Wednesday, 13 January 2016

2002: White Teeth - An everyday story of Willesden folk

An everyday story of Willesden folk

White Teeth, Zadie Smith's cross-cultural novel set in north-west London, is coming to our TV screens. David Gritten reports

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Brought to life: Charlie Creed-Mills (who plays Ryan) and Naomie Harris (Clara) 
The scene inadvertently typifies Zadie Smith's astonishingly successful debut novel White Teeth: 10 or 12 characters huddled together watching a video in a cramped living room. In their ranks are white, Asian, black, straight, gay, adolescent and middle-aged people; they are Smith's multicultural, multi-generational story made flesh.
It is no surprise that her best-seller, published in 2000, would swiftly be adapted for the screen. Hollywood studios expressed interest; but White Teeth is so complex, intricate and stuffed with memorable characters that it seemed more logical material for television.
So it has turned out. White Teeth was originally due to become a BBC drama series, but now it has landed at Channel 4, which is compressing a £3.5 million version of Smith's novel into four one-hour episodes.
"Zadie's own wish was that it should be a TV series rather than a film," says executive producer Suzan Harrison. "She felt that on television, it would receive a fuller treatment."
Harrison and her production colleagues at Company Pictures originally asked the astonishingly talented Smith (who wrote White Teeth when she was 21) if she wanted to adapt her own novel. "But she didn't, really," Harrison recalls. "She wanted to get on with her next novel, and didn't want to go back over the territory." (This next novel, The Autograph Man, has just been put on the longlist for this year's Booker Prize, even though it is not published until the end of September.)
Adds Nicolas Brown, who is producing White Teeth: "Zadie openly admitted she didn't know much about writing for film. She's smart enough to know what she doesn't know."
Enter Simon Burke, who has adapted Tom Jones and Sons and Lovers for TV, and written episodes of Chancer and Liverpool One. Zadie Smith is supportive of the TV version. She drove with its producers around Willesden, north-west London, where White Teeth is set, pointing out the locations that inspired her in writing the novel. She also volunteered to be a hippie extra in the "End of the World party" scene from the novel's opening pages, and ventured her opinions about casting and Burke's script. "We agreed she could be as involved as she wanted," Brown says.
White Teeth tracks the fortunes of two Willesden families, one of them Anglo-Jamaican, the other Bangladeshi Muslim, over a 25-year period that culminates in the millennium. The TV version abridges the action slightly, and draws to a close in 1992.
The best known actors in the cast play the two patriarchs of these families, who were comrades in the Second World War: the distinguished Indian actor Om Puri (East Is East) is Samad Iqbal, a man who sends one of his twin sons back home to India to be educated in the Muslim tradition; Phil Davis (who starred in Mike Leigh's High Hopes) is Archie Jones, a bemused, passive Englishman.
We first encounter him in his late forties, when he meets Clara, a beautiful Jamaican teenager, at the End of the World party and marries her, thus changing his life.
"This story is a kind of collage of various communities and cultures," says Om Puri, who for the past five years has commuted between acting assignments in Britain and his home in Bombay. "Being an immigrant is especially difficult for older people if they arrive here later in life. If they're young, or they're born here, it's much easier to assimilate. Samad comes to Britain at the age of 45: he's already ripe in his values and his conditioning. It's difficult for him to adjust in a new culture."
Davis, dressed as Archie in a drab grey suit with matching grey shoes, observes: "He's somewhat elusive. It's part of the joy of playing him. He's a man who doesn't change. Archie doesn't have much of an arc. He's a piece of driftwood floating on the sea of life.
"He meets this young girl and marries her. You think this will invigorate him. But it doesn't. He just carries on with life. He adores her, but he's not a passionate man. And he is dull."
The crowd of characters squashed into the tiny living room are not on a film set. It's a real house: a pebbledash semi-detached in Kenton, a rarely considered part of north-west London, slightly further out in the suburbs than Willesden itself. It was taken over by the White Teeth production team, and furnished and redecorated to look like Samad's home.
All the wallpaper is patterned; some of it even shimmers. The front room curtains are orange. Some rooms boast a small chandelier. Carpets are in dizzying swirls of clashing colour, and knick-knacks cover all available surfaces. Upstairs, the room belonging to Samad's rebellious teenage son Millat is quite different; it is a gloomy symphony in black, with posters of rap group Public Enemy and the films Reservoir Dogs and The Godfather.
The video being watched by the group was sent from India by his other son, Magid. Samad fondly hopes Magid will come to have "the soul of a Muslim and of Bangladesh, a soul which has returned to the old ways".
But the video message suggests otherwise: Magid, dressed in a smart suit, waistcoat and bow tie, is clean-shaven, and talks in the cultured tones of a worldly, upper-class Englishman. This unexpected twist causes general hilarity in the group, but his father is crushed.
The style of the TV adaptation, directed by Julian Jarrold, reflects Smith's rich, teeming novel. It darts frequently between dozens of locations (houses, schools, drinking dens), most of them in or close to Willesden; and it boasts a huge cast of 55 characters, largely unknowns representing a wide range of experience, background and ethnic origin. Perhaps the plum role goes to Christopher Simpson, who plays Samad's twins - the genteel Magid and streetwise bad-boy Millat. But Om Puri and Phil Davis were the key casting choices.
"No one we could think of could play Samad anywhere near as well," says Suzan Harrison of Puri. "There's an authority he brings to every role. Archie was trickier in some respects. In the book, he doesn't do or say that much, yet he's a presence. We needed someone who was charismatic in a sort of grey way."
It remains to be seen whether the essence of Zadie Smith's novel can transfer to the small screen. Yet Harrison and Nick Brown are in no doubt about the power of the material.
"It's a fantastic tour de force for a young writer," says Harrison. "It also describes a world we live in here in Britain, but which is revealed as new. Not since [Hanif Kureishi's] Buddha of Suburbia has a world been revealed that way. There's a lot of wisdom in it."
  • White Teeth begins on Sept 17 on Channel 4.

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