Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Astoria Refurbishment Well On Target...

Whilst on my (very) brief visit to London on Monday, I was delighted to see the ongoing improvement work to one of the best venues in London, The Astoria..... Ugh


(taken from almost the exact same spot on Monday):

Renovation: (Workmen painstakingly dismantle and preserve the
original features of the 80+ year old Astoria)

Look how odd the corner of Tottenham Court\
Charring Cross and Oxford Street looks these days
(taken from outside the Dominion Theatre, on the other side of the road):

Still, I can't wait to try out the new train station.....


Monday, 24 May 2010

One Of Those Days...

On the 18th March I received an e-mail from a mate that quite literally stopped me in my tracks.... Just about my all time favourite comic book writer and artist Dan Clowes was coming over from the US of A to do a signing at my favourite comic shop, 'Gosh!' in London on 24th May. This was to promote his new book 'Wilson', which is his first new piece of work in over 6 years. I honestly couldn't believe it... I booked the day off work there and then. The date has been in the schedule ever since and I've been looking forward to it for weeks... almost counting the days, I never thought I'd get a chance to meet this man.

Today the date finally arrived, and after spending 20 quid on travel I set off for London with a few heavy books in my bag, just in case there was a chance of getting any extra signatures. I arrived at the shop at 11.50 only to find out ........... it's now tomorrow.

The member of staff behind the counter was perplexed as to how I had picked up on the date, although admitted that others had turned up today too. They may be disassociating themselves with it now, but the shop were definitely advertising this date (at one point at least). I was told this date by a member of staff on my last visit to the shop, and I even still have an e-mail from a member of staff stating the 24th.
They guy never really got the gravity of my predicament though, and just portrayed a 'no harm done, pop back tomorrow' type approach, as though everyone who walks through the door is only ever a stones throw away anyway. He didn't seem to grasp my situation as I desperately asked him if it would be possible to at least get a book signed for me tomorrow. He told me he couldn't do it - but to be honest, under the circumstances that would have been a consolation prize at best anyway, as I was really keen to meet Dan Clowes.

I rarely get to London these days, but always end up spending way too much money in Gosh! when I do. However I was so gutted today when I was told this, that I didn't have the heart to peruse, I simply walked out and set off for home - Just five minutes after finishing my 2 hour journey in, I set off on my 2 hour journey home... the bag feeling that much heavier on the return leg.

I appreciate that this was partly my fault, and why I didn't re-check the date beforehand I'll never know. I could just have easily have booked tomorrow off instead of today, but not now. I'm really annoyed to have taken all the time, trouble and expense to attend this event and still be missing out....

Absolutely gutted.

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE!!!! Tuesday 25th May 2010
I've been contacted by Gosh! today, and I've been really impressed at their swift reply, sincerity of apology and offer to help. I got a full and frank answer as to what happened.... They confirmed that yes, originally, the signing was given the Monday slot, but this was later changed to Tuesday to fit around other events the sponsors had planned. They informed me that although they made a financial contribution to the costs of the visit, in no way were they able to call the shots, so they just have to take what was given. I was told that despite what I was told on the day, they would be making sure that I get a consolation prize of a signed copy of Dan’s new book in post, and one or two other goodies as well.
Short of delivering Mr Clowes to the door of Piley Towers to shake me by the hand, I don't think Gosh! could have done any more to try and salvage something from this episode. I think it reflects well on them, and you know many others would not even bother to even reply. I really appreciated the offer, and it did manage to lift the gloom that's been hanging round for the last day!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Stephen Pickard: Chapter Three - Pinewood

It's time for another fascinating trip behind the camera with our friend on the inside, Stephen Pickard. This post is the first of a two-parter, capturing his 6 years spent at Pinewood. Read on for tales from a classic era of British film making. Stephen has also kindly provided me with a few bits of memorabilia....

Of the six or so years that I was an employee at Pinewood Studios, there are a few memories that I treasure the most....

In the autumn of 1968, the studio opened the new luxury viewing facility Theatre 7. This theatre could handle all the basic film formats 16, 35 and 70mm. I was fortunate to be chosen to be the third member of the projection staff. We ran a lot of 'dailies' or 'rushes' (footage that is shot the day before and shown to the director the following day). We would normally show them twice, in the morning would be the 'executive dailies' for the producers and in the evening for the director, crew and actors.

I was a big Bond fan at the time and the prospect of working at the studio where they were made was pretty exciting. Of all the people that worked on Bond, the one person that I was eager to meet was the editor, Peter Hunt. The Bond films were going through some changes at the time, the major one being that Sean Connery had just quit playing the lead. This was Hunt's first assignment as director, having edited all the previous ones and some 2nd unit direction. I remember when I encountered Peter Hunt for the first time. A voice came over the talkback in the projection room from the auditorium, "I believe you have some film to run for 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'". On one occasion Peter Hunt invited me down to the auditorium to watch a 'rough cut' of the pre-credit sequence. The titles themselves had not been made (Maurice Binder) and there was just a still shot of the title with James Bond 007 on the screen accompanied on the soundtrack, by the 'James Bond Theme'.

I witnessed several sets under construction on "OHMSS" including the 'casino' set and Blofeld's laboratory which I think was on Pinewood's then largest stage 'E'. This same large stage had previously housed the interior of Fort Knox for 'Goldfinger'!

When we were not busy I would wander around the studio and visit the various sound stages that were shooting or had sets under construction. They were identified by the production title on the heavy sound-proof doors. Once inside the first door you were in a small enclosed space with another similar door in front of you. This ensured that no unwanted outside sounds would enter the shooting area. There was also a red warning light that came on accompanied by a bell when shooting was about to commence warning you not to attempt to enter. Also there were locks on the doors. Often I would get trapped in the small area between the two doors and would have to wait to the end of the take so I could get out!

Here is a picture of Stephen at Pinewood in the seventies with a guest he was showing around. Stephen tells me that behind him is a large shooting stage door. At one stage, this door was painted red and used as the fire station building in "Fahrenheit 451".

Pinewood had extensive grounds at the rear of the studio, known as the 'back-lot', where all the exterior sets are constructed. The most memorable sets that I recall were the the 'city of Loudon'. This was a massive set that had a large cathedral at one end and a wall and other small buildings constructed in a circular fashion all in white. This was for Ken Russell's film "The Devils". The other set was the 'Baker Street' set for Billy Wilder's "Private Life of Sherlock Holmes". Unlike many sets that are 'struck' or destroyed after the film has finished shooting, this set sat around for several years and was utilised on several Pinewood productions such as the 'Carry On's and the Hammer film "Hands of the Ripper". Eventually, due to several of Britain's severe winters. the set was torn down. Unlike Hollywood studios where the climate is more even and hot. Outdoor sets can last for decades.

The 'Baker Street' set from "Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" is seen here utilised in Carry On At Your Convenience!

In October, 1969 I moved into Theatre 5 as a 'boom assistant'. This is the area where sound effects and voice recording is done. I worked in this theatre up until early 1974. During that time I was involved with virtually every film that came through the studio, including a few 'outside' productions. One example which stands out was Sergei Bondarchuk's epic of Napoleon, "Waterloo". The majority of the sound had to be re-recorded. It took many weeks to do all the sound effects. To add to this the film was to be a stereo soundtrack so the footsteps had to be recorded in a certain fashion. First the left channel, then the centre and right. Then we would have to do footsteps that were in foreground and background, which was the case with all films. When It came to do the dialogue, the two actors that took the most time and spent many days in the theatre were Christopher Plummer and Rod Steiger.

Actors, generally, do not like voice recording sessions, which is known under various names as 'looping', 'post-synch' and 'ADR' (automated dialogue replacement). When an actor or actress is on a set they are reacting to the other actor and their dialogue is recorded. This is known as 'production sound'. Normally much of this recorded sound is salvaged and used for the final soundtrack. There are several exceptions, extraneous noises on location, or unwanted overlapping dialogue (which is usually caught by the 'production mixer' and is recorded at the end of the scene and is known as a 'wild track'). There are other reasons, which are a little more major, such as a poor performance and even more extreme where they have to replace the actor's voice altogether (known as re-voicing). The most well-known person in this area is probably Robert Rietty. Robert was the supervisor of the extensive recording of voices on "Waterloo". By then he had become well known as a voice-only artiste despite the fact he has been seen frequently in small parts in films and tv shows since the 1950's. He was very nice person to know and very easy to work with. We used him many times during the time that I worked there. I would say his female equivalent would be Nikki Van Der Zyl.

When we recorded voices I would be sitting behind a desk in the auditorium with the actors with a log of the scenes in front of me. I would also have control of the level of the original production sound that the actor would watch and listen to to learn the rhythm of the recorded dialogue, then when they signaled that they were ready, I would re-route the audio to a headphone. The actor then looked at the screen and when a cue hit the screen (known as a 'wipe'), their dialogue was recorded. There are several important factors to consider; First the actor is standing in front of a microphone, sometimes on a cold and rainy Monday morning. The scene he\she is recording could be outside on a sunny day. When an actor is outside they instinctively project their voice according to the acoustical conditions surrounding them and the distance the other person is away from them. The actor has to forget that he or she is in a theatre and adjust their voice accordingly. Some actors could do this very, but many could not. It was because of this (and various acoustic technical details) that voice recording rarely worked. We were very aware of the shortcomings of the process and the crew, myself and the mixer made a lot of effort to make the actors feel comfortable and also to educate them on the process which was new to many actors. Many actors were very cranky, and this was not the best light to see them in, but we tried to understand this and were rewarded with meeting some very famous people.

On one occasion Lord Laurence Olivier came into the theatre to do some voice recording as Wellington for Robert Bolt's only directed film "Lady Caroline Lamb". Olivier was filming "Sleuth" at the time and he was only available in the evening, which was overtime for us. The production provided food for us from the cafeteria. Olivier was provided with classy salmon sandwiches from an outside caterer. When we took a break to eat, Olivier invited several of us to partake of one of his sandwiches. Nobody accepted, I was quick to realise that it was his way of breaking the ice in an attempt to make everybody comfortable. So I was the only one that accepted and I think he appreciated it.
It was very interesting to watch and listen to two talents discuss the motivation of the scene. Robert Bolt was a delightful, friendly easy person to work with and I got to know him very well and often we would bring up the discussion of David Lean. Robert was also very enthusiastic and expressive in his manner and at one point they almost crossed swords! Olivier briefly raised his classic voice and then quickly brought it under control. This was enough to make Robert realise that he had to back off slightly!

During this time I was promoted to Boom Operator and it was my job to set the microphone at the correct perspective. I had to look at the screen to firstly tell if the scene was outside or inside. We had along the walls these tall swivelling panels. One side was a hard reflective surface to reflect the sound for interiors.The other side was of a sound acoustical substance to help absorb the sound for exterior scenes.

It was during this time that Sean Connery came into the theatre to do voice recording for "Diamonds Are Forever". As the film was still shooting on the stages, we onle had Sean when he was available from the set. When he arrived he was 'in character' and was dressed in his traditional black suit, white shirt and bow tie. He was in good spirits and greeted everybody by name, except for me, as everybody else in our crew knew Sean from way back, probably before "Dr. No", possibly as far back as "Hell Drivers" in '57/8. Of the brief conversation I had with him he was very pleasant. During a break I had to show him the location of the men's bathroom! When we reached the hall we were stopped by a publicity girl who wanted a few words with him and after she left I made a remark to him that you couldn't get any peace even to go to the bathroom!

Here is a call-sheet for Diamond Are Forever, from Stephen's personal collection.

Sean came by one more time, as there was some dialogue, just a line or two, that was overlooked that needed to be recorded. Initially, they thought rather than bring Sean back, probably at great expense as he had finished on the film, they would atempted to record the lines with another actor (Robert Rietty). As talented as Robert was, he could not quite capture the quality of Sean's voice plus the fact that Robert's dialogue had to interact with Sean's. Eventually Sean returned, relaxed and refreshed, smiling at everybody, (this time including me!) and recorded the lines without a problem. At one point when we paused between recordings, I asked Sean what the status of the release of his film "The Red Tent" was. I recall he had made the film sometime ago and there was a delay in it's release. He said he didn't know. I saw him one last time, much later, in the US leaving the Beverly Hills Hotel and he smiled and nodded at me as he left, leaving me to think that he might just have recognised me!

Here's a fabulous shot, again from Stephen's private collection - This one is of John Barry recording the soundtrack to Diamonds Are Forever..... Stephen can be seen in the shot on the far right hand side!

There were many nerve-racking occasions when I would have to move the microphone on an actor during a line of dialogue where they would be speaking at a normal level and then change to a whisper. The microphone boom was the old-fashioned type made by Mole-Richardson, the newer light-weight ones used at the time were made by Fisher. I had to carefully manoeuvre the microphone close to their lips, sometimes as close as an inch. I recall that I had to do this with Sarah Miles, with her husband Robert Bolt in attendance, and I can say with much relief that I did not have an accident! This was also on "Lady Caroline Lamb". There were moments when she would raise her voice, she played a very highly-strung character in the film, and when an actress raises her voice and screams you have to be ready for it. Normally you are fore-warned. I had to extend the microphone arm and put what is known as 'edge' on the microphone which means to swivel the microphone a few degrees away from the direct line of the voice so that it can be recorded properly without distortion. On several occasions we had to work weekends and when it came around to lunch time, the studio restaurant was closed, we invariably piled into several cars and went to a local pub for lunch. On one occasion, Robert Bolt, Richard Chamberlain and our small crew all had lunch together. I sat next to Chamberlain and had a very nice conversation on how he made 'Dr. Kildare' at MGM in Culver City.

There was a lot of 'down-time' so I was able to wander for periods at a time. "The Devils" was one production that closed the stages to outsiders, including myself, as there was a lot of nudity involved. I recall that the Pinewood management weren't too happy what was rumored to be going on behind locked doors!

Very often at lunchtime I would go to the bar for a drink and would take a short-cut through the Restaurant, and often recognise actors and actresses' faces as I passed through. The bar was likewise filled with actors, directors and producers. On one occasion I went out into the gardens, accessible through the doors of the bar, and ahead of me leaning against a rail was Oliver Reed 'in character' as Father Grandier in "The Devils". What gave me courage I'll never know, probably my youth, but I went over and introduced myself. He looked up when I spoke and when I mentioned that we had had previously met at the Odeon, Elephant and Castle in 1967 he retorted "I remember you" in a somewhat cold voice! Next, I brought up the subject of Ken Russell's last film "The Music Lovers" which was yet to be released and was rumoured to be having problems with the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) that might affect it's release. At that point, Oliver growled back "Why Shouldn't It!" I did not know how to respond but recall that I said that I hoped it would. I thanked him for his time and left. Much later after the film had finished shooting I passed him coming out of the theatre, head shaved, and he was in a very jolly mood. He smiled and said a very warm hello. I watched him leave and, arm in arm with Ken Russell, they did a high-step dance as they approached Theatre 7!

I also went on the sets of "Carry On At Your Convenience" and "Up the Jungle" which was always fun to watch the professionals at work. It was interesting to watch how director Gerald Thomas behaved with the cast. He behaved like a father to them. After all, many members of the cast had worked together for thirteen to fourteen years since "Carry on Sergeant" in 1958, and were like a family. If one of the cast mis-behaved, which happened while I was there, he would discipline them like a teacher would a pupil.

One interesting experience I had at Pinewood was the day I projected the editor's color work print of "The Chairman" (Gregory Peck & Anne Heywood) for composer Jerry Goldmith. My first sight of him was when I was looking through the portglass into the auditorium. All of a sudden a smiling face appeared right in front of me, it was Jerry. The rear row of seats are right up against the back wall and when you stand up you can literally look through the portglass directly into the projection room. After the screening I went outside and introduced myself. I also asked him what the chances were of attending the scoring sessions. Fortunately for me he said yes! I think the recording sessions had just started and were to continue through the following few weekends at Shepperton Studios. So I made my way over to Shepperton, which was a tough place to get to when you don't have a car. This was my first time attending a scoring session (February '69) and it was a thrilling experience. At the end of the day I asked Jerry if I could bring my parents the next weekend and he agreed.
This was the time when they recorded the main title and some of the visitors attending were J. Lee Thomson and another person who closely resembled Hugo Friedhofer (I never did find out if it was him!) At breaks we would go outside and have tea and scones and chat with the musicians. My Father had a conversation with the pianist. When we went back inside the pianist started playing Rachmaninov. This was my Father's favorite composer, his name must have come up in their conversation. At the end of the day my parents and I went up to the podium to speak to Jerry. I introduced my parents to him and thanked him for allowing us to attend. We also met Joel, Jerry's son, who was just a young kid back then. Some days later I met the music editor, Thelma Orr. She used to be a continuity girl years before. She very kindly gave me a souvenir of the occasion, a quarter inch tape of some of the cues in mono.
Yet again, another facinating chapter. A very big thank you to Stephen for taking the time and trouble to write down his memories for us to read. Part two of the Pinewood years is coming soon, don't miss it!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Psychopaths Cyclepath

Bloody hell, I've been trying for years to get those two words in the same sentence!!

My love for Southend council is well known, but isn't it wonderful that even with my low opinion of them, they still strive to dip further in my estimations! Currently the council are car parking crazy... having in one fail swoop stopped just about every 'free' roadside parking space that was left in town. All of these spots have now been converted into 'permit holder' only spaces... roads and roads of 'em. And to be honest, I'm not sure if anyone has actually got one of these 'permits', because just about every space now seems permanently empty day and night. Still, you can of course park in the council car parks instead, a bargain at £10 a day.
This permit scheme remains in force on Saturdays too, thus ensuring the council are doing everything they can to attract much needed shoppers to the area. This will be the same council who will be scratching their heads in the near future saying they just can't understand why everyone is going to the nearby Lakeside shopping centre with its 13,000 FREE parking spaces....

But this isn't my reason for blogging.... The council must have bought a job lot of paint to mark out all these permit holder parking spaces, and with a few tins left over decided to scrawl a few cycle lanes in the town. Very commendable I hear you cry, just the thing to encourage people to be green, get some exercise blah blah... But I'd wager that the person who designed this particular cycle lane that sprung up a couple of weeks ago has never ridden a bike in his or her life. How can I be so sure? Well would a cyclist design this:

Yes, roll-up, roll-up ladies and gents, try your luck in Death Ally. Successfully survive a whole week and win any prize off the top row. It must be like a game of Russian roulette, as you nervously pass each parked car, just waiting for the door that springs out and sends you 20 yards down the road (minus bike).
a brave cyclist tries his luck at this latest game of skill and chance.... will he make it to the end? I hear the makers of that Total Wipeout programme are considering using it in the next series.

Oddly I always used to think cycle lanes were devised to protect cyclists, not lure them into added danger! Isn't there supposed to be some sort of barrier between the two, or at least a gap? There is only parking on one side of this one-way street, and before this lane appeared, all the bikes were just in the inside of the road, which as you may just see in the pictures is all double yellow lines.... so the odd drain to contend with yes, but at least no spring-door in the face at any moment. Admittedly this road is fairly narrow, but if that was the problem, wouldn't someone with half a brain have just put the cycle lane on the OTHER side of the road, where there is no car parking??!

They have also just created a similar death-trap along part of Southend seafront too. Well done SBC, yet another example of an excellent spend of our council tax..


Friday, 7 May 2010

Film Festival Review

Wow! 10 days goes pretty quickly! It only seems a day or two ago that I was heralding the start of the Southend Film Festival, and now it's all over, with the closing films screening on Wednesday. By all accounts it was a great success, and everyone I've spoken to who went along has reported good turn outs at the events they attended. I managed to get along to both of the events I was particularly keen on....

The first half of 'Lets All Go To The Pictures In Southend' was a bit on the flabby side at times to be honest, but some real gems were lodged in between the (literally) hundreds of slide show pictures of local cinemas all now deceased. There was the screening of a number of old 50's, 60's and 70's cinema adverts (they did actually try to find the legendary 'Ere Burt, this is the place" for this night, but without success), video footage shot inside the Southend Odeon cinema just days before it was bulldozed (both fascinating and sad all at the same time), and some amazing video footage shot after the ABC cinema closed, where upon artifacts and original decor from over 70 years ago were found behind various walls and 'boxed off' rooms.

There was also a very interesting cinema short from the 'Look At Life' series made by Rank. These were 10 minute information films which ran in Odeon and Gaumont cinemas from 1959 until 1969. At the time they were no doubt viewed as no more than boring filler, but today they are a fabulous document of a time gone by. This chirpy little episode was all about London street markets and the new fangled supermarkets that were also starting to pop up. The whole thing was narrated by Sid James and it was one of the real highlights of the first half, yet I couldn't help thinking it seemed vaguely familiar. But how could it be? It played on my mind for the rest of the evening until it suddenly all fell into place the next day. Incredibly, with over 500 'Look At Life' episodes to chose from, fellow blogger Cocktails posted this very same short on her blog just over a year ago! Amazing! Why not pop over and view the whole film here.

The second half of this show was a pure unadulterated pleasure, as legendary local cinema manager Ron Stewart took to the stage. Ron is in his 80's now, and has retired to Hastings, but the organisers of the film festival were able to lure him down to his old patch to wallow in cinematic nostalgia just for old times sake. He was an absolute natural on stage, and held the audience captivated throughout with his fascinating memories. This man was a real maverick in his day, doing any and every thing to promote his cinema and upcoming films - he won many awards in his time for it too. Whilst watching him regale us with his tales, it struck me that Ron is almost certainly the type of man that the cinema industry would hate these days, in the world of faceless, carbon copy, multi-screen boredom, where you must blend in and are told what to show and when to show it. There was just too much to take in, but here's just a few of his stories that I remember:

Ron catching some children trying to bury their dead pet hamster in the grounds of the Classic Cinema. They tell him that they keep burying him in the garden at home but the dog keeps digging him up again! Ron explained that they couldn't really do that, but offered to pop the poor wee fella in the incinerator in the bowels of the cinema as a cremation! The kids agreed and were delighted with the send off (Ron even muttering a few words along the lines of "God bless out pet"!!). The children went off very happy, and the parents later come down to thank Ron, and say that it had really cheered the children up giving their pet a proper send off. Cue a steady stream of parents, kids and dead pets from then on! Classic quote of the night when Ron says rather sheepishly something along the lines of "there were so many at one point, I think the parent were killing 'em"!

Ron used to show the Rocky Horror Picture Show as a Friday late nighter every six weeks at the Classic cinema. I remember this well and went to it on numerous occasions. On these nights Ron used to open up a third toilet, one for him, one for her and one for him dressed as her!

Apparently there was a natural spring directly underneath the Classic cinema, with various contraptions within the building to keep the water at bay. During one Saturday morning children's show, the system broke down, and the cinema started to fill with water. As the auditorium was sloped, the 'screen end' was filling up quickly as was soon deep enough to jump in! The kids went crazy for it and were diving in from all angles! Ron said that all the dye was coming out of the plush carpet, and it turned all the kids red!

Playing a trick on a regular punter who always used to fall asleep. Ron got his staff to dress up as cleaners and push the hovers round the sleeping gents feet. Once he was awake they pretended it was 10.30 the next morning (rather than the 10.30pm that it actually was)... "my wife will kill me" he screamed, as he shot out the door!

An elderly couple visiting Ron when he was the manager of the Regal cinema in Rayleigh. The cinema was about to close for the last time, and the couple asked if they could have two specific seats. Alternative (and much easier to dismantle!) seats were offered, but they were adamant on the two selected... these were the seats that they had sat in on their first date, throughout their courtship and every other visit from then to the current day. To his eternal credit, Ron set to work unbolting the seats from the row, and eventually had separated them from the floor... Only for them to say "Can you bring them round to our house and fit them please?". He did too!

There was also a Q&A session with the audience, and during it, I finally got an answer to a question that I've pondered for years.... Look at these two pictures of the same cinema (there are some considerable decades between the two shots!):

I've always wondered what happened to that tall bit in the middle, and thought I'd see if Ron had the answer. He referred to it as "the fin", and said that because of its positioning, it took the brunt of the weather, and over the years it just became unsafe, so it had to be removed. Simple when you know!

The 'Ultimate Laurel and Hardy Picture Show' alas was a bit of a disappointment. It was all cued up to be the stuff of fairy tales... the very first function in the all new 'Laurel and Hardy Suite' (a conference room made up of the two rooms in which Stan and Ollie actually stayed in) of the recently refurbished Palace Hotel, was to be a Laurel and Hardy event. How perfect!
It was run, as I fully expected, by the local 'tent' of the fan club, the Saps at Sea. The room was heaving, and had completely sold out a good day or two beforehand. Whats more, this was also the date of the annual Laurel and Hardy convention (this year in Oxford), so the room was almost completely filled with casual fans rather than the already hardened converts of this parish. It was an ideal opportunity for the Saps to pick up some new recruits, but unfortunately the Ultimate Picture Show didn't quite deliver....
This should have been a 'go for the jugular' event, cherry picking 4 or 5 of the boys absolute classics, enabling the audience to enjoy (or maybe even discover) them as a group. But the fan club allowed themselves to be too self indulgent and proceeded to wheel out one banal oddity after another... An unwatchable 1930's Mickey Mouse cartoon that happens to briefly feature caricatures of Stan and Ollie, numerous foreign language trailers for their films, a collection of rather flat US newsreel features on one or both of the duo, and a mind-numbing array of adverts featuring people pretending to be Laurel and Hardy whilst trying to flog anything from pizza to windscreen wiper blades. A German cartoon advert for Fyffes bananas anyone??! (I'm NOT making this up!!) Even a Norman Wisdom advert was somehow shoehorned in to the proceedings because he was a 'friend' of the duo!! This material (and I fully appreciate how 'rare' much of it must be) was no doubt going down a storm 100 miles away in Oxford with the hardcore, but it missed the mark in Southend. In over 2 hours we got just 2 Laurel and Hardy 'shorts'... one silent and one talkie. The other hour and twenty minutes was largely forgettable, although there was a nice 5 minutes or so devoted to the time the lads visited Southend.

I've got a lot of time for the local fan club, they are a genuine bunch who want nothing more than to promote and preserve the memory of their heroes. But on this occasion, the temptation to 'showboat' meant they took their eye off the ball and perhaps lost sight of the likely target audience of the day. A missed opportunity to showcase the boys in their best light to potential new fans.
On the plus side though, it was a great opportunity to have a good look at the recently refurbished and re-opened Palace Hotel (now called the Park Inn). The Laurel and Hardy conference suite is really nice, and has been subtly decked out with tributes to the boys. But the best bit is that after 8 years of kicking around the town without a proper home, the Laurel and Hardy blue plaque (unveiled by Sir John Mills back in 2002), finally has a permanent location... pride of place in the foyer. Top work Park Inn.

I also managed to visit the event running in Southend High Street over the weekend, showcasing a few classic cars from Film and TV (although I'd wager that none of the cars on display had ever seen a film set in their lives!). Still, for what it's worth it was good to see 'a' Starsky and Hutch Gran Torino, 'a' Dukes of Hazard Dodge Charger 'General Lee', 'a' Greased Lightening and 'a' Herbie. And here they all are....


Saturday, 1 May 2010

Holiday Snaps: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon?

Last week we upped sticks for 7 days down in Devon, and boy were we lucky with the weather...
There was much picturesque site-seeing to be had, but it was whilst out on a day trip to Torquay that I got all proper excited as we happened to drive past this very ordinary looking hotel...

This is the legendary Gleneagles Hotel, where in May 1970 the Monty Python team stayed whilst filming in the area. At that time the hotel was run and owned by Donald Sinclair and his wife Beatrice.

There was a great 'South West' episode of the wonderful 'Comedy Map of Britain' TV programme a few years back (oddly, I've caught this very episode at least twice this year whilst flicking through the satelite channels), and they dedicated some time to the Gleneagles Hotel, and the odd behavior of its manager. Stories include Sinclair throwing a bus timetable at a guest who dared to ask when the next one to town was, verbally abusing Terry Gilliam because his table etiquette "wasn't British", and the famous chucking of Eric Idle's suitcase over a wall because Mr Sinclair thought it might have contained a bomb!

Michael Palin's excellent book - "Diaries 1969-1979 - The Python Years" has a couple of entries in May 1970 relating to this episode. Palin notes that Sinclair "seemed to view us as a colossal inconvenience right from the start”, and goes on to say that when he and Graham Chapman decided to leave the hotel after just one night, the Sinclair's gave them a bill for two weeks! Chapman too wrote about the experience in his book "A Liar's Autobiography", where he described Sinclair as "completely round the twist, off his chump, out of his tree". Cleese has said of Sinclair that he was "the most marvellously rude man I've ever met".

Almost all of the Pythons checked out of the Gleneagles rather quickly, in favour the Imperial Hotel down the road. But John Cleese stayed on for weeks, and even invited his then wife Connie Booth to join him and marvel at their host.... and comedy gold was born!

The first series of Fawlty Towers was broadcast in 1975, however an early prototype of Basil Fawlty was actually aired several years earlier in 1971. John Cleese was a writer for the sitcom Doctor in the House, and in the the third series (which by then was titled Doctor at Large) one of the doctors checks in to a hotel, owned by a very aggressive and incompetent manager!

There's a clip of this Doctor at Large episode on YouTube, but the rotter has disabled embedding... but if you're keen to see a non-Cleese Basil Fawlty, click here.

A number of stories used in Fawlty Towers were based on second hand accounts of Sinclair. The episode The Builders was inspired by an incident involving several builders who had come to rebuild Sinclair's garden wall. Sinclair's berating of Terry Gilliam must have been the inspiration behind the Waldorf Salad episode. And the "we've had a bomb scare" moment in Basil the Rat must surely relate to poor old Eric Idle's suitcase! Oh and Sinclair really did employ cheap foreign labour too, many of whom suffered abusive treatment from him. And the coincidences don't stop there either, many years later, in the interminable film Rat Race, John Cleese plays an eccentric hotel owner called Donald Sinclair!

Donald Sinclair opened the Gleneagles in 1963 as fifteen self-contained holiday apartments. Sinclair was already well-established in the hotel business and had been running the Greenacres Hotel in Torquay since 1950. He sold the hotel in 1973 and moved to Florida with his family, where he eventually died in 1981, aged 72... But his hotel still lives on. In 2006 it was given a £1 million makeover and upgraded into the stylish boutique hotel it is today... Rather fittingly, Prunella Scales was invited along to re-open the building.

However the Gleneagles is not the building shown in the opening titles of Fawlty Towers, as many think... in fact none of the programme was ever filmed in Torquay. Those opening credits show Wooburn Grange Country Club at Bourne End in Buckinghamshire (which was alas demolished in the early 1990's).

Oh and guess who's voice was merrily chirping away on my Tom-Tom as we drove past the Gleneagles, yup John Cleese! Weird!