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The Great Escaper writer William Ivory, from Rutland, talks about working with Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson on their last-ever films

Wedged between two occupied tables in an Oakham cafe, in comfortable earshot of both, I’m slightly uneasy about how much the interview might disturb our neighbours’ newspaper reading and smartphone peering.

William Ivory is never short of a word. In a good way.

It can’t always be said for those who know how to talk, but what he says is worth hearing. Ivory is funny, generous with his time and has a gift of making those he’s with feel they’re important to him - even though we both know we’re here for a purpose.

William Ivory is a three-time Bafta-nominee and won awards for hit film Made in Dagenham
William Ivory is a three-time Bafta-nominee and won awards for hit film Made in Dagenham

His chat rarely drops below good value.

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Anecdotes and reflections break on a fast tide in full flow. About life, the profane and ridiculous.

Not to mention at least five new script ideas, including a sensational one about his adopted home county.

As new parents and with a second baby girl on the way, Southwell-born Ivory and his wife opted for a quieter grown-up life away from Nottingham.

Sacrificing bustle for the more pedestrian pace of village life, he swapped his beloved Notts for Rutland, within convenient baby-sitting range of the in-laws.

Almost three decades later, many notable screenplays for TV, film and stage have sparked into life in their Whissendine family home.

Michael Caine plays war veteran Bernard Jordan who escaped from his care home and headed to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe
Michael Caine plays war veteran Bernard Jordan who escaped from his care home and headed to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe

Strictly seven pages every day; no more, no less.

The hit 2010 movie Made In Dagenham - which won the self-trained writer a British Independent Film Award for best screenplay - first saw the light of day here, as did the TV screenplays which made him a three-time BAFTA nominee.

But his latest work to hit the big screen - The Great Escaper - will perhaps go down among his most fondly-recalled.

William Ivory was inspired by the wartime experiences of his parents when writing the parts for Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson. Photo: Michael Guerrero/Pathe
William Ivory was inspired by the wartime experiences of his parents when writing the parts for Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson. Photo: Michael Guerrero/Pathe

The film is based on the real-life tale of war veteran Bernard Jordan who absconded from his care home and hot-footed it to France in 2014 for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Yet its place in cinema history - and as a testing piece of quiz trivia - was secured as much by its cast as the story itself.

When British cinema titans Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine uttered their last-ever lines on set, they were words scripted by Ivory’s fingers.

Caine announced his retirement from acting shortly after the release of The Great Escaper. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe
Caine announced his retirement from acting shortly after the release of The Great Escaper. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe

Jackson, a multiple Oscar-winning actress and forthright MP, died last June, just four months before the film’s release.

“Glenda saw it about three weeks before she died - we had a screening at the Soho Hotel just for Michael and her,” Ivory recalls.

“We had lunch afterwards and she really loved it, and so did Michael.

Glenda Jackson 'carried the film' during which she celebrated her 87th birthday. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe
Glenda Jackson 'carried the film' during which she celebrated her 87th birthday. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe

“Glenda’s family all said it was the most Glenda they’d ever seen her in a role.

“She carries the film. It's very sad she’s no longer with us, but what a life!

“She went out exactly how she lived which was really burning bright.”

William Ivory was determined to avoid patronising the characters or sentimentalising war and old age. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe
William Ivory was determined to avoid patronising the characters or sentimentalising war and old age. Photo: Caroline Moore/Pathe

Caine, who turned 90 this year, also announced he was hanging up his boots from the acting game.

“At the end of it he said ‘I’m not going to get any roles like that at my age - I don't just want to play a little bit’,” Ivory said.

“It is a lead role and he’s astonishing. So I feel really honoured by that.”

And it is not just the timing of Caine’s last film that has drawn attention from the critics.

“One of the papers did Michael Caine’s 10 greatest roles and I think we came just after Alfie, but before the Ipcress Files,” Ivory says with a little astonishment.

“You think if you’re keeping that sort of company you're not doing badly!”

The poignancy of watching two acting icons, alongside Caine’s good friend John Standing, filming together for the first time in almost 50 years, captivated the set.

“Michael and Glenda were so different as people but had a real respect for each other and a real fondness which was interesting,” Ivory said.

“Politically they’re very different animals, but they both knew that they were both really, really good.

“It was like watching Messi and Ronaldo on the same pitch - they knew they had a trick or two. And they really took care of each other.”

And yet Ivory’s place within this chapter of movie folklore almost never happened.

Having been sounded out for the job by Pathe and Ecosse, he wasn’t initially sold.

“I knew about the story because I could remember it at the time,” he said.

“I remember when he disappeared and poled up in France. He was the Great Escaper and all that, but at first I wasn’t sure if there was definitely a film in it to be honest.

“I thought there was a good situation, but I really wasn’t sure it was a movie so I didn’t say yes at first, I just said let me think about it.”

Family ties rather than a studio’s persistence ultimately won round the writer.

Ivory has dedicated several works to his dad’s time serving Bomber Command out of Skellingthorpe during the Second World War.

Yet this time, it was the wartime experience of his mum Edna, rather than Bill’s, which was the telling influence.

“She said he would come home sometimes and if he ever had eczema round his nostrils she knew he’d had the oxygen mask on,” Ivory remembers.

“So I started thinking about my mum and the idea of going to war while you stay at home.

“I put that with the Glenda Jackson character and thought ‘oh hang on, we have got a film here’, because it's as much about her as it is about him.”

Wary of stereotyping, Ivory set himself strict parameters before writing began.

“What I definitely didn’t want to do was make a film where you end up patronising age and old people, and it could easily be,” he said.

“Even writers I adore, like Alan Bennett, sometimes are guilty of that.

“They all run around being rude and telling willy jokes and you actually think ‘nah’. “You’ve just got to treat them as characters with the respect you would a younger character.

“I think that’s why I hesitated in the first place because I thought it was a story which could just be about a cheeky chappie who goes off.

“In the end I made that part of the story - the perception of old age and war against the reality of it, and our need to sanitise what was really happening.”

There's also a fine line to tread when covering Britain’s part in the world wars. Teetering somewhere between acknowledging sacrifice, courage and victory and avoiding tottering into mawkish sentimentality or jingoism.

“When my work is good it’s full of emotion and it’s full of sentiment, but it’s not sentimental,” said Ivory.

“Increasingly now a lot of writers and a lot of critics are terrified of sentiment because they’re terrified of sentimentality, but if you want to create real emotion then you’ve got to go there.

“We don’t sentimentalise and we do engage with some pretty difficult things like becoming infirm, losing your marbles and losing your physical attributes.

“Once you’re dealing truthfully with that and you’re also able to present a love story then I think it works.”

He added: “Michael Caine’s character is talking about old age and he says ‘there’s no escape for anyone’ and that one line, for me, is the touchstone of the movie.

“It allows it to be emotional, but stops it being sentimental.”

Anyone who deals in bashing out words for a living knows the terror of a blank page or a white wordless laptop screen.

It can be especially exhausting for a writer like Ivory whose chief currency is emotion and who agrees with the words of Charles Dickens - ‘no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader’.

For Great Escaper, Ivory knew he had to go back to the well once more.

“When you start a script it’s really tough,” he said.

“With heavyweight boxers they fight a few bums, then get to a point when they have to go to the mountain again.

“You can’t keep fighting bums - you’ve got to the mountain and face the big hitters, but it’s hard. Every time I think, ‘how often can I do that?’ because it’s exhausting.”

Cold statistics bear out this point.

Ivory’s average number of drafts from beginning to production is 16.

His record, for Nightflight, a careworn personal piece for his dad, took 63.

If you’ve ever sat at a desk convinced you can no longer write well, there’s some comfort in knowing it happens to the best.

“I never hate what I do because I’m very lucky to be able to do it,” Ivory said.

“There are times when it is sublime and you just feel you’re in this sweet spot and everything you’re feeling is coming on to the page.

“Then there are other times when it’s just really hard and the temptation is to just get up and walk away from it. But you can’t.”

As a part-time senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, it’s wisdom he passes on.

“It’s what I say to my students. If you’re diving for pearls and you just happen to be in deep water that day, you might use up every single bit of your breath to get to the bottom.

“You might only pick two pearls up, but you certainly aren’t going to bloody well pick them up if you don't hold your breath and get down there!”

Ivory breaks into laughter and bashes the table.

Scripts are often picked apart by the producer and cut down to meet a tight budget.

This time the writer was helped out by the standing of the actors.

“We were going to film it and then Michael had problems with his back and it looked like it was off,” Ivory recalled.

“I thought it was dead in the water, and so we kind of forgot about it for a year.

“But then the producer got in touch and said Michael still wanted to do it.

“What that meant was the script really had time to settle for a year. You could go back and it was easy to see the bits where it was overworked and where it still needed work.

“But the great thing was that they had all learnt the script in that year - a lot of actors don’t!

“They were all 90 so they didn’t want last-minute rewrites. And all three were extraordinary.”

The star billing also earned the film a few extra bells and whistles over and above what the bottom line would normally allow.

“We had people working on it we couldn’t really afford,” he admits.

“Normally I have a certain budget to work with, and with this budget you can use these composers, but instead we got Baz Luhrman’s composer.

“And the guy who shot it is really expensive, but they all wanted to do it because they wanted to work with Michael, Glenda and John.”

While the cast invariably make the headlines, how does the writer rate the end product?

“It’s a film I’m hugely proud of because it’s quite unflinching for a love story, which it is, and a comedy, which it is,” he said.

“It’s tough, but it’s uplifting. I get a bit peed off when people say it’s a heartwarming story because it’s not a heartwarming story at all.

“It’s a moving story, it’s a passionate story and ultimately it’s an uplifting story of love and age. I’m quite clear on that and that’s how they play it.”

While he says life as a writer can fluctuate between feast and famine, Ivory has the enviable security of more big projects to come.

He is shooting another film next year for Pathe and is in the throes of writing a film for Warner Brothers, set for 2025.

He’s also writing a play for his beloved Nottingham Playhouse set around Market Deeping and Bourne.

Yet for someone who made his name in writing for television, the small screen is less certain.

“It’s a bit scary out there at the moment because a lot of TV production has just gone,” he reflects.

“It’s very weird with the streamers (streaming services) because they are less bothered about quality than content.

“They chase an audience in a way that the BBC wouldn’t, or at least didn’t.”

The clock ticks towards four and our cafe table neighbours are long gone.

Ivory begins to betray a little edginess. It’s familiar, and would be to anyone who lives day to day haunted by deadlines.

My interviewee can see the spectre of what remains unwritten of that self-imposed daily quota. He won’t be able to relax until he’s chipping away at it.

“I’ve written half-a-page today since 7 o’clock this morning,” he admits, apologising for his haste.

“I’m thinking now I’ll probably be at it until 11 tonight and in the pit of my stomach it makes me feel sick. It’s awful!

“Then other days, I’m done by quarter-past-eight and it’s ‘magic, off we go’!” he says, gleefully rubbing his hands.

Yet even with the mounting pressure of a looming deadline to meet for major Hollywood players, already once delayed, there’s still time for another quick recollection. Full value.

“If there was an England team for wittering on, I’d be in it’.”

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