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Diana Rigg was NOT cast to star in “The Avengers” – and why the series stopped

Prolific TV & film writer Brian Clemens

In three recent blogs, I have published parts of a chat I had with writer-producer 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. In Part Three, he talked about directing and about vampire films. This is the final part of that interview – on the trials and tribulations of producing. Remember it all took place in 1979 …

***

Today, Clemens is an executive as well as a creator; a producer as well as a writer. So does it cause problems being a producer and a writer and a sometime director?

“Well, it’s not as difficult for me as for some,” he says. “I’ve always been a co-producer, so Albert (Fennell, his business partner) is my conscience. He’s very good at editing and I think I am too, but it’s silly when you get too omnipotent. I think that’s destroyed a lot of good people; it destroys stars. How many people have said I’m going to produce my own film and it sits on the shelf? I think you need objectivity. I think that’s very, very important.”

Diana Rigg was not cast in The Avengers

It is a lesson he probably learnt from bitter experience on The Avengers. A lot of TV and film production decisions are a matter of internal politics and personal whim. For instance, Diana Rigs was not the original choice to play Emma Peel in The Avengers. The original actress cast for the role was Elizabeth Shepherd who, most unusually, was not screen-tested.

“That wasn’t my decision,” says Clemens. “That was Julian Winkle’s choice because he was executive producer. Liz Shepherd had done something on television and she was undeniably very beautiful and it wasn’t until we did one and a half episodes… She’s not a bad actress, but she just doesn’t have a sense of humour at all and it was essential in The Avengers. So we scrapped what we’d shot and got rid of her and then tested – which is what we should have done in the first place – and out of the tests came Diana Rigg. We tested a lot of people, like Moira Redmond and that sort of person and one or two unknowns like Sarah Brackett – whatever happened to her? – and Diana Rigg was head and shoulders above everybody else.”

Clemens worked for a total of six years on various Avengers series and then, when Diana Rigg left the show, he was suddenly thrown out.

Linda Thorson was cast – but with no sense of humour?

“I was sacked at the beginning of the Linda Thorson ones,” he says. “It was internal politics. The Avengers was owned by ABC Television and there was a great deal of back-biting because they’d brought in outside boys to make probably their greatest hit ever. Still is. If you go to America with Patrick Macnee, you can’t walk down the street even now – I promise you. In New York and California, you really cannot move if you’re with him and they’re all saying Hello Steed! His impact, internationally, is enormous.

ABC resented outside boys and thought it was easy. So they got rid of us and brought in some of their own boys and, within one and a half episodes, they asked us to come back because it really was going to fail. Unfortunately (the producer) had brought in his girlfriend, Linda Thorson, whom I would never have cast. And so we were stuck with her. Which is why I brought in the character of Mother – because she (Thorson) had no sense of humour either. I brought in Mother so Patrick Macnee could at least have jokes with somebody.”

Even so, the series proved unsalvageable and ended in 1968. Almost a decade later, Clemens, Albert Fennell and composer Laurie Johnson formed The Avengers (Film & TV) Enterprises Ltd. British financiers were not interested, so The New Avengers was produced with £3-4 million in French and later Canadian money.

This time, there was no chance taken with the female lead. Before Joanna Lumley was cast as Purdey, Clemens says he seriously considered 700 girls, interviewed 200, read scripts with 40 and screen tested 15.

The New Avengers – not just a ‘sleeper’ hit – a mega hit

“Most Avengers fans,” he admits, “don’t like The New Avengers as much as the old ones, but it did actually get a bigger audience.”

Although costing £125,000 per episode to produce, it was also financially successful. The irony was that, although Clemens could sell the finished product with ease, he was unable to get the initial finance in Britain. When I talked to him last year, he had been trying to finance another series of The New Avengers. He told me:

“London Weekend Television will put up half the money and CBS in America want to pay us $140,000 an episode and we’re short $50,000 an episode and we can’t get it anywhere – otherwise we’d make more Avengers – and The Avengers is really like printing money, because it just goes on forever and it’s got assured syndication – They’ve already got 87 of the first one.”

So far, new financing for The New Avengers has not materialised.

“I don’t know why it is,” Clemens tells me. “I mean, why didn’t Britain put up the money for Star Wars and Superman? They were made here but the money wasn’t put up here. Most of our film industry’s run by people who just don’t care much. At least Sam Goldwyn cared and Lew Grade (of ATV/ITC) cares. At least he’s making movies. You may not like them – some I don’t like – but he’s making them.”

The Professionals were hit men in more senses than one

The Professionals TV series started out costing £115,000 per episode but is now costing £150,000. It was sold to Canada, although its scripts make no concessions to foreign audiences. The first offer of US syndication was turned down because it was too low – $50,000 per show (about $25,000 at that time). Recently, a million dollar deal was negotiated by Clemens’ Mark One Productions and London Weekend Television (who co-finance the series) for the showing of 39 episodes on US cable TV. The deal also includes “substantial” American money for the production of future episodes and Clemens is also “hopeful” that a Professionals feature film will be made, probably with American financial backing.

It is astonishing that Clemens, with his extraordinarily successful track record, has had so much trouble raising finance in Britain. He is an international success. His original episodes of The Avengers are still showing in America and were networked again recently by CBS. The New Avengers series has been networked twice across America. And he is still trying to keep one step ahead of the trends.

“All drama goes in cycles,” he says. “If it’s been kitchen sink for four years, don’t think kitchen sink. I wanted to do The Magnificent Seven story as knights in armour – indeed, I was commissioned by EMI and then it all fell through – and now I see Ridley Scott’s project Knight (now to be directed by Walter Hill and re-titled The Sword). That could well open up that area and it would then be too late for me to follow because, by the time I get in, there’ll be lots of them – Return of The Knight and so on. The same with science fiction – it must come down again. If you can be the innovator or number two, you’re alright.”

So what sort of projects has he in mind? Well, there’s Bamboo Martini, which Rank planned to shoot before they collapsed. And there was a Vincent Price comedy-thriller which has also had problems.

“What’s it about? “ I asked.

“Well,” replied Brian Clemens, “it’s about transporting a dead body from one bed to another across the whole of America. If you can imagine that President Jimmy Carter is having an affair in Boston and is supposed to be in Washington and has a heart attack and his mistress then comes to Vincent Price and says: He’s got to be found in his own bed on Monday morning… Well that’s it.”

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“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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Canned Laughter aims to expose reel laughter at the Cannes Film Festival

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by India’s We Speak News)

Jonathan Hansler will roll with the punches

I first met actor Jonathan Hansler a few years ago at one of the late lamented Fringe Report’s monthly meetings. He was named Best Actor in their final 2011 Awards. I mentioned him in January this year in a blog about the unveiling of a plaque at the site of the old Establishment Club in Soho – he is an indefatigable admirer and promoter of the late Peter Cook.

Jonathan is also half of comedy duo Teakshow. But, as well as the comedy streak running through him there is an entrepreneurial streak.

Three weeks ago he started an organisation which aims to run a comedy movie section – Canned Laughter – parallel to the main Cannes Film Festival next May.

Canned Laughter is intended to be a “focal point for comedy films at Cannes” and to increase Comedy’s profile there and elsewhere. Their ‘Mission Statement’ says:

Comedy is the hardest medium to perform and yet it gets little recognition. In the history of the Oscars, only four comedy films have ever won an award and there is no Best Comedy Oscar. In our opinion, it is a seriously undervalued medium. Canned Laughter aims to open up the possibilities of comedy film-making and to be a place for new film-makers to have their films screened via a competition with an experienced panel of judges… This is a multi-billion global industry yet there is no venue for it at the most celebrated film festival in the world… It is time comedy is recognised for the brilliant art form that it is at the most important film festival in the world. Comedy is all about timing and the time has never been better – changing the world through comedy and making it a brighter place.

“Canned Laughter would give awards?” I asked Jonathan Hansler yesterday at Silver Road Studios in London.

“Yes. We have the idea for something called The Peter Sellers Awards – best comedy film, best actor – our mini-awards at Cannes.”

“Only for English language films?” I asked.

“Well, we welcome international films from all over the world.”

“So some comedy film in Spanish from Guatemala…” I started.

“Yeah,” said Jonathan. “So long as we can understand it – if it’s dubbed or sub-titled or even silent comedy or animation. Every form of comedy including shorts.”

To make Canned Laughter a reality, Jonathan has partnered with a whole group of people and companies, including Silver Road Studios, live promotion company Best Jester Entertainment and Sarah Pemberton of TV/film production company Red Skin Media,

“I came up with the idea,” Jonathan explained to me yesterday, “because I was at Cannes four or five years ago and they had something called the Straight 8, where you had about ten minutes of Super-8 film shot continuously without cutting and they showed these little films at Cannes and all the cock-ups were left in and I was sat in this tent with this very funny guy hosting it and I was falling about with laughter and I thought I have not been to anywhere in Cannes like this.

“Generally at Cannes, you go to parties with a load of people looking terribly serious or talking shit or totally pissed but no laughter, no lightness. It’s like Disneyland with security guards, because it doesn’t promote lightness. It has a sense of snobbery about it, it’s got lots of posh black cars, loads of people in bow ties hanging around with very beautiful women – and that’s all fantastic, but what I find about comedy is it’s a very honest medium. It tells the truth a lot of the time and that’s wonderful to have in a place where, a lot of the time, there’s a lot of bullshit.

“Canned Laughter is about opening up the possibilities of comedy, so people are more aware of the brilliance and genius… How many geniuses are there as actors? There are a few. But, in comedy, there are loads of geniuses. And yet it’s an undervalued medium.”

“So,” I asked, “you want people to submit their films to you.”

“Yes,” said Jonathan.

“And they pay to enter their movie?”

“A nominal fee to be decided,” replied Sarah Pemberton. “It’s a model that already works well at the Cannes Film Festival in the Short Film Corner,. As far as entries are concerned, we could potentially launch Canned Laughter at the London Comedy Film Festival in January.”

“Which isn’t bad,” I said, “considering Canned Laughter started three weeks ago.”

“Well,” said Jonathan, “ I came up with the idea in June, but I had to wait until after the Edinburgh Fringe to get things together so people would be back in London and you have to let things simmer in your head. It came together when we had a meeting here at Silver Road Studios. We had about 65 people which I whittled down to a core team.”

“And you told me about some very impressive patrons,” I said.

“Though we can’t name them yet,” said Jonathan. “There will be a website up in a week or so. This came out of pure love, pure passion. I just think the time is nigh, the time is right and it’s a portable idea because you can take it to any film festival.

Canned Laughter obviously refers to Cannes. But our logo will involve a can of film, so the idea of canned film makes it transferable. There could be spin-offs. For the Sundance Festival, we have the idea of Canned Laughter’s Fundance. But the focal point now is Cannes next May.”

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What happened last night – talk of deaths, Islam and Olympic terrorists

Dave Courtney (left) and Roy Shaw on the set of Killer Bitch

Tomorrow, the funeral of Roy Shaw is held in the quiet Essex village of Upshire. He died ten days ago, aged 76.

Currently, Wikipedia describes him as “an English millionaire, real estate investor, author and businessman from the East End of London who was formerly a criminal and Category ‘A’ prisoner. During the 1970s-1980s, Shaw was active in the criminal underworld of London and was frequently associated with the Kray Twins.”

It is only then that Wikipedia mentions his main claim to fame: the unlicensed/illegal boxing scene.

Roy Shaw was legendary for his unlicensed/illegal  fights, particularly against Lenny McLean.

When I met him on the set of the Killer Bitch movie a couple of years ago, he was quietly-spoken and seemed rather shy. Gentlemanly in an old-fashioned kind of way.

“He was a sweet old boy he was. He had a heart of gold,” Lou told me last night.

Lou was the armourer and ‘death consultant’ on Killer Bitch.

“You knew him after he was a boxer?” I asked.

“Oh yeah. I knew him from about 1995/1996 from all the charity-raising things,” Lou said. “In the old days, he was built. Really strong man. Amazing. It was like his ears had muscles. The muscles started just below his ears and went down to his shoulders. He was in terrific shape.”

Roy Shaw was not the only recent death in the Killer Bitch cast.

Sean Boru died in February.

He only made a tiny appearance in the movie, but had the most extraordinary stories when I talked to him off-set.

He beat cancer three times, wrote his own autobiography No Sense of Tumour and ghost wrote the biographies of £9.7 million Lottery winner Michael Carroll (who also appeared in Killer Bitch) and snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. He turned down the offer of writing rock reprobate Pete Doherty’s autobiography, reportedly on the basis that model Kate Moss was concerned it would expose too much of her private life.

He was also chummy with former alleged Irish bank-robber Gerry Hutch – ‘The Monk’ – much talked-of when I worked in Ireland in the mid-1990s.

Last night, I discovered Lou had made pocket money out of Killer Bitch’s notoriety:

“I bought an 8mm blank-firing .44 automatic for the film,” he told me. “It cost me £40 and I sold it the other week for £125. The guy wanted it because it had been used in Killer Bitch. Being used in the film had ‘added worth’ to it.

The death of Ben Dover in the opening scene of Killer Bitch

“And I sold that curved jambiya knife we used in the opening scene – where the naked girl stabs Ben Dover to death – I paid £12 for that at an arms fair and I sold it to a bloke for £40. Again, he wanted it because it had been used in the film.”

I spent two hours having tea with Lou.

When I came home, there was an e-mail waiting for me from film director Paul Wiffen, whom I blogged about yesterday.

“I was interested to read in your blog about the idea that people will be half-watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony in case there is a terrorist attack,” Paul’s e-mail said.

“However, I am fully expecting a terrorist attack not on the Olympic Stadium itself but on Stratford station. By making this the ‘public transport’ Olympics, the Einsteins at LOCOG have picked the terrorists’ target for them. If terrorists destroy the transport hub, which is completely unprotected, then they bring the Olympics to a standstill without having to crack the stadium security.

“Stratford is three stops on the barrierless Docklands Light Railway from the East London Mosque where they are taught (1) that all men should have a beard without an associated moustache, (2) that all women should be covered from head to toe at all times and – most worryingly – that, if they kill lots of men and women who don’t obey (1) and (2), Allah will give them 70 houris in Paradise. Quite what they will do with them once they have detonated Semtex in their underpants I am not sure.

“All this stuff with missiles on top of flats is really stupid. The security people need profiling on public transport from three miles away. If they don’t, then Stratford will be a sitting target for a lone individual. If he picks the right time, a single guy could kill 5,000 and shut the Olympics down without going anywhere near any of the G4S security people or the soldiers in the Stadium.”

In this blog, I partially try to give an insight into various lifestyles and interesting views on life, not just my own.

Tomorrow, I will not be attending Roy Shaw’s funeral in Essex, because I will be attending the interment of comedian Malcolm Hardee’s mother’s ashes in South London.

So it goes.

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Less than six degrees of separation for Malcolm Hardee, Ridley Scott, Stevie Wonder, EdFringe and Apple iPhones

Paul Wiffen knows how to use Stevie Wonder’s thumb print

I am interested in the concept of six degrees of separation, because it is usually an overestimate.

I had a drink again yesterday with the indefatigable criminal-turned-author-turned-film-producer Jason Cook, who is putting together a movie The Devil’s Dandruff, based on There’s No Room For Jugglers in My Circus, the first of his three semi-autobiographical crime/drug trade novels.

He has now teamed up with Paul Wiffen who, like Jason, is what Hollywood calls a ‘hyphenate’.

He is a director-producer-composer-sound designer-performer and even, much to his own surprise, appearing in a cardigan in the closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games.

It turned out that Paul’s father was born in Chadwell Heath in Essex and Paul lives there now.

“That’s a coincidence,” I said.

It is the outer suburb of London where my parents briefly lived when my family first came down from Scotland. My teenage years were spent in nearby Seven Kings, where the perhaps one-mile long high road was lined almost entirely with second hand car dealers.

“This was,” I told Paul yesterday, “before the name John went out of fashion because of – I think – Alexei Sayle’s song Ullo John, Got a New Motor? making it a naff name.”

“That’s a coincidence,” Paul said. I was at school with Rik Mayall. I was in a school production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I was Rosencrantz; he was Guildenstern and we also did Waiting For Godot, but I wasn’t one of the two leads: I was the guy who comes on as the horse.”

When Paul left school and went to Oxford University, he joined the Oxford University Drama Group but found others were better at acting, so he concentrated on doing the music.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe,” he told me yesterday, “I was in this terrible po-faced Oxford production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. But, that same year, my friend Lindsay was musical director of a Cambridge Footlights’ comedy production at the Fringe which had Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery. Lindsay got food poisoning one night and I filled-in for three or four days.”

“Oh,” I asked. “Was Emma Thompson also performing at a venue called The Hole in The Ground that year?”

“I think she was,” Paul replied.

“Well that’s another coincidence, then,” I said. “I think that might have been the year when The Hole in the Ground had three tents in it – for Emma Thompson, The Greatest Show on Legs and American performance artist Eric Bogosian. My comedian chum Malcolm Hardee got pissed-off by the noise Eric Bogosian made during The Greatest Show on Legs’ performances – and Bogosian had made Emma Thompson cry – so Malcolm got a tractor and drove it, naked, through the middle of Bogosian’s show.”

While at Oxford, Paul also got an early taste of movie-making when he was an extra in the Oxford-shot ‘Harvard’ scenes of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (the movie which destroyed United Artists).

“I was three behind Kirs Kristoffersen in the awards ceremony,” he told me, “but I was cut out of the ‘short’ version of Heaven’s Gate shown in Britain, so I have never actually seen myself in it!”

By 1982, after he graduated from Oxford University with a Master’s Degree in Languages, he shared a flat on the Goldhawk Road in West London.

“I went to some party that was a Who’s Who of early alternative comedy,” he told me, “and somebody introduced me to this rather chubby bloke saying: This is Alexei Sayle from Liverpool.

“I got on really well with him cos I grew up in Liverpool and he said: Oh, we’re doin’ a music video tomorrow morning in Goldhawk Road. Why don’t you come down. So I stood in the background on a car lot on the Goldhawk Road about three streets away from where I lived and watched them shoot Ullo John, Got a New Motor?

Later, Paul was involved in five Ridley Scott directed movies, the first as sound designer on the Blade Runner soundtrack composed by Vangelis. The gas explosions burning on the skyline are actually, Paul told me, slowed-down timpani “because explosions didn’t work.

“Most of the first three weeks on that project,” he said, “I had no idea what I was working on. There was super secrecy. I thought I was doing a Coca Cola advert. I wasn’t allowed in the main room to see what was being projected but, once, I looked through the door and saw this space ship floating across with Drink Coke on it. After three weeks, I realised Maybe even Coca Cola adverts don’t go on this long.

“Then I went on to another Vangelis soundtrack which was The Bounty starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Roger Spottiswood. I didn’t do any work with Roger Spottiswood at all. On the final third of his pictures, Ridley Scott has the composer in the room with him – editor, composer, composer’s team and Ridley. Spottiswood wasn’t there.

“For The Bounty, we did the whole score on the 9th floor of the Hotel Pierre on Central Park in New York. Vengelis had the whole of the 9th floor because, he told me, he knew he would be making so much noise the hotel could not put anyone else on the 9th floor. It turned out the movie budget had also paid for every room on the 8th and the 10th floors as well, so Vengelis could compose the soundtrack on the 9th.

“The next time Vangelis called me was for a terrible Italian film called Francesco – the story of St Francis of Assisi with Mickey Rourke strangely cast as the saint. Vengelis always works evenings and nights, so we were there at 4 o’clock in the morning scoring this scene in which Mickey Rourke rolls bollock-naked in a snow drift – apparently St Francis used to assuage his natural urges by doing this. So we are sitting there watching Mickey Rourke rolling bollock-naked in slow motion in a snow drift and Vangelis turns to me and says: Sometimes, this is the best job in the world… but tonight it’s the fucking worst.”

That is a key scene in the planned movie which Paul hopes to make about Vangelis. He would direct the film and also play Vangelis.

“And he’s happy with that?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” said Paul, “I first suggested the idea to him about two years ago. The main thing is he wants anyone who plays him to be actually able to play the piano.

“The only other film I did with Vangelis was 1492: Conquest of Paradise. I was supposed to do some stuff on Alexander, but I ended up getting 30 seconds of my music in the film and nothing with Vangelis. I’ve done two other movies with Ridley, both with Hans Zimmer – Black Rain and Gladiator. I think I’ve done 17 films with Hans Zimmer.

“On Gladiator, I did a lot of the synthesizers behind Lisa Gerrard, who plays the zither and sings on that score. That was probably the longest project I’ve ever worked on: it was over a year.”

For the last four years, Paul has been developing a movie script with Laurence Marks & Maurice Gran: a feature film version of their New Statesman TV series with Rik Mayall.

“The plot,” says Paul, “is about how Alan B’stard is responsible for the credit crunch and all that money that’s disappeared – Alan’s got it all.”

Gran & Marks are also, says Paul, “developing their half-hour TV comedy drama Goodnight Sweetheart as a 90-minute stage musical”

Between 2001-2004, Paul told me, he “realised the music industry was dying on its feet and I wanted to get into the film industry. I reckoned the only job that could get me from one to the other was working for Apple computers.

“I did the first ever demonstration of an iPod in Europe. The original pre-release version of the iPod recorded sound, but Steve Jobs got so worried about the idea it might be used to bootleg concerts that they actually took the capabilities off the first iPod they released.

“As part of what I did for the next two years, I had to work on the beta versions of new products and they sent me through – in great secrecy – what they called ‘an audio and video recording iPod’. Do you know what that was?”

“What?” I asked.

“It was the iPhone. We just thought it recorded audio and shot video. It looked very similar to what it looks like now, but telephones weren’t that shape in those days. Another team was working on the telephone part of it.

“I pointed out to them that, when you scrolled, it took a long time to go through long lists because it stopped every time you took your finger off. I said, Why don’t you make it so, once you swipe your finger and lift it off, the menu keeps spinning like a globe of the world does if you spin it. So you can spin it and then put your finger on again to stop it where you want…. 2004 that was.”

“Great idea!” I said. “You should be working for Apple at Cupertino!”

“I lived in California from 1986 to 1992,” Paul replied, “and I told myself I’m only going back when I’m a famous film director.”

“Maybe The Devil’s Dandruff will be the one,” I told him.

Jason Cook smiled.

“If you want to get an American work visa,” Paul said to me, “do you know how to get one?”.

“Marriage?” I suggested.

“No,” said Paul. “You get Stevie Wonder to put his thumb print on the application and then they have to grant your work permit, otherwise they’re not allowed to keep the piece of paper with his thumb print. There are always people in the Immigration & Naturalization Service that are big Stevie Wonder fans.”

Paul worked for nine months doing ‘sound design’ on Stevie Wonder’s album Characters which had one hit single –  Skeletons – which was used in the limousine sequence of the movie Die Hard.

Movies, music, Malcolm Hardee, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Willis.

Six degrees of separation is usually an overestimate.

Or maybe Paul Wiffen just has his fingers in lots of pies.

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“Get Carter” – the best British gangster film ever made despite alcoholism

Michael Caine playing his own ghost in Get Carter

The first time I ever paid attention to film directing as a child was watching the British ABC TV arts series Tempo.

One episode I saw was so visually stylish and so vividly edited that I actually went to the TV Times listings magazine and checked who the director was.

It was Mike Hodges and I looked out for his name ever after. He is 80 years old in nine days time.

He directed the wonderful and little-seen 1969 Thames TV thriller Rumour (if ever any film were ripe for a re-make, this one is) and his first cinema movie was Get Carter (1971), arguably the best British gangster film ever made (although The Long Good Friday gives it a run for its money).

Michael Caine has said: “One of the reasons I wanted to make Get Carter was my background. In English movies, gangsters were either stupid or funny. I wanted to show that they’re neither. Gangsters are not stupid, and they’re certainly not very funny.” He said central character Jack Carter was the sort of person he might himself have become: “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood; I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.”

Mike Hodges had originally written the script (based on Ted Lewis‘ novel Jack’s Return Homewith Ian Hendry in mind for the title role (in the finished film, he plays a subsidiary role as the henchman Eric Paice). But producer Michael Klinger wanted Michael Caine, by then already a bankable star.

Ian Hendry’s career had declined, he was alcoholic and in poor physical shape. The climactic chase scene between Caine and Hendry was shot in reverse order, with Hodges filming Hendry’s death first because he was worried Hendry would be too out of breath to play the death scene after running. Hendry’s jealousy of Caine’s success was apparently obvious on set and was made worse by his drinking. Hodges tried to rehearse the film’s racecourse scene between Caine and Hendry in their hotel the night before, but Hendry’s “drunken and resentful state” forced him to abandon the attempt.

Despite all this, Ian Hendry got a 1972 BAFTA Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor and Michael Caine, in one of his best film roles, got nothing.

Mike Hodges introduced a screening of Get Carter at the National Film Theatre in London last night, part of their celebrations of the hundredth birthday of cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky (who was in the audience and, according to Mike Hodges, still “leaps up stairs like a gazelle”).

The reason Hodges chose Suschitzky to shoot Get Carter was because he remembered seeing a 1963 movie The Small World of Sammy Lee starring the great Anthony Newley, on which Wolf also cinematographer.

“I loved that film,” Mike said last night. “It was shot in Soho and I was going to be shooting Get Carter in the North East of England, but it was in the same sort of milieu as Get Carter – a seedy underworld.

The Small World of Sammy Lee was shot in black and white. To show poverty and seedy world is comparatively easy in black and white: it lends itself to showing that kind of decay. But colour is a different matter.

“There had been a film called Up The Junction released a little earlier, in 1968. It had been a TV play in black and white, then they made a cinema film of it in colour, which made it look very glossy and beautiful and expensive and, although it was made in London in the same sort of sad, junky-ridden areas we were shooting in in the North East… Well, Wolf’s gift to me on Get Carter was to capture the seediness in colour.”

Thus are great movies made.

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Nazis from the dark side of the Moon and ultra film violence from Indonesia

Prince Charles Cinema: home of lateral thinking marketing

London would be a duller place if the Prince Charles Cinema did not exist.

A few weeks ago, the management were asking what their market position was. I said I thought the cinema filled a gap between the mainstream and art house cinemas. In among some cult commercial films, the Prince Charles screens movies the National Film Theatre seldom if ever shows.

The Prince Charles screens cult, schlock, under-the-radar and often extraordinarily quirky movies. Amid special events like Sing-a-long-a-Grease, the Bugsy Malone Sing-Along, Swear-Along-With-South-Park and a screening of ‘The Die Hard Trilogy’ (they are not including Die Hard 4.0 because they say it is not a ‘real’ Die Hard film…. they will soon be screening the little-heard-of Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie and God Bless America (with free hot dogs) as well as an all-night marathon of Friday the 13th Parts I-VIII.

They also yesterday screened two films extraordinary even by their standards – Iron Sky and The Raid both of which, I suspect, have been held back by titles less vivid than they should be. Iron Sky should, I think, really have been called Nazis From The Dark Side of The Moon… or Space Nazis… because the plot runs thus:

Iron Sky: Nazis are not a waste of space

In 1945, some Nazis escaped to the Moon, where they built a giant secret base in the shape of a swastika. Since then, they have been watching us and waiting for the right time to mount an invasion of Earth in their meteor-towing zeppelin-shaped spacecraft and take their revenge. The date is now 2018 and the time is right…

Admittedly I got in for free, but THAT is a movie I would pay good money to see and the strange thing about it is that the visuals and the special effects are excellent, as are the sound, the direction and the acting. And the acting is difficult to pull off, because all the lines are (quite rightly) delivered totally straight-faced, so the acting style has to be in that difficult region between realistic and slightly stylised cartoon – If you have a central Negro character whom the Nazis turn white and a sequence in which the vacuum of space pulls off a female Nazi’s clothes yet she is still somehow able to breathe, there is a credibility risk unless you have everything spot-on.

They get away with lines like (I paraphrase):

“I was black but now I’m white. I went to the dark side of the Moon but now I’m back. And the space Nazis are coming!”

(To a taxi driver) “Take us upState – We need to get back to the Moon”

and

“The Nazis are the only guys the US managed to beat in a fair fight”

Alright, the last line is not actually so odd; it is the truth (if you exclude the British in 1776).

Iron Sky has its faults – it would be a much better film with less ponderous, less Wagnerian music – oddly from Slovenian avant-garde group Laibach – but it is 93 minutes long and never less than interesting.

It is good clean Nazi fun and has a fair stab at satire with a cynical political PR lady who sees the benefits of having a Nazi invasion of Earth and a not-too-far-removed-from-reality Sarah Palin type female US President in 2018 who says: “All Presidents who start a war in their first term get re-elected”.

With an unsurprisingly complicated production history, it is basically a Finnish film with English and German dialogue (sub-titled) which was shot for an estimated 7.5 million Euros in Australia, Finland, Germany and New York and partly financed by ‘crowd funding’ from fan investors.

Iron Sky is well worth seeing on the big screen – something that is highly unlikely in the UK now, as distributors Revolver are putting it straight to DVD.

The Raid: wall-to-wall high-rise violence

The Raid is another film championed by the Prince Charles Cinema though, unlike Iron Sky, it did get a decent UK release.

It is a visceral, staggeringly-violent Indonesian action film directed by Welsh film-maker Gareth Evans (allegedly only 27-years-old) with jaw-dropping martial arts sequences.

I am no martial arts aficionado, but the action is amazing – it showcases the unknown-to-me Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat.

The movie won the Midnight Madness Award at the 2011 Toronto Film Festival and that sounds a pretty well-titled award.

The plot is token – more a MacGuffin than a plot.

A less-than-elite SWAT team mount an attack on the strangely run-down Jakarta tower block base of a crime lord who has rented rooms in the block out to the city’s most dangerous murderers, killers and gangsters… and, inexplicably, to one ordinary good guy and his pregnant wife.

Running 101 minutes, it could usefully have about 10 minutes trimmed off it, but it is astonishingly gripping throughout, especially given that it is simply wall-to-wall violence. Very well edited and with vivid Dolby Stereo, it is like being in a firefight. You have no idea what is going to happen next.

And the violence is relentless.

There are a couple of half-hearted attempts to give the movie depth and a late attempt to create personal sympathy with one of the characters, but this is pointless.

Watching it reminded me of the original reviews of Reservoir Dogs, which said that film was mindlessly violent, staggeringly bloody and was simply violence for the sake of violence.

Reservoir Dogs was not.

The Raid is.

And I loved it.

Director Gareth Evans could be the new Quentin Tarantino.

Uniquely different. That is what you get at the Prince Charles Cinema.

Nazis from the Dark Side of the Moon for 93 minutes and mindless martial art violence from Indonesia for 101 minutes.

Now that is what I call entertainment.

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Filed under Cult, Culture, Humor, Humour, Kitsch, London, Movies, Violence