Archive for The Knack

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.

Film Club: The Knack

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2015 by dcairns

Film Club: the concept. We all see a film and talk about it. Pretty simple. This time we have SPECIAL GUESTS.


Plot synopsis for the unwary. In a narrow London domicile, schoolteacher Colin (Michael Crawford) laments his lack of knack with the ladies, whereas Tolen (Ray Brooks) apparently has them lining up. The arrival of the Bohemian Tom (Donal Donnelly) and the innocent Nancy (Rita Tushingham) sparks off a whirling comic psychodrama, commented on by a “Greek chorus of disapproval,” the middle-aged Londoners who “don’t subscribe to that sort of programme.”

I’ve got so much interview material that it seems to me I should just let the principles talk, and I’ll weigh in in the comments section if you say anything I like! THE KNACK is an odd thing. Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, told me she reacted with a “what WAS that?” And she’s super-clever. The thing is, I don’t think that reaction is inappropriate or misses the mark — it may be more a question of whether you enjoy that sensation…

Ann Jellicoe’s quotes are taken from the intro to her play Shelley, or The Idealist.



I wrote The Knack partly for the same reason as Shaw wrote You Never Can Tell and Ibsen Love’s Comedy: to make sure of getting a play produced after an early one had failed. So The Knack is a comedy with four characters and one set, but I wrote it mainly because I wanted to explore comedy, to write a play that should be full of joy, innocence and zest.

The Knack, like my first play, was written from the inside, character determining situation, situation defining character. The principle that action is not narrated was developed further. In The Sport of My Mad Mother, the characters were incapable of understanding their own motives; in The Knack, Tom sees clearly what motivates him and the others. Colin needs help but Tom sees danger in giving him ready-made answers; instead he tries to put Colin into situations where Colin will be able to recognize the nature of his problems and perhaps find his own answers; this is in contrast to Tolen who is always giving Colin good advice which weakens Colin and makes Tolen feel powerful. The man who understands seldom makes a direct statement; the others reveal themselves through what they say and do. The play is about how you should treat other people, and its form reinforces what it has to say. Speech rhythms are more subtly used than in The Sport of My Mad Mother, but there are interlocking rhythms which, with the youth of the characters and their zest, give the play its bounce. I was, however, beginning to be bored with verbal rhythms used in an obvious, musical way as they were in the first play, and to feel they were a mannerism.

[…] The success of The Knack in New York and as a film has freed me to follow what path I choose, at least for the time being. But I begin to feel alienated (temporarily I hope) from a society which has adopted The Knack and, it seems to me, subtly degraded it: A New York reviewer was able to write of the film that it was all the better for the elimination of the moral values of the play. The Knack is about the people who seemed to me most fresh and interesting at the time I wrote it.

Ann Jellicoe.



Through the kind auspices of Kate Wood, I was able to divert Charles Wood, celebrated playwright and screenwriter of THE KNACK… AND HOW TO GET IT, away from the cricket long enough to obtain answers to Ten Questions ~

Dear David, use what you like of my thoughts on “The Knack” below. It was all so long ago. I was lucky to get the chance to do it, for which for which I thank Richard and Oscar and Woodfall. Did a few more for them, enjoyed them all. All the best with it, let me us know how it goes, Charles.

1) When and how did the offer to adapt Ann Jellicoe’s play come about? Do you recall how you first met Richard Lester?

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 “Hard Day’s Night”. I went off to write some pages for him. Anyway, lots more drafts and it was done.

2) Lester has said that the screenplay went through a great many drafts, including one without the character of Tom. Was this a vexing process or do you like exploring multiple approaches?

Richard remembers better than me. It wasn’t at all vexing. Richard and Deirdre made me very welcome in their house. It was my first film and I knew nothing so I enjoyed it. Learned a lot very quickly, I thought. It was very enjoyable.

3) Lester also says that you both wanted to avoid the play’s explicit connection of Tolen with fascism. Did you then have a discussion about what the film would be about, or do you prefer not to be too explicit about that? Does the film have what the screenwriting books call “an underlying theme”?

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.

4) I’m fascinated by the way you exploded the play and put little fragments together in a new pattern. A lot of the dialogue is exactly faithful to the original but the shape is different and what it’s saying is different. Similarly with How I Won the War — I was surprised when I tracked down the book how much of it you’d used, but how opposite the effect was. I suppose I want to ask how you feel about the authors you adapt — do you feel any responsibility to them?

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.

Wanda Ventham — Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum — plays the gym mistress. A Mumberbatch! Crawford’s vision of himself as a dirty old man spying on schoolgirls is a joke that’s a bit disturbing, but, as Steven Soderbergh says, “The expression on his face: hilarious!” Wood invented the staff room scene, which has some dazzling bits of verbal weirdness — what John Gielgud called “woodery-pokery.” 

5) You’re IN The Knack. How did that come about?

I fancied getting back into uniform for a minute and being a Horse Guard rather than a Lancer this time and Richard didn’t think the line meant anything so he punished me by making me say it – I got my own back by doing it badly. Serves him right. Shouldn’t meddle in military matters.

6) Nancy’s journey through London is wholly invented for the film. How much was scripted, how much did it develop on location? Did Lester work closely with you on visual gags? Everybody makes the mistake of assuming he improvises everything, but I’m sure huge amounts were planned and written (I would love to see the script!).
I can’t remember. 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 can’t let you see anything because I don’t have a script in any of its forms.

7) When you fragmented the play, how easy was it to find a new structure?

It structured itself, with a lot of help from Richard. I rarely had the faintest idea. If I got too lost I followed the play. Always go back to the source.

8) Did you consciously adapt your style to match Jellicoe’s dialogue? It’s striking how well it all blends together. (Bits in HOW I WON THE WAR that I assumed were yours turned out to be from the book. Lots in THE BED SITTING ROOM that sounds like Milligan/Antrobus turns out to be you.)

Yes. That’s what they pay me for.

9) The controversy about the use of the word “rape” — which nobody seemed to be shocked by at the time. And people don’t seem quite so shocked today as they were ten years ago. Since your theatre work often crams together comedy with upsetting material, I’m assuming you were aware this was an edgy thing to do. I wonder if the film had followed the play’s more stridently feminist line, if this whole thing would have been accepted as part of its polemic. I guess I don’t have a specific question… maybe, “How does one justify joking about rape?” But that’s almost too easy: jokes are always about serious things.

I’m astonished that there’s any controversy at all now. And as you rightly say, jokes are serious things. (My latest play was turned down and criticised by one theatre for having long serious speeches turned off with a comic quip. But that’s the way I write (together with lots of others I should have told them. Couldn’t be bothered). Anyway, it’s my last.

10) What did you think of the finished film when you saw it? Have you seen it lately?

No, I haven’t seen it for a long time. I thought it was wonderful, magic in black and white. David Watkin – it was his first feature film as well – shot it beautifully. He became a firm friend, cemented by “The Charge”. You ought to read his memoirs for his take on the film, opened my eyes. CW. 2015.

Knack, The / The Knack...And How To Get It (1965) | Pers: Rita Tushingham | Dir: Richard Lester | Ref: KNA001AB | Photo Credit: [ Woodfall/Lopert / The Kobal Collection ] | Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement


I spoke on the phone to Rita Tushingham, while Tasha the Siamese cat yowled in my ear and somebody in the street played bagpipes, of all things — I know I’m in Scotland, but you can take local colour too far. I stress that both cat and bagpipes were at my end of the line. Rita only had to contend with a grandchild attired as the Red Skull from CAPTAIN AMERICA.

You originated the role of Nancy in The Knack?

Yeah, we took it on tour first and then to the Royal Court Theatre in London.

Ann Jellicoe wrote that, depending on the audience, it would seem to be a completely different  play.

Some people walked out because they were so shocked, if you can believe it. We played it in Cambridge and they just loved it, and in Bath they absolutely couldn’t get it at all, they had no idea what we were on.


It seems like that was a sort of microcosm of the way the film has gone, because it went from being incredibly fashionable and acclaimed to being ignored or considered embarrassing, or shameful, and now I think it’s being appreciated more again.
I just thought that it was all in her mind anyway, where she goes around saying “Rape!” and I think it was that they found offensive, wasn’t it. And the fact that Tolen was saying “They’re all queuing up to go into the Albert Hall: it was a fantasy. All the characters are on their different sort of trips. And Nancy was the innocent one, but looking for love, really.

In Germany I did a Q&A about THE KNACK and one young woman got quite irate at the word “rape” — “There’s nothing funny about that!” It wasn’t meant to be funny. It was just a word that was used. Nowadays, everyone’s far more aware about that, but in the days we shot it, it was a very different thing. It was the same meaning, because it’s a violent act, but you have to look at what it was in the film. She was offended that we should have used that word, and I did say to her, excuse my language, “What would you rather say, ‘I’ve been fucked?'” How to explain it? You can’t change it, can you? It’s THERE.

It just became, for some reason, harder for people to read. It’s a shocking word, and it’s used a lot in the film…

Oh, absolutely, and I would never ever make light of that, and indeed we didn’t. It’s an appalling act. But it wasn’t meant to be saying “this is alright and it’s funny.” That was not the intention at all.

You can write a joke about something without implying that the thing itself isn’t serious.

Exactly. And also, you can raise people’s knowledge and bring things to their attention. When you think about what is happening now and all these cases that are coming up about historical sexual abuse… it’s a very different way of looking at things, and a good way of looking at things, now, but in those days it was just never meant to be offensive.

One thing the film does seem to show is that you’ve got a country where people are ignoring things. When you run through the streets shouting “Rape!” and the world goes on as if nothing has happened.
But I’m afraid to say, David, that’s what’s happening now. Look what they were doing in the sixties, and seventies, these cases that are now coming to the fore. People did turn a blind eye, didn’t they?

But THE KNACK was not about that scene where my character’s running about shouting “Rape!” That was not what it’s about. It was, in a sense, a sexual awakening, and in fact Tolen, the womanizer, he [inaudible], Tom went on to be happy, and Colin and Nancy found each other and love. It wasn’t meant to be anything other than that. I think if you played that and didn’t have the word “rape” in it, I think people wouldn’t be looking for something in it offensive. There’s nothing sexually explicit in THE KNACK, it’s very innocent.

It throws people, because the film is so visually innocent — you see at most a knee, and then this comes along and they don’t know how to react. But it’s the scene where Nancy finds her voice and becomes powerful.

And has them all running around after her, especially the Tolen character. Of course, when you look at any film that was shot years ago, there are things in it that wouldn’t be shot now. But no one — or at least, no one that I know — makes a film to be offensive. Why would you?


(Lester makes a Hitchcockian cameo as one of the befuddled onlookers.)


Can you remember meeting Richard Lester for the first time?

Yeah, I met him… [laughs] it’s funny because I remember I met him at Woodfall Films, and I’d just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES. And I remember saying “I’ve just finished shooting GIRL WITH GREEN EYES and Desmond Davis is my favourite director.” Which IS quite obnoxious. But we laugh about that. It was just done, thinking of something to say and it wasn’t meant to be rude.

But I remember walking along Curzon Street chatting to Richard. Immediately we got on. What was interesting was the way he works, he’s almost editing it as he goes along, he covers things so well. Because of his understanding of comedy and things. He doesn’t labour it, he goes onto the next — and this is what was so innovative about him when he came to the fore, and a lot of people have been inspired and copied his style — the comedy sort of rolls on. You hope the audience are going to be with you, but you don’t layer it on like… a thick layer of lard.
His style of working, with multiple cameras, and the pace he works at, there are actors who love that and a few who are thrown by it…

I love that. He doesn’t like doing lots of takes. So you cover it. You know if a take’s gone — I don’t mean to say you’ve been good, but if a take seems to have gone quite well and sometimes if it hasn’t. And sometimes, when you’re doing things and it’s the end of the day and they turn the camera round on you, and you’ve got to reproduce what you’ve been doing all day, sometimes you feel a bit [?] but if you have the multiple cameras, especially in comedy — because so many things happen in comedy that you can’t recreate, it’s of the moment, it happened, in fact, on screen, and the audience experiences that. You can’t always plan, obviously you have to be very structured, but if something just happens and it’s funny and you’ve got it covered, it’s great that you have that.

Also, you’re kind of up and ready for it. I know that some people don’t like it, they find it quite off-putting, I like it, because you just feel that at least they’re gonna have something they can use.



Filming on the streets of London, having come from the stage, was that distracting?

No, because mostly everything I’ve done has been on location anyway. I did the theatre after I’d done A TASTE OF HONEY. I didn’t mind that at all. It wasn’t distracting. We were just going along and doing the scene. The crew is kind of hidden. The camera is hand-held. ..And my grand-child’s just walked in. Dressed as some kind of Captain America villain.

Keeping the movie theme going.

It didn’t worry me. It was just that dancing along Kensington High Street and singing. But people don’t want to get involved. Even now they don’t. They just think “Oh, there’s a nutter,” and just carry on. And The Mall, now, you wouldn’t be able to shoot like that. And Buckingham Palace. And Hyde Park. But people just sort of got on… […] It was so easy to work on, and being such a small cast.

How did you all get on?

We all got on fine. And all different. They were all very different personalities, the three of them. And that’s why I think it works so well, because you can see that on screen. […] And also Donal Donnelly was such a lovely performer. He’s sort of lyrical, isn’t he? He has that magical sort of feel. And not afraid to go with it. And Michael Crawford was just a bumbling sort of teacher but he was perfect for the role.

In the Soderbergh book, Lester says they worried that Tom was an underwritten part, but that Donnelly solved it purely by being a lovable, relaxed Irish actor.

He was almost magical, wasn’t he? Almost spiritual in a way. 

He’s just happy and self-contained.

With life, and himself.


A difference of opinion on interior design with the future Mrs. Ethel Shroake (Dandy Nichols).


In the scene in the park, you have to act to the camera. Was that difficult to do?

No, no… Well, nothing’s easy, is it? But we just went and did it. In, I think we did one take, we might have done two… You work on it beforehand, in your mind, you study it, and then you just go with it.

I’ve heard some actors say they play to their own reflection in the lens.

No, I could never do that, I can’t bear to see myself. I didn’t even think about that. It was just te camera and me. I would imagine now, if you do something like that, it really IS just you and the camera, because everyone can watch on the monitor, so all you really need is the operator. And that is much more intimate. 

It wasn’t theatrical at all, the character was playing it out to Tolen, so she was playing to someone, she wasn’t just saying it, mumbling or anything.


[Here, Fiona starts mouthing something to me, but I can’t lipread, so I get her to write it down. Then I can’t read her handwriting. So eventually I give her permission to speak (such power!) It boils down to: The monitor on a set can be distracting…

Oh gosh. I hate them. But then they’re always off-set, you don’t see them. But often I’ve found some young actors able to go and watch the monitor and see things. I hate that, I just can’t do it, because suddenly you’re seeing yourself, performing. And I think you lose that intimate thing within the scene. But it doesn’t bother some people. I don’t even like to hear playback. I just like to do it and trust. This is where the director comes in — you have to trust that he’s got what he wants. And sometimes they’ll say “Can we go again?” but I don’t want to see how I twitched my left eyebrow or throw my hand up in the air. It could take something away. I think you would be more restrained, you would lose some freedom as an actor. 

Well self-consciousness is the enemy…

Oh God, yeah. And you mustn’t have that, because when you’re doing it and they say “Action,” you are performing, you are that character, in that scene, and the situation is such… As you know, it’s never in continuity, and you just have to go for that and be aware of what’s come before and what comes after. Some people say, “Oh, I didn’t like the way I looked there.” You can’t think of that. It starts to chip away at what you’re trying to do, I think.

That might sound very odd, but that’s how it works for me. 

No, that makes perfect sense. I know Lester hated the idea of monitors and wouldn’t have them.

He knew what he wanted, and he knew that he would get it. And that’s why he used — in THE BED SITTING ROOM, he had quite a few cameras. I think that’s such a good film.

[For reasons of space, I’ve broken off our discussion of THE BED SITTING ROOM for a separate post later in the week. Don’t miss it!]

I’d like to say hello to your wife, HELLO. 

Fiona: Hello Rita, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you in our living room, as a disembodied voice.

Nice to talk to you too. I don’t want you to feel I’m ignoring you. […] And funnily enough, in about half an hour, Richard and Deirdre are coming here to have tea. […] We’ve been friends for so long.

I was struck by Tolen’s line “You’ve got Chinese eyebrows,” and wondered if Ann Jellicoe had you in mind when she wrote that.

[Laughs] I don’t know. I did work with Ann, but I don’t know, I shouldn’t think she’d have had me in mind. I think the only person who can answer that is Ann Jellicoe.



Richard Lester was kind enough to let me interview him for a whole day for Criterion’s disc of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT — and provided lunch, too. This is more or less the complete transcript of our discussion of THE KNACK.

THE KNACK must have happened fairly quickly after A HARD DAY’S NIGHT?

Very quickly. The offer came, I’d finished, we had the opening, and we went to France, as a family, and I think a courier came and brought a request to look at the play, and a request for a meeting. And they knew that there would be a second Beatles film which would start in February or March, so it had to happen quickly. The story of my life is, “You’ve only got two weeks.” I mean, JUGGERNAUT was rewritten in two and a half weeks, completely.

With THE KNACK, we had the time, because Charles Wood and I started, and I think we did close to four or five screenplays before we started. We tried getting rid of one of the characters [poor Tom!] we threw everything out and started from scratch, taking the essence of the piece and trying to make it into cinema, and not be what it was. And out of it, a lot of the quality of the characters changed. Tolen, who was quite a Nazi figure, a fascist figure, became the most pitiful of them.


Did you think it would be too obvious, to have him be fascist, or did you just not believe it?

I just believed that ultimately that would lead to foolishness. Tom says, about Tolen, “He must be a sexual failure.” “He’s having it five times a day.” “Well exactly.” [laughs].

And eventually he joins the Greek chorus.

Yes, the roles reverse.

I suppose because you changed it so much, you don’t have the benefit of being able to say “This is a serious feminist comedy” and the use of the word “rape” has become problematic.

Yes it has. I found, suddenly, it became an issue. Mostly in Eastern European countries, which was odd: that’s where it first started. What I don’t remember is whether than sequence, or anything like it, happened in the play.

[It did: and the play’s use of the word is just as whimsical as the film’s, part of an ongoing strategy whereby words lose their meanings, or acquire new ones — “What about the cases?” being a good example. I showed the film to students once and it was, indeed, a Polish girl who found the R word shocking and perplexing. And one would never accuse the Poles of being slow at seeing the uses of metaphor, or being compelled to take things literally. Look at the movies they make.]

With that word, Nancy suddenly becomes the most powerful character in the film.


Were you surprised it got an “X” certificate at the time?

[Laughs] Everything got an “X” certificate the time! Almost everything I did.

Lester was interested in packing a scene with so much detail — action, music, voice-over and subtitles — that any given group of people in the audience might be taking in entirely different elements.

And THE KNACK was your first film collaboration with David Watkin.

Yes. We were working together in commercials. I brought David on. [He had] worked in British Transport Films, doing railway films. I got David his first commercials, which he did with me, and then his first feature, and then his first colour feature [HELP!]. And then we just stayed working together, it was a wonderful experience. He was a man, like myself, of foolhardy courage. he would try anything. He would experiment with leaving the silver nitrate in the negative to see what the colours came out like… without much cover!

It’s a shame he didn’t make more black and white films…

I think the most beautiful black and white film I ever saw was David’s film of MADEMOISELLE, Tony Richardson’s film, which was booed out of the cinema when it showed at Cannes. They just ridiculed it. But it was absolutely stunning.


The white room was a huge innovation…

We did it first in a white kitchen of an Irish actress who was doing a commercial. And when the rushes came back, that had happened, and she looked slightly negroid, which didn’t attract the clients enormously. But where it came into its own, I think, was MARAT/SADE, where he was putting so much backlight into people that they began to distort, in the way that those Henri Lartigue photographs did. And THE DEVILS, again. 

And THE KNACK introduces the Greek chorus…

I don’t know how we started to do it, but very early on I put a small Arriflex with a baby 4-1 zoom, which was quite easy to use, and we would put a GPO hide — they used to have a little tent, if they were working down a manhole, they would put it on — we would just stick that on the pavement where we were shooting a sequence, as most of the film was shot outdoors, and photograph the people who had stopped to look. And then, when we cut the most interesting bits in, Charles and I wrote a few gags, and then we got a group of voice artists, like [John] Bluthal, like Adrian Edmondson whom I used to use a lot [later, I assume], like Miriam Margolyes, who could be relied upon to ad-lib. Say, You be the woman there, you be the man, and you play around until you get some bits, and then lay them over. Which I liked, as a technique, very much. So you got the sense that this group of young people were playing against a Greek chorus of disapproval.

It worked very well, for me, in setting that tone for THE MUSKETEERS. The “us and them” part of it, the fact that you have people, the servant class, who are always there. We put in that line ~

“This [pass] is for one person.”

“I am one person. That is a servant.”

I also asked, though I can’t find the bit on the tape so this next bit is a paraphrase, whether Lester ever fell in love with the temp track during his edits, so that it became a wrench to replace it with the newly commissioned score.

ALWAYS! I score the end of THE KNACK with THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. Though John Barry did… quite a good job, on that occasion, so it was alright.

To end with, I want to link to my first ever post on Shadowplay, which is about THE KNACK, so for one day the blog can become an unending moebius strip. There.



Talking Points

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2015 by dcairns


Richard Lester once said that the difference between A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and THE KNACK was the four protagonists of the former enjoy perfect communication without having to talk, while the four protagonists of the latter talk all the time without ever communicating. When this was quote back to him by Joseph Gelmis he described it as “Very glib, and very true.”

What do we talk about when we talk about THE KNACK?


The anxiety of influence — it could be argued that the film had a negative effect, because the dumb copies proliferated to such a degree that the original came to seem less fresh — part of the reason it was neglected/despised in the eighties — and because those copies became THE style of the sixties, and the British sixties in particular. It could be argued that the movie demonstrates the danger of injecting a concentrated dose of originality into a formally staid and sclerotic industry.

How does a film go from winning the Palme D’Or and defining the style of a generation of cinema (far more so than A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, actually) to being considered old hat and sexist and embarrassing? It’s the same film, after all.

Is Michael Crawford annoying? Or brilliant? Or both?

Have you read or seen the play? What do you think of the changes? I think structurally, it’s one of the best adaptations ever — as Lester said, not so much “opening out” as EXPLODING the play. Also, they come up with an ending for Tolen, which the play lacks — I guess the point being that he’s an unchanging character. But I love what the film does with him. “We’re all of us more or less sexual failures.”

The Greek chorus. Why aren’t there more Greek choruses in movies?

When is a rape joke not a rape joke? Is the film unconscious of the offence it might give, is it deliberately courting offence, does it offend you? Or, radically, can I suggest that the discomfort it produces entirely intentional and part of its meaning? The play is feminist. Is the film? A bit?

Do you find Ray Brooks attractive? I find Rita Tushingham attractive.

Donal Donnelly is in WATERLOO, THE GODFATHER III, THE DEAD, and worked for John Ford three times. Why is he not an axiom of cinema?

Pauline Kael said “It’s a great technique, but what can you do with it?” How should we answer her, bearing in mind that she can’t talk back?


Don’t rush to answer me now — think it over between now and Monday is when we will DO THIS THING. And of course don’t feel limited. I’m just interested in anybody’s responses, what bits strike them as interesting, what we can learn about film storytelling.

For now, here’s one question you CAN answer — can you think of KNACK-influenced films where the influence was positive? There are definitely some.

BTW, the whole film’s on YouTube (shouldn’t be, but is) so there are no excuses for not seeing it (except honesty).