My Pop Life #236 : Superman ft. Bucie – Black Coffee

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Superman ft. Bucie   –   Black Coffee

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I am a cat-man.  I have always had a cat or two or three, and I understand them.  A little. Cat Man Do.  My reward for good behaviour (miaow!) has been to have used up only a third of my 9 lives…  Two I have written about already : Falling Out Of A Van Going At 50 mph On A Scottish Road (see My Pop Life #232 – C’Mon) and Drowning When Drunk At Dawn In A Las Vegas Swimming Pool (see My Pop Life #235 – You’ve Got A Friend).  The third attempt was more recent than these two teenage incidents and will have to be entitled Being Dropped In A Cage From A Boat Into 30 Metres Of Shark-Infested Seawater With No Oxygen Etc.

It was 2010.  It was – in all seriousness – the second time that I had given up acting for a living.  My way this manifests itself is as follows – I call my agent – in this case Oriana Elia – and inform her that I will no longer audition for anything, and will in fact be quite happy if I never work again.  It was a kind of petulance, a kind of release, and a kind of sanity that swept over me that spring.  I cannot remember the details that pushed me over the edge, but within four months I was in Cape Town doing a film with Halle Berry.

But first a little matter of a World Cup.  I won’t write about it here, but Jenny and I have been to every World Cup since USA 1994 when we lived in Los Angeles as a special treat and these adventures are memorialised in My World Cup Blog.

The World Cup in June of 2010 was in South Africa.  While we were in Johannesburg for the latter stages I received word of a job – in South Africa – in July/August.  Their winter, our summer in England.  A straight offer.  Thank you casting director Gail Stevens.  A special lady.  I was back in the game.

I decided to go home for two weeks rather than stay down there, and thus it was for the 2nd time in a month that I arrived in Cape Town in July and checked into the Waterfront Apartments.  It was actually my third time in Cape Town because I’d been filming here in 2006 (see My Pop Life #117) on The Flood, and spent one day off at the Khayelitsha project of our first aider Kerryn Pitt.  My first stop on this visit was to drive out there and see how they were doing.

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Kerryn Pitt

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Table Mountain from Khayelitsha Township

They were doing well.  They still had their World Cup flags flying over the township.  Kerryn was on good form and had been building a Guest House for the project, alongside the orphan’s school & kitchen.  Township Air B’n’B.  We chatted, I took photos and vowed to return.

That night I met the director John Stockwell for a drink. My worries about the script were aired and then turned to more general worries about the film when he asked me to re-write it.  I decided not to get involved at that level.  Perhaps I asked for more money, I truly can’t remember.  It felt like much of it might be improvised.  The schedule was to be improvised, everything was weather dependent so we had to be ready to shoot any scene at any time, and we’d all be working every day.  And there were no rehearsals, so the first time I met Halle Berry was on the first day of filming, down in Simons Town on False Bay.  I’d made a major fluff of my first meeting with another female lead actor –  Sigourney Weaver back in 1991 on Alien 3 (see My Pop Life #171) so this time I had a plan – smile,  make friends, be charming.  Not too difficult because being the first black actress to win an Oscar was completely historic and inspiring and I told her so.  She is gracious and kind and friendly.  It’s going to be fine.  So far so good and my other co-stars Sizwe Msutu, who stayed ashore, Olivier Martinez, Luke Tyler and Mark Elderkin all seemed untroubled by delusions of grandeur and I rather hoped for a decent shoot.

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Me, Halle, Olivier, Sizwe in a dinghy going home

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Luke Tyler & Mark Elderkin

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John Stockwell

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Olivier Martinez

The film by the way remains one of the very worst-reviewed films I’ve ever had the privilege to have been in.  It’s called Dark Tide and it scored a fairly unique 0% on the website Rotten Tomatoes.  But rubbish films can still be good fun to make (and of course the opposite too – good films can be a fucking nightmare on set and off !)

It is set almost entirely on a small boat at sea.  There are six of us on it.  I play a British millionaire who brings his son (Luke) on a shark weekend – Halle is a shark whisperer who owns the boat and whose business is going bust.  Mark played the skipper and Olivier her partner.  Oh.  That makes five.

Anyway.

What is a shark weekend?  Well in South Africa, Mexico, Australia and other areas of the world it is where you rent a boat and climb into a cage and get lowered into the water to watch them up close.  Cage Diving With Sharks.  What could possibly go wrong?

In fact Luke Cresswell, my buddy from Brighton who co-created Stomp along with Steve McNicholas was just down the road in Gansbaai, filming Great Whites from a naturalist’s angle and he generously took me out on my first free afternoon to watch the water.  A preview of what was to come.  What strange coincidences life throws at you, and great to see him.

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Luke on his shark boat

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Luke and Great White Shark off Gansbaai

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And I had a wonderful drive back along the Garden Route to Cape Town at dusk

I’ve written a little about the shark experience, especially the sea-sickness angle in My Pop Life #37 – A Salty Dog.  Halle rented a house nearby with her daughter and nanny,  the rest of us were in apartments on the Cape Town Waterfront and were picked up at 5.45 every morning.  My driver Hans was a large Afrikaaner who resisted stereotype yet was a huge fan of Meatloaf.  We’d have an hour’s drive into the dawn, playing my music, playing his, playing the radio, then into unit base as the light arrived.

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Simons Town, False Bay

Costume change & make-up plus breakfast at unit base then down to the quayside and board the boat V.S. Volante at 8am and start the engine which produced a very particular kind of smell – of oil – then out to sea and shoot all day til the light faded at 6pm.  Six days a week.  Lunch was brought alongside by a rubber dinghy.  We often anchored up near Seal Island, which is where we were that day.

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Green Point at the top was near the Cape Town waterfront. Simon’s Bay was base camp about an hour down the Cape.

I’ll just digress gently and note that while we were filming, guys were chumming the water on either side of the boat.  Throwing bucketfuls of dead fish overboard to attract Great White Sharks in other words.  Then if one came near us we would film with it behind us, or even try and get it to approach the boat.  Some of these were large – the females we were told, some were smaller and whip-flick irritable – these were the juvenile males.  Of course they were.  We were not expected, naturally, to get into the sea with these beasts, we had a stunt crew for all that.  But apparently we only had three sets of oxygen tanks, and they, naturally, were for the stunt crew.

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Seal Island

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On the fateful day in question, it was decided that Luke my son and I would do a scene with skipper Mark just before we go down for our first cage dive.  This involved being fully dressed for scuba diving – masks, fins, weights, tanks.  The tanks weren’t full of oxygen.  They were props.  Fair enough, we weren’t going underwater.  We were doing some chat then climbing into a cage which went up to waist height off the back of the boat.  And cut.  The stunt crew with the real oxygen tanks were at least a 45-minute boat ride away.  Halle and Olivier were inside the Volante resting.  Olivier was actually  affecting a tremendously French couldn’t care less attitude while clearly staying available.  Halle’s favourite.

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Lunch arriving.  Be honest, it isn’t a large boat.  See cage on the stern.

We were shooting off the back.  Sorry, the stern.  As we waited for the camera I looked at the cage, suspended from a frame by a rope and pulley.  We would climb in via a door in the top of the cage.  I noticed something.  “What’s that blue rope?” I asked marine co-ordinator Jason Martin alongside me.  I hadn’t seen it before.  “That’s a safety rope” he answered,

in case the pulley breaks but that isn’t going to happen

Right thanks”  I said.

Luke was sitting on the other side of me and hadn’t heard this exchange.  “Hey Luke” I said, “you see that blue rope there?  That’s to stop the cage from plunging onto the ocean floor when the pulley breaks. Which it won’t“.

Good to know”  he said.

We got into position.  Line-up.  Ran the words.  Camera ready.  Actors ready.  Boom op ready.  Turn over.  Speed.  Mark it.  247 take one.  Crack!  And the stage was ours.  We did the words and climbed into the cage.  The water was quite lively and as Luke climbed down into the cage beside me a huge wave went over our heads. “I’d better hold my breath” I thought.  And the wave stayed there.  And stayed there some more. “Hang on“‘ I thought, “I really need to hold my breath here“.  Then Luke just disappeared upwards through the cage door above us, and so did I, breaking water to a crowd of alarmed and panicked faces looking down, reaching out to take our arms, hauling us back onboard where we sat down in a puddle.

What happened?” I asked.

The pulley snapped”  someone said,  “The safety rope stopped you from dropping down 30 metres onto the sea bed.

I looked round. Sure enough the blue rope was the only thing holding the cage.  There had been no big wave.  Below us was the rocky shelf of Seal Island – not that deep, I had dived in Egypt down to 20 metres.  But that was with oxygen.  Plus the speed we’d have dropped would’ve given us the bends.  And then where the shelf drops into the depths, the underwater cliff edge,  is where the sharks hunt for seals, which is actually why we were anchored there.  You couldn’t drop an anchor onto the ocean floor anyway, the chain wasn’t that long.

Everyone was really shaken up.  John the director was apologising to Luke and I.  People were bringing tea and biscuits.  We would be taken inside and they’d shoot something else.  Drama and panic.  Are you guys OK?  I lit a cigarette.  Luke and I conferred.  We were happy about the blue rope (which isn’t in the photo above I’ve just realised, must’ve been added after that day…) but unhappy about the pulley snapping.

For the rest of the day we were placated.  I think we were both in shock and in the dinghy ride back to shore I said I would speak to my agent.  Film sets are notoriously unsafe spaces in many ways – I remembered the accident on Alien 3 with Linda, Sigourney’s make-up lady – but this seemed to be a many layered accident with plenty of possible ways to die or be seriously injured.  There’s always an insurance angle on films which is often the reason why a film isn’t greenlit – they can’t get a bond.  The fear of the insurance doubling rippled through the production – and I’d like to think there was also a concern that two actors might have been lost, and thus the film, because they wouldn’t have gone back and re-shot everything with two new actors.  Would they?

It was decided that Luke and I wouldn’t do any more work in the water, most of it was going to be done in Pinewood Studios later in August.  But in fact that scene was eventually re-shot a few clicks down the shore from Simonstown, in the sea.  The ghost lingered but we got the scene.

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Sorry babe I’m already happily married

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After this drama a kind of rhythm was established.  The day was based on how seasick we felt, how quickly the ginger basket was emptied of sweets and biscuits and drinks.  Scenes and sharks came and went.  We couldn’t find the right stormy conditions for the final sequence so in the end it was decided to head south and round the Cape of Good Hope into the open Atlantic to get some churning seas.  That was a day of sickness and drama as Olivier (in character) ordered me to sit down as the waves started kicking the boat around and I (in character) refused.  In make up the following morning Halle came to my chair and started whispering in my ear about making up with Olivier because he was still screwing about it, and would I mind apologising to him.  “I was acting a scene” I objected but Halle had my earlobe between her thumb & finger and was gently rubbing an affirmation out of me.  Olivier and I made up but he still insisted that if we did fight, he would win.

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One weekend I invited Halle, Olivier, Luke, Mark and John to the Indlovu Project in Khayelitsha, and we spent a precious couple of hours in the township where the kids danced for us, we were fed and watered and chatted and took photos of each other.  Halle later donated a generous sum to their project and Olivier supplied them with punch bag and some sets of boxing gloves.

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As the film drew to a close whatever feelings we had about the story we were telling was slowly but inevitably being subsumed by the wild beauty around us and one by one we surrendered to the surroundings.  There was an afternoon of behind-the-scenes interviews where we all mucked in and watched each other’s clips.

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Luke holding the screen for Norma Hill-Patton’s interview, Halle Berry watching. I’d worked with Norma  before on ‘Buster’ the train robber film (1986).  Life is long.

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Effortless grace and lucky guy

We wrapped up and I flew back to Brighton and Jenny and Chester and Mimi.  Dark Tide reconvened in the Paddock Tank in Pinewood Studios.  My oxygen tank didn’t work there either when I was inside the cage one afternoon, so I did the pointing to my mouth thing and my guide diver found me and gave me an emergency oxygen feed as we swam to the top of the tank.   It doesn’t count as a life though if you’re counting.  Never in danger.  It was the Paddock Tank where I’d previously shot the underwater sequence in The Boat That Rocked/Pirate Radio in 2006 (see My Pop Life #205).  I was starting to feel like a veteran underwater actor.  I’m not a great swimmer but I have no fear of being underwater despite nearly drowning when 19 –  I learnt to swim in Hornsey Road Baths when I was 25 years old and the first thing they made us do was go underwater and stay there for ten, then twenty seconds.

Halle came out for dinner one night with Norma to meet Jenny and our friend Martina Laird in the Groucho Club.  They both loved her.  She is a real sweetheart who doesn’t pick the best men.  Olivier lasted six years and they have a child together.

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The handsome couple were married 3 years later

All through that summer I was listening to the radio, to the sounds of South Africa.  I didn’t need my comfort music around me for some reason, and delighted in the new sounds of that new nation.  They were obsessed with house music and a fella called Black Coffee.  In 2006 when I’d shot The Flood in Cape Town I became hooked on a song called Mdlwembe or Umdlwembe (see My Pop Life #117) from the Tsotsi soundtrack which actually dates from 2000.  Ten years later it was house music which dominated the airwaves and this DJ in particular who stood head and shoulders above the pack.  His album Home Brewed was released in 2010 and you couldn’t escape from it’s silky rhythms in bars, restaurants, taxis and on the street.

My favourite memory of the shoot was this moment :

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My favourite shot of Halle was this :

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I write this from lockdown in New York City where the numbers suggest that we have been plague central for six weeks.  99% of the citizens wear masks outside in a huge act of compassion to protect the vulnerable and the elderly the diabetics and the asthmatics.  My wife Jenny is one of the latter.  She hasn’t gone out.  I don mask and gloves and stride out to the shops, intrepid and steeled, keeping spatial distance from the other explorers. The shop has its own rules and lines, screens and bagging procedures.  We are at war.  When I get home, the shoes are left in the hallway, the vinyl gloves unpeeled and trashed, soap and water, bleach wipes on all bags, all produce, all shopping, keys, cards.

Death is just out there.   I will trade in my remaining 6 lives for my wife’s.

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the blue rope with the knot which saved us

My Pop Life #51 : Tom Hark – Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

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Tom Hark   –  Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

…your team is shit

I don’t know why

but after the match

you’re going to die…

That’s me singing nonsense aged too old in 1980-something in the North Stand of the Goldstone Ground – to the tune of Tom Hark.  After 1980 when The Piranhas did their cover of this much-covered song.   It is still sung today at football grounds around the nation, with differing violent and scatalogical lyrics depending on the team being supported.   I really enjoyed singing violent songs at football when I was a teenager.  “You’re going home in a fucking ambulance” followed by a rhythmical clapping pattern, thousands of hands in unison.   It was funny.   I know it doesn’t sound funny but it was.   We sang to Bread Of Heaven (“referee, referee – you’re not fit to wipe my arse” which I misheard, rather brilliantly, as “you’re the features of my arse“!), we sang to Land Of Hope and Glory (“we hate Nottingham Forest, we hate Liverpool too, we hate Westham United but Brighton we love you… ALL TOGETHER NOW…”) and we sang to The Quartermaster’s Song (“he shot, he scored, it must be Peter Ward, Peter Ward ! Peter Ward…”).  And many many more.   Football fans like to sing.  They like to change the words of popular songs to fit around their team, the current squad of players.  I know some musicians whose sole aim and ambition is to write a song which gets sung at football matches.   The Pet Shop Boys spring to mind as a recent addition – Go West has many different versions but the no-diocese “You’re shit and you know you are” is my personal favourite ;  the existentially acerbic wit of “you know you are” being the most humiliating insult in the lexicon.

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The Piranhas were a Brighton punk band led by Bob Grover who added lyrics to the tune of Tom Hark, and had a top 10 hit with it in 1980.  Previous covers were by Millie Smalls (1964) Georgie Fame (1964) Mickey Finn (1964) and the Ted Heath Band (1958).  The first three of these are all, like the Piranhas version, ska, or bluebeat, which is to say 1960s Jamaican music which became popular in the UK and elsewhere.   Which is odd because the original is from Johannesburg in South Africa.  It’s a nice story…

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Jack Lerole would play the pennywhistle or kwela on the streets of Jo’burg and Alexandria township for money with his fellow musicians David Ramosa, Zeph Nkabinde and his brother Elias Lerole in the 1950s.  They would carry hatchets or tomahawks with them to deter thieves and gangs.     One day, talent scout and producer Rupert Bopape heard them and invited them to record at EMI South Africa’s newly-formed black division.   The resulting tune was called “Tom Hark”  which may have been a mis-hearing of Tomahawk, or may have been changed to make the song less violently-flavoured.   It struck gold – the single was a huge international hit, and the success of Tom Hark in the UK charts (where it reached number 2 in 1958), and the orchestration by Ted Heath in the US (see below) hugely boosted the popularity of kwela music in South Africa itself, leaving behind many of the street urchin associations that pennywhistle had picked up (but which perhaps returned when we sang it on the terraces?).

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Pennywhistle music (or ‘jive flute’) was considered very lower class in the earlier part of the century, being the favourite employ of street gangs and urchins who would masquerade as buskers.  After it became “kwela” music it emerged as a genuine home-grown South African music, perhaps echoing the reed flutes of the Tswana and others.   The term kwela is also interesting.    In Zulu it means “climb on, get up” and is often shouted in these types of songs, encouraging people to join in.   However, on the record itself, listen: it  begins with a short scene (spoken in flytaal the Afrikaans-based urban African dialect) of men playing dice on the street, then packing up the gambling and pulling out the penny whistles as one shouts ‘dar kom die khwela khwela‘ – or the police van.  Who knows?  It certainly became kwela after this single was released.

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Either way it had been the dominant musical style of the townships throughout the 1950s and made huge stars of Spokes Mashiyane, Aaron Lerole, and Jack Lerole himself, forming a local style that could compete commercially with imported music.   It wouldn’t last too much longer though – by the early 1960s the saxophone had replaced the pennywhistle and the bands had electrified their guitars and added a bass guitar creating a brand new sound that would dominate the airwaves for over 40 years – Township Jive or”mbaqanga“.    But that’s for another post.    This was a commercial fact of life, to pick up the saxophone in order to keep making money from music, but many of the kwela players claimed to prefer playing the penny whistle because as Aaron Lerole noted later “I could master it. I could make it talk any sound I wanted“.  The saxophone is more rigid.

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Rupert Bopape in 1958

The record is credited to “R. Bopape” who took all of the publishing.  Elias and Jack never received a penny beyond that which they made for the day’s recording.  Jack Lerole went on to become one of the first “groaners” affecting an extremely deep voice like township star Mahlathini, but would die of throat cancer in Soweto in 2003.  Rupert Bopape would go on become a hugely influential Berry-Gordy-esque figure in the South African music scene, running Gallo records and creating many many hit acts, including The Mahotella Queens and the Funk Brothers of the South African scene, The Makgona Tsohle Band.   I came across all this music in 1985 via one LP released in the UK on Earthworks called The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto, featuring both of the above-named bands.   It was a doorway into a thrilling new collection of sounds.

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As for Tom Hark, it reappeared into my football life – c’mon, it had never gone away only the words had changed – when my beloved Brighton & Hove Albion became homeless in 1997, and the only viable site for a new stadium in Brighton was Falmer, opposite Sussex University.   We’d been playing at temporary athletics stadium at Withdean for years when the Falmer campaign really kicked in.   John Prescott was the target as his department would ultimately be the judge and jury, and so a long imaginative campaign by Albion fans commenced.  My own small part in it was to play the saxophone on a new version of Tom Hark called We Want Falmer with Attila The Stockbroker and The Fish Brothers, Too Many Crooks and me – a Brighton supergroup called Seagulls Ska.

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Recorded in Sayers Common one afternoon and rush-released in January 2005 with an instrumental version of our anthem “Sussex By The Sea” on the B-side, the mass-purchase of this single by Albion fans pushed the campaign song to number 17 on the national charts, and Number 1 on the independent charts.  Not bad.  Falmer Stadium eventually opened for business in July 2011.