninety minutes at most. The turnaround had to be quick so I would usually transcribe the tape on the day of the interview, highlight the bits I wanted and write my copy the next day. I was not trying to score points or make revelations or describe the room or what the writer was wearing. 'Keep it factual.' 'Make it useful.' I always emailed my copy to the writer and asked for any comments, corrections or additions. There was nearly always some small thing to be changed; nobody ever rejected what I had written and nearly everyone was positive about it.

Probably the most unusual interview was with Wole Soyinka. At the time, he had Nigerian hit squads after him and was living in a safe house. I arranged the interview with Wole’s son and, at 7.00 am on the day of the interview, the son rang me and gave me an address. It was a humbling experience to meet Wole, a great man, a Nobel Laureate, in a tiny flat – it wasn’t squalid but was entirely functional – and to talk to him about the work he was doing for UNESCO.

There is an interesting footnote to the interview I did with Nick Dear on Lunch In Venice. The play was due to be staged at the National Theatre on 7 July 2005, the day that terrorists exploded bombs in London. As I cycled to see the play, I was stopped in Russell Square and turned back. However, the Connections team decided the play would be staged, just about the only performance to go on in central London that night. I’ve been told that the audience was very small but the atmosphere was electric and, at the final curtain, the response was ecstatic. Is is somewhat poignant that Lunch in Venice is about a group of sixth form students who are eating pizzas in a square in Venice. They chat and discuss, and the uncomfortable disjunctures in what they say and do are only explained in the closing action when it is revealed that they are, in fact, dead, having been caught in the blast of a terrorist bomb on The Bridge of Sighs.

A cautionary note: always make sure your tape-recorder is switched on and working. When I got home after interviewing one rather irascible writer, I discovered the tape had gone blank twenty minutes into the discussion. Absolute panic. However, I sat at the computer and discovered I had almost perfect recall, could remember whole sentences and hear the writer’s voice in my head, so I got away with it.

I’m always surprised that writers don’t simply tell me to get lost; they have always been co-operative and helpful. I look upon it as a dialogue, and I am not afraid to challenge and discuss and get into the area of politics and religion.