“I feel like an imposter waiting to be caught out by other writers.” Tim Firth talks to Northern Soul
You know that man, the man who can? Tim Firth is that man. His CV ranges from radio jingles, MC for stand-up comics, songwriter and playwright through to adapter of plays, writer of musicals, and screenwriter. You name it, he’s mastered it. Added to which, he is a close collaborator of former Take That stalwart, Gary Barlow.
Today, I’m meeting Firth at Chester’s Storyhouse and I’m poised to ask the brains behind Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots about his latest musical, Now is Good. This new show has recently made its debut in Chester. So, does love make the world go round, or could it be music?
“I think music is as fundamental as oxygen,” Firth says. “We can’t even stop songs we hate from absorbing moments of our lives. Its ability to throw out a rope bridge between generations inspired my new musical.”
Despite his success, Firth has his own stories of insecurity.
“When I was younger, songwriting felt more natural than writing, if more risky,” he says. “It didn’t go down well. I was in the school football team. Once, I got on TV singing Christmas songs, and the next week the defender marking me whispered ‘stick to writing carols’ just before I took a free kick. As for favourite songwriters, I particularly love any of those who aren’t ashamed to sound British. There’s a line through Tony Newley, Clifford T. Ward, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Suggs and Mike Barson to Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore, and of course Kate Rusby and the much-missed Kirsty McColl. But writing, I feel more like an imposter waiting to be caught out by other writers, which is of course what they’re probably feeling.
“Even when you receive an award or a nomination, it has to be seen the same as good reviews – don’t think it buys you anything. Every time you start, you start again. Many writers feel awards are lurking on the shelf, casting a shadow – weapons of torture. That said, if you don’t live in London, you can end up like the guy in Thunderbird 5, the one in space who never got to join in with the fun stuff on the island. Awards become footprints to prove you once walked on that bit of shore.”
It seems more of a charmed life than your average rags-to-riches history.
“It’s far from charmed, my career,” says Firth. “I can’t remember a New Year where I’ve not thought ‘Christ, next year’s got to be better than that’. Knockbacks land more heavily than accolades. Only later do you look back and think, actually I suppose that year wasn’t too bad. The ability to be happy is a constant thread which surfaces in so much of my writing yet, personally, I haven’t cracked it yet.”
Things can occasionally go wrong, then?
“Wrong? You’re talking to a guy who once wrote a movie about commando guinea pigs for Jerry Bruckheimer. After all, at first you’re like a puppy which grabs any toy to help cut its teeth. During this period, many things I wrote went wrong including sketches for prime time ITV Saturday night shows, or Record Breakers (a very bad sequence for Bernie Clifton). However, it was also the time I discovered what I could and couldn’t do. Wrong can be good.”
What about serendipity?
“The success of The Flint Street Nativity at Liverpool Playhouse caught me off guard. It was a combination of their approaching me and a friend doing an abbreviated stage version with his amateur company. At points in that show, the laughter was intoxicating, maybe too much so. It’s dangerous for a dramatist to chase laughs. But it’s hard not to be swept along. The musical This Is My Family is the piece that’s the closest thing so far to being what I think sums me up as a writer. Or to what I am at this point.”
And is he now mostly in a situation where he’s presented with projects or invited to get involved?
“The ideas still tend to come from me,” says Firth. “I then have to do the Oliver thing of walking up meekly to see if anyone is interested in listening. However, Kay Mellor (Fat Friends) recently suggested something to me which turned out to be unexpectedly joyous to write.”
Given the relative paucity of female executives in TV and theatre in recent history, it’s been gratifying to see increasing numbers of women in these roles. Has Firth collaborated with women during his career? “I have only collaborated in the writing process with men, but just the once. Predominantly, I seem to work with women because it’s usually involved female producers. And the producer is the pivotal force in the development process. From my first TV film (Money For Nothing, shot in Chester) to Calendar Girls to Greatest Days (a new film, based on Firth’s musical The Band), the steering force has always been a woman.”
What about mentoring? “Willy Russell and I mentored a group of students from LIPA (the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) in as much as they were our band on tour. We actually won a mentoring award which to this day is still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever received. It also doubles up as a handy weapon in case of intruders.”
By Carole Baldock
Now is Good is at Chester Storyhouse until May 28, 2022. For more information, click here.
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