Archive for Richard Lester

We Don’t Even Know Who Won the War

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2015 by dcairns



THE BED SITTING ROOM was shot in either ’68 or ’69 but didn’t open until 1970 so it seems the perfect transitional film to bring us into Seventies Sci-Fi Week here on Shadowplay. A wise man once said, “The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over and […] we have failed to paint it black.” My Forgotten essay on the film is here and it’s called The End of History. Below you can hear from three of the principle talents involved.

Star Rita Tushingham (who comes at the top of the cast list, since it is in ascending order of height), cinematographer the late David Watkin (courtesy of Allan Thomson) and director Richard Lester. So it’s a kind of Stealth Film Club I’m springing on you here.

An apocalyptic comedy, adapted by Charles Wood from the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, filmed on location in the ruins of Britain. A score of bedraggled survivors of “the Third — or was it the Fourth? — World War” try to carry on their lives as if nothing had happened, but institutions have now contracted into individuals and random mutations are transforming citizens into architecture and furniture and one parrot. Rita Tushingham plays the sixteen-month pregnant Penelope who lives on a train on the Circle Line (as in JUGGERNAUT, we’re all stuck going round in circles).



My friend David Ehrenstein said “Please ask about THE BED SITTING ROOM and Richard Warwick.”

Oh, darling Richard, yes. Richard was just… he looked at me and… I’d known Richard before, he was a friend of mine, and he said, “Oh! I, I – I don’t quite know — I don’t know what he wants! Oh! How are we supposed to do this?” And I said “Just do it! Trust him, trust him.” Because for some people, if you didn’t know Richard [Lester], he was so easy and knew exactly what he wanted, you had to trust him. Because he knows comedy — the visual is so important, and that’s what it is, we’re making a film.

But Richard [Warwick] was lovely, lovely to work with. He was slightly bumbly [Rita makes untranscribable but very funny bumbly sound], but he just got on with it and got into the swing of things.



I loved doing it because it was with a great group of actors. And it was an extraordinary film. Way ahead of its time.

I think, still.

Yes, me too. And when you look at it, it’s really touching. And there again, the characters had to be slightly crazy — to survive. Arthur Lowe was so touching, and Mona Washbourne, they were such lovely performances.

Michael Hordern was very funny because, my character and he get married, and I would always make fun with Michael and laugh because he was very conservative. I used to joke about, Oh, the Conservatives,” and stuff like that. He was quite stiff-upper-lip at times. Fantastic man and actor. And we had to do this scene where we’d just got married and we’re going to get into bed and there’s a meter at the side of the bed and he has to put money in it. And he had to put a board down his back, and he said to me, “Mwoh! Why am I doing this? What does this mean?” and I said, “Oh come on, Michael, surely you know?” and I always remember that because I was just sending him up, but, boy! He was very worried that he didn’t know why he should put a board down his back. Some kind of sexual enjoyment or something? He was hilarious. And lovely.



And Spike Milligan, of course.

That must have been strange for him to be suddenly in this world that he’d written for the stage…

It didn’t seem to bother him at all because he was always in his own world. He just got on with it. He had all th costume and everything. And Ralph Richardson! Ralph doing, and was so touching when he turns into the bed-sitting room. And Mona Washbourne. And Harry Secombe!

There were so many lovely performances from people and their world has been shattered.

When I interviewed Richard I mentioned that it had just struck me that the film was about the human tendency to carry on, and that’s both inspiring and despairing, because they’ll carry on making the same mistakes.

Talking about it now…because obviously you don’t sit around and think that much about films you’ve been in, that would be a sad state of affaris, but talking to you about it, when you think of all the people who were in it, they were all so touching in their way. It came out at a time when they were expecting other things, and Richard had to do a certain kind of film, and suddenly he did this film, which was very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Probably they didn’t know how to take it. But they SHOULD, because it was all there on the screen.



Allan Thomson’s interview with David Watkin also contains quite a bit on this film. With his permission, I quote ~

How I Won the War, The Bed Sitting Roam. Those two are very important films, very important and very good films, both of them. You see nobody has heard of The Bed Sitting Room. It’s just as important as Help! […] Just look at the cast list. And the Beatles are only a sort pop-group, for God’s sake. Let’s not get it out of proportion. A very useful pop group.


How I Won the War and The Bed-Sitting Room got a lot of static and were criticised and all the rest of it. Maybe didn’t as well as they could have done if they were more boring but the fact is that’s the reason why people will still be looking at them …50..60..100 years from now. It depends on how long your perspective is. I have no more money than I need but I have what I need, Which is quite good in a way because it keeps me working. It’s very exasperating doing the best criteria for anything* and I quite respect the fact that films are supposed to make money, it’s nice when they do but if that is the only thing that you have in your mind you will, make bad, boring and silly films,

And that and that is the sickening fact about our case – Richard – is that he won’t do it and fucking good for him.

I mean after The Bed-Sitting Room he didn’t do anything for ages, nobody would give him a film.

The thing is it wasn’t originally going to be The Bed Sitting Room, it was going to be Up Against It. You know all that story. Well they got all this money and were ready and of course Joe Orton was murdered and they couldn’t carry on with that and they did a quick switch to The Bed Sitting Room.

They will spend money making the film and then will spoil the picture because they always say if they don’t like it, so they won’t bother to publicize or to distribute it. I mean this is one of their inanities. They’ll spend a whole lot of money turning some dreary script into a blockbuster and yet when that something that really is worth putting out they think it is no good and pull it. It happened all the time.



I don’t look at the script, [only] in order to find out how many nights shooting. And find out roughly what the thing is about. I will only read the script once you see. Because if I get over familiar with it then I get bored with it. And then I won’t have an idea that’s worth having, I mean this is only me, I am not talking about anyone else, I am much better to be faced with something which is fresh and the thing about reading 3 script is when to do it. If someone sends me a script and they say they are going to make the film in six weeks time. I need to know what the thing is about, so I skim through it, or very often I give it to my boyfriend and he reads it. And then I have enough idea, but if I read it now it will be a different thing by the time I am going to shoot, because it will be constantly changing by the day, pink pages, yellow pages and brown pages and all the rest of it and you get this polychrome thing that is handed to you. And I would usually read a script just a couple of days before we are going to start shooting, or better still, probably about two weeks after we have started shooting because then I know who all the characters are and it comes alive for me.

There is a lovely story about Richard which I will tell you about Richard which is in my book so you mustn’t use it. Well, I don’t know, you can use it because it’s very funny. Because I know you know in the The Bed Sitting Room people are mutating into various things, Arthur Lowe turns into a parrot and “Moaning” Washbourne as she was called turns into a wardrobe. And we had one scene in the bed-sitting room and I lit it and thought “Nothing can go wrong here,” and I just sort of settled down for a quiet snooze. And they were just about film and Dick said “It’s important that we can see Mother in this,” which is Mona. So I was not sure, there’s no sign of her. And he did it quite deliberately because Mother in fact is the wardrobe so that was Richard’s idea of a little joke, which for a moment put me out.

No, it sounds silly and outrageous but it actually makes a lot of sense because 1 find that the ideas that are the most use are the ones that come uninvited, The ones come while you are poring over a script, oh Christ, I must have an idea about that, all 1 have is a crummy idea,

It’s much better when you just come, I don’t how to light a set until I have seen it. As soon as I see it the set will tell you what to do.


A lot of people think films are all set before shooting.

He and I are absolutely identical about this way, absolutely, I may have an idea beforehand; it may occasionally be a good one and I may occasionally try and do something about it, but for the most part, for me, I would say that it is more than 50% I would say that it is 70% in front of the set. I would rather have a really alive idea almost too late, so that there is a bit of a scurry to do it than have some dead, dead old thing that everybody has been preparing for three weeks, who wants that.

Is it the spontaneity of a new idea?

It isn’t that it is a new idea. It’s an idea that has actually sprung out of something instead of being tortured and come alive on its own. That’s why he and I probably have quite a good understanding of each other. Probably got a lot to do with it without my realizing at the time.



I found Spike a little strange because you know I did a couple of pictures with Spike and Richard, And Spike would turn up, arrive on the musketeers and I had done the whole of The Bed-Sitting Room with him, which was a long films and Spike would turn up and I don’t expect people to sort of flock around me in a way, it is if you have worked with someone for something like three months, you know a couple of years later and they haven’t the slightest idea, they know who you are Spike hadn’t the vaguest idea not the vaguest or he wasn’t interested. When you are working for someone for three months and then you come back a few years later for another five months and all you get is ‘How do you do.’

He is the one person who never took the slightest notice of “Richard” and called him “Dick” forever. I’m all for him. It’s not a criticism or complaint it’s an account of what I remember of Spike is he never remembered me.



From my interview with Richard Lester conducted for The Criterion Collection blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.

It got tied up ecologically […], with the fact that we were able to find such places of physical degradation, so easily, in mid-summer of 1969. Those were bad times. Everyone was feeling uncomfortable,. It wasn’t good. It worried Spike that some of the images, when put on a big screen — as opposed to a pile of boots in the Aldwych Theatre or wherever it was, you could sort of get away with it, but when you get piles of teeth or boots in the wide screen of desolation — it seemed to skew the film over into something heavier than Spike had expected. And I think it worried him. And it worried me that it worried him.

The play is, in a way, even darker, but because nothing is real…

That’s right. And you’re carried along by the fact that everybody looks at Spike and laughs.

In the play they not only eat the parrot that was Arthur Lowe, they eat the mutant baby as well.

Yes, we didn’t quite go that far.

It only just occurred to me that the true subject is not the bomb but our tendency to carry on mindlessly in spite of everything,

ABSOLUTELY. My way of describing it was that if you have a beautiful Doric column and put a bomb under it and explode it, it will fall in pieces to the ground, but each piece will be a perfect little Doric column in itself. It will find a way — like the sponges that you put into a Waring blender, when you let it settle it will return to being a perfect sponge. We will find a way to carry on. And the most strident of us — Peter Cook — will come to the top. “So watch it!”


It is the bleakest film you ever made, in a sense, because it has the complete paralysis of everything. Did that trouble you because of Milligan’s attitude or was it something you felt was a problem in the film?

I don’t think so. The troubling thing was that sense that it’s so easy for a society to do grave damage to itself. Feelings about annihilation due to nuclear accident, which was all in the air. I remember reading The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson… That sense that we have it in our power to have a great extinction and not even notice it, which is still with us all the time, is something that got muddled up with it, for me. I mean there was a place where we had Harry Secombe, and it was in the back of Port Talbot, in the back of the steelworks and the refinery and all that. And we had to have him in the water. And they said, “You can have him in the water but then you have to get him stripped down and washed within thirty seconds otherwise we won’t take any responsibility for it. This was a whole landscape filled with this dangerous water that was just there, and anybody could have walked into it.

So all this got muddled up… and it was wildly optimistic to think that anybody could make a film of the subject.

And you had Ralph Richardson.

An absolute delight. He was the one… summing him up: the film played the Berlin Film Festival, and he was sitting at a table with the mayor of Berlin and a lot of dignitaries, including the heads of United Artists. And he turned to the mayor and he said, “Oh, Mr. Mayor, I do so love your city.  It has the most wonderful [pause for breath] escalators.” And then turned and started to talk to someone next to him, and the poor mayor, first I think was mentally going through the English-German Dictionary, thinking that he’d made a terrible error, and then was just totally at a loss [laughs]. But Ralph was like that throughout life.


Do you think it’s lunchtime?

Yes, I think it probably is.


Lester spent the next five years, when he was at the peak of his powers and could easily have been making two films a year, shooting commercials in Italy. At one point he was making so much money he asked to be paid in wine. So that it’s possible the wine we had at lunch that day was earned as an indirect consequence of THE BED SITTING ROOM.

I do urge you to see the film, which is now easier to obtain than ever before. It languished in such obscurity that the makers of WHEN THE WIND BLOWS were able to claim, in the eighties, in my presence, that nobody had ever made a black comedy about life after the bomb before. Now, their film is the one that’s barely remembered and THE BED SITTING ROOM is starting to get some love.




OK when the bomb goes off

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on August 13, 2015 by dcairns


I must stop quoting THE KNACK I must stop quoting THE KNACK I must stop quoting THE KNACK (see title).

More Lester at The Forgotten, which returns after three weeks, due to a flurry or activity at home and abroad (Locarno). JUGGERNAUT is maybe not forgotten but it’s definitely undervalued.

There is Mastery in a Job Well Done

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on August 11, 2015 by dcairns


Allan Thomson very generously sent me a 1996 interview he conducted with Oscar-winning cinematographer the late David Watkin, on the subject of his frequent collaborator Richard Lester. I’ve chopped it down to focus on THE KNACK.

David Watkin/Allan Thomson –  

14th October 1996. Brighton

I have known him [Lester] since about 1961, very early sixties. What happened is I started in documentaries, and had been with a very good documentary unit for many many years called British Transport Films. Simply because when I decided to come into the film business — which is what I wanted to do because I didn’t want to work in an office, I had no great love for the cinema or anything like that but I didn’t want a boring old job and I thought films would be fun — they wouldn’t let me in features but I was able to get into documentaries. And I started life as a documentary trainee assistant and eventually a cameraman.

And after a while with this unit, I realised that one had to sort of slip away from them, and various things happened and I was involved with Joan Littlewood for a short time, and then left the documentary unit and started to do photographic freelance cameraman but of course that was a bit different because I had been in this other world, nobody outside the unit had ever heard of me but I started doing commercials.

And what happened was I did some commercials, I’d played around with a way of lighting, which was unusual up to the time that I started playing around with it, probably impractical as well. What happened was that I was able to make it work and I used to use it occasionally. I used it on a commercial with Richard, and he liked it and on the strength of that said, ‘Would you like to do my next feature? Which was The Knack.

And with a lot of encouragement, because I regarded it, this thing, as a fairly restrictive way of lighting sets — you would only do it when I thought it was appropriate — and he said, ‘No, you should expand it and use it more.’

And he wanted to shoot the whole of The Knack with this technique, you see, and I first of all thought that was going too far but, I remember then, through playing around with it, I found that it was much more flexible than I thought.


Fiona spotted Jacqueline Bisset second from the right.

And so Richard, I will have to say, was an enormous help to me, not only giving me the first feature that I ever, which started me off you know and that is always a very difficult hurdle that. But actually probably pushing me to do something to begin with a bit quicker that I would have otherwise done it, because I’m quite a slow developer. I think I would have probably done it anyway, but he was a catalyst, is what I am saying, so he was enormously important in my life at the time.

First of all it is quite a hurdle to get a first feature, it is a hurdle which is not a lot of use if the thing then falls flat on its face. Nothing to do with the photography, but I have known very good people who have made a couple of films, photographed them extremely well, but got nowhere because the film had got nowhere, which is anybody’s fault but their’s, but in my case with Richard both the first two films that I did with him were very successful.

The first film, I can remember this, that when The Knack won a Golden Palm I think at Cannes and I was talking to Richard on the phone about that and he said, “Now you can go steadily downhill from now on.”  No, I would always be very grateful and I owe him a tremendous amount.

The point about this was it was reflected light and I tended to use [that] in things that wanted to look very beautiful and very gentle and all that sort of thing and I tended to use it with children if I had a scene with children or something like that.

And this was a Shredded Wheat, I will never forget it, it was a Shredded Wheat commercial with kids eating fucking Shredded Wheat. I mean, to me by that time I was fairly used to it, but Richard had seen nothing like it before, certainly not done in that way and so that’s how I got on The Knack.

What you have to remember is that I sort of came up at a time when it’s possible to say, I think, that there was a fairly hard tradition, hard-boiled tradition about feature films — they had become a bit set in their ways: people would accept what had gone on before because that’s what had gone on before. And there was this business of lighting, which people would use as direct light, so you would get a 5K and smash it on your face as a key light, and put a 2K with a wire in it as a fill light, and something else as a back light and that would be that and you know the idea of actually reflecting light so that you get a much softer… And it was in actual fact easier and quicker to do. It was never gone in to. It was regarded, nobody had done it so why do it?


And there was also this very… I was certainly the first person to break this one… […] you couldn’t photography white. That if you had a bedroom scene there were white sheets they either had to be dipped in coffee or dyed grey, you know that white would flare out and be ugly and horrible

And you know the simple fact is, if you had been shooting a picture in 1925, the year I was born, on orthochromatic stock, that would have been absolutely true. A simple fact is that, you know, since then you have got panchromatic stock, you have got different kinds of film, film has sort of progressed but the idea that you couldn’t photograph white hadn’t.

And I have a very low boredom threshold: you have only got tell me that something has got to be done because it always had been done that way and I might question it.

So for years in documentaries I didn’t give a fucking toss.  So when Richard said to me, ‘Look we have a lot of scenes in a completely white room,’ and he said, ‘Would it be alright to actually photograph them white?’ and I said of course it would be.

I mean I still get it; I had it on the film that I am going to do next.  A phone call from the costume designer, a nice lady, ‘Is it alright if I put them in white?’ – ‘Yes.’ That was certainly was something we did in The Knack because as I said was a whole bloody set of white.


A lot of people slagged that period off and said it wasn’t as successful as people say it is.

Only Tories, it was the most civilised time. It was the time when this country actually became civilised. It didn’t last very long. But it lasted… it wasn’t only the sixties it was about mid-seventies. Oh yes, it was the time when we were really, in every sense of the word, a liberal, sort of socialist society. You know it was everything that we’re not at the moment.

It really was an exciting period?

I mean, I have led a charmed life in this business, I suppose because one thing led to another[…] But all the films I made at the beginning my career in the sixties and the seventies with Richard and Tony Richardson, Peter Brook, with Ken Russell, all those sort of films every single one was completely worthwhile. Not only as entertainment but something better than that you know something more than that.



They filmed The Knack, a couple of takes and away?

Well, my dear, one of the things that has never ceased to astonish me in this business is the extent to which some directors will go on and on, take after take after take, which is totally self-defeating unless an actor can’t remember a bloody line or something. You know, it is always within the first couple of takes that you use. This is why, you know, it is so great to go off to work with Sidney [Lumet] because, if it gets beyond take three of four, I mean, it is surprising, and you can get on and get on with it.

I really can’t stand it: I go to the back of the stage and go to sleep. But I mean this business of going on and on is wasting everyone’s time including your own.  So the fact that Dick gets on with it, bloody good luck, I wish I had more like him. There are some. Again all the people that I have spoken about. Again all the people I have spoken about every name I have mentioned, Richard Tony Richardson, Peter Brook, Ken, Ken’s had his moments, we did a lot of takes on The Devils, I don’t know why.

I am not I director, I could ever be because I like my private life too much, I have directed commercials. Only shoot what you need and know what you need, and know when you have got it, that’s about all have to do and cast it and that’s you, you have become a director. But they are a rare, rare species most people going around directing films are no more directors than they are chimney sweeps.

So there are only a handful of directors in the world?

That’s true, that’s true. Well the other thing is, this you see, I tend to be a bit scathing about this because in my job all my job consists of is making decisions.

I have to make decisions fairly quickly and I can’t go back on them, nether can I have alternatives. I can’t say, ‘Oh well, look, I’ll light is this way and then you do a couple of takes of that, then I’ll change the lighting and do a couple more takes and we’ll see what you like out of three different kinds of lighting.’

You know, when a director shoots every conceivable camera angle there is, and every kind of alternative inflection of voice, Basically the more he does the less he’s a director and the more he is the assembler of choices for someone else to make a decision. He can’t make a decision and being a director is making a decision and saying ‘That is what it is going to be,’ and this is why I have scant respect for the people who tend to overdo it.

Why Richard? Again either you are terrified of making decisions or they are the greatest fun in the world, and they become fun when you say, ‘Fine maybe it’s wrong but at least I’ve made it.’ And every now and then of course it will be wrong but I mean then you simply say, ‘Well I’ve fucked that up, didn’t I?’ and that’s it, and the great thing about Richard and Tony and Terry Donovan, people like that, they think the same, they would rather I came slightly unstuck doing something interesting than being utterly safe and utterly predictable and boring.



But I don’t know how true it is, but I believe Woodfall made Woodfall made such an overwhelming pile of money out of Tom Jones that it was, in fact, according to their accountant extremely useful to have a tax loss and I think they thought the juxtaposition of Dick and myself would guarantee that, and it went wrong, I don’t know how true that is.

The thing was it was the only film that I hadn’t really been able to choose my own crew because your first film they are not going to pay you much, and they consider you are wrong. They are not going to listen to you. I wanted Paul Wilson to operate on that film and I couldn’t have him.

Who did it?

I better not get into that otherwise I would be getting sued for libel. Ask Richard, he may be bolder than I am.  It’s a ridiculous thing, that you say some accountants sitting at a desk thinks he is saving £5 a week on something and in actual fact what it is costing you indirectly is a lot more than that.

[Lester told Soderbergh that a lot of the white room scenes had to be duped, blown-up, reframed to get rid of the boom mic which the camera operator had a knack for getting in shot.]

Nobody would argue with me now about that. No-one would say you can’t have the operator you want. If they tried to they would get a very short answer but if it is your first film there is not a lot that you can do about it.

The other thing of course is it was black and white. For me back and white is a joy. You have to know what you are doing. Black and white is much more exacting, you have more control over the result on the screen with black and white than you do with colour.


Note the Beatles graffiti.

That style was there long before, I mean made a film called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film. Nothing new for Richard. He got all that sorted out before. He’s got that kind of fertile humour… I mean, the thing that I like because I am similar is that Richard would scoop things out the air in front of him. I am pretty much like that, impetuous, sort of, I react to things. I don’t sort of sit and pore over my thoughts beforehand and come out with something great.

Multiple cameras…

Yes, that sprang out of the fact that the Beatles couldn’t act and therefore you could never really, rely is too strong a word. You could never hope that they did the same thing twice. And so Richard developed this technique of using two cameras so that you would have one camera on the wide shot and you would have the other camera doing the close-ups, well of course, there is four of them.

The thing about the two camera technique is that Richard got it right. It’s fine: what you do is you obviously have the two operators. Now to have two really good operators who know their job […] if there is a better or more experienced operator he in fact operates the second camera not the main unit.

And what would happen is you would set up for the wide-shot of the scene where Freddie Cooper as the main cameraman would operating there and Paul Wilson would quietly watch through a Hanson — he would get his own set-up, Dick would give him his own set-up — Paul would quietly in his own set-up. And Paul would know — this is what is great about operators that are good — he would not only know what Dick’s needs were, he would also understand what mine were. So you could feel absolutely secure that Paul would never shoot anything that would be bad for me, would never put himself anywhere which would be bad for me, and would always pick-up stuff which would be helpful for Richard.


But I mean The Knack, it’s a wonderful picture of the social progress we were making at the time. Which may have gone into reverse, I mean Charles Wood, who’s a great writer, now that’s somebody, Charles is a great writer… 

Producer Oscar Lewenstein…

[…] When Tony Richardson was such a success, Tony gave a percentage of Tom Jones to all the key people that worked on it – Walter Lassally, Albert Finney. I think I mentioned it. The Knack was supposed to have been tax loss so when it made money it made money it was an embarrassment rather a mess. And it was Oscar’s film. Tony was the head of Woodfall but The Knack was Oscar’s film, not Tony’s.

So it was not up to Tony to sort of interfere with the film to any great extent. But […] said to Oscar, in my presence in actual fact,  ‘Well you ought to give David a percentage of the film, it’s no use to you and David is a great boy.’

And Oscar’s reply to that was, that, ‘If David had money I might not be able to get him when I wanted him.’ And that was that.


Robert Freeman, the Beatles’ stills photographer…

And for some reason or the other, was given the job of designing, designing the title background for The Knack. His idea for designing the tiles for The Knack was to put the lettering on Venetian blinds. So you would have a shot from a window of Venetian blinds with lettering which is so small you can’t read any body’s…

We filmed the Venetian blind and they put Mr. Freeman’s ‘bottom line of the optician charts’ kind of lettering on it and that was that.

Production designer Assheton Gorton…

Assheton is a wonderful, wonderful designer, stubborn as a fucking mule. I love old Assheton he is the son of an archbishop. Not like the recent Bishop. No, Assheton is a very, very bright man/ designer. …Once Assheton has dug his heels…

Lester liked him…

He would have to be pretty dense not to realise Assheton was something unusual.

 If you were in the situation that Richard was in for a large number of years it’s up to you to choose who you work with. If you don’t choose the amusing people you know it’s a bit silly. You can always get what you want.

Huge thanks to Allan Thomson.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 654 other followers