We’re standing outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in the pouring rain. Real rain, plus torrents of water from a rain machine because you can’t rely on nature. Queues of tourists, waiting to get into the building, stare at the lights and cameras. We’re filming the my chemical romance teenager meaning beginning of the story: the fateful day when the Frank family, fleeing the Nazis, arrive in the pouring rain at Mr Frank’s office.
It’s upstairs, in secret rooms at the back of the building, that the Franks disappeared into hiding for two years, in the company of another family, the van Daans, and a middle-aged dentist. During this period, Anne wrote a diary, never to know that it would become one of the best-loved books of all time, for in July 1944 the eight of them were betrayed, discovered and sent to the concentration camps. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived. Adapting Anne’s diary, and watching it being filmed, has been a fairly emotional experience. There have already been several TV versions and a movie but most have used biographies rather than Anne’s actual words. Thanks to the prestige of the BBC, and Darlow Smithson, the rights are finally granted. I’m hired to adapt the diary into five half-hour episodes, to run nightly for a week.
Anne was just a normal adolescent, like them, who happened to live in extraordinary and terrible times. With her, we’ll live through the quarrels with her parents, the privations, the tensions, the sudden bursts of high spirits. We’ll start with her 13th birthday party, when she was given the diary, and end when it abruptly ends, when she is just 15. Like many people, I read the diary when I was young.
Now, on rereading it, I’m struck by how contemporary Anne is – stroppy, obsessed with boys, with her looks, beady and rebellious, highly critical of her mother. In other words, a thoroughly modern teenager. In past adaptations, she has been somewhat sanctified – a bit cheeky and talkative maybe, but also over-sweet. I want to be true to the real girl. During those two years, cramped into that tiny space, Anne grew and changed profoundly. She deepened in spirit, she discovered herself as a writer, she pondered good and evil and questioned the very meaning of being human.
What do the eight of them do? They peel potatoes, they squabble, the lavatory gets blocked, they read the paper, they peel more potatoes, they have a joke. The real drama, of course, thrums beneath the surface. Not surprisingly, the relationships between them all were complex and volatile. Because it’s a diary, we see them only through Anne’s eyes. I want to hint at another story between the grown-ups – a story Anne doesn’t notice.