A classic Jamaican gangster film from the 1970s has been reborn as a hit stage musical. Terry Grimley looks at the second coming of The Harder They Come.
Perry Henzell's 1972 film The Harder They Come is a cult classic credited with opening up a worldwide audience for reggae.
Now it's back in a new incarnation as a stage show which has already enjoyed two sell-out runs at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, is now packing audiences into London's Barbican Arts Centre, and comes to Birmingham Hippodrome for three nights from April 11-13.
It perhaps ought to be explained that the shortness of this run reflects the on-off history of a proposed national tour, rather than any belief that there's a lack of interest in reggae in the city that gave the world Steel Pulse and UB40.
The stage adaptation, made by Henzell himself shortly before his death from cancer last year, has a strong West Midlands link, having realised a long-term ambition of Jan Ryan, founder of Worcester-based promoters UK Arts International.
"I saw the film back in the early 70s back in Brixton and absolutely fell in love with it," she recalls. "It was just before Bob Marley came out so it was really instrumental in making people aware of reggae and Jamaican culture in general. Right from the start I thought this was my desert island project, to make a stage version.
"It's got an amazing soundtrack. And although it's very Jamaican it's a kind of Robin Hood story - country boy comes to town, tries to make it as a musician, gets ripped-off, becomes a drug dealer and ends up being gunned down by the police. It's a fairly universal story."
The connection came about when Jan stayed at a small hotel in Jamaica, owned by Henzell's son, which is decorated with Harder They Come memorabilia. She emailed Henzell and ended up meeting him in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
"He came over from Jamaica and we spent three days together and became very close friends. I'm now working with his wife Sally and his daughter and it's become much more than just another production to me, really.
"Our family and their family are very close, and when Perry came over to do workshops he came to Worcester and we did everything here because it was too hard for him to be in London. I think he'd been ill from about 2001, so it was amazing really that he was able to live long enough to see the show go on.
"What we tried to do with the stage version was capture the spirit of the film on stage rather than try to follow it, because that wouldn't have worked. We wanted to scale it down."
Henzell, an independent-minded film-maker who compared himself with such cinematic free spirits as Ken Loach and John Cassavetes, adopted a do-it-yourself approach to making Jamaica's first feature film.
His wife Sally, who was in London last week for the opening at the Barbican, worked as production designer on the film.
"It was a fantastic moment in my life," she says. "When Perry began filming in 1972 he had been thinking of this and writing the script for some years.
"Then, of course, raising the money was very difficult, and it was friends, really, who put up the initial money for it. We started shooting and we would run out of money and shut down and then start up again.
"We'd be shooting for a few months and shutting down for a few months, with different cameramen, different doubles and three different locations for the fight scene.
"Perry refused to compromise. He said 'I'm not making this film for London or Paris, I'm making it for Jamaica', so he would not compromise on the patois or dialogue.
"He would give actors an outline of what they were doing in a scene and then they would improvise. The actors weren't even actors. He didn't like theatre actors in the cinema: he always said the theatrical actor is projecting to the back of the theatre, whereas in the cinema the camera is coming right in."
Sally's role on the film included finding and dressing locations, building and dressing sets, finding props, finding clothes and dealing with blood.
"One of my jobs was taking the stills, but I never got around to it. There was one roll of film on the first day of shooting and I never managed to do any more because it was just impossible, and in those days it didn't seem vitally important. We just have one beautiful shot of Perry directing."
Sadly, and dressing The Harder They Come failed to launch Perry Henzell on a successful directing career. It provoked plenty of interest in Hollywood, but Henzell was too much his own man to make the necessary compromises.
"The whole thing about Perry was he refused to give up control, so that he had to go and sell the film after he made it and that took a few years," says Sally. "The second movie was going to be even more experimental than the first one. This time they really used no script, so raising money was even more impossible."
For many years this film, No Place Like Home, was believed to be lost, but the footage eventually turned up towards the end of Perry's life and he was able to edit a version which has already had screenings at festivals and made its UK debut at the Barbican last week.
"And it's wonderful," says Sally. "I think once it gets out there it will be a second act to The Harder They Come."
The first screening of The Harder They Come in Jamaica was an extraordinary event, with the prime minister having to share a seat with his wife and Sally being passed over the heads of the crowd in order to get into the cinema. She remembers that Jamaicans in London were initially less enthusiastic about the seamier side of life portrayed in the film, though that was all forgotten when Perry was honoured by the Jamaican government.
"When he died the tributes just poured in from around the world, and even more than before people realised the impact this film had," she says.
"He was an amazing guy," adds Jan Ryan. "He spent most of his life trying to make the film a success. It wasn't until George Melly came along and gave it a great review in the Observer that it started to get attention here."
* The Harder They Come is at the Birmingham Hippodrome from April 11-13 (Box office: 0870 7301234).