LORD OF THE PUNKS
School of Rock for the stage was the perfect job for a Conservative British peer, writes Jane Cornwell
You can forgive Julian Fellowes his near rock ’n’ roll illiteracy, given that he got the script for School of Rock: The Musical just right. “Who are AC/DC? What is the Clash?” he says over tea in a swish restaurant in Sloane Square, central London, not too far from where the pint-sized cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s acclaimed 2015 Broadway musical is wowing the West End; on the other side of the world, a similarly gifted clutch of Aussie kids are in their beds, dreaming of School of Rock’s opening night at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.
“I saw the Beatles when I was 15 and had hair down to my shoulders,” offers Fellowes in his genial, precisely spoken way, dressed House of Lords-style (a life peer, he sits on the Conservative government benches) in a grey suit, crimson braces and blue tie, his bald pate shining in the autumn sunshine coming softly through the window on to our table. “Though I was hardly what you’d call a rebel.
“In fact when Andrew (Lloyd Webber), who I knew vaguely from showbiz circles, rang to ask if I’d be interested in doing the ‘book’ for School of Rock, I wondered if he’d muddled me up with someone else. But eventually I thought it was a great opportunity not to be dealing with ladies’ maids and footmen for once.”
Fellowes, 69, is best known for his multifarious observations of Britain’s upper classes, particularly as the creator of the 2001 film Gosford Park (which won him an Oscar for best screenplay) and the popular TV series Downton Abbey (2010-15), that period drama following the lives of the Crawley family and their servants in the former’s Edwardian country house.
Fellowes has penned several bestselling novels including 2004’s Snobs (about the marriage of an upper-middle-class girl to a peer) and is a recognisable face from his acting roles on screen and stage playing dukes, kings and other aristo stock. Rock‘n’roll he is not.
Nonetheless, any initial scepticism was quashed after he sat down in the screening room of his grand house in Dorset, southwest England, with his wife, Lady Emma Kitchener Fellowes (great-grand niece of the famous soldier Herbert, 1st Earl Kitchener), and their filmproducer son Peregrine (the Honorable Peregrine Charles-Morant Kitchener Fellowes, now 27) and watched the ever-popular 2003 Jack Black comedy School of Rock, which Lloyd Webber had obtained the rights to adapt.
The story of Dewey Finn, a slobby former rock guitarist who inveigles his way into an exclusive school as a substitute teacher and turns a class of underloved high achievers into a mindblowing rock band, resonated with Fellowes, who recognised its themes.
“Peregrine said, ‘Trust me, you will love it’ and I did, very much, though I knew we would have to broaden it out to make it worth the ticket price,” says Fellowes, who also wrote the scripts for the family musicals Wind in the Willows, from Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel, and Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s stage version of Mary Poppins, which ran in Australia from July 2010 to June 2012.
“It had the same struggle and triumph you see in films like Asphalt Jungle and To Sir With Love, this sense of someone finding their self worth through helping others, these kids, to find self-worth.”
Black has said his scriptwriting for School of Rock was led by the notion ‘What would AC/DC do?’ but Fellowes needed no such motivation (or rock knowledge) in order to pepper his script with rock cliches, many of them aided by the astounding musicality of the kids (“Yes, the children play their own instruments,” runs a voiceover by Lloyd Webber at the top of the show). There’s the twirled drumsticks and insouciant pouts, knee slides across the stage and mano y mano electric guitar wig-outs. There’s the devil’s horns sign, a raised index and pinky finger gesture impossible to imagine being flashed by Fellowes, whose own pinky finger sports a signet ring embossed with a family crest that includes the motto: “After battle comes reward”, which is very Downton Abbey.
He sips his tea. “Of course we knew we would have to broaden it out if we wanted to appeal to everybody. There isn’t as much music in the film as you think; Andrew wrote 14 new songs, each of them extraordinary. He captures that sense of what it is to be young and unable to express yourself in words and so very often it’s a song that captures what you feel, makes sense of your emotions. I remember that very well,” he adds, pausing to acknowledge a smiling woman who is passing by our table.
The youngest of four brothers, Fellowes was born in Cairo, Egypt, to British parents, staunch Catholics, whose attitudes were surprisingly progressive. His father, Peregrine Edward Launcelot Fellowes, was a diplomat and Arabist who actively campaigned to have Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia — and the man at the heart of the Rastafari movement — restored to his throne during World War II.