Amazon.co.uk divides its books into various categories. At the weekend, I got an email from writer Ross Smith telling me that, just four days after publication, his new book See You at the Premiere: Life at the Arse End of Showbiz was in the Number 1 position in the ‘Hot New Releases’ of two of those categories – Playwriting and Screenwriting. It is now on sale on every Amazon site in 190 countries worldwide. I obviously chatted to Ross in – not-so-obviously – St James’s Park in London. We chatted in early November. I have only just pulled my finger out. Look, I’ve had plumbing problems…
ROSS: This is the first interview I’ve done in 25 years. The last one was with Time Out. I used to write a BBC Radio 2 show called Steve Wright at the Movies. My producer Barry Littlechild was very forceful; you didn’t argue with Barry and he forced me into doing that interview.
JOHN: Why the 25-year gap?
ROSS: I stopped doing interviews after the movie Revenge of BillyThe Kid because I had a couple of bad experiences.
JOHN: But you have interviewed people yourself.
ROSS: I did nearly 300 interviews back in the day.
JOHN: At college, I studied radio, TV, journalism and advertising. The one that was most satisfying was radio, because you have total control over the result. But I went into television because there’s no money in radio.
ROSS: Radio is notoriously badly-paid. I used to write for Radio 4’s Week Ending; for a while as a staff writer.
JOHN: You’ve done it all.
ROSS: (LAUGHS) Everyone’s written for Week Ending. This is what the book is about. I could make myself sound like Steven Spielberg but to do that I’d have to cut out all the heartache and all the projects that didn’t happen and all the debt I got into. All the awful experiences I had just to get to the next one.
There were gazillions of things that didn’t happen and I had to pay my bills at the end of the month. A couple of times I failed and I had to get kicked out of my home.
JOHN: The book originally had a different sub-title.
ROSS: Yes. The original sub-title was Memoirs From the Fag End of Showbiz…
We know what ‘Fag End’ means in Britain, but our American friends have got a different meaning. So I thought: OK, how about Life at the Arse End of Showbiz? And now I prefer Life at the Arse End of Showbiz. It sounds more funny, more resigned, whereas Memoirs From the Fag End sounds more like I’m really bitter, which I’m not.
I didn’t want to write a book about me per se, because I’m a nobody, although I’ve got a few credits.
JOHN: More than a few!
ROSS: Yeah, but I’ve never been able to monetise my career… Indeed, that’s one of the key things about the book. I am in the area where 95-99% freelance creative people are.
You can be creative and go work for the BBC and have a job for life, going from project to project. But 95-99% of us are in this area where we’re not necessarily hugely successful and earning loads of money but we’re not complete arseholes. We’re stuck in the middle and that voice never gets heard.
The only people who get interviewed by the broadsheets and the Graham Nortons of this world are people who are ‘successful’. And that gives a one-dimensional view of the Arts – acting, writing, whatever. As a result, the punters – the public – think Oh! Everyone in showbiz is earning a fortune! And it’s just not true.
My book is about the sort of guy who plays the waiter in one scene in a film. Looking at his career.
That is the career, frankly, that most young creative people are going to have. They are not going to be the next Benedict Cumberbatch. They are going to be that waiter and try to make a living.
It is not a How To book per se; it’s more. It’s basically about all the shite that young people who have aspirations to be creative do not want to hear but need to hear if they want to monetise their talent and – far more important than that – maintain the monetisation of their talent.
It is all about the importance of agents, the importance of hustling, the importance of just keeping the fuck going.
There’s no bullshit in my book. I call a spade a spade. If you really wanna know how difficult it is – and all the pitfalls – read this book, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about how difficult it is to establish and maintain a freelance career. It goes a long way to explaining why so many freelance creative people haven’t got a pot to piss in.
JOHN: You wrote the movie Revenge of Billy The Kid under the pen name Richard Mathews. It has built a big cult following over the years.
ROSS: It’s un-fucking-blievable that film. We had never made a film before and no-one in the British film industry would give us a break and, in those days…
ROSS: 1988. It’s all in the book. The only wannabe movies that got made then would be like Privileged which was produced by students, but it was executive produced by John Schlesinger – an icon of British cinema – he godfathered the project and made sure ‘the kids’ did a good job. We had nothing like that.
Director Jim Groom, his business partner Tim Tennison and I wrote four scripts together. One was turned into a movie; the rest just didn’t happen. In the book, I talk about the ones that did NOT happen as much as the one that did. The one that did was Revenge of BillyThe Kid.
Jim had lots of experience in editing commercials and trailers. Tim had been a First Assistant Director on many films – Little Shop of Horrors, Wetherby, Dance With a Stranger. I had written comedy sketches for TV and stuff like that. But no-one would give us a break.
It was a very anarchic production every step of the way. About 20 of us worked on the film and our average age was about 24. We went away for four weeks to Wales and Cornwall to shoot.
It’s something people love or hate. If you go to IMDB and scroll down the headlines of the reviews, it will go from ‘The Greatest Film I’ve Ever Seen’ to ‘Utter Dogshit’. There is nothing in the middle. Which is what we wanted.
The News of the World gave it its first ever No Stars review.
I suppose I turned my back on the film industry in the mid-Noughties. I gave up because of all the shit, although I had a very good production rate. I wrote 30 scripts and got 4 movies made out of it. My fourth film came out – The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby – in 2006. It took sixteen years to get made. (Ross again used the pen name Richard Mathews.)
JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…
ROSS: Yes. In 1995, my friends and I took a midnight show to the Edinburgh Fringe – Invasion of the Cathode Rays. It was set in the 1950s and was a parody of public health warnings, TV commercials. We were getting about 20 people a night in the audience. It was great fun, a great show, but we didn’t find our audiences. Fair enough. Classic Fringe story.
My second Fringe show – a two-person sort-of family show called One Small Step (written under the pen name David Hastings) – was the story of two people in an attic who discover all this ephemera from the 1960s and they start telling the story of the space race.
They hold a beach ball up and say: “Sputnik!” It’s that sort of play. The on-stage budget – costumes, sets, props – was £136.
The two actors played about 60 characters, including Laika the dog.
We were on at the Assembly Rooms at 5.00pm in the afternoon and got about 20-40 people daily for the first week. We had websites and fanzines writing wonderful things, but the mainstream press didn’t give a shit about us. Unless a show has ‘someone off the telly’, they’re not interested. That’s not a reflection on journalists; it’s a reflection on their readers.
But one day a guy called Malcolm Jack, a critic for The Scotsman, came to see it. There were 8 people in the audience that day. He wrote a 5-star review. The review was published on a Saturday morning. By 3.00pm in the afternoon, even the actors’ friends couldn’t get tickets. On the Sunday, it sold out again.
His review ended with the line: ”It’s hard to imagine a play fuelled by a more profound and spellbinding sense of sheer wonder”… Remember this is a play with two guys walking around on a stage with buckets on their head pretending they’re spacemen! It’s just two actors sitting around with junk on a stage; they play Also Spruce Zarathustra, the 2001 theme, on a stylophone!
Next thing we know…
The Sunday Times – 5-star review.
Daily Telegraph: “One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.”
The whole run sells out.
It gets a 10-week UK tour the next year.
At the next year’s Fringe, the Assembly Rooms puts it in a bigger venue. The whole run sells out.
The British Council come on board: “We want to take you on a world tour starting in Sydney, Australia, for three weeks. It’ll take 11 months and end up in China.”
It was the world’s most-toured British play of 2010 – 22 countries in 11 months.
And all that started from that one review.
JOHN: Talent has to meet luck…
ROSS: Yup. It has been seen now by around 35,000 people worldwide – it toured America in 2019.
JOHN: So you made pots of money…
ROSS: Over-all, over the whole journey of all those shows over about two-and-a-half years, I only made £5,500. But the point is – as William Goldman famously wrote -“Nobody knows anything”.
Nobody KNOWS what is going to work and what isn’t.
You might think: Oh, come on, Ross! It’s been seen by 35,000 people! You’re getting your royalties and being flown all over the world!
No. This is the REAL reality. I went to see it in Washington, but I had to pay £600 for my flight and my own accommodation.
This is the world where most of us are. And that’s what this book is about. Readers who want to get into the Arts may not want to hear this, but it’s going to be the world they may (if they are lucky) enter.
They are NOT going to be the next Michael Caine. They might be the next Ross Smith. (LAUGHS) And, if so, good luck to you!