What inspired you to write The Rotters’ Club?
I had always wanted to write a novel set in a school, using it – with all its power struggles, cliques and rivalries – as a microcosm for society as a whole. Very much in the way that Lindsay Anderson did in his brilliant film If.
Also, I wanted to write a book which presented a version of the 1970s as I remembered them: away from the comfortably nostalgic, retro, kitsch, glam-rock-and-spacehoppers version that television always seemed to offer us.
There was more to the 1970s, I thought, than just Blue Peter and flared loons – although of course the temptation to have a bit of fun with all that was irresistible as well.
How autobiographical is The Rotters’ Club?
All the background detail is autobiographical: the world the Trotter family inhabits is not far from my own family background, and the school in the novel, King William’s, is clearly based on my own school, King Edward’s in Edgbaston.
I also kept in one or two incidents that I’d recorded in my teenage diaries – like a time I had lost my school bag, and I prayed to have it returned, and found it a few seconds later, which I interpreted as a “miracle” and which turned me into a bit of a religious freak for a few months afterwards. But all the major storylines are fictional.
I had no direct contact with the Birmingham pub bombings, for instance, or the industrial disputes at British Leyland. Still, it seemed important to get these important bits of local history in somehow.
How did Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais end up as the writers of the adaptation?
It was my idea, I seem to remember, to ask Dick and Ian to adapt it – with, I have to say, absolutely no expectation that they would agree. They were my idols in the 1970s. I was fanatical about Porridge and particularly Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?
In those days you couldn’t video your favourite shows, and the only alternative was to buy these terrible “novelisations” of the TV series, which the BBC used to publish. So at a time when my fellow novelists-in-waiting were all probably reading Henry James and Proust, I was learning these sitcom scripts more or less off by heart.
I can’t think of any writers, either for stage or screen, who do better comic dialogue than Dick and Ian, and the rhythms of the dialogue in my novel were taken directly from The Likely Lads anyway, so it’s perfect (and rather unbelievable, to me) that they have ended up adapting it. A real closing of the circle, if you like. (On a minor point, the male protagonists of an early novel of mine, The House of Sleep, are called Robert and Terry in homage to The Likely Lads. No critic has ever noticed, this, however – probably because they were all too busy reading Henry James and Proust in the 1970s as well.)
The adaptation has quite an exciting cast, what is it like to see your characters in the flesh?
I’m delighted with the casting, and bowled over by the performances. It’s impossible to single anyone out, although I am hugely impressed by the way the younger members of the cast hold their own in such starry company.
At the same time, it’s a strange experience, because I hardly ever describe my characters visually, or have a strong sense in my head of what they look like – whereas now, of course, whenever I pick up the book again I can only see Geoff Breton as Benjamin, Kevin Doyle as his father and so on. So they have taken over my characters, in a way. Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned.
What was it like being on set watching the filming?
Very relaxing, for me, because I had no role to play – my work was finished a long time ago, and I was just there as a spectator. On the other hand I think it makes actors very tense to have one of the writers around – I can see why they’re often banned from the set!
It can be inhibiting for the performers, I suppose, because they’re suddenly confronted by this guy whose brain gave birth to the character they’re meant to be playing, and they get nervous that they might not be faithful to his vision. I wasn’t there to check up, at all.
I was purely there out of nosiness, because I’ve always been fascinated by the film-making process and all of a sudden I had an excuse to go and observe it at close quarters.
When you write do you visualise how it may convert to screen?
No, not at all. You’d end up writing a very pale and feeble imitation of a novel if you did that. I write for the printed page, for the individual reader sitting in an armchair somewhere – at the back of my mind, I always imagine a kind of private dialogue between this ideal reader and me.
Did the screen adaptation of The Rotters’ Club affect the content of the sequel novel (The Closed Circle) in any way?
With almost perfect timing, I got the call from Company Pictures [the independent production company who produced the series for the BBC] telling me that the project had been green-lit about two days after finishing The Closed Circle. Until then it had only been “in development”, and that can be such a long and frustrating process that you have to try to forget that it’s even going on at all – because of course 90% of projects in development never get made.
In any case most of The Closed Circle was planned at the same time as The Rotters’ Club, in the late 1990s. It was always my intention that the two books should go together – they’re inseparable, in fact, because after you’ve finished The Closed Circle, you realise that several things about the story in The Rotters’ Club were not as you believed them to be. The second book re-writes the first one, if you like.
This was a bit tough on Dick and Ian, because they were slightly in the dark about some of the plot developments in The Closed Circle, which I wanted to keep close to my chest. But in the end, of course, I had to let them in on the secrets.
For me, watching the TV adaptation now, the main point relating to The Closed Circle is that it makes Sebastian Harding’s performance as little Paul Trotter seem so poignant – because he portrays him as this freakish but somehow quite loveable little monster, whereas after you’ve read the second book, you realise what a nasty bastard he grows up to be!