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 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
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