An interview with the producers
Judy Counihan is the producer of two Best Foreign Film Oscar winners, Antonia's Line (1995) and No Man's Land (2002). Her other film production credits include the Oscar-nominated Before the Rain (1994), (winner of the Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film and the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion Award), and the BAFTA-nominated short film Hello Hello Hello (1995). At SMG TV Productions she has executive produced Take Me starring Robson Green, Rebus starring John Hannah, and Sirens starring Daniela Nardini and Greg Wise (all ITV1).
Margaret Mitchell recently produced ITV1's two-part thriller Sirens, starring Daniela Nardini and Greg Wise. Her other TV credits include The Hunt (ITV1); Cor, Blimey! (ITV1); and the ITV1 miniseries Bad Blood. Mitchell also worked on The Jump (ITV), the BAFTA award winner The Woman in White (BBC), and Alan Bleasdale's Melissa (Channel 4).
Creating a screen adaptation of James Hilton's classic tale of Brookfield's Mr. Chips should be a daunting task for any producer: The award-winning pedigree of its predecessors and the logistics of casting a film that spans more than 50 years, dozens of classrooms full of boys, and a central character who must age a half century -- even one of these would challenge even the most experienced filmmaker. But executive producer Judy Counihan and producer Margaret Mitchell, both award winners themselves, relished taking on Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
"The fact that Goodbye, Mr. Chips now has four versions says a lot about the story," says Counihan. "Its themes are universal and constant. It's the story of the life of a very endearing and compassionate man, and it is overwhelmingly reassuring. And the book, first published in the 1930s, has never been out of print, proving that this is a story people enjoy being told."
Mitchell agrees. "The black-and-white film starring Robert Donat (1939) was wonderful, but very much of its time. Today's audience would find the story thin. ... What we wanted to do was to bring out the themes that relate to life today."
The story's setting, a public school in England, gave the producers one of those themes. "There is huge interest in education at the moment," Mitchell continues, "especially [in] issues such as bullying. In the period we're portraying [1880 to the start of the 1930s], public schools were run under very strict and harsh regimes."
Those extraordinary decades in modern history are viewed through the life of one man, the ordinary schoolteacher Mr. Chipping. "His story is a very human one," Mitchell explains. "He desperately wants to be liked by the boys, wants to teach and wants to do well, but he's a bit stuffy and uncomfortable, and they pick up on that and give him a hard time." Nearly 40 and failing to get a promotion he'd longed for, Mr. Chips plunges into a midlife crisis. It's during this low point in his life that Mr. Chips meets Kathie, the woman who will affect the rest of his life, and the film as well.
Hello, Martin Clunes
Finding the right actor to play Chips was crucial to the project's success. Counihan wanted to cast someone endearing, as the audience must want to go on a lifelong journey with Chips. "Martin [Clunes] brings more than that to the part," she says. "He has a freshness about him, and it gives something completely different to the role."
A steady presence on British television, Clunes has also acted in such big-screen films as Shakespeare in Love and Saving Grace. This familiarity, Counihan believes, would be key to his acceptance as an already well-known character. "As a person, Martin is very warm and good-natured, and the public have great affection for him. That combination is very important for this role," she says. "Mr. Chips could be seen as quite a sentimental and stuffy character, but Martin works against that. ... It's a wonderful role for an actor to play. It's not often that an actor gets to play a whole life. Normally a role is just a snapshot."
When Clunes was made up to be 83, the crew found themselves treating him differently. "You'd almost want to put an arm round his shoulder thinking that you had to look after him," she says. "It was very hard not to see him as an old man. We saw it in front of our noses and believed it."
Boys to men
Telling a story that takes place over 50 years at the turn of the 20th century meant a complicated production process, largely because of the huge number of boys that had to be cast -- and the continuity issues stemming from that. "We see Colley at ages 11, 17, 40, and so on, and the Rivers family," says Counihan. "And we had to be careful not to overburden the audience with too many boys' names. Instead we focus on highlights."
But worrying about continuity and clarity was putting the cart before the horse. The first order of business, Counihan recalls: "We had to find hundreds of boys!"
At first, Mitchell explains, the producers were apprehensive about finding them all. "Especially the first few boys that we see -- like Rivers, who shows Chips around on his first day, and Colley, who acts the fool in class -- they needed to be spot on," she says. "Some of them had done some theater and small television roles, but many of them hadn't done any acting before. They were fantastic -- they hit their marks and didn't fluff their lines."
Rewriting a classic
The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle was, of course, the script, and finding a writer who could bring Brookfield to life for a contemporary audience.
"To get to the real Chips and give him a degree of complexity demanded a standard of writing and consistency in language," Counihan says.
First-time screenwriter Frank Delaney was chosen for the job. "[Delaney] is primarily a novelist and poet," explains Mitchell. "He has a great knowledge of the public school system, and Latin and the classics are his speciality, so much of his research was already in his head, which made Chips very rounded.
"He's a very bright, sharp, lively man, and he had a real passion for the piece," Mitchell continues. "And there's no doubt that a good project starts with a good script."
Essays + Interviews:
Author James Hilton | A history of Goodbye, Mr. Chips
An interview with the producers | How to age an actor
Essays + Interviews | Who's Who/Cast + Credits
Story Synopsis | Novel to Film | Russell Baker
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