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.

 

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My Pop Life #219 : Work It – Missy Elliott

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Work It – Missy Elliott

Is it worth it? Let me work it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it

September 2002 – Marrakesh, Morocco.  Sitting by the pool with various Max Factors – Andrew French, Eddie Osei, Israel Aduramo, Gabriel Mann, Clara Bellar, Julian Wadham, Ilario Bisi-Pedro, Billy Crawford – listening to the head honcho of Morgan Creek Mr Jim Robinson holding us in thrall with his hilarious stories as his well-endowed Asian girlfriend splashed around distractingly in the water.  Imogen Stubbs is here too, on holiday.  Stellan Skarsgard is off somewhere with director Paul Schrader whom I had auditioned for a few months ago in Shepperton Studios.

Yes. That Paul Schrader. Screenwriter extraordinaire – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Blue Collar, Obsession, The Last Temptation Of Christ.  Director of tight moral fables such as Blue Collar, Cat People, Mishima, American Gigolo.

We’re about to start shooting Dominion – a prequel to The Exorcist, in the hills to the north of this medieval city.  We can see the Atlas Mountains just to the south. It’s warm. We’re happy.

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Paul Schrader with some of Vittorio Storaro’s boys on location

I had many highlights on this job – and very few lowlights, despite the supposedly haunted nature of these films.  The original, the famous William Friedkin masterpiece came out in 1973 when I was 16, and a gang of callow youth from Lewes caught the bus into Brighton and queued outside the Odeon while being sprinkled with holy water as religious types prayed over us and the back two rows of the stalls were reserved for St John’s ambulance.  Despite the gruesome special effects – Linda Blair’s head famously revolving on her shoulders, green vomit and so on, the only time I covered my eyes was when she was take to hospital and they plunged a needle into her arm.  People carried their fainting girlfriends out. Next to me Jon Foreman, Martin Elkins, Conrad Ryle, Chris Clark laughed loudly at anything truly horrible to keep it at bay and dilute its undoubted power.  We were freaked.

Now I was getting my freak on making an Exorcist film.  Quite thrilling – this one takes place in 1947 in Turkanaland, northern Kenya where the priest Merrin (played by another Swedish actor Max Von Sydow in the original) and haunted by a WW2 massacre, is excavating a buried Christian Coptic Church when he finds something beneath the foundations…

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Clara Bellar & Stellan Skarsgard

Given that we were supposed to be in Turkanaland, the land of the Turkana, Morgan Creek had flown in 15 men from the Turkana tribe in Kenya to be in our movie. They also provided some music too because they were in a band.  Lovely fellas. I seem to remember buying each of them a watch from the market with my expenses which they accepted with grace and delight and proceeded to sell them the following day for local currency.  But the bulk of the film’s extras were local, originating from Senegal.  One Sunday we arranged a football match out on the recreation area near the hotel – Senegal v The Rest Of The World which ended up as crew & cast people from France, Morocco, Italy and England.  It was 1-1 at half time but we were over-run in the second half and lost 5-1. Just like real life !

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Billy in full gear as possessed Cheche

Up in Billy’s room we were bonding over music.  Billy Crawford is playing Cheche a young disabled boy who becomes the devil.  His face is sweet and clean and he is young and good fun, mixed-race Filipino and a pop star in Manila, although he lives in LA and sounds American.  His and my favourite song at this time is Missy Elliott’s Work It, which has just come out, and it tops all her other hits which we are also huge fans of – I Can’t Stand The Rain and She’s A Bitch and Get Ur Freak On.  There isn’t really an internet to speak of yet, but there is MTV.  So generally we get high and listen to a stereo and chat.  Missy’s videos are remarkably good though.

 

She wears expanding jumpsuits.  She is an awesome pop star. The beats, by her buddy Timbaland, are fantastic.  Her influences are global. Get Ur Freak On in particular opens in Japanese and includes an unlikely break in hindi in the 2nd verse.  Work It we obsess on however because it is brand new and also because :

Is it worth it? Let me work it
I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it

followed by

Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup

which is the same line played backwards.  A simple trick you might think, but wow we spent quite a few stoned hours trying to actually say it.  Were we possessed by the devil?  Was she?  Remember the playout on the vinyl disc of Sgt Pepper after the final mighty chord of A Day In The Life has finally faded – sounds like something backwards – “we’ll fuck you like supermen” if you spin it back with your finger at the right speed….

Or all those heavy metal tunes with backwards growling supposed to raise Satan or one of his precious minions.  Coincidence?  Anyway. Other moments in this immense tune include the Chinese boys, her ass going aromba bomp bomp  – keep your eyes on my aromba bomp bomp and

Prince couldn’t get me change my name, papa
Kunta Kinte a slave again, no sir
Picture blacks saying, “Oh yess’a, massa”

It was an explosive song on so many levels for 2002 when she did indeed bestride the world like a colossus.

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from the album, came the single

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[Jenny and I went to see her much later in 2005 at Brixton Academy – we were very excited to see the living Missy Elliott in person – but despite a few cracking moments she didn’t deliver a great gig, spending much time inviting audience members on the stage to dance or chat shit or wiggle their arsecracks, then Missy herself wandering out into the audience – and up onto the balcony – which took at least 20 minutes out of the set.  Pretty poor all in all. A review of said gig in the NME reveals all] :

https://www.nme.com/reviews/live/reviews-nme-5188

Meanwhile back in Marrakesh I am five minutes late for the bus and get severely told off by Stellan Skarsgard who is travelling with us, not in a private sedan which is usually the way with leading actors.  In irritable early-morning Swedish-English he tells me that it is unacceptable to be five minutes late and don’t let it happen again.  He’s right of course.

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Julian, Gabriel, Stellan

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Weeks later, in the hotel bar where we all gather Every Night he has further lessons to impart :

Where were you today Ralph?  You did your shot, your close-up, all fireworks and action, then they turn around on me and there’s hardly anything going on

I blanch and think about it.  Possibly some Hollywood A-lister has previously said to me “Ralph – turn it down, it’s not your shot“, so I have got into the habit of not giving everything in my opposite number’s shot.  I’m wrong.

Ralph, the scene isn’t about you, or me.  It’s about the energy between us. So we both have to turn up every time they turn over

A valuable lesson and I love him even more.  We worked together back in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island on Spielberg’s Amistad.  The rest of the cast are new to me apart from The Wad, Julian Wadham who I’ve met round at Richard E. Grant’s house a few times.  He’s a good man.

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Sgt Major Harris reporting to Major Granville (The Wad)

But in the end I spend most of my time with Billy Crawford and Andrew French on days off, walking around the Djma-El-Fnaa which is a medieval North African souk not just for the tourists, but displays traditions that clearly go back centuries – acrobats, snake charmers, fire-eaters and jugglers mix with the carpet & slipper sellers and the endless silk scarves. It is a wonderful place that I returned to briefly in 2005 with Stoned, my old friend Stephen Woolley’s film on the death of Brian Jones.

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with Rick Warden, Stellan Skarsgard & Andrew French

But we are filming miles away from Marrakesh. About an hour in the bus every morning and every night. In the desert, with a lunch under a tent.  I am Sgt Major Harris in the British army.  Vittorio Storaro the legendary Italian cinematographer has his huge team of assistants and students lighting the film. He does some extraordinary work and I watch mesmerised as his lights fade and rise, dip and pan with the action. So graceful, so beautiful.

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Israel Aduramo playing Jomo

Earlier in the process I had arrived with a strange rash on my chest which had started to manifest on the palms of my hands.  Given the film we were doing, certain people thought it was an Omen, or perhaps a Conjuring.  One of the British actors, Israel Aduramo offered to help me with this affliction. He came into my trailer and prayed for about twenty minutes over me.  It didn’t do anything I’m sorry to report.  when I went home that weekend a lovely woman in Brighton Miriam Greene (RIP) examined me and announced that I had a recent and temporary allergic reaction to citrus fruits.  My mother had been ill the previous month and I was under a great deal of stress.  At the same time I was drinking this new drink Oasis that had appeared  – a lemon-type refresco citrus punch full of aspartame which was addictively delicious.  I stopped it immediately along with oranges, lemons and the bells of st clementines.

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Schrader was an interesting dude.  He would meet me in the lift, look me up and down at my shirt & trouser colour combo and say “Ralph.  Red and Blue just don’t go together. Sorry“.  He would sit in a djellaba smoking a hookah and regale us with tales of Hollywood which I won’t recount here because these people are still alive.  But he had strong opinions.  Brought up as a strict Calvinist he wasn’t allowed to watch a film until he was 18.  I liked him, but he appeared to be under immense pressure.  Directors always are.  When we were in Rome towards the end of the shoot he saw me sitting in a hotel lobby reading something and came over to thank me, for “making something interesting out of what is essentially a yeoman character“.  I was pleased with this acknowledgement, and it remains the only time that anyone has used the word “yeoman” in a conversation with me.

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Earlier on, when we had checked into the Hotel Excelsior in Rome, I had a special thrill.  This was the hotel from the original film, so the rumour went, when a character goes to see the Pope in the holiest of the holies, but I can find no reference to this “scene” in any of the previous Exorcist films. We were shooting some interiors of the haunted buried pre-Coptic church in Cinecitta Studios.  I check in and was given a key to Room 666.  I decided to invite the chaps over for a quick spliff before we went out to dinner together and got a message from Gabriel Mann who was playing the priest – “Sorry Ralph but I won’t be able to come into your room.  I’m sure you’ll understand.”

After we’d finished shooting loads of stuff happened which I won’t go into here, another director (Renny Harlin) was hired and indeed another film was made, with some of the original cast, not me.  Sometime thereafter two Exorcist : Dominion movies were released.  Paul Schrader didn’t get the funds to finish his SFX or the score, or colour correction, but his, our version remained the better one of the two, and most of us were reunited in Belgium at a film festival for the film’s premiere. After the Antwerp show I travelled to Paris with Billy because he was doing a gig there.  Those were the days huh.

I saw Billy a couple of times after that but we’ve long since lost touch. I’ve seen Julian too, but none of the others I’m afraid.  I heard that Ilario passed away. That is the way of the long swim. But I cherish these memories and add them to my museum of recollections.  Go well, dear reader.

 

My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

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Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

My Pop Life #128 : A Whiter Shade Of Pale : King Curtis

A Whiter Shade Of Pale   –   King Curtis

1987 Wardour Street W1.  A basement screening room in Soho, Central London, which serves as the centre of the British Film Industry – in other words : A small group of overwhelmingly decent men and women in smallish offices talking on the telephone, often to each other.  Of course we have Pinewood and Shepperton Studios out on the M25, but this is our Hollywood:

De Lane Lea on Dean St.  Palace Pictures used to be in Wardour Mews off D’Arblay Street, near Fish where I used to get my haricut.  Working Title.   Mike Leigh’s office is in Greek Street.  The Groucho Club.  Soho House.  Century.  Blacks.  The Sound Studios.  The Edit Suites.  The Distributor’s offices.  Old Compton Street.  Marshall Street.   Meard Street.  Frith Street.  Lexington Street.  Berwick Street.  Soho Square.   The Dog and Duck.   The Coach and Horses.  The French House.  Kettners.  Ronnie Scott’s.  Bar Italia.   Oxford Circus tube.  Shaftesbury Avenue.  Lunch in Chinatown if you fancy.  A small tight and dedicated community squashed into the narrow lanes next to prostitutes walk-ups, strip clubs, pubs, bars and gin joints.   And more recently : chichi hotels and Japanese restaurants as the seedy down-at-heel glamour of the area turns into another monied area of the capital of the world’s capital.  Oh well.  Everything changes right ?

The British Film Industry has been described as a cottage industry, as a few people on the phone, as punching above its weight, as a contradiction in terms.  I’ve worked with many of these dedicated and frankly faintly insane people over the years.  It’s been my honour to have done so.  To make a film in the United Kingdom you need to be more than a little mad.  It takes years of hopeless and often unrewarded effort to get the money, the group of people, the script, the whole thing to work, and often the  punishment is a sniffy review by a critic who prefers the latest Hollywood offering to your carefully nurtured baby, your precious flower on which you have spent weeks, months, years, lunches, breakfasts, dinners, blood, sweat, tears, rages and sleepless nights to bring to the general public.   Only to have it shat on.  And for you to come back for more.  It’s like a drug and we can’t get enough.

 

On this particular day, this auspicious day, one of the better days, it was exciting to be rolling up at 2pm to an underground screening room in a hallowed Soho with a handful of actors : Richard Griffiths, Richard E. Grant, and Paul McGann and a director, Bruce Robinson, a producer Paul Heller, a composer David Dundas and one or two other faces for the first showing of Withnail and I, a film we’d all worked on 18 months earlier in 1985.   I was excited, nervous, worried, hopeful and frankly thrilled to bits.  I hadn’t done that many films at that point.   In fact aside from The Hit, in which I scarcely spoke, this was my first film.  I was almost 30 years old, done a bit of TV and walked off The Bill because I wanted to do films.  This had been the first one that turned up.  It had been a blast to make  but that’s for another story.  Here I am now sat next to lovely Richard Griffiths in the second row of the tiny theatre and the lights go down.  Only friends in here.

The first image on the screen is Paul McGann looking utterly wasted, fading drugs seeping through his pores as he smokes a roll-up. He wears John Lennon glasses and his hair is wavy.   A kind of pained exhausted beauty.  And as he sits and smokes we hear King Curtis playing that saxophone cover version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the huge Procol Harum hit single from 1967.  I’d never heard it before.  The saxophone seemed to be be sweating and feeling queasy and unsteady on its feet and then it found its purpose again and magnificently reaffirmed its point before spinning into a personal journey of emptiness and beauty that was so clearly a live version played by a person who was solid gone.  I mean crazy.

I enjoyed the film.  I though Paul and Richard were fantastic.  I laughed.  I loved them.  Then I came on, wearing shades and holding a fucking saveloy.  I was speaking    s  o      s  l  o  w  l  y     that I cringed inside with embarrassment.  All that lovely vibe that Richard and Paul had built up to that point had been thrown away – I was so totally off the pace it was like I was in a different film altogether.  Excruciating.  Rich Griffiths next to me patted my leg with enthusiasm :  “Marvellous dear boy, marvellous“he whispered.  I looked at him quickly in alarm.  “I’m talking too fucking slowly” I hissed at him.  “Nonsense dear boy, wonderful” he replied and we shut up to concentrate on the next scene.

Richard Griffiths in Withnail 

There were other musical highlights that day, but all involving songs I already knew really well.  I loved the movie.  It was the one I had read in my flat in the Archway Road a couple of years earlier.  Funny, well-written, and sad.  I though everyone was great except me.  It was a reaction that would come back to haunt me on a regular basis every few years, most recently in Bristol in early 2014 when Paul and I attended a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail and were interviewed on the stage afterwards by Phil Jupitus.  I made the mistake of watching the film again, and once again fell into the pit of finding myself wanting.  I have enjoyed my own performance on one or two occasions, and I still enjoy doing ‘the voice’, although I have rationed its professional use.  But I will never watch it again I suspect.

We retired to a bar afterwards and I found that Richard Grant’s reaction had been even stronger than mine – I believe he vomited and subsequently vowed to never watch one of his own performances ever again.  We enjoyed each other’s acting however and Bruce was happy and the mood was bright and happy so we drank some drinks and cheers’d ourselves and clinked and drank some more and went home glowing and happy.

The rest was a slow burn to infamy.

King Curtis had the kind of career as a saxophone player that I could only dream of.  When, at the age of 27, I was considering whether to be a professional saxophone player or an actor, I tried to imagine what a successful horn player’s life would be like.  At best I could imagine being a good session player, doing a solo on a Pink Floyd LP or Listen To What The Man Said, maybe being in a pop band for a few years like Madness or UB40, shagging loads of birds, taking drugs, becoming unpleasant and sad by the time I was 40 or disappearing into the jazz world and becoming a brilliant elusive junkie.  Curtis was the king of the instrument all right, starting as a jazzman with Lionel Hampton and others before making his mark in the pop world from The Coaster’s Yakety Yak, to John Lennon’s It’s So Hard,   LaVern Baker’s I Cried A Tear, Clyde McPhatter’s A Lover’s Question and co-writing Reminiscing with Buddy Holly.

King Curtis, Percy Sledge, unknown, Jimi Hendrix

In the mid-sixties he played in a soul band with Jimi Hendrix on guitar backing Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and  Cornell Dupree.  He also had his own band The Kingpins who opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and cut sides for Atlantic Records including the hits Memphis Soul Stew, Games People Play and Ode To Billy Joe before opening for and arranging  Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West which became two live albums (one by Aretha, one by King Curtis) and from which A Whiter Shade Of Pale is taken.  Much loved by the Rock Establishment – Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Lennon and others, he was murdered in an altercation with junkies outside his apartment in New York five months after this concert.

On the DVD for Withnail & I (which Paul McGann and I did a commentary on for the special edition) I make a spurious claim, now crystallised for all eternity, that Curtis died on the night of the Fillmore West gig, just after recording the emotional genius of Whiter Shade Of Pale.  I can be wrong tha knows…

In the end the art of film-making hopes for a similar end result to the musician – to affect the audience.  To move you in mysterious or obvious ways.  Language is often a blunt tool, but in this opening sequence to the film that changed my life, there are no words, either on screen or in the sobbing song which accompanies it.  A man of quintessential loquacious eloquence like writer and director Bruce Robinson knew when to let the music and the actor do the work.

My Pop Life #41 : Poor People – Alan Price

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Poor People   –   Alan Price

It’s no use mumbling.
It’s no use grumbling.
Life just isn’t fair-
There’s no easy days
There’s no easy ways
Just get out there and do it!

So smile while you’re makin’ it-
Laugh while you’re takin’ it-
Even though you’re fakin’ it-
Nobody’s gonna know.
Nobody’s gonna know.

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I was 16 when Lindsay Anderson‘s film O Lucky Man was released onto an unsuspecting general public.  Five years earlier he’d directed the anarchic anti-public-school revolutionary film “If…” also starring a young Malcolm McDowell and in many ways, O Lucky Man is a sequel, a kaleidoscopic canter through Great Britain with all its class, corruption, sycophancy, greed and – yes – fun, seen through the eyes of an eternally hopeful everyman (Travis) who only sees good in people, and is thus used, abused, beaten up, arrested and generally crucified.   McDowell was everyone’s favourite actor in 1973 – because of “If…” and  “A Clockwork Orange”, and in this film you can see why…

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Eternally appealing, he is used by Anderson to wander through this green and pleasant land and lift the lid on the truth.   At every turn our hero meets corruption, cheating, bending the rules, selfishness and dishonesty.  It’s rather like as told from a left-wing point of view.   It’s a top five film of mine not least because the soundtrack – all by Alan Price and his band – is perfect, and each song is treated like an interlude;  thus when a song starts to play in the film, we dissolve to the studio and watch Alan Price playing the song before picking up the story again as it finishes.   I’ve never seen this done before or since and it’s brilliant.   As is the music.

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Price is from County Durham, and went to school in Jarrow, south of the city of Newcastle in North-East England.   A piano and organ player, he formed blues pop band The Animals in 1962 (House Of The Rising Sun, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood), then left in 1965 to form the Alan Price Set (House That Jack Built, Don’t Stop The Carnival) before turning his hand to a TV show with Georgie Fame (Fame and Price together!) and introducing Britain to the music of the great songwriter Randy Newman (rather like Harry Nilsson did in the US – but Nilsson would be Alan’s US equivalent though, not Newman).  There was a stage musical in the late 70s : Andy Capp – which I saw purely due to Price’s involvement – on the Aldwych.  Tom Courtenay playing the lead as a cuddly giggly sexist git – it didn’t work.   But before that he had written the songs and played himself in this dark political comedy of manners – which for me at 16 was a blueprint for understanding the world.  I already knew the world was corrupt.  I knew we were being shafted.  I knew everyone was lying.   And I knew that essentially I was on my own.   I loved this film and this music – I bought the vinyl LP shortly after seeing it for the second time.  Here was a director, an actor and a musician speaking for me.

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Christine Noonan, Anna Dawson, Malcolm McDowell, Arthur Lowe

Not to mention that many of the finest and my personal favourite actors are involved – many of them playing more than one role, which also lends the story-telling a theatrical arc, a surreal edge as Travis (McDowell) thinks he recognises people – and sometimes has.  From the great Arthur Lowe playing a northern mayor who demands a “chocolate sandwich” at a live backstage sex-show, an African dictator from an un-named country buying “honey” to decimate his own population with, to Rachel Roberts, Geoffrey Palmer, Graham Crowden, Helen Mirren, Philip Stone, Dandy Nichols, Mona Washbourne, Peter Jeffrey, Warren Clarke, Brian Glover and Ralph Richardson among many others.  A feast of acting chops all at their peak.  So many exquisite moments – but I must mention Richardson near the end : “Hold this.  Wait here.”

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At one point Travis escapes from a weird frightening hospital and hitch-hikes to get away – and who should pull over to pick him up but Alan Price and his band.  The music is uniformly excellent and provides an extra wry commentary on the lessons we – and Travis – are being shown.  I’ve chosen Poor People because I think it’s the best song on the LP, and it’s a beautiful moment in the film as Rachel Roberts invites Travis to sample the coffee…