Schools television: from Brideshead to Bosnia

13th December 1996 at 00:00
His face may be a bit craggy, his body just this side of emaciated, his voice exuding a soft but undeniable toffishness that has you searching for a forelock to tug. But the mere mention of his name sends a good many thirty and fortysomethings' knees all weak and quivery. There's no denying that Jer-emy Irons is still, for want of a more elegant phrase, a hunk and a half.

But let's get a grip on ourselves and forget about the tortured squire in Brideshead Rev-isited, the lovestruck gentleman in The French Lieutenant's Woman, the peroxide psychopath in Die Hard with a Ven-geance, the patrician physician accused of murdering his wife in Reversal of Fortune and the libidinous politician in Damage. Irons, who has been fed up with just acting for some time, is about to make his directorial debut in a television play starring himself and his wife, Sinead Cusack. And not just any telly. It's for Channel 4 Schools.

The choice of Mirad, A Boy from Bosnia, by Dutch writer Ad de Bond, was not totally out of the blue. Irons and Cusack performed a special staged reading of the play for teachers before the Oxford Stage Company took a full production on tour last year. About the same time, Longman's published it as a GCSE English set text.

Irons was bowled over by the play. "I thought it was everything that theatre should be - powerful, instructional and dealing with a subject that no one had dealt with at the time."

It is the story of a boy caught up in the war in Bosnia. He is separated from his parents during a raid and finds himself as an asylum seeker in the Netherlands before returning, alone, to look for them amid the rubble that was once his country. It is a powerful piece, as much about identity as about the horrible events that took place in the former Yugoslavia.

But while Irons loved the play, he emphatically declined an invitation to star in a television version of it when first approached by Andrew Bethell of Double Exposure, the independen t production company which made the highlyacclaimed documentary about the Royal Opera House, The House.

"I felt it was a unique piece for the stage, and it's very rare that I think in that way," he explains. "On television, you can't use imagery in the same way that you can in the theatre."

But the larger-than-life Bethell is a man not easily deterred, and he persisted with Irons. "He nagged me that if it was on the television, it would be seen by more people and would be used as a text by more teachers. Finally, I said that I'd only agree to act in it if I could direct it."

Although having Irons on board as an actor was a great coup for a schools television production, having someone untried and untested as a director was a leap of faith for both Bethell and Channel 4. "It's always a wild card, the question of whether an actor can direct," says Bethell. "But the consensus on Jeremy is yes, he can. There were definitely stresses for him in both acting and directing, having to leap in and out of scene. As an actor he's used to being treated with kid gloves, and during filming on this production he'd occasionally get grumpy.

"But there was only one tan-trum, and that was at 11 o'clock one night in the freezing rain.

Otherwise, he's been a delight to work with throughout, and I feel that he has a real directing career in front of him."

For a schools production, Irons brought a cache of glitz. "When he wanted advice on something, he'd ring David Puttnam or Mike Nichols," according to the not-easily-starstruck Bethell. "That is the level he operates on, those are the circles that he moves in."

If there were glamorous people on the other end of the phone, there was also a crme de la crme film crew that Irons managed to cajole into joining the project and, of course, his wife as co-star. "Sinead's wonderful in it," says Irons - as a professional director of course, not as a husband. Was it awkward directing her? "She was very long-suffering," he says, without a hint of irony. "I just suggested a few ideas."

They have worked on films together before, but usually prefer not to. "We both like the privacy and separateness of having different careers. It's not that much fun working together."

Fun or not, professionally they present a dynamic team. The couple play the Croat aunt and Muslim uncle of the refugee boy, Mirad. Tensions between the characters erupt from time to time, and when they do, says Bethell, "you really believe in their relationship". To complete the family picture, their youngest son Max, aged 10, appears as an extra.

Irons readily admits that his involvement with the project was partly opportunistic, as the first step in a move away from an acting career that started 28 years ago. "Unless you're extremely narcissistic and self-obsessed, acting is not enough. Once you go over 25, you think there must be more to life than this. I've always been bored with acting and have never been backward in coming forward and sticking my nose into the directing side of things.

There have been one or two offers in the past, but this is the first thing I've really wanted to do. And, as it was small scale and low budget, I thought I'd quite like to fail quietly. But, in the event, I've enjoyed it more than I ever enjoyed acting."

But will his young audience? "I don't know if kids know about Bosnia or not, but they will have to before they see this. It will be up to the teachers to give them the background that will let them get engaged with it and moved by it. For me, the play is about what happens to people who become refugees, and it's terribly important for kids. They're so blinkered from these issues. It will be an extraordinary experience for kids to hear this story and emphathise with this boy."

Mirad, A Boy from Bosnia will be screened on Channel 4 Schools on

January 6 next year at 10.40-11.05am

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