David Nicholls reveals unfilmable Starter for Ten scene that was ‘expensive mistake’

Many of David Nicholls’s novels, from One Day to Starter for Ten and Us, have been adapted into films and TV series over the years – but some moments in literature just don’t translate on screen.

Speaking at Hay Festival, the 57-year-old author revealed that there was one unfilmable scene in the 2006 adaptation of his book Starter for Ten, starring James McAvoy as a student who wins a place on a University Challenge quiz team, that ended up being an “expensive mistake”.

Starter for Ten is a first-person novel,” he said. “And first person is this wonderful tool, which is that what the character says isn’t what’s really happening and the reader knows it. So the reader knows that Bridget Jones isn’t giving up white wine. She isn’t doing well. You can tell that, and it’s funny. Adrian Mole is not a genius, even though he thinks he is. And that’s the comedy.

“And often when you try to adapt those texts, you lose that friction between what the character thinks is happening and what’s happening, because the screenplay is just what’s happening.”

He explained that, in his novel Starter for Ten, there is a comic set piece where the main character Brian goes to a party and he dances drunk. “And we had James McAvoy and we had a choreographer and it was really funny, and we shot it for a day and a half, so it cost a lot of money. There were all these extras,” Nicholls said.

“James did this really funny physical comedy and we got it in the edit suite and it was just dead. It was completely dead. Because it’s only funny in the novel because he thinks he’s dancing well.

“And when you put it objectively into the real world and he’s on screen, he’s just dancing badly – and dancing badly for a long time, because you can’t cut away [mid-song]. So it was three minutes of someone just beefing around. James is a sensational comic actor. But there was no way to make it funny.”

Nicholls speaking at Hay (Hay Festival)
Nicholls speaking at Hay (Hay Festival)

The author added that it was awkward when the scene didn’t make it into the film and he forgot to tell the choreographer, who only found out that their scene had been canned when they watched the movie at the premiere.

Nicholls is at Hay Festival promoting his new novel You Are Here, a love story that finds two lost souls thrown together on Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk.

Hay Festival runs from 23 May to 2 June in Hay-on-Wye; hayfestival.com.