Oscar-nominated writer William Nicholson speaks ahead of his appearance at the Oundle Festival of Literature

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It must be every screenwriter’s dream to hear their words spoken on a film set by the likes of Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman. And author William Nicholson is no stranger to this experience.

Twice nominated for an Oscar (for Shadowlands and Gladiator), William was also one of the authors behind the recently released musical movie version of Les Miserables. The film has county connections since some of the scenes were filmed at Boughton House.

William Nicholson

William Nicholson

Seamlessly weaving the spoken word into a movie filled with songs was an unusual writing project for William.

He said: “It was to be a musical film so the brief was to make it into a film, while messing up as little as possible from the show, because the show is very good. I did my absolute best to keep what was good in the show and only add things in a very discreet way, that assisted the understanding of what was happening and perhaps a little bit enhanced some of the characters. My job was really to do as little as possible but make it so it could be filmed. As presented on stage, the libretto was unfilmable of course.

“You have to have a lot of respect for the originators, you can’t go saying, ‘this is me now, I can do what I like’. I don’t think that is fair and it is not fair to the people who have enjoyed the original, so you have a responsibility to your source material.

“When I write my own stuff, I make up the characters and the plot but on something like Les Mis, that has already been done, first by Victor Hugo, the novelist, and then by the creators of the musical, and a very good job they made of it too. I don’t like to take any credit at all for the end result. I feel the original creators are the ones who should receive the applause. I was working on it for about 18 months before the director came on board, I was working with the team of people who created the show to turn it into a film.

“When the director came on board, I worked with him on the screenplay to make it the kind of thing that he wanted. When we ended that process and he was ready to start shooting, my job was basically done. But I did turn up on set just for the fun of it really, I wasn’t needed.

“I thought the film’s performances were fantastic, absolutely tremendous. I thought it was very well cast and very well shot, I’m really proud of it.

“It was very different from my other film projects, partly because of all the music and because we were locked down to the songs, so there was very little room for manoeuvre but that can be a good thing sometimes.”

William will next week appear at the Oundle Festival of Literature.

He will not only be talking about his screenplays, but also his own fiction work, which includes children’s books such as the Noble Warriors Trilogy, and adult novels such as his latest work Motherland; a love triangle story set in the Second World War.

He has also been working on a screenplay for the soon to be released film Mandela, telling the story of Nelson Mandela’s life.

William said: “It won’t be in the cinemas until the end of this year but I think it is superb, it is a very moving, thrilling film and I’m very proud that it is on its way.

“My screenplay in fact bears little relation to the autobiography because I have used material from all over the place.

“It has been hard, I actually started work on the screenplay in 1997 so it has taken a long time to solve all the problems and decide what to keep and what not to keep, because you can’t put everything in.

“I’m surprised as much as everyone else that it has worked out as well as it has, but it really has, it has worked out wonderfully, so that is a tremendously exciting thing for me after all these years.”

William’s tips for writers starting out include simply writing as much as they can.

He said: “Writing is one of those skills which has to be learned and the way you learn it is by doing lots of it. So you have to accept that although when you are starting out you are full of brilliant ideas and great excitement the chances are you won’t have got under your belt enough craft tools to make a good job of it so you have to be very patient.

“You have to do a lot of writing and show it to a lot of people in whatever form it is and you have to listen to what they say. And it doesn’t matter if they are the milkman, or the old lady next door, it doesn’t matter who they are, you need someone who is not you to look at it and respond.”

William will be just one of the authors appearing in the Oundle Festival of Literature in March. And there will be plenty more scheduled to appear throughout the year.

It was October last year when the Oundle Festival of Literature changed its format. Having operated as a once-a-year event since 2003, it was decided to instead run author appearances throughout the year.

The children’s literature event has been kept as an annual event (this year Kid Lit will run from March 11 to 15). It now runs with the help of a volunteer focus group and one employed manager, Helen Shair.

Helen said: “It is a lot easier to attract authors if you do it like this. If you say to people with a tight timetable ‘can you come for this one week in March’ then they might say ‘no, I’m in America then’. ”

And the festival has so far attracted some major literary names such as PD James, Michael Morpurgo and Polly Toynbee. Helen said: “I do the bulk of the organisation, contacting authors. We decide what we think would work for Oundle. March is a little different as we have a lot of children’s events.”

William Nicholson will give a talk at St Peter’s Church on March 16 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £8 or £5. To find out about more Oundle Festival of Literature events and how to book tickets, log on to www.oundlefestival.org.uk.

To hear an audio of this interview with William Nicholson, log on to www.northantstelegraph.co.uk.