An Evening with Peter Straughan

Saturday night is one of the quieter ones in the Durham University calendar: everybody is settling down for the weekend and saving their strength for the trial that comes with Monday mornings and having to get out of bed at a semi-reasonable time. However, six o’clock on the 10th October found me instead at the Durham Town Hall, listening to Peter Straughan’s presentation on the Art of Literary Adaption for the Durham Book Festival. As evenings go, it was unusual, interesting and extremely enjoyable.

Even those who don’t know the name Peter Straughan will have watched something written by him: as a scriptwriter in both the world of Hollywood and television, Straughan has penned the scripts for high-profile blockbusters like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Frank, as well as the extremely well-received television adaption of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. He also happened to write How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, starring Simon Pegg, which made him an instant success in my book. As a result, the hall we were in was extremely full, and when Straughan strolled down the aisle to the dais at the front of the room there was a thunderous round of applause. Needless to say, there weren’t that many students there, but the atmosphere was excellent: everybody was genuinely interested in what he had to say.

The talk opened with an overview of Straughan’s early career and his first big work, The Men Who Stare At Goats. Given that the film was about a division of the American military who had been trained to develop paranormal powers (under Reagan, needless to say!), I quickly got the impression that Straughan was much more interested in quirkier, more off-beat scriptwriting rather than big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. I was proved half-right: much of Straughan’s earlier work was on smaller, more Indie films such as Sixty-Six and Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution, but quickly blossomed into bigger, more Hollywood-esque films involving, of all people, George Clooney (at this point, there were some admiring whistles from the audience) and Helen Mirren.

Despite all of that, Straughan hadn’t originally intended to be a scriptwriter. As an English student myself, I can’t deny that scriptwriting for people like Clooney seems incredibly glamorous. However, the way that he found himself in the profession was extremely unusual. Far from being a dedicated writer, Straughan started off life in a band, touring the country before settling into an English Literature degree at university. (He did admit to the audience that given the choice between being in a successful band and doing the job he does today, he would pick the former. That caused a couple of worried mutters.) He soon moved onto working in New Writing North, stuffing envelopes, and from that he got a commission to write a play, which eventually became his first work, Bones. Straughan described himself as a talented borrower, taking influences from all of his favourite writers- the Cohen Brothers and David Mamet being among them- in order to pen works of his own.

From there, the talk moved to his biggest work, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Straughan co-wrote the script with his partner, Bridget O’Connor, and together they alternately wrote and proof-read the other’s scenes. Given that many other scriptwriters had already turned down the task, the book looked to be incredibly difficult to adapt- especially given that John le Carré was very much a formidable presence in the writing process, regaling Straughan with stories of Christmas parties at MI6 where one member of staff would dress up as Father Christmas and start singing the Soviet national anthem to the rest of the party. Anecdotes like this would eventually end up in the film itself, earning Straughan and O’Connor several awards such as the British Academy Film Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The talk finally wrapped up with a brief discussion of Wolf Hall- for which Straughan has also been earmarked to write the sequel- and that was that. Was the talk interesting? Very much so: not least for the way it opened my eyes to the previously-hidden world of scriptwriting, which often remains out of sight during filmmaking. It was fascinating to think how just how much Straughan had been involved in- and yet before the talk I hadn’t even known his name. Fortunately, the next time I see it, I’ll be able to know exactly what he’s been up to- and who the next blockbuster is coming from!

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