Chatting away to Sally Hawkins, as you do, in the fabled Abbey Road Studios in posh North London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood, she tells me ”I feel fine” when I inquire after her well-being.

Our feet are planted in the very spot where The Beatles recorded the track for “I Feel Fine,” a single that topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic back in 1964. I couldn’t tell whether Hawkins purposefully chose those words to chime with where we were stood.

My response was lost in the din, so I ask my favorite question that people usually run away from when they hear: “What are you up to next that I shouldn’t know about?”

I’m not after titillation, though I’ll always listen to some of that. No, I want to know what you’re up to professionally. It’s easier to pose such a question face-to-face rather than over the telephone.

I once asked the playwright and screenplay writer Alan Bennett (The History Boys, The Lady in the Van) for more details about a new play he was writing at the time for the National Theatre. “I’m going to put the phone down now, ever so politely,” came the ever-so-courteous put-down.

Bennett to this day has no idea why I smiled so broadly, then laughed, ever so politely, when a few days after that call, I found myself next him at our local dry cleaners in Camden Town.

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But Hawkins (The Shape of Water, Happy-Go-Lucky) was feeling fine, so she happily tells me that she’s writing a ghost story, rather a screenplay, with her friend and frequent collaborator Craig Roberts.

I began to feel very fine.

They have such a history of screen work together. Hawkins played Roberts’ mum in Richard Ayoade’s 2010 feature Submarine, and they were mother and son again a year later in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s version of Jane Eyre. Roberts later directed her in Eternal Beauty and The Phantom of the Open. ”He’s brilliant,” Hawkins says.

The proposed film carries the working title Without Smoke, and it’s in early stages of development, says Hawkins. Roberts later confirms the production via his press rep Romilly Bowlby at DDA.

Hawkins adds that the roughly sketched plan thus far is that Roberts will direct the film and that she’ll star in it as the mother of a young girl. When they move to a new address, the daughter discovers that the ghost of a boy “is trapped in the house.”

He died before his time, Hawkins explains, and he’s not ready to depart. She adds that the boy’s part of the story is set in the 1860s, while the mother and the girl are living in the 1970s or ’80s. “It’s about a spirit trapped in a house and a mother trapped in fear,” Hawkins continues.

She always has wanted to write. In fact, she was writing a story about a mermaid around the same time Guillermo del Toro was shaping The Shape of Water script around her.

Her parents Jacqui and Colin Hawkins are authors and illustrators of children’s books (Mig the Superstar Pig, Jen the Hen). Their creativity “influenced everything,” Hawkins tells me.

The film won’t happen for a while. Roberts has another movie in the pipeline, plus he and Hawkins need to complete writing Without Smoke. Meanwhile, Stephen Frears’ The Lost King with Hawkins in the lead, is out, and Warner Bros’ Wonka, directed by her Paddington pal Paul King, will be released in time for the holidays in December. Hawkins appears in that with Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Colman, Rowan Atkinson and Keegan-Michael Key.


The actuality of it all is that I was at Abbey Road at the behest of Netflix to hear maestro Alexandre Desplat conduct a selection of his beautiful score for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio with a 45-piece orchestra. Many of the same musicians worked on the soundtrack in the very same studio — “double the number of musicians we have tonight,” Desplat casually tells me.

Seated directly behind the man on the big drums I was transfixed. “Voila!” says Desplat when I tell him how moving it is to listen to his music as I ran the movie in my head.

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“The score is moving and sad, it goes deep into this balance between joy and melancholy,” he says. “It’s a joyous melancholy. It’s sad, but Pinocchio is not sad, and we had to find the balance.”

Earlier I enjoyed watching him interact with del Toro. They ribbed each other like a seasoned comedy duo. “Well,” Desplat says, “life is short. You can’t take yourself too seriously; otherwise you are an asshole.”

That sounds so wicked in a French accent.

“We are having fun. We had a good time, we enjoy life and we say, ’Let’s share it with everyone.’ Why suddenly be very serious and full of ourselves?” he wonders with a slight Gallic shrug of the shoulders.

He had fun too, he says, scoring for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film. ”Playful, lots of fun,” he says before reminding me that he’d worked with the director before on Little Women.

Desplat’s Pinocchio score has been recognized by BAFTA, along with the film and production design. Oscar, however, saw it differently and nominated del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s film in a single category, Best Animated Feature, which is still a nice place to be!

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The composer remains sanguine about such matters. He, after all, has two Academy Awards for music he wrote for The Shape of Water and The Grand Budapest Hotel and BAFTAS to match, plus one for The King’s Speech.

Another BAFTA would even the score.


I do one more slow stroll, crisscrossing the Abbey Road Studios. I spy Lawrence Atkinson and quickly avert my eyes. 

What I observed cannot be unseen. The CEO of DDA publicity has had some coiffeur playing around with his hair. I request a photo for future shenanigans. OK, let’s call it blackmail.

Atkinson gamely obliged. It’s pointed out to me that at least he has hair on his bonce. Touché.

Later I’m introduced to Ellen Kuras, who’s in town to oversee post on her film Lee about Lee Miller, the famed World War II correspondent and photographer. Kate Winslet portrays her and also is a producer. The two have been friends since making Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind two decades ago. Kuras was the cinematographer.

Kuras mentions that a couple of years ago a close friend showed her an unedited cut of Robin Wright’s film Land. 

“It’s not a movie,” she recalls telling her friend.

A while later, Kuras is shown a fully edited version: “Now, that’s a movie!”

Shortly after that, she and Winslet discuss potential editors. Kuras tells Winslet she has someone in mind. “Who?” Winslet asks. “The guy who cut Land,” Kuras responds.

“Go ahead,” Winslet says.

By the time he was signed up, Mikkel E.G. Nielsen had collected an Oscar for his acclaimed work on Sound of Metal.

”Now he’s up for another one!,” Kuras exclaims, referring to the nom Nielsen received Tuesday for The Banshees of Inisherin.

“See, you did someone a favor and you found yourself an editor,” I tell her. Nodding sagely, Kuras smiles and says. ”Always help out if you can.”


Seated in the stalls of Donmar Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden last Saturday, a hushed commotion two rows behind me interrupts a pivotal, poignant moment 15 or so minutes before the interval of director Ellen McDougall’s engaging revival of Lillian Hellman’s anti-fascist play A Watch on the Rhine.

 Onstage, actor Mark Waschke broke the fourth wall and asked, in character, whether everything was OK at the back and could they help. Cue house lights. The stage manager appears and tells us that an audience member has taken ill and that we should head to the bar until such time as the play can resume.

I saw a lady being comforted by Donmar staff and helpful bystanders. She sipped some water, and all seemed well.

I kept thinking about the effortless transition that brought the show to a halt. Waschke’s sympathetic inquiry was admirably done. But it was Patricia Hodge’s face that drew my eye. She didn’t do anything. Just stood there. Her physicality was that of Fanny Farrelly, the upper-class matriarch in Hellman’s play.

I always say that your senses follow the heat onstage, and mine were locked on Hodge. I think it’s to do with star quality combined with a half-century’s worth of thespian skills forged in shows as disparate as A Little Night Music, Noises Off, Heartbreak House, Separate Tables, Noel and Gertie and Private Lives onstage and the likes of The Falklands Play and All Creatures Great and Small on TV, and many more besides.

A Watch on the Rhine ends its Donmar run on February 4. Catch it, if you can get a ticket, and marvel at Patricia Hodge OBE.

She’s sure to be named a Dame sometime soon, methinks, for services to quality.

By the way, remember the name Henry Hunt. He’s 12 and plays Hodge’s younger grandson.

He has star quality too.


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