I had the good fortune to interview the actor Maurice Roëves (who has died at the age of 83) on two occasions. Maurice had an extraordinarily prolific 55-year career in film, theatre and especially television, the span and range of which (“beginning with an episode of Doctor Finlay’s Casebook in 1966 and concluding with a cameo role in the surrogacy drama The Nest (2020)”) is conveyed in Toby Hadoke’s Guardian obituary. Roëves will probably best be remembered for his charismatic, unnerving, portrayals of hard men and Scottish roles, perhaps especially in John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti (BBC 1987) and his appearance as God in the 1998 Irvine Welsh film The Acid House.
I was particularly keen to talk to Maurice for two reasons – he had been a favourite actor of the television director Douglas Camfield, and the kaleidoscopic range of television projects that he had been involved in. Filmed dramas, studio dramas, experimental special effects dramas, outside broadcast dramas, EastEnders… to say nothing of his time in Los Angeles in the nineties.
Maurice enjoyed talking about some of his less familiar roles in our initial conversation in a cafe in Ealing in 2011, so I invited him to talk about acting for television in front of an audience at a conference at the University of Glamorgan the next year. I located some interesting clips from unfamiliar programmes for this interview; Maurice’s first TV lead in David Halliwell’s alarming Wednesday Play, Cock, Hen and Courting Pit (BBC 1966), pushing Nicola Pagett down a well and tormenting her; a health-and-safety nightmare as a murdering mountaineer at Glen Coe in Sutherland’s Law (BBC 1973 – which looked great on a big screen); as a convincing fuhrer in Philip Saville’s experimental The Journal of Bridget Hitler (BBC 1981). And, best of all, opposite Dame Edith Evans in a 1968 BBC version of Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. Each programme brought back an emotional memory – the disconcerting effect of putting on the Hitler costume, being recognised in Liverpool soon after playing Chief Supt David Duckenfield in Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough, and being taken under Edith Evans’ wing after working with her (a 110 year span of acting experience from her debut in 1910 to Maurice’s final credit).
This is a slightly-edited transcript of our first conversation. What comes across to me is Maurice’s awareness of the many unusual experiences that his career had brought him, and a pride in the craftsmanship of being a good actor.
Interview. Maurice Roëves with Billy Smart, Ealing, 9 February 2011.
BS: You did your earliest television work at the start of your acting career in the mid 1960s, starting initially in studio series and plays.
MR: The Shadow of the Tower (BBC 1972) and Shakespeare in the studios in London, yes.
BS. Which Shakespeare?
MR. The one with Malvolio in it – the shipwreck and the boy and the girl – Twelfth Night (BBC 1980)! I played Antonio opposite Sinead Cusack. It was good, I enjoyed it.
BS. The earliest productions that you did, would they have been recorded ‘as live’ – not transmitted live, but recorded in blocks?
MR. Yes. What happened was you went into the studio after doing all your rehearsals, and the studio was all set up. You would have been rehearsing for a week or two, and then went you went into the studio you’d have camera rehearsals and dress runs, and then usually you’d have a break at 5.30 or 6.00 and you’d come back at 7.00 and you’d start and you’d run for three hours ‘til 10.00. You had to be finished by 10.00. Normally you did it, but sometimes you got into a bit of a mess. And sometimes you wouldn’t run through the whole episode, you’d just record up to a certain point that night and then the next day you’d have another run.
It could be fun. I also did it before I went to Drama College, when I was a sort of semi-professional and I took up dancing because of West Side Story. I thought, “Oh God actors are going to know how to dance!” so I sort of took up modern stage dancing in a clumsy way. I wasn’t too bad, you know? But I’d done a little gymnastics when I was younger and always kept fit. So I danced under live cameras on Scottish television on the New Year show and stuff. That was a hoot, that was the life – I’ll never forget seeing a camera, the cameras were like Daleks coming around the corner – “Stop! Stop!” – Unbelievable! and not easy dancing live on television. Oh God, it was funny. And I miss those days, I miss the camera work, it was interesting, it was an interesting concept to work on, but its all filming now, the studios have all gone out.
BS. A thing which always interests me and that I’m never sure about in the old studio productions is that it must have required a different camera technique for actors than in other media. How aware were you of which camera was on you?
MR. Oh well, you weren’t – or rather you were, it required an instinct. The camera technique with the studio cameras – You just got to know where the camera was because you rehearsed it so many times. You rehearsed it for you, you rehearsed it for the camera, so you got used to a camera being here or there or wherever it was. Out of the corner of your eye you would see a red light go on and go off, so you kind of really developed an instinct. I was saying to Sam Riley [the young star of Brighton Rock, 2011] – “I’ve now developed my camera technique – A head that rotates 360 degrees!” and I just know when a camera’s on me. If you’re out on the street and somebody behind me picks up a camera I can just tell.
BS. So when you had the fortnight’s rehearsal before you went into the studio, was much of the rehearsal time concentrating on where the cameras would be?
MR. No, we’d leave them to get on with their job. Once you got into the studio there’s be a lot of technical hold-ups, you had to adapt to that. So you just concentrated on what you were doing in the scene, and the way you were doing it. And then once the cameras were floating around you could be aware of what you’d built up in rehearsal, awareness of what your character was doing and you’d just get it that way. It is difficult to fully explain because it’s an instinct and it’s a feeling and you either have it or you don’t develop it at all. It’s like some people who learn the lines and they can speak the lines but that’s it, they can’t act them, they don’t know the first thing about it.
BS. There’s an odd thing with early television drama where some actors have the sense of what cameras on them and can see the television picture and are aware of how big the close up of them will be, while others are performing in a way that doesn’t come across very well to the viewer.
MR. Well, you don’t really have to visualise the picture because you’ve got your microphone, with booms coming in and stuff like that. I did an episode of Cheers (NBC 1982-93) when I was living in Los Angeles and they were wonderful because although the audience were in the gallery, the sound guys would come in with these fishing rods with microphones on the end.
BS. That’s interesting that for you as a performer during recording you orientate yourself as much by the position of microphones as you do by cameras.
MR. Yes, well the two go hand in hand really. You’re just aware of the camera and it depends on the shot. Because in those days the camera had a rotating disc on the front with several different lenses, it went from close-up to medium close-up and so forth. When it went to a close-up on you, it was close-up for the soundman in the production gallery upstairs, too. Whereas in filming, the soundman is downstairs with a little trolley, and it’s the same with the cameras, they’ve got a camera car with a screen on it.
The point is putting it all together. As an actor, it’s very difficult because you have no control on film. You have control over the timing of your performance but it all its all taken away, its all gone over there…
What you have to do is whatever you’ve got, you have to know what you’re doing and make every use of what you’ve got to the best of your ability and your talent, because once it goes in there, they’re going to start cutting it and everything. And if you’re not the star and the star is going to get the close-up that size, you’re going to get a close-up, which is mid – cutting you off at the stomach. The star’s shot will last five seconds and yours will last two seconds. That’s how it’s all done. So if you want to do anything, you’ve got to be clever. But its not a calculated thing, its an instinctive thing, you just work it out. It’s like driving a car, in a strange way. When you start learning to drive you have to work out how the gears work, and that this is an accelerator and this and this – But eventually you drive a car and you don’t twice about any of this. I think being under cameras is a bit like that. You just develop your instinct. Theatre for me is the best place, because you have more control over your performance, which is exciting.
BS. People often say that studio television was more theatrical, particularly when it was recorded ‘as live’ with long scenes which directors had little opportunity to edit in postproduction.
MR. Yes. It was in a way, because you were editing as you go along. Later on, there was trimming done with videotape. But basically it was being done at the time upstairs in the production gallery, so it probably was more theatrical. But the interesting thing is – I did a Doctor Who (BBC 1963-89) with Graeme Harper, The Caves of Androzani (1984), and it had a monster in it, but it wasn’t very convincing and it didn’t last for long, thank God, so it was mainly humans that were in it, and it was voted the best Doctor Who story of all time in a poll recently. And the interesting thing was I got a letter from some kids, a brother and sister aged ten and seven and they were saying how much they’d enjoyed the story. Their mother had recorded it when she was a girl, and they preferred our episode to the new ones – and I thought that was quite fascinating that a whole new generation could still find it frightening.
BS. It terrified me when I was eleven! It’s largely because apart from the Doctor and Peri everyone is bad and frightening in that story, and they’re all frightening in a different way to each other.
MR. It was fascinating doing it. It was censored in Australia. They cut out the scene were I’m on a cliff top pushing another mercenary on the edge and forcing a suicide tablet in his mouth. There’s another scene where I’m taking my leave of the other mercenaries and I shoot them – “You guys coming? Alright, okay, fine.” I leave the room and count to three and then come back and kill them. I remember saying “Come on Graeme, we can’t do that!” He said “It’s alright – just shoot them!” I said “What?” “Just shoot them!” I said I don’t know, I don’t want to be burned for this… So there’s a bit where – the thing is, they don’t show it which is a pity – where he says goodbye, and he comes round the corner and he takes out his gun and he walks back – bang bang bang! – and that’s it. My God, you know, he’s shot them! But you don’t see them dying or anything like that, its just the shock that he’s turned round and shot them. And I think that that scene in terms of timing and shot works. There’s a real art to the sequence of things happening in it.
BS. Thinking about the process of rehearsing in the rehearsal studio and then performing on the set, was the process of making television drama different from the process of rehearsal in the theatre?
MR. Yes, it differed in the sense that you start of and you’re not quite sure of what you’re doing, you don’t know the lines and stuff like that, and the more you rehearse the better you get at it and the more you learn. So that when you get to filming it, it’s all running pretty smoothly on the shoot. Every time that you do record, fresh ideas come. I’ve known myself, when a light bulb suddenly goes on and I go “Can we stop? I’m sorry – Can we start again, ‘cause I’ve just thought of this.” “Oh, okay, fine” And sometimes you can get away with that, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on the director, how good the director is. Dougie was terrific. I liked working with him. He died quite young. He lived out at Twickenham, he was a good guy.
BS. A thing that strikes me about early television productions – I wrote my thesis about sixties versions of Brecht and Ibsen – is that it must have been particularly terrifying for actors in their performances, because they only had the one night to do it. You didn’t have a first preview of a demanding role like Mother Courage, they just had the one night to do it in.
MR. Well, that’s all up to the people in the box who make the decisions, whether they’ve got the time to make things right. They can tell – You can start shooting, and they’ll go “Stop!” The director has just looked at it and decided, “It’s not started right, come on, go back and start it again.” It saves time and saves tape. They were exciting days. I liked them.
BS. Something which always strikes me as particularly odd and distinctive about the order of filming and rehearsal was that when a programme had inserts on film it seems that they were shot without rehearsal, and then you rehearsed the studio scenes and then went into the studio. Is that right?
MR. You do the filming first. The whole thing is a jigsaw, that’s the point. Its not like theatre where you go from A to Z, and you are in charge of your timing and space – I love it as an actor, its much better in that respect. But yes, you’ve got to study everything, you’ve got to read the script, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. I make a point of knowing my lines as well. A lot turn up and they call themselves actors but they haven’t studied the script properly and know their lines, you know? They think that they’re just going to do it – I can’t work with that.
So, yes, you could go on location first of all. So let’s say we’re shooting scenes 40, 50 and 60 on film. So you shoot those. A month later you’re in the studio, and you’ve got to be able to make scenes 39, 49 and 59. And you can find yourself – if you’re not careful – thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that before? I can’t do it now because I’ve shot that” So that’s the sort of stuff that you’ve got to do. You’ve got to do your homework and unfortunately a lot of them don’t do that, and unfortunately a lot of the continuity staff don’t do their homework either. And if you have problems, or if you think ‘This would be a good idea’ or if you think ‘I’m not sure that this is going to work’ then you have to talk to the director before you film.
BS. When I look at the production files for some old television dramas, they went out on location to film without any prior rehearsal. They went on to have a long period of rehearsal for the studio sequences, so say if an actor decided to play a role with an accent or particular mannerisms they were then stuck with their interpretation because it had already been filmed.
MR. Yes, well, you can’t really do that without getting a clue about what you’re doing, because that’s not fair to the other folk. Normally you know what’s going on – You know whether he’s Irish or whatever. But I do remember when I was making Judge Dredd (1995) – Good God, this conceited arrogant – what was his name? Not Stallone, Sly is good, I’d worked with him before, but the other one who played his brother, the bad guy. Anyway, we got on the set and he started talking – I said “HOLD IT!” “What’s the matter, what’s the matter?” – He had different eyes! He didn’t care, he had contacts in – That’s not the face I was looking at before! Why didn’t they refilm it? It makes a difference. “I want to look like Sylvester! Sylvester has dark brown eyes. I’m his brother – I should have dark brown eyes!” I said “Fine. Now that I see you with dark brown eyes, of course we’ll do it…” So we shoot it again. I don’t care, I just stopped filming. Oh… And then they blame you. Don’t blame me! You sometimes have to be brave about these things; you just say I’m not going to let people get away with that, I’m not going to let it affect my performance. Because when I was younger and inexperienced I’d go okay, and I was so busy and worried that when something like that happened – and other actors can do it just to be cruel – I wouldn’t do it at all, but I mean I learned to say “ah to hell with them, stand up, speak it, that’s it”
BS. Something that I noticed on your CV is that very early on you did a Jackanory (BBC 1965-96). That would have been acting straight to camera.
MR. Oh boy! They were lovely. That was just sitting and telling stories. I enjoyed it. It was great. And I was lucky because the producer liked me and I did a few. They were good paid jobs, well worth doing. You’re right, it was straight to camera. You play it – I’m lucky in the sense that I think the camera likes me, so that’s alright. I’d never think this is going out to millions of kids and get frightened. I’d talk to the camera as one person and that’s it as far as I’m concerned. I don’t even think about the millions of people watching.
The exciting thing was The Acid House (1998) where I played God. A wonderful scene – that was a gift of a scene. The director said to me “I want you to play the whole scene, the whole speech down into the camera” “Och, right, okay” and I started and had to stop and readjust because you’re told not to play straight to camera. You should see it just for this scene…
BS. When you did Jackanory, were you reading an autocue, or did you have to learn the whole thing?
MR. I learnt the whole thing. I wouldn’t use an autocue. There’s a lot of actors get to the stage where they can’t remember lines. I’ve only seen it in America where there are idiot boards going up. The only time where I’ve ever used an autocue was where I doing the same thing that the news people do. And that was another thing where you just get your level. You sometimes see newsreaders where they don’t get their level right and you know that. But you can’t do that as an actor because your concentration is diverted.
BS. I read an interesting old interview with you where you criticised the general standard of television direction where you said that directors were trying to be filmic, but didn’t have the resources to achieve it, where television direction was a very specific skill; “There are lots of people doing TV here who talk big and sound like they’re shooting a movie, and they don’t know about shooting movies. You can’t shoot TV like a movie, there isn’t the money to do it”
MR. Yes, well that’s true, you don’t have the time for a start, you don’t have the finances. I know what I was talking about because some people tried to make a movie with television cameras, which they couldn’t do. You can’t block it, you don’t have the time to do it, and you don’t have the freedom and the scope to do it. If you’re outside with a camera, or inside with a camera, if you’re making a movie, it’s a totally different process altogether. And on top of that you can edit the thing. With the big TVs cameras in the studio you’re not editing. You’re trying to edit as you go along. You can’t get the final touches and subtleties that you can get with film – even more so with today’s high-definition. That’s so sensitive that when you’re using it they have to check the time on the camera so that when they go back and do another scene which is close to that scene it has to be set up to the same ratio.
BS. That’s a thing, talking historically about television is that it looked so different to the viewer of the time as well. I can remember seeing this 1959 BBC production of an Ibsen play, Brand, at the National Film Theatre where two hours of the enormous face of Patrick McGoohan in close up shouting at you was horrible. And then later on I watched it on a little laptop, and when I saw it in the same postcard size of a fifties television set, it then made sense to me.
MR. It is a problem, because film acting is different from television acting in a strange way. I mean they’re closely connected, and I always remember when I started I knew nothing about it. I went straight from theatre into doing a Disney film, The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966) and the director came up to me and told me “I want you to remember that when this movie plays at the Odeon, Leicester Square, the distance between here [right eye] and here [left eye] is about thirty feet.” Och, okay! The penny started dropping. That’s the difference between film and television. It’s not quite the same, just like you explained. And some people, in a strange way, are very successful on TV but they don’t make it in movies because they don’t have a movie face. I seem to fit both, but it doesn’t get me any work. I’m battling to get work at the moment! But that is the problem and its due to the lenses and the subtlety and the filming as opposed to the lack of subtlety of the television cameras.
BS. In the 1970s you were involved in several television series that were all film; for Euston Films (Thames) The Sweeney (1975-78) and Danger UXB (1979) and Target (1977-78) and Bergerac (1981-91) for the BBC, working with Douglas Camfield on Target and Danger UXB.
MR. I liked Dougie, and he did The Nightmare Man (BBC 1981), that was brilliant. I loved that. And that was a great thing to see. I remember the beginning of that where the Chief Inspector comes in – a shot of the Chief Inspector walking down the high street and I said to Dougie “This is always done the same way. Can we do something different?” “What?” I said “Why don’t I do it in a tracksuit? Towel around the neck, running shoes on. He’s been out training, running and I’m heading back the office to have a shower and put his uniform on.” “Great, we’ll do that”. It just adds another quality to it.
I’ve had a few directors who’ll go “How is it that you see things totally differently? Everything that you see seems to be normal to you, but is totally different” I say “Well, its different, you know?”. One director said “You’re the most dangerous actor I know” I said “I don’t beat up people” – “Its just that you don’t know what you’re going to do next, and it’s kind of exciting and dangerous”. I said “I don’t do it deliberately, its because that’s the way I see it”
I enjoyed working with Dougie. It’s a sad loss, he was good.
But that’s the difference with theatre. I remember when I played Iago in Othello and I couldn’t work it out. Oh God, I was stuck. And I got to the cypress scene and I couldn’t learn any more lines. And I ended up with my back to the river in the snow outside Perth, it was wintertime, with this lady’s dog. She’s my wife now, she was my girlfriend at the time. I always call this me, God, the dog and the moon. The four of us had this conversation; it was a full moon, dog, God. And I said “I can’t do this, I’m going to have to… Oh God.” And the dog said [pulls doggy face] and then suddenly [claps] it hit me – God! I know this! There’s another person in the play and I’m not seeing it! As soon as I’d got that, straight back and I was working. They’d set up a portable hut for me, so I could work there ‘til three or four in the morning. It’s the longest; it’s a big thing to learn apart from anything else, a crazy part. And then – I’d got it, and then the question was “why did he turn out to be the man he is” and they reckon, especially with mad people, that it’s the secrets in the beginning.
And I’ve got an old book, a complete Shakespeare’s works, its not big, its beginning to fall apart, and suede. But the punctuation in it is very important. And when I got to the last speech – “I wear my heart upon my sleeve” the punctuation was really interesting at that point, it was a semicolon, a colon, a dash, which you wouldn’t get in the Penguin edition he means something by this. I thought, right, I know this. He’s fine up to this particular point and then something clicks something goes whack and he changes. And I decided that the one thing I could think of was it’s got to be an aneurysm bursting in his head. And I knew that what I was about to suggest would not pass muster with the director – No, that’s too dangerous. So I got hold of the poor guy who was playing Rodrigo and I said “James, whatever happens on stage tonight at the beginning – okay, yes? – Don’t try and tell me my line. Don’t think anything, just react but don’t say anything, and whatever you do, don’t walk offstage or anything like that. Don’t shout help.” Owh God! I said “No no, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, I’ve got it all under control.” So we got up to this bit in the speech and I just kind of – (pause) – stopped. And it’s what you were talking about, with space; suddenly you’re aware of the space into which the audience is looking around. And I was standing on stage in this, and feeling and hearing the discomfort. It sounds like it took a long time, but it didn’t, it felt like a long time. And I turned and looked because I knew that the other person playing was there… and then I jumped back into it again. The guy who was playing Rodrigo… Argh!
BS. Even more frightening for him than you –
MR. Yeah! And from that I went in to talking to myself as Iago, sometimes in the script talking to myself, sometimes talking to them, turning from one to the other on the line. So when it finished the director came up to me afterwards and told me “[exhales] It was wonderful how you got out of that dry. I said “What? I did it deliberately”, then I explained – “Can I keep it? It worked” “Yes, it worked…” But that’s a use of space and time, and that’s the beauty of stage acting as opposed to filming and stuff. You’ve got the ball and you play the ball, you can trap it, put your foot on it and pull it back and you can manipulate it according to what happens. Well, if you know how to do it and you’re brave enough, and you’re timings got to be spot on. But that’s the magic of theatre and that’s what I love, I just love it. But you can’t do it with every part.
BS. You’re aware of the liveness and the audience’s response.
MR. I mean, on some shoots it happens with filming. I’ve been out filming and suddenly in the middle of a shot a plane will go over… and I use it. It could be useful, they might go ‘Oh we’ll keep that”. I was out once filming in the Gorbals, and I had to do this walk up the road, and they’d shut the roads off but somebody, somehow or other this Glasgow drunk had got through – “Ahrrragh? Arrouggh. Hurraggh!” And he came across the road and was talking to me. I just started to go with it and just talked like the character. And the director unfortunately – I thought, everybody thought it was terrific. We could have used it! Oh no, we’ll do it again… To me, I would have used it, I would have said “Cue it in, that’s great”. But again that’s using time and space and what’s presented to you.
BS. One of the really exciting aspects of the two big things that you made with Douglas Camfield – Danger UXB and The Nightmare Man – is that they are both shot in completely different ways. Danger UXB is all film, while The Nightmare Man is all Outside Broadcast. So both programmes are the work of a great director, but the means he had at his disposal were so different, but the effect that he achieved in both were equally exciting. Danger UXB is really remarkably precise. There’s a sequence in the episode on the pier –
MR. Cromer on Sea? Oh God, yeah. Because that was more or less filmed, wasn’t it? I remember that because Tony Andrews had to get tossed into the sea – and here’s another thing where you do your homework as an actor – We came down to do it, and all the other guys who are soldiering are wearing their boots. I came down in my brown plimsolls and said, “What are you all wearing boots for?” I said, “We’re on a pier. There are mines underneath. We’d have to creep around quietly”
Sergeant James was a nothing part when we started. Which also meant that there was no ad-libs or any of that stuff. We had to put all that stuff in, because having been in the army I just knew what would be happening. So immediately the producers called me into the office and said “We like what you’re doing. Would you possibly get paid for writing it?” I said “If you want to build it up you have to write it, I can’t just stick in lines all the time ” – so that’s how Sergeant James progressed, and how his relationship with Tony Andrews got deeper.
So by the time we got to the pier episode these two characters were quite intimate with each other, you know? He trusted his Sergeant and the Sergeant liked him, and that was shown in the following episode where Sergeant James goes to the wounded officer’s house and encourages him. But the day we shot the pier… Thank God I put my plimsolls on – my stuntman took sick, and I said, “Oh well, I’ll do it, I’ll just dive in and go for it.” I’m not a good swimmer so I said, “It’s got to be done in one, okay?” So I’m getting ready to do this shot and the Location Manager came up and said, “Maurice, we have riptides here” “Riptides?” “Yeah, where one tide comes in one direction and one tide comes in the other direction and it sweeps you. I reckon you’ve got about fifteen or twenty minutes before they come in” “What?” That’s space and time! It was terrifying – “Okay let’s go quickly! Let’s do it!” Diving off the pier – Well, when I saw it played back, I’ve never swum so fast in my life! It was like quick time – get to the boat! Get him in to the boat! Lets get the hell out of here. I was absolutely terrified. But these are the kind of things that you have to cope with. I didn’t get any extra money for it, either, I said, “Are you not giving me stunt money for this?”
BS. That whole sequence, which lasts for about fifteen minutes, is incredibly well shot. The director has so many things that he has to convey to the audience; how the space of the pier works, where the mines are, what the disposal squad have to do; and he gets all of that in about four minutes while he also gets the characters of everybody taking part and their relationships with each other. Spatially, there’s a kind of symmetry to the action where you’re working clearing mines on one platform of the pier while another, less confident, Officer is clearing on the other side. So you get the same actions repeated, but with Sergeant James performing them with more competence and sensible caution, while the other officer gets through it in a more fiddly way. A sequence like that must have taken so much setting up.
MR. Well, it did, but a director as good as Dougie had done all his homework, he had his storyboard. I’ve been watching The Pacific (HBO 2010) on DVD. The story is alright, but the shots and the technical stuff are amazing. Its like real life, I mean people are running and getting shot and blown up and twisting, and you think, “How the hell did they do that? How did they shoot that?” Its just quite extraordinary – very bloody. I mean, the technical things they can do nowadays…
But they wanted to do a second series of UXB, but it was going to be like them in Northern Ireland, but it never worked out which was a pity.
But like I said with actors, a director has got to do his homework as well. You get directors that wander round and you know that they haven’t even thought about it. Some of them just have a natural talent and I don’t know what it is, but they do it. I mean, I did Escape to Victory (1981), merely because it was John Huston and I wanted to work with him, because I knew he was dying. We were out in Hungary. My character, he was a bit of a Jack-the-Lad, like Jimmy Garner in The Great Escape, he did all the contraband with fags and stuff. We were doing this shot, and I had a cigarette in my mouth – “Cut!” – “Rees!” Cut the cigarette, I just want a smoke. Well, I was just – I don’t care what you think, so I just kept the one and I just re-lit it when the shot comes – “Cut! Its in shot, Rees, Its in shot” and he walked up to me and he just pulled it out of mouth and tore it up. He was wonderful to work with and he knew exactly what he was doing. He was great, I loved working with him.
It was the same on The Last of the Mohicans (1992) with Michael Mann. You think of trying to put Mohicans together – I mean the homework that he did on that was just fantastic. And he drove us, he was a hard taskmaster, but I didn’t mind that. Sometimes you broke for lunch at five o’clock in the afternoon. But he was still working, giving stuff and eating health foods and he had an umbrella to keep out the rain. It was great working with him. The English people moaned, and there were a lot of beautiful women, make up models and so on – “Well, I’ve got to go home. Why can’t I?” So you get that side of it. But you get the other folk who just want to work and love doing it, all they want to do is do the job properly.
BS. Something that always comes over strongly about Douglas Camfield is that he seems to have been absolutely loved by the crews who worked for him. Its partly because he’d started as a floor manager and gone up that ladder, so he knew what they expected.
MR. Well, he knew every side of the business and he knew what people are like, what artists are like. He was a very loving man but he could be very tough when he wanted to be. He was very understanding. You get the best out of people when you’re like that. You get the hard taskmasters who can’t get enough of it. Not that Michael Mann was a hard taskmaster in that sense, he wasn’t. But he drove – work, work. And if something was going then he wasn’t going to stop, we’re on a roll, we’ve got to go, right, let’s keep going, let’s do it! And I loved that, I loved to work with Dougie.
BS. One of the things that people say about Douglas Camfield is that he had the best understanding of soldiers of all directors in British television. Because he had a military background.
MR. Oh, did he? That rings a bell somewhere. What was it he did?
BS. I think it was just National Service –
MR. National Service, oh well, the same as me. That’s where Sergeant James came from! Because when I was in National service I got so bored with it. When I finished my National Service they wanted me to go into intelligence and I was a working class… ‘Cause I wasn’t stupid but I just was sullen, I suppose. And about half way through I found out I could do it and I went off with the Special Air Service for training with them. But then they wanted me to sign up and I said, “No, I’m not going to sign up”. That was the time of the Mau Mau and Malaya. But that was the time of discipline, a discipline I learned from that I still use in my working life now, the philosophy of it. In those days it was terrific. Nowadays people come out and write books about it. That’s a load of rubbish. It’s not the SAS that I knew. When we were there we had to sign the Official Secrets Act.
BS. Much of the success of Sergeant James in Danger UXB is down to your performance in particular. Because the character doesn’t have much of a back- story in the scripts. Unlike other men in the regiment like the Ken Cranham character where you see him at home.
MR. That’s because they wrote nothing for him! But it makes it much more interesting and mysterious, I think.
BS. The other major series where you worked with Douglas Camfield was The Nightmare Man, which was shot entirely on location in Cornwall with two cameras. I was reading about the rehearsal process for that, which seems rather unusual in that only the Director and Graeme Harper, his Production Assistant would have known the locations that you would go on to shoot it in. It was unusual in that it was all shot on location, but unlike film, you had still had a long period of rehearsal.
MR. As an actor, you never really know the places where you’re going to be filmed in advance of your filming in them. The only time that I did know is when I was filming Moses, a couple of Bible stories where we knew that we were going to be in the desert – which I loved. But even then, we didn’t know what the desert was really going to be like until we got there – and then there were bloody scorpions in the nighttime. We had all these great guys around us and we’d suddenly hear a “Wawawargh!” and they be chasing a huge spider or a big scorpion. Oh God!
But you don’t see the locations. I did an episode of Sutherland’s Law (BBC 1973-76) with Iain Cuthberbertson, and I was a climber, and I had dreadful vertigo. Terrible vertigo, and I had to be stuck on the side of the buckle, God, Glen Coe… And the other climbers were all teasing me, but it wasn’t funny, I tell you. They were on one side and there was a gap with an 800-foot drop. And so they got me across, they tied me to the cliff face and I hap a pick and a hammer. I had a safety harness on and I was ready to go and unclip it. And they go “Okay, action” and this is where it got stupid – my character had to whistle cheerfully and hammer his grips in – “Cut!” and I changed back to myself “Oooh Goood!”. There was a whole lump of this rock and the climber would come across and be with me… I just started whistling. That was absolutely terrifying. I had no idea when they put me down to go on location that I was going to have to go through that. In fact, we had a reporter come up to do a feature on the filming, and she turned around to go back down and she couldn’t do it, she suddenly got hit with the vertigo, and she needed people to have to take her all the way down the mountain.
I had a near disaster in the water with the Dutch as well. We were filming in Holland and there was this island that surfaced when the tide came out and this bit came up, which was only there for so many hours a day and I had to sail this boat onto the bank of the island. And suddenly these jets came over – What the… Apparently the Dutch Air Force used the far side of the island as target practice. What’s the point of filming here? So they’re overhead while we’re out filming. So Nigel Terry and I were left on this island while they were shooting, and this fog came down in the middle of the North Sea and Nigel Terry said, “I can’t see them!” “Well, I can’t see them either” and the waves we’re coming up, covering the island. And Nigel said, “I’m not very good at swimming”. I said “I’ll help you” – I didn’t dare to say that I’m not a very good swimmer either. But I said “I’m not moving because I know that this yacht is just right there out there, somewhere. Hang on for five minutes”. So I’m calling out and calling out and thinking, “Shit, I’m going to get drowned!” Suddenly I heard a tinkle, said “Come on!” and started swimming, and suddenly we saw the yacht and got aboard. But I kicked up hell with them because there was no safety and we could have quite easily got disorientated. Acting can be a dodgy business.
BS. The Nightmare Man wasn’t so dangerous, but it’s got some amazing fogs in it. With both that and the 1980 BBC Scotland Enemy of the People were both recorded on outside broadcast, so there’s a real sense of mobility, and a sense of the drama happening in actual locations.
MR. I remember very little about An Enemy of the People, it was a strange job, but I keep getting dreams about it, where we’re about to shoot it again or they’re about to put it on television again, and I don’t understand why – I think I was going through a bad divorce process at the time we made it, I’m not sure. That was a very weird thing. There are times when I think that I hadn’t done it, it was just a nightmare.
BS. The production does the same thing as The Nightmare Man, though. Being shot in a real town on a couple of lightweight cameras meant that you could get so much material recorded over a few days. The Nightmare Man is set in all these pokey little offices and outhouses and buildings, and its not as spectacular or as well-composed as film, but it has a sort of mobile sense to it.
MR. Yes, its just as interesting to look at as film. Handheld cameras can be very useful.
BS. You did a lot of work with BBC Scotland in the seventies and eighties. Were they a different sort of concern to work for?
MR. Well, they had a very good drama department. They still had when we did Tutti Frutti,(1987), of course. I don’t know why they ever closed it. When we did that the BBC in London had this huge drama series, Fortunes of War (1987) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, and at the end of the year Tutti Frutti got a record number of nominations for BAFTAs, and London didn’t like that – they closed the Drama Department in Glasgow down. I don’t know if it was just jealousy, just stupid politics.
BS. The last production that I’d like to talk about was The Journal of Brigit Hitler (1981), which sounds really interesting.
MR. Oh, that was fascinating and way ahead of its time, Philip Saville. It was very Brechtian. For example, I had to learn Hitler’s speeches in German with all the gestures. I sat for hours in a private room watching them. I tried to find out what Hitler was like as a person. There’s one speech of him on a balcony, certain tone of voice that I used that and the German accent. But I also had to do a lot of research into Belsen and other war stuff because I wanted to get into how this man could do this stuff and understand the mentality. But also, for example, there would be a podium where I would be performing the speech, behind me there’d be film and they’d keep cutting. Well, they didn’t cut, but they’d filmed me in the studio, and they pieced the two together, cutting between him and me so you didn’t know which was Hitler. When I’d finished the speech I would come down from the podium, call for the make-up girl – “Can I have my cigarettes” and go back to being who I was with a Scottish accent, I’d turn to the camera and have my cigarette, while the scene-shifters would go past with a piece of scnery, and on the scenery they would project people behind barbed wire in prisoner of war camps, so it was superimposing, they hadn’t done it before, it was bluescreen, so it was really interesting from that point of view.
But when it came out, there had been a lot of stuff beforehand, a lot of press, but there were no reviews. The reviewers were like, “What the hell is this?” They used it as a tutorial film in Denmark.
BS. So it didn’t have representative sets at all?
MR. Not really. All of the sets that we had were projected; Berlin and so on were all projected onto a screen at the top of these steps.
BS. The BBC really used Television Centre to its full extent at that time! Philip Saville was always doing something interesting throughout his career…
MR. He’s a great character!