You may not have heard of Paul Weiland unless you happen to be connected to the advertising world, but soon you'll know more about his early life than it feels decent to know about a stranger. You'll discover his chronic inadequacy at school, his neurotic sense of failure, his asthma attacks, his dad's mental disorder, his mum's compulsive tidiness, his brother's one-upmanship, his uncle's accident, his aunt's crap cooking... And most of all you'll know about the worst day of his life.
It was 30 July 1966, the Saturday on which England beat West Germany in the World Cup final. It was a day of delirious rejoicing for the whole population, except for one 12-year-old boy - because that was also the date of his bar mitzvah, the day on which he came to man's estate in the Jewish faith, when he was due to be admired and celebrated by his adoring family and friends in a sumptuously catered London hotel suite. In fact, the event was scaled down until it became a modest tea-party in the living-room at home, and most of the guests rang to cry off, citing flu, food poisoning and funerals, preferring not to mention their appointment in front of the TV, watching Messrs Moore, Charlton and Hurst stiff the Huns.
That's the plot of Sixty-Six, the new £8m movie to emerge from a gathering of talents that collectively define British cinema: Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, co-chairmen of Working Title Films; Richard Curtis, the one-man engine of film comedy from Mr Bean to Love Actually; and a few stalwarts of home-grown comedy-drama, such as Helena Bonham Carter, Catherine Tate and Stephen Rea. People will probably call Sixty-Six "the new Richard Curtis film" and it certainly features several trademark effects. There's a last-act rescue dash in a car (see Notting Hill, Love Actually) lots of swelling music (passim), some humorous subtitles (passim), even a revelatory piece of film footage (see Love Actually). But Curtis was content with the role of executive producer.
"Richard didn't want to be the writer on this movie because this is my story," says Weiland. "What was important was his knowledge as a successful screenwriter, and he helped a lot in that area. But the film's tone has to be important, and the pain - that had to feel real, not a manufactured thing."
There's no question about how deeply Weiland feels the slights of his childhood. Forty years after the events, he sits in the offices of The Paul Weiland Film Company near Carnaby Street, a multimillionaire with a £4m estate in Wiltshire, a wife and four children. In the 1990s, his company won the top British TV Awards prize five years running. He is monumentally successful, yet at his 50th birthday dinner, in front of Curtis, Bevan, Fellner and a host of starry chums, he devoted his speech to the 30 July fiasco, as if it were the most important event in his half-century. Afterwards, he was mobbed by friends insisting he turn the events into a movie.
"I had a lot of Jewish friends at the dinner, like Alan Yentob and Michael Green, who were very taken with the speech - at the way that, having done quite well, I'd allow myself to be seen as I used to be. Most people from that background tend not to take their baggage with them. I do because I find a lot of humour in it. When things go terribly right for you, you become dull."
The film, being a bittersweet comedy, softens the harsh outlines of adolescence for Weiland Minor. His father Manny (Eddie Marsan) is given an endearing form of obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than the borderline insanity that afflicted the real man. His mother (Bonham Carter) is made houseproud and anxious rather than distant and disengaged from her son. The real Weiland household in Palmer's Green seems to have been a nightmare of kvetching, worrying and keeping up with the Joneses.
"My dad was a worrier and my mum caught it too. We couldn't book holidays when I was a kid because my father would worry so much about closing up the shop, his ulcer would burst. We always found ourselves in taxis driving from one hotel to the next in high season trying to find a room, and we'd always end up in some grotty annexe or in the highest room in the hotel with the neon sign flashing all night."
Marsan had the hard task of playing Weiland Snr. "I wasn't impersonating Paul's father," he says. "Because he was so ill, many of his traits were so unattractive you couldn't put them into a redeemable character in a film. I was playing a watered-down version. The advantage, though, was that all Paul's affinities with his father came out. There'd be scenes when he was full of compassion for Manny, and it was really easy to create what he wanted. Other scenes were full of frustration - he'd say: 'No, he used to do that, and it used to drive me mad.'"
Marsan gives a stormingly emotional performance as the permanently fretful Manny. It's surprising to find he isn't Jewish himself, though he grew up in Bethnal Green, in London's East End. "Paul introduced me to a lot of Jewish people, the generation who now live in Hampstead or Swiss Cottage. They'd say to me: 'You're so like my father.' They thought I was acting Jewish, when in fact I was just acting East End, where their fathers used to live."
Weiland's main family trouble was being ignored. He felt invisible at home, where his parents fussed over his older brother, and invisible at school, where he failed to shine. In the film he takes revenge on his life by recreating the time, place and dramatis personae, but changing the ending. He filmed at his old school, De Bohun's in Southgate - "I wanted to stand by the wall against which I was never picked" - as well as at Cockfosters and North Southgate Synagogue, where he was bar-mitzvahed. "I just thought, look, if I'm to go on this very cathartic journey, how gorgeous is it to go to those places and be in control for once? And recreate it the way you'd have liked it to turn out?"
Weiland has a life-long store of resentments, a result of the long-term effect of childhood on the supposed grown-up. "You're not dealing with the end of the world in this film, just a kid who wanted something very badly but, like a lot of kids in the Sixties, didn't get it. I wanted a train set. Mum said: 'No, it'll attract too much dirt.' I wanted a Scalextric set, she said: 'No, you can't have that.' The minute I earned any money, I bought myself the biggest Scalextric set I could find. You see, nothing ever changed in my house. But my whole life has been spent changing things, saying: 'Let's get rid of this or that.'"
What gets changed in the film is the ending of that fateful day, 30 July. Instead of enduring a family non-event, the young Bernie/Paul gets to - but no, I couldn't possibly spoil it for you. It's an amazingly implausible, upbeat, happy-family finale, in which just one line ("My father was my best friend for one day") hints that things weren't all that rosy, even in the fantasy version of Weiland's life. "The truth was, of course, there was no fixing my dad. I think that's why I chose a profession where I was always going to be fixing things, fixing scripts, finding the heart of an idea. So when I did this film, what I wanted was how I would have liked it to have been."
Weiland pauses, as the significance of his compulsive, therapeutic delving into the past occurs to him once more. "As a film director, I had the power to rewrite history. It's as if Working Title gave me the money to make the most expensive home movie in history."
'Sixty-Six' opens on FridayReuse content