Archive for The Knack

Woodery-Pokery in York

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2017 by dcairns

This is the “paper” I “presented” in York the other week. Slightly worried I’ll become stuffy and dull in academic mode, but fortunately I have extracts of Charles Wood to contrast with that if I do. I quote from his work, from an old interview I did by email, and from a new one.

John Gielgud with John Mills in Charles Wood’s play Veterans (“A great night at the theatre” — R. Lester)

The term “woodery-pokery” was invented by John Gielgud to describe writer Charles Wood’s antic use of the English language, a blend of slang, wordplay, archaisms and uniquely contorted syntax which uses the hesitations and repetitions of real speech to dismantle more high-flown poetic language, and frequently ends a dramatic speech with a comical crashing to earth.

knack1 from David Cairns on Vimeo.

“Her lot was doing the behaving. All that leaping up and down in those– That’s what I behaviour! That’s provocative behaviour! We’ve all got to make allowances, find our equilibrium — at every turn! How?”

I was instantly, and have remained, fascinated by the line “That’s what I behaviour.” Clearly, a word is missing, the word which would make sense of it, the word “call.” “That’s what I call behaviour.”

Wood has dropped this word, rendering the sentence maddeningly incomplete. As we all know, most people don’t talk in proper sentences most of the time. Look at Donald Trump. But I don’t think Wood is merely trying to replicate the word soup we spout when stressed or confused. If he wanted to, he could do it more accurately than that. This doesn’t strike me as a realist technique, it isn’t the sort of mistake a person would make in speech. If they had word processors back then… it’s like a computer virus has infected the speaker’s brain and is causing random bits of data to drop out.

So entranced, so puzzled was I, I scanned the film for signs of a splice, thinking the word might have been omitted accidentally. It might even have originated as a mistyping by Wood, I thought. But director Richard Lester had gone on to shoot it, and Michael Crawford dutifully delivered the gibberish as written.

There’s no jump-cut in the scene, but maybe I was on to something. Was Wood using language the way the French nouvelle vague and the British new wave used the shot? As the speech goes on, the lacunae become bigger. “We’ve all got to make allowances, find our equilibrium — at every turn! How?” Whole sentences seem to be missing from this paragraph, as if we were listening to one end of a phone conversation the character was having with himself. It may not be accurate to realistic speech but it’s accurate to something: to the chaos that erupts in our brains, our fragmented internal conversations, which we don’t require to make total sense because we know what we mean.The speech is from The Knack, and How to Get It, the first collaboration between Royal Court playwright Charles Wood and American expat director Richard Lester, who would work together on numerous projects including Help!, How I Won the War and Cuba. Many of the most celebrated British directors of the sixties had these creative partnerships with writers: Joseph Losey’s work with Harold Pinter is a rare case where the writer’s name was picked up by critics and audiences. When writer David Sherwin spoke at Lindsay Anderson’s memorial, he felt a wave of shock from the room at the realisation that this name from the credits of If…. was actually attached to a real human being.

British writers in this period, brought a sense of surrealism and absurdity that contrasts with the more famous kitchen sink school, whether it be George Melly naming characters after words from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky in his script for Smashing Time, or David Mercer’s mingling of fantasy and reality in Morgan: A Suitable case for Treatment.

Most of Wood’s work with Lester was on adaptations. (None of his own extraordinary plays have been filmed, and it’s hard to see how they could be, so epically do they own the stage.)

Of The Knack, Wood reports, “It was all arranged by Oscar Lewenstein of Woodfall Films. My agent, Peggy Ramsay who was also Ann Jellicoe’s agent suggested me. I didn’t see the play but I read it and loved it. Oscar talked to Lindsay Anderson about it and I came up with a treatment for him which was a straight up and down realistic adaptation of the play. He didn’t like it.. Oscar obviously then talked to Richard of whom I knew nothing and asked me to go and see A Hard Day’s Night. I went off to write some pages for him.”

Wood makes a cameo.

Wood and Lester were never slavishly faithful to their sources — Lester described the approach to The Knack as being one of “exploding” the play rather than opening it out. Fragments of the debris of Ann Jellicoe’s feminist farce are reproduced exactly, but out of order and with the meaning sometimes softened, flipped or undercut. The depiction of the male philanderer, Tolen, as a proto-fascist is mostly jettisoned (Lester thought it silly) and he’s equated instead more with capitalism and advertising, a consumer devouring fashionable product then moving on to the next fresh thing, as insatiable and pointless as a shark.

Wood says: “I hadn’t the faintest idea what the film was all about. There was no theme except youth and discovery, and being alive, same old things. It was Ann Jellicoe’s play we were adapting and putting onto film, when all the pieces came together we hoped she would approve. Richard thinks film and gags, I think words and dialogue and things to get the actors to do. Tolen is fascist of course in lots of ways, mostly power, in fact altogether power.”

Wood is applying something akin to William Burroughs’ fold-in technique to the text, chopping it and recombining the pieces. He even steals an entry from Jellicoe’s dramatis personae, and puts it in Michael Crawford’s mouth as a description of another character, which is hilarious because the profile is supposed to sum up the essence of the role rather than provide a useful physical description. “Small, vigorous, balanced, sensitive in his movements.”One of The Knack‘s innovations is the “Greek chorus of disapproval,” a layer of voices on the sound track commenting on the youthful main characters’ activities from a disgruntled, middle-aged perspective. Lester covertly filmed passers-by observing the shooting, and had Wood write a sort of commentary track of vox pop interviews, which we associate with the onscreen pedestrians, as if they had been asked to give their thoughts on what had just happened. This meant that Wood was involved in the film all through the edit, writing non-sequiturs and absurdist bluenose grumbling, an unusual workflow which probably helped cement the collaboration with Lester. “I know we wrote a lot more when it was being edited to fill in gaps or whatever, voice over. I enjoyed that process, just the two of us and an editor peering at a Moviola – felt I was making a film, never happened again.”

“I feel for her chest, that’s my feeling. I’m bound. Of course, it harbours rats. Jerry-built, pardon my French. I don’t subscribe to that sort of programme. Well I’m from Hampton-Wick myself so I’m used to innuendo.”

These disconnected fragments could either be written in long chains of nonsense, or tossed off as one-liners and dropped into the flow of the film as needed. Both methods were probably used. Dialogue became a freeform element of film, capable of being spliced up and rearranged without regard for strict sense or relevance. Language becomes more like tiles in a mosaic.

But the Greek chorus of disapproval, originating as just another layer which could run through the film as ironic commentary, turns out to have a narrative purpose also, when one character, falling from grace as a star of the young, smart crowd, ends up joining a group of bleak onlookers, undercutting the happy ending with their embittered asides. There are always places open for us in this chorus.

The second Beatles film, Help! (1965) was a challenging project for all concerned, as A Hard Day’s Night had been such a success the previous year but nobody wanted to simply remake it. Since the first film had a moderately realist surface, the follow-up was conceived as fantasy and farrago. Lester planned to keep it entertaining with visual fireworks, and wanted a script that did the same with language.

French-based American pulp writer Marc Behm pitched the plot of Jules Verne’s The Chinese Man from China without saying where he’d swiped it from, but this promising idea was nixed when a rival adaptation went into production. Charles Wood took over, though he later reflected, “It was just an assignment. I don’t think I did a particularly good job.”

It seems as if Marc Behm got a credit just for providing an unused idea, as Wood recalls coming up with the story. “I was fascinated by The Deceivers at the time by John Masters, so I made it about Thugee and Kali.” Master’s novel tells the story of an East India Company official who infiltrates a Hindu death cult. Wood reverses the pattern by having the cult pursue Ringo to get the sacrificial ring stuck on his finger.

Help! is deliberately a very silly film. The stereotyping of Indians can arguably be excused as part of the satire of Imperial fiction potboiler and their movie adaptations, even down to the casting of white actors in brownface, which was still standard practice even in serious treatments of the same kind of material, such as Hammer films’ various colonialist melodramas.

The loose plot keeps the action moving between songs, though the result is inevitably somewhat episodic: the repetitive threat/rescue alternation seems to owe a lot to The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Episodes in Switzerland and the Bahamas seem to have been included for tax purposes, but they give rise to some memorable sequences.

Wood’s skills come out best in dialogue when it’s not trying to deliver jokes, quips or smart remarks, but non-sequiturs, slang and garbled clichés and malapropisms. Comparing the dialogue to Wood’s stage work, the film seems amazing: the biggest pop band in the world made a film by a Royal Court dramatist whose surreal speeches seem like a mash-up/fold-in of Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett and William S. Burroughs. To find this stuff funny you have to accept that it doesn’t make sense. It isn’t a Marx Bros crosstalk routine because the jokes are nearly all abstract, they’re about painting word-pictures you can’t quite visualise, or jamming together bits of language that refuse to fit, or importing melodramatic attitudes into everyday life or vice versa. The line “I thought she was a sandwich, till she went spare on me hand,” is actually one of the saner utterances, in context.

The Beatles had just discovered marijuana and lost much of their interest in acting, and their skills in this area had never been highly developed, so their throwaway delivery and unconcerned manner allows them to float passively through the Bondian action, tossing off casual analyses of the ridiculous situations. As when Paul is shrunk to the size of an ant and narrowly avoids being stepped on. “We thought that was you,” says George, pointing at a red spot on the carpet, once Paul regains his full stature. “No, that’s not me,” replies Paul, calmly.

When Ringo can’t remove the deadly sacrificial ring, he remarks that the fire brigade once got his head out of some railings. “Did you want them to?” asks John. “No, I used to leave it there when I wasn’t using it for school,” Ringo explains serenely. “You can see a lot of the world from railings.”

For Lester’s next film, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he was forbidden the services of a screenwriter to rework the existing script, so ended up cloistered with cinematographer Nicolas Roeg to cobble together a new draft in secret. He reunited with Wood, however, for his following work, How I Won the War in 1967.

How I Won the War is based on a lightly satirical novel by Patrick Ryan disliked by Lester: the task was not to be faithful but to cannibalize the book for anything useful while subverting it at every turn. Wood, however, recalls “I loved the book.” This seems to set a pattern begun with The Knack and continued through most of Lester and Wood’s work, with Lester taking a somewhat oppositional approach to the material and Wood seeing himself more as a sympathetic collaborator with the original author.

Wood says: “Yes, I feel totally responsible to them, but I don’t bring it up should I meet them afterwards. None of them complained or even let me know they’d noticed that I had anything to do with it. It’s the director gets the blame. Quite right. Good man.”

The novel is a comic romp, a parody of war memoirs. In it, the filmmakers saw the raw material for a Brechtian attack on war cinema, which typically pretends to view the tragedy of war with “respect”, but basically transforms it into heroic entertainment.

Having read the book, it’s a surprise to find swathes of dialogue reproduced verbatim in the movie, including speeches that feel like pure Charles Wood. “My advice to you is always to keep your rifles strapped to a suitable portion of your body, a leg is good, otherwise you’ll find the wily Pathan will strip himself, mother-naked, grease himself all over, slippery as an eel, make off with your rifle, which is a crime.” Again, a vital part of the narrative is omitted by the befuddled speaker, in this case, the reason the hypothetical Pathan should strip naked before his act of theft. That’s slipped into a later fragment: “The British army has always fought the wily Pathan, mother-naked, under the tent brailing like a snake he is.”

How I Won the War takes the explosion technique about as far as it could be expected to go and then some, beginning with the hero’s capture near the end of the war, then proceeding into flashback as he recounts his adventures up to this point, making a feint at the guys-on-a-mission conceit established in thickear stuff like The Dirty Dozen, then bypassing that and proceeding past the point the story is purportedly being narrated from, before finishing up in a contemporary setting with the hero staging a bleak reunion with the sole survivor of his unit.

But even within this non-linear timeline, disruptions are rife. We cut forward to another survivor from another unit, telling his story to his “child,” played by an adult in a school uniform. And his lips don’t move as he tells it. The effect is funny but terrifying, like much of the film, which quite consciously subverts and frustrates every emotional response the audience might be considering having.

We also cut to an audience watching the film itself, as Sergeant Transom yells for the camera to be taken away while a soldier breaks down from heat stroke and nervous strain. “Haven’t you insulted us enough without films?”

Wood incorporates fragments of his own stage works, notably Dingo, which established his sympathy with the common soldier and his uncommon ear for the unique slang and jargon of military speech, and a satirical ear for the cant and fake profundity of romantic writers on war. “The thing about fighting in the desert is that it is a clean war–without brutality,” muses Dingo. “And clean-limbed–without dishonorable action on either side.” Michael Crawford repeats these lines almost exactly in Lester’s film.

Wood recalls, “[I] had just had the Lord Chamberlain on my back over my play Dingo which had prevented it being produced at the National Theatre. So I shoved a lot of Dingo into it. Did twelve rewrites with Richard (I think.) Seemed like more. The dialogue is seamless of course because both Ryan and I had served in the same army, he up the sharp end, me ice cold – which brings to mind that both Dingo and War were a send up of all those war films. I always wanted to put The Cruel Sea through the Lester/Wood mincer much as I admired it… (But best of all for the mincer, In Which We Serve).”

David Lean’s films are also referenced by stolen snatches of music from Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t know if Lean knew about this merciless ridicule when he befriended Lester later, based on his admiration for the editing in Petulia. (“It’s one of those pictures that make me proud of being a director.”)

How I Won the War elaborates on Dingo‘s approach, dropping bits of concert party / music hall comedy into realistically staged combat, and the cinematic scope allowed for even greater discordance between real landscapes and ordnance, and bizarre ruptures of time and space, as when a soldier with his legs blown off is “comforted” by his wife, who comes running in from nowhere in her apron and advises him to “run it under the cold tap, love.”

Lester noted ruefully, “One learns with time that Brechtian alienation is a synonym for audience’s backs disappearing down a street.” Nobody, it seems, at the time, was open to a film doing what Wood routinely did on the stage, jamming reality and surrealism, tragedy and comedy, up against one another so hard bits chipped off and flew in the customers’ faces. How I Won the War is a spiky, abrasive, uncomfortable film, uningratiating and free of sentimentality. Any time we are tempted to assume an agreeable closeness to the characters, the film tears them from our grasp.

Wood contributed, without credit, to Lester’s next film, Petulia. There was already a source novel and a screenplay, but Lester felt they were dishonest about the American middle class he came from. He returned to the US for the first time in fifteen years, bringing Wood with him, and they compiled notes based on things they saw and overheard. The film’s fragmentary style derives partly from this patchwork document, partly from Lester’s conviction that achronological editing was “a way to reflect that frazzled and disjointed response to a society that was in chaos,” and partly to “a lack of confidence that the story would hold up,” if told in a conventional linear way.

Six weeks before filming, Lester decided the script needed Americanizing, and handed Wood’s work to Lawrence Marcus, who was able to bring his own experience of divorce to the story (both Wood and Lester remain happily wed to their first wives).

Having shot the film in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, and terrified Warner Bros by shooting real people on the streets, Lester fled back to England to post-produce it away from studio interference, layering into the soundtrack many of the overheard lines from the initial research trip, though usually mixed so low they can only be partially heard. This blend of drama, quasi-documentary and satire, aggressively diced up together, helps create the film’s curious intensity.

While Wood was in Turkey for the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade for Woodfall films, who had produced The Knack, the script credits for Petulia went to arbitration and as the middle writer he got left out.

The same year, 1968, saw the release of The Long Day’s Dying, directed by Peter Collinson from Wood’s first draft screenplay. Based on a novel from a former SAS commando, the WWII drama again showcases Wood’s military dialogue, but demonstrates what could happen when a less deft cinematic hand took charge. Collinson’s film-making is simple and effective, but his one grand cinematic gesture, an explosive climax shot in slow-motion and scored with Land of Hope and Glory, feels heavy-handed, compared to the more subtle ways Wood expresses his deep ambiguity about war and the military.

The Charge of the Light Brigade was another non-Lester film, this time for Tony Richardson, who also borrowed Lester’s usual cinematographer, David Watkin. Wood quickly produced an extremely wild first draft, nominally based on Cecil Woodham-Smith’s history, The Reason Why. This seems to have been intended to establish a claim on the title, which had been previously used by Warner Bros. Richardson encouraged a less cartoonish approach for the rewrite, but parts of the original were carried over. Animator Richard Williams rendered a series of sequences in the style of Victorian cartoons, which served as bridging material, and to broaden the story’s social sweep.

“The animation came from the earlier, wilder draft,” recalls Wood. “I did the words for the heroic song or anthem that John Addison asked me for. Should have a credit for that.”

“I do not propose to recount my life in any detail what is what. No damn business of anyone what is what, I am Lord Cardigan, that is what. Them cherrybums, you see ’em tight, my cherrybums, I keep ’em tight. Ten thousand a year out me own pocket I spend to clothe ’em. A master cutler sharps their swords and I keep ’em tight-stitched, cut to a shadow. Good.”

Wood brought to the dialogue an incredible feeling for the strangeness of Victorian speech, drawing on Thackeray, and also “memoirs of the time, the best way of making a stab at the spoken word is to get the rhythm – it’s there in the written word. Henty is […] great, though later. He lifted descriptions and dialogue direct from written source, great chunks of it.”

The writing of G.A. Henty, prolific English adventure novelist and war correspondent, was considered xenophobic even in the Victorian era, but his direct recording of military dialogue is an essential resource. Wood’s soldiers have their own peculiar syntax: though their behaviour often shows us how like us they are, their speech is filtered through Wood’s strange-maker. The resulting film feels uncommonly like time-travel, with the audience simply plunged into an alien period with no help from anyone. The playful optical effects Richardson had lavished on Tom Jones, mainly out of an attack of nerves in the edit room, are absent. It’s not a sexy romp: we end on a dead horse.

 Animator Richard Williams developed his technique of mixing from live-action to  animation on Lester’s Forum. “David Lean’s dedicated maniac” Eddie Fowlie supplied the dead horse, walking it into position and executing it himself.)

Wood’s last sixties work for Lester, apart from the unfilmed adaptation of George MacDonald Fraser’s first Flashman novel, was on The Bed Sitting Room. Lester had been preparing Joe Orton’s Up Against It, intended to star Mick Jagger and Ian McKellen, but one morning his chauffeur discovered Orton murdered. Lester switched from a musical satire to a surreal post-nuclear comedy without quite getting around to notifying United Artists, who were bankrolling it.

Here the original play is credited to Spike Milligan & John Antrobus, the screenplay to Antrobus, and an ambiguous credit of “adaptation” is given to Wood.

“I haven’t the faintest idea how the credit was arrived at,” says Wood. “I was astonished to find I had it though I had done some work on it I seem to remember. It was a terrific screenplay by Spike and John Antrobus so I didn’t do much.”

After the fragmentation of Lester’s previous films, The Bed-Sitting Room‘s simpler style and construction offers an early clue to the new direction. The proposed Flashman film collapsed, and Lester spent close to five years shooting commercials. His return in 1973 with The Three Musketeers, on which Wood did an uncredited polish, confirmed a style which, superficially at least, was more classical, less obtrusive.

Wood’s later films, though artistically ambitious, are genre films; his sixties scripts, even if they weren’t recognized as such, are art films.


The Devils and Miss Jones

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2016 by dcairns


I totally missed an excellent opportunity to interview Gemma Jones this week. I could have called in THE DEVILS and Miss Jones. It didn’t even occur to me to ask, as I was all geared up to interview somebody else — and the fruits of THAT interview will appear here soon.

I would have asked her all about THE DEVILS, of course — I’m pretty well totally ignorant about the rest of her career. But she manages an important and difficult task in that, her debut film (wait, hang on, just looking it up — yes, it WAS her debut film). She’s the least extreme character in the movie — and yet, surrounded by lunatics and scheming villains, she holds our interest. Though the movie seems at times to endorse a Catholic Madonna/whore schism, GJ’s character is neither — she has a perfectly healthy sex drive and the film respects her for it. She is puzzled and vexed by the challenge of living a good life according to the precepts of the Church, whilst surrounded by corruption and things that don’t seem to fit with what the Book says — as anyone might be. Besides marrying Oliver Reed (in a “blasphemous midnight nuptial,” my favourite kind), her main plot role is to ask intelligent questions.


As madness takes over, Jones disappears from the movie, only to abruptly take over in the final shot, which is a stunner. I actually suggested this film to Sight & Sound when invited to write about a movie ending. This is surely the best of its year. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t tasked with writing a thousand words for publication on it, though, since I don’t know what I’d have said, other than raving on about its magnificence.

Well, maybe I’d have referred back to the two dream sequences — actually, masturbatory fantasies would be more accurate. Looks to me like these were shot in Russell’s beloved Lake District (Russell fans should totally go there — it’d be like TOMMY going back to the source at the end of his film), although the only non-Pinewood location listed is Bamburgh* — a stone’s throw from me! (But we know they also filmed in a prison somewhere, for Richelieu’s library, and some stately gardens for the King to shoot his Protestant crow in.) Russell always regretted not shooting both of these in black & white, for consistency’s sake. I say the hell with consistency — the vibrant red of Vanessa Redgrave’s hair is reason enough for colour.


Vanessa’s Sister Jeanne has hair in these sequences as she imagines herself as Mary Magdalen, drying Christ’s feet with her hair — probably the sexiest bit in the New Testament — if you need porn and all you have to hand is the Bible, I recommend turning to Book One. The red is great, but admittedly what cinematographer David Watkin does with the b&w is also wonderful — printed on colour stock, it emerges with quite a strong indigo tint, and it has the blown-out highlights he discovered on THE KNACK.


How does this reflect on the ending, in which Gemma Jones wanders from close-up into extreme longshot, through the broken walls of Loudun (up a hill of shattered masonry) and off along a narrow road lined with skeletons broken on the wheel. Well, that shot imperceptibly turns to b&w as it cranes up, helped by the lack of colour in the setting anyway, so that by the time we’ve risen over the wall to see the distant terrain, the world has performed a reverse Oz transformation, just in time for the end credits to appear in bold RED.

It’s beautiful and bleak, and it feels meaningful too, in a poetic way I can’t pin down. I want to suggest that the world has been subsumed into Sister Jeanne’s fantasies. Madness has won. Her perverted view of religion has triumphed even as the city walls came tumbling down. The connection is not really that literal, of course, since Russell does not use words to express it, only images, which speak more powerfully and more primitively to us.


*Bamburgh Castle doubles for Loudun in the long shot near the film’s start, where Dudley Sutton and a Protestant slave gang is transporting a vast, grey, slug-like tarpaulin-swathed cart of demolition equipment across your basic blasted heath. It’s probably the same landscape from the final shot — I never knew it was Scotland! The castle and adjoining beach also feature in Polanski’s MACBETH, BECKETT and THE TEMPEST, directed by DEVILS’ designer Derek Jarman.

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.