Interview: Novel idea as writer Richard takes total creative control

MOVIE director. Academic. Film school mastermind. Scriptwriter. There are an awful lot of titles to which Richard Woolley can lay claim. Now he can add novelist to the growing list – and for the man most celebrated as a film writer and director it's an achievement he's clearly revelling in.

"A screenplay is essentially a very complicated creative memo to the director and producer," says Woolley. "If you are not directing the film yourself, which I stopped doing some time ago, then you expect to have to re-write a script about 10 times and out of every 10 scripts you ,write maybe two will actually get made. Once you complete the script, you hand over the story to another set of people.

"As a novelist, I have total creative control. When I write a novel, I am directing every scene. I am in charge of the lighting, deciding on the camera angles, I even choose the soundtrack."

Woolley's most celebrated film is the controversial 1981 thriller, Brothers and Sisters. Made at the same time the Yorkshire Ripper was stalking the streets of West Yorkshire, the British Film Institute-funded film explored the death of a prostitute in a Northern town. Two upper-class brothers, one a left-wing revolutionary and the other a right-wing army major, become suspects in the murder case. The film was released in cinemas and shown on Channel 4 twice in the Eighties, provoking controversy each time.

"It was my way of exploring what was happening at the time, not just to these women, but to all of us," says Woolley, who during that period was living in the Chapeltown area of Leeds and had been involved in the left-wing theatre company, Red Ladder.

"On the night one of the women was murdered, we were having a party at our house in Chapeltown, not far away from where her body was found. It was a strange time. As a man in West Yorkshire, everyone felt like they were a suspect.


Something of a polymath, Woolley, who has lived all over the world but has now settled in North Yorkshire, has also added to his CV over the years the titles of musician, composer and theatre director.

In 1990, he began to move away from the film directing he saw as a young man's game, and set up the Northern Film School within Leeds University, to teach a new generation of movie-makers. He also went on to become the director of Holland's National Film School and established the School of Film and Television for the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. In 2005, he returned to Yorkshire, where he was appointed the inaugural holder of the Greg Dyke Chair of Film and Television at the University of York.

Despite such a wide-ranging and widely successful career stretching across film and academia, there was a constant ambition that remained unfulfilled.

"I realised that I had been trying to, and wanting, to write novels for a long time. So I decided to stop doing all the other film projects and everything else, go away, and concentrate on writing a novel."

He moved to New Zealand in 2006 after stepping down from the York University post, with the intention of doing just that.

In the event, Woolley, who clearly finds it hard to say no to a job, ended up carrying out some script work for the New Zealand film council, but he still managed to complete the novel, securing an American publisher who wanted to get the story out to the world. The book, Back in 1984 is, like his controversial movie, Brothers and Sisters, set in a dark period of West Yorkshire's history.

Divided into two parts, the first, Feeling Time, examines a day-in-the-life of on-off lovers, Joe Travis and Mary Thwaites in which both are confronted by dramatic events that eventually reunite them. As the day progresses, scenes from their pasts bubble up.

The events shed light on two people in difficulty, but still

full of the dreams and delusions of Seventies' libertarianism –

as well as love for each other.

The story, set in Leeds with flashbacks to Seventies' Berlin and Sixties' London, shows Joe and Mary learning to balance self-obsession with the needs of others. The second part of the book takes the form of a diary, written by Joe.

Woolley says: "I was considered to be kind of avant-garde as a film-maker, but I was just interested in what you could do with form. I'm exploring something similar with the novel, which is why I've written it in this way.

"It's based on a lot of material I collected at the time I was working on Brothers and Sisters and Telling Tales in the early Eighties. It deals with a lot of the themes that I often deal with in my work – personal politics, class and the North."

Woolley says that, in the form of a novel he has been able to explore a number of issues that have occupied his thoughts since those times.

"Films can be challenging and intellectually stimulating, but no matter how good the film, you will never compete with the imagination of a reader.

"The imagination, which you can appeal to more directly with a novel, is the ultimate virtual reality machine."

Richard Woolley will sign copies of his book, Back in 1984, in Waterstones branches: Sheffield, Orchard Square, November 6, 2.30pm-4.30pm; York, High Ousegate, November 15, 11am – all day; Bradford, Wool Exchange, November 20, 12pm – all day; Huddersfield, Kingsgate Centre, November17, 12pm – all day.


In the 1960s Richard Woolley played with a band called the Voodoo Strutters.

By the 1970s, he was working as an actor, composer and musician for various theatre companies.

Music propelled him through the 1980s where he wrote numerous songs which have since been compiled as albums. In the same decade he also wrote and directed a number of films for cinema and television.

Much of the 1990s was devoted to his work with film schools. Since 2004, he has written three novels, Back in 1984, Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands and Friends and Enemies.