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Interview: Billy Ivory

23 March 11 interview: Adrian Bhagat
photos: Steve Rowe

"You can’t take wide shots of the countryside around Eastwood without Ikea getting in the way"

When it comes to repping Notts on the telly, Southwell-born screenwriter Billy Ivory is the current keeper of the keys. His CV includes the BBC drama A Thing Called Love, his second play Bomber’s Moon was recently performed at Lakeside Arts Centre, and his adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women In Love hits BBC4 very soon. And that’s just the local stuff…

Tell us about your new film, Made In Dagenham
It's based on the true story of the female sewing machinists at Ford's Dagenham car plant, who went on strike in 1968 over equal pay for women. When they marched on Parliament, they were surprised that so many passing drivers pipped their support. Looking up they realised that their banner reading ‘We Want Sex Equality’ wasn’t fully unfurled, and proclaimed ‘We Want Sex’! That was the original title for the film and will be released as that in France, Italy and other countries not scared of the ‘S’ word. 
You’ve also adapted D. H. Lawrence’s Women In Love for BBC4.
I’ve never done an adaptation before, and I thought there was no point just writing down the book. Lawrence originally planned a novel called The Sisters but it became two - The Rainbow and Women In Love - so this is my take on both books. I’ve also used his short story The Trespasser to provide a subplot. I think purists may hate it but hopefully it will encourage people to think about Lawrence. He was such a genius, and unfortunately he’s going through a very unfashionable phase again.
Why was it filmed in South Africa?
Partly because of cost, and partly because you can’t take wide shots of the countryside around Eastwood without Ikea getting in the way. I was very excited about going out to see the filming, as I’d never been much further than Ilkeston before, but I was so shocked at the inequality. We were driving with our armed guards past a township and then saw a Bentley dealership. Everyone eating in restaurants was white and everyone serving was black.
Are you worried about your adaptation being compared to Ken Russell’s film?
For someone my age Russell’s film is very significant, though I’m not even sure I’ve seen it all the way through. I think it was very prurient - all I can remember is Glenda Jackson’s fantastic nipples and the nude wrestling scene. With Oliver Reed and Alan Bates it’s a tough act for my cast to follow, but they’re all young enough not to have that hanging over them.
Why have you stayed in Nottingham?
I find Nottingham a wondrous place, and I love the character of Notts people. They are very matter of fact and down to earth, with the driest of humours. In the North people seem very affable, but I’m not sure how deep that runs. Here people may take a long time to trust you - but when they do they’re very loyal and very open. So why would I move when it feeds my work? My dad flew bombers from Skellingthorpe during the war, and my mum worked at a factory near Newark. I live in the city now, but I still go back to Southwell to see their graves. The more it’s become denuded of people I know, the stronger the memories about the place have got. It’s not entirely unpleasant, but it can be overwhelming.
Is it hard to get to make TV programmes set around Nottingham?
It’s very difficult. I set Common As Muck around Rainworth and Blidworth, and they immediately shifted it to Manchester. I didn’t complain because I was just glad to get the work. The producer said it was just a question of identity – people know Manchester but not Nottinghamshire. It’s a shame because it was about the area and the local humour. The same thing happened when I wrote Faith, about the Miners’ Strike. Things subsequently got better; A Thing Called Love with Paul Nicholls was a love note from me to the city. The crew came to film it around Sneinton and they all had a good time, and viewers loved seeing places like Green’s Windmill. I’m working on a new piece called The God of Nottingham - just let them try and relocate it with that title…
Why did you write the Southwell Trilogy of plays for the theatre rather than the TV?
I can remember as a young lad coming to the Playhouse when Richard Eyre was the director, and I’ve always wanted to write for the stage. I started writing while I played Eddie Ramsden in Coronation Street in the mid-90s. It was the first time I’d seen TV scripts and they were shorter – a scene a page – and since I had to write Journey To Knock quickly it made sense to write it for TV. Because it did well, I got offered more TV work and never got a chance to go back. It was Matt Aston – who was in-house producer at Lakeside at the time - who encouraged me to write for the theatre. There was already a play I was going to set in Southwell, and I thought I’d do a trilogy. So, I wrote The Retirement of Tom Stevens and then Bomber’s Moon filled the middle. The last play is going to be a love story set in the 1970s, a prequel to the other two plays. The plays aren’t about Southwell, but all the characters in them are fed and watered by that place. Just like me.

Were you disappointed that The Retirement of Tom Stevens didn’t tour?
Yes, Tom Stevens went to one of London's top theatre producers who said it was the worst play they'd ever read! The producer's reader was straight out of Oxford and his concerns were intellectual so he was never going to get it. You have to engage with my plays. It’s heartbreaking when you work really hard at something and it gets dismissed in a moment. However, I'm trying to get Bomber’s Moon performed in London and if it does well we might try to relaunch Tom Stevens with a rehearsed reading.
The Southwell Trilogy is based around your father. How was your relationship with him?
It was a very fraught relationship and quite a harsh one. He was very vain and self-centred, but could also be extraordinarily generous - spending time with him was like a rollercoaster. I realise now that there was much of him that was hidden; he had terrifying experiences flying bombers during the war, and his brother Laurence was shot down and killed. He was worried about how his mum would take the news and didn't think she would cope if he was also killed. After the war he became a Communist and began to drink heavily. He would get into fights when arguing politics, and was banned from various pubs in Nottingham. His drinking became very difficult for the whole family. Like any addict, he would say he didn’t have a problem. I used to be the same - there was one time when I was having a drink in London and woke up in Sheffield a week later not knowing how I got there. That’s when I knew it was time to stop.

What are you working on?
I’m just finishing a script called The Truth About Men, which we will hopefully film soon and I’m about to start an adaptation of David Walliams’ book The Boy In The Dress. I’m trying to do more films, so I’m keeping next year free for a couple of movies and the new play.

You’re a life-long Notts County fan. What did you make of last season?
It’s been a brilliant year but so up and down. I hope we keep the players and we don’t bounce back down again. I felt such an idiot getting caught up in all the excitement with Sven - we should have remembered that if it looks to good to be true, it probably is.
What do you like watching on TV?
I get in trouble with my wife for obsessively watching sport – she caught me watching steer-riding from Texas the other night. I like the new Doctor Who and Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain. I love 24 but I’m not allowed to watch it after 9pm because I get in such a hyped up state I can’t sleep. I’m very fond of Hung, an American show about a guy with an enormous penis, and I still like to catch up with Coronation Street – I still think it’s the best.
Women In Love will be showing at Broadway as part of ScreenLit Festival on Sunday 27 March, followed by a Q&A with the man himself

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