I met Ben a couple of months ago by accident when I and my eternally-un-named friend wandered into his gallery to see DRB’s matchbox show. It then turned out that Ben had been a regular heckler at late comedy performer and promoter Malcolm Hardee’s legendary Tunnel club… had directed The Prodigy’s Firestarter rock video… and used to work for Ridley Scott’s TV/film commercials company. But, last night, he was Ben Oakley, artist, with his show of “Pinhead Paintings” described thus:
One of Ben Oakley’s pinhead paintings currently at The Circle
“Using original portrait photography and fashion/media prints, he hand tints then stencils over the flesh of the subject using everyday safety pins and spray paint with fascinating results. Though still instantly recognizable, each portrait takes on a peculiar almost Alien/tribal feel that transports them out of their original era and setting, into a more fitting modern day environment. All the paintings are presented in original worn frames to evoke the thought that they once sat on your grandparents’ kitchen wall and no-one batted an eye lid.” The prints included, I think, three of the Queen (Elizabeth II not Freddie Mercury) and one of Jesus. So it is good to see Ben retains a respect for past values.
This Saturday’s Pull The Other One bill…
Meanwhile – and, yes, there is a connection, dear reader – Vivienne and Martin Soan are in Leipzig, preparing for their Pull The Other One comedy club show on Saturday night. Martin was a long-time co-performer with Malcolm Hardee in The Greatest Show On Legs. Before they left for Leipzig, Martin & Vivienne were suggesting to me that an art gallery should be set up with a permanent room dedicated to work by Anonymous. “The people choosing what to include in the Anonymous Room,” suggested Vivienne, “would not know who had submitted the works. They would just choose what to exhibit on the merit of the art itself.”
“The stuff could be by a 4-year-old boy,” explained Martin, “or it could be by Tracey Emin, but no-one would know. The idea would be to get away from celebrity in the Art world.”
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.”
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 Runnersoundtrack 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 Rainand 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.”
“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 Sweetheartas 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.
In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned actor Rutger Hauer’s famous death speech in Blade Runner and someone complained on my Facebook page that, in fact, I should have credited the film’s writers – the screenplay was written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
In fact, it’s almost inconceivable but true that Rutger Hauer actually made up the speech off the top of his head. I saw a TV interview with the film’s director, Ridley Scott, where he said Rutger just went over in a corner and came back with the speech in its entirety:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
It wasn’t in the script; it wasn’t in the book; the director didn’t write it; the actor made it up.
But the guy who complained about my crediting the actor not the writer is quite right in general. People tend to overlook who actually creates movies: the writers. Without them, zilch. A director may be brilliant – for example, David Fincher with Fight Club and The Social Network – but the 1950s French-spawned cult of the director is just as stupid as any other piece of intellectualising about movie-making.
It never fails to amaze me what pseudo-intellectual bullshit some so-called critics spout about the movies. When you create an academic subject, it seems that reality goes out the window and, rather than look at the movies, some people just look up their own arses
Last night, I went to a special screening of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 movie If…. introduced by Sir Alan Parker. He had chosen If…. as the movie which had most influenced him, despite the fact that its director Lindsay Anderson didn’t much like him and had once (with John Schlesinger) sued him in the courts for defamation of character over a cartoon he had drawn.
In fact, it seemed, Alan Parker had mostly chosen If…. because he greatly admired its director of photography Miroslav Ondricek, not its director.
A lot of film criticism is utter twaddle written from the bizarre ivory towers of academia. I can never get over the stupidity of film courses which claim that the ideal movie is Casablanca and therefore, by extension, people should follow the example of Casablanca when writing a film script.
Casablanca was a terrible mess of movie production. The truth is that the actors – along with everyone else on the movie – had no idea what was going to happen at the end and had no idea if the Ingrid Bergman character was going to go off with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid in the final scene, so could not tailor their performances accordingly.
Virtually each night, after completing a hard day’s shooting, they were given new script pages and script rewrites for the next day’s shooting. Neither the director not the producer and especially not the writers (credited as Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch with an uncredited Casey Robinson, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison) – nobody – had any idea what was going on.
So the ideal way to shoot a movie would be (in this ludicrous theory) to start shooting with no finished script and actors who have no idea what their characters think or feel.
Much has been written about the fact that If…. has some sequences in colour and some in black & white. I had heard this was because they had run out of money and (surprisingly in 1968) it was cheaper to shoot in black & white.
Alan Parker said last night that he had heard the interiors of the church were shot in black & white because shooting in colour would have required much more lighting and, as a relatively low-budget film, they could not afford that, so Miroslav Ondricek shot with faster black & white film. The rest of the black & white sequences appeared to be simply random and done on a whim.
As for the auteur theory that the director creates and controls everything, at the summit of this must be Stanley Kubrick, who was a legendary control freak. There are stories of him going to suburban cinemas with a light meter and taking readings off the screen so he would know the intensity of light with which his films had to be screened for optimum viewing by ordinary audiences.
He insisted on take after take after take of scenes – sometimes 50 times for one shot – so that the lighting, framing, acting et al were perfect.
But, last night, Alan Parker said the star of A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell, had told him that, when cast in the lead role of Alex, he wasn’t sure how to play the part and had asked Lindsay Anderson for advice. Anderson told McDowell to remember the slight smile he had put on his face as the character Mick Travis when entering the gym for the beating sequence in If…. and to play the character of Alex like that throughout A Clockwork Orange. McDowell said it was the best piece of direction he had ever received.
The auteur theory?
Academic film critics?
They might as well get a colonoscopy and stick the camera up their arse.