. . . and some highlight commercials and promos.
When I start thinking about a shortlist of the most memorable of the hundreds and probably thousands of commercials I've worked on during the fifty years, it's amazing how most of them have a strong connection with transport, if not in terms of the actual subject, then often the means by which the filming was achieved. So if we combine "Trains and Boats and Planes" by Burt Bacharach and "Cars" from the great Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, Show of Hands, we get most of the headings we need.
There's nothing like having a real life train set to play with. A commercial for BR Sleepers to Scotland was notable for the fact that the train supplied for the shoot, well into the years of BR's blue livery, turned up at Dunbar with a locomotive in the rather more attractive but unfortunately long-outdated two shades of green. The sleeping carriages were blue and grey right enough, but they sadly had a generous coating of green mould in places. Slotting our filming runs in between the normal services on the main East Coast line to and from Edinburgh, long before the days of mobile phones, provided a real degree of challenge.
We had all travelled up overnight from Kings Cross using the sleeper service and few had enjoyed a decent rest, leading the director, David Gillard, to exclaim "Morally, I'm not sure I can make this ad!" – not a sentiment you will often hear commercials makers express, even in jest.
I can't remember the product, but I'm sure it wasn't the Gatwick Express, but that's what we found ourselves on. We had a whole coach reserved, maybe two, and we lost count of how many times we shuttled backwards and forwards between Victoria and the Airport in the course of a fairly long day. How many views of Clapham Junction can a crew stand?
For a commercial to promote Heldenbrau Lager, directed by David Ashwell, I had to persuade a working heritage and freight railway company in Northern California to lift several hundred yards of track for three or four days, so that we could recreate a spoof of the "Golden Spike" ceremony which marked the joining of the rails from the west and east coasts of America. They took my word that we would complete our filming in time for the next scheduled lumber train, and pay for the work of lifting and restoration. Seeing the last train trundle through at dusk with the traditional American whistle and watching the start of the dismantling of several communities' commercial lifeline was quite eerie.
Before finding the California railway, which had the advantage of wonderful vintage steam locos, I checked out one in the Arizona desert. The most visually interesting stretch ran through a United States Air Force range used for bombing practice, but our assumption, perhaps a foolish one, was that the trainee pilots and bomb-aimers would not blow up the railroad or the main road which paralleled it by a few hundred yards. The State of Arizona Film Commissioner, who was driving me in his official 4x4, decided that the only way to view the line was to drive along it, and that's exactly what we did, with one pair of wheels on a rail and the other bouncing interestingly on the sleepers. Some low trestle bridges gave us some thoughtful moments, but what concentrated our minds even more was the appearance after some time dead ahead on the line, through the desert heat haze, of what looked very much like an oncoming train. We knew nothing was timetabled that day, but the evidence of your eyes can overrule such assurances. We prepared for a hasty swerve. In the event, it turned out indeed to be a train but a minor and stationary one, the conveyance of a permanent way crew, who were found dozing around it in whatever shade they could find. If we had had a surprise, it could have been as nothing to theirs as this Arizona State Seal-bedecked vehicle bounced into their otherwise perfect hideaway.
The idea of a commercial for McEwan's Beer was that we would approach people all over Scotland and invite them to remember and sing a well-known jingle for the product that had accompanied an ad a good few years earlier. Sometimes our appearance was pre-arranged; often it was just a buttonhole job. No approach was colder than our capturing travellers one early morning at Oban as they blearily stumbled off an overnight ferry from the Hebrides. It had not been, by their accounts, anything like a calm crossing and many were in no fit state to talk, let alone sing. We had travelled there by train from Glasgow and later returned the same way. This was a unit that knew how to enjoy itself and our work done for the day, the journey back turned into a memorable party. Why we had an endless supply of balloons on board, and why it became an Anneka-like challenge to fill an entire compartment with them from floor to ceiling before arrival at Queen Street, probably no one remembers, but everyone on the job and perhaps some former BR Scotland staff will recall that we succeeded.
Airboats are small flat-bottomed craft with large car engines mounted on gimbals driving pusher propellers in wire cages, so they're quite fast and very manoeuvrable. They're widely used in the Everglade Swamps of Florida by hunters and formed the subject of one of three commercials for Martini, directed by the brilliant John Burrows, which were the reason for my first ever trip to the USA, when I was a second assistant. On being dispatched to a nearby island with all supernumeraries for the duration of some aerial shots, this was also the first and only occasion that I've ever carried a handgun when the head hunter, as he left us, thrust a .357 Magnum into my hand in case there were aggressive snakes lurking in the island cabin's toilet. Caution was due though as one likely species he listed could, he said, strike six feet. The lack of likelihood of my hitting a slim target at any range was not so much as mentioned.
In the days when cigarette advertising was legal and sometimes very up-market, a series of commercials, again in Florida, on this occasion with Martin Campbell, was rounded off with a film shot on the Rothman's yacht, while it was available in port at Fort Lauderdale between legs of the Whitbread Round the World Race. I'm no keen sailor, but the three days we spend off the coast with an amazing craft and its crew of friendly top internationals at our complete disposal were quite unforgettable. Even on warm days it could be pretty wet and cold though. I certainly wouldn't want to do it for real!
The famous Corinth Canal in Southern Greece is mostly in a sheer cutting and is used by cruise liners so big that they all but scrape their sides on the walls. The idea that Guinness could somehow enable an oversize boat to squeeze through was the basis for one job in the 1990s. Having recced the locations and returned to the UK, I was suddenly sent to Athens on a night flight at just a few hours' notice to view and photograph a selection of quite large freighters that might suit our purposes. The fascinating thing about the film industry is that you never know what you are going to be doing next.
Of course cigarette advertising should have been banned, but there's no doubt that its demise caused a significant loss of work for film technicians who specialised in TV and cinema commercials. A job for John Player Special based in Nice found us working with the JPS racing powerboat. Rigging cameras on it securely to obtain interesting angles, without damaging its highly polished surfaces, at a time when cameras were not at all miniaturised as they are today, was a tall order. On a John Burrows unit, this task fell to Jimmy Mullins, one of the most inventive camera grips of all time. The same adjective could apply to his rather tuneless songs.
The concept of a fleet of the brand-new Austin Metros, driving through streets lined by flag-waving Brits, convoying off like troops marching to battle and to drive off overseas invaders in the form of Fiats, Volkswagens, Renaults and Nissans, was reasonably straightforward to stage – until we got to the four, foreign, flag-bedecked, military landing craft charging a beachhead to unload their cargoes of competing superminis. That aspect of the Metro launch commercial did require military-style planning so it was good that the Royal Marines were 'on board', treating our precise photographic requirements as a useful training exercise for their boats. Keeping the background of our 'war zone' clear of dozens of pleasure craft and the regular cross channel ferries was a complication which we eventually overcame without use of deadly force.
The logistics of that job prompted director David Ashwell to write me a personal note of thanks afterwards. You don't get that happening too often in the commercials business, I have to say.
The triple-split-screen, snow-rain-sunshine format of another car launch commercial; that for the Triumph Acclaim, saw a requirement to find snowy roads in Europe in late Spring and then later source roads in the UK to match their physical characteristics (width, radius of curves, succession of humps, gradient of hills and so on). Northern Finland, in the Arctic Circle, provided the snow (just) though the new cars' availability date meant that the shoot was taking place with the thaw already underway.
The only way to accomplish tracking shots, we had realised on two recces, was to use a frozen lake. There was though quite deep snow even there and the sole option to create a wide enough 'road' was to compress it with a caterpillar tractor. This gave a reasonable stretch flat enough to drive the car on (again, just) but it was still too bumpy for a conventional camera vehicle, even a Citroen, to give steady pictures. We had to resort again to the tracked vehicle. All was well until it dawned on us that we were on a sheet of ice which was melting fast and could crack at any time and yet we were trundling across it repeatedly on something that could only be described as a small tank. You can't always believe what locals tell you but fortunately this time they were right (again, just).
This was a 45-second commercial but with the split-screen elements plus all the other sequences of cars in formation and so on, it involved more shooting days than any other commercial I have ever worked on, some 48, I think. With recces and preparation, it provided me with something like three months' work. I loved the Triumph Acclaim as a result – not in the buying one sense, obviously.
Conversely, I did buy a Land Rover Discovery having done the launch commercial, as it was the right car for where we live and we've owned three so far. I didn't get a penny off the purchase of any of them, even though the job could have killed me, twice at least, yet the agency bods who turned up to watch us toil in the deep snow every day probably were given one apiece. Finding Antarctica in New Zealand was without doubt the best assignment ever. Hiring aircraft to fly round the Southern Alps; then transferring to helicopters to land on glaciers and snowfields; this was almost the best holiday I could never afford, except that it was also highly pressurised and crucial work – safety-critical too, as sliding uncontrollably down an icefield proved at one later stage. I vetoed that location!
The shoot itself was complex in every respect despite having a top-notch meticulous director in Martin Campbell and a fabulous New Zealand crew. The high snow-line that year meant we could use no skidoos for normal access, so the moving for more than a few yards of every single item whether personnel, equipment, props or catering had to be in or slung from a helicopter. Even Discoverys and a complete wooden building were moved in this precarious way. Once any lifeline helicopter had disappeared from our view, radios did not work and again it was an era before mobile phones so planning ahead was even more essential than usual. The line formation of helicopter lights coming off the mountain after nightfall on the first day had the feel of Vietnam. It was also highly illegal as night flight into Queenstown Airport, ringed by high peaks, was not permitted: we wrapped earlier thereafter.
More Boys' Own adventure ensued on a Land Rover Discovery follow-up ad with Ian Sharp in Mexico. Again the recce was undoubtedly the best part, although several of us could easily have drowned in a flash flood minutes after landing at Tijuana Airport. Had we not been forced by chance to accept a taller minibus instead of the two hire saloons we had pre-ordered we almost certainly would have stalled, been trapped and swept into an underground storm drain along with much of a shanty town built on hills beside the highway.
Finding the ideal off-road locations in a jagged and confusing desert 80 miles south of Mexicali was relatively easy by helicopter, but finding a route to get the pristine Discoverys undamaged to the sites chosen was something different. Such tracks as existed frequently ended in unexpected cliff edges, where other flash floods had rearranged the terrain. We pioneered the route with hire 4x4s, which we were obliged to import illegally from the US. The helicopter spotted routes for us, which mostly involved using rocky dry river beds, and we were careful to build cairns to allow us to find our way back to civilisation through the maze, and so not need help or rescue.
When those pristine, photographically perfect Discos arrived, four examples having been carefully air freighted from the UK, the transporter driver calmly scraped the roofs of two while unloading them outside the crew hotel, rendering them useless as picture vehicles. This apparent disaster suited me as I could commandeer them for unit transport, which was in dangerously short supply.
My first Disco featured heavily in a recce and the shoot of a famous series of commercials which featured quite the opposite of things that move – well normally anyway.
National Power, before they idiotically became npower, decided to give themselves some corporate image in an extraordinary way – by seeming to take responsibility for features which to most people look hideously ugly (far more so than they need to be, many think). They didn't have to take this burden on because they didn't actually own the darn things. We're talking about electricity pylons. Some agency creatives came upon the idea of walking pylons – not pylons actually disfiguring landscape by looming over it and filling the sky with cables, but pylons appearing to march endearingly across our blessed land. Talk about brave, trying to make the unacceptable seem quaint, sympathetic and appealing. It seemed to work though as I have some friends who still refer to the spots, years on.
Challenge got the job for Martin Campbell again – and Martin, location manager, the late wonderful Simon Darby, and I spent weeks in the Discovery searching England and Wales for fabulous vistas of countryside, pylon-free obviously, to which we could go back with a crew and film to form the background on which extraordinarily talented and patient people would then superimpose modelled and drawn, plodding lattice structures. It felt like months of driving and wonderful company before we got to shoot a foot of film. When we returned to the selected places we had to allow a very flexible schedule, as there was a need to capture those ideal moments when the Snowdonia mountains or the Dorset coast of the rolling uplands of Herefordshire and the skies above them, looked their absolute best. Never in my entire career, before or since, has so much time been dedicated, once being ready, to waiting for those few seconds of perfection. They were weeks to savour and remember.
To anyone who loves cars, a scrapyard is a very sad place and by no means a congenial location. For anyone with vertigo, being on the roof of an old saloon, balanced on top of another and then another again, is probably even less attractive as a workplace. There lies the common ground found on one night shoot in Fulham between myself and Elton John, in that for different reasons, both of us would have preferred to be working somewhere else. The promo script required the mega-singer to mime a few bars in this unpromising situation and I, who am not averse to heights within reason, felt it was my personal duty to assist him up the ladder and stay with him until the last possible moment. He was never going to get used to being up there; it was just a matter of helping him through it. Personally, I always quite like running a film set from some elevated position; when things are cramped it can afford a better view of who is doing what and where, so it suited me to manage the shot from above, even when Mr John had to relinquish his reliance on my steadying presence when I needed to leave the frame and crouch on an adjacent bonnet. I won't say I held his hand up there while the camera was made ready, but it had to be something close to it.
We were at Royal Air Force Leeming in North Yorkshire doing an RAF recruiting commercial with Martin Campbell again. On the first day we were set up quite close to the runway threshold when a landing Tornado, its pilot probably looking at us instead of paying close enough attention, made a complete pigs of a landing and hit the runway very hard. The fighter-bomber's squadron letters were the same as those of an aircraft I had flown for years and I innocently mentioned the coincidence and the incident when, during a lull, making conversation the following morning with the young officer assigned as our liaison for the day.
"Yes, that was me," he said. "That's why I'm with you today." Only then did we realise that being assigned as our minder was used by the Squadron Leader as a punishment. Looking after a film unit was regarded as the up-market equivalent of being on jankers.
The delightful Scottish tones of Liz Orr, working in the Ray Rathborne office, confirmed details of a recce we were shortly to undertake to Greece and Turkey for the Guinness series mentioned above. "We're going by Learjet," she said, "and we're meeting at Luton Airport at 8am." "Oh, really?" I thought to myself. "I'll believe it when I see it." For some reason, in the film business, a private jet always seems to be called a Learjet, just as vacuum cleaners of all makes are universally referred to as "Hoovers".
Well on this occasion, Learjet it was. Even knowing of the marque's reputation, I was totally unprepared for the fighter-like acceleration – and the rate of climb was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I bagged the seat closest to the cockpit and watched the pilots' every move on each leg that we flew.
One of our destinations was a military airfield in central Turkey. Delay getting back to the airbase had left us tight for time to complete the next flight in permitted hours so the jet actually taxied to meet us; we transferred straight from cars to aircraft at a convenient place near the holding point and were airborne within moments of driving through the gate of the airbase. That's how air travel should be.
Unlike my intrepid Auntie Joan, I never flew on Concorde, but a remarkable assignment was the series of privatisation commercials for British Airways. The scripts called for us to film every Concorde departure from Heathrow for several days, each time with several camera units and from a variety of widely-dispersed camera positions, usually as close to runways and taxiways as we were allowed to venture. Pushing the boundaries is always such fun.
In between times, we had an example of the supersonic airliner entirely to ourselves, in an engineering hangar, to shoot sequences in the cockpit, with the well-known John Cook – "Captain Cook" – and crew, simulating a detailed take-off sequence for our camera.
Another sequence on the same job found three of us looking down on the centre of Marlborough from the tallest mobile elevated platform available in the country at the time. John Burrows and focus-puller Geoff Randall looked after the camera, big Jim from EPL "drove" the bucket, while I through the radio co-ordinated the action of our extras within the existing traffic and lively bustle of the town. This mostly stopped my looking down at the seemingly ridiculous and apparently close-to-impossibly precarious steel shafts and joints upon which our considerable combined weight was supported.
Soon, working at the maximum working height or reach in an inspection basket, was to become a way of life.
When B&Q began to build their warehouses, their ad-agency persuaded the company to have a special commercial made for each new opening. It would typically begin with aerial shots of noteworthy features from the countryside surrounding the town in which the store was building, moving over the outskirts of the town to reveal its setting and any landmarks of interest, before travelling down to the store entrance and the vast company logo above it. This was obviously helicopter shooting and an aerial recce to plan the shots became a feature of each film, as the openings followed each other almost every few weeks. This was right up my street and these scouting flights with John Burrows were highly enjoyable. My experience helped when our pilot was cleared to cross through the overhead of a regional airport in the north of England at the same level as a Boeing 737 airliner carrying out some training circuits and no one else spotted the potential conflict.
Because of the motion of the helicopter, it was impossible, even with a sophisticated gyro-damped camera mount, to zoom into an acceptably still frame in a shot starting with the chopper hundreds of feet away from the final hover. The only way to achieve what was required was to shoot backwards, getting the perfect frame in the hover before accelerating away and upwards. This was fine but it meant that when the film was printed in reverse any action outside the store would also appear to be in reverse. The remedy was to have all the extras acting backwards; effectively unloading packages from their cars into their trolleys and pulling them backwards (without looking) into the exit, while others with empty trolleys backed out of the entrance towards the trolley park. To add to the illusion and inevitably the chaos, the producer and a few other trusties would (again without looking over their shoulders) reverse cars (with reversing lights disconnected) through this merry and brave throng of people trying to walk naturally backwards and not like zombies, and without crashing into each other – or cars, both stationary and of course the moving ones in the charge of drivers relying solely on their rear mirrors.
Strangely, following much experience in this very particular form of illusion, a job in Dallas for Mehdi Norowzian required a similar skillset with again much reverse trolley action. I am therefore probably the world's leading instructor in backwards acting. What a USP for the CV.
The B&Q jobs eventually transitioned from using expensive helicopters to very high angle shots using the previously-mentioned swaying elevated platforms. The geographical build-up was ditched in favour of the newly-trained and enthusiastic staff lined up in front of the door, noisily proclaiming their readiness to receive their customers. We spent hours up in the inspection buckets, often having some difficulty finding angles which showed the vast size of the warehouses without betraying the fact that at the time of our visits, the construction of the car parks surrounding them was not always entirely completed.
And the odd bus
I was privileged to work on the famous Tesco series on and off over several years with the wonderful trio, Prunella Scales, Jane Horrocks and John Gordon Sinclair. One memorable script was shot in Newcastle because Miss Scales was appearing in theatre there. It mainly involved a conversation on a bus. Very fortunately I had the opportunity of a recce, at a time when foolishly it was beginning to be not always felt necessary to involve a first assistant. To my horror I realised that the roads the location manager had organised for the bus to use, although they were visually interesting, were certain to be prone to stop-start traffic, which of course can play havoc with continuity when trying to edit a continuous scene. If in one shot the scenery outside is passing at 20 miles per hour and in the next the bus is crawling at snail's pace or stopped, no one is going to be too happy with the result.
The only option was in a matter of hours to find some less obstructed roads to give more constant runs. This soon involved changing the entire location base to another part of the city and rearranging all the permissions and calls. While it wasn't very popular at the time, we finished the day's work in plenty of time for Miss Scales to leave for her performance. Had we not changed the plan we would probably still be grinding through the streets in the elderly double-decker to this day.
Guinness in Turkey for Ray Rathborne Productions