Branching out into rain-forest drama

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Scene: the people are the forest, Age range 13 to 17, BBC2, March 22, 1.00pm Script available on request, BBC Education 0181 746 1111

Reva Klein talks to actor Douglas Hodge about writing and directing an environmental drama for schools television. Douglas Hodge's professional acting career began rather inauspiciously. When he was 16 years old, he went to audition for a part in the children's film Bugsy Malone. Here he sang some songs that he had written himself and on the strength of these he was taken on for the movie by director Alan Parker.

The excited young thespian took all his mates to see the film when it opened. They sat through the whole thing expectantly and, as time went on, disbelievingly. The movie, it transpired, was Hodgeless. "They'd cut me out and nobody had bothered to tell me," he shakes his head, still looking mildly perplexed.

That disappointment did not stop him becoming one of the best- known faces in British television drama. He was the quietly compelling Dr Lydgate in the BBC's adaptation of Middlemarch. He has also played in Saigon Baby and A Fatal Inversion, among many roles on small screen and stage. And now he has just made his debut as a director of a television drama, with The People are the Forest, a new play in the schools television series, Scene.

The play, written by Hodge and Peter Searles, is a steamy, non-naturalistic but highly moral story of the havoc caused by the unrelenting powers of greed, as the wood merchants attack the native Indians and the trees of the rain-forest, somewhere in Latin America.

While professional actors (Helen McRory, Lennie James and Peter Kelly) take the three lead roles, the trees are played by all 200 members of the National Youth Theatre. They aren't just any old trees. These rain-forest trees create the sounds of the jungle, the non-stop cicada songs, the cawing birds, the staccato clattering of torrential downpours on their branches and fronds.

When they are under attack by machetes and electric saws, they mourn with anguish and sadness, their branchesarms reaching up in supplication. While its dramatic form will not be to everyone's taste, there is no denying that it is a haunting play, showing Hodge to be a director willing to push boundaries and take risks.

For him, it was a labour of love - he is passionately green and has been a regular at the Newbury by-pass protests - and the play has also been a way of giving back something that was given to him. At around the time that Alan Parker's editor was gouging the young hopeful out of Bugsy Malone, Hodge went to be auditioned by National Youth Theatre founder and director Michael Croft. He had never been inside a theatre before.

"I used to do impersonations after school in working men's clubs, things like Harold Wilson, Elvis Presley, Steptoe and Son. When I decided to try for the National Youth Theatre, my English teacher chose my two audition pieces for me, Richard II and a Pinter. But when the time came, I said to Croft and his colleagues on the audition panel, 'I'm not sure about these - would you rather see my impersonations?' They said yes, I did and they accepted me."

The National Youth Theatre got him hooked. "The reason I'm an actor is because of the National Youth Theatre," he says. His debut, in a crowd scene in Coriolanus, gave him and his friends "the time of our lives. The whole ethos of youth theatre is about getting on and having a good time, not about becoming an actor".

Even so, it certainly got him aspiring, thanks in large part to the legendary Croft himself, whom he "still misses intensely". His National Youth Theatre experiences led him to RADA and a very successful career ever since. But he is clear about what the role of youth theatre is and should be.

"The NYT is not the future actors of this country, but it is the future audience. The vast majority won't go into acting, but they'll probably have a love of the theatre and a respect for it, whether they become postmen or anything else. If the NYT were to become a stage school, I wouldn't be involved in it."

He is on the NYT's council and every summer season leads workshops with the youth theatre group. "It's a tremendous fillip for me to work with them once a year. But I'm too selfish about my own career to do any more than that. "

While working on The People are the Forest, he was committed to making the experience a memorable one for the 200 young actors. "I was passionate about treating actors as I'd like to be treated and to make them acutely aware of the process needed to get the results."

But working with young people is a bit of a trial by fire for someone making his directorial debut. There is so much going on between the young people themselves, all of them trying to make the most of every minute of their short summer seasons together. Getting them to play trees while they were variously falling in love for the first time or getting their A-level results smack in the middle of rehearsals is no mean feat. Hodge was philosophical. "I remember standing there wondering how we were going to get it done." But they did and the result can be seen on schools television this week.

Schools will be sent a copy of the script on request, which can be played as a straight three-hander or, indeed, for a cast of hundreds of trees.

And so taken has Scene's executive producer Richard Langridge been with Hodge's debut, he has commissioned him to direct another half-hour play.

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