Making drama to quicken the heart

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Trevor Griffiths, co-writer of the film Reds, talks to Phil Turner about why he is committed to making a film on 18th century radical Tom Paine.

During his life Thomas Paine was hounded from Britain, imprisoned in France and treated as a pariah in the US, his adopted country. Why should we celebrate Paine's life and work?

He was one of a fairly long line of British socialists or pre-socialists, radicals whom history has sought to erase in one way or the other.

Paine is important because he wrote important works and had an extraordinary life. The importance of his work is difficult to overstate. He made major contributions in the US, France and Britain to the idea of revolution-what revolution was about, what it was for and how it was to be achieved. He was involved in two revolutions in the US and France and was desperately disappointed not to achieve a third in England. He also undermined the notion of nationalism and national identity, and did so in a very advanced way. He called himself a citizen of the world, and there's something not just sentimental but serious about that in the world we live in now.

Almost everything he had to say has a resonance and purchase for today. You look at his work on poverty and our so-called civilised world which has not even got the basics right yet. He said that the poor and the old should be given what they need by the state, not by charities but by the full body of people living together and looking after each other. This speaks now as vividly as it did in the 18th century. If you look around in academia and political departments in universities and colleges you will find Edmund Burke (Paine's opponent during the French Revolution) being taught instead of Thomas Paine.

Paine was an amazing author and his period was referred to as the "Age of Paine". He was the man who brought plain language to English literature. That's why his writing was so popular. Paine is ignored these days and often reviled. He could be a difficult man at times, quite proud and overbearing; he was always involved in arguments. He was also very much against corruption and spent a lot of time in America fighting against it, and that made him enemies too.

In the screenplay I write about what he owned at the time of his death, what he was left with after he had spent his entire life trying to make the world a better place. I think it is very moving. He wasn't in it for what he could get out of it. That's what made me want to tell his story.

Paine seemed to be at his best in the thick of things as an activist in the American Revolution, writing Common Sense and The American Crisis. What happened to him in France?

Paine had come back to England from the US. He designed the first iron bridge which he thought would go over the Seine or the Thames. The Walker family, ironmasters in Rotherham, agreed to provide labour and materials, and he built a 100-foot replica which was taken down to Hyde Park and exhibited. People were charged to look. Then the French Revolution came along.

Paine knew Burke was going to write a book against the French Revolution. He urged him not to write it, but warned him that if he did so he would write a response, which became The Rights of Man.

In France he made friends with Georges Danton and that was a key relationship. He had a friendly relationship with the Girondins who opposed the Jacobins' leadership. I find it hard to say which the right side was in the French Revolution, but you have to remember that Paine was around 50, quite old and knackered, couldn't speak the language and could not read the text of the commissions. He spoke against the execution of the king and ended up disagreeing with Maximilien Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat.

Paine was jailed and was badly hurt when he was set upon in an assault. But he was still able to write The Age of Reason there. When he returned to America from France he was shamefully cast aside and treated him like a rabid dog for writing a treatise questioning the existence of god.

Paine was a revolutionary for his time, The Rights of Man outsold the Bible and he was an inspiration and legend for political agitation across England. So why has he been written out of history?

In this country Paine may occasionally be taught, but only with a flimsy, scant acknowledgement of such an important figure. He sold millions of copies of his books in his life, receiving not a penny in royalties, all of which went to the movement.

In that sense, he is more worthy of a movie than John Reed [author of Ten Days That Shook The World, on which Reds is based] who worked in one area of an important revolution. But Paine was at it for 50 years - and got better and better at it. That's why I wanted him to be read and understood. They are trying to remove people like him from the history books, people who could be speaking for us and to us today.

Every part of our history is subject to a particular political track. Anything that sharpens the mind or quickens the heart will be factored out in each generation. I hope there will be lots of events around the country to mark the anniversary of Paine's death in 2009. There is still not a statue of him apart from, ironically, the one built at the US air base in Suffolk in 1945, which is a wonderful tribute to the man. But we need a statue in every city, starting with London, Philadelphia and Paris.

Reds is one of the few mainstream films to focus on the Russian Revolution. Why is this event still relevant today, 90 years on?

I would start with the notion and definition of revolution. In Russia in 1917 it involved insurrection and that became the model for revolutions throughout the 20th century. But I'm also interested in revolutions of the mind as well as social. I think the Russian Revolution remains a beacon, not necessarily for how to live, but how to achieve huge change against all the odds.

For that reason the ten years between 1917 and 1927 were the worst of times and the best of times. During the civil war the Western capitalist states, including the US, intervened to the cost of the revolution. But in the best of times there was an extraordinary explosion of ideas, including organisational ideas, the idea of the soviet, for example. These ideas captured the imagination of whole generations of people.

I think the explosion in the ideas of art was amazing: the work going on in the theatre and architecture and sculpture and in painting with the constructivists. All of that matters still and betokens what can be done by men and women working together for a different idea of the world than the world of capital.

I think it is taking different forms today because the capitalist states are so heavily fortified and developed it's almost impossible to try and engage them in the way they did in 1917 through the power of the working class. What the Russian Revolution really showed was the transition from capitalism to socialism, and we're still looking for the answer.

You still hope to attract a Hollywood backer for a film about Paine, despite your experiences with Warren Beatty on Reds. Why?

I began working on it with director Richard Attenborough in 1987, wrote the first draft in 1991, the second in 1993-94, the third in 1996-97 and the final draft in 1999. I've seen a lot of people in that time. I can tell you who may have played it. I can tell you what else we worked out and that the last person to read it was Johnny Depp.

Most people in Hollywood say if you want £140 million to make it you had better get a big name so that it will get financed. Whether it's Hollywood or not there are things you have to do to get a film made. That's how it works. The rights are owned by Sir Richard Attenborough, but he's now 84, and it is unlikely he would make the film. So we need the right director to take it on.

When Reds was being finished I went to the studio and saw a very rough cut. It was in black and white because the colour had not been added. I thought it was great. In black and white it was like a documentary. I agreed to share the credits with Warren Beatty, because we had written the final draft together.

I can honestly say I'm proud of about 50 percent of Reds, and that's pretty good for a Hollywood film.

The Blair years and the war in Iraq have inspired a radicalisation in the theatre and to some extent in film, including Hollywood. As a prolific writer for television, what would you say about the state of television drama?

Getting work out there was always a problem, but now you have to produce scripts that only appeal to audiences which will not be asked to think or feel very deeply. There's something wicked, something immoral about that.

Television is part of the education process, how we educate ourselves, and we're not using it properly if it's only for shallow entertainment of one sort or another.

There are good things because of the sheer size of the output, but there are large amounts of crap as well. I don't take any part in promoting my work. I live inside my texts and give everything to them, and somehow they find their way.

In the last ten years your outspoken politics have set you against the New Labour heads of the BBC where you made your name. How has that affected you?

The BBC was once like my home, but it's changed completely now. My most recent television play, Food for Ravens, was made in 1997. It was commissioned to mark the hundreth anniversary of Aneurin Bevan's birth, but it was banished by the BBC and restricted to Wales before the BBC gave it a late-night slot on BBC2.

I work on the long term not the short term. I hope that in 50 years time my plays, like Occupations, Comedians, The Party, The Gulf Between Us and Thatcher's Children, will be around and people will be doing them and considering what they are about. That's a decent outcome, I think.

These Are The Times: A Life of Thomas Paine is published by Spokesman books at £15. A radio play will be aired in two parts on Radio 4 next year and a stage version is in progress.