It goes on general release today at Everyman cinemas in the UK and, on 11th December, at Showcase’s UK cinemas.
It is also streaming online at www.pantoonline.co.uk until 10th January 2021. Profits from the Panto Online streaming will be supporting six charities.
Peter Duncan introduces last night’s screening
With the UK in COVID Lockdown and most live stage shows cancelled, Peter Duncan – who produces stage pantos and whose parents were also panto producers – rounded up 35 showbiz chums/creatives and filmed a traditional jokey, musical, dancing, colourful version of Jack and the Beanstalk in two large back gardens in SW London. He built the sets, sourced the costumes, wrote the script, created the singalong songs and produced/co-directed the whole shenanigans.
The movie is being screened in 55 cinemas across the UK, billed as “a planet-saving pantomime packed with topical references, songs, laughter and great special effects for all the family.”
I saw it last night with author/journalist/musical performer Ariane Sherine’s 9-year-old daughter who had seen three stage pantomimes before, some of which, she felt, diverged too much from the original storylines.
Below is her totally uncensored review of the movie. Throughout the screening, she wore a woolly pink hat with a pom-pom on the top.
John asked me if it was better to see the film wearing a woolly bobble hat or not wearing a woolly bobble hat. I think it IS better to have a woolly hat or a hood on or something because then you have something around you. It doesn’t need to be a woolly hat. It can be a long hat with bits at the side It can even just be hair or a scarf. It makes you feel engaged; it makes you feel like you’re in it, like you’re part of it (the film). You think about it more and I think it’s really good.
I really liked the bits in the film about Climate Change and the Lockdown and I especially liked the bit about Donald Trump – when the chair said: “The orange man won’t leave the White House.”
It was really fun but I would like the end credits to have had different music because I feel like that music is not very cheery. I would prefer it not to be so spooky and to be more cheery. It didn’t really match the film. At the end it felt a bit creepy; it didn’t feel so jolly.
The music was good generally, though. I liked it. It was jolly. And I liked most of the lyrics. I liked the lyrics at the start about Lockdown and Climate Change and the bits with the signs – the placards. That made it feel a lot like a live pantomime.
They included a lot of bits where the (cinema) audience could join in – Oh no he didn’t! Behind you! – that kind of stuff.
The acting was good and it seemed like the non-main characters did more of the… (stagey pantomime acting) like it wasn’t real. I liked the Dame. I didn’t realise (until afterwards) that she was played by Peter Duncan.
Considering that it was shot in a real back garden, they made it seem quite a bit like a big film with the tree as the beanstalk. Before the screening, I had been wondering how they would do the beanstalk. I had thought they might paint the tree green.
From some angles, looking at it a certain way, with the vines around it, they did make it quite a bit like you would imagine it.
I had been wondering how similar it would be to the original Jack and The Beanstalk story. Some of the pantos I’ve seen changed the plots a bit. I don’t mind that but this one was quite a lot like the actual Jack and the Beanstalk you think of.
There was a bit where they didn’t bring the cow over the wall (when they were escaping from the Giant). They left the cow behind. I didn’t understand that. There was that kind of wolf-dog-thing chasing them and he was right there with the cow. But they left the cow behind. I didn’t understand that bit at all.
But it’s fun to watch, fun joining in and all that stuff. It would be suitable for children maybe 5 to 10 years old. It’s fun to watch. I would watch it again. Not a lot of times, but I would watch it again a few times and with my younger sister,
I do feel some of the characters in the film were quite selfish. The girl was given a wish and she wanted to drive cars. Why couldn’t they wish for World Peace or the end of Climate Change? They were so annoyed about it before (at the start of the film) but now they just want to drive cars. They did a big campaign about Climate Change at the start (with all the placards) but, after that, now it’s “I want to drive!”
And, just after she’d told her dad: “Oh no, we can’t dump plastic in the sea… That’s bad for pollution!” she says she wants to be a driver! And even for the other ones, I felt they were quite selfish. Why couldn’t they wish for World Peace or even for them to bring a good thing to the world or something like that. Even to end Lockdown, to end hunger, to end poverty. At least to end Lockdown. Why didn’t they choose one of those?
But I guess they couldn’t have wished for that, because it would have meant their wish didn’t come true, because nothing’s happened.
My own wish would be for the Earth to be big enough to sustain humans – to always have enough food and water and for the climate to be OK. For the Earth to hold an infinite amount of humans and for humans to live forever.
Posted slightly belatedly, this is the last of these Weekly Diary blogs and proof – if proof were needed – that 42 is not the answer to everything…
SUNDAY 1st NOVEMBER
Since I was hospitalised in May, I normally wake up with a bone dry mouth 8-12 times a night and have to drink water. Last night, although I had hiccups and heartburn shortly after going to bed, I slept through and only woke up once with a dry mouth at around 0600.
Are the Chinese pills I started taking last week having an effect?
MONDAY 2nd NOVEMBER
Something fishy in the US – President Donald Trump
It is the US Presidential Election tomorrow.
In the meantime, Dutch comedy judge and linguist Louisette Stodel sent me a fishy picture of salmon-faced Donald Trump with the message “Lox him up!”
I am much less of a linguist and had to look it up to find out Lox is Yiddish (and North American) for Salmon.
Also today, in the Netherlands, a metro train on raised tracks in Spijkenisse, near Rotterdam, crashed through a barrier at the end of the tracks and did not plummet 32ft onto the water and footpath below but ended up delicately balanced atop a giant polyester sculpture of a whale’s tail.
A ‘fluke’ accident in Holland and one whale of a tale of a tail
Apparently whales’ tails are known as ‘flukes’. Reuters and some excitable UK newspapers reported that, coincidentally, the sculpture’s name was ‘Saved By a Whale’s Tail’. But Dutch sources said it had the rather more mundane title ‘Whales’ Tails’.
What are the odds of a ‘fluke’ accident like this happening? Quite high according to a Fortean Times article I read years ago.
The odds of you being killed by a pig falling on your specific head this year make it massively improbable. The likelihood that someone somewhere in the world this year will be killed by a pig falling on his or her head is quite high.
The most improbable coincidences and unlikely/impossible events happen every every day.
TUESDAY 3rd NOVEMBER
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. A sequel to Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
As if to prove this, my eternally un-named friend and I settled down to watch the second Borat movie on Amazon Prime today.
I had seen the first film; she had not. So I helpfully explained that the people in the film were (mostly) ‘real’ people, not actors, as it is not necessarily obvious.
I had been slightly uneasy with the opening scenes of the first film when I saw it. They were set in Kazakhstan and were basically about laughing at people who were poor. I was surprised roughly the same thing happened at the start of the second movie.
But I was able to tell my eternally-un-named friend that, in my opinion, the first movie – which I had seen and she had not – had been better because the scenes were longer and the only bits which really worked in this second one were the sequences with some drunken students and a Christian meeting.
Bizarrely, when we got to the end, the much-reported sequence with Rudy Guliani being put in an allegedly compromising situation with Borat’s (fake) sister – and some separate much-commented-upon sequences with a babysitter – were not in the movie shown on Amazon Prime.
It took a bit of online Googling to see how and why these scenes were missing.
It turned out we had been watching the first movie not the second one and I had remembered not a single second of it.
My memory has never been of the best.
WEDNESDAY 4th NOVEMBER
President Vladimir Putin – a highly successful fisher of men
The US Presidential Election was yesterday. Today, no result.
Well it looks like, whoever gets most votes, Vladimir Putin has won… Either way he wins. Trump re-elected or America divided. All this and a thriving door-handle business. Putin is on a roll.
I got a letter from the NHS saying I am seeing the Calcium Consultant on 27th November.
THURSDAY 5th NOVEMBER
The first day of the second COVID lockdown in England.
The US Election still undecided.
Who knows what the outcome of either will be?
…Agatha Christie kept me guessing beyond the last page…
It reminded me of when, as a teenager, I bought a paperback copy of Agatha Christie’s whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express at the WH Smith bookshop in Ilford.
I got to the end of the book only to discover that someone had torn out the last couple of pages, so I did not know who dunnit.
Smith’s did not have another copy so ordered one for me.
It arrived about two months later, by which time I had forgotten the details of the characters and clues.
I never did know who dunnit until a film was made of it, produced by Lord Brabourne, who was later blown up with Lord Mountbatten by the Provisional IRA, in a boat in Ireland.
Oh what a tangled web life is.
FRIDAY 6th NOVEMBER
Phishing (Photo: Bermix Studio via Unsplash)
In the morning, my landline rang: a rare thing, as most calls are on my mobile phone.
The caller claimed that the insulation in my loft had been found to be dangerous and to cause mould and they would sort it out for free.
He said they were a government advisory group. When I asked twice who financed them, he hung up.
I don’t know what the scam was but, after the pitch, he only got as far as “Can I confirm you are the homeowner…” before it ended.
It makes a change from the normal scam/phishing line: ”I understand you had a car accident in the last six months that wasn’t your fault…”
SATURDAY 7th NOVEMBER
I woke up with a bone dry mouth about ten times last night and had to drink water.
Are the Chinese pills I am taking having an effect?
Clearly not yet.
It’s been that sort of day/year/life, really
The US Election has been called for Joe Biden but Donald Trump has refused to accept the result, claiming with no evidence that there has been voter fraud.
This is perfectly normal in the new world led by social media where, if you say anything, however fanciful, it becomes a fact.
In the afternoon, I received an email headed: demur we had around kinda placement for emergency pecuniary resource 8767178744116284
The message, in a reality beyond the fictional world of Borat, read:
Don’t expend all along you acquire, save and put at least, 10%-20%. This too bad is one after another of the commonsensible principles of personal finance. It is canonic wisdom non compos mentis to pass altogether your wage but to bring through approximately of it for the rainy twenty-four hour period. Unitary of the things you would discover if you scan the record book, “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, is that rich people spare/place maiden and then pass the left while skint mass pass firstly and then write the odd fellow (if on that point is anything left). I am likewise really shamefaced of this. I sometimes incur myself doing fronting the compensate thing to do, and boast away my every week income on a weekend.
That is one hell of a piece of translation software the scammers are using.
The scammers have been scammed.
Fiction, fantasy and reality have merged.
The world has been spiralling increasingly out of control.
In this COVID-19 era, the protocol on non-rush hour London trains seems to be that everyone sits on alternate seats, leaving a gap between each person.
MONDAY 5th OCTOBER
Meanwhile, Thameslink trains are dependable for their undependability. When I arrived at Elstree station at 1358 today for the 1401 train, the indicator board proclaimed that the next train was the 0931 tomorrow morning, expected to arrive at 0939.
After travelling by Thameslink, President Trump’s overdramatic exit from hospital in Washington and overdramatic arrival back at the White House after his COVID infection seemed less surreal.
One online reaction to President Trump catching the coronavirus…
TUESDAY 6th OCTOBER
I was talking with someone who used to work in the London Docks who told me that the nickname for the police there used to be “the cabbage”. Neither he nor I could think of any explanation for this.
Apparently Barrie Keefe wrote a (so-far un-made) sequel to The Long Good Friday, centred on the tiny but essential character played by Pierce Brosnan in the original movie.
Keefe once told someone that Brosnan had no lines in the original film: he never spoke. The other person disagreed. Keefe (who, remember, wrote the movie) watched the film again and, sure enough, Pierce Brosnan (in the swimming pool scene) does say “Hi!”
“That’s actors for you,” Barrie Keefe responded.
I was working at ATV (who commissioned the movie for the ITV Network via their ITC/Black Lion companies) when ATV/ITC boss Lew Grade refused to screen it because he was outraged by the ending. It had been commissioned by Charles Denton, who was both Programme Controller at ATV and Managing Director of Black Lion, presumably without Grade ever reading the script.
I think the scene in which someone is crucified on a wooden floor in London must have been inspired by Arthur Thompson‘s penchant for doing that in Glasgow. My ex-London docker told me that the scene in which a widow steps out of a car to spit at a criminal was based on a real incident though, in reality, the man apparently just legged it sharpish.
If you have seen the movie, there is a clip on YouTube of Pierce Brosnan talking about The Long Good Friday but – BEWARE – there are major, major plot spoilers in it.
WEDNESDAY 7th OCTOBER
I was talking to someone who plays the online game Words With Friends with strangers.
Playing with scammers who have only a loose grasp of English
Apparently this has attracted scammers who bombard her with messages of a romantic nature – usually in broken English – Many of them, for some totally unknown and incomprehensible reason, claim to be estate agents (that’s a realtor or real estate agent if you live in the US).
I can only assume there is a school for scammers which provides a template suggesting would-be scammers masquerade as estate agents.
THURSDAY 8th OCTOBER
Is this the shape of bomb disposal technicians to come in the near future?
The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer has suggested that, because of the COVID-19 crisis and its effects on jobs, people should think of switching careers.
My diminutive writer/composer/comedy chum Ariane Sherine (her physical stature is relevant) took the government’s online Careers Advice Test on a whim and it suggested she should become an army officer, a bodyguard or a bomb disposal technician.
Her reaction: “This is clearly not the perfect career for someone with clinical anxiety and paranoia who gets freaked out by sudden loud noises!”
Inspired by this, I tried the Careers Advice Test myself. It suggested I could or should become a boxer, a jockey, a hairdressing salon manager, a Member of Parliament or a TV/film producer…
The government site, which also handles Track & Trace for the COVID-19 outbreak, may need some urgent attention.
FRIDAY 9th OCTOBER
An odd day.
I went into the Tesco store in Borehamwood where, among the free books, were copies of Rolf Harris‘ True Animal Tales and the violent Mafia memoir I Heard You Paint Houses (filmed by Martin Scorsese as The Irishman). I am not sure what this says about the reading or social habits of Tesco’s customers in Borehamwood.
“I am not sure what this says about the social habits of Tesco’s customers in Borehamwood.”
Later, I went into the Tesco store in Leytonstone and found the stand-up urinals in the Gents toilets each had an orange plastic insert bearing the word P-WAVE. I would like to have been at the branding meeting where they brainstormed ideas for the name and colour of this product.
SATURDAY 10th OCTOBER
Anthony Irvine, the ever-inventive act formerly known as The Iceman emailed me, without explanation, an image of his latest painting.
I have no explanation. He had no explanation. I am open to offers…
But the sky today hinted that God takes cocaine. This could explain a lot about the last week and the current year.
Until my illness in May, I never really remembered my dreams. Maybe once every six or nine months, I might wake up and remember what I was dreaming.
But now, because I wake up maybe six to twelve times during the night, dehydrated, I remember – or, at least, I am aware of – some dreams and I am amazed by the detail, though reality can be more surreal.
Today, Kunt AKA Kunt and The Gang said he was about to release two new limited edition Bumface Poohands books: Bumface Poohands – A Day At The Park and Bumface Poohands and the Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown.
With reality like this, who needs dreams?
MONDAY 28th SEPTEMBER
I have a low heart rate. Adults normally have a resting heart rate of 60-100. Mine is usually around the low 50s, sometimes the high 40s.
As I write this, it is 53. But my cousin Muriel also has a low heart-rate, so it must be a hereditary thing.
My medical problems in May (still continuing) were caused by a still-unexplained high calcium level resulting in a sudden drop in kidney function from 62 to 19.
My cousin Muriel says that, years ago, she was told she would get kidney problems as she got older because of very poor circulation in the base of her spine, bottom and back thighs. This has not happened.
My sticking-up big toes are not at all sock-friendly
And, fortunately, the circulation of my nether regions is, as far as I know, fine.
But, if memory serves me correctly (which it seldom does), Muriel and I both have a funny quick in our middle fingers, where it goes higher in the middle making it less easy/more sensitive to cut the nails.
We can both be easily and literally cut to the quick.
And we both have big toes that stick up.
Yes, I think it’s a bit odd too.
She tells me: “Finding comfy walking boots has been a problem through all my walking years.”
TUESDAY 29th SEPTEMBER
Ariane Sherine‘s latest serious-but-with-a-lot-of-humour-added-in book How to Live to 100 is published on Thursday and she has found that she is already selling well in unexpected quarters. The book is already, two days before publication, at No 174 in the Cheese & Dairy section of Amazon UK.
Mind you, for several years, Amazon UK listed comedian Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake as an academic textbook and could not be persuaded otherwise. Amazon UK is currently listing it as being published on 1st January 1638 and as being available at the bargain price of £45.60 (used) or ‘new’ at £995.36.
In other shocking news, my eternally-un-named friend lost her silver ring in the street in Borehamwood tonight. A search by iPhone torch and proper torch failed to find it.
WEDNESDAY 30th SEPTEMBER
Always be wary of what you say to plumbers. A good one is hard to find.
This afternoon, a plumber told me he had been doing the job for over 20 years. I told him:
“Wow! You know your shit, then.”
He heard it as: “You know you’re shit, then.”
Who knew the power of a single apostrophe?
I also got a handwritten postcard shoved through my letterbox today from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is a bit worrying when they do not put their trust in the Lord enough to knock on doors and try their sales pitch face-to-face.
This follows the incident earlier in the year when the healing waters of Lourdes were closed because of the risk of visitors catching coronavirus.
It is all somewhat counterproductive for the sales pitch.
THURSDAY 1st OCTOBER
I’m honoured to be mentioned disparagingly…
I got a copy of Ariane Sherine’s much-anticipated book How to Live to 100.
It turns out I am mentioned in it halfway through, somewhat disparagingly – I had been asked before publication if the reference was OK and had, of course, forgotten.
Fortunately, I am not in the index, so you will have to buy it and read it to find where my image is wantonly crushed. Which you should do anyway.
I mean you should read it, not wantonly crush me.
Charlie Brooker says: “This book will probably save your life… Unfortunately“ and it includes interviews with Clive Anderson, Derren Brown, Bec Hill, Konnie Huq, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Richard Osman, Lou Sanders, Arthur Smith, Jeremy Vine sans Uncle Tom Cobley et al.
FRIDAY 2nd OCTOBER
I slept from 7.15pm last night to 7.30am this morning and woke to the unsurprising news that Donald Trump has developed coronavirus: but he should be OK as he has long said it either doesn’t exist – it’s a hoax – or it is simply like a mild flu.
More interestingly, I got an email from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent, who lives in Vancouver. She had seen a Facebook post of mine: showing the Academic Song and Dance Ensemble of the National Guard of the Russian Federation singing “Sex Bomb”.
I REALLY enjoyed the Russian military police choir video (If only all the military could concentrate on music).
I have been having a somewhat difficult time here with the combo of COVID measures and inhaling wildfire smoke from the California forest fires (it was really bad here in Vancouver – worst air quality in the world for a bit – for ten days mid-September), then an enormous local pier caught fire… They couldn’t put that out for ten days. I was inhaling burning creosote… lovely…
Burnt California tastes way worse, though possibly we are also inhaling dead bodies too… it tastes metallic… maybe its all their cars and appliances.
The smoke has returned but it’s not as bad as it was…
SATURDAY 3rd OCTOBER
This afternoon, in a near miracle, my eternally-un-named friend was walking along the pavement in Borehamwood and saw, lying on the ground, the silver ring she had lost on Tuesday. It was about 15 or 20 feet away from the spot where she thinks she must have dropped it.
Spot the ring…
Let’s hope the luck of the British continues…
Tonight, a fascinating documentary about musical comic Robert White is being screened (and is up for an Audience Award) at the Awareness Film Festival in Los Angeles – It’s an online virtual event this year because of COVID-19.
I think I am pretty safe in saying that Robert is the only Aspergic, dyslexic, web-toed, cross-lateral, gay, quarter-Welsh, gluten-intolerant professional musical comedian in the world who made it to the final of Britain’s Got Talent and came runner-up AND won the highly-prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The Autistic Comedian gives an extraordinary insight – warts and all – into what it’s like for a hyper-sensitive performer to grow up, undiagnosed, in the 1980s and 1990s, then feel his life spiralling out of control but then learn to deal with the challenges totally on his own.
It gains from the fact that director Joe Bor is also a comedy performer and Robert’s friend – so there is a unique access and insight. It reminded me of the 1997 Elton John documentary Tantrums and Tiaras, directed by David Furnish.
Both films manage to be an emotional rollercoaster with unique psychological insights.
I think I am pretty safe in saying that Robert is the only Aspergic, dyslexic, web-toed, cross-lateral, gay, quarter-Welsh, gluten-intolerant professional musical comedian in the world who made the final of Britain’s Got Talent and came runner-up.
The Autistic Comedian – is extraordinarily successful in giving an insight – warts and all – into what it’s like for a hyper-sensitive performer to grow up, undiagnosed, in the 1980s and 1990s, feel his life spiralling out of control but then learn to deal with the challenges totally on his own.
It gains from the fact that director Joe Bor is also a comedy performer and Robert’s friend – so there is a unique access and insight.
It reminded me of the 1997 Elton John documentary Tantrums and Tiaras, directed by David Furnish.
Both films manage to be an extraordinary emotional rollercoaster with unique psychological insights.
There are details of the online Awareness Film Festival screening here and there is a trailer on Vimeo:
The Dark Knight was a wonderful piece of movie-making: direction, script, acting.
Dunkirk was amazing on a big screen with a good sound system.
TENET looks all of its $200million budget.
But it is bollocks.
Like Inception – which was also unecessarily impenetrable – he should have gone back to an earlier, simpler version of the script – perhaps Draft 2 or Draft 3. It was probably a great idea back then.
Although I hope it didn’t include the thrown-in-quite-late bit in TENET‘s plot which echoes the six Infinity Stones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and JRR Tolkien’s twenty Rings of Power. Maybe that was detritus left over from some discarded earlier version of the plot.
It is all very well to make intelligent or even mindless pure entertainment films which, with modern home technology, can benefit from being watched and re-watched several times, seeing more in them each time.
However, if the movie’s plot details are not intriguingly intricate but actually just bloody incomprehensible for stretches, then there is something wrong with the script.
And the problem with TENET is not just the labyrinthine impenetrability of the final script – It is the soundtrack.
Here you have the labyrinthine impenetrability of a script plus occasional added mumbling.
Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie (The Dark Knight Rises) had the main villain mumbling through a mask. But this time it is not just one person but loads of people mumbling semi-incomprehensibly through masks and over radios and phones and, at points, having to compete with very distracting overly-complicated music which interferes with the clarity of what’s being said.
And I saw TENET in a bleedin’ IMAX!
There was a fair amount of occasional unclear muttering in TENET, but I think that was mostly because of the sound mix at those points, not the acting.
I swear Christopher Nolan probably heard everything clearly in his super duper sound mixing suite but he should maybe do what Stanley Kubrick allegedly did – go round suburban cinemas with a light meter (though there’s nothing wrong with Tenet’s visuals) and hear the soundtrack through less good speakers.
Even in IMAX, there was unclear mumbling going on.
This morning, someone who saw TENET last week in a different cinema told me: “I thought I needed a hearing aid after watching it. Couldn’t hear all the vocals. Really spoilt it – or was it done on purpose so you have to watch it more than once?”
“It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day”
On the good side, Kenneth Branagh was wonderful, possibly deserving of a Best Supporting Actor (or Person) Oscar nomination.
This was maybe because Branagh rarely – or relatively rarely – had to be heard through a mask, a phone or sheets of glass.
So he could be (usually but not always) clearly heard.
Clarity should be one of the main tenets – yes, tenets – of film-making – clarity of script, clarity of diction, clarity of… well, everything.
In an interview in Total Film Kenneth Branagh said he constantly had to re-read the script in order to work out the storyline: “It was like doing The Times crossword puzzle every day.”
Robert Pattinson told Esquire that, during filming: “There were months at a time where I’m like: I actually, honestly have no idea if I’m even vaguely understanding what’s happening“.
If even your cast have trouble understanding what the hell is going on, pity the poor audience, especially if they can’t hear some of the muffled dialogue.
If you wanna write a novel, write a novel. But a movie ain’t a novel.
Apparently, Christopher Nolan developed the ideas and plot of TENET over the course of twenty years and had been working on this version of the script for about six or seven years. Well, that is part of the problem.
I remember, years ago – last century – having a conversation with a fellow TV researcher about good interviewees. We agreed that the best interviewee to explain something clearly to a general audience was not an expert but a fan. If you know too much about a subject, you can’t communicate it simply and comprehensibly. You know too much. If you are a fan, you know what the key features are and why a stranger to the subject could get hooked.
In the first two or three drafts of a script, there is the raw enthusiasm for the concept.
After six or seven or twenty years into it, you are fiddling with the detail, not communicating the raw originality.
My advice. If you have been refining something for twenty years, maybe go back to the original script which had the passion and simplify your 200th draft, don’t make it even more complicated.
And, when you sound-mix, counter-intuitively, listen to it on worse speakers.
Three weeks ago in this blog I mentioned the sad death of Douglas Gray of The Alberts, the extraordinary surreal brothers little remembered by ordinary punters now but whose influence on British comedy was so great that Douglas got a full-page obituary in The Times.
So obviously, I had to ask him about it. He now lives in New Zealand…
Richard O’Brien with a statue of him as Riff Raff erected in Hamilton, New Zealand, at the site of the barber shop where he cut hair in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
JOHN: New Zealand? Why on earth New Zealand?
RICHARD: Well, my parents emigrated to New Zealand in 1952 when I was ten and I was brought up there – went through puberty, adolescence, all that kind of stuff – the BIG bit of growing-up, basically.
JOHN: New Zealand seems a very sensible place. Not surreal or anarchic or OTT…
RICHARD: What was really nice about it was that it was a middle classless society. Nobody was your social superior. It was an egalitarian meritocracy, about as good as it could get. Not ideal but still wonderful.
JOHN: So when you came back to Britain in 1964, you found they couldn’t socially classify you because you had not been brought up here?
RICHARD: I had a great card to play. If I was with people who were a bit snobby, I was out of the equation. I had a go-anywhere card because England at that time was a deeply class-ridden society – still is to an extent – look at Boris and his chums.
BBC reported that Richard “delighted in shaking up the conservative sexual attitudes of the 1970s”
It was wonderful. I could go absolutely anywhere and I was not on any level of their thinking. So it was wonderful.
Being under-educated and unsophisticated, I kept my mouth shut and I wasn’t a bad-looking boy, so I was invited to places because, well, we ARE so fucking shallow, aren’t we? And, as long as I was well-mannered and a good listener, I was welcome anywhere. It was great.
JOHN: One of the first things you did over here was work as a stuntman on the movie Carry On Cowboy… Whaaat?
RICHARD: It was simply because, in 1965, there was an opening to do that. I did three movies in 1965: Carry On Cowboy, The Fighting Prince of Donegal and that early version of Casino Royale which nobody understands. But I didn’t really want to be a stuntman. I wanted to be an actor.
JOHN: Which you became…
“Delightful excursion into organised chaos”
RICHARD: And, in 1968, Sean Kenny decided to direct and design Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid Theatre and he got together an incredible cast. A huge range of actors. It was quite wonderful. Some real ‘characters’. And, of course, The Alberts were part of that.
JOHN: You said that the Mermaid show experience with The Alberts was “a delightful excursion into organised chaos”
RICHARD: Douglas would turn up in a kilt and in all kinds of uniforms. They might come on stage with a wheelbarrow but there was bound to be an explosion somewhere. They would wear pinafores with naked bodies painted on the front. Quite childish; very childish. You couldn’t really call it professional. It was like throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what would stick. But it was delightful.
“I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs” (Photograph c 1964)
JOHN: You are an actor/writer/musician/TV person. Which one did you want to be when you were 16?
RICHARD: I am ‘musical’. I wouldn’t call myself a musician. I play the guitar a little and I sing and I have a good ear.
I wrote songs when I was in my teenage years: mostly derivative rock n roll stuff. I think what I really wanted to do was take my guitar and go round the world singing songs.
I wouldn’t have minded singing folk songs – going round the world learning different countries’ folk songs.
I like writing songs, but mostly because I like storytelling. I love narrative poetry. I think probably my strength more than anything else is writing lyrics. Dressing-up and making-believe was always a kind of joy. Acting is not really a job for grown-ups. It’s a childish kind of thing to want to dress up and make-believe. But it’s a very enjoyable one.
…as Riff Raff in The Rocky Horror Show…
JOHN: Your obituary in The Times is inevitably going to have “Rocky Horror” in the headline.
RICHARD: Well, of course it will. It’s one of the longest-running movies ever in movie history. It’s a silly piece of adolescent fun and nonsense. You can’t take it seriously and yet it’s had an incredible effect on a lot of people. It’s given a lot of people hope in their world if they’re lonely and lost. Rocky Horror’s got a sense of Well, you’re not alone.
It would be perverse for me not to acknowledge Rocky Horror.
JOHN: Rocky Horror re-routed your career?
RICHARD: It probably took me away from acting. I maybe thought I should stay at home and be writing more. The nice thing was I was successful without anybody knowing who I was if I walked down the street.
Willie Rushtonwas a lovely man whom I got to know – he was in Gulliver’s Travels at the Mermaid. He was on television all the time and I would walk down the street with him and everybody would come up to him and I would stand beside him and, in monetary terms and in theatrical terms, I was doing as well as he was but nobody knew who I was. I had this wonderful anonymity… but that disappeared when I started doing The Crystal Maze on TV. The anonymity all went out the window.
Richard’s anonymity disappeared doing The Crystal Maze
JOHN: Everyone wants fame and fortune…
RICHARD: I didn’t want to be famous. Honestly. And I didn’t want to have a lot of money. Luckily, something went wrong and I achieved both those ends. But I wasn’t searching for it. Never was.
JOHN: What is the least known or least appreciated creative thing you have been involved in that you are most proud of?
RICHARD: Proud of? I don’t like pride. It comes before a fall.
Even with Gay Pride… I think it’s really silly to be proud of something which you are by default… Be glad. Over the moon. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes. Deliriously happy. Fantastic. Yes.
Proud to be black? Proud to be white? Proud to be straight? Proud to be what you are by default?… Proud to be blond? – How stupid would that be?
JOHN: But, if I pushed you on what is most underestimated…
RICHARD: I adapted The Dancing Years by Ivor Novello which we did with Gillian Lynne (the choreographer of Cats and Phantom of The Opera). I think we did a wonderful job on it and we had two stagings of it upstairs in a rehearsal room at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London – lots and lots of people there – and grown men were crying at the end. They were weeping. I think we did that very well but we weren’t allowed to go further with it, which was a great, great shame.
JOHN: You’re knocking on a bit. Old blokes cannot be creative…
RICHARD: Well, I’m 78, I’ve just had a stroke, but I’m still working…
JOHN: On what?
RICHARD: A satirical fairy tale.
JOHN: And then?
RICHARD: I’m going to go and have a sit-down and maybe a cup of tea.
Derek Hayes talked to me from his West Country home via Skype during the coronavirus lockdown…
JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?
DEREK: Yes and no. I got to be a director before the computers came in so, when they did, what I did was just stand there and tell someone technical: “Make it do that…” All I need to know is what it CAN do. I don’t need to know how to press the buttons to make it happen. I just need to know if the operator is bullshitting me about what it can and can’t do.
I can use things like PhotoShop, but don’t ask me to get into the technicalities. It is just a tool. At the beginning, you had to have a big desk with big machines and you needed an operator with it and you had to sit there and point at the screen and say “Could you put it there” or “Lower it a little bit” or “Make it a little bit more red”. It was really frustrating. But, as things got smaller, you could start to use it yourself.
DEREK: It disappeared when Dreamworks and Aardman separated. That had, I think, a 5-picture deal. Chicken Runwas the first one, which did pretty well at the box office.
They were just coming to the end of production on Chicken Run and Dreamworks was insistent they should get straight into the next feature – just keep ‘em turning over and keep all the crew on board. They were still six months or more before the end of production on Chicken Run and they asked me to come in and chat to Karey Kirkpatrick, who had been a writer on Chicken Run.
He was going to develop a new idea and they wanted me to come in, help develop it and maybe then direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t, because I had just agreed to do Otherworld.
DEREK: Yes. They developed a script for it and actually went into production. This was while I was doing Otherworld. They were making sets, doing all kinds of stuff. But, pretty soon, they realised the script wasn’t right. So they had to stop it, get rid of everybody; and they then pushed on with the first Wallace & Gromit feature.
The basic problem was that, with The Tortoise and The Hare, you only have two outcomes to that story. If you use the Aesop one, the hare loses. And the other is where the hare wins.
No-one is going to sit watching, waiting for either of those – because it’s just too obvious. That was the main problem and they didn’t solve it for quite a while.
But, when I had finished Otherworld, they came back to me and said: “We have sorted it out. Do you want to come on board again and carry on developing?”
JOHN: How had they solved the problem?
DEREK: They had basically put the race at the beginning. They had Harry the Hare, who was the fastest athlete in the world and really big-headed and stuck-up and was really getting on his manager’s nerves. And there was the Park Keeper, Maurice the Tortoise. They had known each other as kids.
So Harry the Hare is coming back to his home town for this race and the manager, who is sick of him, decides he is going to sabotage him, make the tortoise win and the tortoise will be a much better kind of client because the manager can manipulate him and what is bigger and more interesting than The tortoise that beat the fastest animal in the world?
It’s just a ‘changing places’ story after that.
Harry the Hare gets fatter and Maurice the Tortoise goes on to fame and fortune, until they finally realise that they are being manipulated and they have to get together to sort it out.
DEREK: Yeah. That’s right. Basically, it was all a bit too British for the Americans. They were asking weird things like: “So there’s this guy and he lives alone with a dog?? What is he? Weird or something??” They couldn’t make him into an ordinary family man and all the rest of it.
JOHN: The Americans want ‘family’ all the time…
DEREK: Yes. I always felt it was really weird that Dreamworks would take on Aardman for what they did and then try to change what they did.
JOHN: That’s Hollywood. You buy something original and you try to change it into ‘normal’…
JOHN: According to the Falmouth University website,you are currently “researching different models of storytelling”. Is this just waffle?
DEREK: Well, I am making a film, which may never see the light of day, that basically tells one story through lots of different films.
JOHN: Lots of different full-length films?
DEREK: No, I usually describe it like… Well… You could make a new Western out of all the old ones, because they all have the same structure. You have the bar room fight. How many times have you seen that? Someone smashes a chair over someone else’s head. Somebody falls on the table and it collapses. Somebody jumps off the balcony.
You could make a bar room fight out of all the Westerns you’ve ever seen. One actor could throw a punch and a completely different actor in another film would get punched.
So the idea was to marry that idea with another idea I had about scratches and dirt on film. Inside every scratch and on every piece of dirt, there would be a different movie… So you could go through a scratch and you would find yourself in a different movie or scratches would transform into other movies.
They would all be different genres. Some would be animation; some live-action. But they would all star the same people. You could have a period drama that had a scene relevant to the story and you would have a science fiction film that carried the story on and you would be able to collapse it down and tell a story quite quickly.
You could use existing footage. A guy could put the McGuffin – a holdall – into the station locker. How many times have you seen that? So why re-shoot it? Just find an existing film with that scene in it.
JOHN: Copyright problems?
DEREK: (LAUGHS) Well, yes, of course, there IS that. But, if you think about something like Christian Marclay’s The Clock,the number of films in that – the copyright must have been hideous but he got over it.
JOHN: Maybe there’s some legal loophole. Like sampling songs…
DEREK: If it’s a work of art… maybe you can do what you like, pretty much…
Two of Derek’s early animation collaborations with the late Phil Austin are currently online…
Derek Hayes, now a Senior Lecturer at Falmouth University
Two blogs ago, I reprinted a piece I wrote in 1979 about the animated movie Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. The directors were two young National Film School graduates – Phil Austin and Derek Hayes.
Last week, stuck at home by coronavirus lockdown, I chatted again to Derek Hayesvia Skype…
JOHN: We were almost going to talk well over three weeks ago before the coronavirus lockdown when you came to London for the British Animation Awards…
Phil Hayes’ sheep-influenced BAA ‘flock’ wallpaper award
DEREK: Yes, the Awards are every two years and the awards themselves are actually made by animators for other animators and, because the initials are BAA, it is sheep-themed.
JOHN: You have made awards?
DEREK: One year, I made one that was flock wallpaper.
DEREK: ‘Flock’ wallpaper… and the flock pattern design was of sheep.
JOHN: Doh!… Since we last met – you’ve made 10 short films, 2 cinema features and much more – videos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John and lots of others; you’ve won a BAFTA for the opening titles of TV’s Jeeves and Wooster and all sorts of things…
JOHN: 41 years ago, you had just finished training as animators…
DEREK: When we were at the National Film School, we basically had no animation tutors – nor did we at Sheffield Art College when we first started. So it wasn’t until we got out into the world that we actually found out what real people did.
Because we were the first two Animation students at the National Film School – we said: “Well, you’re gonna have to spend some money and get people to come in and talk to us.” So we used to get anybody we wanted if they would come to Beaconsfield – to come and spend a day with us and show us films and talk.
One of the people who came was Terry Gilliam before he became really big in terms of film directing.
JOHN: So he was just known for Monty Python…
DEREK: Yes, I think he might have done Jabberwocky. But one of the things I always remember him saying was that the thing he was most proud of was a sequence where all he had done was a background and a picture of a dog lying on its back. There were voices off. One voice was saying: “That dog’s dead” and the other says “No he’s not! It’s alive. I saw it move!”… “No, he’s dead!”… “No! I saw it move!”
And that was it!
JOHN: So he just had to create one static picture…
DEREK: Yes. And he said people swore blind that they saw it move!
JOHN: So you learned simplicity from Terry Gilliam…
DEREK: Not really, because we just ignored everybody. We just did the most complex that we could. We did millions of drawings for everything, which is a crazy thing to do.
JOHN: You made Max Beeza and the City in The Sky at the National Film School in 1977; I last talked to you in 1979; then you and Phil Austin went on to run your own successful company Animation City…
DEREK: Yes, we did a lot of stuff and we were very successful for a few years – I think Animation City was probably the second most successful animation company in London after probably Hibbert Ralph.
DEREK: (LAUGHS) We did all the animation and all the little bits of graphics – things like cash registers popping up and anything that needed a bit of effecty stuff – and inter-titles things – whatever.
JOHN: Animation City also did music videos for Madonna, Rod Stewart, Elton John et al.
DEREK: Yes, mostly before Phil died. We had rented a nice building at the height of the property market and then there was the crash – I think I’ve been through about three or four recessions now. So, although the work was still coming in – some really good work, like those music videos – it wasn’t enough to sustain the building and all the staff.
JOHN: Phil Austin died in 1990…
DEREK: He was gay and he got AIDs at a time when there was nothing to ameliorate the condition.
JOHN: But Animation City carried on until 1993.
DEREK: Yes. Because we had been doing a lot of music business work, we had a lot of contacts so we still had a lot of music videos. Usually, the artist would decide they were sick of making videos – “I’m sick of standing on a rock with a guitar… Can’t we do an animated one where I don’t actually have to do anything?”
JOHN: I read an article yesterday where, on Superman, Marlon Brando tried to persuade the director that Superman’s dad should be played by a bagel and he would only do the voice-over – because he would still get paid the same mega-fee. The director decided against the idea.
DEREK: Well, Superman’s dad was Jor-el. That would have been Bag-el.
JOHN: Anyway, when you closed Animation City in 1993, you then pretty much went straight into your first feature film.
DEREK: Well, The Miracle Maker was a collaboration between S4C in Wales and Russian animators. The Russians did stop-motion puppet animation and the Welsh were doing two-dimensional stuff. So those two things had to be put together.
JOHN: Why Russia?
DEREK: They were cheap and did good work. S4C had had this idea to do the Bible in animation – nine half-hour Old Testament stories and four half hours for the New Testament. I did one about Elijah from the Old Testament but, when they started thinking about the New Testament, they realised it was going to be four half hours all about the same guy, so they thought: Why don’t we make a full-length feature film?
Because we were doing 2D and the Russians were doing stop motion, I had to come up with a way of combining the two things. So a lot of the visual effecty stuff came in there.
After that, S4C wanted another film based on the Welsh epic Y Mabinogi.It has a whole series of stories in it, including some of the earliest King Arthur stories. It was re-titled Otherworld for English-speakers.
S4C’s Otherworld, based on the Welsh epic Y Mabinogi
JOHN: That’s the English meaning of Mabinogi?
DEREK: No, the literal translation is ‘Stories to Tell Youth’.
DEREK: (LAUGHS) No. But Otherworld was my second feature. That was all 2D plus some live action and some visual effects to stitch them together.
JOHN: Nowadays, even live-action movies like the Marvel ones are almost mostly animations with all the CGI work.
DEREK: There are two things now. There’s still Special Effects – physical effects like blowing things up – and Visual Effects is everything else.
It goes from simple stuff if you’re like doing a period drama where you can add a townscape or you didn’t notice there was a factory chimney or a pylon in the background which you can get rid of with effects… through to where you might have only one real live actor against green screen and you can create an entire alien horde and all kinds of stuff around him.
JOHN: You were trained in and got experience in drawn animation and then computer animation arrives. A totally different mindset required, surely?