William Boyd on debut play Longing - and why Daniel Craig isn't right for his James Bond

The celebrated author, set to publish a 007 novel in September, feels 'like a new boy on his first day at school' as his theatrical debut, based on short stories by Anton Chekhov, is staged in London

“I’ve never gone over the top in the First World War, I’ve never killed anybody, I’ve never been a woman…” William Boyd is listing the leaps of imagination he has taken while writing his 11 novels.

Few would question the credentials, however, of the man behind Waiting For Sunrise, Ordinary Thunderstorms and spy story Restless, winner of the Costa Novel of the Year Award and the basis for a BBC television drama starring Hayley Atwell broadcast over Christmas.

But the author's latest test of imagination has seen him become both Anton Chekhov and the James Bond author Ian Fleming almost simultaneously -a mammoth combination for a self-confessedly “idle” author.

The twist is that instead of portraying the authors as characters, like he did with Fleming in Any Human Heart and Chekhov in The Pigeon, Boyd actually had to write like them. His new James Bond novel will be published in September and he has turned two Chekhov short stories, the famous My Life and the little known A Visit to Friends, into a new work, Longing.

We meet at Boyd’s beautiful Chelsea home. Under strict instructions not to spill the beans on his take on Fleming’s spy (“Someone will come and kill me if I say any more”), Boyd repeats what we already know: that his Bond will be middle-aged and the novel will be set in 1969, just five years after Fleming died aged 54, and when “conceivably he might have written another one had he lived”. Boyd does expand on why Daniel Craig won’t play his 007 and why Hollywood will certainly not be keen on it, but more on that later.

Boyd tells me about the “slightly schizoid shift” authors must navigate to speak, think and write like their characters. Channelling the words of two real, historically recognisable people, whose only similarities are that they both died young and were writers who left epic legacies (Fleming's spawning a 50-year film franchise, and the consumptive Russian's plays, such as The Cherry Orchard, still being performed the world over a century on) is daunting to say the least. But Boyd appears unfazed. 

What he is feeling insecure about, however, is that his Chekhov project, Longing, is for the stage and not for the page. Quite surprisingly given his prolific film, television and radio writing it is Boyd’s first theatre play. “I feel sort of stage struck. A new boy on his first day at school,” he says talking about the production set to open at the Hampstead Theatre on 28 February starring Tamsin Greig, Iain Glen and John Sessions and directed by Nina Raine.

In earlier interviews Boyd described his wish to write a play as the monkey on his back. He says he probably put the monkey there himself because he loves the theatre so much. Longing came about because “the story I had could only have been a play” and the enormously successful writer, 60, appears boyishly nervous about it, placing his hands together and fidgeting.

“I wrote one little one act play for the National Theatre’s youth programme called Six Parties a couple of years ago. But it was only on for a couple of nights so I didn’t really lose my virginity, as it were,” he says.

The reason for Boyd’s anxiety when it comes to treading the boards harks back to his student days in Glasgow when he was the university newspaper’s theatre critic. “I went to every first night at the amazing Citizens Theatre which was probably the most exciting theatre in Britain in the 1970s. Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald who ran it were unbelievably audacious in what they did. So as a theatrical education for me it was matchless.”

Longing, set in an unnamed provincial 1880s Russian town, is a comi-tragic hotchpotch of relationships combining the desperation of the wealthy brought low with the ambitions of their social lessers and the sexual and marital pressures withal. Its central male character, Kolia, taken from A Visit To Friends is “very plausibly a self-portrait by Chekhov” Boyd tells me.

Chekhov left the story “which contains the germ of The Cherry Orchard” out of his collected works, very unusually for him. Boyd thinks that the tale of a man who cannot commit to love (Chekhov himself went from one woman to the next) was just too close to the bone. “I think women who loved Chekhov who read A Visit To Friends would think ‘Been there, done that.’ So that’s an interesting subtext, playing with Chekhov’s own analysis of his own particular emotional problems.”

Born in Ghana, Boyd was educated at the infamous Gordonstoun boarding school in Moray, Scotland and his family hail from Fife. His soft Scottish accent strengthens when he talks about the country, marvelling that the Hampstead production has attracted fellow Scots Glen, Sessions, Alan Cox and even, distantly, Greig. “Scotland, this little country, is a bit like Russia before the revolution: decaying aristocrats, a thrusting mercantile class, a working class, an urban working class and a peasant crofter class,” he says.

As well as making use of the cast’s Scottish heritage (Sessions will adopt a strong Glaswegian burr for the part) Boyd is also keen to utilise his director Nina Raine’s whose great uncle was Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. “She’s got a strong Russian family connection herself so I hope that Russian vibe will pay off for us.”

Taking a schizoid shift of my own I decide to move the conversation on from eighteenth century Russia to make a last ditch appeal for more information about James Bond. Indicating with an uncomfortable glance at the window that snipers might be trailing us from across the street Boyd gives a wry laugh. He tells me there is a joined up 007 PR machine covering both the film and publishing empire that “has begun the drip-feed of information” that he can’t interfere with.

But he is clear about one thing: his novel is not being lined up as the basis for a follow-up to Skyfall, the most successful Bond film to date having taken a record £100m at the UK box office, or any other of the spy movies.

“I don’t think they’ll ever make a retro Bond. Even Dr No which was written in 1955 was set in 1962 when the film was made. All the Bond films from then have been completely contemporary. They wouldn’t go back and make a Bond set in 1969. It would throw the whole franchise askew,” he said.

This is a great shame as Daniel Craig, whom Boyd is friends with, will be 45 in March, the exact age of Boyd’s Bond who follows Fleming’s detailed chronology. Much as we might love a period drama it wouldn’t make sense to cast Craig back, Life On Mars-style, five decades, Boyd insists mentioning the gadgets, cars and styles of the day that have come to define each cinematic instalment.

But, he concedes: “It’s interesting in Skyfall to see them referring back, as it were, to Bond’s biography, but of course it is set in 2012 so Bond would have been 88. In a way I have the easier, or more logical, task, because my Bond is living his history. His schooldays, his parenting and upbringing is all there.”

“There is a disconnect between the film Bond and the literary Bond which is their contemporaneity. I don’t suffer from that.”      

Longing is at the Hampstead Theatre 28 February to 6 April; published by Methuen Drama, £9.99 ISBN 9781472517456

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