Gangsters, gays and the talented Mr Ridley

First 'The Krays', now his new play. Philip Ridley is the original East-End writer. Marcus Field met him
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The Independent Culture

What goes around, comes around. In 1990 a British gangster film was headline news. So were the Kray twins. The two things were related as the film in question was a biopic of the dastardly duo. While much newspaper debate focused on the payment of £225,000 to the convicts for their story, another subject occupied the minds of the critics. Who had penned the strangely surreal script, a story which opens with a swan flying across the words "shall I tell you my dream"? The answer was Philip Ridley, a precocious 25-year-old painter and author of two published novels.

What goes around, comes around. In 1990 a British gangster film was headline news. So were the Kray twins. The two things were related as the film in question was a biopic of the dastardly duo. While much newspaper debate focused on the payment of £225,000 to the convicts for their story, another subject occupied the minds of the critics. Who had penned the strangely surreal script, a story which opens with a swan flying across the words "shall I tell you my dream"? The answer was Philip Ridley, a precocious 25-year-old painter and author of two published novels.

September 2000: Philip Ridley, 35, is sitting in the bar of Hampstead Theatre, North London, where his latest play Vincent River opens this week. It is a modest offering; a short, gritty two-hander with no interval. Some of the themes touched on in The Krays are still here: the potentially poetic world of an East-End life dominated by women and populated by violent, aggressive and sexually ambivalent men. But Ridley's journey from budding young film writer to one of Britain's most maverick creative talents has been a circuitous one.

After the success of The Krays, Ridley turned his back on East-End life and set his next film, which he wrote and directed, in America. The Reflecting Skin is a study of a small community terrorised by a gang of gay paedophile serial killers. What gained the film a cult following was its pairing of shocking subject matter with breathtaking scenery.

Although funded by the BBC for Screen Two, the film was shot on 35mm and premiered at Cannes. Such was the critical acclaim (it became notorious for its opening scene of an exploding toad) that the film was given a general release. "I couldn't walk out of the door without being hit by another award," remembers Ridley. It won 11, and was listed by the LA Times as one of the best 10 films of 1991. In the same year, Ridley was named Most Promising Newcomer in the Evening Standard Film Awards.

The man himself, however, had already moved on. Unlike the heated cultural climate of today, where Hollywood is busy wooing British directors like Sam Mendes and Guy Ritchie, Ridley was left to plough his own furrow. "I never wanted to make films just for the sake of making them," he says. "It takes two years of your life." Instead, he set about developing his career as a playwright and author of children's books.

His first play, The Pitchfork Disney, was staged at the Bush in London in 1991, and Ridley was again fêted by the critics. Four more followed, including Sparkleshark, a production for children at the National which tours this autumn.

But despite all the success, Ridley remains unaffected and resolutely independent. He still lives in the East End block where his grandmother was born and writes everything in Rymans' notebooks with black felt-tipped pens.

His subject matter too remains consistent. "I've been obsessed with the same kinds of things since I started," he says. "Sex fascinates me. But I'm not really interested in stereotypes. My own sex life is so confusing that I've never put myself in a compartment. You can't go through St Martins when I went there [in the mid-Eighties] without doing everything."

Vincent River, his latest play, is the story of a homophobic murder. Anita, the mother of the victim (Vincent) is visited by a stranger - Davey - who knew her son. Together they recount their stories of Vincent's life and gradually facts about their own lives and the circumstances of Vincent's death are painfully revealed.

The theme of homophobic violence is inspired by the Soho bombing. "But it's not a political play," explains Ridley. "It starts with the butchering of somebody. But it soon goes off that. It uses that as a springboard to explore 40 years of history."

Among the concerns of the play is the stigma still attached to certain kinds of homosexuality. "Everyone is very tolerant of gay men now till they see two middle-aged men kissing," says Ridley. "Then it's - ugh! We can be tolerant when they're nice and pretty and Queer as Folk-types. But what about just men? It shows that tolerance is very thin."

There are Ridley-isms too. The crocodile fantasies, the dreams of waking up with wings, the reminiscences ("Before supermarkets there were just biscuits and chocolate biscuits. That was it.") are characteristically lyrical. Altogether it is a potent mix, yet simply presented. If the play is a success, Ridley will be pleased. But he's not waiting for a call from Hollywood. In typical fashion, he's already on to the next thing: a libretto for Scottish Opera, a novel, a film, another children's book. He'd rather leave fame to others. "I had a taste of it with The Krays, and I didn't like it at all," he says. Instead, he continues in his own way. "I'm not in a race with anyone. My aim is just to do the work I believe in." And that's all the better for us.

'Vincent River': Hampstead Theatre, NW3 (020 7722 9301) from Weds to 7 October

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