What a week it’s been for Julian Fellowes. The Wind In The Willows confirmed its West End run, School Of Rock opened at the New London Theatre, and the Chichester transfer of Half A Sixpence opens in just a few days. We caught up with Julian, who wrote the book for all these hit shows, to find out how it’s all been going.
How does it feel to have so many shows running at the same time?
I don’t think when I accepted them all, I realised that they’d all be happening simultaneously. Of course it’s very exciting, I mean, School Of Rock and Half A Sixpence could hardly be more different, and yet they’re opening a few days apart, and that is rather an extraordinary sensation really, to have two shows opening in London’s West End simultaneously, so I feel like a very lucky boy.
Half A Sixpence and The Wind In The Willows are very classic, British stories. Do you approach that differently to something like School Of Rock?
I don’t really know how to answer that sort of question, because, in a way, you approach everything in a similar way, which is that you look at the material, and you study it, you think about it, and you wait for it to speak to you. And I don’t think that’s terribly different if you’re doing Mary Poppins or School Of Rock, you know. With School Of Rock, the material was a film that I was already very familiar with, I’d already seen it 2 or 3 times, just because I liked the movie. It’s a favourite of my son’s, and he said ‘you’ll love this’ and I did, and so I already had a kind of relationship with the material before I was offered the job.
And then, you know, all shows are about whether the audience cares, whether they mind what happens to these people, and how they link up with them, and that’s as true whether it’s Ratty and Mole in The Wind In The Willows as it is with Dewey Finn in School Of Rock.
The Wind In The Willows (Photo: Marc Brenner)
So it’s those compelling characters and storyline that makes you want to take something you’ve seen and put it on the stage?
Yes. I suppose I could be accused of doing ‘feel-good’ drama, and wanting happy endings, and I think there is some truth in that. I enjoy things that make you feel good, and it doesn’t mean I don’t think you can cry in the middle – and I’ve done lots of that – but ultimately I want people to enjoy the show and feel good. And School Of Rock is a very, very feel-good show, you come out of it feeling happy.
The School Of Rock kids certainly look like they’re having the time of their life…
The kids are extraordinary. Of course tiny! When I first accepted the job, I slightly wondered if we were going to have to make the children older in order to get the musical skills that were required. And it turned out, no! Tiny tots playing these instruments like seasoned rock stars, and it’s really amazing. I mean, that in itself actually, never mind the writing or anything else, makes it an extraordinary evening.
The kids from School Of Rock (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Do you expect audiences in London to react differently from the Broadway audience [to School Of Rock]?
I think audiences are different all the world round, different and the same if you know what I mean. There are some things that can play everywhere, and then there are other aspects of a story that an American audience might pick up on, or a British audience might pick up on, so in a sense, the value of the previews is to understand the audience that we’re playing to, and allow us to make a relationship. But I think there are also eternals that work in both countries, and effect people the world round. The fundamental role of music in children’s lives and the idea that kids need to be set free, I mean that’s common to pretty much every culture.
You must be hugely busy in the build up to a show; how involved do you stay with a show once it’s opened.
You’re always a sort of ‘doctor on call’ and particularly nowadays with email and all the rest of it; it’s much easier than it would have been for someone doing my job 30 years ago, because the director from New York can write and say ‘we need a new line for this’ or ‘we want to do something here, we want to quicken the exit’ and you just whack it out and buzz it back, and so it’s always that sort of slight sense that you’re keeping a seeing eye. I mean obviously that’s truer in the first few months, when a show is still settling in, than it is when it’s been running for years, but I do think you have a sort of umbilical connection to any show you’ve written that’s actually being performed.
When did you decide to start writing for the theatre, how did that start?
Well, it was sort of by accident really. I always thought my second career [after acting] would be producing! Because by then I’d done quite a lot, I was working my way up, and I’d formed a company with a director called Andrew Morgan, and I thought we were going to be producers, but I ended up doing a little work on one script, and then from that I was commissioned to write the script for Little Lord Fauntleroy. And so I did write it, and we made it, for a children’s series in six parts, and it won the International Emmy in New York, and suddenly I’d sort of become a writer when I wasn’t looking.
Speaking of your writing, you’ve worked with Stiles and Drewe a lot. How did you come to work with them?
Yes, we’ve done three! [meeting them] was entirely through Cameron Mackintosh. He was a big fan of Stiles And Drewe, and he had brought them on from quite early on, and then he decided they were the ones for Mary Poppins, and he decided I was the one to write the book, and so he gave a dinner party in his house, and we went along and all met each other. It was quite funny actually because I looked across the room and saw these two hip dudes, who belonged on Venice Beach or something they were so cool, and they looked across the room and there was a terrible old fart in brogues, looking like something out of Bertie Wooster! And I think we all thought ‘ooh cripes’ you know, but then we worked very well together, we have a very good rhythm of work, and we all enjoyed it, all three of us enjoyed the partnership and I hope we haven’t done our last.
Half A Sixpence (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
What’s next for you? Well-earned rest or more projects in the pipeline?
My next main project is my American series, The Gilded Age, which I’ve put off and put off, but I’m very keen on, and I’m interested in going back to television. I’ve had a little break, and I’m going back to doing something completely new, and so I’m rather looking forward to it.