Alan Parker on the lunacy of Bugsy Malone

Alan Parker on the lunacy of Bugsy Malone

Last week I had a request to stage a play version of Bugsy Malone from a school in Ho Chi Minh City. It's been a pleasant surprise to me that Bugsy Malone has had such a long shelf life, cropping up on TV at Christmas or as a school play all over the world. Last week BFI Southbank ran it for the umpteenth time.

To be honest, the film was a lunatic idea that would only be attempted at the beginning of a career. Back in 1975, it never occurred to us for a moment that such an absurd creative notion would not work. If it was daring and brave, we certainly were all too ingenuous to know it at the time. Most importantly, it was a labour of love by a lot of people making their first film; probably, in its own curious and bizarre way, that's why this daft film works.

Considering the lame and struggling British film industry of 1974, it's a miracle it ever got made at all. Most of the scripts I had written at the time were returned to me with "too parochial" and "too English" scribbled on the top. Undaunted, and for totally pragmatic reasons, I therefore began writing my "American script". At the beginning of the 1970s I had four small children, and during long drives to the country I tried to alleviate their boredom by inventing and improvising a gangster story which, on my eldest son Alex's insistence, was peopled with kids, just like the four of them sitting in the back of the car.

When I touted my script up and down Wardour Street, my sales pitch was met with little enthusiasm, and very often gaping mouths. "It's a fusion of two genres - the Hollywood musical and the gangster film," I would enthuse. "Except [nervous cough] the guns will fire custard pies and it will have a cast entirely of kids aged about 12." Somehow we stitched together the money for the film, and, after a year of casting - visiting US Air Force bases, Brooklyn schools and Harlem dance classes along the way - we built our New York streets at Pinewood Studios.

To be honest, my script for Bugsy Malone was not so much about America as about American movies. At the time, I had little first-hand knowledge of the United States - apart from a few "smash and grab" trips to New York to shoot Alka-Seltzer commercials - but I did, of course, know American movies. My script was a cinematic pastiche, with echoes and references to Astaire, Raft, Kelly, Cagney, Brando and Welles. It's not so much an homage as a collection of fond memories of double bills that I had devoured as a kid at the Blue Hall rerun cinema in Upper Street in north London.

I vividly remember Ruth Orkin's Little Fugitive, set in a Coney Island I didn't know, and Charles Crichton's Hue and Cry, set in the postwar bombsites I knew so well. Those wonderful, giddy, flickering shadows took us out of those Islington cinema seats, fuelling our desires to tell our own stories and allowing us to dream.

Inevitably, they tore down the Blue Hall. So what a joy to hear that the Filmclub initiative, to be launched later this month, has been such a huge success in its pilot form. By way of an interactive website, schools can access 60,000 films from the archive of the web specialists Lovefilm - film titles that teachers and pupils can select on a weekly basis. Encouraged by almost every facet of the film community and generously backed by government, it is hoped that within three years Filmclub will reach 7,000 schools. That's a lot of films and an awful lot of dreams.

· Filmclub launches across the UK on June 12. Details:

Sir Alan Parker

The GuardianTramp

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