EVENT REVIEW: Peter Straughan at Durham Book Festival

Posted by

Review by Rachel Patterson

The only thing that screamed ‘Hollywood’ about Peter Straughan was the rapturous applause when he entered the main room at Durham Town Hall yesterday evening. Straughan, born in Gateshead, seems worlds away from the likes of George Clooney and Gary Oldman, yet he has written scripts for films in which both of these actors have appeared, The Men who Stare at Goats and the BAFTA winning Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. The evening was a lively mix of conversation which ranged from the difficulties of adapting book to film, celebrity anecdotes to how we are in the ‘golden age of television.’

Straughan began by talking of his roots playing in bands on the Newcastle scene. When asked whether he would rather be in a successful rock band to being a screenwriter, he would choose the rock band. However, when it was clear the band wasn’t going to make it, his time at Newcastle University led to his humble beginnings writing student drama with his friend. This appears to be the start of Straughan’s love for collaborative writing which he continued with his late wife Bridget O’Connor. Straughan then began to work for New Writing North ‘stuffing envelopes’ which led to a bursary and his first commission for Live Theatre in Newcastle, the well-received, black comedy Bones. He highlighted the help from New Writing North as one of the big influences for him becoming a screenwriter, as they helped him make the step to calling himself a writer.

Perhaps the unlikely road which Straughan walked to Hollywood explains his rule breaking approach to Tinker Tailor. This is exceptionally refreshing in an era where film making has often become formulaic in order to ensure high box office takings. The scene in which Gary Oldman as George Smiley enacts his meeting with Karla, his Russian counterpart, is one of my favourite film scenes of all time. Straughan’s discussion of how he and Alfredson played the scene like theatre, and told rather than showed, with Oldman addressing an empty chair, served to only raise my enjoyment of it. One of the great successes of Tinker Tailor is how immediate and real it feels and this is testament both to Straughan’s wonderful adaption of John le Carre’s book and the conversations he and Bridget O’Connor had with Le Carre himself. It was striking to hear that the memorable scene of Sanat Claus singing the Russian national anthem actually came from Le Carre’s own experiences at MI5.

Towards the end of the event, talk turned to Straughan’s adaption of Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Wolf Hall was most certainly the best BBC drama of the last year and Mantel described it as ‘a miracle of elegant compression.’ He talked movingly about how this was his first project after the death of his wife and long-time collaborator Bridget O’Connor, and how Cromwell’s loss of his wife close to the start of the series was partly the reason why he chose it.

Overall, Peter Straughan’s talk humanised the world of Hollywood in a way that is rarely seen. It was a true pleasure to hear him talk in Durham. He is a man who is at the height of his craft and I eagerly await his adaptations of Smiley’s People (the sequel to Tinker Tailor; Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light; and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. All in all, it was an illuminating event, which for any budding scriptwriter made the bright lights of Hollywood seem a lot closer to home.

Rachel Patterson is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.