“The Avengers” writer on directing for TV and film and un-made vampire films

Prolific TV & film writer Brian Clemens

Recently, I have posted a couple of blogs comprising parts of an interview I did with writer Brian Clemens in 1979. It was published in issues 29 and 30 of Starburst magazine.

In Part One, he talked about his background and the early Avengers TV  series. In Part Two, he talked about the style of The Avengers and about internationalising shows. This is Part Three of that interview…

***

Although Brian Clemens claims to have lived a bland life, it has been pretty tough. For ten years he was married to an ex-model called Brenda; they divorced in 1966. Then Diane Enright, Diana Rigg’s stand-in for the 1965-1967 Avengers series, was with Clemens for ten years. But, in 1976, she committed suicide. There was also a particularly acrimonious and very expensive court case in 1975 when Clemens accused writer Terry Nation of copying his idea for the Survivors TV series.

Clemens claimed he had registered the series format with the Writers’ Guild in 1965 and asked the High Court “to rule that the ideas were his property and told in confidence to Mr Nation between 1967 and 1969”. Nation and the BBC defended the case. To this day, both Clemens and Nation believe they were the innocent party and are reticent on the subject – neither will talk about the case except off-the-record.

One thing Clemens will talk about, though, is the astonishing fact that he seldom pre-researches any facts for his highly-detailed plots:

“I don’t really believe in research,” he says. “Usually I do the plot and then go back and research it. And it’s strange, really, because I’m usually 99% right. It’s curious that a layman’s knowledge is usually enough. After all, though, if you’re writing something about science, it’s got to ultimately appeal to a layman, so it works like that.

“I did a fringe theatre play about the Moors Murders which had a certain amount of success at the King’s Head and the Rock Garden (two London fringe theatres). And, as a result of the publicity, I met the Chief Constable of Lancashire who was in charge of the case. There were certain things I’d put in the play which were not in the public domain at all – I’d invented them – and it turned out they were absolutely true. That was only interpreting the known facts, really, from a dramatic point of view.”

Clemens directed the play but what he would really like is to direct another film.

“I could have done The New Avengers or The Professionals on TV or something,” he says. “But that’s not really… I’m not diminishing it… But I think you’ve got to be a really experienced director  to put anything on screen in ten days that means something. Having only directed one film (Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, 1972) I’d probably direct a very bad Avengers under those circumstances. You need plenty of preparation time.”

A few years ago, Clemens was quoted as saying that TV directors don’t have a visual imagination, so he was starting to write visual directions into his scripts. But this is not a true reflection of his views. His point is much more subtle:

“I don’t think they’re idiots,” he says. “I think the system’s idiotic. Within (video) tape TV, they never get a chance to develop a visual sense. (Director) Desmond Davis told me that the difference between tape and film is that, with tape, you have to place the camera always just not quite where you want it to be, This is because a taped show is shot ‘live’ with three or four cameras which can get in each other’s way; film is shot with a single camera and each angle is shot separately”.

Clemens also believes “the machinery behind tape means that a director is always subjugated to the system and so never gets a chance to develop his own style. Filmed series like The Sweeney and The Professionals have probably liberated new directors more, in a few weeks, than they ever got in years in tape. You see, I believe that there is ultimately only one place a camera should be in viz a viz a certain scene or emotion.

“You just have to watch any Hitchcock movie to find that out. (Director) John Ford never zoomed in his whole career – a cut from wide to close-up is so much more incisive and more controllable too – and he rarely panned either. He just composed wonderful shots, played scenes within the shot, then cut to the next bit.”

Another factor which limits creativity on material shot exclusively for television is, according to Clemens, the internal restriction imposed by unrealistic time-schedules. He gives as an example any episode of his Thriller series (made by ATV).

The title sequence of Brian Clemens’ Thriller series on ITV

Each Thriller, he says, is made up of plot and atmosphere and, like a good joke, depends very much on exact timing:

“All the Thrillers I did I could improve 50% with an extra day and a half of editing. You see, you’re taken over by the system, where you edit from A-Z. As the time runs out, the last reel – which is the most important – is the one you’re doing quickly. And over that 3-day edit, you might have three film editors. Now that’s rather like having Van Gogh and his brother and sister paint a portrait and I don’t understand that.

“It offends me, because it means that what they’re putting on screen they don’t really give a shit about. If they really did, they’d say We can’t have three editors! It’s got to be one man. I mean, that’s traditional in all the media: you don’t change the director or the star of a stage play halfway through. It’s exactly the same. Getting back to the thing I said about television directors… There are some film directors… Lean, Ford, Kurosawa… if I see a shot of their work I can tell it’s theirs. You can’t say that about many television directors. If any.”

Clemens was involved in scripting major movies early in his career, such as Station Six Sahara (1964) and The Peking Medallion (1964 aka The Corrupt Ones) but it was not until after And Soon The Darkness (1970), which he also produced, that he decided he really wanted to be a director himself.

“My business partner (Albert Fennell) said You should have directed it and suddenly I thought Yeah, perhaps I should have done. I knew I could have directed it better. Then I wrote and produced a film for Hammer – Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) – and, in the meantime, we wrote an original screenplay called Buff where Bryan Forbes (then Head of Production at ABPC) agreed I would direct. Then he was thrown out, so I was left with the script and that became Blind Terror (1971 aka See No Evil) with Mia Farrow, which Dick Fleischer directed.”

Clemens got his chance to direct when Hammer accepted his storyline for Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1972), now a cult film.

Captain Kronos reflected Brian Clemens’ desire to direct

“The name Kronos is Greek for Time,” says Clemens, “and I thought that, if the idea took off, I’d be able to move him through the centuries. A whole series of films. I even had some follow-up stories.”

For Clemens, Kronos represented the return of the film hero.

“You see,” he says, “in all the Dracula films, Dracula’s the hero so you’re rooting for a villain and you know he’s going to end up staked through the heart. I thought Well, it’s good to change the emphasis and have a proper hero. So I invented Kronos, who’s a swashbuckling character with a hunchback aide and he picks up a beautiful bird (Caroline Munro) along the way and they’re vampire hunters.

I think why people such as the Time Out reviewers like it is because I turned the genre upside down and had a speech from the hunchback which really liberated all vampire films. A guy says But these girls were drained of youth. They die very old. They can’t be vampires. And the hunchback, who’s the authority, says There are as many species of vampire as there are beasts of prey. Their method and motive of attack varies and so does the way you kill them. Some you can’t kill with a stake through the heart; some you have to kill by decapitation or hanging, drowning and so on.

“It’s a super scene in Kronos where they have a vampire, tie him to a chair, put a stake through his heart and he lives and they hang him and burn him and they gradually find out he’s got to be stabbed with a piece of holy steel. It did liberate the vampire lore.”

The film is a combination of Errol Flynn swashbuckler and Hammer horror. It climaxes in a three-minute sword fight between Kronos and the vampire.

“It’s got this marvellous moment,” says Clemens, “where Kronos stabs him with the wrong sword and this vampire walks around with this rapier through him. There’s quite a bit of humour in it.”

Tragically, Hammer/EMI kept the film on the shelf for two years, not releasing it until 1975 and then giving it poor distribution as part of a double feature. Clemens is uncertain why his film was treated in this way but thinks it was probably “a tax loss/tax shelter thing”.

He says: “I really enjoyed Kronos. I was on a peak then. I was ready to go into another thing and make it better, but it didn’t happen. I was hoping to make another Kronos adventure, but then I got into Thriller for TV – I did 43 of those, which is quite a lot, really. They’re 90 minutes each in America – 72 minutes running time – which is quite a lot of writing.”

Nonetheless, Clemens is so prolific that, at the end of the series, he still had another 20 plots lined up and ready to go. He says he enjoyed doing the Thriller stories and found them pleasant and rather easy to do: “Easy because they weren’t locked into running characters and you could just let things happen as you wanted.”

Plotting comes quite easily to him: “If, in a one-hour show, you’ve got four highspots, you’ve just got to link them. Sometimes it can be just a single brilliant idea. I mean, with Alien, people just went to see the thing burst out of his stomach; they didn’t really know what the rest was about. With The Exorcist, they went to see the bloke puked-on. In Bullitt, it was the car chase.”

TO BE CONTINUED… HERE 

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