My Pop Life #223 : Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder

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Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder

And though you don’t believe that they do
They do come true
For did my dreams
Come true when I looked at you
And maybe too, if you would believe
You too might be
Overjoyed, over loved, over me

*

In the summer of 2008 the Olympic Games were held in China.  We had booked a holiday to start soon after that to visit to my brother Paul who was working in Nanjing.  He’d been in China for five years at that point, working in education, and it was time to see him there.  HE had made the intrepid move east after living in the Dominican Republic for five years, and a few months back in the UK had confirmed that he couldn’t live in England.  He’s now been in China some 16 years.  We flew to Shanghai and caught the bullet train in to our hotel in the French Concession area of the city.  We felt some initial trepidation that China might be a little racist, but the sensational performance of Usain Bolt in those Olympics, winning three gold medals and breaking the World Record each time meant that Jenny was greeted with joy everywhere we went.  In fact people asked if they could take photos with her.  You could of course argue that this is still racist, but I know which I prefer. We spent a couple of days with Paul who had come to Shanghai to greet us, doing the Art Museum, the old town, the finest restaurants and so on.

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We would be seeing this scenery for real shortly

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Then we travelled south, by plane, to Guilin.  There were Moon Cakes that night, and the following morning we embarked onto a riverboat for the four-hour journey downstream on the River Li to Yangshuo.  It remains one of the most astounding journeys of my life, through the karst limestone willow-pattern hills which were eye-poppingly wonderful in every direction.

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We disembarked past the cormorant fishermen, now a tourist staple of an older way of life and caught a taxi to The Giggling Tree, a converted farm which Paul’s ex-boyfriend Colin had recommended.  Surrounded by paddy fields and those spectacular hills, we relaxed and explored.  Took little wooden craft out on the river reminiscent of the gondola or the punt.  One night we went to a theatrical performance literally on the river with hundreds of performers, part dance, part music, choreographed and directed brilliantly by Zhang Yimou, the same Zhang Yimou who had just directed the Olympic Opening Ceremony in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing (and was also responsible for many of the finest Chinese films of the last 20 years such as Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern).

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The rumours doing the rounds then regarded the performers at that Opening Ceremony having to wear nappies because Zhang didn’t approve of tea breaks, or sitting inside an upside down cup for eight hours on the day waiting for their moment.

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The Giggling Tree, Yangshuo

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with a British Olympian by the paddy fields

  One visitor to the hotel was a British woman wearing an Olympic shirt and we found our that she had represented the UK in the rowing competition. Some of the team had stayed on to explore.  One day Jenny and I hired bikes and cycled to the Assembling Dragon Cave there along the river, over bridges and along the paths.  It was the first time Jenny had cycled for a very long time, and the very first time we’d cycled together.  On the way back we stopped by a rustic bridge.  It was a warm day and I decided to remove my shirt and sneakers and jump into the river.  It was exquisite.

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We decided not to take a balloon ride, but enjoyed Yangshuo and the countryside for a few days before flying back north, this time to Nanjing, the old capital of China.  Nanjing lies on the great Yangtze River which flows 3,900 miles across China to the sea, the third longest river in the world.

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Paul was living on the 15th floor of a medium high rise dwelling and from his balcony we could see about three blocks before the smog obliterated the view.  The wind blew from the West, the same direction as the river flowed and it was full of industrial muck and eroded soil and sand.

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We visited his place of work, a college where Paul was headmaster and met some of his colleagues.

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On our last day in Nanjing I suddenly got very ill.  Sweating, fever, aching kidneys, diarrhea, vomiting. I stayed in bed that night as Jenny and Paul went out to the neon lights of the city, and the following morning Paul put us on the train to Shanghai, worried about my health.  I was weak and wobbly but we made it to the hotel and decided not to see a Chinese doctor but just get home and sort it out from there.  Which is what we did.

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Nanjing

The doctor in Brighton decided to X-ray my lungs which had a shadow on them, and conduct a series of blood tests.  Blood tests are a ‘yes or no‘ answer, you can’t just ask ‘what is wrong with this person?‘, you have to ask : ‘is it pneumonia?‘ and when the test says ‘no‘ then you have to ask the next question.  We went through nine of these tests with a negative answer each time.  So I was laid up in bed, weak as a kitten, wheezing a little, losing weight, and reading the entire Harry Potter series from beginning to end.

Meanwhile we had two tickets to see Stevie Wonder at the O2, a week after we’d landed.   Jenny worried that she would have to go with someone else, but I was determined not to miss my hero – only the second time I would see him live in concert.  We had a car, but Jenny didn’t think I should drive for some reason.  So I asked my friend Rory Cameron, one of the Brighton Beach Boys, if he would chauffeur us to the gig in my car for a small fee.  He agreed, bless him and off we went.

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We had pretty good seats – about the 12th row. Stevie was walked out onstage by his daughter Aisha (Isn’t She Lovely!), and rather remarkably opened with a harmonica take on All Blues the first track on Miles Davis‘ classic album A Kind Of Blue.

There were other surprises too among the classics. We’d come on a great night, entirely by chance, because on October 1st 2008 Stevie Wonder played the song  People Make The World Go Round !!! originally by The Stylistics which is one of my favourite songs of all time (see My Pop Life #193).   He also played Chick Corea’s Spain later in the set.  The band were just outstanding.  A quick word here for Nathan Watts the legendary bass player who has been with Stevie since 1974 and is now his musical director.

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Nathan Watts, Detroit’s finest

They played a decent chunk of songs from Hotter Than July (the stunning Lately,  plus As If You Read My Mind, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me and Masterblaster) and Innervisions (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, Higher Ground, Visions, Living For The City, Golden Lady) and a nice selection from Songs In The Key Of Life (see My Pop Life #39) including As, Knocks Me Off My Feet, Sir Duke and Isn’t She Lovely.

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Couldn’t have been happier.  Too ill to stand up, but luckily most folk decided to sit and enjoy the music.  Beautiful beautiful music.  Then he played a song that I didn’t know called Overjoyed.  A tune. It is on one of the 1980s LPs which musical snobbery long ago decided weren’t up to scratch after the power and soul of Hotter Than July, which came out in 1980.  It immediately struck me as a completely astounding song and in the ensuing weeks I bought all of Stevie Wonder’s catalogue which I didn’t already own, then decided to chase down all the songs he’d written for other people.  How could I have missed that ?!? Overjoyed is a song he wrote for the double LP Secret Life Of Plants (1979) but was not included on it.  That album was also critically derided but bears repeated listening.  So many ideas there, so much beauty.  The drops of water which form part of the rhythm of this song, the gentle pulse, the melody are all astoundingly good.   Jenny knew it.

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In Square Circle LP released in 1985 also includes Part Time Lover

What else did he play that night?  Wait…OK.  Look.  If you’re a born-again muso nerd like me it is possible nowadays to check on a gig you went to which despite being extremely memorable and seared into your brain for evermore still has huge holes in it for the brain cannot in general retrieve all of the information which is stored inside it.  That is now what the internet is for. And there is a site called setlist.fm which contains much information of this kind.  There are holes in that too, but slowly they are being filled by punters, by muso nerds and pop fans.  Have you forgotten that memory?  Well here it is.  (Of course the gig I went to remains a hole on that website !!  I’ll have to search my memory even deeper…) But yes, Superstition.

Rory was waiting for us outside and I’m sure we burbled at him all the way home to Brighton, but I must confess it was a relief not to be driving for now I was both elated and shrivelling gently.  Further blood tests produced no results, and a 2nd X-ray showed that the shadow had gone on my lungs. Within a few weeks I was up and about and I’d finished the entire Harry Potter series.

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In a tributary of the River Li catching Chinese pneumonia, probably

Jenny and I talked about what that illness was, and how I’d caught it.  We decided that it was a river-borne virus because that was pretty much the only thing which we hadn’t done together – a process of elimination I’d used in Mexico back in 1980 when I caught Hepatitus B and Paul hadn’t (see My Pop Life #72) and we established that I’d had sex with Xochitl in Pie De La Cuesta and he had not. When we caught up with her later in Mexico City she was also jaundiced like me.   But this time we just didn’t know what it was.  Maybe the Chines doctors would have identified it immediately but then maybe I wouldn’t have been allowed to fly with Asian flu – a similar scenario again to the Mexico trip.

The other post-script worth mentioning is that a few weeks after we’d returned from China, news came in on October 10th that one of the hot-air balloons in Yangshuo had crashed – plummetted to the earth, killing 4 Dutch tourists and injuring the other three people on board.

So the moral of the story is this – if you get a chance to go to Yangshuo – take it. Truly breathtaking place. Don’t be tempted by the hot air balloon ride.  And – if you get the chance to see Stevie Wonder – go. We all need to feel joy.  Seek him out.  He is a mighty force for good in a dangerous scary world.  He is a legend and a half.  My favourite songwriter, my favourite singer.

Overjoyed live at the O2 Sept 12th 2008

 

The LP track with water droplets as beats :

My Pop Life #222 : Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix

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Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix

Well she’s walking through the clouds with a circus mind that’s running wild, Butterflies and zebras – moonbeams – and a fairy tale

When I was 16 years old, in the Lower Sixth at school, and doing my A-Levels : Geography, English Literature, Economics, I still had not had sex with any girl.  Pretty much all of my friends had, some for a while and with more than one partner.  I was clearly a deep romantic because I felt that before I had my first sexual experience, that I wanted to be in love.  That even though I had “got off” with girls, kissed and “felt up” and “messed around” with various girlfriends, that none of them had been people I swooned over.  Or had sex with.  I was prepared to wait it seems.

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Me in Hailsham back garden, aged c 16 years

It was late 1973 and my home life was as chaotic as ever.  Mum had re-married, split up, got back, got pregnant, fought, kicked John Daignault out and was living alone once again, now with my one-year old sister.  The constant fights and complaints and visits to the phone box to call the doctor “my Mum needs some different tablets” were stressing me to the point of not going home after school some nights – because I had “band practice”.

But I really did.  I’d been practising the saxophone for almost a year (see My Pop Life #18) and I had on the strength of this rudimentary knowledge been allowed to join a band – with Conrad, Tat, Tigger and Andy Shand.  We were called Rough Justice and we had band practice at Conrad’s house in Kingston. I’ve written about this moment a few times notably in My Pop Life #80 Heartbreak Hotel and My Pop Life #172 In My Chair a little.  What I didn’t mention in any of those blogs about Rough Justice is that I would usually end up staying the night at Waterlilies after band practice because I lived 25 miles away in Hailsham by then and went to school in Lewes, 2 miles away across the Downs.  There was a spare room which I started to be able to use – or I would be in Conrad’s room which was fairly large too.

And this meant I would wake up in the morning and have breakfast with the family as they all got ready to go to school.  Conrad was the youngest of three brothers.  They were all very tall and clever, and all studied different things.  This struck me as interesting.  Martin, the eldest, was a Scots Pine at Oxford reading English. His A Levels were English French and History. He was also the tallest and was a regular at Brighton & Hove Albion games over the ensuing 45 years. I still see Martin for a few ales before or after a game when I’m back in Sussex.  Then Cym pronounced Kim was a flowering Horse Chestnut who was studying Biology Chemistry and Physics A-levels and was the handsome one, a bass player and had the best girlfriend a certain Shirin Pezeshghi.  He became a doctor.  Conrad was an Oak solid English sheltering all, fair and even-handed, rarely angry, gentle giant. He chose Economics, Geography and Art. No overlap with each other at all !

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Martin Ryle 

Rosemary and Tony Ryle were the parents, almost aristocratic but very earthy and nurturing, very generous to me, who was somewhat of a waif and stray.  Rosemary was a social worker, and Tony was a psychiatrist at Sussex University.  On one memorable occasion he offered to talk to my mum who was having another series of breakdowns.  We all drove from Kingston to Hailsham and he spoke with her for about an hour.  I can’t recall any action or conclusions being made, but at least they could see my environment – it was no longer in their imagination, and I was profoundly grateful for the intervention and the effort and the love it represented, especially when I later realised Tony’s status in the psychiatry world.

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Tony Ryle

And then there was Miriam.  Younger than Conrad and I.  Tall and shy but confident.  Her Mum called her Mindy, so I did too, or “Min”.   Like “Crod” the name didn’t stay into adulthood,  Three older brothers meant she stood her ground and she had a very close relationship with her mother.  Over time that year I would find myself in conversation with Miriam in the garden or washing up after a meal.  Miriam was always very confident which I liked very much.  I’ve always responded positively to confident women.  It’s attractive and a challenge, which I accept.  Her gentle taunting questions hooked me in, and one afternoon while sitting in the front room overlooking the lane and the front garden I unspooled my childhood for her revealing a jagged patch of my shadow history which undid her, and me.

The Ryles were the third family in Lewes who had adopted me after the Smurthwaites (My Pop Life #84) and the Korners (My Pop Life #64).  What they had in common was a loving generous embrace of this teenage boy whose family was constantly being divided, separated and fractured by the forces of dysfunction.  They invited me into their homes, fed me, gave me a place to lay my head and a key to the door.  They included me.  I was a very lucky teenager – all of my family could have ended up in care on numerous occasions.   Pete Smurthwaite died earlier this year sadly and over the years I’d lost touch with him, but Conrad Ryle and Simon Korner became my North and South Poles and still are.

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Lewis, Gaynor who married Conrad (centre) and Simon Korner 1990

Mealtime in the Ryle house – Waterlilies – was always announced (inevitably) by Rosemary with an Indian war whoop, created with a flat hand over the open mouth.  Later I would hear this noise being made by hundreds of women at Greenham Common as we protested cruise missiles being stationed there in the 80s – an eerie powerful sound – but as heard in Waterlilies delivered by Rosemary it was comforting and welcome.  The mealtime was always relaxed (with one classic exception below) and I always felt welcomed and wanted.  It became my home from home.  Especially when Miriam and I started to walk out together.

It was gentle, it was innocent, sweet and lovely, it was wild flowers in bunches on the windowledge, it was Diorella and Laura Ashley and eyelashes and shy smiles.  Skin.  The warmth of the sun.  Picnics with strawberries in a field beneath the Downs on a cheesecloth blanket. Walking to school over Juggs Lane (before the bypass was built).  Seeking each other out in lunch periods.  Looking for her face at Rough Justice gigs, where she would stand with her friends.  We both swooned ever so wonderfully in young love with each other.  My first girlfriend, my first love.

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We listened to a variety of music around that time – The Doors LA Woman LP was always on the giant wooden stereo, as was The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and The Beatles’ Abbey Road.  Other favourites of ours were Carole King’s Tapestry and Jimi’s Axis Bold As Love & Hendrix In The West from which this live version of Little Wing comes.  Originally recorded for the Bold As Love LP in 1967 the track is simple in the very best way.  I bought a book in 2015 called Jimi Hendrix : Starting At Zero which is a wonderful thing written all in his own words, and this is how he described Little Wing :

“It is based on a very, very simple American Indian style.  I got the idea when I was in Monterey and I just happened to be looking at everything around. So I figured I’d take everything I’d seen and put it, maybe, in the form of a girl and call it Little Wing.  It’ll just fly away.  Everybody was flyin’ and in a nice mood, like the police and everybody were really groovy out there. So I took all these things and just put them in one very very small little matchbox. Keep it just like that. It’s very simple.  I like it though. It’s one of the very few I like.”

The live version is from The Royal Albert Hall on February 24th 1969 and is possibly Hendrix’ finest moment ever in his short sunburst time with us. Delicate, assured, sighing with desire but as controlled and precise as a cat stalking a bird. It is a live recording, you can hear the crowd, and he sounds relaxed as if extemporising but I believe every second is elegantly designed and positioned and delivered.  An astonishing piece of songwriting, singing and playing from the genius.  I know every note, every breath of this piece as if the song were inside my bones which it possibly may be.

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My rough book at the start of the Lower Sixth in 1973

Tony and Rosemary allowed us to share a bed at some point in this journey, perhaps feeling that things in the open were preferable to secrets.  But the morning after this first night together (which came after our first fumbling afternoon delight) the breakfast table was set for what turned out to be a very strong memory for all of us.  Tony was all bluster and bark even though his heart was certainly in the right place.  (I remember one occasion later driving through Stoke Newington with him and Conrad seeing a policeman or two looming over a black man on Church Street – “Shall we intervene?” Tony instinctively asked. We didn’t.)  But he was a gentle chap at times despite the bark, (he had three big sons !!) and he found most things funny or preposterous and had a loud laugh. A big guy too with big hands.  Witheringly intelligent.  He had an obituary in The Guardian when he died in 2016.  Rosemary was gentle and kind and sweet, really loving.  Anyway the morning after that first night together, I sat down to crack open a boiled egg and slice my bread into soldiers and drink the plunger coffee (another novel experience) when Tony announced : “Good morning everyone. Congratulations to Miriam who has had her first orgasm.”  Mindy flushed bright red and left the room and I was just embarrassed as fuck.  I never quite recovered from that strange flag planting from Tony.

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Further rough book doodles

It didn’t “really” affect Miriam and I though.  I don’t think. Or did it?  We would go out with each other for over 18 months, and I’m fairly sure I asked her to marry me at some point.  I was happy.  But it wasn’t to be.  I wrote briefly about our ending in My Pop Life #47.  Miriam instigated it.  I was devastated.  This post isn’t about that.  It is about our sweet humble beginning, losing our virginity in tender love with each other, wandering through the Sussex countryside hand in hand reading poetry and listening to music, picking flowers, laughing, swooning.

I have no photos of Miriam or Mindy Ryle.  I remember one glorious summer day taking some pictures of her in a summer dress by the pond with the waterlilies which gave the bungalow its name.  She was making a daisy chain and her eyelashes and legs were long.  I took the film into a chemist in Lewes High St to develop them and one week later called back to pick them up.  When did you bring them in? Nah.  Can’t see them. Sorry we’ve lost those.  Lost ’emSorry mate.

My Pop Life #221 : Let’s Dance – David Bowie

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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

For fear your grace should fall
(Let’s dance)
For fear tonight is all
(Let’s sway)
You could look into my eyes
(Let’s sway)
Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight

Early 1983.  I am living in Finsbury Park with dear Mumtaz, under the eaves of the top floor on Blackstock Road.  Downstairs is Laurie Jones, a lifelong communist who supports Tottenham Hotspur, but also has a season ticket for Arsenal.  He watches football every Saturday as a result.  I will write a piece on Laurie.  Below him is Shirley, a Jamaican gentleman who tends the blues club in the basement.  Up in the top room, a bedsit which is the length of the house, Taj is doing legal exams, I am starting out on an acting career, and I’ve just finished a production of John Godber‘s expressionist adaptation of A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road with various Yorkshire ActorsPaul Rider, Peter Geeves, Andy Winters.  Two years earlier in 1981 I’d done an adaptation of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari with these fellas which toured the UK and ended up at The Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road as part of Bill Nelson’s Invisibility Exhibition.  Both productions were non-naturalistic, and partly took their inspiration from Jerzy Grotowski and Steven Berkoff.

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I think this was 1982

I’ve snaffled an agent from A Clockwork Orange having written to every single agent in the book with my photo and CV like you had to in those days.  David Preston had come to see the show and signed me up.  I was young, green and full of beans and this was my first agent so I was grateful.  David Preston had an office in Dean Street, a walk-up to a camp crimson velvet-curtained den where he presided over his boys.  I walked up to see him one day because I still got a weekly digest called PCR – the Professional Casting Report – and I’d read that my hero Steven Berkoff was auditioning for his new play, West.

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Steven Berkoff

Yes my hero.  When I decided to act for a living (detailed in My Pop Life #140)  – I’d seen one of his shows – East.  It blew me away.  Expressionist yobby Cockney Shakespeare like nothing else on the English Stage.  The language, the committed performances, the extraordinarily huge and expressive performances.  Hooked, I sought him out and in the subsequent years saw The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the Cottesloe and his one-man show A Tell-Tale Heart and Dog.  I think I’m right.  I’d seen three shows before I went for the West audition.

Back in the velvet cave I demanded that David Preston got me in there.  It was compulsory !  And to be fair he did get me an audition.  I can’t remember where it was but perhaps at The Donmar Warehouse.  We were seen in groups of four at a time which was odd to start with.  There he was, larger than life, a dark buzzcut cockney educated jewish voice explaining that we had all witnessed a terrible but exciting & bloody fight, and all we had to do was describe it in our own words to the gang when he pointed at us.  Bang.  Naturalism was out. Having seen the work I kind of felt that it was impossible for me to go over the top. Full cockerknee and ultraviolence courtesy of Clockwork Orange.  Male testosterone with thuggish eloquence.

I got it.  I cannot recall the phone call, or the recall, or whatever the details were, but I was cast in West.  Some time in early 1983 I found myself in a Kentish Town rehearsal room with the others : Rory Edwards playing the lead, Mike, Sue Kyd playing his girl, Sylv, John Joyce playing dad and Stella Tanner playing mum.  And three other fellas. Bruce Payne, Ken Sharrock and Steve Dixon. We were “everyone else”.  Which meant…?

Right lads.  Any part that isn’t Mike, you read those lines.  Just jump in when you feel like it OK?  Let’s go.

Bruce jumped right in and read the first TWO PAGES before I managed to elbow him aside as he drew breath, intervene and read a portion myself, then Ken jumped in, then Steve.  And so it went on, Bruce with the loudest mouth and most focussed ego, and me with the next and so on.  It was fucking exhausting.  Like a trial by combat, with words.  We got to lunch and we’d read the whole play.  It was a fantastic piece.

Well done everyone. Take an hour for lunch.  Lads, whatever lines you just read – they are your lines. OK thanks.”

WHAT???

But it was true.  The trial by dialogue had become Steven’s lazy way of dividing the lines between us.  Bruce had 50%, I had 30%, Ken and Steve had 10% each.  To our credit we all accepted it immediately, bonded as a gang, and got down to putting the play on its feet.  Bruce Payne was a smooth handsome blond from London with expressive hands, a student of Berkoff’s style and mannerisms.  Fancied himself.  Ken Sharrock was a scouser with a barrel chest and a deep growl which he started to convert into East End cockney.  Steve Dixon was smaller, chirpy & quick but with a vicious edge when he wanted.

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Rory Edwards was a tall, dark and yes handsome martial-arts specialist who rode a motorbike and black leathers.  I would work with him some 12 years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for the BBC where we would play brothers – me as Prince John and him as Richard the Lionheart, the Crusader.  He was born to play these kinds of heroic parts.  Berkoff used him a lot in the 1980s, I remember seeing him as Jokanaan in Salomé, at the National Theatre with a long beard and matted hair.  Great actor.

Susan Kyd was a shapely red-head with excellent cheekbones and a beehive hairdo.  She gave as good as she got, and she got it between the eyes from Berkoff, who is not known for his kind, gentle manner.  He would berate her in the rehearsal room and she would snap something straight back whereupon he’d look at us and sneer “Mouthy Cow“.  Sue would snort in derision. She was pretty impressive.

The parents were both really sweet.  Stella Tanner, playing Mum, was a face, from Dixon of Dock Green, Corrie, and countless other TV shows.  She took Sue under her wing off-stage and was quite devastatingly hilarious because of her understanding of character.  She had some fantastic lines.  John Joyce had been with the Ken Campbell 24-hour play The Illuminatus which also spawned Bill Drummond of The KLF (My Pop Life #220). John was a gentle vague but kind soul who liked a puff, and was also hilarious, though not always when he chose to be.

So there we all were.  I cannot fully recall the absolute thrill of working with Steven Berkoff on his own play, of speaking his words, raising my game to unheard of levels where I felt positively uncomfortable, and still trusting the result.  A whole different kind of acting.  I wanted Berkoff’s approval and did my utmost to get it with my acting decisions.  I think we all felt the same.  Act Two opened with a kind of song by The Lads – Bruce, me, Ken and Steve – who played the Hoxton Mob as well as the Stamford Hill Gang.  Ken was the Hoxton Mob leader.  We were so keen that we would get into the rehearsal room an hour early at 9.00am to rehearse this scene without Steven Berkoff present, eventually revealing to him the “thing” that we had made.  A kind of flailing cockney machine of oiks, arms, elbows and arses thrusting with fuck gutteral Gertcha engine noises and “you what – you what?“.  Steven was delighted and said “keep working on it boys“.

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How The Hoxton Mob appeared in the C4 version of “West” with prosthetic make-up and Ray Burdis

The wardrobe fitting was a visit to an East End tailors in Bethnal Green called Cooper & Stiles, 390a Hackney Road ‘since 1954’. We were in the finest light 1960s-styled tailoring with snazzy shoes and thin ties.  I thought I’d landed.  I think I probably had to be fair. We looked like the dog’s bollocks.

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When we got to the Donmar for technical rehearsal we realised that we would be working on a seriously raked stage – one platform at the back with ten chairs facing out in a line, then a vicious sloped stage that everyone had to stand in action poses on to remain upright.  When our scenes onstage finished we would walk back to the chairs and sit facing the audience like statues.  Very Expressionist.  Berkoff had studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, who taught physical theatre and mime, Ariane Mnouchkine & Simon McBurney are among the alumni.  I’d seen the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor at the Riverside Studios in 1981 doing his astonishing show Weilopole Weilopole, which was a stunning piece of imaginative physical theatre – and I’d become exposed to the theories of Jerzy Grotowski another Pole who wrote the influential book Towards A Poor Theatre in 1968.  This argued that theatre shouldn’t compete with film but concentrate on what was unique to the form – actors playing live in front of an audience.  What emerged was total theatre, using your body alone to suggest doors, cups, weapons or motorbikes. The power of the imagination.  Writer and director John Godber was one of the English practitioners of this kind of theatre back then including his production of A Clockwork Orange.   So were his protégées The Yorkshire Actors.  Devotees of Berkoff, naturally.  We were in that tradition in West.  A Black Box, actors and words and audience.  I fucking loved it.  A live musical and percussive accompaniment.   It was my full professional debut onstage – which is to say I was actually getting paid full whack to act in a play, written and directed by my hero.

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Ken, Bruce, Rory, Steve, Ralph – the Stamford Hill gang

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Two dressing rooms – boys, and girls.  It was terribly exciting.  We opened to great fanfare and burned it up.  Great reviews, suddenly we were the hot ticket in town, and we settled in for a five month run at The Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End.  It’s a tiny theatre and tickets were snapped up.  Word would trickle round – “Elvis Costello is in” , “Danny Boyle“, “Madness“.   David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was the song of the year, a thumping bouncy riff-tastic disco bop which started like The Isley Brothers’ Twist & Shout as played by The Beatles and finished like the Nile Rogers funk stomp which it actually was.  A Monster Tune.

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Then the curdle began.  The show was too long so Steven decides to make cuts.  My solo moment, doing the Berkoff walk on the spot, suit jacket on one finger over the shoulder : “walking home alone beneath the stars, through Stamford Hill down Amherst Road to Finsbury Park…” suddenly has a sharpened guillotine hanging over it.  “Please don’t cut that speech” I plead with Berkoff, “I live in Finsbury Park…”  He relents and the speech stays in.   A victory.  Other stuff got trimmed.  Every night before we went on Bruce would recite his entire part aloud until we kicked him out of the dressing room and he did it in a downstairs corridor.  Then Bruce started to manspread in his chair at the back when Mum & Dad were on, his knee and elbow forcing my body into contortions to avoid pain.  One night I resist with a stage whisper Fuck Off Bruce! and push back and he jumps two seats down and freezes.  A couple of scenes later we’re doing the gang scene in the toilets having a slash, backs to the audience, miming giant python knobs a la Berkoff and “who’s got a tanner for the jukebox?” as I dig deep and flick the imaginary coin across the heads of the gang who watch it arc across the stage to Bruce who catches it and pumps it into the slot. Not tonight. He pulled the coin out of his own pocket in a strange revenge moment and my flicked mimed coin lands “on the floor”. A chill went down my spine.  It sounds like a cliché but that is exactly what it felt like.  I realised that I could not trust Bruce onstage anymore.   The spell was broken and it became more tense, less magic.  But the play always takes over.  And what a play.  What words.  John Joyce would have a huge spliff before the Wednesday matinee every week then walk the plank live onstage getting fluffs and laughs in equal measure.  He would then spend the rest of the week trying to recapture the elusive laughs to little avail.

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Bruce Payne, Steve Dixon, Ralph Brown, Ken Sharrock @ Limehouse

Offstage I was going to Pineapple Dance Studios a couple of times a week and doing routines in that hotbox of spangle and leg-warmers.  What a blur it all is now. Walking around Covent Garden, Earlham Street, Neal Street then going into work for a testosterone-fuelled assault on the audience, a totally non-naturalistic Shakespeare-laced East-End tragedy of rage and tenderness and violence.  Steven was a difficult guy to get to know, but he pulled one of the great performances of my life out of me.  I wanted to please him, I needed his approval. I admired his work so much, his challenge to the audience, to the theatre establishment, to the actor.  He is the real deal.

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casual photobomb by Director John Frankau 

The show got picked up for the brand new Channel Four, and filmed at Limehouse Studios on the Isle of Dogs after we’d closed.  John Frankau directed.  It wasn’t as good as the play since it was trimmed quite a lot but it was a good craic.  We were measured for new 60s suits and I still have mine.

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Then, like in all shows, we scattered to the four winds.  Bruce and I’s relationship never recovered fully from that day, but he had immense early success as an actor and we ended up meeting again in Beverley Hills in the 90s, and Ouarzazate in the 00s.  Rory Edwards came in and out of my life like people do, a man of mystery and romance.  We met him at Heathrow on his way to St Lucia with his wife Julia Ormond one day.  I have no idea where he is now.  Ken Sharrock and I worked at the Royal Court the following summer in an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown, directed by Danny Boyle.  We played brothers, and Ken’s father died during the run. I remember him weeping backstage before we went on and I hugged him as he whispered “Use it, use it” as his cue approached.  For another post.

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Ken came to see me playing Macbeth at The Everyman in Liverpool (see My Pop Life #108) and gave me an hour of much-needed insight and support as I fought my way through that production, that life-changing experience that put me off the stage for 20 years and more.  He passed away in 2005.  Steve Dixon gave up acting a few years later.  (The internet tells me he is a professor and President of LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore!)  John Joyce passed away in 2009. Where is Stella?  I think she passed in 2012. But I’m still happily in touch with Sue Kyd, who joyfully came to my 60th with legend Doña Croll and I spent a lovely evening with her last year when I went back to London to see Jenny in Congreve’s The Way Of The World at – The Donmar in 2018.  It was great to see Sue and hang out at her wonderfully located Covent Garden pad within touching distance of the theatrical & historical London she loves so much.

And Steven Berkoff.  We’ve stayed in touch through the years since then.  First the cast had been to his Limehouse pad on the river and met Clara his lovely partner, had drinks, talked shit.   The usual.  Later I got a phone call from my agent about 18 months after West had closed.  Steven was doing a new play of his called Sink The Belgrano at the Half Moon Theatre and would I audition for it?  I called Steven immediately.  “Hello Ralph” he rasped in his educated London growl, “How are you?“.  I told him I’d been asked to audition for his play that week – he said – “Ralph obviously it goes with saying that I know you and your work, and you don’t need to come in for that.”  I said thanks and hows your father, and I did not go to the audition which was the following day.  And I Never heard anything about the show since.  Haha.  Always go to the audition folks!

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A short time after that he called me to come and see a rehearsal of his one-man show Harry’s Christmas which is a sad tale of an old cantankerous git “celebrating” Christmas alone.  It was very bleak yet funny.  I gave him some thoughts.  He just needed an eye on it, and I was honoured to be asked, but my fantasy of getting a directing credit, and shepherding it to an opening was dashed into mirthless smithereens on my ego floor.

I’d see him in Brighton from time to time as he has a flat on the seafront and he’d spend weekends there with Clara.  We memorably had dinner with David Bowie one night when Steven & Bruce were performing Greek in St Martin’s Lane – scrawled into this blog at My Pop Life #54.  I saw Decadence with Steven & Linda MarloweMetamorphosis at The National with Tim Roth as Gregor.  And then he did a touring show at the Dome in Brighton in 2007, the Tell-Tale Heart, Dog, The Actor.  Jenny and I went backstage afterwards and he was all smiles and champagne and grace.

Then finally, in spring 2018, Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s opera “Greek“, with a libretto taken from Berkoff’s play, was at BAM, just down the road from where we live in Brooklyn. I bought a ticket and emailed Steven to see if he was coming.  He hadn’t decided.  In the end I watched it alone, and marvelled.  Steven didn’t come. Well he is now 82 years old.  I was proud for him all over again.   I’d love to have worked with him again, but it hasn’t happened.  That how it is right.  It’s life.  People come into your space and make their mark, have their moment, and leave you changed forever.

 

Steven Berkoff as I knew him in 1984 after we’d filmed West for C4:

Steven performs his monologue “Actor”:

Let’s Dance the original video filmed in Australia :

The most recent thing I could find :

 

My Pop Life #220 : 3 A.M. Eternal (Live at the S.S.L.) – The K.L.F.

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3am Eternal (Live at the S.S.L.) – The K.L.F.

( The Ancients of Mu Mu )

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Alien 3  –  Paranoia In Pinewood part 2

The six stages of Film Production : as seen carved into the wall in Pinewood, Studio Five, by someone presumably better-versed in the industry than I :

  1. Wild enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search For The Guilty
  5. Punish The Innocent
  6. Reward The Non-Involved 

The above quote from the diary I kept in 1991 while filming Alien 3 in Pinewood Studios.  I released it into the atmosphere as My Pop Life #171 – Praying For Time.  I think it’s time for part 2, don’t you?

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Production still

Things settled down a little after the heart-thumping and deeply paranoid first month recorded in the previous episode.  No one was sacked.  I don’t think.  No one was re-cast.  There was a terrible accident one day when Sigourney’s make-up lady Linda was standing in a doorway on set – one of those science fiction doorways with a sliding panel which goes up and down with a swish.  It was a wooden contraption with a weighted pulley which failed, and it came down suddenly onto her face, right onto her nose. I wasn’t there but it was a nasty accident and she was rushed to hospital.  We never saw Linda again. Later I learned that she didn’t want to claim the medical expenses from the company, but having had a facial reconstruction and various operations I think that she eventually did settle.  Dangerous places film sets.

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The cast of Alien 3 with David Fincher on set, 1991

My relationship with Sigourney had subsided into a kind of sulk, and although she would make the odd remark, the earlier fire and brimstone had calmed down a bit.  Not that we’d made up at all.  Sadly we weren’t friends.  I’d confided in other cast members – Niall Buggy thought I was completely bonkers “What are you talking about Ralph, she’s lovely!”  Pete Postlethwaite and Phil Davis felt the same way.  Dhobi Oparei too.  I was happy that they were enjoying working with her, but just as I started feeling cornered, there was Charles Dance asking me how it was all going as we waited for a set-up.  I think I was tentative at first but eventually told him what had been going on.  He confessed that he’d had the same kind of experience. “Is that how you’re going to say it?” and all of the paranoia about how clean he looked, other competitive nonsense.  I felt relieved that I wasn’t going totally mad.  It was only people she had scenes with where the behaviour occurred.  Wait – was Charles Dutton also having this relationship with her?  No.  He was a friend already and he was not the enemy.  Charlie and I have been firm friends ever since.

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Charles Dance as Clemens

One day on set Sigourney and I had a scene on a balcony, after the fire. Men had died.  The Alien was trapped, locked in a loading bay. Dutton and his men were praying below us.  The scene wasn’t going well.  But we got it at around 8.00pm and Fincher pulled me aside.  “Dude.  She vampired that scene. Don’t worry I can cut around what you did, we got it.  But you’re letting her get to you.”  I think I said that I was trying to stand my ground.  “If you ever need to leave the set, take five minutes, regain your centre, just say it OK?  I got your back.”  It was another welcome acknowledgement that I wasn’t paranoid.  I went home, cuddled my lady and gritted my teeth for the long haul.  I had to try and protect my performance at the end of the day, that was what mattered.

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the balcony scene is in the “director’s cut” on the DVD

As the weeks progressed, all of the actors were called in every day, in case we were needed.  First thing – put through ‘the works’ – costume and make-up – and then sat in our dressing rooms to await the call, often all day.  I often went into the next-door dressing room occupied by the Prison Governor, my boss the legend Brian Glover, who’d memorably played the gym teacher in Ken Loach‘s heartbreaking film Kes.  Brian was from Barnsley and did the voice overs for Tetley Tea Bags : ‘Tetley. Make tea bags. Make Tea.

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Brian Glover as Andrews

Brian regaled me with stories from his days as a professional wrestler, fighting on the circuit with Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy and Mick McManus.There’s money in ugly Ralph‘ he would announce, his squashed ear a keepsake of his years playing rugby.  Every 45 minutes the lovely 2nd AD Marcia Gay would knock and pop her head around the door – ‘Gentlemen. You won’t be required for the next 45 minutes. Just relax‘.  This became alarmingly irritating until one day Brian swivelled his giant head in her direction and asked ‘Is the money the same?‘  Marcia was puzzled.  ‘Yes‘ she said. ‘Well Fook Off Then!‘ shouted Brian.  Rude and fucking funny.

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Fincher on the camera with Alex Thomson alongside him who had taken over as DP when Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to continue

There were eventually four units running at the same time – 1st Unit with David Fincher directing and another legend Chris Carreras as 1st AD.  The eye of any storm, the 1st AD basically runs the set, oversees all of the departments and keeps a keen eye on who is slowing the unit down.  The 1st AD is basically making the film.  Chris had an amazingly calm temperament but I saw him biting his tongue a couple of times.  Years later in 1999 I would contact him and ask him to 1st AD my film New Year’s Day, which he graciously agreed to do.  Without him it wouldn’t have got made. I was going to create a link there to the blog where I talk about the film that I wrote and which actually got made.  So scarred am I from this experience that 220 blog posts later I haven’t even started to think about discussing it.  Watch this space !

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Paul McGann as Golic

Meanwhile back in Pinewood, the other 3 units which might or might not need actors for any given day were :  2nd Unit with Martin Brierly directing (and Nick Heckstall-Smith assisting, whom I would also work with later), Action Unit doing Alien Stuff and other SFX, and a Fire Unit which set fire to things and put them out while stunt guys ran around with falmes one their clothes.   We were all required, at one point or another, on all of these units.  But there were interminable days when nothing happened.  Backgammon became institutionalised, with American actors Chris Fields and particularly Holt McCallany relieving us of our wages on a regular basis with ruthless use of the doubling dice. I soon saw the error of this form of time-wasting, likewise poker and other competitive pursuits. 

Paul Brennan, Pete Postlethwaite, Leon Herbert

One day when it was clear once again that nothing was going to happen a group of us decided to wander around the studio lot and see what else was going on.  Like a bunch of escaped prisoners escorted by a correction facility officer.  That was me.  We went into one of the bigger studio buildings (Alien 3 had the majority but some were still available for hire) – I can’t remember precisely who was in that gang but I think Peter Guinness, Paul Brennan, Clive Mantle and Danny Webb certainly were. Maybe Niall Buggy and Vincenzo Nicoli too. 

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Charles Dutton as Dillon

And there was a giant pyramid structure with lights on frames around it and people with cloaks wandering about.  We’d asked permission to visit of course, and the producers knew who we were, what we were doing there.  The band was The K.L.F. and they were shooting a video for their single 3am Eternal which had been at Number 1 in the charts that January.  A video it turned out, for the US market. We watched a take with smoke and lights, bleeps and heavy metal guitar chords, acid house beats and rap, capes and cloaks. It was all a bit mental.  Then they took a break.

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We wandered into the next studio through a heavy door.  And there was Kylie Minogue, dressed for the Shocked video. We were all introduced and I became suddenly aware of a tiny elfin Australian blonde woman being dwarfed by half a dozen dirty shaven-headed prisoners from outer space.  She shook everyone’s hand then gently wandered away and asked one of her people if they could ask us politely to leave.  Which we did.  Poor love.

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Kylie Minogue is Shocked at the power of love in 1991

There’s a curious link here because Bill Drummond, (who with Jimmy Cauty is The K.L.F.) had worked as an A&R man for WEA (now Warners) in London in the mid-80s and had apparently spent half a million pounds on a band called Brilliant who never quite took off.  Stock Aitken & Waterman were writers & producers for Brilliant, and Jimmy Cauty was in the band along with Martin Glover aka Youth from Killing Joke.  And Stock Aitken & Waterman were now writing and producing for Kylie, along with a vast stable of acts including Donna Summer, Mel & Kim and Jason Donovan.  Kylie & Jason had starred together in Aussie soap Neighbours, and to continue the odd waltz between the 2 acts, the K.L.F. had made a single called ‘Kylie Said To Jason‘ which was a hilarious rip-off of ‘Left To My Own Devices‘ by The Pet Shop Boys.  Confused Yet ??

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Bill Drummond & Jimmy Cauty

I didn’t make any of these connections at the time.  I was listening to George Michael, Public Enemy, The Breeders. Catching up with Bob Marley and Miles Davis.  Discovering Wagner – again.  Looming on the horizon was Massive Attack. The K.L.F. seemed to me a little like The Tubes, one of my favourite bands to be sure, or the Bonzo Dog Band (see My Pop Life #77), formed by musicians who wanted to lampoon the music and the industry and anything else they could gather into their fiendish net.  Like everything was in quotes. I mean who sang along with the phrase “Ancients of MuMu” without a silly grin on their face?

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And of course we were still recovering from the smiley-face rave culture moment from which the K.L.F. appeared to have emerged.  In fact they were rather more like a situationist art project that wanted to burn the whole thing down.  Anarchists.  Their career was inspired partly by the theatre show The Illuminatus Trilogy, written and directed by mad genius Ken Campbell in Liverpool where Bill had been the set designer.  He walked out one day to buy a sandwich and never came back. He formed a band called The Justified Ancients of MuMu with Jimmy Cauty and released a single in 1987.   After two? albums and a legal dispute with ABBA they became The Timelords with a big novelty hit Doctoring The Tardis, then The JAMS (Justified Ancients of MuMu) with the single What Time Is Love which got re-issued a number of times from 1988 onward, then The K.L.F.  Their brilliant warped career  peaked a year later in 1992 at the BRIT Awards when Drummond machine-gunned the audience of music industry execs from the stage, and a dead sheep was left at the door of the afterparty with the message “I died for you – bon appetit” attached. A few months later in May 1992 The K.L.F. announced that they had quit the music business and deleted their entire back catalogue.  Other stunts followed such as the infamous burning of a million pounds, the Soup Line, the 17 Choir and other innovative ideas.  Apparently Bill Drummond lived just down the hill from me when I was in Brighton but I never met him, I don’t think.

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Niall Buggy as Eric, Danny Webb as Morse

Back on the Alien3 set a few days later it was Valentine’s Day.  I had been sent a card and an AD delivered it to me as we relaxed between shots.  It was of course from Jenny my beloved.  We were not married at that point.  And I could swear Sigourney was looking over my shoulder to see who it was from.  Hahaha.  Fincher was shooting a lot of footage.  “I’m doing long pans & track so they can’t cut into my footage” he explained one day.  It meant that when we had a group scene we could open a book on how many takes it would be.  Anything under five was unpopular.  Over twelve was possible, common even.  I think we did a tenner per set-up.  Someone wrote the names down and the number they’d chosen.  Often no one would win because we went up to Take 17 and no one wanted to put ten of your earth pounds on that.

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Here’s an idea…

In fact Sigourney and I had one of our scenes discussing plans regarding telling the company their was an Alien on the planet, and playing a fella who wanted to go home to his wife and kids, rather than perish in some millennial cult group suicide, Aaron ’85’ suggested a plan.  Ripley’s response was tentatively ‘yes maybe‘.  We did a couple of wide shots, then into my single.  Can’t remember how many takes it was – probably around seven or eight.  Then turned round onto Sigourney.  David didn’t like her tone, which suggested that Ripley thought Aaron was a dick.  He didn’t think that was right at that point in the story.  So. One more.  Turn over. Sound Speed. Scene 178 take 17.  Mark it. And….Action! Blah blah blah.  Cut.  Same result.  He’s not your enemy.  Take 22.  Don’t sneer. Take 29.  You think it’s a good idea. Take 34. By which time we were all so exhausted and dizzy from the repetition that Sigourney said the line in a kind of dazed acquiescence and Fincher had the take he wanted.

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About a year later in Los Angeles, after the re-shoots, I had two days of ADR in a West LA studio on Olympic Boulevard.  David remembered the scene well, 34 takes.  He’d never done ADR before though – Automated Dialogue Replacement – where you can change the inflexion, emphasis, tone, shade and meaning of a line just by using your voice and matching the lip movements on screen in front of you precisely.  Movie magic.  Some actors hate it, I made friends with the process very early on after I had to voice the whole of my performance as Danny in Withnail & I for the US market. The test screenings had indicated that audience members couldn’t understand what he was saying.  Who could? I did that piece of work at Twickenham Studios in 1987 where the engineer consoled me having to re-do my entire performance at the same speed except more intelligibly by telling me that Michael Caine had done Alfie and Bob Hoskins had also done The Long Good Friday for America.  And yet we were expected to understand Stallone’s mumbles or Pacino’s – hey that’s what it means to be an outlying part of The Empire right?  I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen the US version of Withnail but I suspect it would be a bad idea.  But having said that the experience toughened me up for future sessions.  Especially the Alien 3 session which was two long days – the reason for that was the amount of atmospheric smoke and steam in the design of the film which was very noisy to produce.  Often back in the day on big movies the Sound Department knew that they were recording a guide track only, to be completed and polished in ADR.  So here we were down on W. Olympic and David says – if I’d known about ADR in Pinewood I would never have done 34 takes just for a vocal inflection…

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It’s hard to recall now in 2019 how difficult that experience was.  Jenny can remember quite clearly how I would come home every day, full of doubt, full of worry and anguish, just because I was trying to do my best work.  What a fantastic opportunity for me, but you know I was running fast just to stand still.   I remember a visual image I used to produce while trying to explain it to friends, as a learning curve which came from my chest, looped back over my head and stabbed me in the back.  I wondered if, at some point, whether the fact that we were making a horror film in space meant that we had to have a horrible experience in space.  I called Richard E. Grant one day who was shooting Hudson Hawk in Italy – another picnic – and he asked me how much I was getting. I told him. He said

well – that’s the amount of shit you have to eat then.”

I could almost understand why Bill Drummond had formed The K.L.F.