I was very sad to learn to learn of Dudley Sutton’s recent passing — not only was he a great character actor, but a generous man who appeared in my first proper short film in 1990 for almost no money, traveling to Edinburgh without even being sure how we were going to put him up. (It was OK, we had a self-catering flat for him.)

I met him — I remember this being on the street, not in the station, so I don’t know how we arranged that. “I’m so glad to be back in the People’s Republic of Scotland,” he began, “Because here, you not only SAY you don’t vote for her, you DON’T vote for her.” (At the time, Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative party had hardly any seats in Scotland.)

He was pleased to hear I was both writer and director: “Good, you’ll know what you want.” (But I was a first-timer, so that wasn’t quite true.)

The film was based on an authentic medieval comic tale — the only funny one, ever — THE THREE HUNCHBACKS. Dud played the fourth hunchback, the main one. We had worked out how to assemble medieval garb for our ridiculously large cast of characters, borrowing the best bits from Biggar Theatre Workshop and Edinburgh College of Art’s much-missed costume nook. The impossible bit was medieval shoes, but I had a plan. As I wasn’t shooting closeups of feet, we would only ever see them in wide, full-figure shots, and on 16mm there wouldn’t be much detail. So the actors would wear normal shoes, with socks pulled over them to add bright colour. Cardboard “buckles” painted silver would be taped to the socks, and the toes would be filled with cardboard cones to make them pointy in that Robin Hood style. Dud didn’t blink an eye at all this.

The first morning was chaos. I lost my binder with all my storyboards and was wandering around the various vehicles (we had a minibus and a car, at least, and about a ninety minute drive to the location) asking for it. “That’s the director?” Dud asked, apparently. “Welcome to the house of pain, Dud,” said the AD.

(Later, the cinematographer would observe me standing in a field in long hair, long coat, long scarf and wellingtons, and remark, “Oh my God, Christopher Robin’s directing the film.”)

Dud gave ME a valuable bit of direction on his very first shot of the film. “Never ask for effects. If you ask for effects, that’s all you’ll get.” I knew nothing about directing actors and thought if I just spoke clearly and said what I wanted, that’d be fine. It took me years (and some reading and some trial and error) to work out why that’s wrong.

Dud rewrote and vastly improved his first speech, getting the first biggest of the film: “What if I just told them to fuck off?” “Might be a bit harsh,” I dithered. “Well, I could say, ‘Fuck off out of it’? That’s a bit gentler.” We went with option #1.

“What’s on at the local art cinema?” he asked one night. “Fellini’s EIGHT AND A HALF.” “Oh, I was in one of his. He cut out all my lines, but I’m still in there.” I hadn’t been able to see CASANOVA at this point, and there was no IMDb to list his credits. I knew him from THE DEVILS, everyone else from Lovejoy. When he showed up, they were all, “Why didn’t you SAY he was Tink in Lovejoy?” THE LEATHER BOYS didn’t enter into anyone’s thinking back then, alas.

I didn’t get to hang out with Dud too much because we were always filming. After losing one of his four days of shooting to a camera malfunction (sixty foot of film concertina’d all over the floor) we had to pick up the pace to complete his stuff in time. “I’ll say this for you, when you do get going you don’t hang about,” he remarked with gruff approval.

So just occasionally I’d catch the tail end or the middle of a story while fetching Dud for a shot. “Of course the best films for drugs were the Disney films,” was one memorable sentence. And, “The crookedest film I was ever in was A TOWN CALLED BASTARD.” Apparently he also spoke about being expelled from RADA for smoking dope.

Dud competed his work, went home, and then we found two shots were out of focus. We replaced them using a hastily contrived “double,” who was thirty years younger and Japanese, but it didn’t matter because his fake hump concealed his head completely from the back. This was all a great introduction to filmmaking.

“I keep seeing Dud out the corner of my eye,” I remarked to Stuart, the producer.

“So do I!” he replied.

The film won third prize in a contest and we sent Dud a share of the money and he wrote back saying he’d have a nice dinner on that. “It seems just yesterday that we were all running about in the mud in our cone-filled socks.”

Yes it does.



13 Responses to “Dudley”

  1. Simon Fraser Says:

    I’m glad he had such a long life. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get there by healthy living.

  2. Gill Fraser Lee Says:

    Thanks for this tribute. I adored Dudley Sutton from afar, and am deeply jealous you got to work with him. He and I corresponded by email a few times. The first time, I’d come across some performances of his poems he’d put up on YouTube. They were wonderful (many now gone, but worth a look at the remainder), and I came across his website (also now gone), complete with email address, and fired off a hasty message to say his poems were great. Almost immediately, a reply:’what especially did you like, how did you like it, tell me more!’, and a small correspondence ensued. Later, I wrote a piece on Toa Fraser’s ‘Dean Spanley’, in which he had a cameo, and asked him for a quote, which he kindly supplied. He was a fascinating man and a character actor par excellence. He had an essential ‘likeability’ on screen, a rare commodity money can’t buy. I’m sorry he’s gone.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Significantly, I reviewed in his performance in the ITV teleplay UNCLE SILAS (1968) that I saw on first broadcast. Featring Robert Eddison in the title role, all the cast decided to play the melodramatic aspects straight unlike the later version with Peter 0’Toole. Dudley was a delight as Dudley Ruthven, the downwardly mobile villainous son of the title character. He will be missed.

  4. Proof of his loveliness may lie in the fact that he was the only actor in The Devils who later worked with Derek Jarman (in Edward II). Jarman had been peeved that the cast didn’t compliment him on his sets for that film…

    I don’t know why he wasn’t constantly on our screens, since he was talented, charming, easy to work with and had that amazing face that obviously seduced Fellini. In a well-ordered universe, I’d never have had a chance of getting him to be in our little student film!

  5. A fine tribute. I liked his performance in The Tichborne Claimant. Not a great film, but an entertaining one, and Sutton made the most of a small role.

  6. Fee here – No wonder Fellini was seduced by that face. It’s a Bruegel face, making him right at home in a sweary, Medieval comedy.

  7. Fee back again – We rewatched his Casanova scene and I was struck by how expressive that extraordinary face was. He could have been a silent movie actor. I can only find a dubbed version of his scene, but since he doesn’t speak anyway, it’s not important. Unfortunately we don’t have the pleasure of hearing Donald Sutherland’s voice, but you can’t have everything. Take it away Dud!

  8. My favourite tune!

  9. aww Christopher Robin fab triblute. And was Stuart B your producer?

  10. He was! And he put up with it all very well.

  11. Godfrey Hamilton Says:

    I knew him via a sobriety Program. In later life, pace Simon Fraser, Dudley was indeed living a rather healthy life. RIP

  12. I always felt that amazing debauched kisser was a gift from Mother Nature, rather than a symptom of a wild life.

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