Chris Titley talks to the writer behind York movie The Knife That Killed Me about his shock at the stabbing of his former teacher
When writer Anthony McGowan wrote The Knife That Killed Me, a novel about a teenager fatally stabbing another student, it was inspired by his experiences as a pupil at Corpus Christi School in Leeds.
Published in 2008, the book has now been turned into an innovative and thought-provoking film by a York production team.
On Monday night (May 19) the movie was shown to a selected audience to promote a Kickstarter funding campaign.
But only weeks earlier Corpus Christi School hit the headlines for the worst possible reason.
It was here that a 15-year-old student stabbed to death teacher Ann Maguire in front of horrified classmates on April 28 – the first time a teacher had been killed by a pupil inside a British school.
Mrs Maguire had worked at the school for 40 years – and Anthony was one of those she taught.
“It was very, very strange for me because it was 38 years ago when I knew Mrs Maguire – she was Miss Connor when I was in her form,” said the writer, over a coffee in the York Theatre Royal café.
“So there’s a lot of space there.
“But in a way I’ve never really left Corpus: my head’s always been in there. Basically all of my books are set in a version of Corpus Christi.
“There’s both this immediacy, of still being there in my imagination, yet the distance.”
In the York sunshine, it is hard to credit the brutality of what happened in his old school just weeks earlier.
“The horror for her family and friends, I can’t even imagine. I was just her pupil 38 years ago.
“But it was a huge shock – because it’s never happened before, a teacher being killed in a classroom. That’s something we all share, that’s not unique to me.
“But then that weirdness for me – in my mind, I’m still in Miss Connor’s class as a 12 year old. And she’s a rather attractive 24-year-old young teacher – barely older than us, it felt like.”
State schools today ‘much better’
The writer points out that there are “subtle differences” between his novel and the real life horror.
“What I was writing about, and also remembering, was violence between the kids, which is what the film’s about too. The teachers were always apart from that.
“Whereas this was clearly a case of one kid attacking a teacher.
“Also the violence I remember was a daily occurrence, which was part of the fabric of your life – that tension and excitement of each day having the chance of getting your head kicked in.”
He also draws a contrast between his schooldays and those experienced by children today.
“If you go into a state school now, it can seem like a pretty hectic place, a bit chaotic. Compared to a comprehensive in the Seventies, they would seem like havens of calm,” Anthony said.
“I think state education has got much better in many ways.
“And all the figures show that violent crime is going down rather than going up. There was a spike in knife crime back in that period 2005-8.”
But the dangers are still there. That is why, he says, “the knife is crucial” in the film version of The Knife That Killed Me.
“That’s the other big difference between when we were at school and now. It’s basically impossible for one teenager to beat another to death.
“But it’s incredibly easy for one teenager to stab another to death.
“Nearly all the cases I looked at, they were semi-accidental. It wasn’t some hard kid going out to knife someone, it was someone going ‘Get away!’ and thrusting a knife forward.”
A knife wound to the torso, he points out, is almost as deadly as a bullet wound.
Would tougher penalties for knife crime make a difference?
“That certainly wouldn’t have helped in the situation with Mrs Maguire. It wasn’t one of the hard kids who needed more discipline – it was some poor disturbed kid by the sound of it.”
It’s really hard to know how to deal with it, Anthony says.
“I’m not a big advocate of greater penalties for knife offences. It’s too complicated a causal change for any one simple intervention to make a big difference.”
Anthony would love to assert that The Knife That Killed Me, a novel acclaimed by the critics and shortlisted for teenage fiction awards, changed the attitudes of those youngsters who carry knives.
“But the truth is that most kids who read books, including my books, aren’t the kind of kids who are going to go around stabbing people – on the whole.”
However, he has spoken to teenagers in tough schools who read the novel and, as a writer, “you hope you touch other people’s lives, you touch kids’ lives who otherwise might get into trouble”.
When Anthony was approached by York filmmakers Marcus Romer and Kit Monkman about turning The Knife That Killed Me into a movie, he was delighted.
But he was told by other writers not to get his hopes up. They knew from bitter experience that the initial excitement of a film deal often turned into dismay as the adaptation is hit by delays and artistic differences.
“For me I had that initial joy and delight of the interest from Marcus, Kit and the others – but then there was no subsequent disillusionment!” Anthony revealed.
“At every stage I thought, this is brilliant.
“Then when I finally saw the film, I was just amazed – it was accurate to the book where it needed to be accurate. And where it diverted you could see it made it better.”
A key relationship has been changed in the movie version.
“In the original book, Paul’s mother is present, but kind of weirdly absent. She drifts around without really impacting on the action.
“So Marcus made the decision to kill her off. And then you had a whole extra element of Paul leaving messages on her answerphone – that interaction with the ghost of his mother, which I think is hugely moving.”
- Coming soon: the directors of The Knife That Killed Me talk about how they plan to reach new audiences with the movie
- Go here to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign to fund a multiplatform launch of The Knife That Killed Me
- See also York movie premiere kick starts crowd funding campaign