The American television critics who lavished praise on the BBC’s Burton and Taylor, shown in the US a couple of weeks ago, made little or no mention of its English writer.
But in the last year, William Ivory has reminded us Brits of his extraordinary range, producing rich, emotionally charged drama that is often underpinned by comedy.
Elizabeth Taylor’s rollercoaster relationship with Richard Burton was brilliantly realised in the BBC4 biopic that focused on their turbulent 1983 New York production of Private Lives.
And with Truckers – more motorway than Broadway – series one has just ended with millions of primetime viewers hooked on the exploits of a family-run haulage firm.
But Ivory says he’s okay with not being noticed, because that’s the way he began his working life. Dropping out of university in London and returning home to Nottinghamshire, he got a job on the bins.
“The thing about being bottom of the pile,” he says, “is that it’s quite democratising; you are disregarded. Spiritually, it’s quite liberating because everyone ignores you.”
Aside from the physical graft of shifting hundreds of bins, the work routine was playful and offered a never-ending source of material for Ivory’s ambitions.
“I always told the lads I wanted to be a writer. They said, ‘You need to go and do it then, youth’. They didn’t take the mickey. Quite the opposite,” he recalls.
Dirty on the outside but pure within, these were the men who would inspire Common as Muck, Ivory’s smash-hit series of the 1990s starring Edward Woodward and Roy Hudd. Success with the series had followed Ivory’s life-changing decision to follow the dustmen’s advice. An arm injury had forced him off the bins and he stumbled into acting work at Nottingham Playhouse, and afterwards had a year-long stint playing Eddie Ramsden in Coronation Street.
When his first screenplay, Journey to Knock, was aired in 1991 it attracted the attention of the producers of Minder, who asked Ivory to pitch some ideas.
Twenty ideas later, with every pitch rejected, Ivory had all but given up. He had one last go while on holiday in France, ringing London from a phone box.
“‘I’ve got one last idea,’ I said, and I pitched it to them over the phone. ‘I haven’t plotted it out,’ I said, ‘but it’s Arthur Has to Stop Drinking’. Quick as a flash, they said, ‘We’ll have that’,” he says.
The eight scripts he wrote for Minder make him the third most prolific writer in its 15-year history.
But back to the present. Ivory has just enjoyed the busiest year of his professional life, and there is no sign of it letting up.
He’s full of stories about actors and writers, or the things that happen to him – such as missing out on last summer’s screening of Burton and Taylor because the TV in the Southwold cottage he was renting decided to break that very day. “I ended up sitting in the market square, trying to check my phone for reaction on Twitter,” he recalls.
There had been no doubt about Helena Bonham Carter’s response when she was asked to play Elizabeth Taylor. “We sent it to her agent, who told her she must read it. But she didn’t know if she should, because it wasn’t just any part, it was Liz Taylor. She read the first six pages and apparently said, ‘I’m in trouble here’, because she really liked it,” he says.
Ivory, 50, is clearly proud of the result, the last of the biopics BBC4 says it will make.
The Corporation’s executives asked Ivory to write the script, and it was a story that he knew anyway, saying it was “too good a chance to miss”. He produced the first draft a month later, having been told to “go away and get on with it”.
His screenplay centres on Burton and Taylor’s reunion in Noel Coward’s comedy about a divorced couple whose paths cross while they are both on honeymoon with new spouses. Theatre critic Frank Rich wrote in 1983 that the production “had all the gaiety of a tax audit”.
No such grumbles from Ivory, who says his cast were “really impressive”. They worked with director Richard Laxton on every nuance of the script.
“The whole thing was pretty painless, actually, because they were word perfect when they came to do it. The best actors I have worked with have said my stuff is very rhythmic. It’s easy to learn in that sense, but if you fight against those rhythms then it’s a struggle,” he says.
“On the other hand, some quite famous actors will say, ‘I’m here to act, not to say your words’. They will get a sense of the scene but not necessarily your words. They need to be taken outside and hit with a blunt instrument for a while.”
The thought leads him back to George Cole in Minder, although not in a bad way.
“With George as Arthur Daley, they had a great actor and a genius. But what is not perhaps realised is that he was absolutely committed to the script. With George it was all about the words on the page,” he says. “He was very sweet to me when I started on Minder. He said to me once, ‘I like your work, but do you mind if I don’t say that line?’. And I thought, ‘Oh God’, but he said, ‘Let’s do it your way first’, which he did and it got a laugh from the crew, and then he did it his way and everybody fell about laughing. Comedy is as much about what is not said as what is said.”
Stephen Tompkinson was the star name in Ivory’s latest BBC series, Truckers, and he’s thrilled that his old friend has reminded viewers that he can play comedy as well as drama. Viewers who saw Tompkinson’s character climb to the top of his lorry in Nottingham city centre and strip down to a turquoise thong will remember the moment for some time to come.
“I’ve wanted to write something for him for years because I think he’s a fantastic actor,” Ivory says. “The thing about Steve is that he makes it look very easy, and you forget how good he is. We used to go out drinking a bit in Manchester when I was in Coronation Street. I did some Minder for him, but we’ve never been able to get anything together since. He’s brilliant in it, he can make comedy real.”
What of the future then? A body of work spanning more than 20 years is now behind him, including The Sins with Pete Postlethwaite as well as the BAFTA-nominated Made in Dagenham. So what’s next?
Ivory says a musical version of Made in Dagenham is being workshopped, with Gemma Arterton lined up to appear, but he’s not involved in the writing. Instead, his intray is bursting with another drama for the BBC and two feature films, one of which is to be directed by Shane Meadows.
“I don’t want to say much for fear of giving it the kiss of death,” he says, only adding when pressed that in their sights is the life of Nottingham cyclist Tom Simpson, a controversial world champion who, in 1967, collapsed and died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux.
With so much to write, it looks like 2014 will be another busy year for Ivory. Let’s see who notices.
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