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There’s a lot of talk about Britain in the 1970s and 80s – and not much of it good: warnings of a “winter of discontent” to match that of 1978-79, talk of rampant inflation, predictions that the financial fallout from the pandemic may make the crash of the late 1980s look like a picnic. All these conjure grimness and greyness to match a past analogue age.
Strange, then, that a strong wave of nostalgia for these same eras is driving audiences back into the nation’s reopening theatres. Shows based on screen hits from the 70s and 80s are now top box office. The demand for such a comforting form of time travel became clear when the backers of the newly-opened musical version of Robert Zemecki’s Back to the Future extended its West End run to July 2022.
Next month will also see the theatrical recreation of the boat in Jaws, in a celebration of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 cinematic blockbuster, and a fond return to the Surbiton street where the 1970s sitcom The Good Life was set.
Just the names of these screen classics are proving enough to sell tickets to audiences seeking the encouragement of familiarity. But once the crowds have taken their seats in the auditorium, the real challenge begins. Can these productions convince fans they are looking at the genuine article once again?
As the designer of the new play The Shark Is Broken, which tells the story of the making of Jaws, Duncan Henderson has overseen the recreation of the Orca, the fishing boat that is almost as big a star of the film as the great white shark. When the curtain rises on 9 October and Chief Brody, Hooper and Quint sit around that cabin table preparing to swap tales and show their scars, Henderson knows hundreds of pairs of eyes in the Ambassadors Theatre will focus on the detail of the set.
“You get more than just a reminder of the film with this play,” he said, “but I still wanted to make it as accurate as possible because this is coming from such an authentic place.”
The play, which was a success on the Edinburgh festival fringe two years ago, is co-written by the actor Ian Shaw, son of the late Robert Shaw who played Quint, that saltiest of screen sea dogs. Shaw plays his own father in a performance festival critics described as “gloriously relaxed” and “commanding”. Richard Dreyfuss, who played Hooper, and Roy Scheider, who played Brody, make up the dramatis personae, as tension on set mounts and the tight filming schedule is derailed. In London, Dreyfuss will be played by Liam Murray Scott and Scheider by Demetri Goritsas.
“Ian and Joseph Nixon have broadened their script a little for the West End, so you see more of Dreyfuss turning up in his Dreyfuss-like way,” said Henderson. “But we wanted to keep the claustrophobia of the set I’d built for Edinburgh. When the lights came on up there you could hear the reaction from the audience. People knew they were looking at the Orca they remembered but by the end they told us they felt they were actually on board. They were pulled in.”
With a bigger budget for the London production, Henderson went back to studying the film. “I loved doing it. I have a tendency to be engrossed in detail anyway. The boat doesn’t exist any more, so I was reduced to the ancient tradition of looking at the forearm lengths of the actors and comparing it to the fittings to get the proportions right.”
Spielberg filmed on a real boat and on a studio set, but the play merges the two. “I tried to be faithful but when you watch the film you can see they cut some corners at different points, so I like to think mine is based on the original boat, rather than the later versions mocked up and built as a set.” Henderson believes the show will appeal to more than hardcore Jaws fans. “People who have never seen the film will still understand it. But of course the familiarity is part of it. We have all had a tough ride and a film like Jaws is a friend. The same thing with Back to the Future or The Good Life, which was a beautiful sitcom.”
Although The Shark Is Broken looks at the behind-the-scenes drama during the making of a beloved piece of entertainment, Shaw agrees with Henderson that his play inevitably draws on love for the film. “Going back to things from our childhood does fill a void,” he told the Observer. “And there is a certain nostalgia around. But I also wonder if the reason there are now so many shows focused on past hits is that producers have suddenly realised just how many people out there still care. Jaws fans are legion. They even have websites like The Daily Jaws that can find something new to say almost every day.”
Proof that the film still strikes an emotional chord came this summer when the prime minister was revealed to have privately likened himself to the mayor of Amity as the pandemic loomed.
“The reason Johnson mentioned Jaws was because he was aware it still has currency. Though you have to wonder if he has actually seen the film when he makes that kind of comment,” said Shaw. In the film, the mayor is notoriously keen to protect his resort’s image as a tourist attraction rather than to protect the tourists.
“Jaws was a big moment in my father’s career, even if he found making it difficult. He went on to make a kind of follow up with The Deep, which co-starred Nick Nolte, who became his good friend and drinking companion,” said Shaw, adding that he remains “extremely proud” of his father, who died in 1978 at 51.
Of the original Jaws trio of actors only Dreyfuss survives, and Shaw has been told the 73-year-old American actor has given the new production “his seal of approval” and hopes to see it.
Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith, the leading ladies of the The Good Life cast, are also invited to the new incarnation of their sitcom, which was written by Bob Larbey and John Esmonde and broadcast to national acclaim from 1975 to 1978 on BBC One. As next-door neighbours and wives of characters played by Richard Briers and Paul Eddington, they epitomised opposing middle class attitudes to capitalism.
Kendal’s Barbara Good, together with her screen husband, Tom, were early advocates of green living, while Keith and Eddington, who played Margo and Jerry Leadbetter, were aspirational and acquisitive. The new version sees Rufus Hound cast as Tom Good and uses storylines taken from the original episodes to weave a new plot in a script by Jeremy Sams.
The audience at the Theatre Royal Bath, where the touring show opens on 7 October, will be confronted with a set that deliberately works as a tribute to the sitcom rather than a reproduction.
“For us it wasn’t about recreating the TV show,” said designer Michael Taylor. “We are foremost a stage play and the main difficulty for me was technical, because we need a set that revolves to show the two rooms, the Leadbetters’ living room and the Goods’ kitchen.”
If anything, Taylor said he has exaggerated the look of the era. “I didn’t make a huge effort to reproduce the full look of the TV show. If you are looking for a faithful recreation, you might as well stay at home and watch a recording,” said Taylor. But he concedes that nostalgia is a big element of his design. “There is delight in the 70s trappings now that wasn’t there back then, of course. We started with the idea that the Leadbetters would have reproduction antiques and that Margo would have gradually updated it with brighter 70s furniture.”
Taylor took the same attitude, he said, when he worked on the recent production of The Ladykillers, a stage version of the admired Ealing comedy. “A lot of people love that film but we didn’t stick closely to the way it looked. When it comes to Back to the Future, the designer said it’s all about the car, the DeLorean, and that makes sense. It is certainly true that people are in a mood for comfort and for fun and there is something very lovable about The Good Life.”
Henderson believes this kind of retrospective show works best when it brings more to the original: “The Shark Is Broken is based on a wealth of material, on Robert Shaw’s diaries and on authentic stories in the Shaw family and other books. So it’s familiar, but different. Of course, the Orca was not really the actors’ green room, but we could not resist. It is a show about acting, about those stars and about the human condition. It is also a play about waiting to act and what could be more appropriate after the wait we have all had?”