Emma Thompson attends a photocall for BAFTA's Screenwriter Lecture series at BFI Southbank, 20 September. Photo: Getty
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Emma Thompson’s leap into the dark

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas. But at the outset, sketch comedy was where she saw herself.

As I enter the auditorium, there’s a woman on the stage wearing denim dungarees and a hoodie, scrubbing a desk. Thinking that I’m clearly very early for Emma Thompson’s lecture on screenwriting, I take a seat and study the programme.

At the edge of my vision, I see the woman finish her cleaning and lie down on the yoga mat next to the desk. She sticks her legs in the air and groans. Slightly bemused, I watch her get back up again and sit on the arm of a chair and weep for a while, before getting a Hoover out and giving the stage floor a going-over. Finally, she sits down at her desk and starts to scribble furiously on a pad. Her hood falls back and I see her face at last – this isn’t a member of the BFI’s cleaning team. This is Emma Thompson, the only person ever to win Oscars for both writing and acting, and she has come to her lecture early to act out how she writes.

Thompson is best known for playing complicated intellectual women, often in period dramas (her Oscars came in the 1990s for Sense and Sensibility and Howards End). But as she explains, once she has changed out of her dungarees and returned to the stage, at the outset sketch comedy was where she saw herself. She began writing sketches at school and went on to be part of the Cambridge Footlights crowd that included Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

As difficult as it might be to imagine now, she wasn’t always the star of the show. “Stephen and Hugh were always so brilliant and funny,” Thompson says. “It was very difficult to get in sideways, really, because they were so wonderful and Footlights was quite male-dominated.”

Her early material was always political – “It was about everything that I cared about,” she says nostalgically – and the monologue from those days that she performs now is a tight, satirical take on Hampstead liberals and casual racism. But then her 1988 TV solo sketch show Thompson was ripped apart by critics – something she describes as “a very violent experience”. “I never wrote another monologue, I never wrote another sketch,” she says.

The show has disappeared from view, never having been released on DVD, but the excerpts that are online don’t seem to justify the mauling it received. (The Victorian mouse sketch in particular, which skilfully draws out the tragedy and comedy of a young woman’s sexual naivety, is very funny.) You wonder if the critical reaction was born more of the blustering perpetuation of the “Women aren’t funny” cliché than of genuine critique.

Since leaving comedy behind, Thompson has found time to craft her screenplays between acting jobs, often taking years to bring a project to completion. She proudly exhibits a crate retrieved from her attic that contains the 17 drafts of Sense and Sensibility and says that the children’s film Nanny McPhee was even harder to do (it spent seven years in development). Her latest effort, a biopic of the Pre-Raphaelite muse Effie Gray that has had a similarly long gestation, finally opens in cinemas in October.

It is clear that the actor and writer in her are inextricably linked. As she answers a question about the uncertain nature of the industry with a quotation from the choreographer Agnes de Mille, her voice takes on a lilting tone that demands to be heard. “The artist never entirely knows: we guess,” she says. “We may be wrong but we take leap after leap in the dark.” 

Listen to Emma Thompson’s Bafta Screenwriters’ Lecture in full at: guru.bafta.org

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue