Nothing personal, old boy

Stephen Daldry is a highly respected director. His debut film, Billy Elliot, looks set to be a hit. He is tipped to take over the National Theatre. So what was it Roger Clarke said to him that made him so paranoid?
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I don't know what it was I said that made him so nervous, but from the start of my interview with the director Stephen Daldry, this smart, elusive and rather flirtatious man became utterly convinced I was trying to stitch him up.

I don't know what it was I said that made him so nervous, but from the start of my interview with the director Stephen Daldry, this smart, elusive and rather flirtatious man became utterly convinced I was trying to stitch him up.

"Is this going to be a lifestyle interview?" he asks warningly right from the offset - a question one might expect from, say, Jennifer Lopez fending off Puff Daddy questions, but not from a cosmopolitan leading light of British theatre. No, no, I assure the forty-something. I'm here to talk about his glittering career as the director of the Royal Court, and to chinwag about his wonderful, touching debut film, Billy Elliot (about an 11-year-old boy, played by Jamie Bell, discovering a passion for ballet in the unlikely environment of a working-class home during the Eighties miners' strike).

But after an hour of stonewalling, double-takes and monosyllabic retorts, I begin to stray into areas to do with his personal life - out of desperation, really, to get him to say something interesting. "I thought we weren't going to talk about lifestyle," he drawls, suspicion flickering in his eyes. Lighten up, old boy, I want to say. Contrary to popular belief, most journalists don't go into interviews wanting to stitch people up. These days it's fashionable to sashay into interviews and immediately assume the prone position.

But Daldry is terrified of all this. Maybe it's because he's been mischievously briefed about me, or it's simply because he's "a control freak" (his words, late in the interview). But once he's started pushing out the vibe that I'm trying to make him say something dangerous, I can't help conforming to his expectations.

Would he like to take over the top job running the National Theatre, currently rather in the air?

"I have absolutely no comment on that," he says in his firmest Prime Minister's Question Time manner. What did he think of the Dome, since he was pivotal in ironing out the lottery funding system for such big projects (via the massive Royal Court rebuild initiated some five years ago)?

"I thought we were going to talk about the film," he states uncomfortably. Bearing in mind the example of fellow theatre mandarins-turned-film-makers Sam Mendes and Nicholas Hytner, did he think that anyone had failed to make the transition from the limelight to the crane-shot as seamlessly as he had? "I wouldn't like to say," he says blankly. Does he think theatre directors always make good film directors, I ask desperately. "Absolutely not."

I don't want to give the impression that he scowled all the way through or was rude or unpleasant; in fact he was laughing much of the time, as if it was all a huge game and this was - wink, wink - how he was going to get the better of me. I don't mind if he wants to get the better of me; but as a talking-head he gives a bad interview - just 60 minutes of tussle, retreat, tussle, retreat. All a bit boring, really.

I can think of nothing in his background that might make him so, though clearly he's a very ambitious and clever man who finds it hard to surrender power to others or delegate (he regales me with the story of how he was trying to take over everyone's job on the Billy Elliot set).

Informal nuggets of his personal life are hard to come by. A brief search of the internet, for example, throws up a Pet Shop Boys site showing him hobnobbing backstage with Chris and Neil and their costume designer Ian MacNeil at the Party in the Park in 1998 with a glass of Pimm's in his hand ("Are you boys all right?" is the surreal but rather endearing quip ascribed to him). He was born a bit of a country bumpkin in Somerset, one who, by his own admission, thought of Bristol as "another country" and London as "another planet" - the son of a bank manager and a former cabaret artist, Daldry is said to have joined an "Italian circus" soon after leaving school. His theatrical career was pretty meteoric; successes at the Edinburgh Fringe, then directorship of the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, then directorship of the Royal Court from 1993 via his production of the long-running JB Priestley play An Inspector Calls, which by all accounts has made him very wealthy indeed.

I ask him directly about the money he's made from a decade of box-office receipts from a major West End production. Has it made you rich, Mr Daldry? Stony silence. I try again. Has it made you quite well off? "Another way of putting it," he begins defensively, silkily, "is that in terms of money-making, the film business is definitely charity work. Most of my contemporaries would agree with me. In theatre you participate in the box-office gross - in film, it's just fees essentially, and the fees are not huge."

Like a perfect conflation of his parental professions, Daldry strikes you as half-cabaret artist, half-bank manager. He's actually very interested in money and knows, unlike many artists, how to handle it. In fact, he's so good with budgets and business plans, he does consultancies with businesses unconnected to the arts. The only time he really came to life with anything like an unguarded moment during the course of our encounter was when he discussed how he spent five years budgeting and supervising the complex building plans at the Royal Court (which has been totally and very successfully remodelled). "It was brilliant. It was one of the happiest times of my life," he enthuses, going on to explain about the cash-flow problems engendered by the National Audit Office. There was, I could see, a blissful meadow of accountancy flow-charts in his mind, where he liked to frolic.

To tell the truth, I couldn't get a handle on him at all as an "artistic" person, someone capable of great leaps of imagination and unusual thinking. "I wish I could say I harboured great ambitions since childhood to move into the movies," he tells me, "and that I had some great Cinema Paradiso moment - but I didn't. I can't remember what films I saw as a child." He tells me he studied and pulled apart films such as Schindler's List and Lawrence of Arabia to learn how to make a movie. But can't he, I protest romantically, name me some of the films that had a formative influence on him? One film that blew him away? "I can't do that," he shrugs indifferently. So how did you move from theatre to film with such apparent ease, clever clogs? He's evasive again. "They're just different."

Are you saying, I continue pushing, you just had this incredible, intuitive grasp of how to swap the necessities of stage with the necessities of film? "I don't think the move is the important thing," he replies, slippery as ever. "People always want to hear I've had a eureka moment. You want me to say that when Jimmy [Bell] walked in through the door we knew it was him. But the truth is he had to do seven auditions, the last one two weeks. Why did I get into film? My friend wrote the script, showed it to me, and I was moved." Moved by what? "The tale." So you're saying Billy Elliot wasn't a labour of love? "I made the film because Working Title took me out to lunch and suggested it."

So that's it, really; as I closed the interview in a rather dejected fashion, Daldry freaked out and rapidly delivered all the saved-up speeches and anecdotes he'd been too preoccupied or defensive to share earlier, none actually worth repeating. He struck me above all as a superb co-ordinator and producer, a great stager, who has somehow managed to create good film by default rather than inspiration. The trouble is, Steve, that's not what cinema-goers want to hear. They need their magic. And if I've stitched you up by saying so - you'll get over it.

'Billy Elliot' is released 29 September

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