Chris Jury, though still best-known as an actor, is also a scriptwriter, TV director and playwright, known for his acute political writing. I caught up with him to discuss Doctor Who, the ever-regenerating Lovejoy, and how nobody’s ever heard of Stalin.
AL: Hello Chris, how are you doing?
CJ: Very well thanks. Be warned there might be a bit of effing and beeing in this.
AL: No worries, we’ll edit you down to a child-friendly size.
CJ: Suitable for kids, that’s right.
AL: And speaking of kids, how old were you when you got into the acting game?
CJ: Well, I started like a lot of people; I did youth theatre. I had wanted to be a vet – I very passionately wanted to be a vet, but there was no way I was going to get the science A-levels. Just no way. So I abandoned those and turned to history, geography, English…and I then realised that I could do this drama thing that I’d been doing with the youth theatre.
AL: Right, so you’d been doing it as an amateur for a while?
CJ: For a while, yes, with a lot of success. And it had really become the thing that gave me validation, because I hadn’t been successful in school up until then. So, long story short, I went to Hull University to do drama and I had a wonderful time there, really wonderful. Anthony Minghella was one of my tutors there. And while we were there, I hooked up with a guy called Mike Bradwell who ran a company called Hull Truck. He’d started a few years earlier, and I then joined Hull Truck and did a couple of years with Mike, touring the country doing shows. By then Anthony Minghella had become script editor on Grange Hill…
AL: Of course!
CJ: …and so my first proper TV job was an episode of Grange Hill playing a failed teacher from Birmingham with a silly walk. They liked that so much I was asked to come back and I did two years on Grange Hill, doing six episodes a year, playing Mr Knowles. And then I was a jobbing actor.
AL: And did you move between the screen and the stage then?
CJ: Yeah, I did a lot of fringe theatre, I worked more with Mike Bradwell, and with a theatre in London called the Bush that did new writing, I did a lot of work there. I was out of work a lot of the time…
AL: As is the way.
CJ: As is the way. Then I was in a show at the Bush and I was hoping to go and become a director. I had always wanted to direct, and there was a possibility of going to direct at a company called 7:84 in Glasgow. But the Bush Theatre was next to the BBC on Shepherd’s Bush Green – hence the name – and while I was in that show they were trying to cast something called Lovejoy next door. Lovejoy was about this antiques dealer who had a young assistant, Eric, and one of the secretaries came to see the show at the Bush just on a night out. And she went back in and said “I’ve just seen the guy who should play Eric.”
AL: Was it a similar sort of role?
CJ: I was playing this sort of bumbling office junior in this play, Grumbling. The next night, which I didn’t know, the directors came, and then the producers came, and then I was called in for an audition, and then I didn’t hear anything for three weeks. So I accepted this directing job in Glasgow, and then they came back to me and said “Actually, will you come in and see everybody on this Lovejoy thing?” So I went back and everyone was there, the writers were there, and they offered it to me. Ten episodes of that, shot in the summer of 1985. And on that show was a young First Assistant called Alan… hell’s his name…
AL: Alan Hellsisname, yep, I know the guy.
CJ: No, Alan…he became a director on Doctor Who, he directed the one I was in…
AL: Oh damn, you’ve caught me out here. I’m supposed to have all this stuff to hand. We’ll put it in later.
CJ: Oh hell, he’s a friend of mine. I’m getting too old for this. Anyway, there was this young assistant called Alan – leave a blank there – and a year, year and a half later, after I’ve finished Lovejoy – because we did one series of that and then it finished…
AL: And there was a gap then.
CJ: Yeah, there was a five-year gap between the first and second series.
AL: Alan Waring!
CJ: Alan Waring! So eighteen months later, Alan Waring had now become a director and was doing his first big directing job for the BBC. He’d done episodes of Eastenders and things, but now he was doing his first job of his own, which was Doctor Who, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, as a staff director. And he came along and said “Would you like to do this?”, and I said, “Would I? I’ll bite your hand off”. So that’s how I got onto Doctor Who, because Alan cast me after we’d worked on the first series of Lovejoy.
AL: And how was it working on Doctor Who?
CJ: Half way through the shoot, after we’d done all the location filming down in Weymouth, we came back up to London and there was an asbestos scare in Television Centre, so we couldn’t go and film all the studio stuff there. So they set up a circus tent in the car park at Elstree Studios, and we filmed it there.
AL: So it was all shot in a car park?
CJ: It was all done as a location shoot, in this tent, with all the sets they’d built. They just moved the sets in and we did it there.
AL: That’s thinking on your feet, isn’t it?
CJ: And without any exaggeration, I can say that it is absolutely one of the most joyous jobs we ever had. It was funny, it was wonderful, the rest of the cast were amazing…when we got together at your gig the year before last, with Chris Guard and all, we were all together for the first time since we left the set, it was just wonderful to see them. And it was just like we’d not been apart – I mean, it’s a thing about showbiz, you have these very intense relationships, then you don’t see each other for ten years, and then it’s all “oh darling, darling!” and everybody goes “ugh, what’s the matter with these people?” But it’s because the relationships are so intense while it’s going on, you do form these attachments, and it was just delightful to see everyone again.
AL: Well, we do what we can.
CJ: And then that was that, and I went back to doing what I’d done, you know, bit of telly here, bit of stage there. Then Michael Grade left the BBC, and three weeks later I got a call saying would I do Lovejoy again.
AL: And luckily they were able to assemble to whole of the original cast again.
CJ: Yeah, they got us all back together and, lo and behold, we were off. I did another four series after that, and there six in total. Including that first one.
AL: I thought it was one of the best things about Lovejoy because, while Lovejoy and Tinker were never going to change, it was Eric that grew as a character. I thought you had more to do in that way.
CJ: Well, I always say that I was very lucky in that way, because all the writers knew what to do with Eric. His function in the show was very clear, and they all knew very clearly what to do with him; I had an easy run at that. When we did the first series back in 1985 I had my twenty-ninth birthday, and by the time we came back in 1990 I was over thirty.
AL: Still playing the office junior…
CJ: The script would say “Eric goes to teenage dance” and I’d say, guys, we can’t get away with this! My daughter was born in 1990, during that second series, and I was a thirty-one year old father supposedly playing this seventeen year old.
AL: That came from the books, did it? Presumably he was that age in the books.
CJ: No! The thing about the relationship to the books is that Eric’s in one book, Lady Jane’s in another book, Tinker’s in about half the books…so what happened is the writers of the series put the format together; I mean, what writers. They made it. That team assembled a core cast. The books are very different; they’re a lot darker, Lovejoy is much more central, he doesn’t have that team around him.
AL: I have heard that Tinker is very different in the books, he’s not that jolly eccentric of the series.
CJ: Yes, he’s much darker, a darker alcoholic character. So I think they did an incredible job of putting together that lighter, popular version for the series. I don’t think the author was very pleased…and subsequently – well, there’s talk now that Tony Jordan is doing another version based on the books.
AL: Have you been approached?
CJ: No, that wouldn’t involve any of us. So the TV series was very much just the TV series, and in fact the deal with [original author] Jonathan Gash when the series returned was that we wouldn’t use his books any more. In the first series about half of the series were his books, but when we came back in 1990 none of them were, they were all original.
AL: So the vast majority of the plots…
CJ: Yes, the vast majority weren’t based on his books, they were freshly generated by the TV writers after that.
AL: So cobbling together the core cast from the books let them use a lovely ensemble of character actors, didn’t it?
CJ: Oh yes, and what they did after that was when Ian [McShane] wanted to direct an episode, they made one called Eric of Arabia – a big episode for me – and Ian directed that so they could almost write him out of the episode, he only has three or four scenes, in order to allow him to direct.
AL: And did you get to have a chance at directing?
CJ: No, I would have liked to but, politically, that was never going to happen. I had got involved with a friend in trying to write an episode, but what became clear was that the executive producers were finding it increasingly difficult that the actors were having so much involvement in the series. By then Ian was directing one or two a series and he was an executive producer, and they thought “oh hell, not another one”. It was already politically quite difficult.
AL: There was a feeling of a tug-of-war already.
CJ: Absolutely. And that’s why I left, because I had ambitions to write and direct, and I wasn’t going to get to do that on the show.
AL: So did you go back to Glasgow to get into directing again?
CJ: No, there was a guy who’d been a runner on the first series of Lovejoy in 1985 – this is how showbiz works – that guy was now a producer on Eastenders. So I got a block of Eastenders to direct, and that started me off, and I directed Eastenders on and off for fifteen years.
AL: And was that your first real experience of TV directing, since you’d not had the chance on Lovejoy?
CJ: That’s right. I’d directed some short films of my own, in order to get my showreel together. In fact, I’d only ever been in one multi-camera show, which was a sitcom. Grange Hill was multi-camera in the studio, back in ’81, ’82, but I hadn’t done anything like that for a decade and a half. So that first block of Eastenders was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Mind-bogglingly difficult stuff – four cameras, shooting very fast by single camera; it was shocking. And the budget and time constraints – it never ends. There was one occasion when the schedule had been written and the first scene had been given five minutes to shoot; well, you’re not going to do that. By the time everyone’s ready your five minutes are up. You’d finish after quarter of an hour; but that means now you’re ten minutes behind, and every minute of that day you’re ten minutes behind. I think unless you’ve done it no-one really has any idea of the intense time pressure.
AL: You can’t add the time on – come shift end the technicians up sticks and you’re abandoned.
CJ: Well, it’s not a case of upping sticks; those are twelve-hour days. Long, long, hard days. Some days – they started doing a fire drill at Elstree, you all go outside, and you can’t get the time back. So you’re forty-five minutes off schedule. And shooting to the schedule is the director’s main job. The machine on those shows is far more important than any individual episode. The priority is to keep the showing moving.
AL: So do you find it easier to direct in the theatre?
CJ: Yes. My own experience of television and theatre is that television is a thousand times more difficult.
AL: Despite having all those extra resources at your disposal?
CJ: Well…you know. On the shows that I was mainly directing, the half-hour shows, you don’t have all those resources. You have a lot of crew, but not much money. The problem is the speed at which you have to shoot and sticking to the schedule, so it’s not made any easier.
AL: You’re still directing in the theatre, aren’t you? In fact, you did the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue tour not long ago.
CJ: Yeah, that was a great little gig, that was. We went up to Salford and we filmed it there. Then I did a short film that some friends of mine wrote, and this year I’m directing a big agit-prop musical with my company, Public Domain, and Bath Spa University. And we’re taking that to the Cockpit in London.
AL: Is that the one you were workshopping when we last spoke?
CJ: No, that was Defiance. This is The Liberty Tree, which I’d written the year before, and it’s a really massive agit-prop jukebox musical, about the power of collective action in the workplace. I wrote that, got a great response from everyone who read it but, you know, who’s going to do that? So in the end I managed to do it that way with a student cast. I’m very excited about that, we had a read-through the other week.
AL: And as a jukebox musical, what sort of music is it you’re using?
CJ: Well, a jukebox musical is where you use songs that already exist. We’re using five Chumbawamba songs.
AL: Wait, there were five Chumbawamba songs?
CJ: And the rest are songs that are appropriate to the story – Paul Weller’s Shout to the Top, Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How to be Free – we use a whole range of songs.
AL: When’s that on?
CJ: It’s on at Bath Spa University Theatre on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of May, and then 24th to 27th June at The Cockpit theatre in London.
AL: I’m looking at train tickets now, we’ll get that booked.
CJ: You can see all that on http://www.publicdomainproductions.org.uk – that’s the website.
AL: And can you book direct through there?
CJ: No, you can’t yet, but there’s a link to the theatre on there. And the Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/thelibertytreemusical.
AL: Great, we’ll squeeze that in.
CJ: So that’s the one we’re doing now, and just before Christmas I finished writing a massive play called Nadezhda. It’s about Stalin’s wife and I’ve been writing it for some years now, and it’s had a massive response. I was talking about it at the RSC today, so we’re trying to get that done properly. It’s got a massive cast and a big, epic subject, so that’s not easy to stage.
AL: Can you give us a bit of background about that? Because that’s not something I’d known anything about – that’s one of the overlooked figures of history, really, isn’t it?
CJ: What, Stalin?
AL: No, his wife.
CJ: Oh, yes, absolutely she is. Her name was Nadezha Alliluyeva and Stalin married her in 1917, when she was sixteen. She was the daughter of a fellow revolutionary, and she herself was a Bolshevik revolutionary. They had two children, but she came to see that he was a monster and she had ten abortions rather than give him any more children. She tried to fight him, she wrote articles opposing his policy of collectivisation in the Ukraine and elsewhere, and in the end – in 1932 – she killed herself. She shot herself in the heart as an act of defiance, because it had been made clear that either she would toe the line or he would have her executed, or sent to the Lubyanka.
AL: As he did with dissident writers of all kinds.
CJ: And he did with the wives and husbands of most of his inner circle. So she refused and she killed herself, and I was very moved when I came across the story of this heroic act of defiance. I’ve been researching that, I went to Russia and Georgia on a grant, I went to Moscow and then to Gori, where Stalin was born. There was this hilarious Stalin museum in Gori which was one of the major tourist attractions in its heyday, and now it’s so run-down – it’s unbelievable, I don’t think it’s been hoovered since 1972 – it’s all just falling apart. And there are still guides who take you round and they say things like “…some mistakes were made”. And you think, what, you mean like the thirty-two millions Ukrainians who were starved to death on purpose? That kind of mistake? And since the end of the Soviet Union they’ve opened a room which is supposed to address the issue of the Ukranian famine and all that, and it’s like a damp old storeroom with some kids’ drawings on the wall and it’s just mindbogglingly bad, you’ve never seen anything like it.
AL: It sounds quite creepy now.
CJ: No, it’s hilarious, the whole thing.
AL: But that’s incredible, isn’t it? Because I think I’m right in saying that Stalin built more statues to himself than anyone since the Pharoahs…
CJ: Yeah, and loads of them have been taken down and now there’s just this museum. But Gori was this huge tourist destination, they were the hometown of the most powerful man in the Soviet Union, they were the big shots. And now it’s all come out what he really was, but they don’t want to know. And there’s been no public money gone into this museum since, literally since Gorbachev, but you can still see what it was like…at the end you go up these stairs, in this grand circle and past the death mask of Josef Stalin. And you can imagine queues of people walking past this thing, paying fealty almost, and it’s just a plaster cast of his face…it’s hilarious in its sadness and the whole museum is falling down, and there are these old guys who would have been there as youngsters when it was all happening, and they speak a script, so you go round and they say the same thing to everyone. Ask any questions and they say “Well we know acknowledge that some mistakes were made”.
AL: That’s one hell of a story for a play.
CJ: Yeah, and it’s a huge play – there are twenty-six speaking characters, you need fifteen people in the cast to do it, and for a relatively new theatre writer, as I would be regarded, it’s a lot to ask. But we shall stumble on.
AL: But you’re in talks with the RSC?
CJ: Yes, we had a meeting today and it was lovely…nothing definite, you know, but we’re talking and who knows.
AL: We’ll keep our fingers crossed. And Bath Spa, the university who are co-producing, is that the university you lecture for?
AL: So what took you into that; what made you decide you wanted to lecture?
CJ: I needed some stability. I’d been freelance for thirty-five years; I was doing pretty well, directing regularly on Eastenders and Doctors, writing for Casualty and Holby and stuff like that…but it’s not what I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to be in telly just for the sake of it. I’d always been interested in political theatre and drama that was about something. So I needed a break for it.
AL: And I suppose with students there’s a dialogue with them you don’t get in telly.
CJ: Yeah, absolutely. And I wanted to talk about why we would do these things, why we would tell these stories, not just how. And in telly especially, but sometimes in the theatre as well, all you talk about is “how are we going to do this?” and I have always been much more interested in why we’re doing it, what it’s about, and there is very little conversation about that in television. So I needed a break to get my head together and rethink it. And I didn’t do anything or write anything for two or three years, and then I had this idea for The Liberty Tree; wrote that, got positive feedback for it like I’ve never got for anything; that won a competition to get me in to do Defiance in a theatre; and then Nadezha had been on the back burner and thought, “I’m going to do that”. So I needed to “find myself” as a writer. And now – a bit late in the day – I have, and it feels good. And I needed to not be earning a living from it for a while in order to be free to write what I wanted to write.
AL: Rather than just stuff you knew you could sell.
CJ: Yeah. And I don’t know where it’ll lead at the moment, but I’m more optimistic about that than I have been for a while. And we will see. We will see.