David Nicholls' debut Starter for Ten becomes stage musical

March 12, 2024 8:57 am

[Source: BBC Entertainment]

Following the mammoth success of Netflix’s One Day, author David Nicholls’ debut novel Starter For Ten has now also been adapted – but in a very different way.

One month after One Day arrived on Netflix, Nicholls still seems somewhat stupefied by the reaction.

“It’s been really… head-turning,” he says, uncharacteristically searching for suitable words.

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“I mean, I’m still in a bit of a daze. It’s been a month now. It’s taken us all by surprise.”

The writer’s bittersweet love story was already a success story, having sold six million copies since being published in 2009, and being turned into a Hollywood film.

But the Netflix series, an instant hit with both viewers and critics, took things to another level.

“The fact that people have watched to the end and then gone back to the beginning and watched again, all of that has been profoundly exciting,” the author says.

“I’m very happy and grateful to all the people who have then turned to the book as well.”

In Nicholls’ storytelling universe, One Day couldn’t exactly be described as a sequel to his 2003 novel Starter For Ten, but there are some inescapable connections.

Starter For Ten starts when Brian Jackson goes to university in 1985. He would leave in 1988 – the year Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew also graduate in the opening of One Day.

There is “definitely a continuity”, the author says. And there are similarities between English students Emma and Brian. Maybe they crossed paths.

“Emma Morley from One Day and Brian would probably have had a tentative friendship,” he says. “She would slightly roll her eyes at him, but they would have things in common.”

Now, Brian is the star of his own show, in a new theatre adaptation of Starter For Ten.

Whereas Netflix stayed pretty faithful to the charming romantic drama of One Day, the Starter For Ten stage show takes a different tack.

It is a musical that ramps up the comic energy and 80s kitsch. But it works.

“It’s fantastic that it’s been turned into another form,” says Nicholls, speaking at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre, where it is receiving its premiere. “It’s been a real surprise to me.”

In the Telegraph, theatre critic Dominic Cavendish’s four-star review described it as “a feel-good Brit hit that’s surely bound for the West End”.

In a three-star review, The Stage’s Rosemary Waugh said the show “has the energy levels of a freshers’ foam party and the cuteness of a first-term romance” – but “doesn’t fulfil its promise”.

Starter For Ten follows Brian as he tries to fulfil his lifelong dream of appearing on TV quiz show University Challenge, while also facing challenges in love, friendships and family.

In 2006, the book was adapted as a film starring James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Corden and Catherine Tate.

The new musical’s cast includes Mel Giedroyc, who is brilliant as both Brian’s mum and the stern Margaret Thatcher-inspired University Challenge producer with a scene-stealing rock solo.

Co-writer Emma Hall says she and fellow writer and director Charlie Parham both read the book at university, and “it so epitomised the student experience”.

“It just appealed to us in all of its hilarious, giddy, unvarnished glory.”

The story is “like a classic sports narrative”, she explains. “Except the sport is quizzing, and the goal is University Challenge. That is the World Cup of trivia.

“And along the way, it’s all about growing up and falling in love with the wrong people and making mistakes.”

Coming up with songs to fit a coming-of-age story is one thing, but having to fit fiendish quiz questions into the lyrics was its own stern test.

“There is nothing quite like trying to make a University Challenge question into a lyric,” Hall laughs.

“I can tell you, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but incredibly satisfying once you get the knack.”

The location of the university was never specified in the original Starter For Ten book, but the film and now the stage show place it in Bristol, where Nicholls himself studied drama and English.

The author says the story is not directly autobiographical – but is “very much about my memories of being that age”.

“I was never involved in University Challenge. I don’t think anyone would have dreamed of going on University Challenge in my drama department. It would have been very uncool.

“But that feeling of being at a place and not quite sure what circle of friends to move in, and not being quite sure how to express yourself, and making all kinds of terrible mistakes – all of that is very personal and real.

“Certainly Bristol was a very happy time despite all the errors of judgement on the way.”

Like Brian and Emma, Nicholls graduated in 1988. However, he may never have gone to university if he had faced today’s levels of student debt, he says – and nor would some of his characters.

“Emma wouldn’t have gone, I wouldn’t have gone, Brian wouldn’t have gone. They’d have all been too anxious and frightened of £60,000 worth of debt. It would have been overwhelming.”

The author set up the Nicholls Arts Bursary to help support two undergraduates who want to take a theatre studies course at Bristol.

“I worry about it a lot,” he adds. “I worry that people are getting priced out of studying the arts and humanities in all kinds of ways, not just in theatre, and that is becoming something that only wealthy people can do.

“Naturally, people from lower incomes tend to be more risk averse, and that has had an effect on the whole of our arts scene, and I think that’s a terrible shame.

“If arts and humanities subjects – subjects which are less obviously vocational – aren’t open to everyone, then we all lose out.”

New book
Nicholls is now preparing to publish his next novel, You Are Here, in April.

“I’m really proud of it. It’s another love story,” he explains. “It’s about two people who find themselves alone in middle age, on a long walk across the English countryside.

“It’s about conversation, it’s about two people getting to know each other and becoming friends and possibly more.”

While One Day “has this it’s sort of epic sprawl” over 20 years, You Are Here takes place over just 10 days. “I love them both, and they do share certain themes.”

You Are Here is his sixth novel, and they all share certain themes.

“The six books all together are this sort of epic about being in love from the age of 16 to the age of 58, which is my age now.

“If you staple them all together, they do tell a similar story, I guess. A comprehensive, cohesive story.

“I don’t know what’s going to come next. I have to find another aspect of being in love to write about.”

And with the streaming and stage spin-offs, the David Nicholls storytelling universe is continuing to grow.

Starter For Ten is at Bristol Old Vic until 30 March.