Imagine… Tom Stoppard: A Charmed Life
November 8, 2021
We were lucky enough to visit Tom Stoppard – the UK’s funniest, cleverest playwright – in his house in the country, where he was sheltering during the covid pandemic. Through showing us his personal photographs on the walls and the books piled up everywhere – even in the bedroom – and through in-depth, intimate interviews, Tom Stoppard reveals the influences and inspirations behind his many plays, as well as the secrets of his personal family history.
Ever since he hit the ground running in the 1960s with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, there has always been a streak of melancholy beneath the sparkling surface. He has had enormous success and become a celebrity. The intoxicating dazzle seemed effortless. He has often spoken of his ‘charmed life’. But now, with his latest playLeopoldstadt, he comes full circle back to his beginnings and faces up to the pain and loss in his past.
He was born Tomáš Sträussler in the small town of Zlin in what was then Czechoslovakia, just before World War Two. With his mother and brother he fled across the world and was raised in India; his father was killed at sea by the Japanese. His mother remarried to an English army office, and all her life long played down both their foreignness and their Jewishness. ‘You live as if without history – as if you throw no shadow’ is the accusation put to Leo, the Tom character in this new play. But no more – his history is now revealed.
Despite his famed erudition, Tom Stoppard never attended university but went straight from school to a job as a reporter on a newspaper in Bristol, where Imagine… meets one of his old colleagues, still a close friend. Through regularly reviewing plays at the Bristol Old Vic, Tom also befriended Peter O’Toole and started out on his life in theatre. Many of his first plays – of which we hear extracts in the film – were for radio, courtesy of the BBC.
Dramatist David Hare talks about controversies over politics in the 70s and 80s – Tom was unfashionably NOT left wing. Yet he did get deeply involved in supporting Czech dissidents, including the dramatist Václav Havel, who later became president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic.
Director Richard Eyre also speaks of Tom’s ‘alchemy’ as a playwright, turning difficult ideas into dramatic gold.
I had an extraordinary richness of archive footage to draw on – Tom speaking over the decades on radio and TV, and many extracts from his much-loved plays such as The Real Inspector Hound, Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia, with stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Radcliffe. It all makes for a truly immersive film, a fitting tribute to the wit and the haunting world of his plays.
‘Imagine if all BBC arts programmes were this good.’
‘Extraordinary to think Tom Stoppard is only now being granted an audience with Alan Yentob for Imagine — but it has been worth the wait.’ The Times
‘A glorious selection of clips from his work’
Mail on Sunday
‘He is finally opening up about a family story hidden from the world — and from himself — for many years. It’s a moving tale …a deluxe, extended profile’
Producer/director: Jill Nicholls
Series editor/presenter: Alan Yentob
Director of photography: Stephen Robinson
Editor: Gary Scott
Executive producer Tanya Hudson