How We Met: Tim Firth and Sam Mendes

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The Independent Culture
The playwright Tim Firth is 30. His work, which has been staged to great acclaim in Chichester, Scarborough and the West End, includes the award-winning Neville's Island; his television writing includes episodes of The Bill and Minder, and his current series, Preston Front. He, his wife Kate, and son Jack live near Warrington.Theatre director Sam Mendes, 29, began his career at Chichester, and has worked for the RSC and the National Theatre. He Palladium. He is Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse. He lives in London; his girlfriend is Jane Horrocksand the West End, includes the award-winning his career at Chichesters Island; his television writing includes

TIM FIRTH: I met Sam in our first weeks at Cambridge. He was scouting round for people to be in the first play he was going to direct; it had four northerners in it and he didn't know any. It makes me smile because now he's in a long-term relationship with one - Jane Horrocks. Anyway, he offered me a part. It's probably the only time he's ever offered anybody a part without hearing them read!

There was never any doubt in his mind that I wasn't going to do the play, despite the fact that I might've been terrible, and indeed was. We couldn't have a dress rehearsal because I was having panic-induced stomach cramps; but Sam coaxed me through.

Sam and I got on from the start because the same things made us laugh. One day, I showed him a television comedy I'd written before university. He thought it was funny and I told him I didn't want to act; I wanted to write. He said: "If you come back after the holidays with a play, I'll direct it."

The play was partly modelled on Sam. He is a tremendously competitive sportsman who plays a lot of cricket; but it doesn't matter what sport he's playing, it's all taken very seriously. I transported that into my play Burning Down The Wings, which is about people taking table football tremendously seriously.

I was so pleased to have found someone who shared my passion for the theatre. Knowing someone through theatre can be a false knowledge. When you do a show, you're in this heady pressure cooker of emotion and you feel you're close. But often it's an artificial closeness and, after the show's over, you never speak to each other again. It wasn't like that with Sam: we went to parties and pubs together and he was one of the few people at university that I could talk to about "affairs of the heart".

At university, Sam and I formed the Watershed Floating Theatre Com-pany and one summer 10 of us toured the pubs along the Cheshire Canal Ring with a revue of sketches and songs. We got on the local news; there's footage in the BBC North West files of Sam dancing and doing a rap - the only time on record that he has ever acted.

After university, our friendship continued to be underpinned by the theatre. Within 10 months of leaving, Sam was directing plays at Chichester Festival Theatre - one of them mine. I turned up at Chichester with my play Heartlands to find Sam swanning around saying "hello" to all these famous actors. As he nodded at Ned Sherrin and stopped to talk to Paul Eddington, I tagged along behind feeling completely out of my depth. I had this feeling that he'd made it and left me behind. He even looked like the moody director. He started wearing this posy black leather jacket and reminded me of a picture I'd seen of Trevor Nunn when he was 21. I used to take the piss out of Sam about that.

After Heartlands, Sam took over London Assurance at Chichester. It went into the West End in 1989 and that was it - he went on to direct The Cherry Orchard with Judi Dench and he was all over the Sunday supplements. It was the first time that I'd known anybody who had recognition on a national scale. There was this feeling of "Can we ever go back to being friends?" I stopped ringing Sam because I thought that he was too busy having lunch with Judi Dench to talk to me. After a few months he rang up out of the blue, which was lovely. It was a sign to me that he hadn't changed.

The same year I was commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn to write a play for Scarborough. Sam has always been my biggest critic and I stood at the back of the theatre, watching him watching my play. It was a lovely moment for me when I saw the audience falling about laughing and Sam laughing too. We were on equal terms: I'd had a play performed independently of Sam and it had gone all right.

I don't think that our relationship has changed much. I still take the piss out of him: he's stopped wearing that jacket, so now my target is his cricket. He gets at me about the Elton John songs I like to sing, and my hair - I got it cut because I was so sick of his ritual sarcasm.

We've been getting together to talk about a new play, but we always end up pratting about. Last month, we met in a pub to throw a few ideas around. We got bored and decided to go ten- pin bowling: it turned into the bloody battle of the gladiators. The only thing that mattered was whether Sam was going to get a strike on his last at-tempt. He didn't, and I beat him, and that was the end of the world for him. So then we played a game where you knock a shuttle across a table. He beat me, purely by virtue of the Conan the Barbarian energy he managed to summon from nowhere, to make sure that I didn't win both competitions.

SAM MENDES: I don't remember the specific occasion that I met Tim, but it was in our first term at Cam-bridge. I have a memory of him in his room which had big cushions and a huge ghetto-blaster: there was the smell of toast and Elton John was always playing. Tim wore a leather bomber jacket and had lots of hair: the joke has always been that he had a Kevin Keegan hairstyle.

I liked Tim because he was unaffected and relaxed, he seemed at ease with himself and the world, enviably so. Also we shared the same sense of humour. My great heroes were John Cleese, Peter Sellers, Ronnie Barker, Arthur Lowe and Leonard Rossiter: Tim absolutely loved them as well.

I'd always wanted to direct a play and it was easy at Cambridge because there are theatres all over the place. I decided to do Little Malcom And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs by David Halliwell. I asked Tim, not because he was a northerner, but because I wanted his warmth and comic gift on stage. He was absolutely brilliant: He turned the lead down, which is very Tim-like, and decided to play Ingham, the bumbling, monosyllabic, painfully shy side-kick. I dispute his suggestions that he was a bad actor. After Tim was in my play, he gave me Burning Down The Wings. I read it and thought "Hooray, I've found somebody who writes the sort of plays I like!" Funny, humane - it bore all the hallmarks of the plays that Tim writes now. It had a structural flaw at the end, but it was clear that Tim was a natural.

Tim asked me if I fancied going on a barge trip and performing at pubs along the Cheshire Canal Ring. I thought "What a ridiculous idea" and said "Yes". Tim wrote everything and we rehearsed in a church hall near where we lived in Warrington. Then we slept on the barge for a week, getting off to perform sketches and songs. It was a beautiful summer and there was much drunken revelry on the roof of the barge. I always think that trip firmed up my friendship with Tim. I have a video of it, and occasionally I force Tim to watch it and we reminisce.

After university I became assistant director at Chichester and I got my bosses to commission a new play from Tim called Heartlands. That was the last play that we did together: on the strength of Heartlands Tim was commissioned by Alan Ayckbourn to write a play for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

I watched the show and realised that Tim had written a play equal to one of Ayckbourn's. Everybody was saying what a wonderful writer he was and I felt proud of him.

In 1989 there was a period when I didn't see Tim. I'd been flung into this new world, which felt very glamorous and exciting; but I quickly realised that I didn't want to abandon my friends. When I got back in touch Tim wasn't pissed off at all. That's what's so nice about our friendship: it's always been very easy and unpressured and there have been no rows or destructive moments. Tim is loyal, patient, almost without ego - his only faults are making bad jokes about cricket, singing Elton John songs and being too nice. It sometimes does him a disservice. I say to him "You're a really talented guy, you can be queeny if you want to. People aren't going to mind if you stand up and say 'No, no, no. It's my play, or it's my television series, and I want to do it this way.' "

Tim and I see each other every couple to London to work on his myriad television series. Recently we've been talking partners second, we spend three hours catching up on each other's news before we do any work. Tim doesn't like spending much time in the city and prefers to get home to Kate and Jack. He's always got his train timetable in his pocket and, as we're polishing off our meal at 9.10pm, he'll whip it out and say, "Oh, I could catch the nine twenty-five back to Warrington."

Tim absolutely loves where he lives and the people and the place fuel his playwriting. Recently, he took me up a hill near where he lives. As we reached the crest he said "Look, isn't it beautiful?" It was evening, the sun was setting, there were chimneys puffing smoke. You could see down over Liverpool, Manchester and Warring- ton. I would never have classed it as beautiful, but he meant what he said, and I thought, "Yes, it is." !

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