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Douglas Adams talks. Part 3: Why he rejected Monty Python’s Terry Jones

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this 1980 interview, Douglas Adams told me about how the radio, stage and book versions of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came into being. In Part 3 (of 4), he talks about how the TV and movie versions did and did not happen.


Douglas Adams decided to turn down £50,000

JOHN: There was talk of a  Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy feature film.

DOUGLAS: Well, I’ve been into that twice and each time I’ve backed out. I knew we were going to be doing it for BBC TV anyway and I knew we could do it all on telly. In the first film deal that was being set up, the American guy who was going to be directing it… I began to feel we were talking about different things and he wanted to make Star Wars with jokes. We seemed to be talking about different things and one thing after another seemed not quite right and I suddenly realised that the only reason I was going ahead with it was the money. And that, as the sole reason, was not a good enough reason. Although I have to get rather drunk in order to believe that. (LAUGHS)

It had got to the stage where I just had to sign a piece of paper and would instantly have £50,000 up-front, so I was quite pleased with myself for not doing that. I thought: There’s no point in doing a film at the moment. Then the whole thing re-opened when Terry Jones of Monty Python, who’s a great friend of mine, said he’d like to think about making a film of Hitch-Hiker. So I thought That sounds like a nice idea but the original idea was to do something based fairly solidly round that first radio series and I just didn’t want to do that again. I’d done it on radio, on stage, on record, in a book and was now doing it on television. It just seemed a pointless waste of time to do the same story again on film.

So we then thought it would be much more worthwhile to do a new story. But then we had the problem of having to do a story which was, on the one hand, totally consistent with what had gone before for those who knew what had happened and, on the other hand, totally self-contained for the sake of those who didn’t. And that began to be a terrible conundrum and I just couldn’t solve it. So, in the end, Terry and I just said: “It’d be nice to do a film together, but let’s just start from scratch again and not make a Hitch-Hiker.”

(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – no hyphen – movie was eventually released in 2005, four years after Douglas Adams’ death)

JOHN: I was surprised when I first heard about the TV series and the film because I  thought the radio series was un-visualisable.

DOUGLAS: Well, obviously, there are things you lose when you move onto television in that what you actually see restricts what you imagine whereas, on radio, what you hear provokes what you imagine. On the other hand, there are all sorts of things I think are worthwhile. One of the great strengths of the television series is those wonderful animated graphics. If you’d been sitting down to do something like Hitch-Hiker for television to begin with, there are all sorts of things it wouldn’t have occurred to you to do. Like having a narrator who talks all the time: you just don’t normally have that on television.

But we were committed to that because of its success on radio. Having to translate something from one medium to another, you have to find solutions to problems which normally wouldn’t have posed themselves. Finding those solutions is interesting and that’s how we got those graphics. If you were doing a BBC television programme normally, you would just not gratuitously attempt to have one character with two heads. It just poses far too many problems. But, being committed to that, we had to do it.

BBC TV Special Effects designer Jim Francis tests his radio controlled head for Zaphod.Beeblebrox. (Photograph by John Fleming)

So they built this head which is a quite remarkable construction. It’s moulded from Mark Wing-Davey’s own head and the neck movement side-to-side and up-and-down, the eye and the mouth and the eyebrow and the cheek are all radio-controlled. It’s an extraordinary feat. Something you would not have got except in the process of translating one medium to another. You’re committed to things you otherwise wouldn’t have tackled.

JOHN: Like those wonderful computer read-outs for the book.

DOUGLAS: The computer read-outs are all animated. I’d assumed one would do it as computer graphics and actually use a real computer to do it, but apparently that is incredibly expensive. So it was done by animation, which is more effective.

JOHN: I saw the completed version of the first episode at the Edinburgh Television Festival way back in August. Why was it finished so early? Because it was a pilot?

Concept sketch of Marvin  by Jim Francis for the TV series.

DOUGLAS: Well, a sort of pilot. ‘Pilot’ can mean several things. In some cases, a pilot episode is made and broadcast to see how the audience reacts to it. This was a different sort of pilot. The BBC had said: We’re committed to doing the series. But we want to do the first one separately so we can see we’re doing it right. And then we have the opportunity of changing things. In fact, that isn’t quite how it worked out. When the bills came in for the first programme, there was a certain amount of stunned shock and back-peddling on whether or not they were going to do the rest of the series. Then they said: Yes, we will go ahead, but try to be a little more careful. (LAUGHS)

JOHN: One of the most popular characters is Marvin the Paranoid Android. I believe he came from a specific…

DOUGLAS: Yes, Andrew Marshall. He’s one of the writers of The Burkiss Way and End of Part One. He co-wrote the radio series Hordes of the Things with John Lloyd, which was a sort of parody of Lord of the Rings. Very silly.

JOHN: You’re really part of a third generation of Cambridge comedy writers. There was the Beyond The Fringe and TW3 lot. Then the I’m Sorry I’ll Read That AgainThe Goodies and Monty Python lot. And now there’s The Burkiss Way, End of Part One, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Hitch-Hiker and so on lot. The generation after Monty Python.

DOUGLAS: I suppose so. But in that previous generation one major programme sat on the top of the pile, which was Python. I think all my way through Cambridge I desperately wanted that to happen all over again. I wanted to function as part of a group of writer-performers. But, you see, a radical change had come over the way things were organised.

The Cambridge Footlights’ ADC Theatre in 2005 (Photograph by Andrew Dunn)

In those days – the time that produced Python – the writer-performer was the kingpin. That was true in the Cambridge Footlights and in the shows that those guys then went on to do. So it was the guys themselves who were doing it and they came together and a producer was given to them just to get it onto the screen and make it work. By my day. The Footlights had become a producer’s show. So a producer is there to say what the show is going to be – a student producer or, more likely, someone who was at Cambridge two years previously who’s come back to do it. He says I want so-and-so in it and I want so-and-so to write it and they’re appointed and the producer calls the tune. I think that’s wrong.

That’s what’s true in Not The Nine O’Clock News. I’ll get into trouble for saying this but I think that’s wrong: it just makes it slightly too artificial. My year in the Cambridge Footlights was full of immensely talented people who never actually got the chance to really work together properly, because they were all working for somebody else rather than getting together. So it was very fragmented and you get on the one hand Hitch-Hiker, which is written by one person with actors employed to do it, and on the other hand Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is a producer’s show being sort of driven from the back seat. And there’s nothing central that has come out of my Cambridge generation.

JOHN: How many years of your life have you spent on Hitch-Hiker now?

DOUGLAS: Four. The first time it actually crept into my life was the end of 1976.

JOHN: Are you actually interested in science fiction?

DOUGLAS: Yes and no.

… CONTINUED HERE

‘Dish of the Day’ concept sketch by Jim Francis for BBC TV’s Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! stage show and the more prestigious Aaaaaaah! movie

I dreamt of partying with these chaps

A midsummer day’s dream

I am old, bald and fat. It is very hot. Today I had a siesta.

As I have mentioned in this blog before, I seldom remember my dreams – only when I get woken up during one. That happened during my siesta. For some reason, I was dreaming that comic performer Martin Soan was trying to persuade me to go to a party organised by the band Radiohead.

I got woken up by a text from Martin Soan. When I told him what I had been dreaming, he said: “I have been to a Radiohead party. Years ago. A small one. Intimate. The drummer had a cottage next to a friend of mine.”

Martin had actually texted me to ask: “What date is the Malcolm Awards? I have a red carpet invitation in London on 28th August for Steve Oram’s new movie.”

Actually, the real, billed title of the Malcolm Awards show is Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s the Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – and It’s Free!

“Inevitably,” I texted back, “the Malcolm show is on 28th August in Edinburgh.”

This year is the tenth anniversary of the death by drowning of comedian Malcolm Hardee and the increasingly prestigious annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show is being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe on that very evening – Friday 28th August.

So something special, sophisticated and highly organised had to be arranged for this special anniversary show, didn’t it?

No! Of course not. That would smack of carefully-arranged professionalism and it would not be honouring Malcolm’s memory.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

Malcolm Hardee: a shadow of his former self

But, for the show, I had booked The Greatest Show on Legs, the troupe of occasionally naked men Malcolm performed with. We had not talked about what they were going to do, of course. Professionalism can be taken too far.

Anyway… so… this morning, I got this text from Martin Soan – the head Leg.

“I don’t know what I should do,” he said when I phoned him.

“Well, obviously,” I said, “you have to go to the film thing. What is the film called?”

“It is called Aaaaaaah!

“Not Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh!?”

“No, Aaaaaaah!”

“Do you have a running role?”

“I have a cameo.”

“How did they fit the broach into the plot?” I asked.

“I play a fading rock star,” he told me. “There is a trailer for it on YouTube.”

“I got the part after I did something for one of Oram & Meeten’s Club Fantastico stage shows. I won the title Miss Club Fantastico 2014.”

This is what Martin did to get the part.

The world premiere of Aaaaaaah! is on Friday 28th August in the Vue, Leicester Square, in London.

The annual Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrghhh! is on Friday 28th August at The Counting House in Edinburgh.

 

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A British film about a South American psycho killer made by a kung fu master

Chet Jethwa - kung fu master

Chet Jethwa – kung fu man

The enterprising Chet Jethwa is a chum of the equally enterprising Borehamwood-based Jason Cook, about whom I’ve blogged before.

Chet has a movie he directed currently being sold at the Cannes Film Festival. So we had a chat via Skype this morning.

“I’m originally a kung fu martial artist,” he told me. “I got into the film world when I was asked to do a fight scene in a low budget film a friend was making – The Estate. I went along for the day and played a Bruce Lee type character in a fight scene and had fun.”

“So how did you end up directing your own full-length feature film?” I asked.

“Well,” he told me, “I decided to do more movies, but no-one gave me the time of day, which basically pissed me off. So I told myself: I’m going to do it myself. So I decided to make a few short films and get some producing, acting and directing experience.

“My first 10-minute film – D.O.D. – won at the Angel Film Festival in London in 2009. This gave me the confidence to continue and I met Jason Cook on that. The second short I made – 55 Hill Rise – was the incentive I needed to move onto feature films. Jason helped me to produce that. I shot it, completed the final edit, put it on the shelf and then started writing my feature Carlos Gustavo – the one that’s now at Cannes.”

“Why this particular idea?” I asked.

Carlos Gustavo

Carlos Gustavo – the psychopath with instructions not to kill

“Well, because it’s not your typical British film,” explained Chet. “Carlos Gustavo is a South American hit man who has been hired to come to Britain and find a biological weapon by hunting down a scientist. He is a psychopath – Carlos is – but, on this mission, he’s not allowed to kill the guy because he has to bring him in alive. In the process, you’ve got MI5 chasing him, but they are not as competent as they should be.”

“And,” I asked, “he manages to kill a few people using kung fu?”

“There isn’t a lot of martial arts in the film,” said Chet. “It’s more to do with the characters.”

“How did you get finance for a film about a South American hit man running around Britain not killing people with kung fu?” I asked.

“It was very difficult,” said Chet, “and I pulled-in a lot of favours from everyone. But we shot it in just under thirty days in HD. We had to change a couple of cast members halfway through filming, so we had to re-shoot all those scenes, which added another couple of days, then we went straight to post production.”

“Why did you have to change the actors?” I asked.

“They didn’t get the concept, basically.”

“Which bit of the concept didn’t they get?”

“Their roles.”

“Well, Apocalypse Now!,” I said, “was re-cast after a week’s shooting. Martin Sheen replaced Harvey Keitel. And that worked well.”

“It happens,” said Chet. “Whatever the budget.”

“When did you finish Carlos Gustavo?” I asked.

“About a month before Cannes started,” said Chet, “so there was a lot of rush going on to get it out there in time. We got an international sales agent involved – Eddie Leahy.”

“What interested him?” I asked.

Cannes poster for Chet’s new movie

Current Cannes poster for Chet’s new movie

“That Carlos Gustavo is a different type of action thriller,” said Chet. “It has a lot of interesting twists. What you see at the beginning and what you think all the way through the film… In the end, you find out something completely different. It’s a really big story twist. What attracted everyone to get involved was the storyline.

“We’re hoping to get the international territories first and then bring it over to the UK and USA. I did a lot of research before shooting and people want strong characters rather than it all being action. This film, hopefully, will create an emotional response, rather than just having lots of action thrown in. It focuses more on emotional response.”

“I did see research once,” I said, “which found that, when audiences watch violence, they don’t look at the punch or the bullet hitting the victim; they look at the face of the victim. So their eyes don’t watch the action, they watch the reaction.

“In martial arts,” I prompted, “you’re in total control of what’s going on, but making a film is anarchy and everything changing…”

“Yes,” said Chet, “ it’s very difficult. You just work hard and keep hopeful, really. It’s certainly very difficult to get finance up-front.”

“And the cliché,” I said, “is that you never make money out of movies because the distributors nick it all.”

“It happens,” said Chet. “Creative accounting. But I’ve done my maths and we’ll have to be hopeful, really. Just get the film out there.”

“What about piracy?” I asked. “If you have a film that makes $200 million, you can afford to lose $20 million but, with small-budget films, online piracy can wipe them out and the distributors don’t/can’t stop it.”

“You can never be sure what will happen,” said Chet. “It’s really difficult to get the support you need from the industry people, so you’ve got to do it yourself. It’s very hard to get an opportunity, so you’ve gotta make the opportunities yourself.”

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The film of comedian Lewis Schaffer which you cannot currently see online

Lewis Schaffer (left) and Ivor Dembina at the NFT last night

Lewis Schaffer (left) & Ivor Dembina at NFT

Yesterday night, with comedians Ivor Dembina  and Lewis Schaffer, I went to see writer Mark Kelly’s stage-work-in-progress What A Day at the unusual venue of London’s National Film Theatre. Teakshow duo Johnny Hansler and Jackie Stirling performed. The play will probably be re-titled on future outings and is unusual in probably having more gags-per-minute than Lewis Schaffer has self-doubts-per-minute.

Meanwhile, a film-maker named Jonathan Schwab has shot a 10-minute short – Lewis Schaffer Is Free Until Famous – which is on Vimeo, but which remains password-protected so no-one can see it, because Lewis Schaffer has his doubts.

No news there.

Lewis Schaffer has his doubts - several times per minute

Lewis Schaffer has his doubts – several times every minute

Writing “Lewis Schaffer has his doubts” is like writing “The Sahara has its sand”.

“It’s a technically very well-made film,” I reassured him last night.

“I know,” Lewis Schaffer shot back. “He’s a serious German film-maker. Looks a bit like Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks and Showgirls. But I’m worried I’ll be like Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh. Have you seen it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you’ll know what I mean.”

“Not remotely,” I replied.

“The pathos,” said Lewis Schaffer. “To me, I thought it was an incredible movie.”

The Last Laugh?” I asked.

“The film about me,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I thought it was an incredible movie, It’s a brilliant film. I just wish I wasn’t in it.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s just me bitching about how I’m not any good,” said Lewis Schaffer.

Lewis Schaffer performs in the unseen film

Lewis Schaffer shares his doubts with audiences in the movie

“But that’s your schtick,” I said. “That’s your act. All your shows are made up of you saying you’re no good or telling people your name is Lewis Schaffer. The film is great publicity. The only thing publicity can do is make you interesting enough for people to want to go see your live show and they will make up their own minds on your act after they see the show.”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “They’ll see this guy on the film and think Oh my god, his shows are going to be irretrievably horrible.”

“I think it’s good publicity,” I told Lewis Schaffer. “It will intrigue people who don’t know you and it will increase your standing among other comics simply because someone has actually chosen to make a film about you instead of them. The main thing is it shows your face and it keeps saying the words Lewis Schaffer.”

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen.” said Lewis Schaffer. “Jonathan Schwab will be famous for making this film. His film is like the end of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street.

“I’ve not seen Scarlet Street,” I told Lewis Schaffer. “What happens?”

“Edward G Robinson had killed his… had killed… I can’t remember, but he was going through a mid-life crisis and his comeuppance was… I can’t remember… He was sentenced to roaming round the city as a broken, un-famous man like me… No, he was a weekend dabbler as a painter and this young girl took his paintings and sold them as hers and the girl became famous for his paintings.”

“Well,” I told Lewis Schaffer, “I have to tell you I’m working on an act very similar to yours and thinking of performing it myself at the Edinburgh Fringe this year… But what’s your Scarlet Street comeuppance?”

“My comeuppance is being known as a depressed failure.”

“That’s not your comeuppance,” I said. “That’s your entire stage act.”

“I say in the film I’m tragic,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I’m not tragic. Well, I am tragic, of course, but other people don’t need to know that.”

“They can’t avoid it,” I said. “If they go to your show, you keep telling them that!”

Lewis Schaffer looking far from tragic in the movie

Lewis Schaffer looks far from tragic in the movie

“I’ve had a tragic life,” Lewis said, warming to his theme, “in that every person’s life who lives an unfulfilled life is tragic – who doesn’t accomplish what he could accomplish or should accomplish and every single day is doing less than he could be doing.”

“But you’ve appeared in my blog repeatedly,” I pointed out to him. “What greater fame could you want?”

“I could be happier,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I don’t even know if I even want fame. It’s not a question of fame; it’s a question of accomplishing something. In a way, my life is tragic, but no more tragic than other people’s. Have you seen the comment on my Facebook page? It’d make a good ending for your blog.”

“What does it say?” I asked.

Lewis Schaffer read it out to me.

“I’m not sure that’s a good ending,” I told him. “It’s a bit negative.”

“It’s a good ending for your blog about Lewis Schaffer,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

This is what the comment on Lewis Schaffer’s Facebook page says:

For the millionth fucking time, take me off your goddamn mailing list. Sitting through your show was one of the most painful experiences of my life, stop reminding me of it. REMOVE THE EMAIL ADDRESS FROM YOUR FUCKING MAILING LIST!!!!!!!

“It’s a good ending for your blog about Lewis Schaffer,” Lewis Schaffer repeated.

At the time of writing this blog, Jonathan Schwab’s excellent 10-minute Vimeo film remains password-protected so that the public can’t see it, because Lewis Schaffer remains unsure if it is good for his image.

His twice-every-week show Free Until Famous – the longest-running solo comedy show in London – continues every Tuesday and Wednesday in the glittering West End (well, South West Soho, near Piccadilly Circus) and his weekly radio show Nunhead American Radio With Lewis Schaffer continues on the internet every Monday night on Resonance FM.

The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

A modest 2010 publicity shot of self-doubting Lewis Schaffer

“What are you going to do about your hair?” I asked him.

“I think I might go grey,” said Lewis Schaffer. “What do you think? I’m not sure. The trouble is all my publicity photos have black hair. I would have to have new photos taken.”

“You could get them taken for free by St Martin’s,” I suggested.

“I think I might maybe go grey,” said Lewis Schaffer.

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Why do people keep criticising macho, talented, not really small Tom Cruise?

Jim Grant aka Lee Child, father of Reacher

Jim Grant aka Lee Child, father of Reacher

Last night, my eternally-un-named friend and I went to see the new Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher.

I wanted to see it because the original novel was written by Lee Child, the pen-name of Jim Grant, a quiet, self-contained man I used to work with at Granada TV in Manchester. We were not friends; we just worked in the same department; and we have not kept in touch. But I knew him in a general way.

So I have an interest, but no personal axe to grind.

Jack Reacher was wonderful.

I was not expecting too much of it. Perhaps because of that, I was amazed at how good it was.

Quite a few reviews rightly praised the acting of German film director Werner Herzog who was cast as the terrifyingly icy villain. And some appreciated the always wonderful actor Robert Duvall. But Tom Cruise got little credit. Why?

I may be totally wrong, but I thought he may have partly based his Jack Reacher character’s apparent inner stillness on Jim Grant/Lee Child (who appears very briefly in the background of one scene as a police desk sergeant.)

Some of the reviews I read before seeing the film were rather lukewarm, rather grudging. Most seemed to carp on about how Tom Cruise does not look like the 6’5″ Jack Reacher of the novels.

Well, tough shit.

Sean Connery looked nothing like the English James Bond in the original Ian Fleming novels. Indeed, the Bond movies’ plots have almost nothing to do with the novels from which they nick their titles.

I have not read any of Lee Child’s 17 Jack Reacher novels but, if the plot of this first Jack Reacher movie bears any relation to the original book (One Shot) then ‘Lee Child’ writes bloody good books.

My eternally-un-named friend – often a Rom Com movie lover – and I had sat through a DVD of the appalling near-laugh-free zone that is Bridesmaids the previous night. When we came out of the cinema last night after seeing Jack Reacher, she simply said to me: “That was wonderful”. And it was, apart from a single bizarrely miscalculated scene in which Reacher throws away his gun and his advantage to have a macho fistfight… What was that all about?

The rest? Absolutely wonderful.

So why the grudging reviews? And why the constant sniping at Tom Cruise for being small?

It seemed a lot of the carping reviews were obsessed with the fact that, in the books, Jack Reacher is 6’5” and Tom Cruise is famously tiny. It didn’t make any difference to me, a non-reader of the books. He played ‘tough’ very effectively, just as he does in his Mission Impossible movies.

But, in any case, he is not actually small. He is 5’7″. The same height as Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Robert Downey Jnr… Are they small?

Daniel Radcliffe is 5’5″ and Emilio Estevez is 5’4; Jack Black, who played the large Gulliver, is 5’6″. Ben Stiller is 5’8″. Are they candidates for a re-make of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs? I think not.

Perhaps people keep criticising Tom Cruise because he is so successful or perhaps because he is a Scientologist. Who knows? It makes no difference to his acting or movie producing ability.

All I know is that he is a good actor and a good producer.

You don’t get cast by directors Michael Mann or Steven Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson just for being a Big Name. You get cast for acting ability. And, in the pre-credit sequence of Mission Impossible III, he gives a virtual masterclass in how to act the whole gamut of emotions.

He also produced the four Mission Impossible films.

The first was awful (employing visual stylist Brian De Palma as director, then filling the movie with scenes of people talking to each other, sometimes over tables in dull rooms)… but Mission Impossible II was very good… Mission Impossible III was an utterly superb piece of film-making… one of my favourite films… and the fourth Mission Impossible was a return to the quality of the second film. Not a bad average.

I just hope Tom Cruise makes at least another sixteen Jack Reacher movies, even if he will be a bit long in the tooth by the end.

Perhaps, like James Bond, they will re-cast occasionally.

But, for the foreseeable future, I am more than happy to watch Tom Cruise be tall and macho and talented.

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Late producer Gerry Anderson on his TV success, movie catastrophes and the state of pre-Thatcher Britain

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Yesterday, British TV and film producer Gerry Anderson died, aged 83.

Back in the media mists of 1979, I interviewed him. This was just  two years after Margaret Thatcher was elected for her first term as British Prime Minister. Earlier this year, I posted the interview in three of my daily blogs.

Below, those three blogs are combined, in their original, unchanged 1979 form.

* * *

Producer Gerry Anderson is best known for Thunderbirds and Space 1999, but his career dates back 23 years; it includes thirteen TV series and three feature films. For sixteen of those years, he worked for the expansive (Lord) Lew Grade, boss of ATV and its subsidiary ITC. The ending of that long working relationship seems to have left at least a trace of bitterness.

Anderson is a Londoner. He was born on 14th April 1929 in West Hampstead and educated in Kilburn, then Neasden – “I lived in Neasden,” he says. “What can I say? I can’t deny it.” His father supplied cigarette machines which ordinary people kept in their living rooms. The business was literally run from a cupboard under the stairs. Anderson Sr acquired customers by knocking on doors and asking: “Would you like this French-polished cigarette machine in your house?”

One of young Gerry’s first ambitions was to be an architect. In fact, he says, he would still like to design his own house but, whenever he’s had the money, he’s had no time… and whenever he’s had time he’s had no money. In his early days, he went to Building School and studied plastering. However, after an accident, he discovered he was allergic to plaster. So he went to work in a photographer’s studio in Regent Street and became interested in the visual medium.

He soon moved on to the post-war Colonial Film Unit at the Ministry of Information. He says that was “when we still had a British Empire – Before Lew Grade bought it all”. After that, Anderson moved to Gainsborough Pictures (at what is now BBC Lime Grove Studios). He worked in the cutting rooms on The Wicked Lady, So Long at The Fair, Jancy, Caravan and various other movies.

At this point, he was called up for National Service with the RAF and (he claims) his IQ was so low he “was offered the choice of the cookhouse or the military police”. In fact, he became a radio telephone operator, guiding aeroplanes in to land – this started his interest in flying.

After military service, he returned to the film industry and worked as a sound editor at Pinewood Studios, where director Lewis Milestone gave him the advice: “It’s impossible to please everybody, so please yourself”.

Anderson says: “I’ve tried to follow that advice without any success at all.”

Spreading his wings, he went to a small company, Polytechnic Films of Maidenhead. He worked for them on a series of documentaries about unusual people – a man in Austria who lived for a year in a bottle… a woman who could type in ten languages simultaneously… a man who hypnotised crocodiles. The series was called You’ve Never Seen This. No-one did; the company went bankrupt.

He stayed in Maidenhead to form AP Films with Arthur Provis in 1955. Their premises were a disused ballroom at Islet Park and, eventually, they were commissioned to make a 52-part series for the newly-created ITV. It was only after they agreed to the project that Anderson and Provis discovered it was to be a puppet series: The Adventures of Twizzle. This led to Torchy The Battery Boy, then Four Feather Falls for Granada TV (with Nicholas Parsons as the voice of Tex Tucker).

These series proved a success, so the Anderson company moved to a factory on the Slough Industrial Trading Estate. There they made Supercar for Lew Grade’s ATV. That was followed by Fireball XL-5, the only Anderson series to be networked in the US. Following that success, Lew Grade told Anderson: “I am going to buy your company”.

First series after the take-over was Stingray, which was also the first British TV film series made in colour. Then there was the world-wide success of Thunderbirds. Followed by what Anderson calls the “tragic error” of Captain Scarlet. – The heads and bodies were made in realistic proportion to each other, so the puppets stopped being caricatures and this, he thinks, was unacceptable to the viewers. Anderson’s last two Supermarionation series were Joe 90 and The Secret Service. He then went into live-action with UFOThe Protectors and Space 1999.

But, for all this success, Gerry Anderson is not a totally happy man. He’s had great success and everyone can understand success. But he’s also had sudden commercial failures which, to this day, he cannot explain. Also, three years ago, his marriage to Sylvia Anderson broke up. It happened between the two series of Space 1999 – a show which itself must have been tiring because of the much-publicised production and front-office problems.

Since then, in his own words, he has been “marking time”. His company Gerry Anderson Marketing currently has the lucrative European merchandising rights to pop group Abba. Last year, he also made a Supermarionation TV ad Alien Attack for Jif Dessert Topping – the only ad he has done apart from three award-winning ones for Blue Cars (a travel agent) in the late 1950s.

I interviewed Gerry Anderson in his office at Pinewood, the studios where he worked after National Service and where Space 1999 was shot. He is a surprisingly quiet man who is very polite and whose apparent policy in interviews is to be as helpful, honest and open as possible. He talks quietly and reasonably slowly, as if choosing his words carefully. Presumably, he is a man made wary by a great deal of contact with media corporations. He worked with Lew Grade and ATV/ITC for sixteen years and, as he says, “sometimes it’s better to be a big cog in a small machine, rather than a small cog in a big machine.”

* * *

At last year’s Fantasy Film Convention, you said Thunderbirds was the highlight of your career to date.

Well, I think I would probably stand by that statement. When I was making Thunderbirds, it was not the highlight of my career. It was a terrible chore with horrible little puppets whose strings kept on breaking and whose eyes went cross-eyed and it constantly shortened my life. We got very little footage in the bag every day. It was a long, laborious, painful process. There were many films that didn’t work and were weeks in the cutting rooms being repaired and new shots being made.

So, at the time, I think my attitude was that puppets were a pain and the quicker I get out of this the better. But, looking back, people would say: “Gerry Anderson – Thunderbirds,” and there would immediately be a crowd wanting autographs. That series brought me real fame. I think it did more for me than anything before or since.

Lew Grade of ATV, who commissioned it, changed his mind about the format, didn’t he?

I think really what happened is that he ordered a half-hour show and, when we delivered the pilot, it was such a fast-moving, unusual and action-packed show that he obviously screened it to a few people and somebody must have said, “What a shame it isn’t an hour!” So he called me up and said: “Can you turn it into an hour?” And I said: “Look! We’ve completed the first one. We’ve got eight more shot. We’ve got about six more scripted! My God!” But he has a marvellous way with him inasmuch as he puts his arm round you and says: “Y’know, Gerry, I have such faith in you! I know that if I told you it meant a lot to me, you somehow or other would do it.” How can you resist that? So we did it.

And the three US Networks bid for it, but didn’t screen it.

I was not present at the meetings. I have never been involved in the sale of the programmes and therefore I don’t know the whole story. But certainly Lew went to America and came back with two of the three Networks having made an offer for it. When he got back to London Airport, he was tannoyed and when he went to the telephone it was the other Network saying they wanted to bid for it as well. I don’t know what happened, but the deal fell through.

Since this is going into print, I can only speculate. Whether he asked too much money or whether they had second thoughts or whether there are some politics I’m simply not aware of… I don’t know the reason, but I know that one Network dropped out and then, of course, panic set in – “I wonder why they’ve dropped out!” – and the next one went and then BANG all three went. And that was tragic. I say tragic for me – I mean, it must have been tragic for Lew. Let’s face it, he must have been bitterly upset about it.

You made two Thunderbirds feature films which seemed to be quite successful.

They weren’t successful. They were terrible failures.

How did they get financial backing?

Lew had made Thunderbirds Are Go on spec. United Artists saw it and picked it up immediately. They were so impressed with the picture. David Picker who, at the time, was with United Artists, when the lights went up turned to me and said, “Whatever subject you want to make, Mr Anderson, it’s yours.”

When it went out for its premiere, Piccadilly was blocked. It caused more of a stir in Piccadilly than the Abba premiere. It was a wonderful premiere and it was absolutely packed. Everybody cheered and I remember leaving the cinema and the manager said, “You get a picture like this and they start queuing up at four o’clock in the morning”. We went back to the Hilton, where they’d made all the vehicles in ice – a fabulous party. The head of UA at the time said to me, “I don’t know whether it’s going to make more money than Bond or not. I can’t decide.” I was sitting there (thinking I was) already a millionaire. I mean, all these experienced people: how could they all be wrong?

The next day, the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road (a large London cinema) had about ten people in it.

How was it promoted?

Well, I made a film called Doppelganger with Universal which had lousy promotion. But, I’ve got to be fair about this, Thunderbirds Are Go! was superbly promoted. The Dominion had all the vehicles made in fluorescent lights – a fantastic display. It was well-advertised. It went out over Christmas. But it failed. And I went to my local cinema and there were like five people in the back row and three down the front and that was it.

So why did they make Thunderbird 6?

I think the reason they made the second film was that nobody could believe that this thing had failed. They didn’t know what the mistake was but somewhere there was a mistake. Perhaps it was the wrong story. Perhaps it was released at the wrong time of year. Perhaps they built it up too much in the minds of the potential audience. I don’t know. Anyway, they had to try again. They tried again and the same thing happened!

Why did your film Doppelganger have its title changed for the American market?

Well, you know, I’m not too anxious to knock the Americans on this one. I thought Doppelganger was a fabulous title. A friend of mine thought of it and I thought it was a very, very good show, but I’m not exactly sure the Americans aren’t right inasmuch as they try very hard to get an immediacy into their titles, which gives you an idea of what it is you’re going to see. And, rightly or wrongly, they felt that the average person would not understand the title Doppelganger. So they changed it to Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

The interesting thing about the whole exercise is that I insisted that it should be called Doppelganger over here because I thought it was an interesting word and, if people didn’t understand what it meant, they would find out. It made the film sound rather unusual. But it failed in Britain and America. Which goes to prove something or other. I’m not sure what it proves, but it certainly proves something.

Doppelganger got nasty reviews. ‘Puppets without strings’ reviews.

Well, generally speaking, I think critics (pause) like to write clever lines. And some subjects make it all too easy. What a great line – “The actors are wooden… Gerry was pulling the strings” and so on. (Pause) I don’t think that their criticism was unfounded. I just think it was wildly out of proportion.

Doppelganger was live-action. You were trying the same thing on TV with UFO.

Yes.

Was that because you had saturated the market for TV puppet series? You were competing with re-runs of your own series?

Well, I think we had saturated the market and I think Lew knew that I wanted to do live-action. I think people were beginning to say, “Lew, you can do this with puppets… If you can do it with live-action… you can clean up!” And so we did UFO and, like a lot of things, it was ahead of its time. I think if it was in production today, with all these UFO sightings going on, it would be marvellous.

We had a bit of bad luck on UFO because there were a lot of sightings at the time but, when the programme was halfway through being shot, the US Army Air Force issued the findings of an inquiry they’d been conducting for about two years. And they said categorically, “There are no UFOs”. It did tend to kill interest in the subject for quite a long time.

UFO almost went into a second series, I believe.

Well, the second series was really Space: 1999.

The Space:1999 series was refused by all three US Networks despite its very high production values. Why?

I think the reason is all too clear now. (Pause) It was ‘serious’ science fiction. On the other hand, so was Star Trek. But, you know, Star Trek got away with it because of (studio) politics. A studio (Desilu) was sold to a Network (NBC) and part of the condition was that they bought Star Trek with it. Then they took it off the air and 12,000 fans – who were probably the only people who watched it in the States – went to NBC and demanded its return. And then it became a cult show. But, I mean, it never had high ratings ever. It’s a show all on its own. I think Space: 1999 suffered from being British.

It didn’t get networked in Britain either. Why do you think that was?

I don’t know the answer to that. I wish you could tell me.

Well, at the time, programme planners for regional ITV companies were very jealously guarding their control over films and film series. There was a lot of resistance over networking film series.

I really don’t know. When I see some of the rubbish that is networked…

It was shoved away into Saturday morning slots on some ITV stations.

Well, I think we were killed before we even started. If you don’t get simultaneous networking, then the newspapers aren’t interested in commenting; if they don’t comment, people don’t watch; it’s like the hoola hoola bird going in ever-decreasing circles until you disappear up your own channel.

I heard somewhere that the original stars of Space: 1999 were to have been Katharine Ross and Robert Culp.

Not Katharine Ross. Robert Culp was interviewed. We met in Beverly Hills. I’m a great fan of his because he’s a very, very competent actor and has a very great charisma. He arrived and I said, “Right, I’ll tell you what the series is about…” And he said, “Look, before you tell me what the series is about, may I say a couple of things?” So I said, “Certainly.” He said, “First of all, I am a superb actor.” And I said, “Yes. That’s why we’ve invited you here.” He said, “Fine. But what is not generally known is that I am also an outstanding writer.” So I said, “Well that, I must confess, I didn’t know.” And he said, “Finally, I am an even better director.” Now all of those statements may well be true. But, knowing what television production means, where you’ve got one picture a fortnight going through – one hour every ten days – in my view the lead artist hasn’t got the time or the physical strength to cope with leading the series and be involved with the writing and also criticise the direction.

I felt that this would be a great danger and so, very politely, I said, “Thank you very much and goodbye.” And, equally politely, he said, “Thank you very much. Goodbye.” We didn’t have any kind of argument. I respected his point of view. Whether he respected me, I don’t know. But the interview terminated there.

That poster on your wall is for the new Space: 1999 film , isn’t it?

Yes. I think Destination – Moonbase Alpha, is going to be damn good entertainment, particularly for people who like science fiction. What I think is a great shame is that here we have Superman on screen with its $50 million or whatever budget. Close Encounters with its $20 million budget. We’ve got some mighty expensive pictures on the screen at the moment. Even Star Wars was almost $10 million when it was made and probably now the same picture would be $25 million. With Destination – Moonbase Alpha we have two television episodes (Bringers of Wonder, Parts 1 & 2) strung together and the title reads: Sir Lew Grade Presents a Gerry Anderson Production and it doesn’t say it’s two television episodes strung together. The damage it does is that people who’ve seen all these (other) fabulous pictures now go and see that and say, “I would’ve expected something a bit better than that from Gerry Anderson.”

I’ve heard you say you’d like to move more into theatrical presentations.

Well, hopefully I’ll never see television again. That means if I were offered a good television series this afternoon I would crack a bottle of champagne and celebrate and do it and love every minute of it. But it is such a terrible strain, producing one hour a week, that I would much prefer to do theatrical – that is cinema – pictures. At the time of this interview, I’m at the point of a very, very big breakthrough. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what it’s about or who’s involved because it would spoil the chances of the picture going.

Is it for a studio or for an independent?

It is a major subject with a major studio, a major director and a major star. And a fantasy subject. We’re right on the knife-edge at the moment.

If it works out, you’ll be producing again. Why do you produce rather than direct?

I always wanted to direct and I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I start my own film company and I’m making my own pictures, when it comes to the director, I will be able to direct. That’s how I hoped to become a director. Instead of which, you find you are so busy organising production that, when it comes to the crunch, you have to take somebody else on because you can’t handle it yourself.

You have directed, though.

When we first started, I directed 26 Twizzles, 26 Torchys, 52 Four Feather Falls, the pilot of UFO – I’ve directed an awful lot of our stuff.

Do you think you’re a bankable director?

No, certainly not. Because most of the films I’ve directed have been puppet films and bankable directors are directors who have directed theatrical (cinema) pictures that have made millions of dollars. I haven’t directed any theatricals, so I can’t be bankable.

You were saying there are a lot of big-budget films around at the moment. There’s a danger in big budgets, isn’t there? With a big budget you do what’s easiest whereas, with a small budget, you have to be more creative.

Well, this is Gerry Anderson feeling sorry for himself. I think, in an ideal world, people who have for years worked on a small budget and therefore got the very best out of each pound or dollar… when science fiction took off, those were the people who should have been given the chance to take the big budgets and produce something really sensational. But business doesn’t work that way. Americans are so much more adventurous than British people at the moment. They get the money and they arrive at London Airport with their sack containing $20 million and they’re certainly not going to come into a British studio and say, “Can you recommend a British producer to whom I can give this $20 million so that he can make himself a fortune?”

That is not going to happen so, consequently, people like myself have not benefitted from this tremendous book in science fiction. It is, in the main, American money. The profits, as in the case of Star Wars, which was shot in Britain, will go back to America to encourage further investment for new American producers. British technicians have gained, but that’s short-sighted. The profits are going back to America. They are not remaining here and they will not fund future British productions.

Why do you think it’s so difficult to get backing in Britain?

Why do I think that is? Why, as we sit here, are we likely to have a State of Emergency in the next 48 hours? Because, sadly, this lovely country of hours which, at one time, had so many wonderful qualities, is falling apart. People don’t think any more; people are lazy here; people don’t want to work; people don’t want to take chances; people are out of touch with new ideas. It’s a national disease.

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The Cinema Museum’s nostalgic smell is in Charlie Chaplin’s old workhouse

Ronald Grant as an even younger man

Cinefiler and collector Ronald Grant as an even younger man

Yesterday, I had a tour of the Cinema Museum in London with Ronald Grant of the separate but linked Ronald Grant Film Archive which has well over one million images from more than 50,000 movies.

Ronald was born near Aberdeen and brought up watching films in his local village hall three nights a week.

“I became enchanted with the cinema,” he said yesterday, clearly under-stating the case. “I liked to help the projectionist and got pieces of film and took them home and showed them on the wall with a magnifying glass and a torch.”

By the time he left school, he just wanted to be a projectionist and got a job with the four Donald brothers who ran 13 of the 15 cinemas in Aberdeen.

Eventually, in London in 1981, his extraordinarily wide-ranging collection of movie memorabilia formed the basis of the Cinema Museum, which is housed in The Master’s House of the old Lambeth Workhouse – the workhouse where Charlie Chaplin was partly brought up.

Ronald Grant at the Cinema Museum yesterday

Ronald Grant at the Cinema Museum in London  yesterday

As well as screening rare films, occasionally with producers/directors/actors there to talk about the production, the Cinema Museum has an almost eccentrically wide collection of film memorabilia from stills and posters to UK and UK books and fan magazines, original cinema projectors, signs from the inside and outside of old cinemas, staff uniforms, pieces of period carpet and even something I had never heard of – small tins of cinema fragrance sprays.

Ronald Grant told me:

“You have to remember that, in the 1920s and 1930s, many houses had no piped water. If you had no piped water, then there was a tap and there were lavatories outside and you shared them with the other tenants. If you wanted to have a bath, you had to go to the municipal baths, which cost money. Or you could have a tin bath which you put in front of your open fire. But this meant you had to go downstairs and bring up pails of water, fill the kettles, put the kettles on the range, heat the kettles, fill the bath…

“It was a whole lot of diddle-daddling and fiddling about, so children sometimes shared the water that other people had bathed in and, generally speaking, people didn’t bathe as regularly as they do now.

“In which case, if you had 1,500 to 2,000 of these people in a confined space like a cinema on a hot summer night…

“The other thing was that, before 1948 and the National Health Service, there were a lot of diseases and illnesses that might prove fatal. There was scarlet fever and diphtheria and there was a lot of tuberculosis around, which is a disease of the lungs. People would cough-cough-cough and spit on the floor. Tuberculosis is carried by moisture so, if you’re coughing – and with many people who had tuberculosis their lungs were bad so they would cough – the moist air could carry the tubercular infection.

“People were very nervous about going to crowded places and maybe catching something that might kill them or might involve a lot of attention from the doctor. Before 1948, you had to pay for the doctor. He was a professional like a lawyer and would charge a professional fee. Medicines would all have to be bought at full price.

“So poor families did not want to go anywhere and risk catching something that would create illness.

“And so cinema owners wanted you to think it was fresh and hygienic and they would spray this perfume.

“Here’s one you can smell. This is what was sprayed in the cinema. We have various flavours and scents. This one is Neuroma Spraying Essence – germicide, it says in brackets – Guaranteed to contain powerful germ-destroying properties blended with a delicate perfume.

The Cinema Museum - a unique collection of memorabilia

The Cinema Museum – a unique collection of memorabilia

The Cinema Museum has existed since 1981 and has never received any money from any funding body. It hopes to buy its current building which it leases from the NHS, but that could cost anything from £2 million to £5 million.

It would be tragedy to lose a unique collection of movie memorabilia.

Here is a 2000 tour of a small part of the Cinema Museum:

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