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 #171 : Praying For Time – George Michael

Praying For Time   –   George Michael

I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
Because god’s stopped keeping score…

Listen Without Prejudice was released in September 1990 and this was the first single from the album.  We listened to the LP all that winter 90/91, and I don’t think George Michael has ever bettered it.  Cowboys & Angels, Freedom 90, Heal The Pain, lovely cover of They Won’t Go When I Go.  And Praying For Time.  “tune”

Listen Without Prejudice – 1990

That autumn I was doing a play called Earwig by Paula Milne at The Pit, somewhere under The Barbican in London with the RSC.  Then I got a call from the agent for a meeting in Pinewood studios for Alien 3.  This was terribly exciting.  I adored the first Alien film, and was less keen on the second, but devoured it hungrily nonetheless.  The combination of horror and science fiction was thrilling and brilliantly done.  I gleaned a few details before the meeting – it was going to be set on a prison planet with no women except Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.  It would directed by a young first-time director called David Fincher.   Much to the irritation of the RSC I had my (pretty long) hair shorn at Fish in D’Arblay Street – a number four if I recall.  I’d been going to Fish since I’d done West at The Donmar Warehouse in 1983, and they’d been close-up witnesses to the disappearing head-fur since then.  Anyway, I got offered the part of Aaron, or to be more accurate, Fincher recalled me and asked me which part I fancied playing.  HOW COMPLETELY THRILLING !!  (I thought)  IS THIS WHAT MY LIFE WILL BE LIKE NOW???  I chose Aaron.  The 2nd in command.  The survivor.  Good part.  Or so I thought. This is an extract from my diary at the time – an actor at his first Hollywood barbeque, getting burned.  Nobody explains what it’s going to be like, and even if they did, I didn’t listen.  Who does ?

*

Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood

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 

 

17th Jan 1991.

Well.  After a heavy day’s filming on Scene 55 where Golic, (played by me old china plate  Paul McGann), is brought to the infirmary, I return to my dressing room to find rewrites have been pushed under my door.  Rewrites for the end of the movie.  I read them.  Disaster.  My character has gone from the everyman-yuppie-type-who-survives to something completely different : the thick-coward-type-who-gets-his-throat-cut-while-hiding-from-the-alien.   I feel like a horse has kicked me in the guts.  I march up to the director, David Fincher’s office, and demand a meeting with the writers, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss the part.  Having already filmed two scenes and therefore committed my character to celluloid, these changes are un-nerving to say the very least.  Fincher says he hates the rewrites, and don’t worry, it’ll be all right.  But he’s just the director.  Walter and David are also producing along with Sigourney herself.  I express with great and foolish bravery to Fincher that I need to know what I’m playing, and I need to know NOW.  We arrange a meeting for lunchtime next day.

18th Jan

At 11.am I get a call cancelling the meeting.  Panic.  I call my agent Michael Foster, the poison dwarf of Oxford Street whom I love dearly.  His advice : Don’t rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, wear a tie and vote conservative (remember, this is 1991).  Above all, he advises, Do Not Upset Walter Hill, writer and producer of the film.  There are major Hollywood politics going on and I’m simply caught in the crossfire, my character being one pawn among many in a power game between the Giler/Hill axis and the Fincher/Fox camp.  It’s the moody stark Alien (1) vs the populist wham-bam Aliens (2).  I know what I prefer but evidently can’t afford to express my feeling to the wrong people.

At 2pm I get a call inviting me (since I’m not filming today) to the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park – a car will be round to pick me up.  This is where Walter Hill and David Giler are staying.  The drive is smooth and tense. I go up in the lift to Room 50, and Walter greets me at the door wearing mirror shades.

Walter Hill, director of The Long Riders, 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Driver and more

By now I am shitting maisonettes but staying outwardly cool I hope.  Something to drink Ralph ?  I ask for tea, so we all have tea.  We chat, and Fincher is mentioned.  Non-committal words are exchanged.  Body language is tense, nervy from Hill, open, receptive from me.  I smile in what I hope is a relaxed fashion.  I’m wrong about one thing (probably more than one – Ed) – Walter Hill talks about going back to the simplicity of the first Alien movie, which cheers me up a bit.  So, Ralph, what about Aaron?  Well, I say, I’m here to ask for your help.  Hill doesn’t believe me.  Careful Ralph.  Be careful.  Be honest.  I talk about Fincher’s version of the character and how it conflicts with the rewrites. Hill shifts his weight and considers me.  “Aaron is a working class stupid guy, who is funny“.   I agree.  This is my bargaining position I say : I have no bargaining position.  Hill laughs.  He knows.    Is there anything I don’t like about the script?  Well, I say, can’t Aaron fight with the Alien??  If not at the end, then in the middle sequence with the fire? Astonishingly they agree with me and I gain a point.  But I can’t fight at the end.  And I have to be an 85 IQ – like Muhammed Ali or Danny from Withnail (they bizarrely console me with).  OK I say.  Fine by me I say.  Thrilled to be in your movie I say.  No heroics for me, and this will affect any Hollywood career I am to have, if indeed I am to have one.  “We all gotta serve the movie Ralph” says Walter Hill. who is getting paid something in the region of a million dollars serving the movie.  “I’m prepared to sit here til midnight until you’re happy with the way the character should be played…”  

I leave one and a half hours later, shaking hands.  I press the lift button.  I can still hear them and strain an ear down the corridor – what are they saying?  “Fuck the guy – get him off the picture”  ?    I don’t want to hear it anyway.  I walk out through the lobby feeling as tight and tense and screwed up as a piece of wire.  I feel like vomiting.  I am driven home, feeling shaky and weird.  Meet my brother Paul and go to see Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda at Screen on the Green – flawed but good (Brian Cox was excellent) – with the memorable line :  “Rule One : Look After Your Own Balls

Afterward to the pub and drinks and I start to unwind.  I am now paranoid about being cut from the film (like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter had gently reminded me earlier – I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you.  Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright…)  She was the one who cried a lot.  I suddenly remember that an actor was sacked after four weeks filming on Aliens because they found out that he was on acid or something (!) and so they re-shot all the scenes he was in.  So even after a month’s filming you’re not safe.  Damn.

David Fincher & Sigourney Weaver on the set of Alien 3, Pinewood 1991

Meeting with Fincher the next day.  Hi dude how was your meeting?  Walter and David said you’d reached a compromise.  Oh, that’s what they called it?  I felt as if I’d been taken slowly from behind.  I informed Fincher that although I loved him spiritually, I had in fact (sad to say) sold him down the river (still some quiver when I deliver) and that I had accepted the working-class thicko comic character idea to save my own balls (see Rule One above).  Fincher says “The fight’s not over.  Remember we’re working for 18th century Fox here”

Jan 21st

The rewrites come through.  As I expected.  Well, we all gotta serve the movie.  Fear stalks the set.  Everyone is applying Rule One.  And as we shoot mangled remains of Alien victims in dark corridors, the Gulf War is being prosecuted with extreme prejudice, and as Brian Glover soberly remarked, we could go to Baghdad and see the real thing.

my old mate Danny Webb with Sigourney on set

Someone steals a continuity photo of Sigourney with head shaved and sells it to the Today newspaper.  A mole on the unit.  Someone from props gets sacked.  We’re all looking over our shoulders.

Feb 4th

Picked up from Archway Road by Bill my driver who informs me that Jordan Cronenweth, legendary DP who shot Blade Runner had been replaced by Alex Thomson over the weekend.  Brian Glover is picked up in Fulham Road and gets severe wobbles for the rest of the day.  “It’s a portent Ralph, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film doesn’t get finished“.   Jordan’s disappearance has the opposite effect on me.  I finally reach my long-lost fuck-it level.  And I think : FUCK IT !   In the next scene I have only my vest and long johns, so my chest is showing.  Nick in make-up takes a long look : ” Ooh no, it’ll have to go”  What will?  “The chest hair love.  It’ll have to come off”   Jesus Christ.  I go all queenie for a second and flounce back to my dressing room to ponder my pectorals.  Shaved chest?  Never in all my born days….

Fuck It.  I don’t even phone Jenny to moan at her, because as soon as she hears my anxious paranoid actor’s whinge she’ll just search for things to say which won’t upset me.  No.  It’s my decision and I’ll shave the fucker.  Jesus Christ !  I’m an actor!!  Actors do all that shit!  It’s for the part, and the money.  Aaron shaves his chest.  I suddenly saw, for the first time since I was 15, what my body actually looked like.  I have to report that it could have been better.  Went straight home to the bench press and weights That Night.  But it was a liberating shave, a plunge into Fuck-It-Dom which released much of my tension and anxiety about the film.  FUCK IT !!!

Feb 5th

The canteen sequence.  Rewrites still coming in.  An IRA attack on Downing Street provides a fitting backdrop.  Sigourney is taking no prisoners today.  First it’s the hair:  “Your hair is too long Ralph, we should put some lice in it”   Then an hour later it’s the costume:  “How come Aaron gets to wear a nice clean shirt, while we’re all in dirty crap here?”     “It’s vanity pure and simple”  says the deep Barnsley burr of Brian Glover.  Thanks mate.   “So the stupid Aaron 85 looks really cool then” says Sigourney.  “Mr Normal”.  She stonks off.   I feel really weird now.  All my paranoias confirmed !   I think she is anxious about having a shaved head, but she has successfully managed to dump her insecurity onto me.

spoiler : Brian Glover is taken by the Alien in the canteen

 McGann wanders over and I tell him what has happened.  Sigourney walks past us :  “Oh look – a little tete-a-tete between Mr Sublime and Mr Ridiculous.  I’ll leave you guys to work out who’s  who”….  Paul turns to me.  “She’s going the right way for a smack in the mouth”.    At the tea break another actor tells me that Sigourney didn’t want any stars in the film and doesn’t speak to Charles Dance.  I am reminded of having my close-ups cut from Buster, and Phil Collins’ performance on Wogan, when he was asked who was playing Biggs (me) and he replied “Oh some new younger actor”.    You’re nobody in this town ’til everybody thinks you’re a bastard.

Aaron ’85’

Feb 6th

I’m being made up on set as Sigourney glides past.  “Don’t make him look too pretty I have to walk past him”…   ‘Trust your image Sigourney’,  I reply.  She hovers, so for something to say I tell her that my death has now been re-written FIVE TIMES so far, including : Alien eats me, Golic cuts my throat, I fall into lead mould, Company machine-gun me.  “I asked them to kill you off on page ten” she says.  A couple of hours later she pokes her tongue out at me.  Hey!  It occurs to me, perhaps she wants to fuck me !

She should be so lucky.

*

Years later I discover that Walter Hill has an eye condition that means he had to wear protective shades even indoors.  That Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to finish the shoot even with his son Jeff assisting him due to Parkinson’s.   After the premiere, Sigourney apologises for being mean.  Fincher encourages me to move to Los Angeles or LaLa as he calls it, so after our wedding in 1992, we do.   And later still.  Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) gets to sing with George Michael on two world tours.  One night he sang Praying For Time.  I still think it’s his best song.

 

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 #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

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Being For The Benefit of the 3rd in an Occasional Series of Intellectual, Geographical and Lyrical Journeys Through the Cruciate and Baroque Interior of A Selective Selection of Several of The Splendid Songs of My Life.

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

*

Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

I told you ’bout strawberry fields You know the place where nothing is real

Well, here’s another place you can go Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips To see how the other half live

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man You know that we’re as close as can be, man

Well, here’s another clue for you all The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill I tell you man he living there still

Well, here’s another place you can be Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean Trying to make a dovetail joint, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Which four places in Liverpool are mentioned in Beatles’ lyrics ?  Penny Lane yeah, Strawberry Field (no S) yeah.  Yeah.  And  ??  Clue  :  It’s on the last LP Let It Be.  Playing the songs they played as kids in 251 Menlove Avenue – Aunt Mimi’s house where John lived for 20 years, old rock’nroll covers and R’n’B songs, or more commonly at Paul’s parents’ house in 20 Forthlin Road.   “oh Dirty Maggie May they have taken her away and she never walks down Lime Street anymore…”   That’s three.   And number four is – and only locals and Beatle nuts know this – The Cast Iron Shore.   A real but mythical place in Liverpool.    Apparently south of Albert Dock, near Dingle, the whole area used to be dockyards but the heyday of the Liverpool Docks at that end of town – South Liverpool – was 100 years ago.   So-called because the rusting metals in the dock cranes and buildings and man-made waterways turned the river water metallic orange.  I went to look for it today, to stand there, as John Lennon talks about in the song Glass Onion, which appears on side one of The White Album.

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Strawberry Field, 2015

It’s a song that appears to tilt at the windmills of their own mythology as Beatles.  The opening line “I told you bout Strawberry Fields,  you know the place where nothing is real” sets the self-referential tone, but Strawberry Field, as I’m sure you know, is very real, and John could see it from a tree in Aunt Mimi’s garden…  “no one I think is in my tree…

It was an orphanage, and the locals kids used to break into the grounds sometimes to play football on the green.  But John Lennon and his pals Paul, George and Ringo now know “how the other half live” because they made it as Beatles.  When they were kids would they be “standing on the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live” in someone’s garden peering through Georgian windows at their future in “the other half”  ??

Looking through a glass onion.  Like a crystal ball, but looking back, and forward at the same time.

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inside the White Album ‘The Beatles’ 1968 were four pictures

John teases the fans who were reading cryptic messages into all Beatles lyrics by 1968, referencing the death of Paul in a famous example, a rumour that refused to be stifled but that was clearly bonkers.  DOA on his Sgt Pepper jacket. And so on.  Lennon skewers it all.  On the Anthology off-cut version he even shouts “Help!

Well here’s another clue for you all : the Walrus was Paul”

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Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

Maybe, in this picture, he was.  In the next verse John’s told us about “the fool on the hill”, the 3rd song from Magical Mystery Tour that’s he’s referenced.   Each of these moments also has a musical echo of the song – here are the flutes from Fool On The Hill.  You can have fun finding them for yourself.  The other two of the five Beatles songs inside the skin of Glass Onion are even more recent, a 1968 single : Lady Madonnatrying to make ends meet, yeah” and from 1967 and Sgt Pepper :  “Fixing A Hole in the ocean…

I went looking for the Cast Iron Shore today, driving around the east side of the River Mersey where it’s all been re-built, cleaned up, nice waterfront developments, marinas, business parks.  Asked a few locals where it was.  They’d all heard of it: “The Cazzie, yeah” but no one was quite sure exactly which bit it was.   The first place I found had holes in the ocean as you can see

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Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

because it was low tide.   But many believe that both Fixing a Hole, which is a McCartney song,  and this song reference heroin which John Lennon was sampling in the year 1968.  Two years later he would be screaming Cold Turkey into a microphone as he came off the drug.   The softer drug marijuana is also alluded to.   I tried “to make a dovetail joint” in woodwork class once at Lewes Priory school and it wasn’t great, but I suspect that I will be forever remembered for the Camberwell Carrot, a Dovetail Joint that I smoked in the film Withnail and I.  My character, Danny the drug dealer explains that the Camberwell Carrot “can utilise at least twelve skins…”

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Annie McGann, me, Paul McGann, Hope St Hotel, September 2015

It felt appropriate to have a puff on the cast iron shore today and contemplate The Beatles and Liverpool and my love of them and the city.  Last night (and the night before) I’d been out with Paul McGann and his wife Annie, up in town for a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail, and happily staying in the same hotel as I.   We ate, we drank, we met Austin and Yvonne, we met Tim Roth and Sandra Butterworth with whom I am currently working on Jimmy McGovern and Bob Pugh‘s screenplay “REG” for the BBC and LA Productions.  We watched England lose to Wales at Twickenham in a disco pumping out house tunes and hosting the totteridge and whetstone of Liverpool L1.  We’d signed autographs with fans and taken pictures after the screening.  We’d drank more drink.  Lovely weekend, making a circle of reference.  I’ve known Paul since we made Withnail and I in 1985, when we were babies.  Such a charming, gentle, gracious, intelligent, well-read man who is hugely relaxed about life and who appears to have no grey hair.

Featured imageThis is an outrage as I am both bald and grey at this point.  Tim Roth at least has the decency to be grey.  I’ve known Tim since the days of going out with Rita Wolf – mid 80s too, and Tim and Paul were both on the ‘Brit Pack” cover of The Face in 1985 – with some other creatures great and small.  But Tim and I have deeper roots since he went to Dick Shepherd School in Brixton with my friends Paulette and Beverley Randall, Eugene McCaffrey and David Lawrence.  So the circles carry on.  I’m now staying on Hope Street again, just along the road from The Everyman Theatre where I performed Macbeth and which put me off theatre for life in 1987 (see My Pop Life #108)

Tomorrow I’ll try and find Ringo’s house at #9 Madryn Road, and George’s at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree because Jenny and I visited John’s and Paul’s family homes – mentioned above – in 2008 when we had a holiday in Liverpool.  I know !  But we did, and we loved it.  Year of Culture, all that.  For another post.  But both Lennon and MCcartney’s properties are now run, brilliantly, by The National Trust, which is also rather spookily mentioned in a song from the White Album “Happiness Is A Warm Gun“, to continue the circle of myth.   I totally recommend that tour, probably the single best thing to do as a tourist in Liverpool.

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251 Menlove Avenue where John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi

REG” is about Reg Keys whose son Tom died in Iraq in 2003 along with five other military policemen.  When the no WMD declaration was made, Reg Keys decided to stand for Parliament in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005 as an independent candidate fully against Blair’s Iraq war policy.  Tim Roth is playing Reg, Anna Maxwell-Martin his wife and I’m playing his election agent, ex-MP Bob Clay.  It is an honour to represent this true story to the nation.  The 90-minute film will be released at the same time as The Chilcott Report apparently – the official Enquiry into the debacle and falsehoods behind the decision to go to war.  Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour Party leader as I speak, (elected by a greater majority than Tony Blair had when he was elected leader), will this week apologise on behalf of the party for the Iraq War.  This is a big deal.   It’s one of the those jobs that I’ve been lucky enough to get where I feel like I’m inside current history.  An earlier experience – for another post naturally – was the Joint Stock workshop for the play Deadlines, when Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton the day after the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, watching Thatcher, who’d so very nearly died in the explosion, speak to the Hall.  Powerful stuff.

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Paul, Tim, Ralph

And fitting that I would feel those prickly feelings again in Liverpool, a city which I have great affection for, and which is probably the most political city in the UK.  Hmm Ok well there may be other contenders – I’m thinking of Belfast (see My Pop Life #13) but Liverpool has a deeply and profoundly anti-establishment tradition.  They don’t buy The Sun here, thanks to that rag’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.   Maybe I’m romanticising.   But c’mon !  There’s a Slavery Museum here!   And, And… It is a city of music, like New Orleans, a great port city which connected it to the outside world.  The whole world.  The very reason why The Beatles came out of Liverpool rather than Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham is the docks.  Those great ships would come in from New York in the 1950s, and on board along with passengers, imports like cotton and sugar and manufactured goods would be secret stashes of cool shirts, loafers, slacks and RECORDS.  45rpm singles.  They heard Elvis Presley here in Liverpool before anywhere else in the UK.  And no, I don’t know what a glass onion is.  Maybe if I’d taken heroin I would.  But if you peel away the layers, expecting to find the answers inside (like people were doing with Beatles lyrics, and what I am clearly doing now) you’ll see that in the end, it was transparent all along.