Paul English

THIS time last year, the name on his driver’s license was plain John Tiffany. Twelve months on, the country’s leading theatre director might consider applying for a new one.

The Yorkshireman, who helped raise the National Theatre of Scotland to international significance with productions such as the acclaimed Black Watch before going on to direct Tony Award winning busker musical Once, and current west end smash Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was named in the Queen’s New Year honours list in December.

Six months earlier, he was being made a Doctor with an honorary bop on the head at the University of Glasgow, and hadn’t long picked up his Olivier Award for his Potter production.

Not a bad year for a lad from Huddersfield who first came to his second home of Glasgow to study biology; even if December’s surprise did force him to consider that working class conundrum: accept or decline?

“I never saw it coming. Obviously I’ve got issues with the word ‘empire’,” says the 46 year old, currently directing a groundbreaking take on Disney’s Pinocchio at London’s National Theatre. “I admit I maybe hesitated for a bit, but then I spoke to my mate Paul Flynn [journalist, author and fellow Yorkshireman] and he said I had to take it because people like us, who come from the places we do, don’t get offered these things. It’s really important.

“And in some ways I think it would have been a smack in the face to everyone who has supported, nurtured and encouraged me if I didn’t accept it.”

That, and, of course, who could refuse their mum a day at Buck House?

“I’ll probably give it to her to keep,” he says of his OBE, awarded for services to drama. “She’s got the other awards. I’m not one for keeping them in the toilet, because that’s one way to make sure that everyone sees them.”

Having cut his teeth as literary director at Edinburgh’s Traverse, Tiffany spent eight years as director in residence at the National Theatre of Scotland, part of a team which realised, then surpassed, the nascent organisation’s loftiest of ambitions.

Chief among those was his production of Black Watch, writer Greg Burke’s verbatim play about the lives of Scottish soldiers in Iraq and Fife, which exceeded all expectations, courting worldwide critical acclaim and a buzz which propelled it around the globe for seven years.

There has long been a sense of inevitability about Tiffany’s ascent to the Big Time. Over the years, I’ve put questions to him in Govan (for NTS’s newspaper play Enquirer), London (as Black Watch played to a Barbican audience including Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Hurt), Dublin (where he first staged his musical adaptation of Oscar-winning busking film Once, which won him a Tony) and New York, both when Black Watch was the hottest ticket on the Eastern Seaboard and again when he returned to Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse to stage NTS vampire tale Let The Right One In.

Each time, I probed about Hollywood calling, about the offers from Broadway, about working with the James Bond-producing Broccoli family on Once, about hanging out with Sir Sean Connery and Vogue editor Anna Wintour at New York glitterati aftershows.

Each time, he dodged the hook. Unlike Disney’s marionette, he was not pursuing fame.

And even now, with a sideboard in Yorkshire straining under the weight of multiple gongs, not to mention a life-changing cowriting credit with JK Rowling on their Potter play and having been invited to take his pick of Disney musicals by Disney themselves – the first theatre director to be given access to their golden era Pinocchio playlist – Tiffany’s aims are humble.

“I’m never going to stop making theatre, but I don’t think I’ll make it as much because I don’t need to,” he says.

“There are other things I want to do with my life. I want to sit by the sea in Yorkshire and eat Eccles cakes and spend time with my family. I’m more excited about doing the Royal Court Theatre upstairs than any commercial project that gets thrown at me. You can only do so many of these things. If you keep making them, they get worse. Look at U2.”

It was after opening Once on Broadway in 2012 that Tiffany received an invite to meet Disney’s Head of Theatricals, Thomas Schumaker.

“It was a bit like when I got the call for Harry Potter,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘Why would they think about me for this?’”

Was he overawed?

“No. I’m overawed when I bump into Julie Walters in the foyer, but nothing overawes me work wise,” he says. “I worked on new plays at the Traverse and did my best work in Scotland for years, so I never had ambitions for things like Disney. I couldn’t have been further away from all that. So I thought, okay, well…”

Tiffany and his team spent four years developing their idea for the story about the marionette who wants to be a real boy and the widowed man who wants a child, before getting the nod from Disney.

The result (with a cast featuring Glasgow actress Dawn Sievewright) is both awesome and intimate, a spellbinding tearjerker, retelling a fondly-remembered story with nods to Alpine folk tradition and a modern theatrical magic old Walt would likely have been moved by himself.

Pinocchio may, perhaps inevitably, go Stateside. But even with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opening at Broadway’s Lyric Theatre this spring, Tiffany is long past considering a trans-Atlantic transfer as a merit mark, especially post-Weinsten and mid-Trump.

In fact, he admits that world makes him feel “a bit grubby”. He says: “You don’t know where some of those investors come from, and it is so lucrative. Hamilton is making over $3m a week. They’re charging people $1000 to see Bette Midler and people are paying it. It’s outrageous.

“We’re doing the opposite with Potter. We’re actually reducing the capacity of the theatre. We’re rebuilding it.”

Talk turns to the climate of secrecy-shedding within the industry, and the director acknowledges talk of “a diseased community.”

He says: “We’ve enabled people to succeed in their systematic abuse of women and men sexually. There are more stories to come. And it’s not just those individuals. Bullying will be next, because that happens as well.

“I find what’s happening in America very difficult. Individually, Americans can be the best people in the world, but the nation has done something dreadful and we’re all paying for that,” he says.

“Trump is like an eater of worlds from an Avengers movie, but there seem to be different rules for him. What are Twitter doing, for example? He’s constantly breaking their rules, the sort of stuff other people get thrown off for.”

On home shores, with divorce from Europe looming, he fears for the consequences in the creative industries, citing the large number of European workers who come to Britain for jobs in theatre, film and television.

The climate of reduced arts funding and consequent rarefied access to the arts, and the erosion of school subjects like classical civilisation - which he eventually dropped biology to study at university - are also of concern.

“It’s getting horrible again. It’s only posh folk who can afford it. There are fewer and fewer opportunities,” he says, calling Michael Gove’s arts curriculum cull “absolutely criminal.”

“All these cuts really only affect poor people. The Kelvinbridge tractor brigade can pay for little Jasper’s music lessons. When I think about the free guitar lessons I had when I was a youngster, well, who knows what made me become a theatre director.”

Unsurprisingly, an invite to 10 Downing Street on the back of Potter was turned down. “I’m not paying lip service to that,” he says. “Theresa May’s doing a terrible job and she’s scared of her cabinet. Gove and Johnston are running rings around her.”

There’s an unapologetic political fire burning in the pit of this Yorkshireman, but he’s happier shouting from the outside, rather than pursuing a place on the benches. “There’s always that belief that the thing you do is political, but it isn’t. We tell tall stories, we take people out of themselves, and make them feel a little less lonely.”

Besides, there are other things to do. Like considering changing the name on that driving license to Doctor John Tiffany OBE, for one.

“That’ll be the only time you hear those words said,” he says, laughing. “I looked into putting ‘Doctor’ on my license. But the insurance premium is higher, so I don’t think I’ll bother.”

Pinocchio is at the National Theatre, London, until 10 April.

John Tiffany on:

Why he left National Theatre of Scotland:

“I had to leave Scotland because you should only stay in a job for a certain length of time. I was there eight years and I’d done all I could do.”

Waking up with Beyonce:

“I was flying back to Glasgow from New York the week she played T In The Park. She was next to me on the plane with her entourage. Everyone was very well behaved, but at the baggage carousel there were loads of drunken Glaswegians going, ‘oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh…’ I remember thinking, ‘I’m home.’”

Scottish politics:

“If it was down to Scotland, then we’d still be in Europe, and that makes me proud of Scotland. The SNP were really strong and exciting, but it feels like they’ve taken their foot off the gas a bit. I think we often forget about the middle class traditionalist Conservative suburban enclaves and just think about Red Clydeside and left wing politics, which isn’t the case in Scotland at all as the Tories have shown.”