Everybody’s Talking About Jamie true story: real inspiration for movie musical

Jamie Campbell – who the film's title character is inspired by – chats to RadioTimes.com about the true story.

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This week, the film adaptation of hit stage musical Everybody’s Talking About Jamie debuts on Amazon Prime Video – with newcomer Max Harwood delivering a terrific performance in the title role.

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The stage show version has been a huge word-of-mouth hit ever since transferring to the West End from the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield in 2017, but the full story of Jamie’s journey to the big screen doesn’t begin with the musical, but with a documentary.

In 2011, BBC Three aired a programme titled Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, which followed the true story of Jamie Campbell, a teenager who dreamed of becoming a drag queen and was determined to attend his school prom in drag, despite some opposition from peers and teachers.

It was this documentary that inspired writer Tom MacRae and songwriter Dan Gillespie Sells to create the stage show, and although some changes were made in adapting the real-life story – including basing it in Sheffield rather than County Durham – the new film version retains several key similarities to Jamie Campbell’s story.

Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Campbell explained that while he wasn’t creatively involved with the film, he regularly visited the set – even making a small cameo appearance while holding the door open for Jamie. And he added that despite some differences, the film is fairly accurate to his own experiences.

“There’s a lot that actually did happen but it’s not a direct retelling of my story, it’s more inspired by it,” he said.

“There’s a lot of me in there and a lot of Jonathan [Butterell, director], Dan [Gillespie Sells] and Tom [MacRae]. There’s a lot of Max [Harwood] in there too and a lot of John [McCrea], who was the original Jamie on stage. I think that’s why it’s such a universal character, especially with gay people because we can see ourselves in him. So even the stuff that’s made up rings true.”

Asked what aspects of the film were made up, he responded: “I never said to my mum ‘No wonder Dad left you’. It’s really hard to see that scene because I would never, ever say anything like that to my mum. Although we do fight, I’d never be that harsh. But I get that it’s a drama and you need to add things for dramatic effect.”

He also says that the dress Jamie wears to prom in the film is rather more glamorous than the one he opted for himself – explaining that he made a last-minute change to his outfit in real life.

“I was in a black, lacy, see-through number. I was going to wear something big, pink and ridiculous, then last-minute I was like ‘Scale it back a bit. You’re already going in drag. You don’t want it to be all bells and whistles’. That black dress was me being subtle.”

Jamie’s own story isn’t the only way in which the film reflects real life, either. A new number brought in specifically for the film sees Jamie’s mentor Hugo (Richard E. Grant) reflect on his life as a drag queen in the ’80s – including scenes portraying both the AIDS crisis and Section 28 protests – and Campbell believes that including a nod to LGBTQ+ history like this was vital.

“That’s really important to me because there’s so much people have gone through in the past,” he said. “There’s a bit where Jamie says: ‘I can’t do this. People actually died. I just want to dress up, be a little bit famous, and have some fun. Drag’s so much more than that.’

“And Pritti says: ‘What do you think they died for? They died for the new generation so you need to carry the torch and pass it on.’ That’s what I feel like I’m doing now. I owe so much to the people who have gone before us and the people who unfortunately are not here. I will always be thankful to my gay ancestors for fighting for me to be able to do this. Even for me to be able to go to the prom in a dress, let alone have this film come out.”

When it came to portraying Jamie, star Max Harwood made sure to speak to Campbell on a handful of occasions while preparing to take on the role – but he said the purpose of these conversations was to look for inspiration and insight rather than direct advice.

“Do you know what he didn’t give me any advice,” Harwood explained. “It was more like, getting to know him and observe him.

“I didn’t want to put that pressure on him to have to tell me the ways of the world, but also as I got to know him he became open and I’m so grateful that he was on board with this process, so I could deepen the role and you know, show that queer people on screen can be 360 and complex, like we exist in life. So it was just really great.”

And for his part, Campbell was delighted with the portrayal. “He’s absolutely incredible,” he said of Harwood’s performance. “We met up a few times and he asked lots of questions, and he said he wanted to be honest and accurate in his portrayal while still doing his own thing with the character.

“Considering he’s not really had a big professional job before he’s handled it so well and he’s such a superstar!”

Jamie Campbell interview by Simon Button.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 17th September. While you’re waiting, check out our TV Guide to see what’s on, or check out our Movies hub for all the latest news and features.