David Nicholls: 'I crave to see people touching, kissing and fighting on screen'

As his novel The Understudy is turned into a radio play starring Stephen Fry, the writer talks about his own failed acting career – and what dramas will be like after the coronavirus

Long before David Nicholls was a successful novelist and screenwriter, he was a failed actor. In his eight years in the game, he trod the boards in mostly minor roles and tried not to bump into the furniture. More often, though, he was off stage as an understudy. “I would watch actors my own age,” he says. “They had such grace and charisma. I knew in my heart of hearts, I was always going to be workaday, lacking that unnameable quality.”

Being the natural writer he is, though, Nicholls turned that failure into success, via fiction. The Understudy, written in 2005, was a hugely popular romantic comedy that sent up the preening, thespy world of the stage, while still containing an unspoken love of its sawdust and drama. The novel follows an understudy in a West End production, a man of middling talent who remains the underdog.

Russell Tovey recording The Understudy at home.
You’re on! … Russell Tovey recording The Understudy at home. Photograph: courtesy Russell Tovey

The story is now being revived as a radio play, by the Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield, which will stream it online. Adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett, it stars Stephen Fry and Russell Tovey, with proceeds going to help the theatre industry affected by lockdown. Nicholls is thrilled it’s back – and equally pleased that he has nothing to do with the production. “I don’t need to police it,” he says, although he does admit: “I’m really fond of it, but I found it to be that difficult second novel. It’s the one I most yearn to rewrite.”

Nicholls, who is 53, has written five novels and adapted each for the screen, including One Day, which starred Anne Hathaway. He has also made acclaimed adaptations of other writers’ work, from Patrick Melrose, the TV series of Edward St Aubyn’s books starring Benedict Cumberbatch, to Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd. Nicholls attributes a good deal of his success as a writer to his failed stage career. “I learned a lot from watching the actors perform, listening to dialogue, observing the moments when the joke didn’t quite land. It was a kind of apprenticeship.”

Watch a trailer for The Understudy

What he missed most when he left acting was the camaraderie of a theatre company. His most recent novel, Sweet Sorrow, revolves around just this subject. “It recounts the youthful excitement I felt at being in a company,” he says. Sweet Sorrow tells the story of a troubled 16-year-old called Charlie who joins the Full Fathom Five Theatre Co-operative – but only to be closer to Fran Fisher, a self-proclaimed “Shakespeare nut” on whom he has a desperate crush. “He looks at theatre from the outside and sees it as a bit posh and silly,” says Nicholls. Yet Charlie learns from the experience of putting on Romeo and Juliet and comes to feel a sense of belonging, of family even.

Nicholls has tried writing plays for the stage, but it hasn’t clicked. “It’s a particular skill and I stumbled in the crafting of it – even getting people on and off a stage.” He studied drama and English at Bristol University at a time when it was a breeding ground for mould-breaking playwrights: Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane took the course, though not at the same time as Nicholls. “The emphasis then seemed to be on radically devised work,” recalls the writer who was, by contrast, steeped in the realism of TV sitcoms, soaps and films, having grown up in a household of modest means in Eastleigh, a small Hampshire town that did not have its own theatre.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose.
Adaptation … Benedict Cumberbatch in Patrick Melrose, which Nicholls scripted. Photograph: Justin Downing/SHOWTIME

When he gave up acting, he stopped going to the theatre regularly. “Now that I can’t go,” he says, “I’m asking myself, ‘Why wasn’t I there every night?’” However, the consequences of lockdown on his work have not been disastrous, even if the BBC’s forthcoming adaptation of Us, starring Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves, has been halted. It is due to be screened later this year as the production team finds ways to add finishing touches remotely.

Beyond this, the pandemic has left him a little stuck imaginatively. After Sweet Sorrow, set in the 90s, he was planning to write a novella situated in the present day. “I wanted to write about now, but ‘now’ changes day by day.” And he doesn’t find the nerve-jangling news feed of Covid-19 stories conducive to writing fiction: Nicholls lives in London with his partner, Hannah, an art historian, and their two children, aged 12 and 14, so parenting is taking up time and headspace instead.

Nicholls as a student.
Striking a chord … Nicholls as a student. Photograph: -

He was shaken by the recent news that Nuffield Southampton theatres had gone into administration. “The first play I ever saw was there. It was the only theatre I had access to, so its loss strikes a chord. For all my own failures in that world, it was an important, inspiring place, the model of a great community rep, an introduction to amazing plays. I hope it rises again.”

As for physical distancing, he says: “There is a glorious recklessness in physical contact, not just in theatre but in the medium of television. I crave to see people touching, kissing, fighting on screen. I think the lockdown has reminded us how much we crave physical interaction.”


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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