Dexter Fletcher is getting perilously close to becoming a national treasure.
At 50 the child actor turned character player and, now, writer, producer and director – his latest film is Eddie the Eagle – is easing into his latest incarnation as filmmaker.
As a director he oozes confidence, possibly a by-product of acting for everyone from Derek Jarman to Mike Leigh by way of Guy Ritchie. But he also emerges as a genuinely good guy – a filmmaker in search of a story honestly told.
An actor for 40 years, making his debut in Bugsy Malone as Baby Face, and continuing through one classic after another – The Elephant Man, The Long Good Friday, The Bounty, Revolution, Caravaggio, Gothic – plus 43 episodes of cult TV favourite Press Gang, Fletcher segued seamlessly into the director’s chair.
First came Wild Bill, a traditional Western set in the East End about a criminal lowlife desperate to avoid returning to jail. There followed Sunshine on Leith, a musical excursion into whimsy set to the songs of The Proclaimers.
Two very different films led into Eddie the Eagle, a fictionalised version of the true-life tale of the builder’s son from Cheltenham who dreamt of competing in the Olympics. Michael “Eddie” Edwards wrote the story of his struggle to reach and compete as a ski jumper in the 1988 Winter Olympics almost two decades ago. At one point Steve Coogan was set to play him. Later the role went to Rupert Grint aka Ron Weasley of the Harry Potter films.
Eventually producer-director Matthew Vaughn acquired the rights. To direct he hired his friend Dexter Fletcher, who had previously acted in Vaughn’s films Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass. To play Eddie he cast Taron Egerton, breakthrough star of Kingsman: The Secret Service.
“One of the first things I wanted to do was to talk to Eddie,” recalls Fletcher. “I’d read earlier drafts of the script, which were probably too broad in their approach. It was very easy at the time to overlook the achievements that Eddie made and what he sacrificed in order to get to the Olympics. So I was very keen that we made a film that held up some responsibility to the man.” It was, he adds, “never in our interest to do anything that maligned him or undermined what he achieved. It was always about the inspirational story behind it.”
Edwards himself has been on and off the celebrity merry-go-round since those glory days of long ago. For a time he was earning £10,000 an hour for his participation in adverts. But the money was frittered away and he was declared bankrupt in 1992.
Of the movie of his life – which Fletcher describes as “a fictional account of a true story” – Edwards says, “I didn’t want to be made into a superhero but at the same time I didn’t want to be made into a laughing stock. I came from a country with no snow, no mountains, no ski jump. It was this tiny little David of a country against these Goliath nations. I just hoped that they would tell my story and do it justice.”
Given that someone once observed, ‘Eddie, there’s only one thing wrong with your jumping: you land too close to the take-off’ it would be safe to assume that Eddie the Eagle is a comedy that mocks its central figure. Fletcher isn’t having any of that.
“We had a challenge in that we had an hour and a half to tell what is a much bigger story. In order to do that, we have to blend and mix facts and create characters that help tell the story of what Eddie really achieved and what he went through. We have to play with the reality, sometimes a lot and sometimes a little, to really be able to give an overview. There’s so much more that people should know but we’ve got an hour and a half to let everyone see it. It’d be a four-hour epic otherwise.”
Fletcher is alluding to the amalgam of coaches, young and old, that led to the creation of the fictionalised Bronson Peary, a weary, drunken veteran of the Olympics and played in the film by Hugh Jackman.
“Eddie was a one-man journey but one lone man walking around a mountain with his skis on his shoulder is not really saying much to anyone,” argues Fletcher. “When you’ve got someone for him to interact with suddenly it opens up so much: what’s going on internally, what his drives are and what he thinks. As the audience we want to know that. The thing about Eddie and Peary is that together they help make each other better. Peary’s is more of an emotional journey in that he needs to redeem himself whereas Eddie just needs to find a way to push forward.”
The passage of time is such that many viewers won’t remember such details, only the sight of Edwards flying down the slope and landing, exulting in the cheers and applause despite coming last in the field.
One man who might is Edwards’ father, played in the film by Keith Allen as a naysayer who, at journey’s end, emerges as a proud if taciturn supporter.
“We knew we were taking a huge liberty with the story and with the facts and that he was going to have to go to his Dad and say, ‘They’ve portrayed you as a bit of an idiot,’” confesses Fletcher.
“Of course he’s extremely proud of him and did everything he could to help him. But we needed Eddie to have obstacles and for the audience to be rooting for him. It’s just a structural thing, no more complicated than that. In terms of how it affects people in the real world, that’s a whole other debate. I’m just waiting for the day when I meet Eddie’s Dad and he knocks me out…”