Directed by Paul Duane Club, IFI, Dublin, Triskel, Cork, 72 min
ANYONE WHO’S read The Grass Arena or seen the television drama it inspired will know that John Healy has a great story to tell.
The London-Irish author, for many years homeless, reinvented himself by learning how to play chess at close to the highest level. Then he wrote an autobiography that briefly made him a literary celebrity. The good people at Faber & Faber, once home to TS Eliot, published the book to great acclaim. Gillies MacKinnon directed Mark Rylance in a powerful BBC adaptation.
That’s the question Paul Duane sets out to answer in this intriguing, slightly rough-hewn documentary. Fans of the book may not even have noticed that it drifted out of print for more than a decade. The root of the problem was a murky dispute with Faber &Faber. At the time, it was suggested that Healy threatened the publishers’ staff with physical violence and they reacted by withdrawing the title. Healy claims (plausibly) that the fight was all about class.
We never quite get to the bottom of the story. But Duane does manage to embarrass Robert McCrum, former editorial director of Faber, by revealing an apparent contradiction in his version of the quarrel. (To be fair, McCrum behaves in a polite and helpful fashion throughout the conversation.)
The core of the film remains a lengthy series of interviews with Healy, carried out by the director. At the beginning, Duane admits that the author is not comfortable in front of the camera. Sure enough, though brutally articulate, he always looks as if he’s eying up the nearest exit. Still, his closed manner is, in itself, revealing about his troubled life.
A grump might complain that, at 72 minutes, the film is a wee bit short to qualify for a theatrical screening. But this is unquestionably a yarn worth attending.