production memories - drama
Getting a start in the film industry had been an enormous stroke of good fortune. Three years later finding myself as Second Assistant Director on Doctor Dolittle after just a few days of proper experience on some very straightforward car commercials has to be rated as even more amazing. To get to that point I had turned down two other films offered at the same time; one I can't remember but the other was The Jokers with Oliver Reed and Michael Crawford. As its director was the controversial Michael Winner, about whom much is said, I had certainly made the right decision. Other than describe Dolittle as an unbelievable experience and say that, in some respects at least, I haven't worked on anything quite as massive since, I won’t go any further, because some of the stories from the Wiltshire location are at present being woven into a novel and I wouldn't want to give away too much of the fun to come.
They Came from Beyond Space
After a big-budget picture with a Hollywood crew plus British personnel, major stars, songs, dancers, endless animals including a complete circus and with my being in charge of five runners and seven policemen employed every day to keep modern traffic and hundreds of tourists out of shot, it was down to earth and reality, although the latter is not truly the appropriate word. Ray Corbett, British cover First Assistant on Dolittle asked me to do his next film, a bargain basement Science Fiction so-called thriller with a duff script about extra-terrestrials enslaving scientists. The special effects made even less sense than the plot and the dialogue. I needed to go back to 3rd Assistant to get some experience. The film was studio-based at Twickenham, not a bad place but no match for the prettiest village in England. There were positives; I was learning the job and meeting new people including fine technicians and actors. I still felt very fortunate, but at the same time it couldn't help but be slightly depressing.
I got a call from either Laurie Greenwood or Ron Fry. Both had done stints as Production Manager at Pearl & Dean and knew me from there. They needed a 3rd Assistant for one of the two main units shooting the Avengers at ABPC Elstree. So it was that I got to work on the last of the Diana Rigg episodes of the cult series, and also how I had the great luck to meet and work for the great Ted Lewis, certainly the most original and the funniest Assistant Director I ever knew. With two episodes shooting simultaneously on adjacent stages and often other units running too, the Avengers block at Elstree, on its own, was Character Actor City, with a stream of well-known faces passing through on a daily basis. And Ted knew all of them, or if he didn't he certainly spoke as if he did when they first walked on set. He was absolutely relaxed and totally familiar with them, to the point of treating all of them as total equals and they without exception seemed to love him for it. The fact that he bore a startling resemblance to the comedian Frankie Howerd and played up to that to some extent, adopting some Howerd-like mannerisms, may have helped.
Being at a big studio could be advantageous. People visited other productions' sets much more freely in those days and got to see and even assess those working elsewhere in the studio. That is how I think I got the Bette Davis movie when the Avengers series took a break. This was with the legendary First Assistant Bert Batt. His stage might not have had quite so much laughter as Ted's, but it was supremely efficient; impeccably organised. Miss Davis sacked the first director after a week. We were found other work for a few days, including doing artiste tests for Department S. One actor tried for the part, which eventually went to Peter Wyngarde, was Pete Murray, the disc jockey, who was surprisingly nervous. Meanwhile they rebuilt the main set for The Anniversary and soon we started all over again with a new director, Roy Ward Baker. I had seen a film of his at school film club, some eight years before, and now I was one of his assistants! I would work with Roy again, much further down the line, on Minder.
La Ragazza con la Pistola
It would have been good for me to do more films with Bert Batt, and he and Chris Neame, the second assistant, asked me to do their next and I was tempted. But I had an offer from Tom Hawkins, who'd worked on Dolittle and was putting together a British crew to work on an Italian language film coming to the UK. He needed a second for the Italian first assistant. We both thought I could do it and being a third was no real challenge after busking through Doctor Dolittle, so I went for it. There was madness a-plenty, including my professional acting debut, when I played a tiny one-line scene with the star Monica Vitti. I have finally seen this towering performance after fifty years and find I am saying all sorts of things apart from my one scripted line - someone else's voice dubbed of course. Hey, ho.
The Avengers, again
It should be said that writing assignments and work on TV commercials and promos were fitted in between the longer jobs, accounting for what may appear to be large gaps. Having started in the commercial sector, I always was grounded there, occasionally being tempted to the features and series. There were some documentaries too, along the way. In 1968 I was invited to return to the Avengers for some months as a second assistant. Linda Thorson was now playing Steed's new fellow agent. My first task was to become involved in some partial reshoots of many of her scenes already shot, a fiendishly complex business which found me, for instance, identifying and re-booking extras who had been employed for one day several months earlier.
Tom Grattan's War
In early 1969, after a false start due to postponement towards the end of the previous year, I went to snowy Yorkshire to Production Manage a children's series on film, set during the First World War. It now seemed as if I would hit complexity wherever I went and here the 12-episode schedule had to be constructed in a highly unusual way, for very sound reasons, but shooting taking place in the seemingly jumbled order that resulted required great concentration from all cast and crew. This might have had a useful side-effect. The first series, shot the previous summer, had been Yorkshire Television's first ever filmed drama and for many of the new station's crew their first taste of an away location and living in hotels. This freedom had, it was reported, gone to a few heads and show had gained something of a reputation. Everyone at the TV station wanted their turn working on what they believed would be a continuous party. The complexity meant I was able to justify rejecting the calls for frequently changing personnel. My main task was to impose a degree of order to series two, and I probably just about succeeded, without damping enthusiasm too greatly.
After something near nine months in Yorkshire in 1969, the following year found me back on the moors for locations on a remake of the Emily Bronte classic, assisting Ted Lewis and Director Bob Fuest, knowing both from the Avengers. Complexity reared its head again because the script was vastly overlength and started to be pared down from day one of shooting. The long logistics line from the Leeds hotel base to the locations kept me extra busy on top of the constant rescheduling as scenes and sequences were chopped out of the script. With my bosses thoroughly committed on set and the marvellous PM, the giant Ted Lloyd, coping with the never-ending changes in the office, I was often the only one who knew what could possibly be shot the following day, and where the scenes might sit according to the very latest script version. Everyone just left me to work it out and tell them on the call sheet, which was wonderful but slightly scary. You quickly get used though to spending vast amounts of other people's money to the best effect.
Shot in leafy Hertfordshire, but with my travelling every day from Surrey, this quirky series was both tiring yet relaxing, thanks to another great crew. It was significant in introducing me to Roger Inman, who has to be the best commercials PM/1st Assistant of all time. He was pretty adept at series and pictures too, as I found because we became firm friends and worked together a great deal.
After assisting Roger on commercials, among others some in Miami and the Bahamas for John Burrows Associates, we found ourselves in early autumn Cornwall for a low budget Gothic horror film. It remains in the memory as one of the greatest jobs ever because of some terrific cast and crew and the fact that many wives and children appeared on this seaside location adding an extra dimension. A film unit on location usually has an inbuilt family feel, but this was special. Most of the Vampiring, gore, flames and mayhem took place on our return to Twickenham Studios.
From 1970 onwards a few brave commercials companies started offering me work as a 1st Assistant. I continued though to work with Ted Lewis, Roger and a few others when asked and in the first half of the 70s completed two films and a series in Germany with Ted and two pop music movies with Roger, both of which, completely by coincidence, included my great friends from Mud.
In 1976 I had a call to do a commercial with 1st Assistant Andrew Grieve. This was to check me out, as I soon discovered, for Andrew regularly worked with celebrated director Tony Richardson and was about to embark on a film which might almost have been called Tom Jones 2. An attraction was that it was all to be shot in Bath and the Cotswolds, which was by then very much my home territory. The downside was that there were politics afoot. The PM said I didn't have sufficient experience, but we found he actually wanted to install a fellow countryman of his with virtually none. At my first meeting he tried to frighten me off by saying that the film was one which definitely needed two 2nd Assistants, but I was them. He also gave us pitifully inadequate pre-production time, something that I never understood Andrew's accepting. Nevertheless we were ready for Bath despite this sabotage and other unnecessary difficulties.
All was well until Ann-Margret injured herself during a rehearsal and the whole Bath schedule, involving very major crowd scenes, with music and dancing in some cases, was thrown into disarray. We still kept the cameras turning and little time was lost, all the while coping with Mr Richardson's very exacting requirements. Later, as in La Ragazza, I was obliged to appear on camera, again almost as a punishment for failing to find someone who was acceptable to the boss. His one note of direction will always stay with me: "Paddy, I think we can do without the funny walk."
It was the hottest and best summer for years and many of those who worked on set remember the film nostalgically as a delightful idyll. For some of us tasked with getting actors and extras ready and in the place they were wanted when they were wanted, it was something different, an exhausting struggle against near-overwhelming odds over which we ultimately triumphed by working mad hours. Afterwards I sat alone in my garden for several weeks, not answering the telephone and vowing never to do 2nd Assistant again. I kept my promise to myself.
The Cat and the Canary
Fortunately help was at hand. One day later in the year I was running a busy set at Shepperton for David Ashwell when I looked up to see Ray Corbett, from Doctor Dolittle and Beyond Space. He was about to PM a remake of the Bob Hope 1939 classic for a producer teamed with a director who had reputedly made money through, shall we say, a different branch of film making and who had now assembled the budget for a truly glittering international cast, and a highly experienced and delightful British crew, including cameraman Alex Thompson, operator Mike Fox and continuity the redoubtable Angela Allen. The director was accompanying Ray and presumably was happy with what he saw as I was shortly offered the job as First Assistant. Quite what I was doing in this heavyweight company on my first movie as No 1, I didn't think to question. I would find out.
Some of the stories from this shoot are certainly best treated fictionally, like those from Dolittle and probably Joseph Andrews. There is the though a danger that they might then seem too far-fetched even if no embellishment whatsoever is applied. But that is the film business, God bless it. If you can possibly imagine it, it has happened somewhere, sometime. The movie was completed and it wasn't great, especially considering what it could have been, with all that wonderful talent. Let's just say that no blame for that can attach to the cast, the crew, to Ray, or to me.
Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse
Commercials with Justin Cartwright, these days a world famous novelist, led to working with him on one of those 70s slightly risqué sex comedies that were in vogue at the time. A true bonus was the opportunity to watch wall-to-wall cream-of-the-crop British comedy actors in action including Beryl Reid and Peter Bull (both again), John Le Mesurier, Patricia Hodge, Lance Percival, Arthur Askey, Liz Fraser, John Junkin, Bob Todd, Harry Towb and many more.
Reilly – Ace of Spies
Being introduced to Martin Campbell to work with him on Troy Kennedy Martin's series about the first professional British spy was another significant turning point and the beginning of many collaborations. With twelve episodes shared between two directors, Martin and Jim Goddard, there was just one unit but both directors had their own 1st Assistants, an arrangement which allowed sufficient pre-episode planning time and we forged an intuitive working relationship over the nine months or so of production. Early locations in the South of France and Malta were followed by ABPC Studios and daily locations with London and the Home Counties representing Finland, Moscow, St Petersburg et al remarkably successfully, thanks to brilliant location managers and art department.
A four-parter with Martin occupied the next summer. As was his practice he assembled a sizzling cast and got great performances. However serious and dramatic a scene might be, the set always had wonderful lightness and was a privilege to be part of. The whole équipe was a joy. For example no one who saw it will ever forget seeing David Warner run.
Ron Purdie had been one of the First Assistants on The Avengers and as PM on the long-running Minder series had often offered me a job. He always claimed that the budget was tight, actually he'd made the adjective his own, and as the Shepherd's Bush area of London was not remotely my favourite stamping ground it had never been hard to refuse. On this occasion, Ron must have made a sensible offer and I joined to work on an episode with the formidably experienced Roy Ward Baker, whom I knew from the Anniversary with Bette Davis.
Although the shoot went well and there was much to enjoy, for reasons I will not go into, I decided not to stay on and prepare for the final episode that season, even though it was a smuggling story and involved an away location and shooting with several motor launches on the Solent; much more my type of job than gambling dens or the confines of the Winchester Club. Eventually I did take it on and this Francis Megahy episode became another shoot with a fund of stories where some of the names would have to be changed. It was though great to be part of that legend and meet both the two leads and Ray Winstone and work again with Patrick Malahide.
Robin of Sherwood
In one of those nice coincidences, Ray was playing Will Scarlett when I did some episodes of the cult series for my local TV station HTV West. Oddly I had been suggested by my predecessor on the programme, Mike Murray who had frequently been an admirable 3rd to Ted Lewis and myself in my 2nd AD days. It was remarkable how we created the 12th Century Sherwood Forest in some quite central Bristol locations.
A late pull-out by the contracted First saw me take over this major international mini-series with about three days to go before principal photography was due to begin in the French Alps. Again, we got away with it. The long schedule took us from there to Paris, to Granada to London and then Chang Mai in Thailand where we staged guerrilla war involving street fighting and an army attack on a terrorist camp using elephants instead of tanks. I'm not quite sure of the validity of the tactic militarily, but it was enormous fun.
Return to Treasure Island
Another outing with Alex Kirby for HTV, this time the Cardiff company, found us in Jamaica for weeks and then in various parts of Spain with much swash-buckling all round. Brian Blessed as Long John Silver was a total delight. Loading all our literally tons of equipment with two colleagues into the hold of our chartered 737 because of a lightning strike by Madrid baggage handlers was not. I put my back out as a result and so I was sacked. It's fun being free-lance.
It was back to Spain and Royal Seville with Lace's Billy Hale for another mini-series. When the King suddenly decided he wanted to use his palace the schedule went into meltdown. When the King went home to Madrid the tourists were allowed back in. No one had worked out this meant we still couldn't work so we had to go over to shooting at night. When worse senselessness loomed, I refused to preside over chaos and left. I worried about over-reaction until my vastly more experienced replacement did the same after a matter of days. It wasn't too far from the end of production but I was lucky to be given the full credit. Then I remembered that we had already staged most of the 1908 Turkish Revolution so I ceased to feel too guilty.
After a long period free of drama (in the film sense at least) a wry and provocative series about a rather eccentric village policeman in the magnificent Scottish Highlands tickled my interest. Several months in remote and unique Plockton ensued. A great cast headed by Bobby Carlyle made it an overall good experience.
World class camera operator Mike Proudfoot landed the direction of the second unit on this very big and complicated space movie at Pinewood. As it happened, opportunities for a distinct second unit to shoot were very few and sometimes nights were the only option. Actors' availability from main unit shooting was too very restricted. Nevertheless we immersed ourselves totally and familiarised ourselves with the whole production. This meant I could take over the main unit on some weekends to give my counterpart, Patrick Clayton, an occasional well-deserved day off and that was hugely enjoyable, working with Paul Anderson. Mike didn't have such opportunity and hating having too little to do; after some months he eventually left and we were disbanded, which was rather a waste of talent and investment.
Extra UK Shooting
Thanks to long-time associate Martin Campbell, I became something of a specialist in extra shooting for almost-completed features. These jobs are planned with commercial-like thoroughness and great detail, which I always like. The pre-shooting screen tests for Piers Brosnan's replacement as James Bond were particular fun, with Martin on great form and many of the regular red-hot Bond crew at the absolute top of their individual games. They were assuredly among the best studio days I can ever remember, which is saying a lot.
The Failed Lottery Winner
On a rather different scale in terms of resources it was brilliant to assist Bernie Jones directing himself in a pilot short filmed in smart Clifton in Bristol. In this case, small was beautiful and as so often, great fun produces great work. Don't let anyone ever tell you that a unit has to be cowed and nervous to perform well.
Event Horizon Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan and Jason Isaacs.