Archive for Inside an Uncle

Great Scot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 12, 2016 by dcairns

Actor Ricky Callan died yesterday in the early hours of the morning.

I directed him twice and he was in two things I wrote. Then his life, and his body, started falling apart. His marriage broke up (“She just didn’t want to be married to me anymore,”) and diabetes cost him three toes, then one leg below the knee. He kept acting during this, concentrating more on VO work as he needed more and more dyalisis. He set up a recording studio in his home so he could work without leaving the house. Then his brother stole his life savings, according to Ricky’s account, published in the newspapers.

I’m haunted by the last time we saw him. Good friends had been taking him out to the Filmhouse quiz. Fiona asked what he was doing and he said he had quit acting, because he had to go to hospital three times a day for dialysis. Fiona asked about his VO work. “No. No. It’s all gone,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way.

I started seeing Ricky in every Scottish student film around 1991. First he was in the Napier college films, then we started using him at Edinburgh College of Art. There was one year he was in four or five films at the grad show. The first line I can remember him saying was in something called LEGEND OF SHAG-BEAST: “You mean he did you from behind? The bastard!” It wasn’t a funny line — it didn’t even make sense in context — but Ricky’s delivery had that explosive desperation that makes the Carry On film actors funny in spite of their material. It’s not that they act as if it were good — that would be unbearable. But perhaps they act as if they think, by some colossal effort, they might MAKE it good.

I cast Ricky as a cannibal from another dimension in THE ISLE OF VOICES in 1994. A fellow anthropophagous was Steven McNicoll, and the two got on so well I had to send my cannibals home early one day, because it was impossible to direct them: you couldn’t fit an “Action!” in edgeways. I made a note not to use both of them on the same film again. But they became firm friends, which was lovely.

Ricky liked to talk. Words flowed from him. The late Scott Ward, still missed, photographed INSIDE AN UNCLE, in which Ricky had the title part. We would drive to the shoot every day with Ricky keeping up a non-stop monologue. Scott said you might catch a look of realisation on his face each time we arrived, as he flashed on the fact that once more he had dominated the conversation, that he had BEEN the conversation. “Oh. I’ve done it again,” was how Scott put it into words. It was the one thought Ricky never put into words.

in HOPPLA! (top), writer and star Colin McLaren cast Ricky as his dad, which made no sense in age terms but was somehow perfectly believable. Dads have a larger-than-life quality, and Ricky had nothing but larger-than-life qualities.

Ricky played one of the grave-robbers in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL — book and lyrics by me, directed and composed by Stephen Murphy, another great friend. (Stephen turned Ricky into the Cowardly Lion for panto — superb casting — the role demands a voluble vaudevillian — and worked with him whenever possible.) Ricky sang my favourite line, “My life is a failure / I’m off to Austrailure.”


In INSIDE AN UNCLE, we had Stephen applying makeup to Ricky and to child actor Jack Richardson to make them resemble one another. So both got matching grey wigs, mustaches and specs. We also got to build a prosthetic Ricky, bits of which I believe are still extant, having weathered better over the years than the real thing. For a while, Ricky delighted in leaving his own detached head lying around the house to startle the unwary. The period he spent with his face entirely covered in special effects muck, to make a cast of his face — looking like a man who has been hit by a custard pie but is very relaxed about it — was the longest I ever saw him not speaking.

Ricky starred in the episode of kids’ show Intergalactic Kitchen I scripted. Again playing a cannibal, this time from outer space, “Combining astronomy with gastronomy.” Honest, it was innocent enough on the page. With a simple but grisly make-up and a performance that redefined “gusto,” Ricky turned it into nightmare fuel for a generation.

With his huge, heavy, overhanging Toby Jones brow and bulbous lower face, Ricky not only stood out from other actors by looking more interesting, he simply had more to offer: more body, more face. You would scan his features, trying to identify the extra bit that nobody else had, only to be defeated: it was the usual selection of Mr. Potato Head parts that the rest of us have got, but on a more grandiose scale. The Creator had been generous. This size was complimented by the scale of Ricky’s performances, which were equally generous. There was no sense that he was trying to blow the other actors away. As with his car monologues, the other actors existed for Ricky mainly as an audience. (I’m struck by the number of films in which he’s isolated from other characters and enjoys his main rapport with the camera.) None of this limited what Ricky could do, it just focussed the way he did it.

Ricky could and should have had some major starring, recurring role in Scottish television comedy. He fitted beautifully into the world of Still Game, but was capable of more than a supporting role. It’s our loss. The fault was certainly not with the man himself, who had so much to give, and who gave it as often and as vigorously as he could, which was more than you could believe.

Sure sure

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 31, 2013 by dcairns


Friend, cinematographer, artist, teacher, Scott Ward, who photographed basically everything I made in the last twelve years, from CRY FOR BOBO on, just died. This was the first I’d heard he was even ill. As one friend said, “Of course. That’s exactly what Scott would do.” Part of what made him such an easy collaborator, and such a reliable, efficient creator of elegant, beautiful images was that he avoided fuss.

I had the easiest of relationships with Scott, a collaboration a bit like working with an actor, and I learned every bit as much as I have from the good actors I worked with: Scott’s camera always needed a motivation if you wanted it to move, which was a great lesson to me. He wouldn’t complain, as most actors don’t, but if you saw him looking unhappy he could tell you exactly what was wrong with the shot you were suggesting, and then, only if you asked (and I made it a point to), exactly how you could make it better.

It seemed like we picked up a new catchphrase or running joke together each time we did a film. “That seems like a plan,” was the first, a line we threw around on BOBO every time we arrived on set and worked out what we were doing. The last time we worked together, we found ourselves saying “Sure-sure,” rapid-fire, like Sid Musburger. “Where did that come from?” asked Scott. “The Hudsucker Proxy,” I said. “Yes, but why?” he asked.

I’d never met him before BOBO, and will always be grateful to producer/friend Nigel Smith for introducing us. Scott instantly endeared himself to me by his communicativeness, sensitivity and the gorgeous footage he created every single day. And he was fast, which a director always appreciates. I guess he’s also responsible for the title of this blog, since I asked about noir lighting when I interviewed him for the gig and he said something like “Yes, I flatter myself I’m quite good at shadowplay.” He sure was.

I learned every time I worked with Scott, and when I taught alongside him. He did a devastating critique of Stanley Kubrick’s use of candlelight in BARRY LYNDON — “Of course it’s interesting, but because they’re augmenting the candlelight you can see in shot with huge banks of hundreds of candles out of shot, you lose the flicker, and so what you end up with doesn’t look very much like candlelight at all. Certainly less like what you could get just by faking it with an electric light on a dimmer.” Same for the cab interiors in COLLATERAL, where they coated the whole vehicle with reflective stuff to bounce the light around, resulting in something spectacular but totally unrealistic. Scott could be very funny about the fetish for natural light: “It just seems weird to me that you’ve got all this other kit that you have to bring, but you’re not allowed to use your lights.”

And his greatest tenet, applied to film-making technique of course, but it seems to me applicable elsewhere in his life and ours: “You get rewarded for bravery, always.”

Scott filmed our “reconstructions” for the forthcoming NATAN, and I had no idea he was ill or that it was to be his last shoot. But I’m told by Minttu, his wife, that he was glad to finish his career with something about cinema. He loved cinema.


Scott (left) and me, INSIDE AN UNCLE.

Misadventures in Babysitting

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on March 4, 2008 by dcairns

This is a low-budget kids’ short I made for BBC Scotland and Scottish Screen’s Tartan Smalls scheme. It was fun to do Joe 90 sci-fi props and muck about with a childs’ eye view. But I guess I’ll never be Carol Reed or Alexander Mackendrick when it comes to directing kids. These boys were really good, but I didn’t know how to get the best out of them. I gained a lot of experience directing a couple episodes of a kids’ show called INTERGALACTIC KITCHEN afterwards, and feel I could do a lot better now.

But here’s how it SHOULD be done:

I like how the (very) little girl doesn’t seem to have been CONTROLLED, so much as turned loose with her dialogue. She swivels around and fidgets and she’s constantly in RANDOM MOTION, like a real kid.

It’s from THE NANNY, script by Jimmy Sangster, directed by Seth Holt. S.H. was an interesting chap whose career crosses from Ealing (he produced THE LADYKILLERS) to Hammer (he died — of hiccups — while making BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB). Holt was singled out by the iconoclasts at Movie magazine as representing the best hope for British cinema to escape its literary-inspired “tradition of quality” and achieve some kind of robust, authentic, home-grown cinema. It didn’t quite happen.

Holt’s NANNY star Bette Davis described him as “a tower of evil” and “the most ruthless director I have worked with apart from William Wyler,” which I assume was intended as praise, since Bette had a tempestuous affair with Wyler and made three great films with him. I wish she’d made more with Holt! Perhaps his failure to sleep with her ended that collaboration.

Come to Nanny

I can see why Movie rated Holt so highly — he’s gutsy, clever, and in THE NANNY, genuinely inventive and capable of exercising a tight grip on the audience’s emotions. TASTE OF FEAR (AKA SCREAM OF FEAR), the film Movie singled out as showing signs of real promise, is an above-par DIABOLIQUES clone with effective frissons (a corpse seated at the bottom of a murky swimming pool traumatized a young Tom Hanks when his mother mistakenly took him to see the film!). Even a piece of hokum like BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB has points of interest, from its frenzied character performances to its knock-out ending, which seems to anticipate Polanski’s THE TENANT.

More kidstuff: THE NANNY also features a turn from Perky Pam herself, Pamela Franklin, a Shadowplay favourite for her work in THE INNOCENTS and AND SOON THE DARKNESS.