David Watkin





Apart from helping to bring about my break into features, commercials were valuable for two reasons – they tided you over between pictures and sometimes saved you doing crap pictures you'd rather not.

They were also being made under the feature agreement, my introduction to four man crews, and I was just in time to work with two of the legendary operators of the 1940s and 50s, Gus Driss and Jeff Seaholm. Gus, by the time I knew him, had been wrecked by drink. Jeff's work on the other hand remained flawless, though it must be admitted that he suffered fools a bit less gladly after lunch. He always wore a silk scarf tucked into an open-necked shirt and when lining-up never used the viewfinder. He would just stand, feet slightly apart, leaning forward from the waist with his hands tucked into the pockets of an immaculate dog-tooth check jacket. "Forty", he named the lens, and the grip, always at his side at these moments, extended two fingers holding a piece of chalk. By the time it hit the ground, leaving its tiny mark, Jeff had walked away and was back talking quietly to me about a French commercial where they had pronounced his name so as to rhyme with Guillaume. That was the set-up and it was never wrong. The story is told of a commercial set in a dentist's surgery with a black and white tiled floor. The tiles were in fact a patterned paper that had been pasted down, which meant that the heavy dentist's chair, once set in position, could not be moved again without ripping it up. Jeff, hands in pockets, leaned forward looking intently at the empty space before him and indicated a spot.
"The chair goes there."
The art director, fresh from television, rushed over.
"No, no, we must wait for the camera."
Without pausing to look round Jeff said quietly,
"I am the camera."
He could be ruthless with incompetents but he was invariably kind and charming towards me, a compliment I took pains to deserve. He was also the only operator that always called me "Sonny" and I think the only one I'd have wanted to.
Camera operating at that time demanded a level of expertise that seemed uncanny to a newcomer. This was on account of something called parallax - not the poem by Nancy Cunard but the name for a simple law of nature: that two separate objects cannot occupy the same exact position in space. One example of this is seats in opera houses, but it also applies to the film being exposed and the viewfinder, only one of which can be exactly behind the camera lens. It is obviously preferable to have the film behind the lens and locate the finder slightly to one side. This did not matter much until an actor came close on a lens such as a 50mm or 75mm, when if the operator could see him at all it meant that there would only be a photograph of an ear. This conflict of interests has since been resolved by sticking a piece of mirror on the front of the shutter with a prism at right-angles to it, but in those days operators simply made the correct allowance.
In the world of commercials the absurdities of film-making are compounded by those of advertising; a strong mix, especially when attempts are made to reconcile the latter with a code of ethics. An obsession with purity has always troubled the English, and soap and washing powders figured largely among the products receiving our attention. One such TV spot was of three small boys playing together. The mother of one, by means of the product, has clothed him in a shirt of dazzling white. Having less ardent mothers the shirts of the other two are noticeably less white and not dazzling at all. I said that this effect could be easily obtained by dressing these two in shirts that were pale grey. The advertising people were truly horrified at this, declaring that it was unethical; a stronger light must be arranged to fall on one than on the other two. I pointed out that photographically the two things were exactly the same, but for ethical reasons the clumsier method was adopted. I was quite happy to do what they wanted, especially as I was able to show them that in fact the whitest shirt on the set was being worn by our focus-puller, a dapper youth named Spratling.
The best washing-powder spot of all, however, was of a round table discussion chaired by a broadcaster of the time called Tim Gudgin. A dozen housewives were gathered from all parts of the British Isles and six camera crews assembled to film them. Mr Gudgin got them going as to why they preferred the product to all other brands and six cameras churned away in the hope that the ladies would say something of interest. One of them did,
"It's the only one that gets the stains out of my son's pyjamas."
You'd have thought this would sell a mountain of washing powder, but it wasn't given the chance.
It was in those early days that I met with Leon Clore, a very remarkable producer indeed. His production company Basic had made a number of documentaries, directed by John Krish (with whom I had worked so happily when I was an assistant at British Transport). One in particular LET MY PEOPLE GO was about apartheid. No one, cast or crew, took any payment at all, and in addition spent time in the street with collecting boxes to cover stock and processing. The Musician's Union agreed to everything, and Michael Tippet gave the rights to "A Child of our Time". The most moving moment for John was to thank the orchestra.
Another of their films THE RED CROSS, THAT'S US was to recruit kids to the Junior Red Cross, rather than the Scouts or the guides or whatever. As John tells it-
"One of the places they go is a lunatic asylum, to help the patients choose the pictures to go on the wall of their recreation room every month. They have an adult from the Red Cross with them, but the children do it. So there are these children in the midst of the most mentally retarded people, who for most of us would be frightening, but for the children – they saw no different, they were doing their job. And it's a very jolly sequence.
When we ran the film for the Red Cross, they said "That sequence must come out, it will offend parents. We don't want them to think we're sending out children to these dangerous places (dangerous! It was one of the most delightful sequences in the film, and there was no danger).
So Leon is sitting there with me, and we're looking at each other absolutely appalled at their right-wingness, and he said there and then "If you want this sequence out I'm not going to agree to it. I'll tell you what I'll do. I want that sequence in and I'll give you your money back and the film will belong to us."
He always spoke his mind and the result was we got less and less work of course. I remember going to the Foreign Office for RETURN TO LIFE the film we did about refugees. And we're sitting there in the Foreign Office and they wanted some change that would have been a disaster, and he says "I don't tell you how to run the Foreign Office, just don't tell us how to make films". He never changed, but the work got less and less I must say".
Just as well there were the commercials. I so wish I had known him better.
A word more about LET MY PEOPLE GO. The film that everyone involved gave their services for nothing, the BFI today wants thousands of pounds for distribution rights.
On Shepperton J stage Richard Lester was doing a cigar commercial with an actor who had been as much a part of childhood for me as Peter Pan or Long John Silver – Groucho Marx. A Madeleine is a small French cake the taste of which, in Proust's novel, evoked forgotten memories of childhood days, and like a bespectacled Madeleine, Groucho unlocked Mr Shotter from the recesses of my mind. Mr Shotter owned the barber's shop, just up the road from "El Donnée", where I had my haircut. I was always given an extra threepence with which to tip his assistant; but it was apparently insulting to tip the proprietor himself and so the game was so to manage things that Mr Shotter cut your hair and you could keep the threepence. One method was to be exceptionally polite and allow some unmotivated grown-up to take your place, or else bury your head in a magazine when the assistant called "next please". Success in this manoeuvre meant a ninepenny instead of a sixpenny seat at the pictures and I had already learned that they look much better from further back.
I'd taken great pains over the lighting so that nothing would be reflected in the famous glasses. Groucho came onto the stage with Richard and they stood talking for a while; he was wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. After a bit Richard called me over to introduce me and while Groucho was telling a story about W.C.Fields I stole an occasional glance at them to see how successful I'd been. He obviously noticed (he didn't miss much) and when the time came to start shooting looked up at the lighting, gave me a nice smile, removed his gold frames and drew the legendary horn-rims from his pocket - there was no glass in them.
The Billy Fields story was about how they had both been working at the same studio and Fields suggested they went back to his place for a drink at the end of the day. Throughout his life W.C.Fields was very insecure, and this led him to behave in an unusual manner; wherever he happened to be he would open an account in an assumed name with the local bank and to this day there are unknown sums lying hidden in lost bank accounts all over the States. They reached the house, went upstairs, and Fields cautiously unlocked a door which opened to reveal a room filled from floor to ceiling with bootleg whisky.
"But Billy, prohibition's finished."
Fields waved a confident arm over his store.
"They can bring it back."
Our shooting commenced and at the end of the first take Richard said that we would go again.
"You're going to tamper with perfection?"
I think the truth is that on this occasion Richard felt Groucho had landed a margin short of perfection (because timing for commercials and timing for comedy seldom coincide) but the reply itself was unquestionably perfect and if I were an actor it would certainly be in my repertory of stock answers.
Another one day advert featuring a great comedian, English this time, was with Kenneth Williams, and that strangely sad man cost me my lunch; I sat next to him and was unable to eat anything at all for laughing. He had a serious love for the English language that I shared, and an anxiety about sex that I didn't.
There was one shoot with Richard that I remember because it taught me a useful lesson. The set was someone's livingroom in which a pair of chairs which should have been Mies Van Der Rohe turned out to be somebody else's. The department responsible scurried off to find the right ones while the rest of us carried on with the usual preparations, but eventually everything was ready and we all stood about waiting for the chairs to arrive. Richard and I were talking together when he paused to look at his watch, turned to the first assistant and said that we would start shooting. I was puzzled by this as the correct chairs had not yet arrived. He then explained that if he waited any longer he would go into overtime that was not in the budget; the chairs had been worth waiting until 11 o'clock, but not beyond.
Two friends of mine Don McPherson and Nick Benstead had a small company in Market Mews, Mayfair, which they called Radio Pictures (complete with the RKO Radio mast for its logo). One of their films was for a DIY electric drill, which after boring through the living-room wall, reveals the kingdom of heaven on the other side of it. The set for this was conceived (like its prototype) on a very grandiose scale and designed for one of the large stages at Pinewood. But, as with an earlier light-bearer, Radio Pictures were cast into darkness and fell steadily downwards, by way of reductions in the celestial budget, until, with better luck than Lucifer, they managed to halt their descent at a small studio opposite Barnes Pond. Here there was space for a mere half dozen angels and the rays of heavenly light had to be contrived by stretching pieces of fuse wire across the matt-box and cross-lighting them.
Sometimes you would meet with old friends from pictures, as with an Alpen commercial featuring Ronnie Barker. He walked straight over when he came on set
"You know who was here last week. Sir Oswald Meusli."
I made it a point of honour to finish a commercial without knowing what the product was and achieved a pretty high success rate, though obviously this was difficult if there was a pack shot, like a tin of soup or a bowl of cornflakes.
Sometimes I would be asked for a show-reel of my work. For a young cameraman making his way in advertising a show-reel is very sensible but I had been fortunate enough not to need this and made a habit, when asked, of suggesting they look at my most recent feature. Not long after the MUSKETEERS had opened, I was in Richard Lester's office in Twickenham Studios when a call was put through for me from some secretary asking about a show-reel. I politely explained that the current show-reel was running at the Odeon Leicester Square. When I'd replaced the receiver Richard seemed more amused than this mild pleasantry warranted.
"It's moved to the Haymarket. There's a Gerry Fisher picture at
the Odeon; he's a good cameraman - you should get some work."
My last commercial with Richard Lester (with whom it had all started in the first place) I asked him why he was still doing them.
"I've made a deal with Jim," (Garrett, the production company)
"no meetings ."
"Meetings" were excessively tedious affairs, held in a foreign land inhabited by clients and advertising executives who, quite literally, did not speak the same language as us. Cameramen, seen as a low order of tradesmen, were exempt (probably because they'd have wanted a day's pay). But there are exceptions to most things.
My boyfriend at the time, wanted a dog and, perhaps because they were quirky animals, we got ourselves a basset hound puppy and called it Hugo. This was unfortunate because Hugh Hudson thought we had named it after him and was quite hurt when I said it was Strauss' librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. A week later he phoned to say there was a commercial for an invalid food called Complan (the very thing the kennels had recommended for Hugo until he was big enough for the odd bone).
"It's a very fussy client, and the agency insist you
come to a meeting – they'll pay you of course."
Well, they sat round this table engaged in solemn talk about soothing efficacy, nutritional values etc, and ignored me entirely, so that I was free to daydream about how to spend my fee; a delightful pastime rudely interrupted by the head of the agency addressing Hugh.
"Does Mr Watkin know about the product?"
"Yes, he feeds his dog on it."
I always looked forward to working with Wynne Films in Brighton, a self-contained little company with its own studio, a converted church in St Nicholas Road (it's nice to see the converting going the other way now and again). They were a delightful outfit, as anything with Jewish/Irish overtones usually is - the former supplied by the owner brothers and the latter by the production team, Paddy Nolan and his young assistant Pat Cahill. They also had one of the best camera operators, Cyril Gray. Cyril had one fatal flaw - half a glass of lager and he was beyond control. So long as he stayed in Brighton it was OK; he stuck to lime juice at lunch, and I declined all invitations to "stay on for a bit" when we wrapped. He was on first name terms with the entire Brighton police force from the frequent occasions when he was their overnight guest, as well as the taxi drivers who would always "see Cyril home" on those occasions when he wasn't.
The company also owned a small hotel in Rottingdean, where visiting actors or directors were accommodated. The establishment is alleged to have supplied other forms of accommodation as well. Don Higgins, who had been an agency person before he became a director, said he was once offered a dissolute sojourn in Rottingdean in return for a batch of soap commercials. Annoyingly, at the very time I came to live in Brighton Wynnes removed themselves to London, and the church reconverted to auction rooms. They seem not to have prospered in Dean Street; perhaps they'd underestimated the importance of Rottingdean. Worst was Cyril went downhill from the start. Not all operators find lighting a comfortable step up, and being a staff DOP would have made it more difficult for him to float as blissfully as I above the absurd demands of advertising people. He drank, and told them to fuck off, losing his job, his home and I think his family.
There was a girl in the early 70s (the date not her age) who combined writing historical novels with running a small second-hand bookshop in Kemp Town. She was having trouble with her publisher, who wanted more feminine interest in her magnum opus on William the Conqueror than history has provided. While I was going through her shelves one day, somebody came in selling cheap ball-pens and suchlike. I could hear an amusing dialogue going on behind me and joined in a couple of times over my shoulder. Weeks later I called in again to enquire after William the First.
"That man who came in last time you were here knew you."
I was floored - if only I had looked round. To this day it grieves me that he could have thought I didn't want to know him.
I did hundreds of commercials for Terry Donovan who had his own production company. He had a sense of proportion to go with it and it was not uncommon to finish a thirty-second film before lunch (I remember one 11.30 am wrap at Alexandra Palace). This shouldn't really surprise anyone, considering a feature director who didn't manage two and a half minutes screen time a day would be in serious trouble. His producer often pleaded in vain for one shot to be left until after lunch so that the agency would feel they were getting value for money, and I shall always remember Terence explaining to one bunch of advertising people that there is no ratio between the excellence of a photograph and the time taken to get it.
He wore a charcoal grey suit, a Turnbull and Asser shirt and a Rolls Royce with much the same timeless inevitability as Mr Oliver his wing collar, frock coat and bowler hat. He was also a judo Black Belt, and when he decided the time had come for him to direct a feature film, his interest in Japanese culture led him to commission a screenplay from Kurosawa's scriptwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, and to cast Jiro Tamaya as his leading actor. Just before shooting started one of the backers dropped out. Terry confided this to me and said he intended to carry on, using his own resources until he could not afford to pay the crew - and then he would stop.
After the first week of working in the most delightful atmosphere, as it always was with him - quick, economical and acute, I asked if the money was sorted out.
"Not yet."
"How on earth can you be this relaxed and focussed on what you're doing?"
"Tell you the secret - never pick up a telephone."
And so he directed and completed THE YELLOW DOG quite happily. It is the best example of cheerful self reliance I know, and sets him apart as a very remarkable man. Since then of course the cellular phone has made film directing more difficult.
Our continuity girl was Maggie Owens. She had undergone major surgery and had a colostomy bag, because of which everyone decided it was not sensible to employ her. She was a sturdy, courageous, jolly person, and extremely good at her job. That was enough for Terry, and any job with him I knew I'd be seeing Maggie.
He used to give me a lift out to the location, a roughish neighbourhood in the East End of London. Walking away from the Rolls Royce one morning we met an electrician,
"Better not leave it there, Guvnor - they could put a scratch down it."
"Can't think like that - it's only a tin overcoat."
Our Japanese actor was very intelligent with perfect manners and intensely serious about his work. He had a big following back at home, which we only discovered when he got mobbed by some Japanese tourists who'd stopped dead in their tracks, as open-mouthed as oriental good manners pemitted.
It happened we were in Kensington at the time of the motor show and one morning our star from the East asked the camera crew if it was close enough for him to go along during the lunch hour. My clapper-loader, Laurie Frost, an obliging youth, offered to take him over. An hour is not much but it was sufficient for Jiro to buy the most expensive car there (I forget what) and a London taxi as well. At the end of shooting, young Laurie paid a return visit to collect his commission, shedding glory on the camera department and earning a lot more that week than I did.
Jiro was constantly attended by his personal servant, a sweet little man called Yoshi, and their double-act together was an endless delight to the unit. One day I was having lunch with Jiro and as usual Yoshi sat at the next table, where he was just about to have his first experience of "Spotted Dick" when he was prevented by a sharp command in Japanese from Jiro, who had made the mistake of choosing rhubarb crumble and decided he didn't like it. A quick exchange was effected and the remains of the offending crumble were meekly eaten by Yoshi.
Years afterwards I was on a commercial for a Japanese product and at lunch, surrounded by its native representatives, the conversation was none too brisk. I searched desperately for any topic we might have in common and finally thought I'd found just the thing in one of their top actors.
"I made a picture with Jiro Tamaya called THE YELLOW DOG.
What's he up to these days?"
There was a slight pause.
"He aah - Hara Kiri, last week."
This put an end, not only to Jiro but also to the conversation, and I sat quietly wondering what had happened to Yoshi.
In the late 1970s I'd a commercial to do in Paris the day after returning from a couple of weeks in Cape Town and, accordingly, asked the Production Office to put me on a flight to there, believing in all innocence it would be saving them money. They came back to say there were no such flights, and the only thing was to come back with the rest of the crew to Heathrow. Though mildly aggrieved at the sparseness of destinations from Cape Town, which meant staggering down to Brighton, falling into bed and out of it again at the crack of dawn and traipsing back up to Gatwick, there seemed nothing to be done.
That is until the announcement in the departure lounge that "Flight number such and such to Paris and Heathrow was now ready for boarding". It was then clear that the Production had lied about the flight because of a cheap deal with the airline that excluded any alternative.
Seated aboard next to my clapper boy, Laurie Frost, with the light meters safe in my hand luggage, I said I supposed we'd done enough trips together for him to know what my suitcase looked like –
"When we get to Paris I am going to walk off this aeroplane.
We're in Shepperton next week and, if you'd be kind enough
to look after it, I can pick it up then."
There was a 24-hour shop at Etoile, just round the corner from my hotel, where I bought a couple of changes of clothes and a toothbrush etc. Then a dozen escargot with a half bottle of claret and I was happy.
The second half of my suitcase diptych was again between two commercials, this time New York and Blackpool. It had been a bumpy old daytime flight and although I'd managed not to be sick on the plane the taxi from Heathrow to Euston was one too many. Again the meters were safe in my hand luggage, beside which I had a smallish suitcase with the usual clothes and stuff, and since it is bad manners to be sick in somebody's nice clean taxi I chose the suitcase. As there was no object in carting this anywhere beyond Euston I abandoned it on the concourse and walked away, but a solicitous member of the public rushed after me and returned it. When this had been repeated a couple of times I found a policeman, told him what had happened, and he politely directed me to an immense refuse bin down in the stations nether regions. It wasn't until back on the doorstep in Brighton that I missed the house keys.
So with all the other freedoms lost for us by America's War on Terrorism (appropriately pronounced tourism ) must be included to be sick in your suitcase, and to get off an aeroplane when it has landed at where you want to be.
I got asked to do a commercial in Cape Town for the Halifax Building Society. The director Richard Loncraine usually worked with another cameraman, Peter Hannen, but that gentleman declined to visit a country whose politics he thoroughly disapproved of. I said yes straight way, not so much from being more unprincipled than Peter as from a belief that you can knock something more effectively the closer your acquaintance with it, and went along harbouring more misgivings about spiders than about racial bigots. I had decided to make use of the trip to finally get to grips with Meredith, an author I have never managed to like, and long before touch down was wishing I'd brought something more amusing. However South Africa is the only place in the world, so far, where the immigration people have asked to see what books I'd got - so I probably have dull old George and "Diana of the Crossways" to thank for not being arrested. A good job I'd not brought Anna Sewell's "Black Beauty", despite those nice white children, it was a banned book.
The local contact was a gentlewoman with an extremely posh accent, complete with tweeds, Lisle stockings, and sensible shoes. Driving to lunch after a recce the first morning, somebody noticed an animal leaping about in the scrub and enquired if it was a springbok. She very much doubted that it was, as they were become very scarce. We had clearly hit upon her pet subject, and she went on to tell us at length about their efforts to prevent poaching and preserve the species. A single pink gin over lunch was sufficient to bring about a startling change. The headmistress of Roedean gave place to the commandant of Ravensbruck, asserting apropos of nothing at all that the thing to do with the entire native population of the Continent was to machine-gun the lot. There are two possible responses, one to be angry, the other to laugh at her. I chose the latter,
"Isn't that a bit inconsistent with what you were telling us on the way here. One minute you're worried about the bok and the next you want to shoot all the poor old blacks? " It wasn't much but it shut her up.
My next job with Richard was in Italy (I don't think Peter had any objections to that country - he was probably on a picture at the time). It was for Kleenex paper handkerchiefs and there was an old woman sitting at a kitchen table peeling onions and crying her eyes out. A very diminutive boy, full of grandfilial love, runs out to the shops, returns with a box of the product and puts it triumphantly on the tabletop. After the first take he absolutely refused to go again, was offered more money but being below the age when mercenary considerations carry any weight, declined it. Finally the tearful child was taken aside for a brief word with the director after which he ran up and slammed the box of tissues down on the table with a big smile and for as many takes as were wanted. When we'd finished I told Richard I was impressed by his ability to handle the younger sort of actor and he explained. The old woman smelled terribly which was the reason the child had thrown a hate on her and refused to go near.
"What changed his mind?"
"I told him she had a weak heart and if he slammed the box down
hard enough she'd probably have an attack and die."
Twice on commercials I was asked to help with a live facsimile of a well known painting, once here and once in New York. The English job was, predictably, The Haywain, and the location people and the art department found a perfect duck pond with the right orientation for light. The only difficulty experienced was in persuading the dog to adopt a Constable-like stance.
New York wanted a Degas with the usual little ballet girl and thanks to being in a studio with a meticulous set provided by the art director it was all very easy, my contribution being little more than the application of common sense. There was an excellent Skira reproduction beside the dolly, and looking through the camera was quite a shock - there you were inside the painting. However, as so often with advertising people, they wanted to go one better and I was approached to put in some more lights which, as it would have destroyed everything, I declined with the best of excuses,
"Don't ask me, ask Degas."
Tim Guinness, my New York gaffer with ears all over the stage, came up a bit later on and told me they were all saying that I had attitude (whatever that means). Notwithstanding, shooting appeared to be going on happily enough and at the end of the day they came and asked to be photographed with me. After obliging I quietly asked Tim why he thought they wanted to be photographed alongside somebody with attitude, at which he addressed the world at large,
"Cos you're a classy act and they're used to bums in the Park."
It was the case for a long time that to get the best results on the screen one had Kodak negative in the camera but printed onto Gevaert positive stock - it just looked better that way and was common practice. A job came along in Miami for Kodak Instamatic cameras and on arriving there I was immediately set upon by agency and client.
"This spot is all about photography and what you do represents
our product. That's why we got someone like yourself all this way
so it can look as good as possible"
"Do you honestly mean that - as good as possible?"
"Sure we mean it."
"Then we'll shoot on your negative and print it on Gevaert."
I was left in peace for the entire ten days we were there.
The Common Market got away to an early start for some of us and, by the end of the 60s I'd been invited to most of the countries of Western Europe. My first commercial in Germany took me by a strange chance back to the great Hanseatic city where I'd spent my final year as a soldier and which I'd last seen setting out from Altona station on the journey to the demob centre in York. In an area of wasteland known as the Heiligengeistfeld a massive WWII bunker and gun emplacement the Hochbunker still dominates the skyline of the St Pauli district. With at least twenty feet of reinforced concrete around, above and below, some sensible person had decided that it would make an excellent film studio, and indeed for the sound department at any rate there could not be a better. Like a new boy at school I walked onto the crowded stage and was greeted by Fritz Mathies, one of Germany's most talented directors, with a warm smile and a sweep of his hand,
"We built all this to keep you out, and now we are happy to invite you in."
French commercials, as you might expect, were by miles the most intelligent and the most witty, with such interesting directors as Jean-Jacques Annaud and Jean-Paul Rappeneau. But best of all was a young company called Franco-Americain (imagine that happening today) formed by a young Frenchman, Jacques Arnaud and an American whose name I cannot remember. They were the sweetest people. I did endless work for them and every time without fail they'd remind me that I had done their first film for them.
One shoot was on that splendid eminence that looks out from the Palais de Chaillot across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. At our feet, cut deep into the granite, was an inscription which translated announced that on a certain date this spot with its magnificent prospect had been dedicated by President Mitterrand "To the freedom of mankind of all Nations".
"Was that before you sank the RAINBOW WARRIOR?"
Weak smiles all round,
A commercial for Evian water took place in mid-air, literally, on the top of Mont Blanc. It was a spot way above the téléphérique and only reachable by a hair-raising helicopter voyage following the path of the glacier through the mountains. There were two actors, one a six year-old boy and the other a tame eagle. The eagle's job was to perch on an outcrop of rock and then fly off it into the sun, mine was to keep him in picture while he did it, and whatever the six year old boy had to do I've forgotten. The eagle and I had just managed to get it right when our Alpine guide said there was a storm coming and we must all get off the mountain as quickly as possible. The first trip down, the chopper carried the boy, the eagle and myself (clearly regarded as the three beings most undesired in a storm on a mountaintop). The boy sat in front next to the pilot, and the eagle and I side by side behind them. As we lifted off, it struck me that although for the child and myself this was a fairly novel experience, for the eagle it must have been astounding. After all he was accustomed to doing this sort of thing better on his own and with less fuss. Indeed all the way down he divided the time between peering out of the side window and directing critical glances at the pilot, like a wary instructor with a maladroit learner-driver. This is the only time I sat next to a bird in an aircraft.
The set for a commercial featuring the French mime artist Marcel Marceau was a completely empty cyclorama painted, I think, a light grey. It seemed obvious to light this without any shadows at all so that there would be nothing to interfere with the outline of the artist. It does not appear to have been obvious to anyone else because Monsieur Marceau became very excited when he arrived and declared that this was the first time he had ever seen lighting that properly suited mime. It is always nice to make people happy; I was happy too since there was now nothing further to do other than cast an occasional eye at him to see that all was well. That was easy enough because he proved to be riveting to watch; most of all during a break in the shooting when he quietly tried something out for himself. He sat at a piano, went through some elaborate preliminaries and started to play. After a few bars the keyboard cover came down trapping his fingers. He pushed it back up again and played on but finding one note that continually refused to sound, stood up, leaned over and peered inside the lid which at once came down and hit the back of his head. All this on a bare stage.
French governments, unlike the British, are capable of appreciating their artists and had provided a very adequate sum to make a film record of his work and he said that he would like the director and myself to do it with him. His aspirations may perhaps have been a bit grandiose for so simple an art as mime - nothing less than the history of the world, or of mankind, I forget which. After a couple of trips to Paris the director decided it was pretentious and made his excuses. Perhaps it was; he certainly knew all about pretension, having his own eye securely fixed on Hollywood, the path to which does not lie through anything as subtle as a mime artist. I never heard any more.
In Spain commercials were centred in Madrid and there were two companies I used to work for. The best of these was Enigma (nothing to do with Puttnam) owned by two brothers, one who looked after the admin and Augustine who was the director. He was the most stylish sensitive civilised Spaniard I ever met. Unfortunately none of this makes for a good read and I have only put it here for the sake of one story. Just after the death of Franco, Augustine was driving us down the Avenida Generalissimo and I noticed it had already been re-named Catalan.
"That didn't take you long."
"Of course not."
All those unspeakable years of cruelty ended – as simply as that.
The other Madrid director (less stylish and sensitive than Augustine) was called Eduardo McLean.
"What's a fucking Spaniard doing with a name like that?"
Scotland, as we know, had clung tenaciously to the old religion and Eduardo's great etc. grandfather, its top shipwright, packed himself off to Spain, built the Armada, and wisely decided to stay there.
The last category is the jobs I was asked to direct myself. This was enjoyable because having no wish to build a career at it there was never any need to put up with unreasonable interference from the agency. I lay stress on unreasonable because of course you are only there at all in order to give them what they want, and it would be very arrogant and stupid to forget it. The charmed life I have led as a director is entirely owing to the kind and wise producers who have looked after me, and on my part to an honest approach to people. I was once asked to meet an agency person in New York about a job for American Airlines. His first words were,
"We're looking for boundless enthusiasm here."
I quickly assured him that if I felt any enthusiasm he would be the last to know about it, and of course did not get the job - it would have been disastrous if I had. Professionals always care about what they do and don't waste time wagging their tails over it.
I did land a Yoghurt film in Munich though. A group of Germans of all ages and sizes, wearing folk costume and each waving their own pot of the product, was going to sing a Bavarian chorus in praise of yoghurt. The set was a theatrical cut out of rolling meadows, and blue-screen was involved because behind the far mountains a yoghurt logo would rise in place of the customary sun. I took two people with me from England, a wicked operator called Bob Smith, and Dennis Bartlett the best and nicest blue-screen technician there is. When we arrived I was introduced to a young American in his early twenties who was to be my first assistant director and interpreter combined. He was a pleasant lad but a trifle too pleased with himself after his two years in Germany. There was only one master shot with the crowd and I told him to keep them off the stage, He could stick them in the dressing-rooms, corridors, even out in the snow, until everything was ready; then we could put them in and get the shot while they were still interested in a new environment. No sooner were they all in place than a girl addressed me in German. I looked at my interpreter.
"She wants to go to the toilet."
"She's only just got here. Five minutes and we'll be finished, provided
we don't start pissing about. So ask her to wait."
He did this in his best German whereat she threw her pot of yoghurt at him, missing by inches, and flounced off the stage. I now understood that one of the perks attached to being a director is that when you say they can't go to the toilet they throw the yoghurt at someone else. The rest of the crowd stood aghast at such unteutonic flouting of authority, so to make them feel more at ease -
" Please ask them to be patient and as soon as we have done this
they all have my permission to throw their yoghurt
(he looked alarmed) not at you, not at me, but at those people
standing over there."
A large body of agency people quickly left the stage, everything went splendidly and we finished the job early, but I have not been asked back.
The Tourist in Bavaria will remember the pair of lions either side the entrance to the Residenz that faces the Feldherrenhalle. During the Third Reich, they were deemed inadequate by the SS, who had offices inside the building, and they were supplemented by two younger lions belonging to a Mr Himmler. The two bronze guardians have bright shiny noses because Bavarians down the years have always touched them for good luck. I believe no one touched the noses of the two SS guards, nor do I think they would have had any good luck from so doing, but every passer-by was required to salute them and yell "Heil Hitler" into the bargain. However at the back of the Feldherrenhalle is the Viscardigasse, a passageway through which, with a bit of a detour, that nuisance could be avoided. It became popularly known as the Drückebergergasse, or Shirker’s Alley, and I like to think that my young yoghurt-thrower may have derived her independent spirit from parents who regularly used it.
The next directorial commission, in Washington DC, had the oddest idea at the back of it. Each film, advertising a local bank, was restricted to one 30 second shot of some idyllic scene in the contemplation of which the beholder would somehow decide to move his account. Thirty seconds is an eternity on the screen and even my slack principles would not permit of taking their cash for supplying a batch of postcards, so I had to think a bit, and the job is only of interest now because it sparked off one original idea. I gathered together two good assistants I knew and an elderly NC Mitchell camera having (along with other refinements no longer available) a variable shutter from 180 degrees to zero that can be altered while the camera is running. It was summer and among the locations there was a meadow adjoining a paddock with a chestnut horse trotting contentedly round in circles. I set the camera down on the top-hat with a longish lens and arranged some wild flowers in the foreground; behind them in the middle distance were some azaleas, beyond those a clump of silver birches, and finally in the background the horse. By moving the focus front to back each would become sharp in turn, but in normal circumstances the foreground and middle distance would become progressively blurred. To prevent this my two assistants lay either side of the camera, one on the lens iris and one on the shutter. Starting with a stop of 2.3 and a 5 degree shutter I gave them a count every five seconds and as one lad closed the iris his companion opened up the shutter, thereby keeping the exposure constant. It meant that at the start there were only wild flowers against a clear background and then in their turn azaleas, then the birch trees, and finally the horse were etched into the picture as if out of nowhere, all in focus together.
It is fairly safe to assert that this was never done before or since, there'd be no occasion to; it will also hardly come as a surprise that nobody will ever see it. When a VHS copy eventually arrived in Brighton, the editor, true to form, had cut off the interesting part and devoted the entire thirty seconds to the end of it.
The ultimate directing saga belongs in the Guinness Book of Records. It was just one 30 second film for Delta Airlines, and the schedule was six weeks i.e. 5 seconds per week. In fact it was not even that because the last five seconds was taken up with a stewardess plugging the airline.
The requirement – to cover each spot with the least expected images, could hardly have suited me better. The longest shooting day was two hours and that because the shot (cricket in the Bahamas) proved beyond the abilities of my players, so I abandoned it.
Naturally I came back with three alternatives for each subject, which I think amounts to 75 seconds screen time in six weeks (though we did circle the globe as well).
And we all had a lovely time.
A recording exists (probably because it was not placed in an archive) of a voice-over session with Orson Welles for frozen foods.
"We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire where
Mrs Buckley lives. In July peas grow there."
Agency Producer -
"Orson, could you emphasise in - in July."
"Sorry, that doesn't make any sense. There's no
known way of saying an English sentence in which
you begin a sentence with "in" and emphasise it.
Impossible, meaningless, if you'll forgive my saying.
Show me how you can emphasise "in" at the start
of an English sentence and I'll go down on you.
Here, under protest is beefburgers –
We know a little place in the American far west where Charlie
Briggs chops up the finest prairie-fed beef and –
This is a lot of shit you know that.
Agency producer,
"Orson, could you emphasise beef."
Appropriately perhaps, my last job ever was a commercial, a night shoot with the Wendy in Battersea. It could equally have been the last job for the only actor in it, a former disc jockey called Tony Blackburn playing a mini-cab controller. I am pleased to say I have no idea what the product was.