Thursday, 8 November 2007

NHolly’s teen dreams are on the screen

t's been billed as Fame meets the OC. The new E4 teen drama, Nearly Famous, which begins tomorrow, follows four performing arts students, who don't quite fit in, as they follow their dreams.

Lila is struggling to balance following her ambition of becoming a writer with her topsy-turvy home life, beautiful Kate is an actress who wants to step out of her famous father's shadow and troubled heart-throb Owen dreams of being a rock star - but he can't control his temper.

Sweet, geeky sound and lighting engineer Joe completes the quartet.

When it came to inspiration for the characters Holly Phillips, the Norfolk writer behind the series, didn't have to look too far - it's written straight from the heart.

"Lila is me at college, so that was quite scary to do, but I thought it was the right thing to do," she says, chatting excitedly about the series over coffee at Norwich's Playhouse bar. "I began with her and stole a part of my own life," she says.

Like Holly, Lila wants to be a TV writer and in the first episode cites two of Holly's personal heroes Aaron Sorkin, creator of hit shows the West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind Joss Whedon among her influences.

"The other characters all come from friends," she continues. "I wanted my characters to all be misfits, who didn't naturally belong. Those four characters were my starting points and I wanted them to be the ones who weren't comfortable at the party - they would be the ones on the sideline, not knowing how to make conversation. You know, I don't think that feeling ever goes away - you just get better at hiding it. My boyfriend's studying psychology so I pick his brains about why people do what they do."

She pauses for a moment. "It's only just beginning to hit me that it's going to be out there."

The six-part series is made by Kudos, the company behind the acclaimed time travel cop-show Life on Mars and the first two episodes were directed by Sheree Folkson - one of the original directors of the global smash hit series Ugly Betty.

Holly, 31, who grew up in Flitcham and now lives in Walthamstow, says that Nearly Famous was influenced by classic American teen shows such as My So-Called Life, Dawson's Creek and the OC, with an essential added dash of British-ness.

"What I wanted to write about was teenagers who did really care about something, the kids who really want to do something with their lives.

"It's set in a performing arts college. Basically it's a Fame kind of idea, about people chasing their dreams - but it needed a touch of British cynicism too. There's an awareness they might not make it."

Because of its post-watershed timeslot, there's also a healthy dose of realism.

"You can show more of what teenagers really do - drink, swear and smoke. It's nice to be able to be truthful and not feel like you have to cover these things up," Holly says.

The first episode beautifully captures the awkwardness and excitement of the first few days of college. You're living away from home for the first time and finally becoming the person you want to be - but you don't know anyone and don't know where the parties are.

"I really wanted to do a teen show - I love that age group and the things that happen. Everything feels so big," Holly says.

Nearly Famous's cast of young rising stars is enviably talented. Talulah Riley, who plays Lila, starred in Pride and Prejudice opposite Keira Knightley; and Aaron Johnson, who plays Owen, was in the Edward Norton film the Illusionist. The "grown-up" cast includes East is East and EastEnders star Jimi Mistry, Ralph Brown, whose credits include the cult movie Withnail & I, and Gina Bellman from the sitcom Coupling.

Holly's seven-year-old daughter, Lily, also makes a brief cameo appearance in one episode later in the series.

The writer's big break came when she finished her cultural studies degree course at Norwich School of Art and Design nine years ago.

"I was always in love with writing, but it took me a while to work out what kind of writing," Holly says. "English was my best lesson and I would write short stories."

Then she saw the TV show that made her want to write for the small screen - Dennis Potter's Pennies From Heaven.

"From then I loved telly - I knew I wanted to write for telly," she says.

However, she initially started out writing for theatre.

"I was really lucky," she says. "For my final degree piece I wrote a play and around the time I graduated I saw an advert for a Royal Court Theatre play-writing competition. I sent the play off - and I was one of the winners. That started everything for me."

As a result of the competition, Holly won a place at the prestigious London theatre's young writers' group.

"It was really amazing and I learned so much. And theatre fed into telly - I learned about developing characters."

One of Holly's plays, Billy and the Crab Lady, was staged by the Soho Theatre Company - and was picked up by the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola who published it in his magazine, Zoetrope All Story.

"I never met him, but it's still cool to know that he read my script and liked it," she says.

Holly's TV writing credits include another teen drama, Sugar Rush, and she is working on a new project for Red Productions (the company behind Queer as Folk and Clocking Off) for the BBC.

She says she's grateful for the support that Jane Featherstone - joint managing director of Kudos, who encouraged her to write Nearly Famous - has given her.

"Jane Featherstone has mentored me. She's an amazing woman. If she likes a writer, she will push you, but she looks after you."

Although she's got other shows in the pipeline, Holly hopes that viewers will want to see more of Lila, Owen, Kate and Joe.

"I've got ideas for what I want to happen to the characters next - possibly take them up to graduation," she says.

Nearly Famous is on E4 on Thursday November 8 at 11pm.


1 comment:

smojface said...

@Just an editorial note; Holly did not grow up in Flitcham, she actually grew up in Fincham!
I just think the journalist ought to check her shorthand because it is obviously deficient.