William Jessop  

Writer and film-maker William Jessop, just 29, displays many of the characteristics young people need to get on: belief in his calling, a flexible approach, confidence with a good dose of humility, and willingness to eschew the giant salary (in the early days, at least). Currently working for Blue Apple Theatre that brings together actors with learning difficulties and those without, William is also a documentary film-maker, and already has adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and
A Midsummer Night’s Dream under his belt.
He says: ‘I always wanted to find a way to express myself creatively; I tried radio, made some films and in my year out I wrote and wrote. It came to be obvious that the form was going to be writing.’
Educated at Winchester College, thanks to the determination of his father, who worked in the NHS, ‘to give his children the best possible start in life’, William was a typical teenager: ‘I was a scholar and this helped with the income side but I was probably more interested in girls than in being creative although I was editor of the school magazine and started writing.’

In those days, William was focused on university, rather than planning a career in the typical public school disciplines of the law and finance. There are no regrets: ‘I had no idea that being a freelance writer would mean scrabbling around in the early days but even so I don’t think I would have done anything differently. The choices you make take you down a certain path so I did English and History which are clearly about stories. I knew my favourite lessons were doing Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet or Paradise Lost whereas I was dreading going to maths as it was so much out of my comfort zone.’
After university – Oxford, reading English – William was single-minded. ‘There was no compromise. I was lucky that I had a home in which to crash out but I was seeing friends earning ridiculous salaries while I was earning nothing. I was working on films with no budget, with people telling me what to do, being lowest of the low. I got an internship at Working Title Films for a year and made a documentary about my brother Tommy, one
of the Blue Apple actors.
‘I then offered to write an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Blue Apple. The theatre had a new Artistic Director, Peter Clerke, and we worked together on the play which we did in promenade. It was just a magical experience. I have now done five plays with them so what started as a favour became a passion.’
And a career too, for although the theatre company was set up by his mother Jane Jessop, Blue Apple Theatre continues to grow as a professional theatre company, with some Arts Council England pounds in its pot to support its first tour, more of which later.
William says: ‘Blue Apple Theatre brings many different types of people together. Our actors with learning difficulties are extraordinarily talented and it’s good for mainstream actors to learn from their counterparts. We have up to 40 members of whom 20 to 25 have learning difficulties. The range of ability within that group is quite wide so we have people with autism, Asperger’s and Down’s Syndrome. The reason why it was set up by Jane is that in 2005 there wasn’t much for people to do and it allowed people to express themselves, as well as covering basics like discipline, timekeeping and organisation. At that stage we were explaining what a story is and by the time we got to A Midsummer Night’s Dream there was an unbelievable flowering of talent.
‘Last summer we did an adaptation of [Nikolai] Gogol’s The Government Inspector. There is something so powerful for an actor with learning difficulties to stand on
a stage to make people laugh with them, to
be applauded and cheered.
‘At the top level we have six actors of whom four have Down’s Syndrome that are taking a version of Hamlet in the original Shakespearian language on a theatre tour, with no concessions made. These actors are determined to become professional actors so we give them a more intensive rehearsal schedule.’
The idea of taking on Hamlet followed the group’s success in a small-scale tour of William’s Living Without Fear, a short play about the brutal subject of disability hate crime. Having achieved this, it was felt these actors were capable of anything. William recalls: ‘We thought ‘the sky’s the limit’ so let’s try Hamlet! The play speaks to everyone about what it means to be human and people with learning difficulties have the right to be part of that conversation.’
And converse they did. William explains: ‘When we introduced the story in September, we didn’t know how they were going to take it. Traditionally our pieces tend to be light, end happily with lots of people getting married. Obviously Hamlet doesn’t end that way. The actors had a creative discussion that got quite heated about whether or not to stick to what Shakespeare had written and all die, or whether to just have a happy ending, One of our actors, Lawrie, who has been a Shakespeare fan all his life and is playing Claudius, was adamant that the play had to end traditionally, with everyone dying, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense, which of course is right, and he managed to persuade all the others. The concept of tragedy – putting bad stuff on the stage in order to achieve catharsis – is quite a sophisticated concept, and the extent in which the actors separate what is on stage and what is made up is something we’re working on still.’
How a writer adapts Shakespeare depends on a whole host of drivers: the players, the performance, money…and William had to put the players first. For his version of Midsummer, he adapted the parts with his director Peter to fit the actors, and used modern language while keeping to the spirit of the original. And this meant magic, joy and indulging dreams.
Hamlet was naturally a different undertaking. William says: ‘For Hamlet, I kept the process to tailor the parts to the actor, but now it’s all Shakespeare throughout the play. It is much shorter – 70 minutes – so we had to make some pretty brutal decisions about what to keep and what to lose. We’ve lost Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio – so Hamlet is without his only friend, which in some ways makes it more powerful as Hamlet is dealing with this on his own.
‘Our Ophelia and Hamlet are genuinely in love and he is far less callous than in the original. It just did not feel right for our Hamlet to be so cruel to his Ophelia. Another issue was that the original is all about delay, so by cutting so much you have a slightly different animal in that the scenes flow more quickly. Tommy, who is playing Hamlet, is a reflective person but to make it ring true, making him demonstrate the dilemma and to keep the plot moving was perhaps the hardest thing. Because of these shifts, I need to be in rehearsals to see how this works and as a film-maker I understand the need to re-write.’
William admits to learning a great deal in his few short years developing his art. He reflects: ‘Coming out of the rarefied atmosphere of university and throwing myself into the real world, driven by the keenness to learn and a passion for what I was doing was an amazing experience. One of the most important lessons I learned about writing is that I was far too shy about showing people what I had done. I was determined the first thing I showed the world was going to be an Oscar-winning screenplay and what that does is close you down, you become introspective. So if you want to be a writer, show your work as much and to as many people as you can. That’s how you learn.’
Wise words indeed. With such a positive attitude to his writing apprenticeship, William is one to watch.