Playwright, novelist and award-winning screenwriter Stephen Davis, who has more than thirty sole credits on productions both in the UK and USA, was in Dhaka recently, as a follow-up to signing up for the Cosmos Foundation’s film project on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Stephen has won an International Emmy Award for his work on the BBC’s hit primetime detective series ’Waking the Dead’, which I remember as probably the most acclaimed television show in Britain during my time there in the Noughties. He will be writing the screenplay for the Bangabandhu film, which is expected to be the first film on Bangladesh’s founder that caters to an international audience.
During his stay, Stephen tried to get out and about as much as possible to get a feel for Bangladesh, a country he knew very little of before taking up the project. I had the pleasure one day of accompanying him on a walkabout around Dhaka University, and the Kamalapur Railway Station. Not before we finished watching England complete a quite comfortable victory over Argentina in the Rugby World Cup group fixture in his hotel room though.
Stephen’s film credits included, intriguingly for me, the 1992 film Ruby, about Jack Ruby, the Dallas, Texas nightclub owner who shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement garage of a Dallas city police station in 1963. Oswald of course, just two days earlier, on November 22nd, had taken part in the most infamous murder of the 20th century: the assassination of John. F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States.
According to a review in the LA Times archive, the film, scripted by Stephen from his own play “Love Field” and directed by John Mackenzie, seeks to discount the “official” explanation of Ruby’s shooting of Oswald as the act of an enraged patriot. It also doesn’t lend credence to the belief of many conspiracy theorists that Ruby was ordered to silence Oswald.
Ruby was released in America 3 months after Oliver Stone’s more-famous JFK, which fed a generation of conspiracy theorists with its exploration of the alternative scenarios as to how JFK was killed, or who was behind it. According to the LA Times of March 27, 1992, JFK was ‘a hot topic’ all of a sudden in those days. Except the topic in ‘Ruby’ was not JFK - it was Jack Ruby. And I was dying to find out from Stephen what was it about “the outsider’s outsider” Ruby, real name Jack Rubinstein, that drew him to write the story with him at the centre.
“It started when I was in a very interesting library, and found on a shelf eleven volumes covered in dust of the Warren Commission Report. I was probably the first person to open it in this library. So I ended up reading it, all this detailed analysis (the Warren Commission was established to investigate the assassination of JFK), and in the middle of it, I find an interview with Jack Ruby,” Stephen relays. It’s the start of a fascinating foray into the genesis of the film Ruby, that also lends some insight into how the mind of a dramatist works.
“So in the written transcript of the interview, Ruby is quoted verbatim, speaking from his prison cell in Dallas. And I hear his voice in my head, this human voice that leaps out from amongst all this reportage, and he is very frightened. There was one line, though I can’t remember the exact quote, but he said something to the effect, that ‘this hasn’t all come out above-board’. And he was pleading with his FBI interrogator to take him away from Texas so he could talk - otherwise he was afraid of getting killed. It made you wonder about what he was holding back, what more he knew.
“Afterwards, it made me think, that here was a man who might’ve been a part of something that he witnessed, but he never understood. That for me was very important. What I heard in his voice (reading the Warren Commission Report) was someone who had been caught up in an event where he even played a role, but the totality of it eluded him. And what I write about is exactly that situation
“My interest in the world is trying to write about the relationship between the very big thing, and the very individual thing” at which Stephen pauses.
“Is it an attempt to breach the most human element of a story?” I venture.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Stephen affirms. “I’m not interested in conspiracy theories, that’s not the point. The question for me, when I tackle history and politics, is this: are we all part of a functioning, honest democracy? I want to arrive at the human dimension to that. And part of doing that is to be never going around claiming I’ve got the answer to any conspiracies.”
As for Stephen’s thoughts on who did kill JFK, he believes it was the mafia, and that there was more than one shooter. “It’s very frustrating though when anybody starts claiming they know the truth. The truth is there’s been no proof of anything.”
There was of course much discussion on Bangabandhu and his legacy as we went around the DU campus. Everything related to the film project though, must stay under wraps for the moment. During his stay, Stephen also got to spend time with the likes of Tofail Ahmed, in order to try and glean the essence of the man he must now help portray for a contemporary audience. For one who prizes the human element, that surely is of paramount importance.
The C.V. - Stephen Davis
Born in London, Stephen studied English Literature at the University of Cambridge, and after a start in the television industry at Granada Television, had his first plays produced by the BBC.
He was appointed Writer in Residence at the University of Sheffield after which he began his freelance writing career. He has written for radio, television, theatre and cinema in the UK and the USA.
Among his many credits is NOSENKO, starring Tommy Lee Jones, the first co-production between the US’s Home Box Office and the UK’s BBC Television, the first drama about the Vietnam War, the feature film RUBY which originated in his theatre play LOVE FIELD, the first drama of the modern era to revisit the Kennedy assassination.
His theatre play THE LAST ELEPHANT marked the London debut of Alan Rickman, for whom he went on to write the drama BUSTED for BBC Television.
His work for the BBC TV series WAKING THE DEAD was first nominated for and the following year was awarded an International Emmy Award in the USA.
Other awards include the EuroPAWS Award for Innovation in TV Drama Fiction.
Outside his film and television career, Stephen has devoted himself to historic building conservation, serving on leading conservation bodies, and chairing HRH The Prince of Wales’s Craft Skills Apprentices Scheme for The Prince’s Foundation.
Stephen is married and has two grown children. He and his wife live in a converted historic barn in the East of England, where he’s built a workshop for making furniture.
He holds the degrees of Master of Arts from Cambridge University, Master of Philosophy with Distinction from Sheffield University and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.