An interview with Jack Ryder, co-director of Take That musical The Band

An interview with Jack Ryder, co-director of Take That musical The Band

Jack Ryder rose to fame as Jamie Mitchell in EastEnders before becoming an acclaimed director with projects such as The Girls. I had a chat with Jack about new musical The Band, working at Hull New Theatre and Yorkshire, and plans for the future.

Q. Often with theatre productions it’s an uphill battle trying to sell the show, but sales-wise, The Band has gone through the roof hasn’t it?

A. Yes, we are very lucky, let’s just say that (laughs). Yeah, it is a bit of machine; the whole kind of Take That machine is a huge thing, and that’s a bolster for the show, but even things like the advertising, the logo, the band, the poster… It is a brand in itself. It’s become a massive thing and we are incredibly fortunate.

Q. What’s been the show’s biggest challenge?

A. I’ve worked in theatre for quite a few years in terms of the directing capacity. I directed shows like Calendar Girls and The Full Monty, but I’ve never really developed a musical before. I’d worked on The Girls with (writer) Tim Firth and have a very strong relationship with him.

The most challenging thing with this show wasn’t just in terms of developing it. It was what the creative team became, which was this kind of mix; this theatrical side, which was myself, Tim Firth, producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers, aligned with this team with (co-director) Kim Gavin, (designer) Jon Bausor and (lighting designer) Patrick Woodroffe, who although have worked in theatrical circles, have also done shows like the Olympics, the Rolling Stones and the Take That concerts, so bringing these two teams together in a collaborative way was quite challenging. But in a way it was so exciting because there were lots of different creative views in the room. And although it was a challenge to begin with, it actually brought so much to the show and has made it what it is.

Q. How is it working at Hull New Theatre compared to any other theatre? Is it a case of going in and doing a recce; making sure the guys can project to the back row, that sort of thing?

A. Yeah, you do that in every venue all over the country because obviously different theatres have different dimensions. They’re all different sizes and different capacities, and different audiences as well. What might land in Manchester and get a big laugh every night will be tumbleweed in Canterbury. It’s quite a bizarre thing, and what that does is it keeps everyone completely on their toes. Somewhere like Hull and Leeds Grand, we take each theatre as it comes. We find the northern audiences are always very welcoming. And always very vocal in terms of comedy, so it’s always a pleasure to come to Yorkshire and places like Hull, because you really feel a vocal response from the audience, much more than you would in a southern ’house’. So it’s always a lovely welcome for us.

Q. Tim Firth is an accomplished writer. It must be half the battle when you’ve got such a great script and a book.

A. Yeah, he’s a genius. And his work ethic is wonderful to be around. I’ve worked with Tim for many years on other shows, and we get on very well. I’ve learnt so much from him. He’s always tweaking, he’s always changing. What I love about Tim, he’s always so open to suggestions. He always listens to the cast and anyone else who is in the room. And he also always comes up with what he believes is the way to go. He’s not a single-minded writer. He is very open and very collaborative and quite a humble human being. And that’s always very healthy to have around and be in the room with. So it’s never been anything but a joy.

Q. If you’ll excuse the obvious pun, you are a Jack of all trades. Which do you prefer: acting, directing or both?

A. Both really. You always learn from both. The acting serves the directing. The directing serves me as an actor. It’s a funny business that we’re in. You never know what’s round the corner.

If someone had said to me five years ago ’The first musical I’ll be directing is Take That musical The Band’, I would never in a million years have believed that. It’s funny how these things come along. You gotta keep an open mind and keep being creative. And keep being open to projects, and creating great stories, pleasing audiences and entertaining people. And we’re doing that, certainly with this show.

Q. Why have Take That succeeded so well when so many other bands have fallen by the wayside?

A. Well there’s a few reasons why. I remember when I was a teenager. There were members of the girls’ school that used to get on the bus, and they’d be at the back with Smash Hits magazine with all the posters. And I remember Take That. I never listened to them as a teenager. I really remember them being so prominent in our culture and in the charts.

The girls were crazy about them, and they were a huge, huge deal.

Then obviously the boys split apart and laid low for many years and did their own thing. They’ve come back with this kind of maturity, and a real humbleness in the sense of having a second opportunity. Their music has matured; their writing’s matured, and their performing has matured, and they give people great shows: their stadium shows that Kim (Gavin) has directed, like Circus. They really do entertain audiences. And we all know that Gary and all of them can write a really catchy tune as well. People generally like them as people. They are normal guys and they’re humble in terms of what they do. Everyone appreciates that.

Q. It’s only a matter of time until we get a big screen biopic of Take That. Would you be interested in directing if the chance arose?

A. Of course. Yeah that would be incredible. I’m sure something like that will come along. This show has been such a joy working with them, and they were always around, which was lovely for the cast. And obviously for myself to ask them questions. And get references and knowledge about them as people and them as a group. So I would always jump for joy working with the boys.

Q. What’s in the pipeline after this? Any films perhaps?

A. No, no films. I’m doing lots of bits and pieces. Obviously directing The Band is taking up a lot of my time right now; making sure that show is in good shape, and all the venues it goes to that we are doing the right job, and the show’s tight. There’s my acting career and there’s lots of things in the fire.

I also write as well so… there’s lots of creative juices flowing. At the moment I’m just concentrating on The Band and writing generally.

Q. And you’ve written a novel?

A. Yes I’ve written my first novel, which is under the eyes of certain people as we speak, and I’m writing my second now.

The experience of working with Tim Firth and working in the theatre world and developing shows like Calendar Girls and working on The Full Monty, talking a lot about story… I’m talking a lot about characters and character development. So it’s been a bit of a side passion of mine to develop my own stories.

I’ve written and directed shorts in the past. When I put my head to the computer and started writing a novel, it went so much deeper for me that it became kind of infectious, so that’s something I enjoy and I’m continuing.


Film review – The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

Certificate 15

Baltimore, 1962, and a mute cleaner at a high-security government laboratory embarks on a relationship like no other in Guillermo Del Toro’s BAFTA-winning masterpiece The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins, giving one of the best performances of her career, is Elisa Esposito, the mesmerising heroine who lives above a cinema, is friends with a neighbouring artist (Richard Jenkins), and lives a lonely existence. While he has designs on the cafe worker nearby, she’s an achingly solitary figure who cleans up at the lab a bus ride away.

This is a world of classic Bakelite gadgets and Cadillacs, the sort of nostalgic design you’d expect from a visual maestro like Del Toro. (He’s a film maker who could shoot a movie about the phone book and I’d happily hand over my cash).

Following the fascinating misfire that was Crimson Peak, he’s hit the bull’s eye with this heart-rending tale which feels like a mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Amelie, Delicatessen, Frankenstein, Hellboy and ET. And yet despite its influences, it’s also like nothing else I’ve ever seen.

Witnessed after the mega bucks Black Panther, where I didn’t believe in any of the characters, each of Del Toro’s protagonists here feels like they live and breathe, whether it’s air or water.

The casting is spot on, probably because the role was written for Hawkins, and Michael Shannon personifies the tough government stooge so well I can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is a perfect accompaniment to the unfolding drama that washes over me, and though I try and remind myself it’s only a movie, the fate of the amphibian man at the heart of the drama is as compelling as ET’s in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic.

I’m on edge throughout as I just want a happy ending. While i’ll obviously not spoil a thing, I’ll happily see this again to soak up the wondrous imagery, nail-biting action and beautiful romance.

Having been hooked on Guillermo’s work since he started making waves in world cinema in the late 1990s, it’s a relief to say he’s finally made his masterpiece.

Don’t wait for the home release. Rush out and see it at a decent art house cinema, and not a certain multiplex where they turn the lights on the split second the credits roll.

Easily one of the best films of this or any other year.

Gracias Guillermo.


Movie review – Black Panther

Movie review

Black Panther

Directed by Ryan Coogler

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Martin Freeman

Certificate 12A

Unlike Marvel favourites Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk, Doctor Strange and Thor, Black Panther was never given a dry run as a TV movie.

Launched in the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation barely got a look in as an animated hero either. Which seems odd as he has such a rich back story and interesting characters.

However, now Marvel has a decade’s worth of blockbusters under their belt, it’s clear they’re willing to take a few ’risks’, such as an African American superhero.

Of course this should have all happened decades ago, and at one point it looked like it would with Wesley Snipes, but he opted for a lesser Marvel character – Blade.

No, Black Panther’s road to the big screen has been a long, rocky one.

And at the helm is director Ryan Coogler, whose critical success with Rocky sequel Creed proved he could breathe life into one of Marvel’s most ambitious movies.

As a fan of the comics, thanks to black and white British reprints from the early eighties, I was keen to see if the movie worked, but the trailer left me cold. Generic shots involving flying vehicles and expensive futuristic cityscapes all felt rather derivative.

Then the reviews arrived, and critics claimed it was an epic like no other.

So I settle in for what is admittedly a visually stunning adventure, but while millions of dollars were obviously spent on the effects and stunning costumes, about a tenner was spent on the script. It’s a yawnsome array of humdrum one-liners, clumsy exposition and forgettable monologues.

There are some standout lines, most notably from excellent villain Killmonger during the obligatory showdown. It’s one of those movies where the villains are far more interesting than the heroes. Michael B Jordan is more rounded than Chadwick Boseman’s bland, noble hero T’Challa. He sounds like a young Nelson Mandela throughout, but the banter with his sister Shuri falls flat.

On the subject of which, Shuri, the gadgets mistress – a Q to Boseman’s Bond if you like – is one of the most memorable characters in the movie. Letitia Wright, last seen in the excellent Black Mirror, is a fun, engaging breath of fresh air, and along with a scenery-chewing Andy Serkis and ever reliable Martin Freeman, helps lift the film to another level.

It’s not a bad movie, though some ropey CG rhinos, confusing action scenes with the gravity-defying hero, and an improbable laboratory which looks like a tourist attraction at Epcot does jar a little. And the ritual fight scenes feel like a musical waiting for a rousing song that never comes.

And don’t get me started on those masks and suits that appear out of thin air. The Batmobile’s instant CG shields bugged me in 1992’s Batman Returns, and this looks even more improbable.

Yes it’s a fantasy but the best comic book conversions, like Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, have a believable gravitas. This just feels like anything can be summoned from thin air.

Solid support comes from Get Out’s BAFTA-winning Daniel Kaluuya, while Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Forest Whitaker and Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira help give the saga some heft.

Given the mammoth box office returns after week one, safe to say a sequel is in the works, but before that, our hero and a few sidekicks return for the enormous Avengers: Infinity War.

I hope Coogler and Boseman have a better script for Black Panther 2. So much time and effort was taken on the look of hidden kingdom Wakanda, that it would be nice if the dialogue matched the occasionally stunning vision.


Hotel review: The Coniston Hotel and Spa, Skipton

For years I’ve planned to recreate my version of The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s mix of sitcom, travelogue and food porn.

The idea is simple: me and Ian, one of my oldest friends, in a Land Rover; fine dining in the north of England, and talking a lot of nonsense; something we hadn’t done enough of in recent years, living on either side of the Pennines.

So finally, on this crisp winter Sunday, that plan is a reality, though I didn’t expect we’d be in said car at a 30-degree angle, seemingly on the verge of toppling over.

For the first few minutes of our off-roading experience, care of The Coniston Hotel and Spa in Skipton, I fear I’m in over my head as I get to grips with the new world of ’diff lock’ and unlearning 30 years of safe driving habits.

No matter how many eps of Top Gear or The Grand Tour I’d watched, nothing prepares me for being in the driving seat, trying to ignore everything common sense tells me.

Thankfully our instructor, more witty Yoda than Jeremy Clarkson, could not be more helpful, and what he doesn’t know about the Land Rover Defender is not worth knowing.

Ian takes over for the second phase of riding up insane gradients and through seemingly perilous brooks.

As I finish the final leg, everything clicks into place as I realise we’re not driving a normal car but a miracle of engineering. If it was suddenly capable of vertical take off, I wouldn’t be surprised.

That word ’experience’ is over-used and often unworthy in a lot of generic attractions, but this is the real deal. It’s 60 unforgettable minutes.

I think my few hours on site can’t get any better than that.

Thankfully I’m wrong.

But let’s rewind a little.

The trip to Skipton begins with Sunday brunch (a terrific sausage and bacon sandwich with a cuppa) and a chance to soak up the main dining room and that superlative-defying view.

With a roaring fire and a contended dog lolling at the feet of their happy owners, the place instantly puts me at my ease.

We enjoy a tour of the clay pigeon shooting range, and its clubhouse – a stunning Canadian log cabin-style affair which is heaving with punters either relaxing with snacks and beverages, or perusing the guns and merchandise. The whip-crack of gun shots reverberating at the clay shooting ranges is a weird, hypnotic soundtrack to the experience.

This section, like the whole operation, runs like a Swiss watch. Everywhere we go, the staff are amiable, hugely helpful and the facilities are all high end, like they were fitted that morning.

I’m not surprised companies come here for meetings and team-building exercises. All they need to do is study the organisation itself: a model of efficiency.

Later we tour the estate and realise how enormous it is, with standalone residences for those who prefer more seclusion but still want to make use of the facilities.

There’s a wealth of possibilities, from wedding receptions to archery, equestrian or just relaxing in the spa.

And we find out about the latter during a perfectly timed visit before sunset: another jewel in the estate’s crown.

Again the whole thing looks like it was fitted hours ago, with saunas, swimming pool, hot tubs, and an infinity pool looking out over a stunning vista. It’s years since I’ve experienced anything so tranquil.

I enjoy a massage that unknots assorted wound up muscles. Again expertly done, and by the time I emerge from the zen-filled state of dimmed lighting, and transcendent music (as standard), I’m more chilled out than Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski after he gets his rug back.

My room is equally spot on. Spacious and with everything you’d expect from a luxury hotel: comfortable bed; amazing balcony overlooking a breathtaking lake with snow-capped mountains in the distance; tea-making facilities (essential); mini fridge, and a bathroom to die for: heated towel rail, impressive bath and a waterfall shower.

Top tip: set the lever position at 7.05 to get a perfect temperature, unless you like recreating Bill Murray’s icy bathroom scenes from Groundhog Day.

We savour a delicious afternoon tea, with meaty spring rolls, assorted sandwiches and scones, cakes and Eton Mess.

Okay, we might not be your typical afternoon tea types; middle aged blokes savouring nibbles on tiered crockery is no doubt a comedic sight, but I’m always one for bucking stereotypes, and after all, this is not a typical weekend break.

Dinner at the Macleod dining room has a lot to live up to, and as with all hotels featuring stunning food, I expect the ball to be dropped at some point. I think no hostelry, no matter how good, can sustain a level of excellence for the length of my stay.

Again I’m happily proved wrong, as we enjoy a mouthwatering dining experience.

My slow cooked belly pork starter with apple, tonka bean and crackling (£8.50) is a dream, and the fillet of beef at £28.50 is also worth every penny. I treasure each mouthful like it’s my last meal. With Pomme Anna, mushroom purée, spinach, crispy shallots and bone marrow bon bon, it’s exactly the sort of thing Coogan and Brydon would approve of inbetween assorted impersonations.

I do know it’s left a great impression on my taste buds. Everything is beautifully cooked, and mid-meal we order a side of baby carrots, which arrive in next to no time – the perfect addition.

My dessert, A Taste of Mocha at £8.50, is also a delight. A white chocolate and Baileys milkshake, coffee mousse, espresso cookie and churro is an almost a perfect way to round off an outstanding meal. Then the white port dessert wine arrives, and it’s the final piece of the culinary puzzle.

The mix of spa, massage, food, fresh air and pottering around the grounds ensures I’m out like a light.

After a good night’s sleep and that amazing shower, it’s time for more food. Well, you have to keep your strength up for this sort of thing.

Breakfast at £14.50 is a mix mix of fruit juice, cereals and then a full Yorkshire: sausage, black pudding, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, mushroom, potatoes. All cooked to perfection; that fried bread is especially outstanding.

And this is where you came in.

The 4×4 off-roading experience, as you may have guessed, is phenomenal. And at the risk of sounding like Mr Creosote, it’s time to sample more of that amazing menu at lunchtime.

Over a pot of tea, we enjoy a sharing board of Field Food: sticky sausages with mustard and honey; warm breads, balsamic syrup; devilled whitebait with Tabasco mayonnaise… I could go on but I’m starting to drool again. At £21.95, it’s a perfect tapas-style selection for those who don’t want a full meal.

As Ian (reluctantly) goes back to work, I head to the falconry area, a short drive from the hotel.

Like the 4×4 experience, it’s one of the many attractions I’ve been looking forward to for weeks, and the sight of assorted owls and an eagle soaring over fields to land on my talon-proof glove and wolf their dinner is one of ’those’ moments.

If the 4×4 was the pure adrenaline of a great action movie, this is the ET-style sucker punch at the end of the film that leaves me (almost) speechless.

I think half an hour or 45 minutes will be enough for the experience. Sadly it flies faster than the Bengal eagle owl, just one of the stunning birds who scoffs his dinner from my hand and steals my heart in the process.

I’ve been at one of the UK’s finest resorts and spas for a little over 27 hours and packed so much in to my stay, it feels like days.

I wish I had longer.

Incredible facilities, stunning food, great staff and genuine life-affirming experiences that will live with me for years.

At the risk of sounding like a corny greetings card, I’ll leave you with this rather apt phrase.

’Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away’.

Consider me breathless.

:: With thanks to Eric the owl, and everyone at Coniston Hotel and Spa.