Tag Archives: set report

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.

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Putting the “cock” into “Cockney”: Danny Dyer’s massive part in EastEnders

3 Jan
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Legs apart: Danny Dyer as Mick Carter in EastEnders

 

Sir Alan Sugar’s not a fan of Danny Dyer’s debut as Mick Carter in EastEnders, recently branding the new cast a “total joke” on Twitter. I am looking forward to tonight’s storyline, in which Johnny Carter comes out to Daddy Dyer as gay, but it’s true that having seen Dyer’s big opening scene last weekend I can’t unsee it: there he was, wallowing on a double-bed with the missus in nothing but skimpy black briefs.

Now I understand why, when I went out to the New Boyana studios in Bulgaria to watch ITV’s hist-com Plebs being filmed, the cast members were all agog at the sheer size of Dyer’s, um, personality.

“Double D”, as they called him, was apparently the life and soul of the shoot when filming his episode as a gladiator in the first series. “We’d go out most nights with him,” said Lydia Rose Bewley, who plays Metella. Ryan Sampson (Groomio) added, “We’d go all the time to this club where everything is mirrored. I loved his word for kissing: a ‘lips-up’, he calls it.”

Sophie Colquhoun, who plays Cynthia, also nicknamed him “Planet Dyer” because “his personality is so massive”. And it’s not the only thing that is. “In one scene,” she said, “I go to him, ‘Ooh, Danny, I’m seeing quite a lot.’ And he goes, ‘I’m sorry, darlin’, let me shift position.’ Then he shifts, and he’s put it behind his legs, and it’s poking out! You have a little bundle of joy in your eye.”

A crew member also had his eyes indelibly seared: “In the bath-house scene Danny just didn’t care. There it was, in your face, swinging against the lockers.”

“He was pretty confident in the bath-house scene,” agreed Tom Rosenthal (Marcus), in his typically deadpan style. “He does have a penis. It is… worthwhile.”

I’m sorry to go on about Danny Dyer’s member (if you prefer high-brow, read my blog about Hamlet and Citizen Kane instead), but at least it makes a change: when people refer to a load of cock in connection with Dyer, they are normally talking about his films. Dyer by name, dire by nature. He just doesn’t seem able to say no to films such as Pimp, which I had the displeasure of sitting through for a week of film reviews in The Times (I gave it one star; more than it deserved). 

Then again, at least Dyer has the self-awareness and sense of humour to know it. “I’ll be the first to admit I’ve made some s*** films but 7lives is f***ing awful,” he once Tweeted. And: “I ain’t gonna lie. [Just For The Record] is the biggest pile of s*** I have ever done and that’s saying something.”

And actually, for my money Dyer’s a rather good actor; he was actively terrific in Severance. He has an ear for comedy and a puppy-dog vulnerability that underscores his foul-mouthed, wide-boy front. The British film industry seems not to have been able to do more with him, sadly, than cast him as gangsters, wide-boys and football hooligans.

Here’s hoping the BBC give him a meatier part to play with. As it were.

The first series of Plebs is available on DVD through Universal; the second series will be out later this year.

A brief history of when I met Stephen Hawking on set

28 Jul
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Stephen Hawking enjoys his 65th birthday present: a zero gravity flight on a modified plane owned by the Zero Gravity Corp.

The paralysed cosmologist Stephen Hawking has already been played by Benedict Cumberbatch on screen, and will be followed next year by fellow “hunk who thunk” Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Before that, though, is Hawking, a documentary to be released on September 20, which reveals how very nearly none of this happened.

According to today’s Sunday Times, Hawking says in the new film that doctors recommended switching off his life-support back in 1985. He had only just been commissioned to write A Brief History of Time, the book which went on to sell ten million copies and made him so famous he has guested on The Simpsons five times, and the three weeks of intensive care that followed after his wife refused to let him die robbed him of what little remained of his speech. He wrote the book by raising his eyebrows to select letters on a computer program.

By 1991, when I met him on set of Errol Morris’s excellent documentary, he wrote and “spoke” through his voice synthesizer by twitching one finger on a toggle on his wheelchair. I’d known of Hawking for several years before he became globally famous. My elder brother studied Maths at King’s College, and he had pointed out to me the wheelchair ramps which made Cambridge the most disabled-friendly city in the world – built to facilitate Hawking’s passage from college to college.

I also read A Brief History of Time when it came out in 1988 – yes, from cover to cover. The first part is a very accessible overview of the history of physics and cosmology. The final part is a little hard to follow, though fascinating – especially for the Big Crunch theory, which is that at some point in the future there will be a reverse Big Bang, sending all matter hurtling back towards the single point from which it began: travelling backwards through time as well as space, so that at some point, untold billions of years from now, I will be alive again, and typing in the words of this blog, except in reverse; starting from the final sentence, deleting and deleting until I am left with nothing; then I will regurgitate my breakfast, get into bed, and sleep until Saturday night.

I will fondly watch my children grow younger and smaller and in greater need of my care. Having regressed to babies, one day they will be gone, but I will not be sad, it will be as if they never were. I will join The Times, leave it for AOL, then be appointed Editor of Time Out a few months after the chimes of Big Ben count down the historic twelve bongs from the 21st century into the 20th, then after a series of steadily less assured covers I will be moved into the less stressful roles of Deputy Editor, then Chief Sub Editor, then Sub Editor; I will go to Oxford university where I will spend carefree days with the former mother of my vanished children until, one day, we will see each other for one last coffee and part forever, without bitterness or regret.

I will go to school in Winchester; then emigrate to Canada to play in the snow; finally a confused and inchoate period of sleeping and crying and feeding and waking and being cradled in my parents’ arms, my father no longer dead but young and vigorous and beardless so that his bristly cheek would sandpaper over mine, until one day, I would simply… cease to be.

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Stephen Hawking and Errol Morris on set in 1991

I wanted to talk to Stephen Hawking about all this when I met him and Errol Morris on set (right), but the great man typed his sentences so painfully slowly that it was impossible to do much more than say hello. I noticed that, despite this, he still said “please” and “thank you” to everyone he dealt with, a courtesy that, for him, must have been important as every syllable cost him dear.

Watching him, I became obsessed with a thought, a truly terrible thought. Hawking was working, and is working still, on the Grand Unified Theory that will unite the contradictory worlds of Physics and Quantum Physics – “and then,” says he, “we will know the mind of God.”

What if, I thought, the motor neurone disease that paralyses him should progress so far that he loses even this small movement of the finger that, in 1992, enabled him to communicate? It’s all too close. These days, he says in the forthcoming film, he can only write and “speak” by flexing a single muscle in his cheek. One day soon he may lose even that movement. Kept alive, mechanically, for years after, his mind, floating free of earthly concerns, may finally solve the great riddle of science, the secret of life itself – and he will be unable to communicate this greatest of all discoveries to the world.

What will that be like? To apprehend the secrets of the universe but, imprisoned in his cage of flesh and bone, be able to do nothing, say nothing?

Perhaps he’d go mad and become God, like the intelligent bomb with the existential crisis in John Carpenter’s brilliant 1974 black comedy, Dark Star: “In the beginning, there was darkness. And the darkness was without form, and void. And in addition to the darkness there was also me. And I moved upon the face of the darkness. And I saw that I was alone…

“Let there be light.”