Sunday, 31 July 2011

Creator Gray Jolliffe on Stainless Steel and the Star Spies

(l to r) 'Compromise' crewmembers Gadget and Stainless Steel in Gray Jolliffe's Christmas 1980 sci-fi puppet extravanganza Stainless Steel and the Star Spies
Created by award-winning cartoonist Gray Jolliffe, live-action sci-fi puppet special Stainless Steel and the Star Spies was perhaps the most unusual project in Euston Films’ history.  Mr Jolliffe, best known today for his popular Daily Mail strip ‘Chloe & Co.’, was in 1980 creative director of an advertising agency - not to mention, the real scribe behind Eddie Shoestring’s caricatures in the BBC detective series starring Trevor Eve.

Stainless Steel chronicled the adventures of the crew of ‘SS Compromise’ – a race of robots called the Metaliens – and their quest to retrieve the Maguffin-esque Kleptonite Ball and return it to the tyrannical leader Kublai Chrome back on their home planet.  Commander Steel and his crew, amongst them Lieutenant Utensil, Professor Gizmo, Gadget and Canz, are transported through a Black Hole into a ‘Don’t Matter’ Universe and forced to search for the ball on a planet called Earth.

Voiced by a talented cast including Ed Bishop, Bob Hoskins and Graham Stark, and featuring Anna Karen and Fabia Drake as the human element, it is a lot of fun and Gray Jolliffe packs in the puns on the metallic nature of his protagonists with the same punch as a Pixar movie.

Shown by ITV on New Year’s Day 1981 at 4.45pm to an audience of 7.9 million, the show was unfortunately not deemed a success and a follow-up series never appeared.

Euston Films’ Chief Executive at the time, Verity Lambert, talks about the project in a BFI interview with Manuel Alvarado, conducted in January 1985, saying that what appealed about the idea was its originality – it was quite outside Euston’s usual remit.  She goes on to say that the intention was to make a half-hour pilot but, because of the expense, it was talked up to an hour for which it suffered.

Reaction was positive from many quarters however and novelist Hazel Holt, then critic for ‘The Stage and Television Today’, after describing it as “very stylish”, writes in the edition dated 8 Jan 1981: “Writer Gray Jolliffe took the principle of the Smash advertisement to look at Earth with alien eyes (the Earth is a Don’t Matter planet inhabited by non-ferrous life forms) and produced some memorable lines: “The people have no pig-iron”, “Let them eat platinum” and “What about the automatic pilot?”/”You are the automatic pilot!”

“As a parody the film was not limited in its appeal to the younger generation; the statutory Black robot reminded one of Alien and the villain Kublai Chrome looked rather like the baddie in Star Wars.

“It was a programme not only for children who would enjoy the ghastly puns.  It was for anyone who has seen Close Encounters or who has failed Physics with Chemistry O-level.”

An unusual project then and one which had somewhat disappeared from view.  Fortunately, the company Network has come to rescue of British TV history once more by releasing it on DVD earlier this year.

So having finally watched and enjoyed, I was curious to learn more about Stainless Steel and the Star Spies.  I contacted Gray Jolliffe via his website and he was kind enough to share his memories of the production:

I used to work in an advertising agency called BMP - Boase Massimi Pollitt - with a guy called John Webster and we did the Smash Martians, and they were fun.

Sometime after that a couple of guys from the company who actually made the Martians said “Why don’t we make them into a TV idea?  Could you write something?”  And I said “Yeah, I’d love to try that”.  So basically I wrote a pilot and two or three other episodes.  We just did it on spec.

But the Smash people and BMP didn’t want us to use the actual Martians.  That was no problem, because all the characters in Stainless Steel had to be totally different.
So we used the basic idea, but we changed the shape of the heads so they weren’t recognisable as ‘Smash’ Martians.  They were altogether more complicated.

Pete Richardson (of production design company BBRK Ltd, based at Shepperton Studios, who worked on many commercials) was the designer of the characters, he was a good guy.  I helped but he was the one who took them from paper designs and made them into three dimensions.  They were actually made of metal – aluminium and thing like that, all riveted together.  They made a nice model of the original spacecraft.

That’s a name I actually came up with, ‘Stainless Steel’.  I thought that’d be quite a good name for a metal hero.  It said everything really – that he was a ‘stainless’ character.

Other characters were Gadget; Professor Gizmo...  The villain was called Kublai Chrome; Rowbotham was his valet and he was always in fear of his life because Kublai Chrome was a real despot!

I happened to know a very nice woman [at Euston Films] called Linda Agran.  Linda was a very good friend of mine.  So I said to her “Linda, could I show you an idea I’ve got?” and she loved it and then she took it to show Verity Lambert.  Anyway, they phoned me soon after and said “Look, we want to make this – we want to make a pilot”.  So that’s what happened.

But everybody was committee-ing themselves.  It was my first foray into anything like that and so I wasn’t exactly going to start arguing with them – I just wanted to get it done.  Maybe I should’ve put my foot down, but I didn’t.

They wanted to change the script a lot.  They wanted to bring it back to earth - they got a lot of real people in there.  I wanted to make it a space romp with robots only but they thought there should be a human interest.

So I had to rewrite this and rewrite that. In the end, it all got a bit bogged down.  There were some good gags in it.  It was a curate’s egg of a thing but it was just too long.

I mean, I did it because it was worth doing but somehow it didn’t work - partly through my inexperience, and partly through the fact that Euston Films should have concentrated on the speed of the script more.

What happened was we got an hour long script that really could’ve been cut down to half an hour.  It was a bit slow, a bit repetitive.  When I look at it I think “Oh my God”.  What I know now!  Television has come on so much since then.  You look at this stuff and your inexperience shows.

And a lot of it at the end was unintelligible.  Looking at it now, I’m thinking “I didn’t write this, that doesn’t make any sense!”

I think it was about 6 weeks shooting, maybe 4, I can’t remember now.  It was slow-going, just about 3 minutes [filming] per day.

Originally, the whole script was read in the studio as if it was being played on radio. In animation, the first thing you start with is the script.

Later you’ve got the sound going on and the puppets are moving their mouths accordingly.  And of course there were all kinds of problems with the puppets, rolling their eyes, etc.  That was all [radio controlled].

So there was a lot of technical stuff going on.  And of course, unlike a TV commercial, where a company like Cadbury’s would throw a huge amount of money at the production, when you’re doing something like this for telly, money was very short so everything had to be done on a very tight budget.

(Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer) Freddie Young was on it, he was a wonderful old guy.  It was quite a coup to get [him] to light it, we were amazed.  He was probably just not busy at that particular moment.

There were about three [more] scripts but I don’t think the ratings were that good and they said “No, I don’t think we’re going to make any more of those”.  Disappointing, but I wasn’t really surprised, it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped it would.

It would’ve gone to different planets, different villains.  The Kleptonite Ball would have fallen into different hands; Kublai Chrome and his cohorts would have remained the major villains.

The other scripts probably involved more humans – they wanted interplay between humans and the Metaliens.

I don’t think it was for children, it was a little bit too sophisticated for children.  I put a lot of gags in there I don’t think children would’ve got.  It was designed, as far as I was concerned, for adults.  So it probably fell between two stools.

I’m not knocking Euston Films, they were very good.  They were in an area that they weren’t used to.  Nobody had ever done anything like that before, not for telly, not to that sort of scale.

It’s the kind of thing that they could do easily in Hollywood, but Euston were literally on a shoestring...

Many thanks to Gray Jolliffe.  As mentioned, Stainless Steel and the Star Spies was available on DVD courtesy of Network but appears to be deleted at present.
  Hopefully it will reappear soon.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Christopher Neame (1942-2011)

(l to r) Christopher Neame, Elspeth Huxley and director Roy Ward Baker on the African location for Euston Films' The Flame Trees of Thika in 1980
Producer Christopher Neame, who has passed away aged 68, was a key player in the Euston Films story.  Between 1978 and 1987, he oversaw the 13 episodes of popular wartime drama Danger UXB, 7-part Elspeth Huxley serial The Flame Trees of Thika, one-off features The Knowledge and Monsignor Quixote (which he adapted himself from the Graham Greene novella) and finally 3-part crime thriller Bellman and True.

And inspired by the rather hectic six month shoot on Danger UXB, he was also responsible for drawing up the famous "Producers' Memorandum", a guidebook for all subsequent Euston producers to refer to which would maximise their prep time:

"I am a firm subscriber to the belief that [pre-production] should be an extensive period with in-depth analysis of all production angles - it is, after all, the least expensive section of the whole thing!  I found a way of making it possible for directors to have plenty of preparation at Euston: basically, by combining editing and post-production work and viewing the overall position as a single unit."

Son of the late director Ronald Neame, Christopher's first major post in the film industry was as clapper boy with Hammer Productions in 1965.  Working his way up in the industry over the next decade, by the late 1970s the decline of British cinema prompted him to accept - after some initial resistance on his part - an invitation by his friend Johnny Goodman, to work in television instead.  Another old friend, John Hawkesworth, of Upstairs, Downstairs fame, was deviser of a new project for Thames/Euston about the bomb disposal squad in London during WW2, and the series needed a producer.

It was the beginning of a very creative decade for Mr Neame, which he expands upon in his highly informative, educational and entertaining - in short, Reithian! - memoir "A Take on British TV Drama: Stories from the Golden Years" (Scarecrow Press Inc., 2004).

Beginning my research on Euston Films in the autumn of 2009, I stumbled upon this volume and was greatly inspired by the stories it told - personal remembrances and indispensable insight into, indeed, the golden years of the company and British television in general, from a gentleman.

Wishing to learn more from this font of knowledge, I attempted to contact Mr Neame via his publishers.  To my delight, he was agreeable to a chat and so the following January, we had a phone conversation in which he answered all of my questions about Euston Films and television drama and was kindness personified.  I was shocked and dismayed to hear of his death last week.

Christopher Neame was a first-rate producer; as actor and friend Sam Waterston, with whom he worked on the CBS period adventure series Q.E.D., says in the book's foreword: "Read it for a direct sense of what it is to produce for television, what it takes, what it's like to live the life, and who is best suited to the task by temperament and attitude.  That will be someone who shares the author's taste for bedlam, improvisation, jury-rigged, skin-of-your-teeth escapes from disaster and the great joke and noble enterprise that is the entertainment business along with the more seriously focused aspect".

As for Mr Neame, I suspect he retired from the screen at the right time.  He was sceptical about the committee-led nature of television commissioning nowadays, but retained his optimism nonetheless: "To be absolutely fair, there is good material to be found on television, although one has to dig deeper and suffer longer waits between one nugget and the next".

As the book went to press in 2003, he had just heard the sad news that John Hawkesworth had passed away.  Of his friend, he says: "There is now a void in my life where once stood a kind and thoughtful man".

The family and friends of Christopher Neame are undoubtedly thinking likewise.  May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The road to THE SWEENEY

"They had this odd situation where [Special Branch] was number one in the ratings and everybody at Euston [Films] hated it"  Regan and The Sweeney creator Ian Kennedy-Martin, quoted in "Sweeney! The Official Companion" by Robert Fairclough and Mike Kenwood (Reynolds & Hearn Ltd, 2002).

How The Sweeney got commissioned in the first place was thanks to Euston Films' inaugural production not being very highly regarded by its makers - despite audience figures which actually eclipsed those of Regan and Carter, even after they had gone on air.

Derren Nesbitt as Jordan in Special Branch - version 1
Special Branch was a revamp of an existing property, a crime series about the Metropolitan Police department charged with matters of national security.  A VT production from Thames TV which had run for two 13-episode series in 1969-70, it starred Derren Nesbitt as the rather trendy DCI Jordan, with Wensley Pithey and later Fulton Mackay as his superior officer.

Euston wanted a known quantity for their initial production, as Chief Executive Lloyd Shirley explained: "[I]t seemed to us a reasonable bet to take a tape series that had enjoyed decent public acceptance on to film, so at least we would know there was some sort of audience for it" - quoted in "Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd" (BFI Books/Thames Methuen, 1985).

As it happened, there was perhaps less continuity than intended, for negotiations with star Nesbitt apparently broke down over fees and the late George Sewell was cast as the lead in the new series, playing DCI Alan Craven.  Production began on location in September 1972, with the episode "Red Herring" under the aegis of director Mike Vardy - the first ever hour of drama from Euston Films.

But Special Branch was proving problematic from the off - halfway into production on the series of 13, it was felt that the show needed something more and so a co-star was added to the mix, in the form of Patrick Mower as DCI Tom Haggerty - his episodes were interspersed with the first seven when the series was broadcast the following Spring.

Craven and Haggerty - heard of them?  Didn't think so...

Special Branch proved popular with viewers, and a second run of thirteen began production only a few months after the first had been completed.  This time the show gained a new producer, Ted Childs, whose previous experience with Thames and its predecessor ABC had been in documentaries.  He leapt at the chance to produce drama, and his influence over the direction Euston Films took was considerable: "[A]lthough I felt that Special Branch...left something to be desired, I learnt a great deal.  I brought in directors I'd worked with, some with a documentary background, and really what we tried to do was incorporate the 'wobbly-scope' techniques of 16mm documentary film-making into a drama situation" - from 'Made for Television: Euston Films Limited'.

Special Branch & Sweeney producer Ted Childs, pictured in 1978
The second run was just as much of a hit as the first when it was shown from February 1974, but by then Euston and Ted Childs had already moved on to other things.  No one apart from the viewers liked Special Branch - evidently this wasn't so important as it is now! - and Thames were on the lookout for something better.  Enter Ian Kennedy-Martin, younger brother of Troy and himself an acclaimed television screenwriter.

Ian Kennedy-Martin's long friendship with John Thaw began when he worked as story editor on the mid-60s ABC military police show Redcap.  Producer John Bryce - "completely barking mad but an absolute genius" according to Kennedy-Martin - was the very first to cast Thaw as the lead in a television series, and a star was born.

The Avengers and Redcap producer John Bryce in 1963 - without him, John Thaw would likely never have been cast as Jack Regan in The Sweeney

Redcap ran to 26 episodes and Thaw and Kennedy-Martin worked together again in the 6-part Southern Television serial The Capone Investment in 1973.  Shortly after this, the writer had the idea for a police drama as a vehicle for his friend.  Based this time around the Flying Squad, the Met department dealing with armed robberies and the like, the new series would be about an uncorrupted cop whose old school methods are being fazed out.

Creator of Jack Regan and The Sweeney, Ian Kennedy-Martin, in 2005
Kennedy-Martin felt British police series had deteriorated badly since his brother Troy had created Z Cars in 1962, and that Special Branch in particular was "ghastly, middle-class rubbish".  This new series, originally entitled 'McLean' until it turned out the name couldn't be cleared, was an attempt to redress this.

Approaching Lloyd Shirley and Thames story supremo George Markstein of The Prisoner fame, Kennedy-Martin got the go-ahead to develop an introductory episode.  This was assigned a slot on Armchair Cinema, Euston's second ever production, a series of self-contained 90m dramas which could also serve as pilots.

Meanwhile, Ted Childs and a few other Euston staffers, finishing off post production on Special Branch one afternoon in late 1973, decided to take in a matinee.  Their choice of film was one they had all seen before - William Friedkin's The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman in the real life story of abrasive New York cop 'Popeye' Doyle and his obsession with bringing down a narcotics ring.  "We all agreed we ought to be doing something like that" says Childs, quoted in 'Shut It! The Inside Story of The Sweeney' by Pat Gilbert (Aurum Press, 2010).

Given how heavily indebted to The French Connection and its principal character I for one think The Sweeney is, this is a very important point to note.  If also, a little too pat...

Just a few days later Lloyd Shirley gave Childs the "McLean" script to produce, and the rest is history: "I thought, "This will be great! A maverick Scotland Yard detective"" - from 'Shut It! The Inside Story of the Sweeney'.

Veteran television director Douglas Camfield was assigned to Regan, as it was now called, and pre-production began.  At this stage however, the project was in danger of derailing.  Childs and Camfield began to make significant changes to the script, long since signed off by Lloyd Shirley and George Markstein.  Kennedy-Martin was left fuming, and the animosity between he and Childs continues to this day.

Douglas Camfield, every Doctor Who fan's favourite director - assigned to but ultimately sacked from the Regan pilot (however, he did go on to direct six episodes of The Sweeney)
Who was right and who was wrong in the argument between Childs and Kennedy-Martin is open to conjecture.  Here, hedging my bets, I present both sides without comment:

Ted Childs: "Lloyd had a property which Ian Kennedy-Martin had written as a tape show.  I felt very strongly that we ought to pioneer a film technique rather than a tape studio production technique" - 'Made for Television: Euston Films Ltd' 

Ian Kennedy-Martin: "[Ted Childs said] that the row between the two of us was based on, in his words ‘Ian wanted the kind of drama he knew how to do well, with more studio space and longer speeches and lots of playing scenes, and I was all for opening it up and having it all happening on the road…’

It was completely the reverse" - from Ian Kennedy-Martin's website.

The stand-off resulted in Douglas Camfield stepping down from Regan and the original script being largely untouched. Tom Clegg got the job instead, and we can thank him for the casting of Dennis Waterman as they had worked together in a Special Branch a few months earlier.  Clegg went on to direct 13 episodes of the series.

However, having won this particular battle, Ian Kennedy-Martin stepped away from his creation, already tired of his conflict with Ted Childs.  The series was underway and it looked like the same thing was going to happen every time he wrote a script.  Euston backed Childs, no doubt cognizant of his ability to get a show up and running efficiently, and the rest is history as they say.

Kennedy-Martin was happy enough, having retained key rights and set the series up with writers he admired - Trevor Preston and his brother Troy, for instance.

But for an idea of how different things might have been had he carried on, you could do worse than read his three original novels about the character: "Regan" (First Edition Arthur Barker, Feb 1975); "Regan and the Manhattan File" (Arthur Barker, Sept 1975) and "Regan and the Deal of the Century" (Futura, Nov 1976).

TV Times listing accompanying the screening of Armchair Cinema: Regan, 4 June 1974

Friday, 1 July 2011

There's something about THE SWEENEY

Who's watching Between the Lines right now?  No one, that's who.  Seem to recall it got talked about quite a bit at the time.  Tuned in a couple of times: depressing crud, if you ask me.

Dennis Waterman as Carter /John Thaw as Regan, most likely about to give someone a well deserved kicking in the brilliant The Sweeney
On the other hand, there's The Sweeney.  35 years old and I counted eleven showings on ITV4 this week, with a peak viewership of about 250,000.  But even if it wasn't actually on, I just know people would still be watching.

Created by Ian Kennedy-Martin, this story of a jaded Flying Squad DI trying to keep the streets of London safe from the villains he hates so much is Euston's one true claim to television immortality: the cop show par excellence; the greatest screen depiction of Britain in the 1970s; the ultimate vehicle for at least one of TV's greatest ever stars.

But why is it so good?  The obvious first - plots that haven't dated.  Nothing formulaic here, producer Ted Childs eschewed the predictable.  There are shows around now that have more forseeable plot developments - step forward Scott & Bailey, fun though it may be.

Thaw and Waterman as...themselves I reckon
Witty, clever scripts by the likes of Troy Kennedy-Martin, Trevor Preston, Ranald Graham, Roger Marshall, etc. and brilliant characterisation by John Thaw and Dennis Waterman.  Thaw is fantastic as Regan.  In his hands the show can be taken as a comedy and perhaps that's the best way to view such a hard-hitting crime series.  It might be far too unpalatable otherwise; it shares this quality with the later Cracker.  Dark stuff at the best of times but, at least when Jimmy McGovern was writing, searingly funny which made all the difference.

People are still watching it, I notice.

The Sweeney was expertly produced too.  Having cut their teeth on 26 episodes of the not much-loved Special Branch, the Euston Films crews were firing on all cylinders, with fine directors of the calibre of Tom Clegg, Douglas Camfield, David Wickes and Terry Green blazing a trail.  Film expert, the late Leslie Halliwell, describes the series in his much-maligned but seminal 1980s 'Television Companion' as "a thoroughly professional job" which is spot on.

But all this doesn't explain why the show still packs such a punch now.

Well, as alluded to earlier it captures a decade perhaps better than anything else I've seen.  Here is where Euston's "mission statement" comes into its own, for here we have the 1970s laid bare.  Seen through a fictitious filter certainly, but the edges are 100% real and that can't help but seep through.  It's a historical document.

Then there's the fact of its almost perfect placing in social history - addressing the question of authority with real rigour and cynicism, sweeping away the establishment likes of Dixon of Dock Green - and being allowed to do so before political correctness took hold.  This in turn produced much more measured fare like Juliet Bravo and The Chinese Detective, both also created by Ian Kennedy Martin interestingly.

The Sweeney is a product of tension too, destined for greatness but relatively short-lived as a result (the pilot, all 53 episodes and two feature films were produced between March 1974 and May 1978).  By this I mean, a coterie of largely left-leaning writers, directors and actors coming together to create a right-wing hero - understandably beloved of a public more inclined towards the latter, but eventually cast aside in vague embarrassment by the liberal creators nonetheless.  John Thaw did subsequently state that he could never play a character like Regan again.

No matter, we got it for long enough.

Of course, we want it back.  And got it too, in the shape of era-shifting police series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, both featuring the Regan-like DCI Gene Hunt played by Philip Glenister, the deliberately un-PC 70s/80s detective whose extremes were on this occasion necessarily tempered by his modern day partners Sam Tyler and Alex Drake, respectively.  The show was massive and Hunt has become an iconic character on a par with Regan.

Philip Glenister as DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes
And we might be getting it again, in the form of a Nick Love-directed feature film, to begin shooting in October 2011 and starring Ray Winstone as Regan and Ben Drew a.k.a. rapper Plan B as Carter.  All I know for sure is, it's not set in the 1970s.

Ray Winstone as Regan/Ben Drew as Carter in The Sweeney (2012, dir. Nick Love).  Flash monkeys!
I wish them well, but however it turns out, we'll always have the original.  It ain't going nowhere.