Debs and I first met through a bookclub. Fairly regularly, but not at the end of every meeting, we would round things off by playing the “who should play the main characters in the film?” game. Sometimes it would be fairly clear cut, with consensus achieved within a name or two. Sometimes, it was much harder. Now that Debs and I are working on a shared writing project, sometimes the only way to match up what a certain character looks like is to think of who would play them in the film or TV series. For me, the easiest character to cast in this setting is Cledwyn Cadwallader, better known to his friends as Tinkerbell. No spoilers here, but the mental image I have is Brian Cox (the actor, not the musician/physicist), and Billy Blind started out in my head as being some sort of cross between Sid James and Dick Van Dyke, although I think now I would like to see Toby Jones in the role (although I’m not sure Debs and I have yet reached a consensus on this!). Some of the other characters have been harder to place, and from time to time, impressions change. Jack Runward, despite being one of the key characters for kicking off the story in my head was quite hard to think about. I had a flash of recognition when rewatching the 2011 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. There is a scene early on when Jim Prideaux (played by Mark Strong) is walking down a street in a town in the then Czechoslavakia. It is possibly a trick of the camera work, but there is a quality to the way that Prideaux/Strong walks down the street, apparently unhurriedly, but such that he is moving deceptively quickly. For me, this mapped perfectly to a description of Jack that Debs wrote, and suddenly I could see Strong playing Jack. I think the only failure that we have had is Michaela: she has proven very difficult to cast, for a variety of reasons.
Getting the casting right, so to speak, is easy when you are able to cast anyone you like, but of course if there is one adaptation, then there might well be others, including stage adaptations. Google estimates that at least 43 people have played Sherlock Holmes in various adaptations. Basil Rathbone is the one that I grew up with (repeats, repeats), but I think Jeremy Brett was possibly one of, if not the best. Still, Michael Caine in ‘Without A Clue’ gives a solid and completely appropriate performance (even if he is really Reginald Kincaid, an actor hired by Dr Watson). We can also look to Willy Wonka: there are two very different performances, one by Gene Wilder and the other by Johnny Depp. Neither are the Wonka of the book, so a definitive portrayal is still to be given, but both acted the role in a way which fit with the adaptation that was being made.
When multiple adaptations are made, sooner or later there will be some casting decision that will cause furore amongst those with an emotional investment in the story. For example, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the stage play based around the children of many of the main characters, saw Hermione being played by a black actress. JK was quick to support the decision, commenting that nowhere in the books does it say that Hermione is black or white. But that, as they say, is another story. Except for one slight digression, if you’ll permit me. I went to see the new production of Oklahoma last year at the Chichester Festival Theatre, and it was an excellent. The casting had been done ‘blind’: I don’t know if they had done anything in terms of seeing if the actors gelled at all, but they filled the roles with the best actors that auditioned regardless of any other factors. But I can’t help wondering about this, because whilst two of the key characters were black, none of the chorus were, and I couldn’t help feeling that this was a mistake. Further, the black actors played Jud Fry and Laurey, which added an unexpected, perhaps even unwelcome dimension to their relationship. We need more diversity in story telling and in the dramatisation of those stories. We also don’t want particular plays to become bastions of racism because you ‘can’t cast that actor in that role’. But there does need to be some thought to the whole picture that is being presented. Diversity is not having two actors, out of a cast of fifty or so, not looking like the rest. /Rant.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently with the announcement of the new BBC America series, The Watch, based on the characters and back story of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The novels (Guards! Guards!, Men-At-Arms, Feet of Clay, The Fifth Elephant, Jingo, Night Watch, Thud!, Snuff) are some of my favourites. The casting announcements and some of the pictures coming out of the production have been quite divisive amongst the fan base. There are some raised eyebrows and much profanity on social media, at one end of the spectrum, and soothing noises and interest in the interpretation at the other. For myself, with every announcement, I’m moving more to a position of ‘I’ll take a look, but this is not Terry Pratchett’s City Watch’. Leaving aside issues with story-line that has been revealed so far, there are one or two decisions, which individually could have been made to work. Many of the roles have been selected through gender-neutral casting, including, for example, Anna Chancellor who is to play Lord Vetinari. This I can imagine working, and could be convinced by, although Charles Dance was near definitive in this role in the Sky adaptations of several Discworld stories. On the other hand, I think they have not only got the casting completely wrong for Lady Sybil Ramkin, but have missed an opportunity. Lady Sybil is of an age with Sam Vimes, whom she marries in due course, is robust and Rubenesque, and has little interest in current affairs, being more interested in breeding dragons. She went to a jolly hockey-sticks kind of private school. Imagine Ruth Jones (Nessa in Gavin and Stacey) chanelling Joanna Lumley. Instead we get someone who is much younger than Vimes, slim, and is apparently some kind of vigilante.
I also find myself deeply disappointed in the treatment of Cheery (later Cheri) Littlebottom. Pratchett had an excellent grasp of narrative and cliche, and subverted them wherever possible. He also did his best to scotch stereotypes and reveal the humanity in all his characters, even the ‘baddies’. With the little information I have, it feels like BBC America have tried to make things easy on themselves by removing any species that makes life a bit difficult for the props/sfx department. So Cheery is now human. They’ve tried to deal with this by making the character non-binary. Cheery had her own prejudices to overcome, and whilst there are those who would argue that it’s great that this issue is being addressed, I can’t help feeling that it’s being done in a cheap and ultimately limited way.
It’s difficult to know how the series will play out without seeing the actors in action, but from the simple perspective of the stories, it’s already a disaster. The characterisations will be a mixed bunch, with several characters apparently edited out, some miscast (IMO), and others moving amongst an unconvincing set, in ‘the wrong’ costumes…
The chances of The November Deadline transitioning to either the big or small screen are quite small, but the conversations that I have had with Debs have been useful for driving the writing forward, and have helped keep us consistent.
How about you? Do you ever play the ‘who would play that role in the film?’? Have you ever been disappointed in a piece of casting?
© David Jesson, 2020