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Putting the world to rights: Trevor Griffiths on Olivier's dope-smoking, Marxist ranting and his 20-year purgatory

Olivier begged him for a role, Jonathan Pryce owes him his career, and his harrowing play about the NHS received near-record public response. So why has it taken 20 years for Trevor Griffiths' masterpiece about the great reformer Thomas Paine to finally make it to the stage?

"The last thing the audience will see," Trevor Griffiths told me, "is an enormous bulldozer which will advance towards them, downstage, showering them in body parts."

"Whose body parts?"

"Their own."

Griffiths was lying on the carpet in his workroom, staring at the ceiling. "Read that," he told me. On his desk was a newspaper article that quoted an interviewee who was recalling how he had used a military bulldozer to demolish shacks in a refugee camp at Jenin on the West Bank, killing Palestinian women and children who were asleep in their beds.

"I tied my Real Madrid scarf around my head," the man said, "drank half a bottle of vodka, turned on the ignition and shifted into gear."

This conversation took place a couple of years ago, at Trevor Griffiths' house in Boston Spa, between Leeds and York. I mention it now just in case you might have assumed that Griffiths, who is 74, might have mellowed with age.

The Jenin play was never produced. There have been quite a few such disappointments in Griffiths' life – an extraordinary number, actually, when you consider that this man co-wrote the 1981 epic Reds, starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton. Reds was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best screenplay, and won three. Comedians, Griffiths' classic 1975 piece set in a night-school class for stand-up artists, made an international star of actor Jonathan Pryce after it transferred to Broadway. The play, set in Griffiths' native Manchester, remains the most powerful artistic contribution to the enduring debate as to where bold irreverence stops, and bullying begins, in that branch of theatre.

Of all Trevor Griffiths' unrealised ventures, the most extraordinary is These Are the Times, his life of Thomas Paine. It was commissioned as a film in 1989 by Sir Richard Attenborough who, despite his stamina, enthusiasm and formidable connections, has failed, as yet, to persuade any studio to film the script, which Attenborough calls "an amazing tour de force". These Are the Times represents, I would argue, the finest piece of work Griffiths has ever produced. Among the many people who lobbied for the project was the late Kurt Vonnegut, who saw the screenplay when it was published as a paperback in 2005.

"I read the book with envy and admiration," Vonnegut wrote. "The screenplay of These Are the Times reads like the greatest of novels. It is the most thrilling read I have had in years. It seems there is no market for wit and wisdom and history."

Later this month, at the Globe Theatre in London, These Are the Times will finally be presented as a play (renamed for the stage as A New World), in the year that marks the 200th anniversary of Paine's death. I arrange to meet Griffiths at King's Cross station, on an afternoon train, as he travels back to Yorkshire from closed rehearsals.

I have to declare an interest at this point: one of his unmade projects was a film proposal based on a novel I published in 2002; we have remained on good terms ever since. In that time I have discovered Trevor Griffiths to be a man who lacks practicality and yet – by some unfortunate quirk of circumstance – seems to have a gift for precipitating situations in which that quality would be invaluable. At King's Cross, because I'm late, I'm only faintly aware of a kind of hysterical scrum taking place as I walk down platform three; it is only later, when the writer arrives to join me in our carriage, that I realise he was at the centre of it. '

"I tripped up back there," Griffiths tells me. "I was so determined not to fall that I started whirling around, in this kind of grotesque dance, in the crowd. I managed to stay on my feet; I had my wallet in my hand, but once I regained my balance I noticed it was lighter. The plastic bit in the middle – the clip that held my bank cards - has gone. All I have left..." (He shows me the small leather pouch) "...is my train ticket and my library card."

"So where are your bank..."

"They were in the section that flew out of the wallet," Griffiths says. "And landed under the train."

Outside, a railway worker is standing close to the track, using what looks like a fishing rod.

The 15.00 departure to York is delayed. "Would Mr Griffiths..." an announcement begins, "please come to reclaim..."

"Ha!" says Griffiths. Taking his library card for ID – suffering, I can only imagine, from the almost insane delusion that the train crew will not remember him – he sets off for the guard's van.

As Kurt Vonnegut asserted, These Are the Times is an extraordinary rendering of one of the most neglected lives in history. Tom Paine, born in Thetford, Norfolk, was a founding father of the American nation, having urged its people to fight for independence, with his 1776 pamphlet "Common Sense". He moved to France, where his treatise "The Rights of Man" (1791) crucially influenced the course of the revolution. More than two centuries ago, Paine was arguing for free education, pensions, equal rights for women and the abolition of hereditary power. In Paris he was first elected, then imprisoned. He also found time to design the first Wearmouth bridge, which opened in 1796. Yet Paine died in obscurity in New York City. Six mourners attended his funeral.

Griffiths' play carries strong overtones of the moral standards of modern politics: the fear of terror whipped up, then used to erode liberties; unarmed civilians killed by British armed forces; flagrant corruption concealed by senior government officials. Not so long ago, Griffiths says, he came across a line he hadn't previously known. "Paine wrote: 'Hunger is not a postponable want.' Now that," the playwright adds, "is a modern thought."

"Speculation, peculation [embezzlement] and an insatiable search for self-enrichment may well have got the better of every other consideration in many of our countrymen," George Washington remarks, in These Are the Times, "but ye lift up yer head to speak it, Mr Paine, ye'll catch a [musket] ball."

The play draws together Trevor Griffiths' favourite themes and artistic strengths: the rage and compassion born of injustice, the impossibility of sustaining integrity in the face of real politique; romance in the least likely of settings, and graveyard humour. These Are the Times is nothing short of a triumph.

As Attenborough recollects, when he called Griffiths to suggest the idea of a work on Paine, there was silence at the other end of the line.

"'Hallo? Mr Griffiths? Are you still there?'

"Eventually, choked with emotion, came the reply: 'Looking for a razor.'

'I beg your pardon?'

'To slit my throat.'"

Griffiths, Attenborough explains, meant he would have given his lifeblood to write the script. It has since been turned down by film producers in Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and by BBC Television. (Though Radio 4, under current controller Mark Damazer, had the wit to broadcast a production in 2008.)

"This is just a personal view," I tell Griffiths, "but have you noticed how the people with the power to commission television drama in this country – you might take the BBC as an example – fund programmes where critics bang on about how bewildered they are that we can't produce anything as ambitious and original as what they achieve in America. At the same time, controllers are putting their big money into orthodox, competently scripted dramas based on classic novels and monarchs: trouble-free material they can sell on, across the English-speaking world. New work by radical young playwrights, or proven but less orthodox talents such as yourself and Alan Bleasdale, seems to be treated with indifference or disdain. Am I wrong to believe certain executives should be hanging their heads in shame?"

Griffiths – still euphoric at being reunited with his credit cards – is in no mood to get bitter.

"There was one great advantage to not getting These Are the Times made; I wasn't interfered with. I've ended up with something I'm very proud of. The published screenplay generated an extraordinary response. The faxes from Kurt Vonnegut kept coming through. They just got hotter and hotter. He sent the book to a huge number of people in Hollywood. And then he died."

To some, who best remember his early political plays such as The Party, produced by the National Theatre in 1973 (starring Laurence Olivier in his last stage role, as John Tagg, a Glaswegian Communist), Griffiths exists as some curious spectre from the early 1970s. In their minds, he's an unreformed Marxist likely to use the word "dialectic" more often than the rest of us employ the definite article.

"That," I suggest, "is how your enemies consider you; that's how they define 'Trevor Griffiths Territory'."

"Yes, but only because they define it. Six- page-long turgid speeches about Marx."

Part of his problem has been the ephemeral nature of television drama. People old enough to remember Olivier's performance in The Party (a critique of British socialism which does, admittedly, contain a speech that lasts 20 minutes) tend to have forgotten Through the Night, Griffiths' 1975 TV play about the NHS's cavalier treatment of a breast-cancer patient, played by a young Alison Steadman. Like Bicycle Thieves, Through the Night is a classic work so intense that you wouldn't want to watch it twice.

That play generated a greater public response than any one-off piece in the history of British television, apart from Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home. The Daily Mirror alone received 1,800 letters after its broadcast. But Through the Night is simply not a work people remember Griffiths for, any more than Country (1981), a not wholly unsympathetic study of a Tory family on the eve of the 1945 Labour landslide, or Last Place on Earth, his epic TV drama about the race to the South Pole, broadcast in 1985. At one point the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen quotes a Norse poem: "Cattle die. Kings die. Even you will die. The one thing that does not die is judgment over the dead." And, in the case of a playwright, Griffiths might have added, judgment over the living.

"There are," he says, "significant areas of my sensibility that have absolutely nothing to do with dialogues about Marxism, and everything to do with relationships."

He orders a coffee from the trolley.

"I gave up drinking in 1972," he says. "I wanted to be lean and fit, to be a better writer."

Griffiths laughs easily. He has proved immediately engaging to many – none more so than Sir Laurence Olivier, when he was working with Griffiths, then 38, on The Party.

"He has a wedge-shaped face and eyes remarkably close together for so nice a man," Olivier said. "I liked him enormously. I couldn't take my eyes off him. I was queer for him."

Griffiths faces the world with a kind of amiable curiosity; at the same time you wouldn't want to cross him. Years ago he was attacked by the late Frank Marcus, theatre critic of The Sunday Telegraph. "Having had the opportunity of reading his criticism for some years," Griffiths wrote in reply, "I don't think I would go to Mr Marcus for the time, even if there were only the two of us and he had the watch."

There's still something in him of the schoolteacher he once was. His world view was largely shaped by Albert Smith, head teacher at Birch Hall School, near Oldham, where Griffiths taught in the 1950s. "Smith was an anarchist," Griffiths says, "a brilliant guy. One of the first people to graduate from Oxford in sociology. He taught me how to be a real person."

"Real? As opposed to what?"

"A lying, treacherous, deceptive bastard."

We take a taxi from York to Boston Spa, where he lives with his second wife, Gill, another former schoolteacher, who works as his literary assistant. They married in 1992, though their relationship began in the 1970s. Griffiths' other companion is Cissie, the cat. Cissie lost a leg after being hit by a car. When the sun is out, as it is now, he wheels her down the garden in a barrow and lifts her in to a chicken-wire compound that the playwright calls "Guantanamo Bay".

I sit down with Trevor Griffiths in his office, and he begins to talk about his early life in Manchester. He was born on 4 April 1935, son of Ernest, who cleaned out vats in a factory making sulphuric acid, and Ann, a bus conductor. Griffiths grew up in various working-class areas of east Manchester. Between the ages of two and five he lived with his maternal grandmother, because his father couldn't afford to house the family. Thanks to the 1944 Education Act ("which arrived too late for my brother Brian, who's two years older"), Trevor went to St Bede's College, a prestigious school near Moss Side. Brian worked as a shirt-cutter and cab driver.

"I was taught by Jesuits," Griffiths says. "They were bastards. They knocked the shit out of me. But they gave me an education I could only dream about."

His teachers urged him to attend an interview at Downing College, Cambridge. "I went home and told my dad. He said: 'How much is it to get to Cambridge?' I said, '£9 for the weekend.' He said: 'That's a week's wages for me.' So I told him, 'I don't want to go to Cambridge. I can go to Manchester.' My mother said that, afterwards, he cried."

He taught for three years, then, in the early 1960s, joined the BBC as an educational liaison officer. After he married his first wife, Janice, in 1960, he was a liberal-studies lecturer at Stockport Technical College. Almost every detail of his life – from the occupations of his relatives, down to the name of the road he was born in, is transferred to Bill Brand, the eponymous hero of his 1976 political drama. This pioneering 11-part TV series was notable, among other things, for giving Nigel Hawthorne the character he would replicate in Yes Minister. (By some twisted prescience which seems to amuse Griffiths, who supports Manchester City, Brand's mistress, played by Cherie Lunghi, is named Alex Ferguson.)

One of the curious things about the way Trevor Griffiths has been stigmatised as a writer for Men With Beards is that his work draws closely on his own emotional experience, some of which has been so traumatic that he appears close to breaking down when recalling it.

Through the Night was inspired by his first wife, Janice. "Around 1961, Jan wanted to start a family. We couldn't. It emerged that she had TB of the womb, so she had to have it removed."

They adopted three children: Sian, Emma and Joss, now in their early forties.

"Then Janice went into hospital again, after being on a waiting list for months. She had a lump in her breast that was getting bigger. First they gave her a large dose of pethidine [a fast-acting opiate]. Then they gave her the consent form. It basically said: 'We believe this to be non-malignant but whatever we now discover, you empower us to treat it as we see fit.' So she went in for a biopsy and woke up without a breast. That was such a trauma for her."

During the two weeks she spent in hospital, he recalls, "Jan kept a journal. My part of the coping process was to try to make that experience usable, especially to women."

One especially poignant aspect of Through the Night is the way the young working-class woman is intimidated by older doctors who, as she puts it, "treat me as if I'm already dead". If there's a line that resonates from this play, it's the advice from her one sympathetic clinician: 'Do not thank. Demand.'"

Recently, Griffiths sent his children a copy. "Emma rang me. She said she watched it alone and she wept. But then you think; this is only a play, for God's sake."

"Janice died in May 1977..."

"In a plane crash, flying from Portugal to Cuba. We'd separated six years earlier. What a life." '

The Aeroflot Ilyushin airliner, which had begun its journey in Moscow, collided with power lines on its approach to Havana. Of 70 passengers and crew, two survived.

Griffiths was living alone, but close to his family.

"Where were you when you heard?"

"I was driving my three kids down to Southampton, to see the husband of the friend who'd gone to Cuba with Jan. They had four children. He told me, when I got there. It just broke us, as a family. It broke our lives. Sian was 11, Emma was 10 and Jess was nine. There was no funeral. We went to the grounds of Harewood House, near Leeds, the four of us. And we sat on this knoll where we used to have picnics, when..." Griffiths pauses. "When there were five of us."

He digresses, as though the memory is too much.

"I remember how, back when I was teaching, one of the school's horses got cancer and had to be killed. I went up, purely to watch. They cut its throat. Blood poured out. I watched a life ending and yet I had no feelings about it, other than as an observer. I think that was the moment I realised I should be a writer."

"Why then?"

"Because I believe writers should stare into the heart of darkness, if it is there. And not flinch, or turn away."

Trevor Griffiths began his drama career at a Manchester theatre called The Stables, owned by Granada TV. Kenneth Tynan came to see Occupations, Griffiths' play about Italian communist Antonio Gramsci and the workers' appropriation of car factories in Turin in the 1920s, starring Richard Wilson. Tynan, literary manager of the National Theatre, commissioned The Party, the play that introduced Griffiths to Laurence Olivier.

"That seems a weird thing for Olivier to have said: 'I was queer for him.'"

"Oh, it isn't. He used to stay with Noël Coward and his friends in Mustique. Olivier smoked dope. He claimed that he didn't, but he did. I know because I gave him a joint. He got very mellow."

At one performance of The Party, in the interval, Griffiths recalls, "I went in to Olivier's dressing-room. He was standing there, in his trousers, his shirt hanging down. Some valet was mopping him. He had a bottle of whisky in his hand; he was just hoovering it. He said, 'I always do this when I've finished.' I said, 'You haven't finished. There's another hour.' He said, 'Yes but that acts itself, dear boy. Come! Give me a kiss,' by which he meant a peck. He was gaily affectionate. I liked spending time with him. Even if wasn't time that enlarged you intellectually."

Griffiths was already working on Comedians, an idea inspired by an evening class he'd seen at a Labour Club in Manchester. Eddie Waters, a retired Lancashire comedian, is schooling a group of young stand-ups in the technique and, unusually, the moral basis of comedy. His pupils enter a competition judged by Bert Challenor, a Londoner who embodies a more robustly stereotyped tradition of humour, closer in spirit to the work of Jimmy Jones, Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson. Olivier, Griffiths recalls, wanted to play Waters.

"He said: 'It's me, dear boy, it's me!' I told him I needed someone really working-class. I was thinking of [music-hall legend] Max Wall. But Wall said: 'This is the filthiest thing I've ever read in my life.'" (Comedians, now an A-level text, contains mild profanity.)

Another veteran comic, Jimmy Jewel, eventually took the part, in a triumphant first production directed at Nottingham Playhouse by Richard Eyre.

"To tell you the truth," Griffiths says, of Comedians, "for a time I couldn't stand the fucking play. I'd had so much to do with it. For a time, everything I wrote felt like it. Last Place on Earth shook that out of me."

Comedians will be revived at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in the autumn. "I am so excited about this production. Eddie Waters is being played by Matthew Kelly. We have Reece Shearsmith, from The League of Gentlemen; my close friend Kulvinder Ghir [from Goodness Gracious Me!]; and Keith Allen, who will play Challenor."

By 1977, Griffiths was already working on Reds, the story of John Reed, the American reporter and communist who covered the Bolshevik Revolution and was proud to be buried in the Kremlin wall in 1920. The playwright spent 11 weeks writing the first draft.

"I know you left before it started filming," I tell Griffiths. "But I watched Reds the other night; I couldn't believe how well it has aged. How much of your original vision is in the finished version?"

"I'd say 45 per cent. My first draft was 320 pages. The second involved co-writing with Beatty. The third I had nothing to do with."

"What went wrong?"

"What's ludicrous, in the finished film, is that there's Stalinism throughout the script, but no Stalin. Where is he?"

"So you disagreed with Warren Beatty?"

"Mainly. But my folly was to believe movies were like plays; that you can fight for your vision. Forget it. A movie doesn't belong to you at all."

"But Beatty brought the money."

"Absolutely. And the power. And the Oscars. That is power. The ability to write is neither here nor there. Who gives a shit?" He shows me the respectful but coruscating letter he wrote to Beatty when he left.

I tell him, "I think Diane Keaton is really impressive in Reds." (Keaton plays Reed's wife, and fellow-writer, Louise Bryant.)

"I do too. I was wholly wrong about Diane, who I didn't think was right for the part. I spent a weekend with her and Beatty in Atlantic City. Meeting her, I saw a contemplative, intelligent person. That was a big learning experience for me, because I'm too quick to condemn people."

Trevor Griffiths hit it off with Jack Nicholson, who appears in Reds, and he remains very close to Bob Rafelson, director of Five Easy Pieces. Griffiths, however, never took to Los Angeles. If he'd only compromised on Reds, we'd be conducting this conversation in a mansion in west Hollywood, by a swimming pool in the shape of a hammer and sickle.

"Maybe so, but the thing is, I'm a bastard in one sense: as soon as I feel there's not something right, I have to say so."

An email alert sounds on his laptop. Griffiths breaks off to watch a clip someone's sent him of a flash-mobbing event at Antwerp railway station, where 200 people dance to Julie Andrews singing "Do-Re-Mi".

"Fantastic," he says. "I love the Belgians."

There are quite a few things Trevor Griffiths has no time for, chief among them the cult of celebrity. He starts talking about Rogue's Gallery, last summer's extraordinary concert of sea shanties organised by producer Hal Willner and performed at the Barbican, with a cast that included Shane MacGowan, Martha Wainwright and Ralph Steadman. He mentions, in passing, that the actor and director Tim Robbins, who also sang that night, had spent the whole afternoon with him, before going on stage.

"We wandered around Smithfield for five hours."

"Doing what?"


"What about?"

"He wanted to produce These Are the Times. It hasn't happened."

But he's less eager to talk about Robbins, Nicholson or Beatty than he is to discuss his friend Brendan Croker, the Leeds-based guitarist, a headstrong virtuoso who shares Griffiths' instinctive distaste for accepting orders. Similarly, when it comes to his own plays, it's the lesser-known work he seems proudest of. We have dinner, then sit down to watch Food for Ravens, his 1997 television play about the death of Aneurin Bevan. It's a tremendous film; the only one he has ever directed. Its opening black-and-white sequence reminds me of Charles Laughton's classic Night of the Hunter.

"I did it all," Griffiths says. "This is my film."

The BBC initially tried to restrict the broadcast to Wales. "They never wanted to make this," Griffiths tells me. "They said they needed 'more popular' material. In the end they put it out at 20 to midnight. No trailer, no listing in Radio Times. No DVD. Even so, it won a Bafta and the Royal Television Society award for Best Drama Production. BBC management couldn't give a shit about that. They wanted it to be fucked and it was. And yet I was so excited when I made this film. It was the most rewarding thing I had done."

The death he depicts in Food for Ravens, Griffiths says, "was basically my dad's. He got lung cancer – I believe because of the work; the contact with the acid. They told him they had to remove a lung because there was 'something nasty' inside. But they told us the truth, my mother and the family. So we had to pretend. When he died, he was screaming in pain. I wrote a story called "Not Even, Perhaps, To Him". The last line is: 'When he died, it came as no surprise; not even, perhaps, to him.'"

Griffiths' unwavering strengths have been imagination, enthusiasm and resilience. It would be wrong to suggest that he spends a great deal of time brooding on what didn't happen; he's much more interested in what's coming next. Unusually for a man of his age, his unprompted conversation is delivered, for the most part, in the future tense.

It's especially exciting to see one of our greatest dramatists anticipating two new productions – These Are the Times and Comedians – that will bring his work to a new generation. When he talks about watching John Light, the young actor who will play Tom Paine at the Globe, Griffiths is immediately energised. "He's wonderful," he says. "He works so hard, in rehearsal." To see him on stage, Griffiths says, "is like watching a turf fire".

He gestures at the scripts and notebooks that line his room; some produced, some not.

"The thing is," Griffiths says, "that there is so much writing. So much fucking writing. Writing is all over the place. Just like air. What I've learnt," he adds, "is that you have to be optimistic. You have to begin somewhere. And where better than the here and the now?"

Shifting back to the future tense just for a moment: will somebody, some day, raise the money to film These Are the Times? For the moment, Trevor Griffiths sounds neither over-optimistic, nor especially troubled. There are no signs of any imminent development, he says. Yet it's hard to believe that Griffiths' talent and persistence will not eventually be rewarded, even if he is currently working in an era which Budd Schulberg, author of On the Waterfront, recently described as: "That most difficult of periods for any writer: a time when the money doesn't trust the talent."

'A New World' is at the Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919, http://shakespeares-globe.com) from 29 August to 9 October. 'Comedians' is at the Lyric Hammersmith (0871 221 1729, www.lyric.co.uk) from 7 October to 14 November. 'These Are the Times' is available from www.spokesmanbooks.com at £15