I have been very busy of late organising a trip to Terre Haute, Indiana, USA, for research on a biography I'm writing of Max Ehrmann, (author of the poem 'Desiderata'). However, I've also had in the works the above, my latest audiobook and this I'm also very excited about. I've been a big fan of George Orwell since my teenage years and have read around 20 biographies of him, so it has been a real privilege to work with one of the authors of one of the best biographies on him. This was one of the earlier biographies of Orwell, so naturally it does not benefit from later research. However, it remains, I think, one of the key biographies because of it's 'take' on Orwell. Essentially, it is the biography that really looked into the split identity of the man. Anyone who knows about Orwell will recognize that he struggled with the contrast between his privileged upbringing and class (going to Eton, being an Imperial Policeman in Burma etc.) and the suffering that other people, not of his class, endured. He almost felt he needed to pay a penance of some sort, certainly his going 'down and out' was no accident. He hid his motivations and the reality of this down and out period from his family and friends, and only by the time of his death had he really 'squared' who he was and what he wanted. Stansky and Abrahams, brilliantly track his transformation, from Eric Blair (his real name) to George Orwell. It's an intriguing book and well worth a listen or read. My audio version of it will be out next week sometime, whilst I am in America and if the biography I'm writing on Ehrmann ends up half as good as this one on Orwell, I will be very happy.
Looking over my posts for last year I've just realised that the second part of my journal about working on the feature film the 'King of Crime' didn't actually post! So here it is:
At the beginning of my work on a feature film called ‘King of Crime’, back in 2016, I wrote a number of blogs about the experience. Now the film has been released, a DVD is on its way, and its cinema run is over, I can post the series of blogs I wrote at the time as a kind of journal. Whilst some of the journal entries will have their original dates at the start, I have extensively rewritten some of the material. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but also at the time you don’t always realise what will stay with you most. So each entry is a bit of a mix, written at the time but with a gloss of what happened later. 20th August 2016 I was on the set of ‘King of Crime’ once again yesterday. The first time around I got to blast away on a ‘shooter’. This time, with my fellow ‘heavy’ (Steve Richardson) we got ‘outta’ motor, with a couple of petrol cans, walked into a four million quid ‘gaff’, poured petrol all over the place and torched it! Now that’s a fun day’s work! I had driven down to Goring-on-Thames, early in the morning, in bright sunshine, which reflected and added to, the good mood I was in. Goring, in deepest Oxfordshire, is an exceptionally pretty location and was certainly a vast aesthetic improvement on the environs of Milton Keynes where my previous day's shoot had been. The cast and crew were a little frustrated when I arrived, as they’d had a bit of a slow morning, with the ‘get in’. The owners, of the, said ‘gaff’, were a bit lackadaisical in vacating their lovely home, which is called Friar’s Ford Cottage. Then and now, I’ve insisted on calling this house and its grounds, a ‘Mansion’ due to its size. One recent visitor to the house, which doubles as a posh B&B as well as family home, reviewing their stay, said, ‘[It] felt like we were on the set of Downton Abbey’. The location was well chosen and is meant to indicate that, Marcus King, the film’s central character (played by Mark Wingett) is at the centre of a criminal empire that is both successful and wealthy. It certainly conveys the notion of opulence, and its leafy, luxuriant grounds and stockbroker belt ambience, provide a lightly ironic touch; the King family are more likely after all, to put a belt around someone’s neck than have polite parties on the lawn and chat to the local vicar. This play, between the genteel and the villainous, provides the viewer with their first visual shock. Only a few minutes into the film, a visitor to the Mansion, Gemma Carter (Francesca Louise White), a putative (long-lost) daughter, is stabbed by Marcus King’s wife, Yvonne. As Claire King, who plays Yvonne explained, ‘I was attracted to the character as she committed a heinous crime even before the opening titles rolled!’ Friars Ford then is no ‘cottage’ (which must be a historical misnomer) but a Victorian Gothic Mansion, whose fictional residents provide the viewer with rather gothic murders from the get-go! By time we got to my ‘scene’, it was late afternoon, and the light was fading. Given all the delays so far that day and the incidental nature of these shots (i.e. Steve and I lifting petrol cans out of the boot of an Audi, and walking into the mansion) everyone was keen to get a move on. After Nick (the first AD and Second Unit Director) had gone through how he wanted us to move, making the cans look heavier than they actually were etc., we got the sequence in two takes. I’m not sure how long it took to set up the shot, but Steve and I certainly weren’t in front of the camera for more than twenty minutes or so. I can’t say I was disappointed though because I’d got to be on set all day, which I loved. That’s not to say I felt completely at ease, to begin with. Unlike my first day, in Milton Keynes, there was nobody on set on this occasion whom I knew very well. I was also aware, that although people on a film set may look like they’re not occupied with anything, in particular, this is usually not the case. Actors certainly, may be going over their lines; lighting, sound or camera guys considering quite how to overcome the next set of technical problems or logistics. Someone may be standing around and then suddenly need to dash off, do a bit of emergency make-up or find a prop or any number of unexpected jobs. During the day, I tried to make myself useful, when and where I could, doing any minor jobs, carrying props, conveying messages, moving objects and even sweeping the gravel on the drive at one point (which had been disturbed by a fast moving car). I was careful not to ‘overstep the mark’ as it were, because everyone there is a professional and has a designated job, from the caterer to the continuity person (in this case Steve’s daughter, Amy Louise Richardson) but on a film of this scale there are not twenty ‘runner’s’ and everyone is working at a pretty furious pace; always working long days but where the hours seem all too short. Being on set, of course, I also got to see the guts of the filmmaking process in action. To the many who like to watch what’s up on screen, but aren’t too interested how it got there, a day on set would be pretty tedious. Most of the day, after all, is not taken up with actually shooting scenes but with preparing to shoot scenes. Timing, preparation, technical precision and logistics all need to be in place to allow any ‘magic’ to explode onto the screen. Awareness of such technicalities can also be important for the screen actor. I was lucky enough to spend two days on the set of a film called ‘Genius’, with Colin Firth, a few years ago (I’m in one shot of the completed movie, behind Firth, smoking a cigarette, out of focus!) and that was quite educational. We were inside a cramped, 1930s railway carriage, so I got to overhear many of the conversations between the director, Michael Grandage, the cinematographer, Ben Davis, and Firth. What struck me most, was how aware Firth was about what was happening technically, and certainly in terms of what type of shot was being composed by Davis. On one occasion, for example, after a brief tête-à-tête, Firth carefully rearranged the angle of the book he was reading (he was playing the literary editor Max Perkins) which made all the difference to Davis. By contrast, when I was acting in a scene with Nina Wadia and Danny Ashok, on a film called ‘Finding Fatimah’, I was very distracted by the ‘marks’ (small sandbags) on the floor, put there to ‘help’ me stand in the right place. I also had no idea whether I was in close-up, long-shot or whatever! Film acting is much more of a technical process than I had ever imagined and that’s coming from someone who has always loved hearing about the behind-the-camera stories of films and filmmakers. There is also the idea that you hear from people, that screen actors have it a bit easier than stage actors because they can do lines over and over again. The reality, for most film actors and certainly for the actors further down the cast list or on smaller budget films, is that the actor has to try and get it ‘spot on’ first time and every time. A stage actor can afford, though it’s not the ideal, to take a while to ‘warm-up’ an audience. If she or he has a poor first scene, but afterwards is magnificent, the audience will pretty much forgive and forget that opening scene. It’s also amazing how often audience members do not notice a missed cue or a mangled line on stage (none of which is usually recorded for posterity). Naturally, that is not the case with film. Consistency is vital. There is no ‘warm-up’ time, the scene you’re shooting may be the final scene, the most emotional scene, the scene most crucial to the plot and so on. The film actor, in addition, often does not have the rehearsal time that stage actors get. On a film, what money there is, is spent in shooting the film, not in rehearsing it. So it can actually be the case, that technical problems for the crew (most often lighting and sound) can be a boon for the screen actor, giving them a chance to try a move, action or line differently. Chatting to one of Linda Dunscombe’s co-producers, James Welling, he was telling me how the project had been on the boil for around four or five years, almost got greenlighted a year or two ago but fell through at the last minute. Which reminded me how tough the film business is and how well Linda and Peter (her husband, an associate producer on the film) and everyone else have done to get the project up and running in the first place.
I spent a long time on the stairs of the mansion, talking to James, whilst various set-ups and scenes were shot around us. James, the owner of a string of restaurants, is also passionate about films. We talked a fair bit about our favourite movies, music and film-lore in general. One of his main concerns, on the day, was how many good, well-known songs they were going to be able to afford for the film. The rights people for one famous track (he told me much later) were asking for £30,000 to use just four seconds of the song. Unsurprisingly, James never took them up on the offer! Sitting on that rather grand stairway, with Mark, Claire and Chris Ellison (who plays their butler, the kind of butler who’s not too fussed by corpses in the courtyard) floating about and talking movies to one of the producers on the film, felt like quite a privileged spot to be in (especially as originally I was only supposed to be on the film for one day). As we were on location, not on a studio set, lighting and space were particular problems, and so there were a lot of false starts. Nick was calling for ‘Quiet on the set’ frequently, as other actors and crew, were hanging around in the kitchen not far from the hallway. I also got to talk to Peter Dunscombe at various times, at lunch and during breaks, and the headaches for him and Linda seemed many and complex. Peter is a very calm and a gently spoken person, so the various stresses of his and Linda’s position wouldn’t necessarily come across immediately. Indeed, part of their role is too not seem ‘stressed’ and to keep everyone happy if possible. The truth, however, is that they were not only producing a project very close to their hearts, and into which they had personally invested heavily, but they were providing employment for a lot of people. That is quite a responsibility and a pretty taxing position to be in. So, yes, everybody loves to be on a film set, but behind the scenes, a lot of (often unseen) work has gone into making this kind of project function smoothly. One memorable moment that I didn’t see as such but overheard, was when a scene was being shot, in an office off the hallway, with Mark Wingett and Rachael Bright (who plays a very tough cookie, called Jessica Slade, in the film). Marcus King has just discovered, that his ‘consigliere’ and best friend, Jimmy Tate (Greg Tanner), has had a long-term affair with his wife. He tells Jessica, who has delivered the news that ‘This is the ultimate betrayal’. To begin with, Mark said his line quietly and gravely, but then surprised everyone, on the next take, by exploding with anger when he delivered the line. This sounded not only more dramatic and effective but drew, I expect, a natural response of surprise from Rachael and added a bit of extra frisson to the scene. This was the take used in the final cut of the film, though I have to say I now, I wonder if the quieter, more internally driven delivery, whilst less ‘dramatic’, might have been more effective in the context of the story. (I say that with hindsight, not having seen the other takes, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair of me to make that judgement). Incidentally, though, it reminded me of watching Colin Firth on camera, often looking, to those on set, as if he’d done nothing much in a shot. On seeing the same take on the final film, you see how subtle the acting was, and how misleading any interpretation of the acting can be if you’re watching from the sidelines (or indeed just listening on a stairway!). Chris Ellison, as I mentioned was also on set, which will add a nice little twist for all those who watched ‘The Bill’ as I did, way back when. Chris played Detective Inspector Burnside to Mark’s Detective Constable Jim Carver, i.e. he was his boss in the series, and so the role reversal is quite neat I think. Oddly, the only conversation I recall with Chris during the day was on the benefits of yoga. There is a lot of time to kill on a film set, so you often end up talking of all kinds of random things, on a film called ‘Finding Fatimah’ (a Muslim rom-com) I once had a long conversation about the benefits of marijuana and what my favourite top ten films were with Wahab Sheikh and Danny Ashok ( I can’t recall their favourites now, but I think Danny liked ‘Goodfellas’ as much as I did!) Speaking of random conversations: toward the end of the day I also had a nice chat to Claire King, and all I can say is that I’m now much better informed on the world of horses than I was before! I had had no idea she was previously an amateur horse jockey! But along with acting, perhaps before acting, it seems to be her passion in life. (Although, after that day, I didn’t really chat to her again, that first conversation, endeared me to her a little, as my Mum always loved horses). You forget more than you remember about such days, but I do also remember how friendly everyone was and I had a few conversations with Matt Gambell, who didn’t put on any ‘airs and graces’ because he was the director of the film. From what I could see, Matt and Tom Anderson, his cinematographer, are very much a team. Matt told me, at some point, that he felt the two of them generally thought along the same lines and had the same filmic reference points. This seems like a very positive thing for the film. There are always tensions on film sets, and it is probably no different here, but I have been on at least one set where the rivalry and deliberate obstructiveness of some members of the crew was obvious and excruciating. They say a happy set does not necessarily produce a good film, but I can see no reason why an unhappy one is more likely to produce a better one (and in my experience, it didn’t). A lot of the crew are young but rather than being a disadvantage this seems to have brought a real excitement and joy to the set. Combined with the younger crew are some very experienced older filmmakers, such as, for instance, Nick (a director in his own right) and Claire Nixon, Head of the Makeup Department, and Roger Cutting (great name given his job), the sound recordist, all of whom add a real wealth of knowledge and a gravitas to proceedings. From my ‘view from the stairs’, I must say, it looks like everyone is making a rather good job of things so far, it’s a happy set, and it will be fun to see the finished project on the big screen someday!
At the beginning of my work on a feature film called ‘King of Crime’, back in 2016, I wrote a number of blogs about the experience. Now the film has been released, a DVD is on its way, and its cinema run is over, I can post the series of blogs I wrote at the time as a kind of journal. Whilst some of the journal entries will have their original dates at the start, I have extensively rewritten some of the material. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but also at the time you don’t always realise what will stay with you most. So each entry is a bit of a mix, written at the time but with a gloss of what happened later.
28 8 16 I made the journey once again to Friar’s Ford, early Thursday morning, to do a ‘pick up’. When I arrived, everything seemed oddly quiet. In fact, this indicated quite a lot was going on. Today they were using two teams to shot at the same time, in different parts of the house. I presume this is to maximize the time they have in this attractive location. It was definitely tough at times, as the teams were occasionally so close they were within earshot of each other. I mostly followed Nick’s little unit. His team were not the regulars on the film but people I believe he had worked with before, so they had a good ‘shorthand’ for what was required. They certainly worked rapidly and completed a lot of setups throughout the day. Nick’s philosophy is ‘Plan what you shot and shot what you plan’ and try not to deviate too much from that, and it seemed to work in spades today. I hung about and watched Nick and his DoP set up, frame, board and shoot, something like seven shots outside, with Francesca Louise White, (who plays the first character, of quite a number, to get killed), These shots were the exterior driveway scenes (that appear at the beginning of the completed film) and several interior shots of Francesca entering the mansion the door having been opened by Chris Ellison (as the ‘butler’ and general factotum of Claire King). Most of this was shot, as far as I could see, very efficiently and pretty much as fast as this kind of stuff can be done whilst maintaining the necessary quality. Midway through this process, I got to be directly involved simply because I was there hanging about. I was asked to help out by playing Chris Ellison’s part… well, his hand to be more exact! At the start of the week, they’d shot the interior of the scene, inside the hallway of the house, where Chris had let Francesca into the house. Now they wanted an extra shot, of his hand closing the door with a slam, but from the exterior. So I donned Chris’s suit and helped out by slamming the door. Being a man whose hands have played many great roles, I thought I could carry this off without rehearsal! It was fun to get involved and more so because we had to squeeze this pick-up shot, in-between Rachel Bright running from the kitchen into the hallway screaming. The other unit, with Matt Gambell, the director were filling the hall and kitchen with smoke, as she ran through. The moment they called ‘Cut!’ we got a quick shot of my hand closing the door. We only did two shots either side of Rachel’s dramatic screaming run! (As far as I can tell, they never used my hand in the completed film. I was rather disappointed, as I was looking forward to being able to say I’d been a stand-in for Chris Ellison!) Apparently, Matt and Linda (our writer-producer) and the others, had looked at the ‘rushes’ (they are not called that anymore!) of a scene I’d done with Steve, my fellow ‘heavy’, a few days ago and been dissatisfied with the result. This was a scene where, at the behest of Marcus King, our characters had been instructed to torch his mansion (towards the end of the film, everything has gone pear-shaped, and he’s getting out of Dodge). We had originally been filmed, inside one of the rooms, dousing it and the furniture with petrol. Looking at the results the ‘team’ had decided it didn’t look quite right and needed to be reshot. Originally, we’d been ‘framed’ through an open doorway that led into the lounge, by Matt and Tom (the DoP), with Steve and I crossing from opposite sides past the doorway. This had looked a bit odd, and so here we were doing it again (which wasn’t a very regular occurrence on this film I don’t think). Of course for the filmmakers, this was an inconvenience and they’d rather not of had to reshoot. For me it was the reverse, it was more experience and time in front of the camera, which I was more than happy to be experiencing. This time around it was Nick and a smaller unit, who re-shot much of the scene, from outside of the room itself, through one of the windows of the mansion. A point of interest, and more pertinently difficulty for me was that the petrol can I was using actually had a small amount of residual petrol in it! This time around, Steve hadn’t yet arrived on set for the day, and so he wasn’t actually in the room whilst I was shooting. Both the dousing of petrol and Steve’s presence then were going to be ‘cheated in’ later. Nick said the plan was to use a ‘wipe’ and make it look as if Steve and I crossed past the window in opposite directions. Steve’s presence in the room was to be shot later in the day after I’d left. Dousing the room, in non-existent petrol, required quite a lot of physical ‘cheating’ on my part, for several reasons. Every time I had the petrol can facing toward the camera, the lid had to be open but when I vigorously doused the couches and the curtains etc. actually I had to find points at which to turn away from camera and close the can again. This was because the residue of petrol might accidentally come out of the can and really douse the furniture! This required a rather tricky set of manoeuvres which I had to rehearse a number of times to get right. My first take was probably the best, as the more I performed the operation, the more staccato and self-conscious I got. Nick also set up inside the room, and we did a mid-shot, with me approaching the camera, ‘pouring out’ the petrol. Again this was achieved by me ‘cheating’ the shot by keeping the petrol can lid below the camera’s eye line as I moved toward the lens. On the day, I got to see the playback on the monitor and was impressed. I also thought, for the first time, ‘Wow, I’m in a movie’. At the time I’d thought, I may end up on the proverbial ‘cutting room floor’ (old school language again!) but it was fun to see the results of our work. (When I finally saw the completed film, it looked like they’d ended possibly up using a combination of the two different shoots). Had another great chat with Greg Tanner (who plays Jimmy Tate in King of Crime). This time we traded impressions and memories about ‘Jaws’, of which he’s an uber-fan, and on which, he’s very knowledgeable. We also discussed ‘great movie posters’ and those that had failed. He told of how Michael Caine insists, that The Italian Job’ failed in America on its release because its main poster had him posing in a big chair with a trilby and machine gun. The American public apparently had become tired of that kind of thing (and it probably didn’t help that the ‘The Italian Job’ wasn’t even that genre of movie!). Greg also loves movie music, and we had a long talk about that, with Roger the sound man, overhearing our opinions and adding a few of his own. I talked too, with Zed Josef (who plays James King, one half of the sibling rivalry, in the film) about the difference between theatre acting and film acting. At a certain point in the conversation, Zed came out with something that I very much liked, saying, ‘Theatre is and actor’s medium, Film is the audience’s medium’ and I think that’s very true. One is not better than the other, and both require skill and dedication to get right, but in theatre the attention somehow is focussed more on the skill of the actor, in film it is the whole ‘caboodle’, the total mise en scène if you like. As Matt Damon said, in one of his interviews, film actors are the junior partner to the director, and in theatre that’s perhaps reversed a bit. All this passionate talk of film, on set during the day between takes, made me realise that most of the cast and crew would happily shoot the breeze with one about their favourite films and so on. This is a job for people who love film, and it’s always a privilege and a delight, to work with people that are passionate about the work they do.
I recently attended, in Nottingham, a special showing of a new film by Pablo Behrens, called ‘Adrift in Soho’ an adaptation of an early novel by Colin Wilson. Colin Stanley, who many years ago published a short book of mine on Wilson, introduced the film. Colin Stanley, who has produced various works on Colin Wilson and has created an archive on the writer at Nottingham University, was an advisor on the film, an associate producer and general wrangler for the parts of the film shot in Nottingham and also has a short cameo in the film. I chatted before and after the film to Colin, but because I had to leave soon after the screening, I thought I’d just put in this blog how much I enjoyed the film. I have a little experience of the strains and stresses involved in independent filmmaking and Behrens cast and crew on ‘Adrift’ have overcome these produced a very watchable and unique film which I hope at some point gets wider distribution. As Colin said to me, the film is darker than the original novel, but along with several other elements, this is certainly not ‘a travesty’ or unwarranted distortion of the original novel. Behrens is certainly true to the spirit of the novel, and the film is rather rich and beautiful in its colours, with some very poetical shots that never overwhelm the narrative or get to ‘artsy’. The Soho of the 1950s has been brilliantly recreated on the streets of present-day Nottingham, and rather aptly, Colin pointed out one of the locations, a local pub, just down the street from the Broadway Cinema where we had just viewed the film. Behrens, who discussed this with Wilson himself, has expanded the scope of the novel and contextualized (with historical hindsight) key features of the novel, which was a perceptive ‘slice of life’ that has now passed. What has been added to the story is the element of what was called ‘Free Cinema’ an early fifties documentary movement, which prefigured the better known British New Wave films of directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. This is a very neat and clever trick, on Behrens part, because it allows him to do three things at once: use the ‘Free Cinema’ documentary techniques to actually shoot his film (which helps when you’re on a low budget movie), ‘beef up’ the narrative in a historical manner adding and illuminating the social context and hinting what was to come (i.e. ‘the swinging sixties’) and in a way neatly telescope the story of ‘Free Cinema’ itself into his film. Wilson himself had had some contact with the filmmakers involved in ‘Free Cinema’ and indeed was featured alongside Lindsay Anderson and others in ‘Declaration’, a book by Tom Maschler, which attempted to capture the ‘Angry Young Man’ spirit of the times. As Behrens writes in his ‘programme notes’ for the film, ‘[Wilson’s] characters and their lifestyles were, unbeknownst to everybody, providing the platform for the next generation. The one that would pick up from where from where they left and change the world to what we know today as “modernity”.’ The way in which Behrens negotiates between the ‘Free Cinema’ elements of his story - he actually partially recreates three of the movements documentaries ‘Nice Time’ (Goretta and Tanner), ‘Momma Don’t Allow (Reisz and Richardson) and the more famous ‘March to Aldermaston’ (Anderson and Reisz) – and Wilson’s original narrative is seamless and I think, rather like Paul Schrader’s version of Ian McEwan’s ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, adds to rather than detracts from the original. The difference between the two, as Colin Stanley noted, is that Wilson’s narrative maintains a lighter more positive tone throughout. Harry Preston, Wilson’s lead (and most autobiographical) character in the novel, is here overshadowed by the ultimately destructive but always charismatic, James Compton-Street. Compton-Street is the Soho-ite, who leads Preston, literally and metaphorically, through the streets, alleys, pubs, clubs and cafés of Soho, which is almost a character in itself (especially as it’s powerfully rendered in the film). The two male leads, inevitably, given the period and Wilson’s own bias towards male characters, take up most of the viewer’s attention, though both Caitlin Harris (as Doreen) and especially Emily Seale-Jones (as Jo) as the male characters counterparts, give feisty and reasonably nuanced performances. Seale-Jones’ character has more of an arc and allows her more room to play than Harris’ Doreen who predictably but a little formulaically falls for Preston in the end. Harry Preston, the reserved, watchful and naive character (the novel is a Bildungsroman) is well played by Owen Drake. He’s a good foil to Compton-Street, and it’s often easy to overlook the skill an actor employs playing such characters. He certainly does Preston justice and is very watchable as the viewer’s observer of other people. If I’m being picky, I’d say there’s an occasionally odd cadence to his speech (he was born in California) but when I was watching I couldn’t place it, and it didn’t affect my ‘buying into’ his character whose origins are never explained anyway. My greatest praise, however, would have to be for Chris Wellington, who gets the extremes of his character just right. Compton-Street has to be attractive, charismatic, dangerous, melancholic, a rake and a philosopher, and Wellington gets all of that dead right. One of the unusual features of the film, is the discussion between the character of the Count (played in a beautifully down-at-heel manner by William Chubb) and Harry Preston, of Lautreamont’s ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ (which later has a disastrous effect on Compton-Street). Wilson was obviously taken with the book at the time he wrote ‘Adrift in Soho’ but I’m pretty sure he would have later rejected most of its violence and negativity (It contains some of the most extreme and ugly events that I’ve ever come across in a Penguin classic that’s for sure – think ‘Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom’ by Pasolini, and you’re on the right track). I don’t think I’ve heard or seen Lautreamont quoted on film before and that is the kind of thing independent cinema is and should be about, bringing to our attention the less often seen or heard. Behrens film, has a few anachronisms in its mise en scène (of which I’m sure he’s conscious), due I suspect, to having been shot on a shoestring (the odd piece of railing or wall fitting is not period) but this is more than made up for with the general exuberance of the film and attractive editing (some of the crossfades etc.: blood in the sink merging with Wellington’s face, golden cobblestones alongside rippling water and so on are very striking). Generally speaking though, it carries you through a lost world which is both memorable and unusual. Like ‘Free Cinema’ itself this film wants you to look with fresh eyes, it also to a degree get across Colin Wilson’s positive philosophy. It doesn’t quite succeed in the later but mostly because the original novel didn’t. Wilson was a young novelist and an extremely productive writer, who, I think, rather ‘threw off’ this novel at speed. Just to end, I’d say it’s always fun to see someone you know in a film and so well done Colin Stanley on his one line, well delivered! It was also great to see the film and be a part of that particular audience (many of whom were involved in the film) because I’d just seen the premiere of an independent film I’d acted in, Linda Dunscombe’s ‘King of Crime’ (see my previous blog) and had one line too! So, I felt very empathetic to the makers of this film, because if you can make a watchable film, which this most definitely is, on a small budget, you have climbed more mountains than the average punter is aware of, so well done to all involved in the making of ‘Adrift in Soho’.
In the Hulton Archive, there exists an old, black and white photograph from July 1955 of a deceptively innocent looking street corner in Sarajevo. In fact, it’s of a crossroads, and it could be said it was on this crossroads that, along with the Austro-Hungarian empire of the Hapsburgs, the four great empires of Europe: Britain, France, Germany, and Russia had the misfortune to come crashing together. In the foreground, by the curb-side of this benign looking picture, are two footprints. Turn your head as you place your feet on those footprints and you can still see a sombre plaque saying that it was from this point on the 28th June 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia Choteck von Chotkova were assassinated by the teenager Gavrilo Princip. Gavrilo, a pallid, tubercular youth, perhaps felt the hand of destiny touch him, as he sat despondently eating a sandwich at a café on that corner. An open-topped Phaeton car passed by but the driver, having taken a wrong turn, put the brakes on and slowly reversed to within feet of the café. Through a crowd, Gavrilo saw that in the back seat of the Phaeton was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Earlier that day, a bomb thrown by Nedjelko Cabrinovic, a fellow Serb nationalist and friend of Gavrilo, had bounced off the bonnet of the Phaeton and exploded under the wheels of another car in the Archduke’s motorcade. This botched assassination attempt by the so-called ‘Black Hand’ had left two of Ferdinand’s entourage seriously wounded and injured a dozen spectators. It was, in fact, these injured that the Archduke insisted on visiting in hospital and the reason his driver, Leopold Lojka, was unfamiliar with the route he was taking. As if it were a scene from Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, Gavrilo was unable, due to the crowds, to pull out the small bomb he’d been issued with. He quickly reverted to his Browning pistol and managed to fire two fatal shots. He confessed later, ‘Where I aimed I do not know... I even turned my head as I shot’. For the fatalistically minded, Lojka’s unintended detour was literally the turning point in the history of the 20th century. There are, traditionally, a number of uncontested factors that made this assassination the tipping point that led to the Great War. Amongst these was the rise of the Pan-Slavic and Nationalist independence movements in the Balkans, which had begun as early as 1829 with Greek independence and culminated in the shooting. The eventual consequences of which, whilst welcomed by some, were unintended. Gavrilo’s generation wanted a Greater Serbia, no longer under the yoke of the Hapsburgs. His statement after his arrest was simple and limited, ‘I am a Yugo-slav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugo-slavs and I do not care what form of state [we achieve] but it must be free from Austria’. Archduke Ferdinand was a reformer of an Empire with fifteen different nationalities, who, it was feared by the revolutionaries, planned to devolve power regionally, federalise and thus dilute aspirations for Slavic independence. Another factor was a complex of treaties, conventions, and ententes that existed between the European empires and led to a ‘domino effect’. One event, almost mechanically setting off another in the post-assassination period now called ‘the July Crisis’. The dominoes fell like this: To begin with, the Dual Alliance Treaty (1879) between Germany and the Austro-Hungarians (made because Otto von Bismarck almost obsessively feared attack on two fronts) said that they would, as allies, declare war if Russia or France mobilised to attack either Empire. In a similar vein, the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892 promised each signatory assistance in the event of attack. Ferdinand’s assassination provided the Austro-Hungarians with an excuse to effectively initiate a war between themselves and the Kingdom of Serbia. They assumed or gambled that the Russians would not involve themselves in this small ‘domestic’ war. The Russians however, with ethnic and power interests of their own in the region, mobilised their army. In 1905, the Germans had created the Schlieffen Plan. This plan was based on the premise that, if Russia mobilised and went to war, France would soon follow. Germany would then be faced with Bismarck’s nightmare, war on two fronts. However, the giant Russian army would take several weeks to mobilise. In this breathing space, Germany could attack France, not on their mutual border, heavily defended by French forts but via neutral Belgium. The Germans with this surprise attack felt they could, as it were, ‘Be in Paris by the weekend’. Unfortunately for the world there existed yet another dusty, old treaty of seventy-five years standing. This was the Treaty of London (1839) in which Britain undertook to defend the neutrality of Belgium. Additionally, the ‘Entente Cordiale’ of 1904 between Britain and France, had effectively ended a thousand years of bellicose attitudes between the two neighbours. This cordial agreement was a colonial ‘carve-up’ on a host of matters, such as France staying out of Egypt if the British kept their nose out of Morocco. Given these conditions, if Germany invaded Belgium, Britain, the largest empire in the world, would be forced to make a decision as to whether to initiate a global conflict. Thus becoming the final ‘domino’ to fall. This is often where opinion between historians begins to divide. One distinction of this war is the mountain of documentation associated with it. No historian can hope to read all the relevant literature which includes multi-volume editions of official diplomatic papers and literally tens of thousands of books. Almost any polemic on the origins of the conflict can produce some material basis for its defence. Therefore, the general reader would be wise to note any historian’s ideological predisposition (as well as their own). The independence movements, the alliances, the built-in militarism and propaganda of the Imperial powers, provide necessary but perhaps not sufficient causes for the war. Two contemporary but very opposed historians, who attempt to find such sufficient causes are Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson. Hastings, whom one might caricature as ‘old school’, vehemently argues that one essentially distorts the history if one ignores the ‘moral culpability’ of the combatants. No one nation was fully responsible but the German Empire, he asserts, was the principal aggressor, particularly barbarous and as such provides the looked for sufficient cause. Germany had a record of committing genocides in South West Africa (of the Hereo and Namaqua, 1904-7) and then, when it invaded Belgium, human rights atrocities (the execution of over 6,000 Belgians). It is also through this prism he believes that one should view the genocides of the Second World War. Obversely, Ferguson feels nothing was inevitable on the Sunday afternoon that the British officials met to decide for or against war. The German policy and war objectives indicate that they wanted a continental war between nations but not a world war between empires. Going into the meeting, the majority of participants would probably have said they were against war with Germany. We are taught Britain came into the war because of the threat to Belgian neutrality. However, Ferguson says, if you examine the sources, these Liberal politicians were rather cynical about the matter, it merely provided a good pretext for war. The motivating reason behind the decision was, suggests Ferguson, more ‘frivolous’ but no less sufficient. Many were unemployed in Britain, and the Liberals feared defeat in an election. A popular war was a way of avoiding such humiliation. A significant minority forced the issue. The Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, threatened to resign if Britain didn’t declare war and a young, belligerent Winston Churchill, then in the Admiralty, suggested what soon became common parlance, that, ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. In 1965, Powell and Pressburger released a film (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), the eponymous hero of which knew his Clausewitz, dressed in feather-plumed, gaudy uniforms and happily obeyed the rituals of war. This fictional character, Colonel Blimp, appears out-dated, but replace his cinematic image with that of a marine portrayed in contemporary recruitment adverts, and it’s clear that war is still often projected as a kind of elevated costume drama. In a post-modern world, the appeal and power of such imagery, especially to the young, is often derided. Yet, with the continued popularity of war, it seems true to say that, the old Horacian appeal, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) is not yet seen as a lie by most. Nineteenth-century Imperialism was at the heart of the causes of the First World War, the background to which were such avaricious enterprises as the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and ‘The Great Game’ (between the British and Russians in northern India). Powerful elites wanted economic supremacy and on the surface at least, not unlike modern Liberal-Democracies, justified war on the grounds of: the need to defend nation states, progress, enlightenment and universal humanity. Twenty million people were killed in the war. Such ‘justifications’ are like the apparently innocent, 1955 black and white photograph of a crossroads from the Hulton Archive. Deceptive. This is from my book ‘Orwell, Two Guinea Pigs, A Cat and A Goat’.
At the beginning of my work on a feature film called ‘King of Crime’, back in 2016, I wrote a number of blogs about the experience. Now the film has been released, a DVD is on its way, and its cinema run is over, I can post the series of blogs I wrote at the time as a kind of journal. Whilst some of the journal entries will have their original dates at the start, I have extensively rewritten some of the material. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but also at the time you don’t always realise what will stay with you most. So each entry is a bit of a mix, written at the time but with a gloss of what happened later. 18th October 2016 Had a lovely day recently, on the film set of ‘Milk and Honey: The Movie’, (the working title of what became ‘King of Crime’), starring Mark Wingett from ‘The Bill’ and Claire King from ‘Emmerdale’, written by the talented Linda Dunscombe, who is also producer on this one and has done a fantastic job of getting a great cast together. I somehow missed the auditions but was brought on board, in a minor capacity, for a day’s shoot by the equally talented Sally Luff. The location, when I arrived early, was already busy with crew and actors and extras in various states of preparedness. After coffee and a chat with Sally, I went to make-up where Clare Nixon and Laura Henry, her assistant, were busy with numerous actors. I also saw, in passing, Richard Summers-Calvert, who I know slightly, looking extremely busy. He was there, that day, in his capacity as the third assistant director but he also plays the character Dexter in the film. I remember Mark Wingett arriving, at some point, and being struck by how calm, friendly and self-assured he seemed, which is just what a lead actor needs to be, it really helps everybody feel happy and confident about the job in hand. Linda and Peter Dunscombe were both there (it’s really their baby this film) not only making everyone feel welcome but on the phone, answering constant questions and doing dozens of jobs whilst overseeing the whole project. Also, in a corner, was a quiet and concentrated, Hainsley Lloyd Bennett (‘Tully’), another of the lead actors. Having put on my rather dapper three-piece suit, and been made up, I was ready for action. I was pleasantly surprised and happy to find out I was to get to use some real firearms. That sounds a bit morbid, but it’s not something I’ve done before, and I thought it would be good experience for any future film work. The day was picking up and I’d not even got in front of a camera yet! In the end, I got to fire three types of handgun, which, as I say, was a first, and I have to confess to really enjoying it! Nicholas David Lean (who I later learned was the First Assistant Director, Second Unit Director and Action choreographer, hey it’s a small indie film!) went through the firearms training with me and was very insistent, rightly, that I take it seriously. He spoke of the injuries, and even a few fatalities, that blank rounds had caused on sets over the years (the empty bullet shells fly out at some force). It certainly helped to concentrate the mind and made me focus on all his instructions about how to handle the firearms correctly. In the event, the reason I ended up firing three guns, was that the first two jammed after a few shots. In a way this helped me, because it gave me more time to get used to being on set, the camera set-up, and what was expected of me and my fellow ‘shooter’, a big shaven-headed guy (who I never did get the name of) who I have to say looked a lot tougher than me! The set, created by Hayden Otton, in an office block in Milton Keynes, (where a number of the interiors were amazingly quickly, erected and struck, sometimes overnight) was a mock-up of an illegal den for computing scamming. The walls were an oppressive green-greyish colour, and my partner in crime and I, were to be framed in a single shot at the entrance to the room, which was accentuated nicely by small lights, set in the wall around the door, as you might get in a seedy nightclub. Framed with the lights glowing gently off and on, behind us, Tom Anderson, the cinematographer, and Matt Gambell, the Director, were out in front, behind the camera, giving us various instructions. The lighting was more or less set when we walked on set but still need some adjustment. We spent some time getting positioned right, making sure our eye-lines were correct and going over when to bring the guns into shot and shoot. My partner had a shotgun, but it was a ‘dummy’ in the sense that it didn’t fire blanks and to begin with I had a very large silver hand gun (something like a magnum but don’t really know, having never picked up a gun before in my life). I got a couple of rounds off with that first gun and was truly surprised at the kick a gun firing blanks has. This gun soon jammed, and Nick quickly replaced it, with another quite impressive but smaller black automatic gun. The same thing happened, it jammed and Nick, increasingly frustrated, after safely putting the other guns away, handed me the last gun they had and the smallest of the lot, a pistol. If this hadn’t of worked, I expect, that I would just have had to pretend to shoot and in post-production (as they did with the shotgun) they’d have put in a digital effect of gunfire. As it was, the pistol worked best out of the lot, giving off a very large flame from its muzzle, which made it a very real sensation to shoot. Two things I didn’t know on the day were, firstly, that this first day of mine would end up in the trailer for the film and secondly who I was actually ‘shooting’. All we’d been told was that we were gunning down half a dozen people at computer terminals, but none of them were actually there when we were filming (hence the need to get the eye-line right). It turned out, that a prominent victim of our gunshots was one of the characters in the film called Lazy River Boy, played by Benji Dotan. When I finally saw the sequence, at the premiere, this made me really smile. Benji and I had worked together for a couple of years, in a small scale touring theatre company, have the same agent, and occasionally bump into each other at various arts events. He was on set that day, and we did have a brief chat early on, which was nice and helped make me feel more at home on set. Film sets can be intimidating places, so a friendly face is always helpful for one’s confidence. Anyway, I was thrilled to have had the day and had thoroughly enjoyed myself, and after thanking Sally Luff for having contacted me, I got out of my suit and was one the stairwell about to leave. It was at this point I heard someone talking about the need to get further ‘heavies’ for the film. I think at that point I turned around and went back to have a word with Sally. She suggested I talk to Richard, the third AD. What I said to Richard was basically that I was free to come back over the next few weeks if they needed me to play a ‘heavy’ on another day. Richard thought that might be a good idea, went back in and came back a few minutes later having had a word with Linda. Linda had agreed that it would work in terms of continuity, that is that Marcus King could well surround himself with regular bodyguards and I could be one of them, it also got rid of the headache of finding new ‘heavies’ every few days. So, overhearing a conversation by chance, a quick chat, where I suggested I was available, a nod from the writer-producer and I was on board. After that point, I became I guess ‘Bodyguard to Marcus King’ rather than just a ‘heavy’ and I had at that point an unspecified number of call-sheets coming my way (the call-sheet tells you where and when you’re needed and any necessary details for day’s filming) The whole day was a great experience, and I’d had a ball messing about with the guns as a gangster for the day. I’d found the whole cast and crew really friendly co-operative, hardworking and helpful. The young director, Matt Gambell, seems to be doing a great job (and I’m looking forward to seeing the finished film already). I have a few more days, at least, on the film, now as one of Mark Wingett’s bodyguards, and may even have more guns to fire! I couldn’t have asked for a better day and was walking on air when I finally exited the building
Note: To any cast and crew members reading this, if there’s anything wildly inaccurate or that you dislike in the above, do let me know.