Three stories from Marcia's career:
1. Where the Buffalo Roam by Dennis Potter (Wednesday Play, 1966)
An early Potter about a young delinquent who has Cowboy fantasies which take over his life, resulting in murder and his death by police shooting.
This production had a London based Producer, Director and team (Director Gareth Davies, Production Assistant John Glenister, Producer’s Assistant Britt King, and AFM me) but was otherwise supposed to be resourced by BBC Wales. There were political problems as BBC Wales, I think, felt slighted that Welsh production staff were not chosen. This led to some strange problems. Wales said they did not have an Armourer, so a London one was booked; neither party would accept responsibility for VFX, Wales said they couldn’t supply Make Up Assistants but then did for the studio recording (in an old chapel in Cardiff); though I filled in ever so many BBC forms nobody did the prop Graphics and I ended up making them all myself in trying circumstances during the Studio recording.
John Glenister and I did a recce of locations and possible places to stay near Swansea where we were to record with the Welsh OB Unit. It was quite rare at this time for Drama to be done on location with video cameras, not least because they were huge, unwieldy and tied to thick cables back to a large control van. During a coffee break and review of notes, I noticed some pony-trekking horses not far away, and remarked idly that Western horses were far more likely to look like these than the beautiful animals usually seen. We went to the Post Office (village post people know everything) and asked where they came from “Oh, he’s just left, you’ll catch him if you hurry” Outside, by a van, stood a man about the same size as our star (Hywel Bennett) dressed in a cowboy hat and fringed buckskins. He had western style saddles and was quite happy to supply a horse trained not to spook at gunfire and to ride as a double. How much would he charge per day we enquired “How about £20?” he suggested. We could hardly believe our luck.
The rehearsals were in a dismal TA Hall in a remote part of Wandsworth, so I was grateful that I had to escort a real gun, locked in a box, from TC to there in a taxi so Hywel could practise his quick draw and much twirling of the gun in front of a mirror. The studio recording included some of the fantasy sequences, in one of them Hywel was supposed to come in through the swing doors of a saloon and shoot up the bottles behind the bar. Having no VFX (see above) this was done by the Armourer, who fired real bullets at real bottles full of coloured water. I can’t think how many safety rules must have been broken along with the bottles.
The location work followed the studio recording; when I wanted to check the location props I discovered that no-one had sorted out and packed these either, so I commandeered a drape skip and did it myself.
The opening shot of the play showed a newspaper blowing down the street like tumbleweed, something newspapers are not keen to do. I fixed a balloon within the paper and tugged it along using fine fishing line; hooked around the finger of one of the scene crew who let go on cue so that the paper jumped out of shot around the corner. It took a couple of takes but eventually looked fine.
The Welsh OB crew, more used to sport than Drama, initially found it hard not to pan with anything that moved, but once they learned to let actors leave shot, they were good and very keen. They also had one of the first hand held Video cameras, an Ikigami known as creepy-peepy. This could be perched on the cameraman’s shoulder but was still attached by cable. The final sequence involved Hywel being shot on the roof of the Swansea Ice & Cold Store, and falling into the water tank. The Ikigami man waded very bravely in the water considering all that electricity on his shoulder, and Hywel was lifted by a Fire Brigade Crane down to the ground. He, equally bravely, did all his own stunts except for the riding.
Our Western fan rider galloped cheerfully up to the top of a slag heap for one shot. We had no idea how dangerous this was; it was only a few weeks before the Aberfan disaster. We had recorded a real Welsh Newsreader reporting the murder in the story, and this had to be redone in London as before transmission the Welsh Newsreader had become very well known nationally due to Aberfan, and it was considered insensitive to use him in a work of fiction. The cacti we planted on a large beach near Swansea (to make it look like the desert) had to be left there as the crew, badly wounded by thorns while setting up, refused to touch them again and pointed out that the salt would probably kill the cacti anyway.
The studio material was recorded down the line to London on to film to be edited and dubbed, video editing was still done by razor and tape and could not cope with Dennis’s already sophisticated overlapping. On my return to London, I went into the production office to find the PA Britt white faced with terror. She had assumed the tapes of the location OB would have gone back to Cardiff and thence to the basement of TC, also to be transferred to film. They were not at TC, nor Cardiff, the OB crew had gone straight off into the hills to record Songs of Praise somewhere. Britt was so afraid that hymns would be recorded over a precious week’s work she had the Unit chased by Police on motorcycles. Because the post production was on film, most people have always thought this was a film, it says much for the quality of the video work in often difficult situations that it convinces as film.
The Swansea Ice & Cold Store had a lovely sign announcing itself. On the day of the night shoot there, it was discovered that the OB cables would not reach far enough around the building, so the scene crew made a wooden sign and the sign-writer for the local cinema did the graphic, we hauled this makeshift effort six stories up the back of the building with sisal string, then tied it off and the Design Assistant did his best to spray paint the string to match the building. A real crowd, alerted by an article in the local paper, came to see the final scenes, which included the armourer firing another real bullet to hit a chimney pot. Luckily he was a good shot and the chimney pot was the only casualty.
Looking back, it seems amazing that we did all this with such a tiny crew. There was no Location Manager, no second AFM and on location not even a Floor Assistant. After a studio recording and a whole week of floor managing the OB, John lost his voice completely on the last night and I had to floor manage the final sequences with a silent PA hovering near me and looking close to fainting.
We were all so tired by the end, I don’t even remember how I got back to London.
2. THE TIME WARRIOR - a location story.
WANTED Medieval castle in good condition, with drawbridge, moat, in hilltop situation surrounded by forest.
In the 1970s production teams were small; a Director, his Assistant, Production Assistant, and Assistant Floor Manager. Part of the Production Assistant’s job was to find and organise film locations, which had to be approved by the Director and the Designer.
Unusually for Doctor Who we sat down in the office to a completed script so I knew what was required. At this time The National Trust was not very keen on filming, charged fees well beyond BBC budgets, and was often open to the public. Having only 2 or 3 weeks to set up, as well as the other parts of the job, I couldn’t tour the castles of England and started off with books; Pevsner’s Guides, Books about castles, and references in magazines. It quickly became clear that suitably ancient buildings are either in ruins or have been developed over the centuries and now boast large Elizabethan windows or fancy chimneys we hadn’t the money to hide. Many are surrounded not by forests but modern towns (even if out of vision, easily within earshot); very few have moats and drawbridges.
I managed to look at some; Stokesay was too big, surrounded by flat scrubby land and within earshot of a motorway. Maxstoke near Coventry looked good from the outside: forest, moat, complete set of battlements and no chimneys. Alas! Inside was a huge, pristine lawn and a lovely half- timbered house. Maidstone turned out to be a monastery – for one glorious, giddy moment I considered signing the entire cast and crew in for a Religious Retreat, solving accommodation and catering problems at a stroke. This one, unfortunately, was surrounded by too much of Maidstone.
By this time I was studying Victorian Follies. I had a long conversation with a nice man from the Department of the Environment about Castell Coch near Cardiff, it fulfilled all the requirements (although its moat was dry) and if it was good enough for Roman Polanski’s Macbeth…….. It was however, covered in scaffolding and though this was due to be removed just before our dates it was, we agreed, too much of a risk given builders’ habits.
I was beginning to feel I couldn’t succeed in this task. It was somehow MY FAULT that the castle couldn’t be found. One night, dispiritedly ploughing through a book on Architectural Follies, I found a reference to the castle of Peckforton, a Victorian fake ‘ so authentic as to be virtually uninhabitable’ said the book, adding sniffily that it was let down by its machine cut stone. There was no photo. The BBC Reference Library found some pictures so old the castle loomed out of a sepia gloom but it looked sufficiently promising that I contacted the Designer (Keith Cheetham), we caught a train to Crewe and drove in a hired car to the castle. There it was, on top of a hill, surrounded by a forest, with a partial (dry) moat, splendid battlements and a courtyard just the right size with only a couple of slate roofed garages needing disguise, (netting covered with straw did the trick).
We thought we might not survive to see the shoot, as we admired the castle an Irish wolfhound the size of a pony charged towards us barking furiously, followed by its American owner, shouting for it to stop. It halted about three feet away, slavering. The American lady was a tenant in a flat within the castle, which belonged at that time to the Tollemache Estate (it is now a posh hotel with a website www.peckforton.co.uk)
Finding a location is just the start. In this case, as well as Designer and Director approval, the Tollemache estate had to be persuaded to allow filming – they had had a bad experience with a feature film whose crew had galloped horses over the lawn and behaved very badly. Luckily for Doctor Who, a BBC crew had shot at another Tollemache property and behaved impeccably.
Next, a fee had to be agreed, a contract drawn up by BBC Facilities (briefed by me), and the detailed organisation fixed. For example, the arch over the main gate to the estate was far too low for a lorry, so a farmer with a tractor and trailer would be needed to ferry the scenery and props to the locations within.
The Fire Brigade and Police always need to know about guns, explosions or fires otherwise reports from the public can provoke a full-scale emergency response, with sirens, arriving in the middle of a shot.
Accommodation had to be found for the cast, Director, Production team, Design, Costume and Makeup staff, and a Stunt arranger. The rest of the crew usually found their own but in the nearest small town of Nantwich this wasn’t easy. I drove around with the AFM, getting her to note every B&B she saw, we also combed the Local Phone Book checking availability for our dates and issued a list to anyone who needed it.
Luckily the main hotel had a ballroom which I hired for Costume and Makeup space, this worked well except for the day a horde of male Extras, already ripping off their medieval costumes, charged into the ballroom to find a rather decorous Ladies’ Fitness Class in progress.
It is usual to contact the RAF (with accurate Ordnance Survey Co-ordinates) to ask them to avoid low flying (or any flying) over the location. Sometimes a medically qualified person must be on location. Acrojacks for fragile floors, detours for heavy vehicles…..there’s no end to the minor things to be considered. There are also major needs such as Caterers and Loos. People sometimes wonder why film units have Caterers rather than going to nearby restaurants. Firstly, meal breaks are not more than an hour, there may be not so much as a greasy spoon within miles and even if there is they can’t cope with fifty – eighty people all at once. Secondly, meals are often eaten at very odd times, and there is the further problem of people in costume or with green faces and purple hair, not popular in country spots.
The unexpected can still catch one out. I once had to send for an Apiarist when a massive swarm of bees settled on a tree (in another castle) we had siege and battle scenes which I thought might enrage the bees. The beekeeper caught the swarm and carried it away in a box, so pleased he never sent a bill.
Transport is another concern, and always costs more than one expects. For this shoot, we had a bus which collected Extras (booking these was another of my tasks) from Manchester, and a minibus for the Actors (those who didn’t insist on using their own cars) which then acted as a shuttle from the gates to the castle. Neither the bus nor the Caterers could get under the archway. Parking is a problem at many locations; Lighting trucks, generator, propvan, Costume van, Makeup Caravan, Camera Car, sound Car, Visual Effects, Armourer, Horsebox, and so on and on. I have known Location Managers who find the parking first and then look for a location nearby.
The Estate Manager was very anxious that no members of the public be admitted. I didn’t want them either and was horrified when a coachload of children arrived one day, organised by the American tenant who had a child at a local school. Health & Safety is another responsibility of the Production Assistant. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was up on the battlements and I had visions of children plummeting from the towers. Luckily Kevin Lindsay (Linx) in full costume including his alarming potato head was prepared to act as a diversion. Children spring up out of the ground wherever Doctor Who appears but they don’t usually arrive by the coachload. I had instructed the AFM to be equipped with a huge bag of very sticky toffees (standard practice!), these could be deployed to silence the mob during takes. The Estate Manager, though not pleased, accepted that this invasion was not my fault. As the PA (later PM) I tended to feel responsible for everything – I’d feel guilty if it rained.
Doctor Who’s small budget meant that we had only four days shooting (one per episode) so the time had to be used as efficiently as possible. Day one was to begin with the Tardis, materialising and dematerialising, this required six scene-crew but only three artists. My idea was that while we shot this the actors required to ride could meet their horses and the Design Crew could build the Spaceship. The propvan and the tractor-and-trailer arrived outside the gate, I took the Scene Supervisor up the drive to show him where to site the Tardis, and returned to find everyone looking sheepish.
The Tardis was not on the van. It had been left behind in London and the whole of my carefully planned day fell to bits before me.
This being the days before mobile phones, I sent someone to telephone for a van to bring the Tardis, unfortunately the real thing does not materialise by itself, and I asked the Designer how fast he could build a spaceship? He and the crew managed it in 45 minutes. We shot the Tardis Scenes the following day and somehow managed to complete within the four days. One of the scene-crew said to me he had considered complaining about how hard they were being made to work, until he saw the Lighting Cameraman (Max Samett) running to the next set-up.
Filming completed, the location has to be cleared, tidied up and cleaned if necessary. Any damage has to be agreed and made good (sometimes these arguments go on for years) It is also important to thank people – small gifts may be appropriate (I bought the Estate Manager a bottle of Whiskey and, briefed by him, a big bag of petit-fours for his secretary) You never know whether you, or another unit may need the location again.
As someone said, we could have used interiors and filmed almost the whole story in the castle; but this would have been too expensive, so the rest of the story was recorded at Television Centre.
3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy/ Smiley’s People
In the novel, the Ricki Tarr story is set in Hong Kong. The cost of flying even a small unit there and back was so high I asked the Producer (Jonathan Powell) if the author (John le Carre) would consider an alternative somewhat nearer and less expensive. By this time, Le Carre had written The Honourable Schoolboy, mostly set in Hong Kong and was quite pleased to move the story. He gave us a list of acceptable places and we eventually settled on Lisbon, which also had a prison suitable for the meeting between Smiley and Karla in India long ago.
Karla said nothing in the scene, but needed to be played by a very good actor, with a strong screen presence, but not so well known that the audience would say, Oh, him again. Patrick Stewart, well known in the theatre but not then on screen, was mooted; alas, he could not go to Lisbon due to his commitments at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The actor chosen instead became ill and was unable to go to Lisbon during the shoot, but due to bad weather filming was already behind schedule and the scene was rescheduled to the UK, where a suitable location proved impossible to find. Eventually I suggested we build a set at the BBC’s Ealing film Studios.
Austin Spriggs, the designer, hated sets and turned purple at the prospect, but accepted the idea, his Assistant did the drawings and we booked a day on Stage 2.
Meanwhile, the RSC was playing its London season at the Aldwych, so we could have Patrick Stewart for the day and he could play Karla, which he did very well. It is no small task to stay silent and faintly menacing in the face of a major actor such as Sir Alec Guinness.
The Lighting Cameraman (Tony Pierce Roberts) was greatly helped by having the full resources and space for studio lighting, as Smiley was supposed to be twenty years younger.
For Tinker Tailor, we used Glasgow as Brno (helped by a former inhabitant then working for The World Service who was shown pictures of the Gorbals (a formerly slum area largely rebuilt with grim council blocks) and told us if they would pass as Brno).
For Smiley’s People, we used real locations for exteriors and some interiors as well.
We filmed in Paris, in Germany and In Switzerland, and originally planned to film the crossing of Karla to the West actually in Berlin. This was, however, before the removal of the wall and the political situation was tense, so it was decided to do this sequence in the UK. A suitable bridge was found in Nottingham. The Council and the Police agreed that we could close the bridge at night (though on one night, only after the away fans from some football match had been escorted over it to the station). Once closed, we could rig up machine gun towers, tank traps, barbed wire, our own street lights and crossing gates.
House boats normally moored near the bridge were moved and continental cobbles laid on some muddy ground under the ‘Western’ end of the bridge. An entire lighting crew and a generator were used to light up a graphics sign (I think on a refuse incinerator) suggesting it was the Eastern Berlin Electric Company. Most of the drama was contained in a series of will he/won’t he come scenes, the script called for a little figure to be seen, at last, crossing the bridge.
This was meant to be an Extra (now known as Supporting Artist) but it occurred to me that Nottingham was not all that far from Stratford and that Patrick was there with the RSC……
So he was collected from the theatre after a performance and walked over the bridge for us; because it was him, the Director (Simon Langton) could get closer and have better shots of the last moments of the film.
I’ve always liked this story for the way it shows that fate moves in mysterious ways, and sometimes, if rarely, for the best.