David Nicholls: “I want to see people touching, kissing and fighting on the screen” | Step

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Lbefore David Nicholls was a successful novelist and screenwriter, he was a failed actor. During his eight years in the game, he walked the boards in mostly minor roles and tried not to hit the furniture. More often, however, it was off stage as a voiceover. “I was watching actors my age,” he says. “They had such grace and charisma. I knew deep down that I was always going to be at work without this unspeakable quality. “

Being the natural writer he is, Nicholls turned that failure into success, via fiction. The Understudy, written in 2005, was an extremely popular romantic comedy that sent the world of scene smoothing and spying, while containing a tacit love of sawdust and drama. The novel follows an understudy in a West End production, a man of intermediate talent who remains the underdog.




Russell Tovey records The Understanding at home.

Are you sure! … Russell Tovey records The Understanding at home.

The story is now revived as a radio play by the Lawrence Batley Theater in Huddersfield, which will broadcast it online. Adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett, it stars Stephen Fry and Russell Tovey, the proceeds of which will help the theater industry hit by foreclosure. Nicholls is thrilled that it’s back – and just as happy that it has nothing to do with production. “I don’t need to control it,” he says, even if he admits, “I really like it, but I found it to be this difficult second novel. This is the one I most want to rewrite. “

Nicholls, 53, has written five novels and adapted each for the screen, including One Day, which starred Anne Hathaway. He also made acclaimed adaptations of other writings from Patrick Melrose, the television series from Edward St Aubyn’s books with Benedict Cumberbatch, to Tess des D’Urbervilles and Away from the Crowd. Nicholls credits much of his success as a writer to his failed stage career. “I learned a lot from watching the actors play, listening to the dialogue, watching the moments when the joke didn’t quite land. It was a kind of learning. “

Watch a trailer for The Understanding

What he missed the most when leaving comedy was the comradeship of a theater company. His most recent novel, Sweet Sorrow, revolves around this subject. “It tells of the youthful enthusiasm I felt when I was in a business,” he says. Sweet Sorrow tells the story of a troubled 16-year-old Charlie who joins the Full Fathom Five Theater co-op – but only to get closer to the self-proclaimed “Shakespeare Nut” Fran Fisher desperate. “He looks at the theater from the outside and sees it as a bit chic and silly,” says Nicholls. However, Charlie learns from the experience of putting Romeo and Juliet together and feels a sense of belonging, even of family.


There is a glorious carelessness in physical contact – not only in the theater, but on television

Nicholls tried to write plays, but he did not click. “It is a special skill and I have stumbled upon its making – even when getting people on and off a stage. He studied theater and English at the University of Bristol at a time when he was fertile ground for revolutionary playwrights: Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane took the course, but not at the same time as Nicholls. “The emphasis then seemed to be on a radically designed work,” recalls the writer who, on the other hand, was imbued with the realism of television sitcoms, serials and films, having grown up in a modest home in Eastleigh, a small city ​​of Hampshire. who didn’t have his own theater.





Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose.

Adaptation… Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose, which Nicholls scripted. Photography: Justin Downing / SHOWTIME

When he gave up playing, he stopped going to the theater regularly. “Now that I can’t go,” he said, “I wonder,” Why wasn’t I there every night? “” However, the consequences of locking up his work were not dire, even if BBC’s next adaptation of Us, starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, was stopped. It is slated to be screened later this year as the production team finds ways to add finishing touches remotely.

Beyond that, the pandemic has left him a bit stuck with imagination. After Sweet Sorrow, which takes place in the 90s, he planned to write a short story nowadays. “I wanted to write about now, but” now “is changing day by day.” And he doesn’t find the nervous news feed of Covid-19 stories conducive to fiction writing: Nicholls lives in London with his partner, art historian Hannah, and their two children, ages 12 and 14 years, so parenting takes time and head space instead.




Nicholls as a student.

A deal … Nicholls as a student.

He was shaken by recent reports that the Nuffield Southampton theaters had entered the administration. “The first play I ever saw was there. It was the only theater I had access to, so its loss strikes a chord. For all my failures in this world, it was an important and inspiring place, the model of a great representative of the community, an introduction to incredible pieces. I hope it goes back. “

As for the physical remoteness, he declares: “There is a glorious imprudence in physical contact, not only in the theater but in the world of television. I want to see people touching, kissing, fighting on the screen. I think the lockout reminded us of how much we are looking for physical interaction. “

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