Tag Archives: Sally Phillips

On set of Set The Thames on Fire, this year’s most astounding British film

12 Sep

 

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.

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The banquet scene as it appears in the finished film of Set The Thames on Fire. Note the luckily still intact moon in the background, and me lurking in a huge hat on the right

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.

Set The Thames on Fire goes LOCO with Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips and Sadie Frost

23 Apr

 

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The flooded, dystopian London of Set The Thames on Fire

“I saw the script, which called for me to play a transvestite, paedophile drug addict, and thought: ‘typecast again’!”

This is Noel “The Mighty Boosh” Fielding in the Q&A session following the UK premiere on Thursday of Set The Thames on Fire, answering how he came to be in a movie that comes on like Withnail and I directed by Terry Gilliam by way of Peter Greenaway and set in a dystopian retro-Dickensian London in which the Thames has burst its banks.

The BFI Southbank is an unexpectedly conventional setting in which to see one of the most original, daring and visually ravishing British debuts in years. Set The Thames on Fire was opening the LOCO comedy festival, and that was peculiar too, since despite boasting Noel Fielding and Sally Phillips in the cast, and having moments of the blackest humour, it’s as much tragedy as comedy: “An agony in three acts”, as it rather grandly announces at the start.

“I’ll turn you into a glove puppet next time!” Fielding calls out to a man in a gimp suit escaping from him in terror, in his key scene. “I’ll wear you like a fucking suit!” In pigtails and a frilly petticoat over fishnet tights and a gigantic white codpiece, Fielding is equal parts terrifying and hilarious; but at the Q&A, leaping down the aisles in silver boots to offer the mike to questioners, so clearly wanting to be centre-stage that the film-makers eventually invited him up to share the platform – “You might regret that, I’m very drunk” – he is simply hilarious.

Sally Phillips was also in the audience. Playing a fortune-teller whose father used to run the town, before the hateful, bloated, perverted Impresario took over, she gives the film its moral heart and emotional charge. She’s a revelation. In one scene she recalls Bob Hoskins in his magnificent long closing close-up in The Long Good Friday.

Sally appreciated the challenge of a non-comedic role. “I was expecting to play the whoreish landlady,” she said, of the part which went to the film’s co-producer, Sadie Frost. “But Ben [Charles Edwards, the director] swapped us round. I was astonished by how confident and comforting he was to work for in every area – and what an incredible-looking film it is from one so young.”

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Makers of Set The Thames on Fire interviewed, left to right: writer/composer Al Joshua, director Ben Charles Edwards, producer/actor Sadie Frost, and comedian Noel Fielding; LOCO co-founder Jonathan Wakeham standing, right.

Sadie Frost, too, was happy to big up her young director. “I’ve known Ben a long time,” she said, “and he’s so comfortable directing the cast and crew. No one’s made me into a muse before – but he did! I’ve been in every short film he’s made. We [at Blonde to Black Pictures] saw talent in him but thought he needed some discipline, so we said if you jump through this hoop and that hoop we’ll make a feature with you.”

The hoop project, however, worked only so far. Ben’s never been afraid to bend a few rules to protect the film he wants to make. “To get it commissioned,” he said in answer to a question about the film’s spectacular look, “I stood in front of the  producers and just lied! I said there would be just six special effects – I think in the end there were more like 104.”

Al Joshua, who wrote the screenplay, based the main characters of Art and Sal on himself and Ben – they shared a flat together in east London years ago. A brilliant musician who had previously achieved cult success with the band Orphans & Vandals, he also took over duties as composer when the original score commissioned failed to match the film’s romantic but decidedly off-kilter tone, by which time he had only a couple of weeks to come up with the whole thing.

“Some of the melodies had been in my head a long time,” Al said. “But I didn’t even have a computer , so Ben gave me an iPad with his rough cut on it, and I sat there with a guitar and piano. Music has to pull the whole thing together. There’s a main theme that reoccurs in different forms – there’s a waltz at one point, piano at the end – and which sums up Art’s character.”

Al proved even stubborner than Ben when it came to protecting his vision. “I turned up to the derelict studio where he and the musicians were recording the score,” said Ben, “and said I wanted to hear it, but Al put a padlock on the door and wouldn’t let me in!”

Somehow, it all came together far better than all involved dared hope; Sadie revealed she is in the final throes of negotiating a distribution deal that would give Set The Thames on Fire a September release.

It’s not, perhaps, the easiest sell: the main character is gay, it’s peopled with bizarre grotesques, and it has more uses of the “c” word than the BBFC may appreciate. But when so many low-budget British films re-tread the same old gangster, horror or kitchen-sink clichés, it’s incredibly refreshing to see one that aims for the stars. This is one of the most startlingly original and ravishing films to come out of Britain since Ben Wheatley. Judging by the rapturous response of the packed house at the BFI Southbank, there is absolutely an audience for it.

Show it, to paraphrase Field of Dreams, and they will come.

 

 

Time Out axes Comedy section: are you ‘avin’ a laugh?

19 Dec
Eddie Izzard Time Out cover

Eddie Izzard, in one of my favourite Time Out comedy covers

Two accountants walk into a bar. “Why the long face?” they ask. A  Continue reading

“I see famous people!”

14 Nov

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I saw Jenny Agutter, the other day. It was at the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain. It’s strange to have such a potent figure of one’s boyhood imaginings step suddenly off the screen and into real life. It’s not the first time: I actually lived round the corner from her for several years, in Camberwell. The English rose of Walkabout, Logan’s Run (above) and American Werewolf in London was suddenly a bloomin’ neighbour. She passed me once in brown leather trousers, straight-backed, with three large hounds on a lead, a living Richard Avedon shoot.

That Purple Rose of Cairo moment (or Last Action Hero, if you prefer Arnie to Woody) happens a lot, in London. The worst thing is when you see someone in a bar, realise you know them, smile, wave, then realise, actually, that you’ve never met. It’s just that bloke you’ve seen on the TV.

Keira Knightley suddenly popped up on the bar table next to mine a few months ago. I’ve recently passed Mike Leigh in the street, looking lost; Ricky Gervais, jogging; Tim Spall with his son Rafe.

You feel like Dermot in Father Ted, with sheep leaping about between the confused thought clouds above your head marked ‘Reality’ and ‘Dreams’.

And what has this to do with film-making, rather than name-dropping? Well. It’s less a Heat mag version of Sixth Sense – ‘I see famous people!’ – than about six degrees of separation, which Kevin Bacon is currently plugging for the EE network. But in London, it can be two degrees, or one. You just need to bump into people. And be ready.

The reason the wonderful Sally Phillips was in Animal Charm, the Gothic horror-comedy featurette I co-wrote, is that I got in touch with her through the director of The Decoy Bride (screenplay by Sally) whom I had met on a poker boat down the Thames several years before. As you do. The reason Boy George had a hilarious cameo as a policeman was that director/co-writer Ben Charles Edwards met him at a party, and had the brass balls to just ask him.

Serendipity nearly worked again for my forthcoming collaboration with director Tony Errico, a mockumentary about a retired supervillain. A friend recommended a lovely veteran thesp with whom she played online Scrabble, and put us in touch. He was to have been the lead, but has just dropped out, having landing a lucrative Christmas show. A week before shooting. Yikes.

Crossed fingers that London can bring us another star. So if anyone knows any talented actors, late 40s to 70s, who can do a German accent and wants to bulk out their showreel, do get in touch…