Lenny Henry in conversation with Neil Gaiman | National Theatre

– LENNY: Hello, how are you?
– (AUDIENCE WHOOPS) Please welcome our special guest,
Mr Neil Gaiman, ladies and gentlemen! (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) He’s over the… He’s gonna sit here now. We’re here. – Here we are.
– Neil Gaiman! – In the peat mines.
– How are you? – I’m very good.
– It’s nice to see you. I always remind you about your hair
when I see you, because it literally is like Ken Dodd
got dragged through a hedge again. (AUDIENCE LAUGHS) But thank you for the hair.
It’s brilliant. Now, we’re going to talk about
Ocean at the End of the Lane. I want to talk about lots of things,
but I’ve been told I can’t. When did you start writing this story? I started writing
Ocean at the End of the Lane early…very early in… 2012. Um, I was… My wife Amanda had gone off to Australia to make an album. And, um…I missed her. And I went off to Florida.
I borrowed a house from a friend, and I was meant to be writing a script and maybe doing
another couple of projects, and instead, I found myself
missing Amanda, and I thought… And because she was making an album, she wasn’t really…very much there. You know, it was a kind of thing
where I’d be sending her emails, going, ‘Hello! This is my day,’
and she’d write back and say, ‘Great.’ – And…
– (LAUGHTER) And I’d phone up and I’d say,
‘I miss you!’ And she’d say, ‘I’m in Australia
making an album. Bye.’ And… So I thought,
I’ve got to do something that will, you know, kind of get her attention. Does she read everything? Well…no. She’ll read things
if she likes them. She’s picky. She will occasionally grumble
about things of mine and I’ll say, ‘I didn’t know
you read that,’ and she’ll go, ‘Well, not to the end.’ (LAUGHTER) That’s terrible! I’m not sure you should be saying this
about your wife on stage! So I thought, I’ll write her a short story – that she’ll like.
– Ah, good – a challenge. I thought, what does she like?
Well, she likes me. And…and I was sort of
a bit grumpy because… ..earlier, in 2011, I’d tried to take her
to a few of the places from my childhood, and failed,
because they weren’t there any more. And they weren’t there any more
to the point where you could sort of go, ‘Well…you see this housing estate? ‘This used to be a house over there
and some fields down here, ‘and these were the fields
with the bulrushes where I used to read, ‘and you have to use your imagination.’
So I thought, I’ll write her a short story,
and it’ll be a short story that’ll be…that’ll have me in it and it’ll have emotions in it,
because she likes emotions, and it’ll have a lot of… ..the scenery of my childhood. Hang on a minute. Was this story… Because I know you.
Was this something that was… ..brewing anyway,
or was it triggered by this stuff? I think it had started brewing… You can point to about five different
places where it started brewing. It started brewing when I was about…
nine years old, and my mother told me that Boiley’s Farm down our lane was in the Domesday book. And actually, I discovered…
I did a little bit of research and discovered actually
it was 14th-century, so it wasn’t in the Domesday Book. But even…but having… At the time, I went,
‘Oh, it’s 1,000 years old.’ And I started thinking, what would happen
if the people who lived there had been living there for 1,000 years? So that idea had… The idea of
incredibly old people in the farm just living as farm people
had been in my head forever. Um…then… ..about… ..19… ..94, 1995… No, it must have been
a little bit later, because it was after I got a Mini. – After you’d got a Mini?
– I’d bought a Mini early in the 2000s, when they started
doing the new Minis. And my father was out… Back when he was still alive.
..and he visited us… ..in a little Wisconsin house I was in. Um…and… I remember just talking about
how much I loved the Mini and the weirdest thing about having a Mini
as an adult is they’ve sort of scaled it up, so… But it was still the same size
relative to you as an adult human being as the little Minis had been
when you were a kid. So it actually didn’t feel like the Minis
had got enormously bigger, – even though they had.
– But they were bigger? They were bigger. And I happened to say,
in that sort of way that, you know, you say things not even imagining
there’s an answer or a story… I said to my dad… ‘I used to love that white Mini
that you had. ‘And I remember one day
we came home from school ‘and the Mini had gone ‘and instead, you had this ancient Jaguar ‘with old red leather seats ‘that smelled like other people’s cigars ‘that you’d picked up
and traded the car in for. ‘I never understood
why you got rid of the Mini.’ And he said, ‘Ah. ‘I never told you that?’ And I said, ‘No, you never did.’ He said, ‘Hmm. Well, um… ‘Back in 1967, we had a lodger
who came from South Africa ‘and he brought… You couldn’t take money
out of South Africa back then, ‘but his friends had all given him
a lot of money ‘to bring to the UK and bank for them. ‘So he had. ‘And one night he’d gone down to Brighton ‘and he started gambling at the casino
in Brighton ‘and he kept gambling
in the casino in Brighton ‘and then he thought he’d just dip
into their money to fix things…’ – The way you do.
– The way you do. – Seven! Come on, seven!
– (LAUGHTER) – He was that guy.
– He was that guy. And there wasn’t any money,
and he came back to the house. He took the keys to the Mini
from the table, took a garden hose,
drove down to the end of the lane and Dad said, ‘At five o’clock in the
morning, there was a knock at the door. ‘He’d been spotted by a milk van –
you know, a lorry picking up the milk – ”and I had to go down in my dressing gown
and identify the body.’ – Oh, my God, that’s in the book!
– So that… – (LAUGHTER)
– So, being an author… – You put that in the book!
– Yeah. – But that’s real!
– Yeah. So, being an author, as I am, instead of, you know,
really doing what I should have done… Is this gonna be in a book?! – Yes!
– (LAUGHTER) You will be in all the books, Lenny. Um, instead of…instead of going, ‘That poor man,’ which I should have done…
Instead of going, ‘What an awful thing. What was it like
at five in the morning ‘having to go and identify somebody?’ All I found myself doing was thinking, you mean something interesting happened
when I was seven – and nobody told me?
– (LAUGHTER) You put it in a book! And I thought… I kept thinking
about that, and I thought, what would have happened if I’d known? And I thought, that is a thing… It was like one of those little bits
of grit that enters the oyster and you start putting these little
nacreous pearl layers around it. I rang you after I read the book,
do you remember? I said, ‘This is you, isn’t it?’ – What did I say?
– You said… ‘Mmm-mmm-mmm…’ You did that noise on the phone
and I went, ‘Yeah, it’s him.’ – But it’s kind of you, isn’t it?
– It is. – Could you talk about…?
– Yeah. I mean, it’s a bit weird,
because the boy is definitely… ..me aged seven.
There’s nothing that he thinks, there’s nothing that he is, there’s none of his opinions or anything
about books or anything that weren’t mine. And the house that he’s in and the location that he is in is absolutely, with a few tiniest changes, absolutely where…
It’s the house that we lived in… Um… The farm… I’ve swapped the location
of two farms down the lane. There was Boiley’s Farm and Buss’s Farm, and I’ve moved Boiley’s Farm,
the 14th-century one, down to the end of the lane. And I stole the duckpond from
a little weird abandoned gatehouse over the road from us that has long since
been concreted over. I moved a few things around, but… It’s absolutely where I grew up
and what I feel like, and it was me. But the parents weren’t my parents. I have two sisters. Neither of them
is the sister in the book. – Um…
– Is there anything you had to leave out? Um… Because it’s quite a broad palette
of colours you’re using. The way that it got written was so peculiar and organic. I was saying earlier on
I set out to write a short story. That was the idea – I would send
the short story to Melbourne to Amanda and then I would have her attention. – Um…
– (LAUGHTER) So that was the theory. And instead, what would happen
is I would write that day’s writing… ..and I’d normally know what
I was going to need to write the next day. But I couldn’t see much further than that. But I was always vaguely convinced
I was near the end. Um… And that went on for day after day and week after week, and somewhere in there I sent an email
to my publishers, saying, ‘I appear to be writing a novella. ‘I’m really sorry, because I know
how hard novellas are…’ You know, it was like… What’s the difference
between a novel and a novella? Length. Words. Number of words. It goes short story, novelette, novella, novel. And I’d started to write a short story. At some point in there it’s like,
‘Well, I’m writing a novelette.’ And then it was like,
‘No, I’m writing a novella.’ And then, when I finished it, and I actually finished it when Amanda
got back from Australia in April and she was mixing her album
and I was in Dallas and I was typing it all in. And I’d finished typing it in
and I did a word count… ..and wrote a very surprised email
back to all my publishers, saying… ‘I appear to have written a novel…’ (LAUGHTER) ‘..that none of you were expecting,
and I’m really sorry.’ What was Amanda’s reaction
when she read it? Um… She loved it, but I don’t think I’d be telling tales
out of school to say I think her most…
primal response to it was actually, um… seeing it on stage a week ago. We went to the press night last Wednesday and, um… And I’d already…I’d seen it
run through once, I’d been at various readings,
I’d given notes and so on and so forth, so I knew that it was not unknown
for me to get to the very end and find myself
having to discreetly flick a tear away, which is something I’d read about
in books, but never had to do. – But…
– I’m not crying – you’re crying! The sort of thing where you just go…
like that. – Yeah.
– That didn’t happen. You didn’t see that. But Amanda was just like…
From halfway through the first act, – she was just sobbing…
– Aww! ..and holding on to me. Because it’s… You’re talking about… Even though you go into the realm
of fantasy and witches and stuff, this is raw human emotion. We’re dealing with
very, very sensitive stuff here. This is a little kid who’s in danger. And I really felt for that kid. I love, um… the fact that actually you do
absolutely feel for him. But I remember when the book
was published, listening to…one of those
Radio 4 programmes. And this one, they had a male moderator
and three women novelists and poets discussing three books
they’d all been given to read, and one of them was
Ocean at the End of the Lane. And the moderator
had been completely baffled by it. He was like, ‘Well, it’s a book about,
you know, sort of magic and things. ‘I’m not really sure
why we were given this to read.’ And all of the women started talking about
memory and the imagination and the way you process memory… And he was just baffled. He was like, ‘But it’s got witches in it!’ – And it’s like, well…
– He didn’t get it? He really didn’t get it,
and they really did, which made it a sort of very glorious
kind of conversation. Now, Joel Harwood has written
this adaptation. Um… How hands-on…?
I know you can be hands-on. Just to throw this in here
as a small footnote. Two things. It’s really weird that you said Harwood, because Joel’s name is Horwood, but the house where I lived
was on Harwood Lane. Ah! Somebody’s made a mistake. – Not me.
– (LAUGHTER) Not you at all! I love that the conflation of playwright
and location has happened. – Joel Horwood.
– Joel Horwood. OK, so, um…this dude
wrote the adaptation… (LAUGHTER) How hands-on were you? Because I know you
to be quite hands-on when you want to be. How many drafts did you read?
What was the process like? So the initial process was I met… ..Katy Rudd, the director,
and Joel Horwood in 2016… Um, and… ..they said they wanted to do it, and I liked them. It was just that thing
of responding to the people and responding to the things they said and liking them and trusting them
and saying, ‘OK, go ahead.’ And initially they did a workshop. And the workshop had
lots of the puppetry stuff that happens. They were looking at ways of doing things. And it also had a lot of sort of
semi-improvised dialogue and things based on the book,
and actors workshopping it. And I just remember coming out of that
and talking to them and saying, ‘Well, the puppetry stuff is amazing,
but you need a script now. ‘None of that stuff
that people were saying ‘was what they’re going to be saying,
but this is process.’ – Yeah.
– And then… I guess they were just saying, ‘Let’s
put it out there and see what happens.’ Yeah. That’s the great thing
about the National – you get to do those…the workshop.
You get to find out… – What works and what doesn’t.
– Yeah. You get to play. So they did. And then a little bit after that, I remember getting a call… ..and having to talk to my agent
because… the National wanted to do
another book of mine. And they wanted to do the other book
of mine, and they wanted it to be a… Here in the Olivier, and a giant show and, you know,
a really big commercial smash. – And…
– Those are good, if you can do them. Well, it was mostly the fact
that I thought… we can only do one at the National, and the other one will be done
commercially one day by somebody. And… ..this is what we need
subsidised theatre for. You know, Ocean is small and delicate,
and it needs work and love… and tenderness,
and I think they can pull it off. So I went, ‘OK, we’re going with
Joel and Katy and Ocean, ‘and the other one we’re pulling.
They don’t get that one.’ When did it start to feel like
it was coming together? Um… It just became…it was a like
a photograph developing. Oh, that’s an analogy that will
mean nothing to anybody under 40! You mean on your phone, like,
when you take a picture? When you take a picture on your phone,
it’s just there immediately. That kind of development?
Or do you mean old-time development? – I mean old-time development where…
– Back in the day. ..you start out with a blank thing, then
more and more detail comes through. – We don’t have that any more.
– I know. So, you know, I’d go to a reading,
and it would be…good, and I would have notes, and… ..you know… And the next time
when I’d come back six months later, there would be another one, and I would
have fewer notes, but more specific. Um, and… You know… And they needed… We all knew to begin with
if you’re putting a novel on a stage, you’re going to have to leave things out. And it’s OK to leave things out. What were the big things that…? Well,
if you want to go, ‘La la la-la!’ now! Were there major things
which were excluded, or just tiny things? Actually, no. I don’t think of a lot of
things that are excluded as major, because I think what Joel and Katy
did brilliantly was go for the heart. My biggest concern… ..was probably that, um… ..in the theatre one, the boy’s mum has died. She’s dead,
mostly for reasons of compactness and storytelling. And also because it becomes
much more about grief and loss all the way through. And I think that was… I think that was, um… Probably the biggest thing
towards the final read that I had to think about, you know… And I remember going backwards and
forwards on that with them and saying, ‘OK, you need to do this right,
because if it tips one way or the other, ‘it becomes like a shoe that drops,
then the other one never does.’ Difficult when it’s a major story beat. I mean, that changes it a little bit. It does, but actually I think
honestly it’s all for the best. Everything that they’ve done, um… It’s so weird, because normally
when I see adaptations of mine, even ones that I like or love, when people are like,
‘What did you think of it? How was it?’… ..my voice goes a bit high. And I go… (HIGH-PITCHED) ..’Well, it was really…’ – (LAUGHTER)
– ‘It was really good. Yeah.’ Whereas with this, it’s just like,
you know… (DEEP VOICE) I like it! I was on the Today show last week, the morning of the election when they couldn’t put anything political
on, so they had me reading a poem instead. – And…
– That helped(!) (LAUGHTER) I did my best! – Thank you for trying.
– And… At the end, they said, ‘Oh, and you’ve got
a play on at the National.’ I said,
‘Yeah, Ocean at the End of the Lane. ‘It is absolutely astonishing.’ He said, ‘Well, we’ll be the judge
of that.’ And I thought… (LAUGHTER) Are you…? You’ve written
so many amazing things. He’s written a lot of amazing things.
You’ve written so many amazing things. Are you at all precious
when you get into the… the guts of adaptation? There’s a lot to play with here. And I was with you yesterday.
There’s a feeling of… You can change this,
you keep the spine of this. What’s your boundaries
with regard to adaptations? I think with live theatre in particular, I…tend to be kinder… ..than I would be,
and more forgiving otherwise, because I think that theatre
is so incredibly Darwinian. It’s like, if it’s bad… ..it’s gone, and then you just quietly say, ‘I think probably we won’t
ever give them permission ‘to do that particular production
ever again.’ And it just goes away. So you’re very good at seeing the things
that work and the things that don’t work? I’m… You know, I think
what’s really interesting for me… ..probably most interesting about Ocean, was feeling that what Joel, Katy
and their amazing… And it’s not just them. You know, it’s…everybody, including the puppet designers
and the puppeteers and the… ..the amazing sets, and the acting
is glorious, and all that kind of stuff. What I love best
is when I stop feeling like the creator and start feeling like
part of the audience. When that little part of me that’s
criticising, taking notes or whatever just shuts off and I’m just sitting there enjoying it, wondering
what’s going to happen next, even though on some level I know. That’s good, isn’t it, when the… When you become a customer, when you’re… You start to enjoy it
and forget that it’s you. I remember when you and I were making
Neverwhere all those years ago. You used to tease me for laughing. – At your own jokes.
– At my own jokes. (LAUGHTER) In the middle of a take! I did actually spoil some takes
by laughing! And action! Neil’s like… ‘I love this joke!’ Um… It’s true! But it is that lovely thing where
on the one hand, you wrote the line, and on the other hand, now Hywel Bennett
and Clive Russell are saying it and it’s…it’s glorious. I like all that stuff. Is there anything you want specifically the readers of the book and the… Well, clearly the play and the book
are different. But when you put work out there, what do you want them to take away
from this production, and from the book? I think for me, when I wrote Ocean, I wasn’t sure
how anybody was going to react to it. Because I thought, it’s so personal.
It’s a book… Normally when I write a book, my intended audience is me in an alternate universe
in which I’ve never read that book. Occasionally it’s me aged seven
in an alternate universe in which I’ve never read that book,
but that’s my audience. In this one, it was Amanda. Um… So as long as she liked it,
my book was done. Um… What I didn’t expect was a very
specific thing that started happening, which was people would come up to me
having read Ocean and they’d say, ‘You wrote my life.’ And ‘That was me as a kid.
Nothing in there happened to me, ‘but that was me.’ And… ..the first couple of times it happened,
I thought, this is an odd thing to happen. And… you know, by time 50, by time 100,
it was just like, OK, there are a certain tribe of us slightly booky people… People who… I remember when my daughter Maddie
turned nine or ten. She was at that point my third child. And I realised that she was the third of three of my children to alphabetise their bookshelves. That maybe it was me. (LAUGHTER) As far as I was concerned,
by the time I was seven, I would agonise over… ..you know, Richard Glyn Jones –
is it Gs or Js? – That was you?
– That was me. I was the one with my copy of
Tales of Ancient Egypt… Roger Lancelyn Green – is he an L or a G?
I don’t know! You know that day when you were allowed to
take toys or comics or books to school? Were you that kid? Did you always take
a book to school and sit in the corner – on that day?
– I did. And not play with anybody else? I was genuinely the first kid… There’s a line in… Ocean at the End of the Lane
about being the… The cake shop, doing the birthday, said this was the first time
they’d had to put a book on a cake. You know, they normally did, um… ..footballers or, you know, astronauts. – And I was the first book.
–A specific book or just a book? – I think it was just a book.
– Wow. – That’s very geeky indeed.
– Yep. I love you for it, though, because I had
a very similar experience at school with books. It was always a box of comics
or a box of books and just me sitting there while people played with Johnny Sevens
and Hot Wheels and Dinky toys. But I don’t want to start crying,
so I’ll ask you another question. (LAUGHTER) Is there a particular childhood memory that you focused on
while you were writing this, or was there a palette of memories
you kept looking at and thinking, I’m going to press that button now? I think what was really weird
about writing it was while I was writing it… ..um… ..things that I hadn’t thought about in years and years and years… ..started coming back into focus. And stuff that I’d… ..you know,
absolutely and utterly forgotten – because I’d had no reason to think of it – suddenly I’m phoning my mum and saying,
‘OK, let me just make sure ‘that I’m remember this right. ‘So you’d go out the back door ‘and there were three
little weird outhouses. ‘There was one that smelled like coal. ‘And then there was an outside toilet, ‘then there was one
with a washing machine in it. ‘And then it was all sort of bricks,
but they’d get mossy and slippery ‘and then there was some lily
of the valleys that grew alongside that. ‘And then behind that
was the blackcurrant bushes.’ Sort of going… And it’s all the stuff of a place that hasn’t existed
since 1970 or 1971. You were just checking up on the detail? But if you’d asked me to draw a map, um… of the house the week before
I started writing the book… ..I probably wouldn’t have
remembered any of that. But it really was this kind of thing of,
OK, I’m… I was so into the…location, so remembering every detail of the place. And that was for me the strangest thing. The back cover of Ocean
used to have a photograph… Some editions have it,
some editions don’t. ..of me… ..on the drainpipe,
climbing down the drainpipe on the back of the house. – That really happened?
– That really happened. I used to climb up and down the drainpipe.
My sister Lizzie found this photo and she sent it to me. And the photo
is incredibly cunningly cropped. So you can’t see the kid’s face. Not because, um… Not for the artistic reasons
that you would imagine. Because the grin on my face was so huge that all the kind of atmosphere
of the book, of, you know, childhood peril
and weirdness and stuff… It needed to be sad. It would have been just destroyed
by this sort of… ‘I’m on the drainpipe!’ But you know, kids… Why were you climbing
up and down the drainpipe? Cos kids in books
went up and down drainpipes, and I read that in books and I was like,
‘OK, so we have a drainpipe.’ And fortunately,
it was not a plastic drainpipe that would have come away from the house
and killed me – it was an old-fashioned Victorian
proper drainpipe. And, you know, we… It was a pretty strange house
that we were in, strange garden. Um, because it was…half of an old Edwardian manor house. And the people next door, they had all the nice…
they had the posh half and we had the servants’ quarters. – Um…
– But you weren’t servants for them? We were not servants for them.
In fact, the doors had been bricked up that would have joined the houses, which
actually started another book, Coraline. It began with the fact that there was… We got one nice room. So we had the servants’ quarters, but we had a drawing room, which was wood-panelled and stuff
because it was at the front of the house. And it had the door through which
the servants would have entered, which was ours,
and then the door at the other end, where the family would have entered,
you opened it and it was a brick wall. And that used to fascinate me.
I used to creep up on it. You used to creep up on the wall? Sure, yeah, because I was completely sure
that if I just opened it fast enough, it wouldn’t be a brick wall.
It would lead somewhere. – Wow.
– And so that was the starting point, you know, two or three decades later,
of Coraline. It’s fantastic. Please go and see it. Please buy the book
if you haven’t done it. Ladies and gentlemen, Neil Gaiman. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you so much.

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