There are certain cultural artefacts so beloved that only a fool or a madman would attempt to dust them off and update them for a new audience.
The Ealing Studios’ 1955 comedy The Ladykillers is, possibly, one of the perfect examples of this. The movie starred, among others, Cecil Parker, Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers and Katie Johnson as the landlady of a house in which a gang of criminals plot to rob a security van. The film won BAFTAS and was nominated for an Oscar and remains one of the most acclaimed and loved British movies ever made. Just two years ago, by then 55 years old, The Ladykillers came in at number five in a national newspaper poll, its charm having withstood the test of time.
So, only a fool or a madman would take all that goodwill and attempt to make the film a success on the stage, right? Well, maybe, or maybe someone exceptional.
Graham Linehan, the creator of one Father Ted, The IT Crowd and Black Books is pretty near the top of his game. And who better to adapt one of the most loved comedy films in British cinema history than the man behind one of British TV’s most loved comedies? “It would be fairly arrogant of me to simply think ‘yes, I can make this and it will be a success’, but at the same time I don’t do anything unless I think it is worth doing,” says Linehan. “If it had looked like it wasn’t going to work, then I would have bolted.
“It struck me from the start that within the framework of the story there was something there that could make for something new and different. The original film is really quite a sombre comedy and we (the creative team) thought there was something crazier and sillier in the story.”
Anyone who has seen the work of Linehan will know that the temptation to do something surreal, off-the-wall, crazier than the original with his stage adaptation of The Ladykillers would have been difficult to resist. Whether it’s Moss attempting to clamber out of a court witness box in an ungainly fashion in The IT Crowd, or Mrs Doyle constantly falling off a windowsill in Father Ted, or Bill Bailey getting jam stuck to the ceiling in Black Books, Linehan has an eye for slapstick. Indeed, if he had his way entirely, there would be even more of it on stage in his version of The Ladykillers.
Linehan is one of an exceedingly rare breed – a writer of television shows who also directs his own work. In the case of The Ladykillers, Sean Foley was in the director’s chair and Linehan admits relinquishing control wasn’t his favourite part of the experience.
“It definitely wasn’t easy, that whole aspect. In all honesty, I didn’t enjoy it,” he admits.
“But I am still really proud of the show.”
So he should be. The play opened in Liverpool late last year, before transferring to London’s West End. That it is out on the road, touring to Sheffield this week, so soon after it’s premiere less than a year ago, is testament to the success of his adaptation. The touring show stars Shaun Williamson, Clive Mantle and the iconic role of Mrs Wilberforce is played by Michele Dotrice, still best known for her role as Betty alongside Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em.
As the creator of three television series that have a wide appeal but enjoy also a fervent cult following, it seems a little odd that Linehan, in a rare position to have pretty much what he likes commissioned for television, should bother with theatre at all. He is currently working on a television adaptation of Radio Four comedy show Count Arthur Strong, but says that writing for the stage was a “nice way to stretch my legs”.
Then, of course there is the source material. “It wasn’t as though it was one of my favourite comedy films when I was younger, but I do remember when I saw it, the moment I realised that they were all going to kill each other, I had a jolt of pure pleasure. When I watched it again as an adult, one of the things I realised was just how subtle the piece is. There’s a moment that I just didn’t notice until the very last time I watched it, when Alec Guinness puts on a record and he does this tiniest little dance to the music as he works out his plan.
“It was such a beautiful and subtle moment that it is impossible to resist. Add in the moments of slapstick and I think you have a piece of theatre that isn’t just buoyed along by a sense of this all being a bit ‘jolly’ but genuinely really funny.”
The Ladykillers, Sheffield Lyceum, to Oct 6, 0114 2496000.