FILM RELEASE ALLELUJAH
Starring Jennifer Saunders, Bally Gill, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, David Bradley, Russell Tovey & Jesse Akele. Directed by Richard Eyre
Great Cast storytelling with insights.
ALLELUJAH is a warm, humorous, and deeply moving story about surviving old age. When the geriatric ward in a small Yorkshire hospital is threatened with closure, the hospital decides to fight back. ALLELUJAH celebrates the spirit of the elderly patients whilst paying tribute to the deep humanity of the medical staff battling with limited resources and ever-growing demand.
The stage production of Alan Bennett’s ALLELUJAH premiered at the Bridge Theatre in London on 11th July 2018. Producers of the film Damian Jones and Kevin Loader invited Cameron McCracken, Executive Producer and Managing Director of Pathé UK, to see the play. They could all see its potential to form the basis for a feature film that could be both entertaining and politically urgent.
Conversations took place with Bennett about adapting his play for the big screen. He did not feel he had the time to do the adaptation himself, but he gave his blessing to the project and, says McCracken, ‘suggested that we treat him as if he were deceased!’
Heidi Thomas (writer of Cranford and creator of Call the Midwife) agreed to come on board. For Jones and Loader this was a great coup, ‘We all knew of her excellent writing and felt like she would be the perfect fit. She was able to reshape and focus the story whilst retaining much of Alan’s brilliant character work and dialogue, making the transition from stage to screen seamless.’
With the script in good enough shape to start the search for a director, everyone agreed that Richard Eyre was the perfect candidate. Aside from being a brilliant award-winning director of stage and screen, Eyre was of an age to be able to relate deeply and personally to the material and to have formed friendships over the years with many of the actors needed to populate the large ensemble cast of elderly patients. Indeed, Eyre had first directed a screenplay by Alan Bennett almost 40 years ago – THE INSURANCE MAN (1986) starring Daniel Day-Lewis. Eyre recalls being offered the job: ‘It was a no-brainer – to be offered the opportunity of working on something of Alan’s again was just completely irresistible, and Heidi is an extremely bright and accessible writer and a perfect complement to Alan’.
‘The meaning of the film is contained in the lives of the many characters portrayed, so it’s a kaleidoscope of meanings. I’m thrilled I got to make this film in the company of wonderful actors and extraordinarily supportive producers,’ Eyre explains.
Loader adds that when people emerge from the cinema having seen the film, he wants them ‘to go out and celebrate life, to celebrate the vivacity and variety of old age, and to think about how we preserve the human spirit as we get older,’
Additionally, he admits it was lovely just to watch these actors perform. Eyre particularly enjoyed shooting the final dance between Saunders and Bradley: ‘I love that scene because it’s so droll and both Jennifer and David dance with such grace – it’s very touching.’
Leading the cast as Gilpin is Saunders: ‘It was amazing – the people that I’m caring for are some of the greatest British actors’, Saunders recalls. But it’s not just the older, more-established cast members that Saunders has enjoyed working with, as she explains further: ‘Bally Gill is a tremendous actor, and one of the loveliest people. I’ve particularly enjoyed my scenes with him as Sister Gilpin takes Dr Valentine under her wing.’
Thomas was thrilled when Saunders signed on to play Gilpin as she thought she was one of the most interesting characters on the page: ‘I knew that Jennifer would not only have the dramatic chops for it, but also the comedy chops. This is not a glamorous role, it’s not a character who goes home to a glamorous life. I knew that Jennifer would have the wit and the necessary lack of vanity.’
For Bally Gill, an award-winning stage actor facing his first major film role, he admitted that he wrote essays about many of his co-stars at drama school, so getting the chance to act alongside them has been a joy: ‘All of the actors that I had scenes with have been amazing in terms of their characterisation and dedication to the role.’
For Eyre, finding an actor like Gill was immensely important to the production, as he explains: ‘If a star means somebody who shines brightly in the firmament, Bally Gill is one of those. No matter how good of an actor you are, you can’t fake charm.’
For the older actors, working on ALLELUJAH provided an opportunity both to reunite with old friends and to work with people they’d always admired.
For Dench, David Bradley and Derek Jacobi, this is the first chance they’ve had to work together, despite having known each other for many years. Dench and Bradley first met 60 years ago at an amateur dramatic group in York. Comments Bradley, ‘We don’t have any scenes together, but it’s wonderful to be in the same film!’
And the last time Dench and Julia McKenzie acted together on stage was at the Haymarket Theatre in 2001. Judi was very keen to repeat the experience: ‘We had tremendous fun starring together all those years ago,’ she recalls.
Having worked with Dench previously on Cranford, Thomas admitted that there couldn’t be a finer form of casting: ‘Mary carries so much within her as a character. She sees things of which
she does not speak. She’s really quite an engine of discovery within the film. So, you really need an actor of Judi’s calibre to play that level of complexity.’
Bradley and Russell Tovey, who play father and son, agree that working together has been wonderful. Says Tovey, ‘The first week of filming was just us two and that was magic. He’s incredible. In the film, we have quite a fraught relationship, so having that chance to get to know David was tremendously helpful.’ Add Bradley: ‘With Russell, there was always time for a giggle, which is very important.’
Eyre sums up his thoughts on his cast as follows: ‘The great adage about all productions is that the whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts. And the sum of the parts is absolutely astonishing because of the generosity of the actors who give themselves without any airs and graces.’