Bob Hoskins and the rebel story which the media missed

The Guardian, May 14 1998

He was obviously an idiot. In the summer of 1991, most national newspapers carried a short story about a man they called ‘Yorkshire’s answer to Captain Haddock’ who lived in Whitby and owned an ancient boat and, for some bizarre reason, had decided to sail all the way to the Arctic with a bunch of friends, thus threatening chaos, confusion and the imminent loss of life.

So obviously it was only right and proper that the Department of Transport had tried to stop this nautical nincompoop putting his tub to sea in the first place by declaring that his boat was not seaworthy; that they had then alerted the coastguard, the Royal Navy and fourteen maritime nations to try and bring him back before he drowned himself and his five friends; and that upon his return they had set out to prosecute him for his recklessness.

And yet this didn’t quite make sense, for in the same breath that these stories accused this man of having the sea-going skills of a pig in a picnic hamper, they nevertheless acknowledged in their small print that he had spent all his life at sea. Properly addressed, this man was Captain Jack Lammiman, formerly of the Royal Merchant Navy and the Spanish Foreign Legion, now the proud owner of the Helga Maria, a 60-foot twin-masted schooner in which he had routinely sailed far and wide across the oceans. And so a story was born.

If this man was, in fact, not an idiot at all; if the reality was that he knew exactly what he was doing when he set out for the Arctic; if there really was no good reason at all for the Department of Transport and all the king’s henchmen to attack him, then this was not a story about a ship of fools at all. This was about something much more interesting, and so the Guardian went to Whitby and published a long and curiously moving tale, whose consequences turned out to be as strange and unpredictable as Captain Jack’s adventure in the Arctic.

Seven years later, that story has been tranformed into a £4 million feature film, starring Bob Hoskins as the visionary captain; with Jack Rosenthal on the script; Anna Massie, Patrick Malahide and Maureen Lipman in support; and an official launch later this week at the Cannes Film Festival.

But more than that, that odd little story continues to pump out its message of hope. Which is the key to its success. The message sounds like a Hollywood cliche – all about an individual who dares to be different, to follow his dreams – but the cool, cold fact is that the story is real. You really don’t have to conform, to obey, to be grey in a grey world. You can defy all the finger-waggers and take a risk.

The story appeared, all over the front of Guardian Weekend, one Saturday morning, with an intro that was oddly prophetic: “The strange tale of Captain Jack and the Great Adventure is the sort of story that would once have been made into a film by Ealing Studios. It is full of very English characters – the boatload of unlikely rebels striking out for freedom, the country vicar who joins them, the village policeman who helps them, and the man from the ministry who pursues them with his big book of little rules – and underneath all the slapstick and sentiment, the film would simply have asserted what every romantic rebel knows, that there is a special kind of freedom in daring to be different….”

Within 48 hours, faxes and phone messages and letters started arriving at the Guardian from all corners of the country – from people who were desperate to translate Captain Jack’s adventure into celluloid. Some were complete amateurs who had been hit by a sudden bolt of inspiration. Others were from the top of the tree: Troy Kennedy Martin who cut his teeth on Z Cars and is now one of the handful of English writers who can generate serious Hollywood backing; a production company who offered Ian Holm as its star; and producer John Goldschmidt, who came hand in hand with Jack Rosenthal, who has won several handfuls of Baftas and Golden Globes for his scripts.

There was a prolonged bout of negotiation in the midst of which Jack Lammiman wrong-footed everyone and their agents by running off to sea again in the Helga Maria, telling all those who were interested to talk to his agent. An agent, Jack? Where did you get an agent? “Oh, he’s an estate agent,” he replied, and vanished over the horizon.

The man who emerged from this dog fight was freelance producer John Goldschmidt, whose effort to put together a deal was in itself an example – albeit commercialised – of the kind of half-mad devotion to a cause that marks Captain Jack. It took Goldschmidt five years of toil to tie up the loose ends and overcome the special difficulties of a film full of icebergs and polar bears. He finally found a partner in Granada Films, who could not fund the whole project, leaving Goldschmidt to woo a string of different financiers in different parts of the world until he persuaded the National Lottery and Baltic Media to join the adventure.

After such a long and painful birth, it was therefore almost unreal to arrive on a bright autumn day last year in the Yorkshire port of Whitby, where Jack Lammiman launched his adventure, to find the whole town converted into a film set.

Seventeen different hotels and pubs had been taken over by the crew. The Whitby Pavilion Theatre had become a helicopter base, the Quaker House was a production office and the council car park had been taken over by one wardrobe truck, one make-up truck, a dining bus and, in the midst of it all, the biggest, brashest mobile home in the known universe, the temporary hideaway of Bob Hoskins.

Hoskins was fed up, or as he put it ‘fucked’, because he had spent half the night learning lines for extra scenes in case the ones they wanted to shoot were wiped out by rain, but still he spent more than an hour explaining how much he had changed the character of Captain Jack – getting rid of his pipe and his clogs and his twinkling courtesy – only finally to disclose the bizarre extent to which he is himself a pea out of Captain Jack’s pod.

For a start, the two men turn out to have the same weird combination of characteristics, which amounts almost to a confusion of gender. At first sight, they are both strikingly virile – muscle-chested, big-fisted, spit-in-your-eye, no-nonsense-in-my-life men. And yet they turn out to have rejected the kind of emotional constipation that usually sits at the core of that kind of man. On the contrary, they are both open with their feelings to the point of femininity. In Hoskins’ case, it is something he is aware of and has deliberately developed.

“Drama is about private moments,” he said. “Men are not very good at showing private moments. When I got into acting, I started to watch women, watch the way they express themselves, their body language. There is something very brave about women which is extraordinary. They are not afraid to show their vulnerability.”

The fact that he developed his own theory of acting was itself the result of another link which he has with Jack Lammiman, a deep-seated defiance of any attempt to make them live someone else’s life. “When I first started, they told me to take elocution lessons – not talk like I am, not be like I am, not walk like I am. I said ‘Where’s me at the end of all this?’” So he refused and worked out his own way of doing it.

The more Hoskins talked, the more obvious it became that he has done this often. In fact, repeatedly, he has been rescued by the rebel in him.

Early on, his circumstances conspired to trap him. He was a working-class boy who hated school and who emerged from the classroom with little skill and even less ambition. He could easily have dropped straight into a low-paid rut, had he not given into a burst of defiance and started racing from one job to another – as a road-digger, a commercial artist, a porter at Covent Garden, and then a sailor with the Norwegian Army, a life that might have taken him around the world had he not jumped ship after a couple of weeks to fall in love with a stripper.

When the stripper fell away, the same pattern repeated itself. In search of an income, he signed up to spend three years as a trainee accountant. It was regular, reliable work with a solid future and a good pension. Which was always going to be a problem for a rebel.  “One Monday morning, I had a letter to say ‘You’re half way through your three years.’ I thought ‘I’m half way to being all the people I loathe’. So I jacked it in and hitched off to the Middle East for a while.”

He fell into acting with the kind of rebel’s luck that also touches Captain Jack. Just as Jack blew every penny he had on his adventure in the Artic only to survive because some story in the Guardian made him a hot property in Wardour Street, so, too, Bob Hoskins returned from the Middle East to work as a window cleaner only to find himself waiting for a friend who was auditioning for a play. Hoskins was asked to read, got the lead part, did well, was spotted by an agent in the audience and took off into a new life.

Outside on the Whitby harbour wall, the real Captain Jack was watching the film-makers rehearsing his life. He was only in Whitby for a while. Since the trip to the Arctic, he has kept wandering, looking for adventure, tangling with a hurricane while following Columbus’ trail, returning twice to the Arctic to visit the old haunts of William Scoreby, the Whitby whaler who has become his hero. Now he was looking for ‘interesting people’ to take with him on yet another trip north.

The moment that both he and Hoskins recalled from the filming was the Sunday morning when they tried to recreate Captain Jack’s return to Whitby from the Arctic adventure. The original Guardian story described how, in their absence, the journey by Jack and his crew had become big news in Yorkshire, how their defiance of all the attempts to catch them and bring them home had touched a nerve in the people they had left behind. Unknown to them, word of their imminent arrival had spread through the town: “Captain Jack sailed into Whitby harbour to a reception that beggared his imagination. Every fishing vessel in the harbour came out to greet him, honking their foghorns and blowing their whistles. All along the harbour’s edge and up over the bridge, there were people cheering and waving. Someone was waving the Skull and Cross Bones. Someone else had a banner – ‘Welcome home, Jack.’ It was as if all the children in the school were standing on their chairs and celebrating because the teacher had been turfed out of the classroom. It was all about freedom.”

On the Sunday morning last year when they filmed that scene, Hoskins and Lammiman were exaltant to see that they were joined not only by the local people who had volunteered to appear as extras but by hundreds of others who spontaneously came out of their houses and abandoned their routines to have one more taste of that moment, to try, if only for a moment, to release the rebel inside them.