Writing for life

Playwright Julian Mitchell discusses the ups and downs of a difficult career choice with Katherine Elliott

Julian Mitchell rightfully points out that the career of a playwright is meticulously difficult. The successful screenwriter, playwright and not quite so successful novelist considers his triumphs fraudulent as he refers to playwrights he knows earning a mere £3,000 a year. The 74-year-old writer has, of his own admission, been uniquely lucky to have a steady influx of work since he first began writing. Only recently was he approached by a West End theatre manager for a stage adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Solider.

For Mitchell, writing has always been integral to existence, “I would die if I didn’t write,” he states with a stern composure, one which reveals just a little of the sheer determination and drive that must lie dormant beneath a more common front of flamboyant charisma and charm.

Indeed, Mitchell began writing at 12-years-old, “I started writing when I was at school, I tried to write a Christmas carol but I didn’t get beyond the first two lines. I wrote my first short story when I was 15.”

Mitchell went onto study history at Oxford University and on graduating was approached by MI6, a life-defining tale he regales amusedly, “It was very innocuous really, I got a letter from MI6 and went to meet them. They were talking about ‘collecting information’ but I couldn’t really think what they were asking me, then it dawned on me and I said, ‘Oh! You want me to be a spy!’

“I think they approached me because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t want a proper job, that’s how I stumbled into writing.”

And so it was almost by chance that Mitchell began his illustrious writing career, launching himself into poetry and writing six novels over seven years, something which he ashamedly admits was not right for him then, “I didn’t really know what I was trying to do writing novels, I thought, am I trying to change society? The truth is I didn’t know, so I lost confidence in myself. I most wanted to be a playwright.”

To date the now theatrically esteemed Mitchell has worked with some of the most pronounced dramatic figures in the UK, including Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett, Danny Boyle and the infamous John Thaw, who Mitchell worked with for an extended period of writing on Inspector Morse.

But his career has not been without its problems, “There are three works that I am most proud of, and two of them I mucked up.”

Mitchell insists, although he admits the cliché of it, that the two ‘mucked up’ productions were out of his control, “One was a production that Anthony Hopkins directed. He was very entertaining, one day he would direct as one character, the next as someone else, but he forgot to direct his own actors – the end result was boring.”

The second ‘mucked-up’ production was Arthur, for which Mitchell collaborated with The Kinks’s Ray Davies, turning a song about a carpet layer into a much anticipated teleplay, “Ray and I were brought together by Granada. We were getting along fine and had the actors confirmed when Granada called our producer for a meeting about the budget, but he flannelled it, he completely busked it. Another guy in the meeting said he watched our producer throw the play away, I never forgave him for that,” Mitchell pauses for a moment before he adds, distractingly jovially, “But I think he died or something, maybe he went to America.”

Thankfully, Mitchell’s third production survived any ‘mucking up,’ “My proudest work is Another Country, and the proudest moments of my career are the opening night and the last night of that production.”

Another Country examines public school life through its protagonist, Guy Bennett, looking at the effects of homosexuality and Marxism on his life. During its West End run the role of Guy was played sequentially by the then unknown actors Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis and Colin Firth, “We had no idea how the performances were going to go,” explains Mitchell, “We had great difficulty getting it on because we had no star. The only reason we got a producer was because his wife was a friend of ours. But on the first night, the audience went wild. Then on the last night, the production was sold out and I couldn’t get a seat. We didn’t sell the seats in the Gods so I went and sat up there on my own, and,” he pauses, “and I cried.”

Though he may select these three productions as his most memorable works Mitchell has written copiously for television, stage and screen and admits there are countless other works lying untouched in his Welsh home. And is retirement even a remote option? “I don’t think I would enjoy retirement. I want to see the whole world before I die.”


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