Billy Ivory: Great Escaper who writes for the stars

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Imagine you’re writing a film and you’re asked who you would ideally like to play the two lead roles. That happened to Nottinghamshire-born screenwriter William Ivory on his last project and he had no hesitation: Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson.

When approached both actors astonishingly said they wanted parts in The Great Escaper which was released in 2023.

The film is based on the true story of 89-year-old British World War II Royal Navy veteran Bernard Jordan who “broke out” of his nursing home to attend the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations in France in June 2014.

William, also known as Billy, admits he was nervous about working with the two superstars: “It was a huge physical commitment to expect them to do it. We were all set to go and the producer rang me to say Michael’s back was bad and he couldn’t walk. Everything was off.

“I was heartbroken. But then incredibly nearly a year later Michael rang up and said he’d had a back operation and was ready to go. He said ‘I want to make this film and I want to tell this story’.

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper

“By then Glenda had got other work but she said she could give us an eight-week window to film it. So we were back on, which was great.”

It turned out to be the last time she would act on screen. She died in June 2023.

“Glenda saw the film and loved it,” says Billy. “It’s a heck of a thing to leave behind. She was the centre of the film which was terrific.”

Working with such well-known names is nothing new for Billy. The first show he wrote for television, Common As Muck, a 1990s series about the lives of a crew of binmen, featured Edward Woodward, Tim Healey, Roy Hudd, June Whitfield and Paul Shane.

His 2010 comedy drama film Made in Dagenham which dramatised a strike at the Ford car factory that called for equal pay for women starred Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, Geraldine James and Rosamund Pike.

And his 2013 TV film Burton And Taylor, based on acting duo Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, boasted Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West in the title roles.

Billy reckons he found working with Michael Caine, “arguably our greatest film actor ever”, and Glenda Jackson an interesting process.

“Michael was very funny because right from the start he said ‘it’s quite simple, Bill, I like to make them laugh or make them cry’. He’s extraordinary because he had some big speeches and he was going ‘nah, I don’t need all them words, I can do it with a look’.

“You get a lot of younger actors saying ‘I’m a method actor, I’m doing this, I’m doing that.’ None of that with him. He just turned up, asked what lens was on the camera – he knew all the technical stuff – and then he’d just do it. He would inhabit the role so much that it became impossible to say to him ‘they wouldn’t do it like that, they wouldn’t say it like that’ because his reply would be ‘well, I just did’.

Michael Caine described The Great Escaper as “the happiest picture I ever worked on”. He’s since announced he’s retired from films.

Billy points out that Glenda Jackson was “incredible” but much more analytical.

“On the first day she said to me the script says (her character) Rene is slumped on the sofa. I said she was nearly 90 and she wasn’t very well. Glenda said Rene was an ex-ballroom dancing champion and she wouldn’t slump.

“She worked it out, she had her motivation and she delivered it beautifully. It was extraordinary. There are times when people do stuff and it’s just magical because you think you’ve rendered it in the most beautiful way or the most effective way and then they make it do a bit more.”

Michael Caine in The Great Escaper

William Ivory was born in 1964 in Southwell, Nottinghamshire to Bill, a journalist with the Nottingham Evening Post, and Edna.

He always wanted to write and his plan was to get a university degree and become a lecturer so that he could write in his spare time. But he hated university, dropped out and became a dustman “which broke my mum’s heart”.

But working on the bins around Nottinghamshire pit villages including Rainworth, Blidworth and Ollerton kept him fit.

He told himself if he wanted to be taken seriously as a writer he had to send off examples of his work. Kenneth Alan Taylor had just taken over as artistic director at Nottingham Playhouse “and he was the first person to show me any encouragement. He said come in and we’ll talk about your work.

“He said there was stuff he liked but it was nowhere near ready. I didn’t want to go back on the bins – winter was coming! I said ‘have you got any work here?’ He said not unless you can act. I said of course I can act, how hard can it be?”

Billy got a part in a play called Me Mam Sez by Mansfield writer Barry Heath which was about kids growing up in the Nottinghamshire town during the war.

“I got little bits of work,” says Billy. “I wasn’t the best actor but I wasn’t the worst. Then I got a job on Coronation Street and played a character called Eddie Ramsden for about a year. It was fantastic because I started earning proper money.

“For the first time I saw a television script. They just looked to me as though they’d be really easy to write. I thought it would be quick as well.”

Billy’s mother had recently died from motor neurone disease and he wanted to write a piece to celebrate her life.

“I thought I’d write a telly play rather than a theatre play. I wrote Journey To Knock and one of the producers on Coronation Street said it was really good and I should send it to the BBC.”

Billy could hardly believe what happened next: “I got a call out of the blue and this guy said ‘I’d like to make your film. John Hurt and David Thewlis want to be in it and we’re filming in Ireland in two months. You’ll need an agent but I’ve got you one. If you want to come down to London we’ll sign everything.’ So I did and that was how I got started. It was miraculous really.”

Journey To Knock won the European Television Festival award for best screenplay. Since then Billy has been nominated for a BAFTA award several times, won a Royal Television Society award for best drama series for The Sins – which featured Pete Postlethwaite as a former bank robber who joins a firm of undertakers – and was nominated for a Golden Globe for Burton And Taylor.

His other work includes writing for Minder and EastEnders and he also penned the 2018 Christmas Day television show Torvill and Dean about the early life and careers of Nottinghamshire ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.

Despite his experience Billy still finds it “fabulous but quite terrifying” when he sees his work being performed on film or stage.

Away from his writing desk he likes nothing better than watching his favourite football team Notts County who he’s been following since the age of eight.

In 2012 he wrote a play called Diary Of A Football Nobody about the Magpies which was staged at Nottingham Playhouse and proved to be a real winner.

He’s now writing another piece for Nottingham Playhouse, a new TV series and another script for Pathé who made The Great Escaper. All he can say about the film at the moment is that it’s a comedy drama set in the West Midlands in the 1970s – discussions about who will be in it are at a “very delicate” stage. After that he’ll be looking at the script for another film which is due in cinemas in 2026.

Billy is a down-to-earth character who is in no way pretentious despite mixing in showbiz circles and having a Nottingham tram named after him.

He has no burning ambition apart from wanting to keep working and “writing stuff that I’m proud of.”

He comments: “It sounds pompous to say ‘I’ve got a body of work that I can really stand by’ but that’s what I feel. Diary Of A Football Nobody is an example of a piece of work that I think stands scrutiny.

“There’s only one piece of work that I’ve ever written that wasn’t good enough and it’s not on my CV any more. I just want to keep going.”

Billy took his family to the premiere of The Great Escaper: his wife Kate and his daughters Tilda who works for sculptor Antony Gormley and Esther who is in film and TV script development.

“The film finished, they came up to me and gave me a big kiss and said ‘we’re so proud of you, dad’. That felt fantastic.”

It may be some time before Billy Ivory’s next piece of work is available for public viewing. But if it’s as exciting and uplifting as his previous scripts, it will definitely be worth the wait.

* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine

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