Interview: Alex Ferguson, writer of forthcoming North East feature BLISS!

Posted: 27th November 2015

Writer Alex Ferguson was born in Jarrow in good time for the Great Depression. Stories of his transformative childhood would become the BBC Radio Four series, My Uncle Freddie, which he created and wrote. It ran for six seasons, culminating in 1997 with a Writers' Guild of Great Britain Award for Comedy & Light Entertainment. The same year he founded South Shields based Bold as Brass Theatre Company, remaining as their Creative Director until 2008. Bold as Brass went on to be led by Director Jackie Fielding until her recent untimely death in June.

As founding writer of Corin and Vanessa Redgrave's Moving Theatre, Alex saw successful productions of The Flag and Casement at Battersea Lane and the Riverside.

Most recently Alex wrote the screenplay for North East and Norway set feature film, BLISS! which began life as his stage play. Sugar & Water Films developed the stage play into a screenplay with financial support from Northern Film & Media. Produced by Alan Latham (for GSP Studios), and directed and produced by Rita Osei (for Sugar & Water Films), Bliss! is currently in post-production. Ahead of the project’s completion, Rita Osei interviewed Alex about his involvement in writing and the background of BLISS!

How did you come to be a professional writer? 

I became a professional writer at the age of five years and four months. I began to read very early.  I would sit in the reading circle in the Infants class quietly minding my own business having read the book we’d been given twice over. I had read Aesop’s Fables and was distressed by the cruelty of some stories. The Ant turns away the Grasshopper on a winter’s day. I welcomed him to the fireside. I changed other stories. I wrote Aesop’s Fables by Alex Ferguson and my sister paid me sixpence for a hand-sewn copy. There were only two copies. I offered the last one to W.H. Smith on Shields station, but they said they were overstocked.

How did BLISS! come to be? Where did the ideas come from?

Down and nearly out, home in (South) Shields, I applied for a job leading a drama group. I was unfortunate enough to be chosen as leader. We met in the exhibition gallery of the Customs House Theatre. I did not realise on the first evening that the reluctant, quarrelsome gang of teenagers were not volunteers. They had been sent. They largely ignored me. I used to pray fervently every Tuesday and Thursday evening they wouldn’t turn up, but they insisted. I was slow to understand my gang, many from dysfunctional families, slow I may be, but I am tenacious. Then it happened. We started to write a play about them.

They began to understand that I did care about them. I learned of their ignorance, not stupidity; ignorance because no one ever told them anything. So I told them what I thought and we discovered they had their own opinions. I told them a child deserves a mother and father. In their world a father might dish out a fiver at Christmas if he was passing. In the first three years we had three pregnancies. In the next seven years not a solitary pregnancy. They stopped swearing in my presence. I found many of the girls lacked a father and wished they had that reassurance. I discovered I didn’t have to do anything but be there. Be reliable and lay down the lightest of rules.

One young woman drove the group. From her life experience grew BLISS! the stage play.

How would you describe your work?

I began to realise the life I knew was rarely represented in words or pictures. London was London and Tyneside was a quaint backwater where men in cloth caps kept marching to London. I resolved to make sure the people around me would not be forgotten and wrote MY UNCLE FREDDIE and UNCLE FREDDIE & THE PRINCE OF WALES. It may be pretentious to say I feel a special bond with those stalwart people. The circle is unbroken. Iron is the bond that binds us. In the same fashion I found myself to be the voice of the voiceless when I began the theatre group that became Bold As Brass. No need to mould characters. They stood in front of me. No need to create a story. They were living the story. We wrote some thirty theatre pieces in ten years.  Together we recreated a young girl’s life in the estate known as the Bronx in a series of three plays. The most successful was BLISS!

Are you surprised that your first feature film happened later in life?

I am rarely surprised by anything. In the early Sixties I had been the BBC’s Young Poet of the Year and included in a PEN anthology with Stephen Spender on the other side of the page. I had written two acclaimed radio plays produced in London and another in Leeds. I was the eager acolyte sitting in The George drinking in every word of people like Samuel Beckett, Dominic Behan and Louis MacNeice. While I was living the dream my family was living in a shabby Council house on a rundown estate. I was drifting away from my beloved wife Moira and my children. So I stopped writing and went to work as a teacher until the house was empty of sons and daughters.

Bliss! was waiting for me some twenty years later. It was as if I had stepped outside for a moment and when I returned someone had replaced my faithful Underwood with a computer keyboard.  Now that’s what I call surprising. Since then I have known what will be, will be.

Martin Longstaff (The Lake Poets) performs 'Vane Tempest', from his Dave-Stewart-produced debut album, in Bliss! How important was it to you to see local talent included in the project?

It is essential that local talent are at the heart of any project, both on screen and behind the camera. It’s simplistic to say, but true, that they will give extra to the project because it is in their own backyard. 

The cast of Bliss! includes Freya Parks, David Leon, Reece Noi, Montserrat Lombard, Natasha Haws, Chloe Cuskin, Gitte Wit, Lauren Johns, Philip Correia and Lars Arentz-Hansen.

(Images reproduce stills from BLISS! Photographer: Paul Stephenson.)

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