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Jonathan Butterell "It's a love letter to Sheffield": The big screen adaptation of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Spinning off the wildly successful stage version of the coming-of-age story, Jamie comes to the big screen this month courtesy of Warp Films. The Sheffield-born director and choreographer told us more.

Jonathan Butterell is bringing his home town of Sheffield to the big screen with his directorial debut, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, the latest successful musical to make the leap from stage to cinema.

The story follows Jamie New, a teenager from Parsons Cross in the north of the city who wants to be a drag queen. With the support of his mum and his friends, Jamie must defy prejudice and the expectations of his community and stay true to himself, in a truly heart-warming story inspired by real-life events.

“The initial spark came from me watching a documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 about seven years ago,” Butterell tells me over Zoom. “A piece of theatre or a film didn’t exist at that moment in time, so it was kind of built from that inspiration upwards.”

Inspired by Jamie Campbell’s story, Butterell worked with Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells to write the book and songs for its stage retelling, which focused on the invented character of Jamie New. Opening at the Crucible Theatre in 2017, the wildly popular show has since embarked on a UK tour and moved to the Apollo Theatre in the West End.

“Dan, Tom and I didn’t want to tell a victim story or a ‘coming out’ story… We were very clear that we felt those stories have been told and they’ve been told beautifully well – but we wanted to tell a different story,” says the director, who has previously worked as a film choreographer on Marc Forster’s Stay and Finding Neverland.

Sheffield’s Warp Films, the company behind iconic coming-of-age hits like Shane Meadows’ This Is England and Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, saw the Crucible production of Jamie and agreed to produce the film.

“I love Warp’s films, and, very strangely, their office is in Park Hill Flats... I was born in Park Hill Flats, so it was really like coming home.”

Sarah Lancashire shines in the pivotal role of Margaret New, Jamie’s supportive mum, and Richard E Grant stars as Hugo, a former drag queen called Loco Chanelle who books Jamie’s first drag show at the local nightclub. Max Harwood and Lauren Patel make their professional film debuts as Jamie New and Pritti Pasha.

“Our second day of filming was really Max and Richard together in Hugo’s shop, and life was reflecting the film: you’ve got the experienced Hugo with the beautifully naive Jamie in that scene, and you’ve got Richard E Grant doing exactly the same with the young Max Harwood and looking after him as an actor, so actually it was just beautiful to watch.”

Max and Richard duet on the song ‘This is Me’, written especially for the film, which explores the struggles faced by LGBTQ+ people before the reversal of Section 28, a law passed in 1988 by the Conservative government that stopped councils and schools "promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship."

“It’s what I would call my generation saying to Jamie’s generation: this is what we did back in the day. There were laws that banned the promotion of homosexuality, there was the AIDS epidemic, there was HIV. This is what we had to overcome.

“[Hugo is saying to Jamie], you’re having to overcome things now, and we had to overcome things then, and they were massive. Hugo teaches Jamie this because some part of Jamie doesn’t know all of it, so there’s this passing on of knowledge. And that’s new to our film.”

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But the real star, in the background of it all, is the city of Sheffield itself.

“It’s why I did it,” Jonathan tells me, “It’s a beautiful city, and it’s a diverse city. As we all know, it’s a City of Sanctuary, it brings and holds people and looks after people, and I just wanted to celebrate that and particularly the community that Jamie finds himself in.

“Even in Sheffield, Parson Cross estate doesn’t have its representation… I moved up to that side of the city, my aunty Joan lived in Parson Cross. It’s a working-class community and one that I knew very well.”

Shot on location in Sheffield, you’ll be able to spot little nods to the city woven throughout the film. “Even his school uniform, for me, is Chaucer,” Butterell says, referring to Jamie’s bold blue blazer. Parson Cross residents also managed to get in on the action.

“We have this moment at the end of the film, where Jamie comes down a street in Parson Cross, Deerlands Avenue, with thousands of people celebrating him, and they’re people from those houses, from that community, all dressed up in their wigs and their glitter and their bowers. It’s a complete celebration of Sheffield.”

Incidentally, I worked as an extra on the film in a scene shot at Abbeydale Picture House. Janey Levick, the set designer, had transformed the historical cinema into Jamie’s dream 16th birthday party, a queer club extravaganza busy with drag queens and dancers in neon cubes. If you slow down the trailer and squint, you might be able to see me in the background, sporting dungarees and six-inch platforms.

“It was breathtaking, that room,” says Jonathan, remembering that hot day in September 2019.

“I worked with Janey for months and months and months about creating the two worlds: Jamie’s real world in Parson Cross, which is as real as real could be, and Jamie’s fantasy world, which was to be as fabulous as it could possibly be.”

These two worlds collide when Jamie begins experimenting with drag and his mum buys him his first pair of high heels.

“Drag is the vehicle in which Jamie finds self-expression, but what he ultimately finds is a way of being himself.

“The film isn’t really about Jamie wanting to be a drag queen – hopefully he goes on to be a successful drag queen – but it’s really about Jamie coming to a complete understanding of who he is as a 16-year-old man.

“There’s another version of this where Jamie wants to be a drag queen and somebody spots him and suddenly, he’s in LA and he’s the biggest drag queen ever,” says Jonathan, “But our story is about the smallness and the uniqueness of it, and the universality of it.”

It’s that simplicity behind the musical spectacle that the director says he’s confident will resonate with audiences when the film hits screens on 17 September.

“At the end of the film, Jamie puts the bins out on a Monday morning in all his gloriousness. He’s still at home – and yeah, who knows, in the future he may leave, as we all do – but the film is a celebration of being at home and finding a safe community at home in which you can be yourself.

“I’d like to think everybody has a Jamie inside them that goes, ‘I want to find my place in the world. I want to find it and be fabulous and safe.’ I would hope everybody wants that.”

Learn more

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie launches on 17 September on Amazon Prime.

There will be a series of free screenings in community venues in Sheffield courtesy of Cinema For All and Sheffield City Council, as well as Jamie themed parties and a display of props and costumes in the Winter Garden.

Follow @VisitSheffield on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for announcements.

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