It was already the Dinner Party From Hell when a huge crash stilled the chatter. “Fuck!” cried an anguished voice over the sudden stunned silence. “The moon!”
For a moment, only the crayfish stirred, crawling determinedly over the seaweed-strewn banqueting table. Then we all turned to look as one: the Impresario, with his hunched back and lips covered in warts and buboes; the Golden Twins, each with a huge black horn of hair sprouting from their ‘dos so that, together, they made a single devil girl; Pop-Pop, a china-boned angel with pink candy-floss hair; The Pig Man, a financier in a pin-stripe suit with a hessian sack over his face and a porcine snout poking through the hole; and me, in a bearskin hat as big as Marge from the Simpsons’ hair-do.
It was just as we feared. A moment ago, a gigantic full moon had bathed this unearthly gathering in a silvery glow. Now, through the window, all that could be seen was a black backdrop. The moon had crashed to the ground.
It was near wrap-time on Friday night, and we’d been shooting this crucial party scene for the last two days, with just one week to go on Set The Thames On Fire, a hugely ambitious sort-of-science-fiction buddy movie set in a Dickensian retro-future London. This is the second feature film from Blonde to Black, a production company set up by actress and fashion entrepreneur Sadie Frost, alongside advertising and music video veteran Emma Conley and backer Andrew Green.
“We’ve kept budgets low, without using big names, so we can make something challenging,” says Frost. Conley describes the film, which is directed by former fashion photographer Ben Charles Edwards, as “Withnail & I as directed by Peter Greenaway or John Waters. A lot of low-budget British films recently have been grey estate films. But Ben comes with this crazy vision.”
You can say that again. I first met Ben Charles Edwards ten years ago, when I interviewed him for a feature in The Times. I was attracted by the description of his debut short film, The Town That Boars Me, showing in the Portobello Film Festival. It went something like this: “A mutant pig-boy terrorises the women of a suburban town by stealing their high-heeled shoes at night in a musical starring Kelly Osbourne, Sadie Frost, Andrew Logan and Zandra Rhodes.”
Ken Loach he ain’t.
Ben and I ended up collaborating on a couple of ambitious short films. We co-wrote Animal Charm, a 25-minute Gothic horror comedy and occasional musical about a fading fur designer (Sadie Frost) who is kidnapped by an animal rights activist bent on revenge (Sally Phillips). Boy George played a policeman. And, more recently, we made Dotty, an award-winning two-hander between Sadie Frost and her young son by Jude Law, Rudy Law, set in the Nevada desert in the ‘60s (watch it here).
So when Ben asked me to play the small part of Music Industry Type in Set The Thames On Fire, I threw dignity to the wind and leaped at the chance.
I’ve been on a number of film sets as a journalist, doing location reports; but never as one of the cast. Sets are pretty dull, mostly. Long periods of inaction while the crew do whatever it is crews do, the director squints through camera monitors, and the cast stand around for hours waiting to be called, bantering and bitching over tea and biscuits. But this was one was a lot more fun.
Look, here’s cult comedian Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh fame, dressed in little-girl’s pigtails, a leather miniskirt and fishnet stockings, like Grayson Perry doing an X-rated version of The Wizard of Oz. In the finished film, Noel is terrifying: “I’ll turn you into a glove puppet next time!” he calls out to a man in a gimp suit escaping from him in terror. “I’ll wear you like a fucking suit!”
Here’s top model Portia Freeman, the aforementioned pink-haired angel. My own key scene at the party was with her, and every time I delivered my lines she would gaze up intently into my eyes as though in a staring contest. That would be unsettling at the best of times, but when the starer is of a celestial beauty such that it could reduce a mortal man to a pile of ash and a wisp of smoke, like a magnifying glass concentrating the almighty power of the Sun on an ant, it was really quite off-putting.
Here’s Sally Phillips, as lovely and unaffected as always, despite being a Comedy Goddess. She’s in Set The Thames on Fire because of poker, funnily enough. When Ben was looking to cast her in Animal Charm, I recalled that my friend Sheree Folkson, whom I first met on a poker boat down the Thames (as one does), had directed Sally’s feature film The Runaway Bride, so I got in touch through her – top tip for film-makers, it’s useless going through agents when you’re not offering any money!
And here’s the on-set photographer taking my picture, saying: “I know you – Time Out, right?” It turned out to be Simon Frederick, who worked in ad sales at Time Out, and had now switched careers to photographer. And a bloody good one, too: he’s just been on the panel of Sky Arts’ Master of Photography series, which has just been given a second season.
It was fascinating to be in on the inside of a feature film. Ben is an enormously impressive director: planning all the shots meticulously for the ridiculously short shoot, but able to improvise when things go wrong – as well as the unforeseen moon landing, the generators cut out for several hours, shutting down the set; he used the time to rearrange the camera tracks so the shots were improved and all the time lost saved.
And it’s amazing what can be done on a small budget when you dream big. When you watch the film – and you really should, it’s a one-off (see my Loco festival review here) – try to guess the budget. I guarantee, however low you try to go, the real figure will have been a tenth of that. It’s one of the most impressive British directorial debuts in years.
Set The Thames on Fire plays at the Everyman King’s Cross on Sep 12, Everyman Hampstead on Sep 13; Picturehouse Central on Sep 14; all with cast Q&As. It will be available on demand from Sep 19, and on DVD from Sep 26. See their Facebook page for more details.