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Torben Betts and Lorne Campbell - Get Carter

Torben Betts had never seen Get Carter when he was asked to write a stage version for the Newcastle-based Northern Stage company. The award-winning playwright knew that Mike Hodges' iconic 1971 gangster film had starred Michael Caine as an oddly cockney-sounding prodigal returning to a bombed-out Tyneside following the death of his brother, but that was about it.

Neither had Betts read Ted Lewis' novel, Jack's Return Home, a gritty first person noir first published a year before the appearance of the film it inspired. Unlike the film, Lewis' novel has Jack Carter return, not to Newcastle, but to an even grimmer northern town close to where he changes trains at Doncaster, which might have been Scunthorpe.

Betts and Northern Stage director Lorne Campbell have looked to the book rather than the film for their touring production of Get Carter, which opens at the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow tonight. In a story rooted in time and place, however, they have opted to retain the film's Newcastle backdrop.

“One of the things we're trying to do here,” says Campbell, “is use the landscape of the play as a context for telling everyone's histories. Jack Carter is a hugely unsympathetic character. He's a dangerous, violent man. If an audience is to feel something for him, you need to know where he's come from, and to make something universal, you make it very local.”

“Jack's a product of his time,” says Betts. “There's a lot of misanthropy in the novel. He's an insane person in an unhappy and insane world. He's sick, but he's no sicker than everyone else.”

One of the key things Betts did know about Get Carter before taking on the show was the film's soundtrack, an insistent mismatch of double bass, treated keyboards and tabla which has become a signifier of period retro-cool. Rather than use Budd's music, a new score by sound designer James Frewer and singer/songwriter Nadine Shah has been integrated into the play alongside music from the era. What really puts music at the heart of Betts' version of the story, however, is the presence of Jack's murdered brother.

“I watched a film about Ginger Baker, the drummer from Cream,” says Betts, “and that made me think about how Jack talks about his brother as being a musician with this love of American jazz, so now we have Frank as this silent drummer.”

As Campbell points out, “Once you give Jack someone to talk to, it really opens things out.”

This also made life easier for Betts.

“Once you read the novel,” he says, “it becomes clear that it's a revenge tragedy, but where in the film Jack's just this blank slate who goes round killing people, in the book you get more of a idea about what he's thinking.”

Frank's presence onstage as a jazz drummer fits in too with what Campbell observes as Newcastle's inherent musicality during the period the play is set.

“Newcastle was arguably the first British music city,” he says. “You had all these groups like The Animals playing the clubs, and there was this real moment of change, with young people having disposable income, and the 1968 Gambling Act opening up opportunities for there to be fruit machines in places they hadn't been allowed before. With that came a relationship between gambling, vice and organised crime. At the same time, on the one hand you had all this supposed peace and love going on, but you also had the slum clearances happening.”

Betts too points up the social upheaval of the era.

“When Get Carter came out, it was pretty much at the end of the 1960s dream,” he observes. “While the swinging sixties thing only really happened among a small number of middle class people in London, the rest of the country was pretty bleak. I quite like Get Carter as an antidote to all the nonsense of the sixties in this brutal, unforgiving northern world.”

Get Carter is the first work by Betts to be seen by audiences in Scotland since his award-winning play, The Unconquered, was produced by the Stellar Quines company in 2007. Prior to that, the more obviously conventional A Listening Heaven was seen at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in 2001. Campbell's background as an associate director of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, has also seen him bring on board former Edinburgh residents 59 Productions to provide a monumental set design for the show.

Betts' take on Get Carter isn't the first time the story has been adapted for stage. A decade ago Red Shift theatre company toured a version by the company's director, Jonathan Holloway. While that production similarly looked to Lewis' very British form of hard-boiled pulp noir, Campbell recognised something deeper going on in Jack's Return Home.

“It's a really complex book,” he says. “It's very much of it's time, and you can see the influence of Raymond Carver and James M Cain, and especially of Albert Camus' L'Etranger and nouvelle vague cinema. There's a real sense in the book of a post-war existential crisis, about who we are, and about how we're coping in this new post-war capitalist world.

“That isn't something that was exclusive to Newcastle, but it was the industrial north of England as a whole. Some of Lewis' best writing in the book by a mile are his observations of landscape and his characters sense of self within that landscape, so in Jack you have this sick soul in a sick society.”

Lewis wrote two other Jack Carter books in the wake of the film version's success. Given the ending of the original novel, both Jack Carter's Law, published in 1974, and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, dating from 1980, were prequels. While neither had the same impact, they formed part of a golden age of British pulp fiction that trickled down into a new wave of gritty TV drama.

In seminal cop show, The Sweeney, the two lead characters, Jack Regan and George Carter, were said to have been named by the show's creator, Ian Kennedy Martin, in homage to Jack Carter. 1972 blaxploitation film, Hit Man, was also inspired by Jack's Return Home, while a remake of Get Carter starring Sylvester Stallone was less than successful.

Lewis wrote episodes of Z-Cars, created by Ian Kennedy Martin's brother, Troy, who also wrote the screenplay for The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine. Lewis died in 1982, still only in his early forties, with nine novels under his belt. It is Get Carter, however, that has come to define Lewis in a way that Betts and Campbell see as relevant to today.

“I think that once again we're in a moment in history where individuals are looking at themselves and asking what is this for,” says Campbell. “At the beginning of the book, Jack is telling himself he's going to run away to South Africa, but he knows he won't, because he knows when he gets there he'll be exactly the same man, when really he's trying to figure out how to be someone else in this sick society.

“Lewis rails against capitalism and everything it's done. Through Jack he's asking how can we be better, how can we shift and change our identity so that we can look after one another, and how we can do that without becoming a gun wielding psychopath. Those are pretty important questions for us all just now.”

Get Carter, Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow, March 8-12, then tours.

The Herald, March 8th 2016



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