Salesman or Hit-man? 20/07/19
you fancy writing the next hit-man movie, you can always pick up the lingo by
getting a job as a sales rep. Even salespersons insinuate themselves into this
quasi-twilight world of the macho male hunter, using aggressive terminology as
a motivational stimulus in this predominantly male arena.
Before going out into the field, the
rep does some probing by first of all sifting through trade journals in
search of some likely suspects. Once the telephone canvassing has
produced a few good leads, these suspects become monthly targets,
which may add a few more notches to the rep’s monthly score if he
succeeds in making a hit.
But first the salesperson has to get a foot
in the door and get an appointment to see the M.A.N. (even when a
female) who is the potential customer with the Means (power to sign an
agreement or write out a cheque), Authority (the decision-maker)and
Needs (require the product on offer). During the meeting the rep will
either kick off with an open probe (question with ponderables) or closed
probe, to which the buyer can respond with only one or two replies – a
‘yes’ or a ‘no’. If the rep does badly, the sale becomes wrecked. But an
experienced rep should have a thick hide under the collar, and pretty soon a
good agent is ‘out there’ selling again.
Less than subtle, and blatantly atavistic,
IBM salesmen used to have their own expression for disposing of a wrecked
deal. Potash. Meaning Piss on the ashes!
Many reps work hard, and some work smart;
but the really successful rep works hard and smart, the main
motivation is having a goal to aim for, to beat your opponent, get a
result and bring home the meat. A cancelled appointment means that
the rep is blown-out and may resort to cold-calling (calling without an
appointment), which is sometimes known as prospecting. Some reps have
their own secret language, useful for passing messages in front of prospective
clients. This is known as flagging. An easy target
(gullible customer) could get stitched-up by a disreputable salesperson,
if they don’t keep their eye on the small print!
But, honest or not, they are all out
there to make a killing. Perhaps leading one to surmise that among
all this verbal mayhem the ‘out there' has to be a battleground. Not
necessarily. Although many reps have their own territory, generally
speaking they all work in the less glamorous market-place. Despite the tendency
to sound like cut-purses when they go for the rich pickings.
So, as reps arm themselves with
samples and mobile phones, heading towards their cars, their cries can be heard
in offices throughout the land: ‘Good hunting!’
Although, the real hit-men and the likes of
Tony Soprano, use gentler euphemisms when ordering murder, telling their
subordinates to ‘whack’ a victim, making the most brutal and savage killing
sound like a slap on the wrist.
One of the best books about writing screenplays and novels is Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey. Check it out on
Interesting Characters 12/07/19
you have written a script in which there is a scene with two leading actors and
one very small cameo role. The actor with just one or two lines of dialogue as
a taxi driver (say) is there to serve the interests of the leading characters,
the two passengers in the back seat.
How much more interesting for the actor with
only one or two lines if you write a line of dialogue that gives him something
a bit more challenging. Perhaps the driver sees himself as a real cool cat, and
on being given the address of a certain nightclub and, about to drive off, if
instead of a mere “Yes, sir”, you write a line of dialogue which suggests the
type of person he is. He might say something like: “I move – you groove.”
It might be corny, but this may then elicit
a raised eyebrow or a smile of amusement from the two characters in the back of
the cab, bringing a little extra something to the scene. Interesting for the
actors and the audience or readers.
Why not write thorough biographies for all
the characters before involving them in a plot? I’ve found that writing CVs for
all my characters, whether it be in film, television or books, pays dividends
and produces fresh ideas.
You’d be surprised at how many back-stories
or subplots can arise from this type of exploration. Providing characters with
a thorough background and history may lead to a plot heading in another
direction, one which could really spice up the narrative.
Sometimes it’s the quirks and foibles, or
the details in people’s lives, that make them interesting, helping to engage
the reader. A character can be interesting in so many ways, without being too
obvious, especially if they are borderline in some way. For instance, a person
may not suffer from Obsessive Compulsion Disorder but could have difficulty
sleeping if things in a room are not put into a certain order. Any subtle hints
at the way a person might suffer from a particular weakness can make them all
too human and identifiable.
What determines a character’s behaviour?
Was it some parental influence, even though the parent may not appear in the
story or be referred to in any way? Everyone’s life has been influenced or
modelled by other people in some way, even if those people are not present in
For instance, if an author or scriptwriter
is creating a heist thriller, all the action taking place over twelve hours,
the characters in the scenario still need to have a life outside of what is
happening on the page or in a scene. And only the writer may need to know about
that life. But how much more interesting that writer’s creation will be if
he/she knows all there is to know about the characters.
Even minor characters should have an
you are in London, and somewhere in the Euston area, visit the Wellcome
Collection, who are giving a free exhibition called “Smoke and Mirrors, the
Psychology of Magic,” divided into three areas, Mediums, Misdirection and
Mentalism. The exhibits are fascinating, some revealing the dishonesty of many
Victorian psychics, and a history of how casualties of war and disease in the
late 19 and early 20 centuries began showing an
interest in spiritualism, believing that the dead can communicate with the
living. Some of these psychics were exposed as frauds, often by magicians like
Houdini, able to perform mind-blowing tricks. A magician’s deception is an
honest one, and the psychology behind what we think we see is a revealing
journey into our minds. If all of this sounds serious, let me assure you that
you will see a large screen video of Tommy Cooper performing the egg in a bag
trick, showing how his non-stop patter and failed trick might be just another
type of misdirection.
It’s one of the best museum exhibitions I
have seen in years, but then I have always been a sucker for magic tricks.
About four years ago I saw Derren Brown at the Assembly Hall Theatre in
Tunbridge Wells. At the start of the second half, he did a mind reading act,
and when he revealed details about a woman sitting in the row in front of me,
she began yelling excitedly that he was so accurate he had to be psychic. ‘How
could he have possibly known that?’ she asked her partner.
But Derren Brown is honest about his tricks
and illusions not being anything to do with superstition. He lets his audiences
know these are tricks, despite concealing the truth of how they are done.
Although, if I could hazard a guess on how he deceived the woman in front of me,
might he have sent an assistant into the bar in the interval to eavesdrop on
although Derren Brown insists he is not a psychic, still there were people
leaving the theatre that night who were convinced he had psychic powers. I
guess it’s because people want to believe, even though science can demolish
most beliefs that are taken on trust.
The way most magicians operate is through
misdirection, drawing the observer’s attention to something else. As an actor I
can appreciate that, getting audiences to focus on what we want them to see even
when another actor is speaking. This type of misdirection can either be a
positive focus or a negative one.
First, let me give you a negative example
of misdirection. I was in a play called Forget-Me-Not Lane by Peter
Nichols, and I had a line that was a sure-fire laugh but was greeted with
silence. Behind me stood Dave King, who made a sudden move during my delivery
of the line, so that the audience’s attention was distracted. Upstaging someone
is a form of negative misdirection.
Now for the positive. I was performing,
alongside Bob Grant, in Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton’s brilliantly constructed
farce, One For The Pot. I played Hickory Wood, a trio of triplets using
various dialects. I needed two assistant stage managers who would double for me
as I ran backstage to make another entrance. There was one exit I had to make
which involved stepping back to exit through French windows, being replaced by
my double who entered and threw his arms around the actress playing one of the
triplets’ girlfriend. I always felt insecure. Surely someone in the audience
would notice this switch? But the misdirection worked like a dream. As the
switch was about to happen, Ivor Salter, playing Jugg the drunken butler, crashed
through the door on the opposite side of the stage, collapsing in a heap, and
in that split second the switch was made. Some members of the audience saw the
play a second time and still they couldn’t work out how it was done. Cooney and
Hilton successfully used conjurors’ tricks in that farce.
The magic exhibition runs until 15
September at the Wellcome Collection.
IS IT A LONDON VILLAGE?
BBC Radio 4 recently, I listened to Suggs – Love Letters to London,presented
and written by Madness’s talented vocalist, four half-hour programmes covering
Spitalfields and Shoreditch, Soho, Hampstead, and Camden Town, each episode containing
a little quirky history, some gags, a few songs, and comic observations of the
city where he was born and bred, and which he clearly adores. These programmes
were so enjoyable, they flew by as if they were only ten minutes long. London
has always fascinated me, as it has many others. No wonder Peter Ackroyd called
his history of the city London The Biography, thinking of it as a living
organism, and his lengthy book is an entertaining and animated read about the
great city and its personality.
One of my favourite areas in London is Soho.
I was first
attracted to visiting Soho along with some of my school friends in 1959 when I
was only 16-years-old. The attraction was obvious to us young rites of passage
teenagers. This was London’s red-light district and trips out from the suburbs
by underground train to this iniquitous district, just yards from the exit at
Piccadilly Circus Tube station, was an audacious adventure. Prostitutes, in
high heels, garish make-up and tight alluring dresses, still walked the streets
plying their trade. Not that we could do anything but think wishfully at that
age, but it was watching this daring and dangerous slice of immoral life, that
was intoxicating to us libidinous, hormonal teenagers. When we got tired of
merely watching the streetwalkers, we headed for the frothy coffee bars, the
places that attracted tourists and out-of-towners that knew no better. Coffee
bars like Heaven and Hell, a tacky joint done out like a Hammer Horror film
set. We thought we were sophisticated sitting in a coffin in the darkened
ambience of the establishment, sipping our foamy brew. In that same year, the
Street Offences Act, made it illegal for prostitutes to solicit for trade on
the streets and they became call girls, euphemistically calling themselves
“models”, in what might have been a pathetic attempt to fool the law but
actually fooled no one. They advertised with notices stuck to seedy shop
doorways or postcards distributed to telephone boxes where punters could find
whatever was on offer, ring up, make an appointment and climb those rickety
stairs to see if the “model” looked anything like the photograph on the
postcard. And sex shops were on the increase during the sixties. Then there
were the bookies runners, the guys who would stand on the street corners, take
punters bets on the horses or dogs, always keeping an eye out for the ‘fuzz’ or
the ‘rozzers’. This was before betting shops became legal.
everything in Soho was about criminality. It was as much about food and drink,
and music has always been a magnet to the area. In 1866 there were more than 30
music halls in the square mile and, in the 20 century, famous
music venues sprang up, like Ronnie Scott’s and the Marquee. Soho has been a
cosmopolitan area, vital with many attractions, both legal and illegal, for
hundreds of years, fostering a village atmosphere for regular customers in its
many favourite watering holes and restaurants, and pubs which once tolerated
outrageous behaviour from some of its famous habitués.
then, that I used the area as inspiration for my anthology Tales from Soho,
eleven fictional stories, but also a brief history of Soho and some of its
famous pubs. If you have never been to Soho, and you’re planning a
visit, don’t be alarmed; as a distant relative of mine from North Wales once
was, thinking a toe dipped into that den of vice might lead to violence or
murder. It’s probably one of the safest areas in London. And many famous people
have lived in the district at one time, including Casanova, Karl Marx, Shelley,
Canaletto and Isaac Newton – the list is endless. If you want to see that extensive
list, visit the Soho Society website, and you will find a list of blue plaques
trip! I always do, and on a regular basis.
Big Issues 21/06/19
Why do people read crime novels? I
suppose the flippant answer would be because people write them. And you could
guess what question might follow on from that.
Here is my own theory for what it’s worth. I think there is only one
truly moral philosophical answer as to why we shouldn’t kill another human
being, one of our own species, and that is because it has been instilled in us
from birth that it is wrong – Thou Shalt Not Kill. The other sins may be
languishing in a grey area, depending on varying attitudes. So, knowing how
wrong it is to commit murder, how enjoyable then to read or watch a film about
the killing of a person who either does or doesn’t deserve to die. I guess it’s
a sort of vicarious pleasure as we step into someone’s shoes and perhaps
identify with a murderer now and again, not just the protagonist. Add a puzzle
to the brew, get the reader guessing whodunit, and there you have a good recipe
for crime fiction.
My own taste for detective fiction has changed over the years. I began
with cosy crime, many Agatha Christies ago, and then discovered the hard-boiled
private eyes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which have always
remained my preference. And in recent years, I suppose as we learn more about
forensic science, crime fiction has become ever more sophisticated, and
occasionally searches for deeper meanings and truth.
One of my favourite crime writers is John Grisham, whose criminals often
get their comeuppance in a fitting courtroom denouement. But one of the things
I find so attractive in his writing is that his stories go beyond mere murder
mysteries, and he writes about more controversial issues, for instance, about
corruption in the pharmaceutical industry (The King of Torts), or racial
violence (A Time to Kill), and homelessness in Washington D.C. (The
Street Lawyer), or one of my favourite books of his, Gray Mountain,
about open pit mining and the ecological disaster it causes when corruption is
rife. And all of his books are extremely well-written, with great characters,
plots, suspense and surprises.
Something for me to aspire to then. And the issue I have picked for my
next book is the one that has been hidden away somewhere, one that appears to
have vanished from the threat of investigation. That of child abuse in the
In 1983, Conservative MP for Huddersfield West, Geoffrey Dickens, handed
a dossier of 114 files about child abuse to Leon Brittan, the then Home
Secretary, yet these serious allegations went missing. The same week that the
file was handed in to Brittan, Dickens’s London flat and his constituency home
were broken into and ransacked, yet nothing was stolen. And in the late
sixties, a senior police officer revealed that a thick file on Cyril Smith’s
repulsive practices was handed to an MI5 officer and was told it would be
looked into. Nothing more was heard about it, and decades later Smith continued
his abhorrent abuses of deprived children.
As far as conspiracies go, the cover-up of child abuse is dreadful, and
I only hope my next book, although a fictional murder mystery, will still delve
into a truth that has long been suppressed.
As writer and philosopher Albert Camus quoted, ‘Fiction is the lie
through which we tell the truth.’
Hypocrisy in High Places. 15/06/19
politicians think we’re stupid? They must do because of the way they lie to us.
Take the recent admissions of cocaine sniffing from Michael Gove and Andrea
Leadsom’s smoking of a marijuana joint. Both of them when interviewed, knowing
they couldn’t get away with a denial, said they deeply regretted doing it.
Bollocks! They’re only saying that because they’ve been outed.
I smoked a joint when I was younger, and
even when I was older too, and I have absolutely no remorse or guilt about
doing it. And I would go on public record and admit that. But then I’m not a
politician. And have you ever, dear blog reader, had a little puff or two of a
joint in perhaps your younger days? And are you absolutely so consumed with
guilt that you might spontaneously combust? Of course you’re not, any more than
you beat yourself up about the day you drank too many lagers and fell down a
London Underground escalator.
We’ve all been there – well, perhaps not
all, but many of us have – and we wouldn’t think twice about admitting it. And
because the view looking back is always rosier, we might even enjoy those
after-dinner anecdotes about the time we got barred from such-and-such a pub.
But not Gove and Leadsom. Would we trust
them more if they said it was just something they experimented with in the
past, and that was that? End of story. But no, they have to peddle the
hypocritical message that it was wrong, and they regretted doing it. And did
you clock those oh-so-sincere expressions on their faces as they tried to hoodwink
us about their trifling misdemeanours? Don’t they realise that when they lie
about something that we the general public might actually sympathise with, what
they are really doing is sending us messages that they might lie about much
And it’s even worse in Gove’s case. A
science teacher was sacked after being found with cocaine in his car when
stopped by the police. Even though this drug was purely for his own use, and he
had never taken it in to school, his possession was enough to lose him his job.
Even a teacher’s partner using drugs could get the teacher sacked, and these
rules were sanctioned by Gove when he was Minister of Education, when he
started his hypocritical crusade to drive up standards in education.
So, when neither of them have made it in the
leadership race, they might just think it was because they were judged about
the drug-taking and miss the point completely, not the fact that their
over-the-top parodic sincerity fooled no one, and that their sheer hypocrisy
Just Plain Murder 2. 07/05/19
If I said there was worse to come about
the previous week’s gun incident, I take it back. The pistol hurling paled into
insignificance with the next episode of theatrical embarrassment – again
engineered by Desmond. After Bath and Bournemouth, the Corby Civic Theatre was
strictly fourth division. So, performing to a house of senior citizens during
the midweek matinee, we didn’t expect there to be an Equity member in the
audience, let alone someone as esteemed as a Royal Shakespeare Company player
who happened to be in the area.
Prior to the matinee, in a nearby pub, fond-of-a-drop Desmond met a man
with a Pyrenean Mountain Dog, an animal built like a small pony. By now,
flushed after several drinks, our stage manager persuaded the dog’s owner to
let him borrow it for ten minutes, then talked Ken Shaw into taking the dog on
stage as his police dog.
wasn’t in that scene and watched from the wings. Cue Ken’s entrance. The set
door opened and in strolled the humongous hound, dragging behind him a bemused
detective sergeant, straining to control this friendly but awe-inspiring mutt.
Once over their initial shock, Ian and Malcolm had difficulty getting their
lines out as they attempted to suppress their giggles, watching as Ken struggled
to restrain the dog who had the strength of an ox. They managed to recover slightly,
and in between snorts managed to get out some essential plot lines. Until the
dog, standing chest high to Malcolm and Ian, lowered his mighty head to sniff
Ian’s balls. Tears of laughter from the actors. The dog, weary of this
unprofessional behaviour, turned and exited through the open door, dragging the
detective after him.
As we sat in the communal male dressing room after the show, a forceful
knock on the door. Then it was flung open and in walked an angry man, accompanied
by his partner. Ian, caught the man’s eye in the mirror, turned and greeted
him, rather sheepishly. It was an actor Ian knew from the Royal Shakespeare
Company. He told us what he thought of the show in no uncertain terms.
‘It has to be the worst performance I have ever had the misfortune to
sit through,’ he barked. ‘There is no excuse for that sort of behaviour. There
may not have been many people in the audience, but they still paid to sit
through that unprofessional behaviour.’
Ian stammered and made excuses. The actor waved them aside and ranted
about our unprofessional behaviour, while his partner tutted disapproval.
Suddenly, the actor rounded on heavily made-up Roy Hepworth. ‘As for
you,’ he said, ‘you’re a clown. I’ve never seen such ridiculous make-up on a
Once they had departed, a deathly silence fell on the dressing room, as
we were humbled by the truth. But Roy, recovering from the shock of being
described as a ‘clown’, snapped, ‘Who does he think he is, barging into our
dressing room like that?’
Ian was full of abject apologies. But when the four of us were safely ensconced
in the flat we rented, as we reminisced about the day’s events we were soon in
At Horsham Capitol Theatre, our final week of the tour, there was another
episode which ranked highly in theatrical bad behaviour, and while not in gold
medal standard of the dog incident, it came close second with silver. Again, Desmond
featured greatly in the incident.
One night something set us off again and we began snorting with laughter,
and almost controlled ourselves, had it not been for Desmond deciding to
admonish us while we were still performing. His florid face appeared in the
set’s fireplace. If any of the audience saw it, glowing among the embers,
they must have thought the play had taken a surrealistic turn. Then the florid
‘Come on!’ it urged. ‘Pull yourselves together, you bastards!’
That finished us completely. Our last week ended in a blaze of shameful
Looking back on it, I think it was probably the worst time of my career.
I have always prided myself on behaving professionally, but the actor bursting
into our dressing room in Corby was right. We behaved disgracefully, and it was
unfair on audiences who paid good money to see the play.
But faced with this dichotomy, bad behaviour versus professionalism, if
I’m really honest I have to admit I’ve never had so many laughs as I did on
Just Plain Murder 1. 31/05/19
So far this year I have been offered four
talks called Actors Behaving Badly, mainly about alcohol inducing outrageous actor
behaviour. But I have to hold my hand up here and confess to my own bad
behaviour, although booze had nothing to do with it when I toured in Just Plain Murder, a mediocre play
written by Roy Plomley, the creator of Desert
Island Discs, in 1973.
Our first venue was Bath
Theatre Royal. I played one of three brothers, the others being Malcolm McFee
and Ian Masters, and we three are intent on murdering our millionaire father’s
girlfriend, played by Penny Spencer. When we arrived backstage for a technical
rehearsal, we were horrified to discover the set had been cobbled together, one
half was painted magenta, and the other was beige, looking like an inner-city
slum not a southern counties mansion. We became despondent and the rehearsal
The following morning, arriving for a dress rehearsal, we found the
theatre manager staring at the scenery as if in a deep coma. He eventually came
out of his trance and phoned producer Bill Kenwright, who agreed to catch the
first train to Bath to sort something out. But we still had to open that night
in front of a ghastly set, asking the audience to suspend their disbelief and pretend they were seeing a millionaire’s mansion, not a Glasgow tenement.
Despite the terrible scenery, the audience seemed to like the play, it
got quite a few laughs, and we managed to get through the show without any
Kenwright discovered the electrician’s wife was a scenic designer, and we later
found out he asked her to repaint the set. During the negotiations she
explained that magenta was difficult to cover, needing maybe three coats, which
would mean three all-night sessions, and quoted him eighty pounds. Kenwright asked
her if she would paint half of it for forty?’
he was joking, because the entire set got repainted in a Tudor style, so that
by the end of the week we had half-decent scenery. But then the rot set in. We
started to muck about. Kenneth Shaw, an Australian actor, played a detective
sergeant, and when he called to question us three brothers, he nonchalantly
picked up and examined various props. Picking up a vase he might find a picture
of a kangaroo staring back at him. He managed to keep a poker face. It was
Malcolm, Ian and me who spluttered with laughter and found it difficult to
continue. We were constantly corpsing over something, and it became difficult
to look at Roy Hepworth, a rather camp actor playing a detective inspector, who
wore too much blusher and eyeshadow. One day we made a resolution: we would get
through the show without laughing. That night, as the curtain rose, I was
determined not to corpse. I had the first speech in the play, talking to Ian,
plotting the murder of our father’s mistress. As I was about to speak, I could
see in the wings, the Aussie detective sergeant wearing a clown’s nose. I tried
to concentrate, but the clown’s face got to me. Ian couldn’t see it, and
wondered why I snorted with laughter, unable to speak. He told me afterwards that
he couldn’t quite believe it. Not five seconds into the play and I’m corpsing.
But there was worse to come. The following week in Bournemouth, our
stage manager, Desmond Hoey, who was fond of a drop, was responsible for the
most ridiculous blunder. Penny is alone on stage, and the scene is set for her
attempted murder. Dim lighting. Flickering firelight. Penny picks up the phone,
realizing it’s a set-up, there is no one at the other end of the line.
Desmond's hand slides from behind a downstage door, holding a gun, doubling
for one of us brothers. Penny turns on stage, a look of terror on her face as
Desmond pulls the trigger. Click! Click! Nothing happens. The gun jams. Now
anyone in their right mind would have stamped their feet or made a vocal
simulation of a bang. Instead, he threw the gun at her, and there is a dull
thud as it lands at her feet. Then, as we wait to enter, what we hear instead of
her blood-curdling scream is a muffled giggle. Realizing something has gone
wrong, we rush onstage to hear Penny’s speech, which went something like this:
‘I was wanted on the phone. But there was no one on the other end of the
line. And then, in the flickering shadows of the fire, I saw a hand come from
behind that door. And then someone…threw a gun at me.’
After that, we
found it difficult to continue.
And there was
still worse to come in Just Plain Murder. Read about it in next week’s blog.
From Please Sir! to L.S. Lowry 24/05/19
The first scene us 5C hooligans was involved in on the Please Sir! film was the scene near the
beginning where we cause mayhem on a zebra crossing. Shooting began early on
the Monday morning in the district of Primrose Hill. Although this was one of the
early title scenes, it didn’t mean the film was necessarily being shot in
sequence. It was simply that during the first week all the London exterior
scenes were shot before we went to Pinewood Studios for the interior classroom
scenes, and various other interiors, and the summer camp which was shot in
We discovered when we arrived for these London exterior scenes they had
skimped on the budget. There were very few location vehicles, no portable
dressing rooms or Winnebagos in which to dress. We had to do the best we could
by slipping into our costumes in the backs of cars. But as this was a feature
film in which we all had plenty to think about, and a great script to work
with, we tolerated the conditions uncomplainingly.
If you watch old British films on Talking Pictures TV, especially
B-movies, look out for Edens Removal lorries in the background of many location
shots. This was because the removal firm was often used to ferry props and
equipment to various film locations, and sneakily let their vehicles be seen in
the back of many shots, giving them free advertising. Edens was used for Please, Sir! and Pat Kelly, our first
assistant director, was often beside himself as he shouted, ‘That fucking Edens
van is in the back of every fucking shot. Get rid of the fucking Edens van.’
Years later my wife Zélie and I attended a Lowry exhibition at the Royal
Academy. One of the exhibits was called “On Location” a painting of a film
scene, and – you’ve guessed it – an Edens van even managed to get into Lowry’s
Back-to-Back Shoot 17/05/19
Made for television in 1983, Owain Glendower, Prince of Wales was
shot back to back, a Welsh language version for showing on S4C and an English
version for Channel 4. Both channels were less than a year old. The production
company who made this film was English, as was the director, and the brief they
were given by S4C was that they must cast bilingual actors who had never
appeared in the Welsh BBC soap, Pobl y
Cwm. I had never been in the programme, and as I speak a little bit of
Welsh, my agent suggested me to the casting director. As they found it
difficult to cast smaller roles in this production, I was accepted for the role
of Second Soldier purely on the recommendation of my agent.
few days later, two bulky scripts arrived, and I immediately read the English
version with interest. I had often thought this great Welsh hero was a good
subject for an exciting historical drama. But this wasn’t it. As I turned the
pages, mouth agape, I became more and more disappointed. Whoever had written
this seemed to be attempting a family adventure along the lines of the old
1950s and ‘60s series like Ivanhoe and
A week later I caught the Holyhead train from
Euston station, and I and Martin Gower, the actor playing the First Soldier,
were met and driven up the beautiful Conwy Valley to a lovely country manor hotel
at Dolwyddelan, about four miles from Betws-y-Coed, where most of the other
actors and crew stayed.
filming our first scene, we were picked up by ‘Mr Jones the Taxi’ who ferried
many of the cast about. As we headed for the production office in Llanrwst,
where make-up and wardrobe were based, Mr Jones told us he had been involved in
many films, most notably The Inn of The
Sixth Happiness which was shot in Snowdonia. Mr Jones reminisced about the
halcyon days of chauffeuring Ingrid Bergman around when films were films, and
well organized. ‘Not like this lot,’ he opined. ‘This lot don’t seem to know
what they are doing.’
And to prove him right, when we got to Llanrwst one of the runners
gabbled into his walkie-talkie about lost Portaloos for the location, leaving
loads of actors and crew clutching the cheeks of their backsides tightly.
When I was kitted out in my chainmail I went to make-up, to be reminded
of the fact that I had been cast merely because I fitted the brief – no Pobl y Cwm appearances. But I was
supposed to be a tough soldier, one of Henry IV’s mercenaries, about to rape a
fair maiden. The make-up woman stared at my face with concentration and
declared, ‘You look like Noddy. How am I going to make you look tough?’ I
suggested a scar, but in my balaclava-like helmet there wasn’t much room, and
so I continued to look cute.
When we were ready, a unit car drove us to the location, the impressive
Gwydir Castle, a fifteenth century fortified manor house less than two miles
from Llanrwst. As soon as Martin and I arrived on the set and became acquainted
with some of the other actors, we noticed a strange atmosphere, and discovered
the director had shown little interest in the shooting of the Welsh version.
This created a lot of resentment with all the Welsh actors, who now
rechristened the production company ‘Mickey Llygoden Films.’ When the director
heard this, and asked what it meant, he wasn’t pleased when he heard Llygoden
Also staying at our hotel was Dafydd, the location caterer, with whom we
drank in the evenings, which explained our preferential treatment on the set at
lunchtimes when we were offered a surreptitious ‘livener’ in our orange juice.
Dafydd had an assistant, Tom, who helped with the cooking. One morning I
noticed Dafydd struggling on his own. I asked him what had happened to Tom.
Looking over his shoulder and lowering his voice, Dafydd replied, ‘Tom had to
go back to Caernarfon to sign on.’
Outside our hotel was a small railway station, a request stop, and one
night the three of us caught a train to Betws-y-Coed to drink with some of the
other actors. Just before midnight, when it looked like the bar was closing, I telephoned
Mr Jones the Taxi but there was no reply. The barman looked at his watch and
said, ‘Oh, you won’t get Mr Jones now. He takes tablets.’
The following day, feeling jaded, as soon as lunchtime came around,
Dafydd stuck another ‘livener’ in our orange juice.
never did see the end result of this film, and my tough soldier performance.
But a friend saw it, and I was told I looked rather sweet.
Usually, when actors work in a large budget, made for TV film, over the
years they receive small cheques for repeats or sales. I don’t think I ever
received a residual cheque for the Owain Glyndŵr film, so presumably and
deservedly it sank without trace.
Mice That Didn't Roar
In 1968 the last episode of the first
series of Please Sir! was recorded
and broadcast close to Christmas, and LWT, knowing they had a hit on their
hands, quickly negotiated a further seven episodes to start in the spring. The
contracts arrived early in the new year, and I thought this done deal meant the
money from the first series might last until the new series began. But none of us discerned that working for a big organization like LWT
was like swimming with sharks. On reflection, swimming with sharks might have
been less precarious or traumatic.
It wasn’t long before our agents got a call from casting director
Richard Price, saying that LWT wanted to make thirteen episodes, but starting
in the autumn. But, we all protested, what about the contracts that we had
already signed for the seven episodes starting in the spring? A done deal,
surely? A contract is a contract and must be honoured. Not if we wanted to be
cast in the longer series starting in the autumn. If I didn’t tear up the
seven-episode contract my agent was told, releasing LWT from having to honour
it, then they would recast Frankie Abbott with another actor.
Because all six of us 5C actors had become friends, the telephone links
between us now vibrated with our aggrieved calls, saying how LWT was shitting
on us from a great height. I suppose we were all insecure as actors, wondering
if it was a bluff about recasting if we insisted on them honouring the
contracts. We probably thought that as our characters were not so firmly
established with only seven episodes under our belts, and there being hundreds
of other young hopefuls waiting for an opportunity to be cast in a television
series, then LWT might pick on someone as an example and recast.
What we should have done, we all hypothesized years later, was to stick
together and refuse to rescind the spring contract. It was doubtful they would
have cast every single 5C character with entirely different actors. But doesn’t
hindsight create easy solutions?
agreed to allow them to revoke the contract and accepted the new one starting
much later in the year, as did all the others.
The year was off to a terrible start. Thinking the second series of Please Sir! was imminent, I turned down
a small theatre job. And money from the first series would barely last until
the end of February. It now became a huge struggle to live. I was fortunate
that my loyal past employers at Drury Lane Theatre gave me another stage-hand
job, but this was part time, and just about covered the rent. I can recall one
time not having enough fare to catch the Tube at Archway to get to Leicester
Square for the evening show at Drury Lane, so I had to set off early and walk
at least two Tube stops. I walked as far as Kentish Town, from where I could
afford the return fare, and as I walked I kept looking at the ground, hoping I
might find some money and be able to get on at Tufnell Park, having only walked
No such luck. Where is that coin in the gutter when you need it?
But, on a brighter note, who would have thought back when we recorded
the first series in black and white there would be money from VHS sales in the
1980s with DVDs selling in the new millennium. And even the spin-off series, The Fenn Street Gang, recently came out
in a box set, and the series was also sold for showing on cable TV in the USA. I
suppose it goes a little way to make up for London Weekend Television's despicable deed.
Minor Revolt 05/05/19
About six or seven years ago, when I was a
committee member for the Kent Equity branch, I attended an Equity area
conference in Birmingham. One of the items on the agenda was a BBC technician’s
strike and should Equity members support them and not cross a picket line – in
other words, not enter the studios, and risk breaking a contract. I voted
against this motion because I felt it was unfair. I felt that most of the
technicians were in permanent employment, whereas a young actor’s first
television role might be compromised, thus robbing him or her of a step up that
precarious ladder. And there was also a more personal reason for voting against
it because of something that happened in 1970, during camera rehearsals for the
third series of Please Sir!
Halfway through the series, during rehearsals, we ate at Wembley Studio
self-service canteen. One lunchtime we arrived at the cashier with our food to
be told there would be a two-shilling surcharge on all meals for freelance
employees as opposed to London Weekend Television’s permanent staff (Roughly equivalent to £1.40 in
today’s money). We objected to this because we felt actors might earn good
wages but only for a limited time, whereas technicians and permanent staff were
employed 52 weeks a year with paid holidays and sick leave. As our Equity
Deputy, Peter Denyer approached the NATKE (National Association of Theatre and
Kine Employees) shop steward to request support. But he was met with a cold
shoulder. The NATKE shop steward shrugged it off, saying something like, ‘Well,
actors earn enough money.’ Peter was incensed by his attitude, as we all were.
We acted by refusing to eat in the canteen, told Mark Stuart, our producer and
director, the predicament, and said we intended leaving the studio each
lunchtime to get some food somewhere in the Wembley district. Mark offered to
send out for takeaways which he paid for. He occasionally surprised us by his
supportive actions. Also, he may have feared us getting back late from lunch. As
soon as the catering manager saw what was happening, with all our takeaways
spread out over the canteen tables, it wasn’t long before the surcharge was
some reason the way they intended treating the actors reminded me of a couple
of lines from Mel Brooks’ The Producers,
when Max Bialystock suggests killing one of the actors, and Leopold Bloom
protests that actors are human. To which Bialystock replies, ‘Have you ever
eaten with one?’
Are we living in more violent times? Or is the view
looking back rosier? I can remember as a young adult walking back from Chiswick
to Brentford late at night, and finding milk, confectionery and cigarette
machines outside corner shops. Despite there being no CCTV on almost every
street then, those dispensing machines often remained free from vandalism. But
over the years they have vanished from outside the small newsagent shop.
Whether this was because they were no longer safe from being broken into, or for
economic reasons such as costly insurance rates, I have no idea.
Meibion Glyndŵr (Sons of Glendower), a Welsh nationalist movement, angered at
the many well-off English people buying second homes in villages in Wales,
resorted to arson and set fire to many holiday home cottages. But back in the
1960s, the objections to holiday cottages was different, as I witnessed one
night during a run of the second series of Please
Sir! in 1969.
who played Maureen in the series, was married to Ian Talbot, who became the
artistic director at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. My wife Zélie and I became
close friends with them and on several occasions we were invited to stay with
them at their holiday cottage in Llanberis, where Liz’s maternal grandmother
lived. One evening, during the run of our series, we were round at Liz and
Ian’s flat in Kentish Town and Liz’s mother, who lived upstairs, told us to
switch on News at Ten. One of the
news items showed their holiday cottage, being occupied by Plaid Cymru or the
Free Wales Army. I can’t remember which group it was, but I suspect it was the
former, as Plaid Cymru early on adopted a pacifist political doctrine. However,
they still opposed the purchase of second properties for holiday use only. They
probably picked Liz and Ian’s cottage because she was an actress, her surname
was Gebhardt (her father Joe was American) and thought it might be positive
publicity for their cause. But what they hadn’t realized, when they broke a
back window to gain access to the cottage, was that Liz’s mother was Welsh, and
there was a solid local connection to the village. Her grandmother, who had
lived in Llanberis all her life, tore round to the occupied cottage and gave
the rebels a piece of her mind in the Welsh language. The dissidents then
abandoned the cottage, having first left a cheque to pay for the broken
the Change Hummed on Wires 19/04/2019
first time I read Dylan Thomas’s Under
Milk Wood, and got to draper Mog Edwards saying, ‘I have come to take you
away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires,’ it brought
back memories of North Wales in the late 1940s.
My mother occasionally shopped at a small
department store called Polikoff. I used to love going in there and was
fascinated by the contraption that dealt with my mother’s transaction. She would
hand money to the shop assistant, who placed it with a docket in a small
cylinder. Then, just slightly higher than head-height, the cylinder was
attached to a wire, and it would go zooming off to a cashier in another part of
the building, and we waited until the cylinder zoomed back to us containing my
mother’s change. Hence Thomas’s line about ‘where the change hums on wires.’
The first time I performed in Milk Wood was when I played Frankie
Abbott in Please Sir! Richard Davies,
who played Mr Price in the series, had been asked by the manager of Lewisham
Concert Hall, close to where he and his wife Jill lived at the time, if he
could get the cast of the sitcom together for a show. Richard, or ‘Dickie’ as
we called him, suggested we perform Thomas’s wonderfully lyrical play, staging
it as simply as possible as it was to be a one-night stand. Lewisham Concert
Hall was an enormous venue, and we were sold out. Possibly because the theatre had
advertised it in the Evening Standard
London Theatre Guide, and we were billed as stars from Please Sir! in Under Milk
Wood, with Duffy, Sharon, Abbott, Maureen, Dunstable, Craven and Mr Price,
instead of our own names.
Under Milk Wood would feature largely
throughout my career. Months after the Lewisham performance, Malcolm McFee and
Peter Denyer hired Theatre Royal E.15 and staged a full-scale production where
we all spent a happy fortnight performing it, and in 1975, Malcolm and I formed
a production company and toured nationally with the play, with Ian Talbot, Liz
Gebhardt’s husband, as the Narrator. Then in 1978, I was offered the parts of
Sinbad Sailors, Dai Bread and Jack Black in a BBC Radio 4 version, with Glyn
Houston as First Voice.
favourite production was in the 1980s, when I and my wife Pat formed a
small-scale touring company, and we got together with Richard Davies, his wife
Jill, and Peter Cleall, touring to small arts and community centres in the
south east. And the play, with its powerful imagery, continues to resonate with
me. When I performed it on tour in 1975, Welsh actor Meredith Edwards, told me
an allegedly true story about Dylan Thomas hiring a dinner jacket at the Covent
Garden branch of Moss Bros. I wrote this as a short story which I included in
my anthology Tales from Soho, published
just a few years ago.
But I often
wonder if anyone reading or listening to Milk
Wood puzzles over ‘change hums on wires,’ Might I suggest you just point
them to this blog for an explanation? Because I’m old enough to remember the
meaning of that line.
The Casting Couch 12/04/19
After Harvey Weinstein had fallen from his
powerful perch, I couldn’t help wondering if my friend Malcolm McFee, who
played Peter Craven in Please Sir!
would have joined the Me Too Movement if he was still alive.
Of course, the Casting Couch has been around since the early days of
silent films, but it might be worth sparing a thought for young male actors
targeted by gay producers. It happened, or almost did, to Malcolm. He was quite
open about relating the incident, so I know he wouldn’t have minded my talking
about it on this blog were he still with us.
It happened like this. About a year before we began working together in
the school sitcom, Malcolm played one of the Smiths in Richard Attenborough's
film of Oh What a Lovely War. He
wanted to follow this up with a part in Virgin
Soldiers which was to be filmed in Malaya by the renowned theatre director
John Dexter, who was one of the most successful theatre directors and became an
Associate Director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre and
also at the National Theatre. Malcolm’s agent arranged for him to meet the
director who took him to dinner at the Ivy. Following dinner, Dexter took
Malcolm back to his flat for a nightcap, where he suggested they go to bed
together. Malcolm, still thinking he could handle the situation, and wondering
if he might still be in with a chance for a part in this major film, gently
pointed out that he liked John Dexter but that he wasn’t himself gay. ‘That’s
all right,’ the director said. ‘We’ll just wank.’ Which was when Malcolm made
an excuse and left. The next day Malcolm got a call from his agent who told him
that John Dexter had telephoned in a rage, saying, ‘Who the fuck does Malcolm
McFee think he is? If he thinks there’s a part for him in Virgin Soldiers he can go and fuck himself.’
Malcolm, when he told us this story, did admit that perhaps he had been
naïve. But he was only eighteen-years-old when it happened, so his naivety is
perfectly understandable. The blame lies with all the Weinstein-like shits who
use and abuse their power for sex. Now, had John Dexter not held a grudge
because of Malcolm’s rejection of his advances, and still cast him in his film,
he might have been less despicable.
The Power of the Priests 05/04/19
1962, when I was still a student at Corona Academy Stage School, I became
involved in playing a small part in the Jean Genet one-act play Deathwatch. The play concerns a
homosexual ménage a trois between three convicts and I played the prison guard.
We performed this play along with The
Lesson by Eugene Ionesco and Hello
from Bertha by Tennessee Williams at Corona’s own theatre for one night.
Rhona Knight, the principal of the school and a passionate Shakespeare buff,
came to see them, but I don’t think she was impressed by the subject matter of
any of these plays. However, the director, Fiona McCleod, arranged for us to
present them as part the Dublin Theatre Festival, at a tiny fringe venue, The
Pocket Theatre, situated down some steps in a basement at Ely Place in central
Dublin. As there were seven of us performers, we would be lucky to receive
anything other than copper coins as our share of the box-office, but we were
offered accommodation at the home of one of the actors, Declan Harvey, whose
parents lived in a large house on the outskirts of Dublin.
My strongest recollection of this trip was
of handing out flyers for our show on St Stephen’s Green one sunny afternoon.
And then I saw a man in black gliding ominously towards me, his hand held out
for a leaflet. It was a Catholic priest. Now, bearing in mind that back in the
sixties the priests wielded so much power, and we had heard that priests on
masse attended a showing of the Tennessee Williams film adaptation of Suddenly Last Summer, starring Elizabeth
Taylor, and on the cinema’s opening night they stood up, declaiming how
disgusting the film was, and the audience – or should I say congregation? – had
no option other than to walk out after their spiritual leaders. The film closed
after the first showing.
So, it was with great trepidation I handed
the priest a flyer. He took his time reading it, clearly trying to intimidate
me with his theatrically unhurried examination of the leaflet. ‘Hmm,’ he
rumbled like the distant threat of thunder. ‘Tennessee Williams, eh? I think we
shall be along to see this.’
When I mentioned this incident to the cast,
Declan Harvey threatened to kick any priests in the balls if they tried to
disrupt a performance. And he meant it. He hated them with a vengeance
bordering on psychotic. His mother, who was an alcoholic, had a reputation in
her parish for inviting young curates into her study, and then she would lock
the doors to prevent them escaping, and lecture them at length on atheism.
Which only partly explained why Declan, who came from this rather
unconventional Catholic family, had a long history of priest hatred, and we all
hoped the clergy might attend a performance, and speculated on what great
publicity our plays would have if Declan attacked any of them. Of course, they
never attended a performance, knowing that actors in the theatre can answer
back. Films were an easier target.
Film and the Focus Pull
Apart from great scripts,
excellent acting, and good direction, one of the stand-out qualities about Shetland is the cinematography. I can’t
recall being irritated by the over use of the Focus Pull.
If you are not technically minded, let me
explain about what has become a cinematographic cliché. If there are perhaps two
people in a scene, and one of them is out of focus, the person in focus is the
subject of attention, then the focus is pulled and changes to the other person,
and they become the subject.
You probably know the scene, having endured
it hundreds of times on television. Two people talking in a car, with the focus
switching between whoever happens to be speaking. The trouble with scenes like
this is it makes me very aware that what I am watching is a piece of film and I
cease to become so involved in the action or the dialogue, watching as the camera
switches from one subject to another. Of course, some viewers are never fazed
by this, never notice it even, which is fair enough.
But there is often a reason for using this
technique. It is a cheap and quick way of filming. A scene can be shot with a one
camera set-up, and if the actors know their lines, the scene can be achieved
rapidly, and then it’s on to the next location.
Often the size of a film or television’s
budget is why you will rarely see the clichéd Focus Pull used, especially in American
series like Breaking Bad. Sometimes, when used sparingly, it can be used
for good dramatic effect, but when a director is not under pressure from a
small budget, he or she can spend the time with varying camera set-ups.
Which is why I take my hat off to the
directors of Shetland. Their budgets
are probably nowhere near as large as the major American series, but they
manage to shoot it with a high degree of skill, and the Focus Pull is rarely
used, and I find Douglas Henshall’s excellent performance as Jimmy Perez in Shetland more involving than many other
British crime series.
On a lighter note, one of the funniest
out-of-focus performances is Robin Williams, playing Mel an actor in Woody
Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, and
when the cameraman/focus puller can’t seem to get Williams in focus, and they
wrap up for the day, the actor goes home to his wife who sees him – or rather
doesn’t see him – because he’s permanently out of focus. Robin Williams
performs his part in the film entirely out of focus.