Play Sends Sir Tom Stoppard Over the Moon

Express, 25 August 2013
By James Rampton

Sir Tom Stoppard is widely regarded as our greatest living playwright, but even he gets nervous when he meets his heroes. A huge Pink Floyd aficionado, Stoppard admits that when he was first introduced to the band’s guitarist David Gilmour he was “dumbstruck”.

“I was absolutely tongue-tied. My mind went blank, and I couldn’t think of a single song he’d recorded. My brain went into white noise!” He’s clearly a true fan.

Now, he has parlayed his love of Pink Floyd into a mesmerising radio play.

Broadcast tomorrow night on Radio 2 to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, 'Darkside' is inspired by The Dark Side Of The Moon, perhaps the most lauded LP in history.

When the album was released in 1973, Steve Peacock’s review in Sounds set the tone: “I don’t care if you’ve never heard a note of The Pink Floyd’s music in your life. I’d unreservedly recommend The Dark Side Of The Moon to everyone.”

It remained in the US charts for 741 weeks between 1973 and 1988 and has gone on to sell in excess of 50 million copies right around the globe.

Every new generation seems to be magnetised afresh by this deeply haunting soundscape about madness and mortality. The album passes the acid test for a bona fide masterpiece: on every occasion you spend time with it, you locate something new and compelling in it.

Talking to the Sunday Express in between takes at the recording of 'Darkside' at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in west London, the play’s 63-year-old star Bill Nighy explains the LP’s lasting appeal: “I love it! This album was in every bedroom I ever went into during my younger days.

"It’s part of the soundtrack of my youth. Why has it endured? Because it’s entered the language in a very profound manner. It hasn’t just survived because of my generation, it has been discovered by each new generation. It’s universal and timeless.”

Rufus Sewell, 45, who also stars in Darkside, chips in: “This album has been omnipresent over the past 40 years. It’s had an extraordinary effect on us. People have always said things like, ‘Where’s Jeff?’ ‘He’s upstairs Floyding, man’.

“The album possesses amazing drama and gravitas. It’s really powerful and has this incredible scope to it. It’s also very evocative. You could think you were having a flashback just by listening to it on good enough headphones.”

The Dark Side Of The Moon has regularly topped polls of the best album ever recorded. Stoppard, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 'Shakespeare In Love', thinks that the band had an inkling at the time that they had created a modern-day classic.

“The day they finished the master mix, [drummer] Nick Mason listened to it and wrote, ‘My God, we’ve really got something here’. Bass player Roger Waters played it to his wife who immediately burst into tears.

“That first time the band listened to it must have been a marvellous feeling.”

Stoppard, 76, emphasises that when Radio 2 asked him to write this play he jumped at it: “It’s quite rare for someone to suggest something I fancy, and I really fancied this. I’m not aware of anything like this having been done before. I hope it’s a wonderful way of celebrating the anniversary. I’m thrilled to be part of it.”

The centrepiece of a Pink Floyd Night on Radio 2 tomorrow, the play is a hallucinogenic story that zooms in on Emily (Amaka Okafor) a philosophy student. It highlights the album’s principal concerns (corruption, egotism and insanity) that resonate with audiences today as much as they did 40 years ago.

In between segments of the album, which is played out in its entirety, Emily has a series of surreal encounters with various random characters including her moral philosophy tutor (Sewell), a witch-finder (Nighy), the nameless subject of a philosophical “thought experiment” (Iwan Rheon) and a selfish banker (Adrian Scarborough). All the while, Emily is desperately trying to unravel the meaning of life.

'Darkside' is replete with Stoppard’s trademark playful, intellectual jokes. At one point her tutor tells Emily: “You’re an intuition-ist. If it caught on, it would lead to widespread unemployment among moral philosophers.”

Nighy is delighted to be taking part in this project: “Stoppard is one of very few playwrights who can make a deep philosophical exploration both clever and funny. This play concerns itself with the central dilemmas we all face.

“It decodes all the major moral questions that define the human condition, with added laughs. It is a philosophical meditation on the album which adds something to our understanding of it. It is proper deep.

“To get a combination of Tom Stoppard and Pink Floyd like this is really quite a coup. It’s a massive deal, a marriage made in radio heaven. Who else would you turn to if you want to extrapolate on the dramatic themes in The Dark Side Of The Moon? Tom Stoppard, of course!”

Sewell agrees: “It’s a really entertaining, thought-provoking and fun play. If it’s not fun, there’s no point. It goes very deep, but you don’t need to have your thinking cap on to get it.

"As always with Stoppard, if you don’t want to go too deep, there are lots of jokes on the surface that you can get something out of.”

The members of Pink Floyd are equally pleased with the play. Gilmour has said: “I have read the script of Tom’s play and found it fascinating. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate The Dark Side Of The Moon’s 40-year anniversary.”

Mason says he loves it then jokes: “but I’m tempted to text Tom and tell him it’s really great... but there were a lot of actors talking over the music.

“If anyone is going to mess with the crown jewel of albums, Tom is a very good choice,” he continues, and jokes again: “I’m a bit more worried about Led Zeppelin going on The Archers, which I understand is the next one.”

Scarborough, 45, closes by underlining what a joy it has been to work on 'Darkside'. “I hope this blend of Tom’s play and Pink Floyd’s music stimulates people’s neurones. Tom is so mind-bogglingly clever and a virtuoso. The idea that you can spend a day in the studio with him recording one of his plays is glorious. What a fantastic opportunity!

“As I set off for the studio this morning, my wife said to me, ‘Hope you have a good time at work today’. That’s a given. How could I not? As they used to say in 1973, this play is well cool, man!”

Darkside is on Radio 2 at 10pm tomorrow.

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