Where the Change Hummed on Wires          19/04/2019

The 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.
   But my 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 Poet in Soho is just one of the Soho stories in the book, and it was an allegedly true story told to me by actor Meredith Edwards.
A copy of the book is one click away on

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

In 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. 

I can thoroughly recommend Ann Cleeves' original Shetland books.

Raven Black is the first Shetland thriller and is available one click away on Amazon


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