Interview: Howard Webster, writer-director of Meet Pursuit Delange

Interview: Howard Webster, writer-director of Meet Pursuit Delange

Howard Webster knows all about failure. Now the Kew writer is turning it into film success with Meet Pursuit Delange, a musical comedy set entirely in his hometown. Sophie Farrah enters his wacky world

It’s rather early on a wet and gloomy winter morning, but when Howard Webster picks up the phone he sounds completely elated. 

“I literally just got the email about three seconds ago!” he exclaims. “We’ve just been accepted into the BAHAMAS International Film Festival!

Described as one of the 25 ‘coolest’ in the world, this particular film festival takes place in December on a tropical beach. So my phoning Howard at this precise moment is obviously fate. Serendipity. I’ll have my bags packed and be ready to go. 

Alas, it is not to be: Howard is taking his wife – and, to be honest, it sounds as if she deserves it more than I do. 

“Poor woman has had to put up with misery for two years while I make this movie,” laughs Howard. “When we moved to Kew she wanted a grown-up sitting room with no TV or computers – a room for a glass of wine and reading a book. Well, I’ve turned it into an editing suite and she hates me! But now I am taking her to The Bahamas…”

The film that has occasioned all this fuss is called Meet Pursuit Delange. Written and directed by Howard, it is a brand new independent British musical comedy, shot entirely on home ground in Kew. Lead character Pursuit is a 32-year-old struggling writer living in a rundown groundsman’s hut tacked onto the back of Kew Cricket Club, with two eccentric old school friends who have also hit hard times. United by their bleak future prospects, the three try to make a living via a series of chaotic schemes – with hilarious consequences. 

“It’s a uniquely English social comedy,” says Howard. “Most American movies are the hero falling in love with a girl, or the hero saving the world from an asteroid. In this film there are plot lines happening all over the place – it’s messy, just like real life.”

Ben Starr and Jason Flemyng on Kew Bridge. Credit: Film Factory Productions Ltd.

Pursuit took the Raindance Film Festival by storm this year, earning the tag of ‘breakthrough film of the festival’ and an extra screening due to popular demand. It was also selected for the recent Crystal Palace International Film Festival. Now The Bahamas beckons.

“It was originally a column that I wrote about me,” says Howard, explaining the genesis of his cinematic triumph. “Like a male Bridget Jones. Basically, everything had gone horribly wrong – I went from quite a glamorous lifestyle to absolute poverty within four years. I had to ring my father up and move back home. One day he walked in and said: ‘Right, I’ve had enough of this sitting around moaning and whining. I am going to golf and I want you to write a column and sell it by the time I get back.’ And that was it!” 

Howard’s semi-autobiographical column soon gathered a firm following online and was picked up by national magazines in both the UK and US.

“Columns at that time were all things like ‘how to be successful’, ‘how to get girls’, ‘how to do this and that’. The only thing I knew about was abject failure! So I wrote a column about failure being the last great English art form, with me under a pseudonym as the central character: Pursuit Delange.”

When not busy with the column, Howard worked as a journalist and photographer and also set up a trade magazine for the American film industry. For photoshoots he would sometimes use unknown, often struggling actors, providing them with valuable magazine coverage. In the long run, it was a policy that would pay handsome dividends…

Howard Webster (and Tim the Penguin)

Meanwhile, he eventually found the time to take the material from his column and start working on a script. Several years, one pilot episode and two children later, Meet Pursuit Delange had grown into an all-singing, all-dancing feature-length film. With funding secured it was good to go, but not before Howard had been forced into some fundamental changes to the script. 

“I now have two young twins and my wife has a big job in the city, so I’m the primary carer,” he explains. “The only way I could do the movie was to rewrite the whole thing so that I could shoot it all in Kew, within five minutes’ walk from my house!” 

Which is exactly what he did. Filming began in March 2014 and continued on and off until July this year. Kew Cricket Club served as the production’s main location, base, dressing rooms, kitchen, dining room, production office and storage space, as well as a studio for rehearsals and building sets. 

“Kew and the club became a character all of its own in the movie,” laughs Howard. “There are hundreds of locals in the film, everyone from the community centre! I mean, the whole thing is full of Kew people. Local support was really vital to getting the movie made.”

And it wasn’t just residents who piled in: the Royal Botanic Gardens also got behind the project, providing beautiful locations and allowing big song and dance numbers to be filmed within the famous grounds. 

Stephanie Leonidas, famous for her roles in MirrorMask and Defiance.

“We shot for three days in Kew Gardens. We had 12 dancers dressed up like air hostesses dancing across the Sackler Crossing, and then in 1930s flapper dresses in front of the Japanese Gateway. It was epic!”

With the locations secured and the local community and businesses on board, Howard turned his attention to casting. Despite the lack of an eye-watering Hollywood budget, he still managed to attract an exciting cast – an achievement he attributes to the strength of the script, aided by a touch of good karma. 

“A lot of actors in Pursuit Delange, who are now widely known, were people I had supported in the past (through his magazine). I’d helped them, so they came and helped me. They hadn’t forgotten. And it all just expanded from there. This movie was a labour of love for everyone.”

Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) and Robert Portal (The King’s SpeechMy Week With MarilynThe Iron Lady) play Pursuit’s unconventional old school friends. Colin Salmon (MI6 Deputy Chief of Staff in three recent Bond films), Hannah Waddingham, star of West End hits Spamalot and The Wizard of Oz, and Tom Chambers (Waterloo RoadFather Brown) also feature. Pursuit himself is played by recently graduated talent Ben Starr, now busy filming the upcoming BBC drama Dickensian

“He is going to be huge!” enthuses Howard. 

The film also marks the comeback of celebrated actor Peter Bowles, star of iconic TV comedy To The Manor Born

“We never thought we’d get him, but we sent him the script and he loved it.”

Musicals, of course, are as divisive as Marmite, but those who hate them should take heart: Meet Pursuit Delange is not a full-on musical, but a production with several musical ‘breaks’ that help to move the plot along. 

“The music is absolutely vital and brings a unique dimension to the film. It’s not a musical, but there are a few monster numbers in it! It’s all part of the narrative,” explains Howard, who engaged Grammy Award-winning musician Tim Garland as Music Director, working alongside British pop band Right Said Fred

Right Said Fred basically play angels. They are like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life. I teamed them up with Tim, who is an amazing songwriter and a really serious jazz musician. It was a bit like making chocolate curry: it shouldn’t work, but it really does!”

Finally, for the dance numbers, Jason Gardiner – controversial judge on ITV’s Dancing on Ice – came on board as choreographer. 

“Just wait until you see the Tom Chambers dance scene. After all, he won Strictly Come Dancing!” exclaims Howard. “My dad’s in it too – I had him perform on Kew Green as a backing dancer for Right Said Fred, which was very funny. I mean, my dad is 80!”

Howard’s passion for the film is totally infectious.

“There’s total joy in the randomness of it,” he enthuses; “even in how it was made. Joy in the smallest of things. I didn’t want to do a movie by numbers.”

Howard’s life may have had its ups and downs, but right now things are really looking up. Yet he remains philosophical. 

“Failing made me a lot kinder; more sympathetic and thoughtful,” he reflects. “I think I’m a better person for having colossally failed. The film is about what happens to you when your dreams haven’t come true; what defines your life. It is a film about hope. 

“And the good news is that people seem to think it’s funny!” 

For more information, visit the Meet Pursuit Delange website

Follow the film’s progress on Twitter at @pursuitdelange


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