'Tyneside Tarantino' Torben Betts on why he jumped at the chance to direct Get Carter despite never reading it

Torben Betts reveals the difficulty he faced of adapting the well-loved film for the stage

Torben Betts
Friday 05 February 2016 13:04
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When Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Newcastle’s Northern Stage, asked me just before Christmas, if I’d be interested in adapting Get Carter for his theatre, my reaction was probably something like: “Of course I bloody would. It’s a job. Thanks so much for asking.”

I suspect I then feigned some long-standing admiration for the 1971 film. And then maybe I pretended like I was on intimate terms with the novel (Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis), upon which the aforementioned film is based and that there was no need to send me a copy as I already had one (obviously well-thumbed) on my bookshelf somewhere.

I then put the phone down, quickly Kindled the novel, which I’d never heard of, and started eagerly reading. I later realised I’d never actually seen the film either.

So before any contract was signed, during that period where a playwright feels they may be auditioning for the job with several other writers, I immersed myself in this very brutal tale about a gangster going home to an unspecified town in the North (Scunthorpe or Grimsby, not Newcastle) and seeking revenge upon those he suspects have murdered his brother.

Luckily I brought enough to my face-to-face chat with Mr Campbell to convince him I was the right man for the job. I also decided then and there I wouldn’t watch the film until I’d delivered the final draft of the adaptation. That way I would be coming at the whole thing with a pair of very fresh eyes.

My lack of cool there is probably because I’m a playwright who has rarely been offered anything out of the blue. I’ve certainly chalked up quite a number of professional productions over the last 18 years or so – most recently, London productions of my plays Invincible and Muswell Hill and What Falls Apart at Newcastle’s Live Theatre – but they have almost all come about from me sending in unsolicited scripts and/or badgering theatres for the occasional commission.

Having said that, a few months before Northern Stage’s approach, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre had asked me to do a new version of The Seagull for a production there last summer. So two offers in as many months from the UK theatre establishment – was I feeling the love at last?

Adapting a novel I soon discovered was very different from adapting a play (in this case an extremely well-known and well-loved play). With The Seagull the hard work had already been done. And by someone who knew what he was doing.

The pleasure of writing plays is when you get to play around with what your characters actually say. Which I guess is one of the reasons they’re called plays. The real struggle is putting the structure in place, making the decisions as to who needs to be on stage at any given time and why.

How does this move the story along and how does this expand the theme? How does this, above all, create the drama? Chekhov’s sense of structure isn’t at all bad so my job was merely to breathe new life into the characters and into the dialogue. Which is kind of fun. Adapting a novel, upon which a hugely revered film is based, was going to be much more of a challenge. Especially as I had no experience of adapting novels at all.

The director had also given me pretty much of a free rein, which can be both extremely liberating and hugely daunting. My initial idea was to present the story as a Greek revenge tragedy, complete with a masked chorus, speaking a mixture of blank verse and rhyming couplets.

This was going to be a means of peopling this particular theatre’s very wide stage, while also helping me deliver what at first glance is a very long and convoluted narrative. Traditionally part of the chorus’ task. I started writing in this way for several weeks but then knew I’d bitten off way more than I could chew.

I also felt I had a certain responsibility to the legions of prospective punters, especially those in the North-east, whose favourite film this is and who would no doubt be less than impressed by seeing a southern tosser with no real connection to the film, doing cartwheels with the language. How to balance the desire to be experimental and brave with the audience’s sense of expectation?

Fortunately I have had the support of a first-class dramaturg in Lorne Campbell. So while I have been granted the freedom to create and kill off characters as has been necessary I have also had someone to work with whose understanding of structure and theatrical storytelling is spot on.

So I began by filleting the novel. Stole all the good dialogue and the brilliant prose sections (of which there are many) and hammered together a loose skeleton. We had to kill off Keith (Frank’s barman friend), Edna (Jack’s landlady) and several other characters.

We had to toy with the chronology of events. Condense lots of short filmic scenes into far fewer longer ones. We had to find a way to bring out Jack’s internal conflict and try to explore the reasons why he has turned out to be such a dysfunctional, violent, essentially unhappy man.

Michael Caine in the 1971 film Get Carter

By including Frank (Jack’s dead brother) as a character on stage I have tried to keep the broken-down brotherly love between the siblings to the fore and thereby offer an entry point into Jack’s troubled psyche. Jack chose the life of a violent outlaw, his brother that of a peaceful amateur musician. We felt it was important to look at why there was this divergence, not just show the consequences of their life decisions.

The way both the novel (and I later discovered the film) portray the female characters was also a challenge for a 21st-century (male) writer. In both media the women exist as sexual objects or as victims, or as both. As you may recall: the actresses in the film aren’t required to do a great deal other than be attractive women without many clothes on.

In the novel Jack spends a good portion of his time either beating women up or using them for sex. And while I didn’t want to shy away from portraying the misogyny of the late 1960s, it felt important to show that the women at that time were tough and bright and could give as good as they got. We have two tough, bright actresses in this production who, I suspect, may not have signed up for it had I failed in this regard.

Professional modesty prevents me from suggesting that my play will be funnier than either the film or the novel. But I suspect it might be. Neither film nor novel are exactly a laugh a minute.

I heard that one observer at the initial read-through said my play was like a Tyneside Tarantino. I guess I can just about live with that. I’d say around 80 per cent of the words of this adaptation are mine but I hope it’s still all Ted Lewis. And that he would have approved.

So, as I write this, we’re in week four of rehearsals and the monster is slowly finding its feet. I’ve no way of knowing at this stage whether it will walk, run or fly. But the early signs are promising. When you’ve had a dozen fairly unsavoury characters swimming about in your head, saying and doing fairly unsavoury things to each other for the best part of a year, it’s always a relief as a writer to hand the nasty buggers over to talented actors and a talented director to wrestle with.

My head has been full of violence and rage and foul language for a while now. Time to purge myself of it all with a new project: maybe a life-affirming play for kids about pink bunny rabbits or something. Anyone?

‘Get Carter’ opens at Northern Stage, Newcastle, on 12 February before going on tour until the end of April (northerstage.co.uk; 0191 230 5151)

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