Being careful what you wish for - no slowing down for Oscar winning writer Christopher Hampton
After a 50-year career and serious success, including an Oscar for his screenplay of Dangerous Liaisons, Christopher Hampton shows no signs of slowing down
Christopher Hampton has been a prolific and highly successful writer for stage and screen from the time he left Oxford in 1968. High points include an Oscar for his screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons, made into a film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, and a second nomination for Atonement, with Saoirse Ronan and Keira Knightley, as well as a Tony award for Sunset Boulevard. He has worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Frears, Joe Wright and David Cronenberg. And yet there is no easy short-hand for Hampton's work, no cosy adjective - 'Pinteresque' - no familiar phrase - 'oh, that's so David Mamet!' - that will wrap up his involvement in a project in a way that the public can instantly understand.
And so he isn't a household name, like Tom Stoppard or even David Hare, Hampton's old schoolmate. Instead, he remains slightly obscure, well-known within the industry, but content to be 'a name that rings a bell' outside it. "I know there are writers who have a fierce flame to do a particular thing," he tells me, "and they have their own style and signature. I've always just wanted to be different next time. I've never sought consistency of style. I think each subject has its own appropriate style. That gives you a very vague or fuzzy outline, but, it gives you lots of work."
We're talking in one of the grand public rooms of The Gate Theatre. Christopher is here for the opening night of The Father, a play by French playwright Florian Zeller, translated by Hampton, who first saw it in Paris some years ago. "I was absolutely knocked out," he says. "It's very powerful and moving. Aside from that, the technique of the play is so brilliant. It starts off as a straight, naturalistic play, about this old guy who doesn't want to acknowledge he's failing [with Alzheimer's], and his poor daughter who's trying to be as helpful as she can. And then about 10 minutes in, it switches into a completely different register, and gradually you realise that the play is through the eyes of the sufferer, although it's not even as simple as that. It is very unsettling and powerful. But there's a lot of humour in it too."
When Hampton says he has 'lots of work,' it is almost an understatement. Now 70 - although by far the most youthful, even boyish 70 I've seen (when I ask 'may I say you don't look it,' in response to hearing his age, Hampton says enthusiastically 'you may!) - he has a 50-year career behind him, in which he has crossed from writing to directing, even occasionally acting, and from original material, to adaptations, to translations. His conversation is inevitably sprinkled with references to Sean Connery, Martin Scorsese, Scarlett Johansson, but never in a boasting way. These are simply the figures that cross his path in the mad world of the film industry where scripts are commissioned, written, rewritten, shelved and occasionally made, often many years after the original draft. For all his remarkable success, Hampton has, he says, "written an enormous number of screenplays that haven't been made". This is an occupational hazard of his profession, where luck is almost as important as talent.
Hampton was born in the Azores - his father was an engineer with Cable & Wireless - and moved to Alexandria in Egypt when he was very small, where he lived until being sent back to England, to boarding school, when he was 11. The family had to flee abruptly under cover of darkness in 1956, as the Suez Crisis developed. That move, he says, was like being shut out of Paradise. "No doubt it's been sentimentalised in your mind, but you remember an idyllic life. And then suddenly - cold reality in the form of freezing cold winters and all that English stuff that you haven't really taken on board. There are," he says, "various defence mechanisms that come into play. A particular one of mine was to sort of become more English than the English, and totally adapt to what I perceived to be the right way to behave." Asked what that might be, he says with a laugh "for Godsake, don't let anyone know you're clever!"
He doesn't seem to have managed very well, because at the end of his time in that school, he won a prize for Greek. The prize was handed out by the new headmaster of Lancing College, a progressive boarding school, who suggested to Hampton that he continue his education there. "I was down for some ghastly naval academy, but I wrote to my father and said 'can I go to Lancing?' And he said 'well the fees are rather high, so if you can get a scholarship . . . '" At Lancing, Hampton got lucky. "I arrived just at the moment when the school was being totally liberalised, transformed from the traditional, brutal public school, into some new model." Contemporaries were David Hare, who wrote the plays My Zinc Bed and The Blue Room, and Tim Rice, who wrote Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. His French teacher was the poet Harry Guest, who described Hampton as "quite simply one of the most brilliant students I ever taught". The atmosphere at Lancing was exactly what Hampton needed. "We were all encouraged to do plays, to write plays. It was great," he says. "A total stroke of luck. And the luck continued. At the end of it I got expelled." For what, and how was that lucky? "For being generally Bolshie. As soon as I got into Oxford, they threw me out. And that was good too," he insists, "because I was thrown out into the world for 10 months or so, before starting Oxford, aged 18, and I wrote my first play as I was trying to scrape a living. I was bumming around, getting jobs in factories, hitching to Paris. I had to earn the money I needed."
By then, Hampton had written a novel, Harry Stone, that took the form of a 300-page suicide note. "I wrote it when I was 16 or 17. I sent it to lots of publishers and they all turned it down. You're sort of ignorant at that age, of the realities of life, so I thought, 'OK, no one's going to be publishing the novel, I'll try a play...' And as soon as I started writing plays, I thought, 'Oh, I see! This is what I should do'."
At Oxford he studied German and French, getting a first class degree. His first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, an exploration of adolescent homosexuality based on his time at Lancing, was accepted by the Oxford Union Dramatic Society, and did so well that Hampton sent it to legendary agent Peggy Ramsay. Ramsay took on the play, and Hampton, and within three months it was at the Royal Court. A month later it moved to the Comedy Theatre, making Hampton, still an undergraduate, the youngest playwright of his era to have a production in the West End. Reviews were madly enthusiastic; The Times declared: "I do not care whether Mr Hampton is 18 or 80, there are things in his work that would be magnificently moving, beautifully understanding, revealing and compassionate for any age."
Later, Hampton acknowledged that really, he had barely understood his own luck. "I was saying all the wrong things in interviews," he said. "So [the publicists] gave me a lady who went round with me. At one stage she gave me a bollocking because she said I didn't seem to realise how extraordinary it all was. And I said, 'What do you mean?' She said: 'People usually struggle for years and write 25 plays before they get this kind of attention.' Peggy had made it so easy."
That was 50 years ago, and since then, he has worked constantly, and according to his own dictates. "I feel very blessed and lucky to be able to do this job for, now, 50 years, and not have to do anything else, and not have to write or work on anything that I didn't feel like working on," he says. Throughout, he appears to have chosen projects with his heart rather than his head. "You could say, 'well, I'll do more commercial work,' but first of all, I don't understand what that is, and secondly I don't think I'm any good at it anyway. I can only do the work that engages me passionately one way or another, and hope for the best."
And so, he says, even if he had wanted to replicate the success of Dangerous Liaisons, it would have been impossible, because so much was unexpected. "It was terribly hard to get anyone to do that in the first place, as a play. I proposed it to lots of theatres, they said no. Then I got a blind commission from the RSC, they said write us something for the Barbican. I wrote it, and they weren't terribly pleased. They didn't do it in the Barbican, they did it for 22 performances in The Other Place in Stratford, and that's all they intended to do. And then events overtook everybody" - the production became an international sensation - "But no one was expecting ... it would have been difficult to reproduce that trick."
This has meant almost as many stops as starts in his long career. "After Dangerous Liaisons, I thought, 'well I can get anything done now!'" he says with a laugh. "So I wrote this film, Imagining Argentina, about the Disappeared. It took 14 years to raise the money. I directed it myself and it sank like a stone, for reasons I haven't yet worked out."
Hampton is guarded and very restrained on his private life - he is married, with two grown-up daughters; he met his wife, Laura, an art historian, in 1968: "I was looking for somewhere to live in London and I was going to live in a rather nice little artist's garret, but the artist and I went out for lunch and had rather too much to drink, and the artist's landlady took against the idea. So I was a bit stuck. The artist had a friend who he knew was looking for a tenant, so she was my landlady, in Earl's Court." Indeed, his wife once said, "He is very much a person of boundaries... I think it's a writer's thing, this remoteness. That is my only problem with him. He is very remote." Asked about hobbies, he says "I don't really have any hobbies. I still love travelling and I'm still on the lookout for new places to go and explore. But I don't collect stamps, I've never played golf in my life."
But he is extremely funny on the madness of Hollywood and what is aptly known as 'development hell'. Of Carrington, the film about painter Dora Carrington that he wrote and directed, with Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce, he says, "it was one of those moments when American producers were coming over to talk to English writers. Somebody from Warner Bros took me out to lunch and said is there anything you're interested in, and I said, I'd like to do this... Warner Bros commissioned it. I then spent a year writing it. By the time I sent it in, the man I'd had lunch with had long been fired and everyone was bewildered by this script. So that took 18 years from the time I wrote the screenplay to the time I directed it."
He may be 70, but there is not a hint of slowing down. "I had expected it to slowly wind down," he admits, "but on the contrary, there seems to be more stuff every year." Right now, among many other things, he is in the middle of a screenplay about asylum seekers in Britain, and two TV series that are close to his heart. One, for the BBC, is an adaptation of The Singapore Grip by the wonderful JG Farrell, of whom he says "I knew him, he was knocking around Notting Hill in the 1970s. He was great. He was so poor when he was writing Troubles that he was living in a greenhouse at the bottom of somebody's garden. Then he had a very tiny bedsit and he used to entertain. He was a great cook, and he had a little kitchen off this bedsit. The table was up on the wall and had to be lowered across the room, and he would serve these marvellous meals."
The other, for Sony, is based on Edith Wharton's novel The Custom Of The Country. "A year ago I had done a couple of episodes," he says, "and I had a meeting, in New York, with Martin Scorsese and Scarlett Johansson. He said 'I'll direct the first two episodes,' and she said 'I'll play the part', and then profound silence falls. Sony don't want to commission the rest of the episodes until they hear more, and Martin Scorsese and Scarlett Johansson are pretty busy... So it's a question of, be careful what you wish for!"
The Father, by Florian Zeller, in a translation by Christopher Hampton, is at The Gate until October 22. www.gatetheatre.ie
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