Tom MacRae on Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and how it changed his life

On a fairly regular basis these days Tom MacRae will finish a work meeting and book an Uber.

A scene from the production, which is heading back to Sheffield and Leeds. The musical has strong connections with Sheffield. Picture: Johan Persson.
A scene from the production, which is heading back to Sheffield and Leeds. The musical has strong connections with Sheffield. Picture: Johan Persson.

When he gets in the car he often sees something that still makes him shake his head in disbelief: the Hollywood sign.

“I talk to friends I’ve made out here in LA and they are the same. There’s just something magical about it, every time you see that sign it just makes me think this is my actual dream life that I’m living,” says MacRae.

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Three years ago, more or less to the day, MacRae was not having quite such a good time.

Tom MacRae, who wrote the musical Everybodys Talking About Jamie. Photo Credit: The Other Richard

In February 2017, MacRae was a pretty successful writer for the screen, with credits including Casualty, several episodes of Doctor Who under the reign of Russell T Davies, and the remarkable success of his own comedy series, Threesome, being made for Comedy Central.

In terms of television writers in the UK, that’s a pretty good, that’s someone heading towards the top end of the rankings.

MacRae wanted more and he’d staked his chances of getting more by producing something for the stage, so he wrote his first piece for theatre and not just any piece of theatre - he wrote a musical.

Three years ago he watched the musical with a small invited audience at the first of that day’s two dress rehearsals. “I just left the theatre and walked around Sheffield thinking ‘what have I done? I’ve just wasted five years of my life on this’. I thought it was absolutely awful,” says MacRae.

“It was raining and I remember thinking that I was planning on moving to the States anyway to carry on my screenwriting career so that was fine. Nobody there would know about this massive failure. I even rang my agent to say it was terrible.”

Fortunately MacRae was wrong about pretty much everything above. The show was Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. or Jamie as it’s become known in the industry, and not only were people in the States about to find out about it, some very important people in the showbiz industry were months away from flying to London to see the stage show phenomenon.

While he was walking through the rain in Sheffield, thinking about the failure of his theatre career, what he didn’t realise was that Sheffielders had had their heads turned by the story of Jamie.

“I walked around the corner back to the theatre and there was a line of people queuing up to get tickets for the afternoon dress rehearsal,” says MacRae. (As a side note, if you don’t know, all the shows at Sheffield Crucible have a public dress rehearsal which you can attend for £1 - it might be my favourite theatre scheme in the country).

MacRae would have been excused if at that point he had got on a train out of Sheffield and was never seen again in the Steel City. It is often said that the audience is the missing ingredient in any performance. When performers say that the audience brings 50 percent to any show, it is not a platitude. There is a genuine unspoken contract between a performance and an audience and it is that contract which provides the full picture. At the morning dress rehearsal, which left MacRae so depressed, the audience was a small group of theatre staff. Not to denigrate them, but that’s not the ideal audience.

MacRae, bravely, headed into the Crucible for the afternoon dress rehearsal. “I remember the exact moment I realised that we’d done something. With an audience, the show just took off. By the end of the first scene, people were cheering and by the interval they were going nuts. Some people came up to me and asked me if they could buy my copy of the script,” says MacRae. Smart Yorkshire folk who knew they would be on to a winner if they could wrestle that piece of theatrical gold from his grasp.

“I explained I couldn’t because this was just a dress rehearsal and it had all my notes in it, which we would need for the other performances. It was crazy. It had gone from the morning when I thought it was a total disaster to the afternoon when people were on their feet and cheering.”

It’s the kind of story, somewhat aptly, that you’d expect to see in a Hollywood movie. Things only got more surreal for MacRae and Jamie.

Warp is a Sheffield film studio responsible for This is England, Four Lions, The Virtues and lots of other award-winning, gritty film and television. It is highly thought of in the film industry.

“Someone from Warp came to see the show in the first week and then immediately came back with the whole office. By the end of the first week, they had bought the film rights,” says MacRae.

“By the end of the second week we’d had a five star review in The Times and Nica Burns (the producer and seventh most powerful person in British theatre according to the Stage) had offered us a West End run.”

This doesn’t happen, by the way, in case you’re wondering. It just doesn’t. Except it did. “Yeah, it feels like I won the lottery.”

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, to give it it’s full title, is, if you haven’t gathered, a quite special show. The musical is based on the true story of Jamie Campbell, whose story was told in a BBC Three documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. Jamie was a 16 year old student in County Durham who was a drag queen and wanted to go to their prom in a dress.

The 2011 documentary inspired a producer to put MacRae together with Dan Gillespie Sells, the frontman and songwriter for the pop-rock group The Feeling and get them to come up with a musical based on the story.

They came up with the Sheffield-set story of Jamie New, a teenage drag queen who wants to go to prom in a dress.

MacRae says: “It’s a show for people who feel like they’re outsiders, for people who don’t feel like they fit in. I think that’s the big reason it speaks to people, because so many of us feel like that.”

It is that, yes, but I remember being at the world premiere and being blown away by the songs, which unlike most musical theatre, sound like they would be at home in the charts, and also the reality of it. Jamie’s best friend is a hijab wearing British Muslim.

“Some of the posh reviewers were a bit sniffy, saying we were being politically correct for the sake of it, our response was just to say that those people clearly didn’t go to a regular comprehensive like the rest of us, which was what we reflected on stage,” says MacRae.

Jamie premiered in Sheffield on February 13, 2017 and MacRae’s life changed. “I was doing fine, but it really did change overnight,” he says. “I always wanted to work on big movies and TV shows and it’s a stage show that has made that happen.”

MacRae’s story gets more extraordinary as it goes on. Once Warp had bought the rights, executives at Disney wanted a piece of the action - it turns out the buzz around Jamie had crossed the Atlantic and they had sent people to see it. So when the movie is released later this year, written by MacRae and Gillespie Sells and starring Richard E Grant, Sarah Lancashire and Shobna Gulati, it will feature the 20th Century Fox banner.

“I don’t come from a posh or connected family, it’s not like my family had money so I could afford to just keep trying until I cracked it. I had to work hard and for a long time to get to this point,” says MacRae.

Where that work has led him is really quite something. Although he can’t share the details, he’s written an original movie ‘for a movie studio that you’ve definitely heard of’ and he is also developing a TV series, with Dan Gillespie Sells that will feature original songs ‘with a TV producer you’ve definitely heard of’.

Sounds like within the next couple of years everybody’s going to be talking about Tom MacRae.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie begins a national tour at Sheffield Lyceum open now until Feb 29 (tickets 0114 249 6000). It also visits Leeds Grand Theatre, July 13 to 18 (0844 848 2700).