The Back Story

By A.C.H.Smith

Tom Stoppard and ACH Smith

Stoppard, Smith. Photo: Nitchka

Anyone who needs to know about Tom Stoppard can check Wikipedia, or read one of several books about him (none of which he has read himself).

We have been friends for 50 years. In 1970 he was commissioned to turn his radio play Albert's Bridge into a Hollywood screenplay. He asked me to co-write it with him. There were three reasons. First, he was short of time, being in the early stages of writing the play we now know as Jumpers. Second, he knew I was broke. He is a generous friend. Third, it's strange now, but the fact is that at that time I had more screenplay-writing experience than he had, so at least I could be relied upon to know how to lay out the characters' names and the stage directions. We set to work.

Stoppard knew how such collaborations proceeded. He rented Troy Kennedy Martin's vacant smart apartment in west London, got in two typewriters, two ashtrays, two shot glasses, and a bottle of whisky. Neither of us was a serious drinker, or any use at writing when drinking, but he knew that that was how writing collaborations looked when you saw them in the movies. The first day we tried sitting each at a typewriter, but nothing got done, so we went out for lunch, and afterwards we tried it with one of us at a typewriter and the other one strolling around shooting out lines, but still nothing got done. So we tried a shot of whisky each, and that did us in for the day. I think we got through a couple of hours the next morning before we both admitted, this is never going to work. We each went home and got the screenplay written like tennis, one of us doing a draft and posting it to the other for a re-draft, and so on, back and forth, until it was done as well as we could do it. The agent posted it to Hollywood, dollars came back, and that was the last anyone ever heard of Albert's Bridge the Movie.

Some years later a student group wanted a play from me to take to the Edinburgh Festival. I had nothing to hand, but with Stoppard's agreement, and collaboration, the screenplay was turned into a stage play. We retained the conceit that half-way through the play the main character, Albert, unable to choose between two possible lives, two wives, splits into two and follows both options, a device repeated twenty years later by the film Sliding Doors. It landed the actor playing Albert with a gigantic workload, but Greg Doran, now Chief Associate Director of the RSC, took it on with no word of complaint and performed it admirably.

Flip the calendar on another 20 years, and David Lyon is asking me for a musical theatre script. Again, the revisions began, turning the stage play into something that could be sung, in parts. We gave it an amateur work-out in Shaftesbury, learned what more needed to be done, and here it is.