School of Rock for the stage was the per­fect job for a Con­ser­va­tive Bri­tish peer, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

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