The Knife that Killed Me: Leeds author’s book hits silver screen

Have your say

In the late 1970s Anthony McGowan was a pupil at Corpus Christi School in Leeds. A little over 25 years later he wrote a book set in a fictionalised version of the Halton Moor school. It was called The Knife that Killed Me.

The film adaptation is due out this summer, but given the events of the last month, which saw popular teacher Ann Maguire fatally stabbed in the classrooms where she had taught for more than four decades, its release has added poignancy.

“Ann Maguire was my first form teacher at Corpus,” says McGowan, who now lives in London with his wife and two children.

“She was Miss Connors then and was just starting her teaching career, but what I remember is that she was determined to get the best out of all of us.

“What happened to Ann Maguire was a terrible one-off event, the like of which may 
never happen again in our lifetime and it would be wrong to make glib comparisons between her death and my book or this film.

“The name of Corpus Christi is never used in the film, but 
anyone who went there will recognise the geography of the place.

“There’s the railway line, the beck and the red brick estate which surrounds the school buildings.

It is set now, but the book was informed by my memories of what the school was like 30-odd years ago. Things have changed a lot.

“Back then, it was a pretty brutal place and a lot of the events in the film happened to me. It was me who a couple of kids spat chewing gum at so I had no option but to hack off a chunk of my hair. In those days there was often an air of violence about the place, but it was all about fists and it was never fatal.

“If there’s one thing you can say about the book and the film which in anyway relates to what happened recently, it’s that once you introduce a knife into a school setting then suddenly you have a potentially deadly situation.”

The original book was written against a backdrop of news stories which exposed the country’s new and growing problem with knife crime. Between 2006 and 2008, 73 London teenagers were murdered. Of those, three quarters had been stabbed.

In 2010, despite crime as a whole falling, knifepoint robbery rose by 10 per cent and while the last set of crime figures showed a small decrease in the number of incidents, the stories keep on coming.

In the last week a police investigation was launched in Huddersfield when a youngster was found injured in the street with stab wounds.

At various points there has been talk of introducing metal detectors in schools and of automatic jail sentences for those who are twice caught in possession of a knife. Neither is likely to solve the problem.

Wary of preaching a simplistic moral message that ‘knives are bad’ in The Knife that Killed Me, lead character Paul Varderman is both the hero and villain. He’s the new kid at school who in trying to avoid trouble ends up right at the heart of it.

The film, which was the brainchild of York-based directors Marcus Romer and Kit Monkman, is largely faithful to the book, although one central character – Paul’s mother – has been killed off before the opening credits.

“I read the review of Tony’s book in the Guardian and instantly knew it was perfect,” say Romer, who is also artistic director of Pilot Theatre Company. “We wanted a story which really got inside the head of the leading character, which told everything from his perspective.

“The Knife that Killed Me did exactly that and within two weeks I was in a London hotel meeting with Tony and his agent in London. None of us were quite sure exactly what the end result would be, but we knew that we had something pretty special.”

The proposal was deliberately vague with good reason. Romer and Monkman planned to shoot The Knife That Killed Me using entirely green screen technology.

They had a purpose built studio at Green Screen Productions at Bubwith, near Selby, and while like any other film it would have a cast and a script, all the backdrops would be added in afterwards.

“Let’s say it’s a process which has it upsides and its downsides,” says Romer.

“When the whole shoot is in a green room you don’t have to be worried about road closures or ambulances screeching past. On the other hand, when 
you spend 12 hours a day in 
there it does send you a little stir crazy.

“We blocked it out like a normal set, but yes, it does require a leap of imagination to believe those same four walls are at once a classroom, a playground and the living room of a terraced house.”

The result feels more art house than traditional feature film. While some of the backdrops are realistic, others are hand-drawn and it’s little wonder than the editing, which took place at York University’s Heslington Studios, took so long to complete.

“Normally the editing process is about refining the fim,” says Monkman. “Here it was about creating it from scratch. By the end of the five week shoot we had 10,000 shots. That’s a huge amount of material and it took us a while to work out what we were going to do with it. If we did it again it would probably take us three or four months. Instead it actually took us about a year, but I make no apology for that. We had to get it right.

“While the tecnhology we were using was new, in some ways it harks back to the old films of the Hollywood studios.

“Back then, films had a theatrical element that doesn’t really exist any more. These days we tend to view everything through a lens. Even when you go to a concert you will see people watching what’s on stage through their mobile phone as they record what’s going on. It’s almost as though what you see through a lens is more true than real life.

“Yes, if we started again we would probably do things differently, but this was a big experiment, the kind you don’t get to do very often.”

The film will be released by Universal this summer, but before then the production team has also launched a Kickstarter campaing with the aim of raising money to fund a one-off screening both online and at various pop-up locations.

“It would be silly of us not to acknowledge that the way people watch films has changed,” adds Romer. “The making of the film has pushed boundaries in terms of technology and it feels right that we mirror that in how we get it out to the viewing public.”

Pic of Reece Witherspoon: Ian West/PA Wire

Why did a former Leeds University student give her dissertation to Hollywood star Reece Witherspoon?