So it was with some trepidation and interest that last Friday I went to the British Film Institute to look at – after a very long gap indeed - one of my own single films. I paid to go and see it, as presumably did the packed house in Screen 3 at 6pm. I’d sneaked into the BFI programme wearing borrowed robes, as part of the director, Moira Armstrong’s, season there. The film ‘Letting the Birds Go Free’ was an early piece in my writing life, an adaptation of a short story by Philip Oakes – and one of most sheerly enjoyable jobs I ever had. I remembered almost nothing about it apart from the fact that Moira had laid out the rehearsal room in South London as if we were rehearsing a stage or (early) television play. The action takes place entirely on a Derbyshire farm which must already have been scouted and measured up. Lionel Jeffries played the paterfamilias of the house, rather well, I thought, thirty years later. Back in 1983 Lionel, not that long after his success in directing ‘The Railway Children’, had bounded up to me after the read through, saying ‘Marvellous. Marvellous script.’ I have learnt to distrust actors so initially enthusiastic. Trouble follows. He then started altering his lines to such a degree that he got completely lost in a particular scene and asked to see me. We were on location by then. Moira, clever director, said, ‘Ignore him. Let him stew for a bit but type up your original scene on a fresh piece of typing paper.’ I did avoid Lionel until it was impossible to keep on pretending, and sat down with him to talk about his problems (which were, at least, the mark of actor who cares). ‘Give me an hour,’ I said, ‘I may be able to help,’ and returned with my freshly typewritten original scene. He looked at it: ‘Bloody marvellous,’ he said.
The young Tom Wilkinson played the son, Carolyn Pickles, his sister, and Martin Stone, a newcomer, the interloper into this family’s life. Tom was very funny and teased Carolyn (all terrific for the parts they played). Good though Tom was I would never have predicted (bet he wouldn’t either) that he would become Hollywood, or that Martin, a star in the making, I thought, wouldn’t be. (I remember Sean Bean played a small part in a television play I wrote shortly after ‘Letting the Birds Go Free’ and my thinking him very shy. After he became ‘Hollywood’, I had a call from the woman who was writing his biography. I said to her, ‘He said very little to me when we were making “Punters”. I expect he didn’t think the part big enough.’ ‘No’, she said, ‘It was his first part on TV. He was terrified.’)
I liked the Moira Armstrong film at the BFI all those years on. It was beautiful and satisfying (I was the adapter only, remember) and not a serial killer in sight. There was a bit of H.E. Bates’ ‘The Triple Echo’ and A.E. Coppard about it and I’m thrilled and still pleased to be associated with Moira – who e-mailed me out of the blue about three years ago. She’d listened one Saturday afternoon to my dramatisation of Edith Wharton’s affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton, ‘The Jinx Element’ and wanted to say how much she enjoyed it; ‘It’s what we used to do in television, she said.