Matters of life and death inspire film debut

PETER Harness doesn't think his childhood was strange, although he says that some of his friends thought it was a little weird, living with dozens of "grandparents" while his real grandparents lived down the road.

When the only child was about six years old, his parents set up an old folks' home in Hornsea, buying first one house then the two next to it until they had accommodation for 27 elderly people.

"I realise now that I'm a lot more obsessed with death than many people my age. A lot of people I know are afraid of dying, and I don't think they should be, as I don't see the end of life as unhappy. But then I spent a great deal of time around people who were close to death, and saw the odd dead body – although I never actually saw a death."

The boy Harness went home after school and enjoyed chatting to, or eating his meals with, the fragile, infirm, confused and hard of hearing – who could be sweet and doting or extremely cantankerous. He found the company of the over-70s mostly interesting and fun, and his unusual upbringing made him quite precocious at talking to adults.

"I was rather keen on being with them, although they could be difficult and some were quite mad. They sometimes said the most amazing things. On the down side, you had to behave yourself and couldn't play tricks."

Fast forward a quarter of a century, and the film Is Anybody There? is set to open the Bradford International Film Festival next month, followed by nationwide release in April. Its screenplay, Peter Harness's debut film script, tells the tale of Edward (Bill Milner), a young lad whose parents run an East Coast residential home for the elderly back in the 1980s.

The cast is stellar, including Michael Caine, Leslie Phillips, Sylvia Sims, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey and young actor Bill Milner. "Quite a few older actors turned parts down," says Harness. "The idea of playing someone old and possibly close to death made them uneasy. Michael Caine jumped at the part the minute he'd read the script – but his wife was slightly upset at the idea, because she doesn't see him as 'getting on'."

Unlike Peter himself, whose parents made sure they had days out and spent time together every day, Edward dislikes living in the home and is jealous of the time his mother spends looking after the elderly residents. He sets out on a quest to find out if there is life after death (hence the title), and his various investigations include recording the last gasps of the oldies as they slip this mortal coil.

Clarence, a bad-tempered retired magician (Caine) moves into the home, and over time, man and boy form an unlikely alliance, learning from each other. Clarence is, says Harness, in a small way based on Wilf, a First World War veteran who became one of his own first friends among the "family" in Hornsea.

"He was in his 90s and could no longer live alone. When mum opened the home, we went to his house and helped him to pack up his stuff. We became friends, and he told some amazing stories about the war. He even gave me a crystal ball. He didn't last long, and he was the first of the elderly people to die, which was very upsetting for me. After that I grew up more accepting that death was a regular part of life."

Maybe because of Wilf's influence, young Harness became intensely interested in the Great War. From his early teens he was set on being a writer, and when he left the local comprehensive it was to study English Literature at Oriel College, Oxford. Looking back, he now believes that was more of a hindrance than a help in setting him up for his chosen career.

"I wrote my first script at 14. It was a local panto based on Treasure Island, and it was a big success. I still have the script, and it's great, written from the heart. Studying literature at university was, for me, a useless discipline and I actually preferred history.

"It (literary analysis) doesn't allow you to be critical; you spent all your time learning about form, rather then concentrating on the things that interested me, which were truth and entertainment.

"To be honest, it took me a good five years after university to rediscover my own creativity and instincts."

He wrote for and acted in the Oxford Revue, and could have pursued acting seriously – but it was writing that always held him like a magnet. "Although the secret of my eventual success at it was spending six or seven years literally living in a garret with not a bean and often panicking about the rent. With a good degree from Oxford I could have made loads of money at some other job, but I wouldn't have had time to write. You get used to having no money and it makes you concentrate very hard."

At no point did his parents make anything other than supportive noises, says Peter. "It was great that they never even tried to persuade me to do something else."

At 23, a producer took one of his film scripts, for which he still hasn't been paid; nor has the film been made yet. At 26, he submitted The Waters of Babylon for the Dennis Potter screenwriting prize – 10,000 for winning and another 10,000 if the film got made. He just missed the final shortlist of six, but was reinstated when another writer dropped out. Harness went on to win the competition, but as is the mercurial nature of decision-making in TV, the drama has not made it to the screen yet.

But never mind, says 33-year-old Harness. Just winning the prestigious prize suddenly opened doors that were previously firmly closed.

On the same day as he won the prize, his agent told him that the producers who had made the Harry Potter films were keen to discuss production of an idea he'd floated for a film set in an old folks' home in Yorkshire.

"I really didn't believe it, and hadn't ever expected that I would be able to write a film script that would succeed until I was another 20 years older."

While developing the script then waiting for the producers to find the money, a cast and all the rest of the long-winded paraphernalia of film-making, everything else took off.

He adapted A View from the Hill by MR James for BBC 4, got his work into the BBC series Ghost Stories for Christmas, and in 2008 several of his new scripts were broadcast, including City of Vice, starring Ian McDiarmid and Iain Glen, which received great acclaim on Channel 4.

Last year also saw the transmission of his biopic of comedian Frankie Howerd, Rather You Than Me, starring David Walliams and Rafe Spall.

Harness is on a roll, but after the excitement of selling an idea and possibly a sample portion of a script, there's always the retreat to the study, the blank computer screen and the pressure.

Maybe being an only child who sometimes sought out retreat from the hurly-burly of life with the elderly has made the solitary act of writing easier?

"Possibly so. It's a career that requires a certain amount of confidence, the ability to sit on your own and be objectively

self-critical, seeing what's good and bad and being prepared to 'kill your babies'. With Is There Anybody There?

I'm pleased to say they didn't do the Hollywood thing of handing the script to someone else to do any rewrites.

"There have been compromises and changes, but every word of the final film is mine."

His early experiences and the act of recalling them have made Peter Harness think long and hard about how we treat our elderly.

"Part of the reason I wrote the film was that we don't listen enough to what older people have to say, and they are so worth paying attention to. Unfortunately, unlike the home my mum ran, where she had a gift for making people feel comfortable and at ease, many homes now are just money-making businesses and the word 'care' has gone."

Harness has popped up from London to oblige an old friend who asked him to do guest lectures to film students at York St John University.

Written at the top of his notepad are the words "FINISH IT!" – his first rule of thumb to would-be writers.

"Unless you see it with a beginning, a middle and an

end it's hard to see its true worth," he says. "And it's also hard to move on from it....every now and then your mind goes back, trying to figure out the unfinished business."

His own mind free of the boy, the man and the care home, Harness is turning his attention to another pet idea: a film set during the Great War. No doubt Wilf would approve.

Is Anybody There? is released in April, but there will be a special preview screening of the film at the Bradford International Film Festival, on its opening night, March 13 at 9.15pm. Box office 0870 701020 or www.national /09/tickets.asp.