The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Photo: Ben Bentley.
If all you know of Alan Sillitoe is Arthur Seaton and his weekend palaver, you need to get to know Colin Smith, the protagonist of Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Luckily, a bang-up-to-date stage adaptation is coming to the Playhouse this month - and, according to playwright Roy Williams, not much has changed since 1959...
Where did the idea come from to adapt Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner?
I’ve wanted to do an adaptation of a book for a long time as I thought it’d be an interesting challenge. I’d always loved this story; I remember first watching the film when I was fourteen or fifteen. It’s a great story about this young boy, Colin, working out his place in the world, and that’s very similar to the debate about class and youth that we are having at the moment. I was also fascinated by the visual effect of having this boy running on stage almost non-stop. I wanted to work with the director Marcus Romer again, and luckily for us the rights were available.
How did you go about adapting and updating the story?
I worked heavily from the original short story, though I watched the film again and it was helpful to see how they opened the story out. Luckily the screenplay was also written by Sillitoe, so I had permission to borrow from the film. I was surprised by how little I’ve had to change; it was all written in the first person and about eighty percent of the dialogue comes straight from Sillitoe. It was just a question of adding modern references. So the backdrop of my play is the riots that took place last year and that fitted easily.
How do you work around the staging difficulty of showing long distance running in the confines of a stage?
I don’t worry about it - that’s the director’s problem. Actually, we’ve got a big treadmill which they’re going to build into the set. It’s going to be a very visual production and very exciting.
How relevant is the story today?
Sadly I think the questions Sillitoe was asking about Britain - about the position of young people and the inequality they feel - are still being asked. That’s why I felt justified in modernising the text, as it’s a story that still speaks to generation after generation.
How soon into your re imagining of the text did you cast Colin as mixed raced?
From the very beginning. Making him mixed raced, was I felt, the best way to indicate this was a modern version of this classic story.
How much of an impact does changing the ethnicity of the central character have upon the text - if any?
Very little, if none at all. The story was never about race, and my adaptation isn't either, but about class, disaffected youth and belonging. What excites me is that my version has a young mixed raced boy who speaks for his generation, the colour of his skin is irrelevant. I was surprised how loyal I ended up being to Silitoe’s words. What his Colin was saying in the book, as well as the film, was not dated at all. It made no sense to me to change it. What I did change was the cultural references.
We're besotted with Arthur Seaton round here, but Colin Smith is just as strong a character, isn't he?
Colin is like an everyman. He lives in a society that casually dismisses him, but he wants the adults in the world to make him feel he is of importance. Even the pride of being working class has been taken away by successive governments. I feel that’s no way to treat a portion of society, and that’s partly why I wanted to write this play. At the end of the story, he deliberately loses a race to assert his independence, even though that means he will spend longer in borstal. It’s his way of saying, “this is who I am”. What he did stayed with me and made me ask questions for days about why he did it. I wanted the Colin in my play to have the same sort of effect, so that he’s almost the spokesman for this generation of working class youth who are made to feel that they don’t matter.
You wrote Sucker Punch, which was set against the eighties Broadwater Farm riots. Do you think any progress has been made in fixing Britain since then?
Sucker Punch was about two black kids who find their identity in boxing. They’re not very different from Colin, a journey to figure out who they are despite living in a world that seems almost to be conspiring against them. In the eighties there was a real anger about being made to feel worthless and it got to the point where they weren’t taking it any more. There’s been progress, but the danger is that we become complacent and end up making the same mistakes again. We’ve made progress in the sense that we’re better at sweeping things under the carpet. Police know they can’t say some words any more so they keep it behind closed doors, but I sense in the last three or four years we’ve been slightly going backwards.
Bar the family and friends of Mark Duggan, there didn't seem to be a point to the riots of 2011, compared to Brixton and Toxteth twenty years earlier.
The riots last year seemed to be very different to the eighties; they seemed to be more about a chance to get their hands on new trainers or whatever. We have this ‘fast-food’ culture where we are made to want things we don’t need and can’t afford. I think that was definitely an issue in the riots last year, and in a way that made it more disturbing because there was no cause.
You were brought up in Notting Hill in a single parent home. Does this make you identify more with Colin?
Colin’s father was a huge presence in his life and he feels slightly lost after his father dies. I can relate to that feeling of isolation, as I grew up without a father figure at all, but I had a strong mother and nice siblings so I didn’t miss out completely. I can see myself and my childhood friends in Colin and in that generation.
You went from being a school drop-out to get a first-class degree in theatre writing. What made you turn your life around?
It wasn’t a conscious thing. School could only do so much for me and once I left, I knew the rest was up to me. I trusted fate and it took me back to college, a degree and a writers’ course and it lead me to where I am now. From a young age I always had an interest in literature and story-telling and I read all the time so it seemed natural that I would end up doing that as a career.
Whether he liked it or not, Sillitoe was seen as one of the Angry Young Men of his era. Do you see yourself as an inheritor of that title?
No, I don’t like titles. I’m just a story-teller, like a journalist, and I dramatise the stories as best I can. Sillitoe was an amazing writer and I am very lucky to have been inspired by his vision and his politics. I always got what he was saying and could identify with it in my own life. I’m carrying on the torch but I’m inspired by him, not inheriting anything.
And are you a long distance runner?
Hell no. I get my exercise watching the football from an armchair.
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Nottingham Playhouse, 23-27 October
Nottingham Playhouse website