‘WE’VE FAILED OUR KIDS’: Fast Girls writer compares last year’s riots to the unrest of ’81

Roy Williams

Roy Williams

Billed as this summer’s ultimate feel good movie, Brit sports flick Fast Girls is a complete departure for dramatist Roy Williams, who co-wrote the screenplay.

Williams, one of the country’s finest playwrights and certainly its most prolific, is best known for gritty urban dramas like Fallout, which was inspired by the Damilola Taylor murder.

Others like Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, about English nationalism, and Days of Significance, prompted by his opposition to the Iraq war, underline his desire to push back the boundaries of what is deemed to constitute black play writing.

A combination of this, a natural adventurousness and a wish to branch out into other areas of writing saw him become involved in a in a sugar coated but likeable film about four female athletes preparing for the 2012 Olympics.

“It is real departure, but a welcome one,” he tells me. “I have always wanted to write for film and it is a different story from the ones I usually tell in theatre, which is why I was drawn to it. Fast Girls has characters you don’t get to see much in drama and it’s a great insight into contemporary life seen through the eyes of athletics.”

Noel Clarke, who stars in the film as the girls’ coach, and Jay Basu share the screenplay credits with him. How do you co-write, a film, I wonder – by taking sections of the script in turn, or what? But it was nothing as cumbersome as this.

“The first draft of the film was written by [Clarke and Basu],” he explains. “But they were unable to carry on, so the script was passed to me. The story had to remain the same, more or less, but how I would tell it was up to me.”

For his next stage play, due out in the autumn, Williams sticks to sport but returns to more familiar territory. It is his reworking of Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in which rebellious Nottingham lad Colin becomes a black youth sent to a young offender’s institution for his part in last summer’s riots. As in the original, Colin is offered the chance to train as a runner as part of his rehabilitation but deliberately loses an important race.

Loneliness… shows how little has changed in all these years, and that is why it still resonates. It is such an uplifting story. I found Colin’s act of defiance amazing, something that can say so much to young people today.”

Williams, 44, is also working on a three-part TV drama commissioned by the BBC about the events leading up to the Brixton riots as seem through the eyes of a white and a black family.

The difference between the 1981 riots and last year’s says a lot about modern Britain, he feels. “There was more genuine anger and outrage in 1981. Youngsters were angry about being treated like second class citizens in their own country and they wanted it to stop.”

The intervening years saw the rise of a materialistic dog eat dog culture, a phenomenon that forms a thread through much of his work, alongside issues of belonging and identity. Fallout opens disturbingly with a group of youths kicking a boy’s head for his trainers and mobile phone.

“Last summer’s riots showed that our generation has failed our kids by making them obsessed with material things, with the latest trainers, with gangsta rap, with knives and guns. It upsets me very much. ”

Since making a splash in 1996 with his debut drama, No Boys Cricket Club, which tells the story of a middle aged Jamaican woman coming to terms with her disappointment with life in England, Williams has produced on average a play a year, probably making him the hardest working man in British theatre.

His last major stage play, Sucker Punch, the riveting story of two aspiring black boxers growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, won Best Theatre Play prize at last year’s Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards, the latest in a long line of trophies that have studded his career.

Quite an achievement for someone who struggled academically at school but left  with a love of literature and theatre. Brought up by his single parent mum on a council estate in Notting Hill, he took a performance arts course and worked briefly as an actor before studying for a degree in theatre writing.

No Boys…, written as part of his coursework, was snapped up by the Theatre Royal Stratford East six months after he left college and directed by Indus Rubasingham, now artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre.

Since then Williams, whose muses range from Shakespeare to US TV’s The Wire, has never looked back, crafting plays that strive to unravel how people are products of the society they live in and coming up over time with what is effectively a running commentary on contemporary Britain.

West End Extra

5 July 2012

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