Archive for Stephen Murphy

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.

My City 4: The Brodie-Snatcher

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by dcairns


Miss Jean Brodie and her girls are spied upon by Robert Stephens from his artist’s garrett as they walk through Greyfriars Churchyard. This is a key location in all versions of GREYFRIARS BOBBY (where the wee dug sits by his master’s grave) and also in Val Lewton and Robert Wise’s film THE BODY SNATCHER, which conflates the Burke and Hare story (as filtered through Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictionalization) with that of Bobby, who is disguised under the stage name Robbie. The low-budget Lewton makes do with an establishing shot of some other church and then plunges into the studio.

The real churchyard (or kirkyard, if you want to be sectarian about it) is quite a place, although difficult to capture on film — the real frissons come from extreme details of the weathered stonework, angels and deathsheads with their features eaten away by wind and rain. But it’s also a useful place because you can look in all directions without much chance of seeing anything too modern.

Fiona and I used to live on Forrest Road, overlooking the cemetery just like Robert Stephens, although I starved one flight up, rather than in a garrett. Trilby, Fiona’s then cat, and my current avatar, once escaped out the window, over another rooftop, and into the hallowed grounds. She returned unharmed the next day, which was a relief, since she was a housecat unused to the ways of the exterior. I don’t know what she’d have done if she’d met Greyfriars Bobby’s ghost — and remember, according to the ancient Egyptians (generally reliable) cats can see the spirits of the departed. You know when you catch your cat staring fixedly at nothing…?

A strange feature of the place, just about visible above, is the way some of the grave markers are actually built into the walls of residences surrounding the graveyard. Also, many of the graves are enclosed in little stone buildings with gates that lock, which is largely a protection against body-snatchers. St John’s Churchyard, a short distance away on the corner of Princes Street and Lothian Road, even has a watch-tower to allow a guard to keep an eye out for nocturnal speculators armed with shovels.

The cemetery was used again in BURKE AND HARE: THE MUSICAL, a film I wrote sometime in the last century. Had Burke and Hare ever actually engaged in graverobbing (which is unknown — they were arrested for mass murder, having followed the simpler practice of generating fresh corpses rather than harvesting them from the earth), Greyfriars would probably have been their local place of work.

We were allowed to plant little wooden crosses so we could pretend to dig up a fresh grave. The cemetery is apparently full of unmarked graves, including that of William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet (an influence on both WC Fields and Spike Milligan). It seems likely the grounds may have once been peppered with pauper’s markers. To fake the grave-robbery, a fake mound of earth was erected — no hole was actually dug. The corpse here is played by Simon Vickery, a talented cameraman.

A prostitute who winds up on a slab is played by genius director Morag McKinnon, whose feature debut may be getting released this year (I hope so!). And the director of B&H, Stephen Murphy, now earns a living in special makeup effects, notably on the HARRY POTTER films. Meanwhile, I have a screenplay to write, so —

[sound of echoing footsteps diminishing in the distance]

Eyes in their Stars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2009 by dcairns


Stephen Murphy (makeup effects); Morag McKinnon (director); Kiyoyuki Murakami (translator/sound recordist); some pie (comestible). 

So, my friend Kiyo, visiting from Japan, left on Wednesday. Last time he visited and left I got bushwhacked by sudden emotion, which would probably have happened again, except for the comedy relief he thoughtfully supplied. “Thank you for your hospitality, and… thank you for everything you did to me,” he said, as he got into the cab, then sat down, missing the seat and landing on his arse on the floor. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” he remarked, cheerfully.


I always found these space aliens, from the Japanese WARNING FROM SPACE, completely adorable in the movie stills I saw. With Kiyo departed and myself in nostalgic mood, I shoved the disc, a gift from composer Matt Wand, into the Panasonic and let ‘er rip. 

A ready-made Fever Dream Double Feature, the disc consists of both WARNING FROM SPACE and the uncannily similar THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, an Amicus production that likewise features astronomer heroes, meteors that land in formation, extraterrestrials that take human form, and plot twists that shift the invaders from hostile to sympathetic and (sometimes) back again.

The other film BEYOND SPACE (the moon is beyond space? That’s a conservative estimate of the size of the universe, isn’t it?) resembles is another British UFO flick, THE BODY STEALERS. But that one, a Tigon production, is beyond dull. Despite being shot by the talented John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) it contains only one striking shot:


A body worth stealing.

The Amicus effort is a lot more interesting, thanks to occasional wisps of inventiveness from director Freddie Francis, and excellent production design in the aliens’ lair, and even in the astronomers’ HQ, where a psychedelic floor painting livens things up. Francis was generally a weak director, at least compared to his brilliance as a cinematographer, but he could rise to the challenge when a film offered him something of visual interest to get his teeth into. Oddly, here and in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, it’s the photography that often lets things down, with awkward transitions from day-for-night to night-for-night, something that NEVER works (honourable exception: THE PROFESSIONALS, shot by Conrad Hall). 


Robert Hutton is our hero, a stiff bit of imported American timber, whose characterisation consists of (a) driving a vintage car, like Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who, and (b) having a metal plate in his skull, which turns out to protect him against alien possession. This results in an endearing bit where Hutton’s pal, Zia Mohyheddin, must fashion a brain-shield out of golf trophies and spend the rest of the film looking hilarious. Things like this keep the film going: most B-movie scifis are painfully lacking in ideas, seeming to equate creativity with expense. This one throws in a new novelty just often enough. A senior security guy from the secret service suddenly contract freckly plague — apparently by telephone. Staggering from the phone booth, he dies in seconds and immediately infects the doctor who rushes to his side. The delirium of the pace is dreamlike, aided by the surreal intensity of the doctor’s performance: we think of dreams as slow and floaty, but this sequence captures the abruption and ellipsis of dream-narrative very well. 


The biggest mistake is probably the casting of Michael Gough as “the Master of the Moon”. Stressing every other word and thrusting his head about like a querulous chicken, Gough is very much on form, but when he has to convert back to being the human being possessed by the M of the M, he plays “Arthur Grey” in exactly the same manner, which leaves the ending in a terrifying limbo. Does this mean that all the humans possessed by the invaders are permanently strange? Are we doomed to become a race of Michael Goughs? Look around you! Can you be sure it isn’t already happening?


WARNING FROM SPACE isn’t quite as full of surprises, but does switch genres in midstream, from invasion film to disaster movie. The starfish eyeball people from beyond infinity turn out to be warning mankind of a terrible threat, a comet (resembling a sun, in fact) on collision course with Earth. Cue lots of shots of screaming civilians evacuating Tokyo, apparently unaware that the surrounding countryside is still technically Earth. 


It’s all decent entertainment if you’re as mentally twelve as I am, although maybe the film could have actually gotten by with fewer ideas. I would have been quite happy to just watch the starfish guys wandering about Tokyo, trying to buy beer or chat up the locals. When you have aliens as delightful as this, plot just gets in the way. Instead, the alien leader transmogrifies herself into a celebrity lookalike, travels to Earth, is washed up in a lake, and is quickly suspected of being what she is — her tendency to leap six feet in the air while playing tennis, and to teleport through plate glass, as well as the fact that she’s the doppelganger of a famous cabaret performer, tending to promote suspicion.

Also, because of the period it was made in, the colour process and the settings irresistibly recall Ozu’s late work, although director Koji Shima throws in the odd Dutch tilt, which is surely enough to disbar him from the transcendental style lodge.

The film was pan-and-scanned, the colour was faded, and the dialogue was dubbed (English dub by Jay Cipes, who married Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne — and I think that might be Arianne’s voice playing the alien leader). So arguably I haven’t actually seen this film at all. But if I’m about to mutate into Michael Gough I don’t suppose it matters.

vlcsnap-76398Snow-globe from beyond space.