A FEW years ago Alan Franks was at a dinner party when the conversation took an unexpected turn. It was late in the evening and his interlocutor, fortified by wine, began to tell him how she had been kidnapped while travelling in Latin America. A gang of passport thieves had held her for days, she said. Franks, a feature writer for The Times for the past 30 years, had never met the woman before: how could he know if the story was real?
“I had this idea kicking around in my head and I didn’t really know where to take it until that incident,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to explore the relationship between a biographer and his subject. What if the subject of the biography was an extremely unreliable source?”
Augusta – a “light comedy with a dark heart” which previews at the New End Theatre in Hampstead this week – is Franks’ study of the slippery subject of truth.
Brazilian soap star Antonia Frering plays the beautiful, haunted Augusta, dinner guest of the successful biographer Patrick (Jonathan Rigby). His other guests – a shady South American entrepreneur who is Patrick’s latest subject and Augusta’s eco-warrior pop idol son – suggest there’ll be a few revelations before dessert.
It’s familiar territory for the writer, who lives in Richmond with his second wife, Ruth Gledhill – religion correspondent of The Times – and their six-year-old son Arthur. Franks has interviewed everyone from Sir Paul McCartney to Stephen Hawking and is used to the fixed “autobiographical line” interviewees often tread. Actors, he decides, are the worst culprits, often “more comfortable speaking the lines of others rather than their own”. “What interests me, I suppose, is trying to help the people in the plays decide what they feel about a thing. To be like a chairman, or an ‘active facilitator’ for the characters,” he says.
Besides the numerous features and the dozen plays he has written, Franks has won awards for his poetry and writes songs with Patty Vetta, a former collaborator of Johnny Cash and the Everly Brothers.
When his sons from his first marriage were young he would write rude songs with them about the neighbours. Now aged 28 and 25, they are members of the dance group Audio Bullys. “So far from them saying ‘My father writes for The Times’ in order to open doors, I genuinely have found my progress facilitated by saying ‘My sons are in the Audio Bullys’.” SIMON WROE
* Augusta is at The New End Theatre until November 2. Box office 0870 033 2733
* Alan Franks will perform an evening of poetry and song at the Torriano Meeting House, 99 Torriano Avenue, NW5, on Sunday October 26.7.30pm