What did director Franc Roddam do after Quadrophenia? He moved to LA, tried to woo Robert Redford – and ended up making MasterChef.
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 9 November 2011 22.00 GMT
'You go to Hollywood," says Franc Roddam, "and the better you are at mediocrity, the better you'll get on. I tried to make personal films, which was a mistake." The director of Quadrophenia is explaining why he hasn't made a film in 20 years. After the huge success of his 1979 debut, the screen version of the Who's rock opera, Roddam headed to California with dreams of joining the gang.
He signed a three-picture deal with Fox, aiming to make ambitious, political, principled films. First up was Rainforest, a story about the destruction of the Amazon. Roddam spent six months in South America, honing his concept, befriending the locals. Meanwhile, Robert Redford was umm-ing and ahh-ing about signing on as his lead.
"I spent 18 months nurturing Redford," says Roddam. "He is notoriously slow and he wouldn't make his mind up. So I kind of stupidly bottom-lined him, you know? I said, 'Give me an answer in a week or forget it!'" Redford forgot it. But Roddam couldn't. "I put all my chips on one number on the roulette table," he says. "That's the way I am. I pursue things I think are going to make a difference."
Roddam's story isn't unique – every British director who relocates has to adapt – but he was coming off a first film that had been entirely his to shape. Quadrophenia's producers – the Who's manager Bill Curbishley and Roy Baird, who had just finished shooting the outrageous Franz Liszt biopic/sex comedy Lisztomania with Roger Daltrey – were "terrific", he says, supporting their director without question.
"They basically said, 'We don't know how to do this. You do it,'" says Roddam. "At that age – I think I was 30 or 31 – you're full of it and I felt very ready. I said, 'There's no point in trying to get a known cast, they'll be too old. Any kids who are 18 will be unknown. Let's just get the best of them."
His unknowns included Phil Daniels (in a career-defining role as tempestuous mod Jimmy Cooper), Ray Winstone, Lesley Ash, Timothy Spall and Gordon Sumner, aka Sting. For most, it was their first feature, and they were all ready to be guided by their confident director. The world of Quadrophenia was one Roddam understood; he had grown up with the film's themes of teenage alienation and class division. He also recognised the cinematic appeal of failure, in the form of Daniels's Jimmy, who swaggers from good fortune to disaster.
"Most films were about success at that time – especially American films," Roddam says. "Pictures were always about the toughest guy, the best lover. And I thought, 'Isn't it wild that 99% of people are failing 99% of the time and we never address that?' I wanted to discuss real issues, rather than heroism and bravery and courage."
In the US, Roddam drifted, making a series of pictures based on semi-compromise (among them the military procedural Lords of Discipline and 1991's K2), before falling into a fallow period that has now lasted two decades.
If the break doesn't bother him too much, it is because the 65-year-old has had a hugely successful career in British TV. When he moved to Hollywood, he stayed in close touch with friends at home in Norton, Stockton-on-Tees. They were struggling to find work in Thatcher's Britain, and thinking of making their own break. "At the time, in the pubs of northeast England, the guys would say to their wives, 'If you don't stop annoying me, I'm going off to Germany'," he says. "They needed something to do and Germany was on the cards. For every hundred guys that would talk about it, at least one of them went."
It was a classic, working-class, fish-out-of-water story, Roddam thought, a little like his own. It wasn't a movie, but it would make great television. He contacted writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Likely Lads, Porridge) and pitched the idea. They loved it, and in 1983 – while Lords of Discipline, was battling at the box office – Auf Weidersehen, Pet was broadcast on ITV.
In 1990, Roddam developed MasterChef for the BBC, a show that turned cooking into a competitive sport; the franchise is now one of the corporation's biggest success stories, currently broadcasting in 26 countries. (Meanwhile, Roddam's last feature film, K2, opened to poor reviews.) He argues that there is a political element to MasterChef. "You'll think I'm mad, but it's about the democratisation of food," he explains. "At that point good food was only for rich people. It was like, 'No, hang on a second. Let's democratise this.'"
This tendency to analyse, to see shadows in the souffle, could be another reason why Roddam and Hollywood never got along. Does he still consider himself a director? No – and yes. He is always trying to start another project, but they run out of money and he won't compromise ("You can't make a film about moral strength from a position of moral weakness"). His income from MasterChef could supply the development dough, but he still describes himself as "an unemployed film-maker". I'm reminded of a line from the Quadrophenia trailer (read, appropriately enough, in a booming American accent): "For everyone who was ever convinced he was right, because the world was wrong." It's a sentiment that seems to epitomise Franc Roddam, for better or worse.