Shortly before he died in December 2020 Brian Parker had started to write his memoirs, encouraged apparently by my suggesting it during the course of several months’ correspondence, coupled with the fact that, because of the Coronavirus pandemic, he was sheltering in the Trossachs with no television! If that was the case I wish I’d made the suggestion earlier because he only managed to cover the first year of his career as a television director before he passed away, beginning with the six months he spent on a BBC Directors’ Course, during which he directed his first broadcast drama, and the first two of five Wednesday Plays. How I wish he had been able to write about the next two: Peter Everett’s The Girl Who Loved Robots (20 October 1965) which had a huge cast of 62 and music composed by Cornelius Cardew, and Julia Jones’ A Designing Woman (27 October 1965), both of which are now lost.
Very few of his early productions survive, but fortunately all seven of his Plays for Today do exist, including the prize-winning Donal and Sally (14 November 1978), along with most of his later productions. He worked on a wide range of drama, in a variety of genres, with writers including Robert Barr, Alma Cullen, Andrew Davies, David Halliwell, Elwyn Jones, Elaine Morgan, Colin Morris, Alan Plater, Susan Pleat, Adele Rose, Jack Rosenthal, Roger Smith and Peter Terson, and with actors including James Bolam, Peter Bowles, Denholm Elliot, Barbara Flynn, Brian Glover, Gerald Harper, David Hemmings, Thora Hird, Bob Hoskins, Frances de la Tour and Billie Whitelaw.
Had he lived his complete memoirs would, I’m sure, have made for fascinating reading as his memory, even at the age of 91, was very good and he was an entertaining memoirist. As it is we just have these recollections from 1964-65, along with what I previously published of our correspondence.
The invitation to come in for interview at the BBC arrived quite quickly. I was surprised because my application form looked spectacularly unimpressive, even to me. There were large fenced-off areas for schools, colleges and universities, and degree subjects and awards gained. My School Certificate acquired 19 years ago at West Leeds High School just didn’t fill the spaces. And there was nowhere to list the dozens of acting jobs that had allowed me to keep a wife and four kids, with only occasional appearances as a Christmas postman or Hornby Train salesman, Paint-roller demonstrator at the Ideal Home Exhibition, oh and pressed pork presser.
One thing my career had taught me, playing it safe never works. After hundreds of interviews, I knew that whatever ideas, personality and individuality you have they must be on show. Happily, the first meeting was with two directors currently working at the BBC, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Shaun Sutton. Shaun later became Head of Drama at BBC TV. He was also the most technically competent Director around, always finishing sessions early! I liked them both and they were interested to hear how my friends and I made films with improvised equipment and next to no cash.
I sensed a trick question when Shaun asked if I found the editing in silent movies rather slow. I told him my kids film had 120 shots in six and a half minutes and I had to disagree. I can’t remember now if I told them I had actually developed the negative for that little movie on a machine I’d built myself.
Whatever I told them, it obviously worked. I was sent upstairs to meet an Appointment Board. I was given a list of my interviewers and my heart sank. After each name, in brackets, was their job. All men of course apart from one lady (Head of Secretarial Services or some such). A row of stuffed shirts, all with titles, “Transport”, “Studio Planning” or similar. But not one with the least connection to the talent and skill required to make a TV programme. They looked at each other, obviously hoping that someone could think of a relevant question. All graduates, so we had no background in common. Lord Reith, the principal architect of the BBC, apparently appointed ex-naval officers to run departments of the BBC as it grew. I suspect these guys were a remnant, but I had been an AC2 in the RAF (Aircraftman 2nd class), the lowest possible rank, so no experience to swap there. It must have been the shortest interview in my career so far and I went away pretty downcast!
But! Geraldine and Shaun must have had the casting vote (or else my rivals for the post must have been rubbish) because a letter soon arrived with an almost immediate start at £28 a week for 6 months on the Directors Course! Slightly less than I’d been earning in “Puffin” but enough to keep a family in those days.
The BBC had its own little school building in Shepherds Bush quite close to TV centre. There were around 20 of us, mostly BBC employees from various departments – current affairs, documentaries and I think we even had one from Religion. Three were from Drama and two were “outsiders”, Ian Curteis and me. People who entered the BBC at a primary level “worked their way up” through various grades to First Assistant Director and if they wished to direct had to go on The Directors Course. Even then their future progress depended on whether Producers actually liked them and thought the shows they directed were any good. So much depended on the “Exercise Production” which you made during the Course. This was a 20-minute studio short to be recorded on 16mm Telecine and you were entirely responsible for finding the script, which had to be original, although there was no money in the Budget to pay for it. It was never to be transmitted for copyright reasons. You had £400 to spend and that covered actors, costume and scenery. I did ask for a film-unit, but that was out of the question on budget grounds. In the end I went up to Leeds with my own Bolex and shot the exteriors myself.
In no sense whatsoever was this a course in TV production or movie making. Apart from we two “outsiders” all the BBC staffers had been Assistant Directors on many productions and had seen skilled Directors rehearse actors and brief designers of sets and costumes etc. They would have become their Director’s “mouthpiece” passing on his/her messages to the performers once the show went into the Studio. In their headphones they would have heard the Director’s discussions with cameramen on framing the shots and camera movement. Ian Curteis and I needed a crash-course but of course that never happened. This may have been relevant to Ian’s subsequent problems. [For an account of Ian Curteis’s ‘problems’ as a director, before he turned to writing, see Oliver Wake, ‘Ian Curteis’]
The first four weeks were mainly lectures at Sulgrove House. An afternoon on properties of lenses, another on microphones, but I’d already owned and used these items. There was a wonderful lecture by a prominent BBC lighting maestro about how the TV screen actually works. In those days it had only 405 lines and was “Black and White”. It seems we saw a picture thanks to a “flying -spot”. The facts were brilliantly expounded with so many expertly tailored jokes. The demonstrations were so entertaining and so clever that I was convinced I understood the physics for all of 20 minutes. It took even less time to work out it was what we put on the screen that mattered.
And there were no lectures on the fundamentals of direction. How do you judge a script? When is the moment to cut to the Close-Up? Isn’t it time to introduce some movement into the scene? How to stop this actor being so boring??
The 2nd month was much more useful. We were attached to a Producer who could fix it for you to watch location filming, Studio filming and night shoots. You could go and see a day’s outside rehearsal at one of the Boys Clubs or Territorial Army Drill halls the BBC used to hire before they built their own Rehearsal Block (The Acton Hilton!!).
Most exciting was the long days in “The Gallery” which was the control-room, invariably upstairs so you could look down over your TV Studio and see the chaos caused by your bad planning and poor siteing of your interior Scenery. You got to see and hear Directors discussing the shots with the 5 or 6 camera operators down on the studio “Floor”, and the precise split second for the Vision-Mixer to cut from one shot to the next. Most exciting was being present on a “live-transmission” when actors and crew are doing their stuff, with, at that period (1964) 11 or 12 million viewers watching. Imagine forgetting the words!! And the enormous tension until the final credits roll.
3rd and 4th months were devoted to preparing and making the Production Exercise. There was no advice about scripts. I’m afraid I pinched a short story about the last hours of a North Country Brass Band player and turned it into a TV script. My Dad was in a Salvation Army Band so I added a religious element to the dispute between bandsman and his wife. Dad’s band agreed to don their uniforms and appear for a BBC donation of £40. They weren’t keen to play Christmas Carols in public several months before the Festive Season but were persuaded no sacrilege was involved. They marched down some mean streets in Leeds where there were no gardens and not a hint of vegetation to reveal the actual month. My Bolex 16mm camera could not record sound so the BBC kindly loaned me a posh tape machine, which meant that the Band had to repeat each camera “take” for the soundtrack.
My effort as a one-man film unit eventually yielded some possible sequences to cut in with my Studio scenes, plus moving backgrounds for the opening Titles. I don’t think my fellow students had anything like this, so maybe I got points for originality.
This, of course, was my first acquaintance with the art of “Casting”. The fees the actors got for a trainee show were probably not as much as their established “rate”, but I was delighted (and lucky!) that my three performers agreed to appear in “March Past”. My budget could stretch to 3 days rehearsal, and they all learned my first attempts at writing dialogue and made the scenes believable. I was especially thrilled by Noel Dyson (who had been one of the early regulars in Coronation Street). She made the unsympathetic Bandsman’s wife both believable and understandable. As an actor myself I should have known what miracles they can bring about, often with inadequate material, and they certainly made my little tear-jerker “work”.
Years later I asked the great James MacTaggart why he had entrusted a whacking big Play for Today (“Moving On”) to a beginner with only one 50-minute Drama plus the exercise piece. There were after all, 8 or 9 “Staff Directors” lined up on bar stools in the BBC Bar every lunchtime. Jim said “Well, from the start, you weren’t afraid to show emotion, unlike those Public School dummies, too polite to get involved!”
By the way, said directors had to have an office and a secretary, even if producers like Jim didn’t want to use them, and I believe they were required to go freelance shortly after.
There remained months 5 and 6 of the Course and Ian Curteis and I were free to carry the can containing our 16mm Telecine recording and try to persuade producers to watch it. I was doing exactly that when I was grabbed by a youngish chap in the basement corridor. “Are you Brian Parker? Right you’re working for me!” He didn’t look particularly happy about this fact, nor, it seemed, did I have any choice in the matter. The corridor was thronged, mainly with young women, make-up and costume assistants, as he went on to tell me in a loud voice, “I’m a Rough Tough Fucker and you will do exactly as I tell you, OK?” I’m afraid I was still processing this information as he marched off shouting, “My office, John Robins, 10am tomorrow!!”
Since he had recognised me (though I had never heard of him), I guessed he was a new Producer who had been told to employ one of the trainees on the current course, (it would save the BBC a salary). He must have watched from the Viewing Gallery as I fumbled my way through camera rehearsals, cueing actors, discussing shots and cutting-points with cameramen and Vision Mixer, running Film Sequences (which you had to start 8 seconds early) and cueing opening and closing credits. Obviously my first effort must have been a far from practised display, so I can understand his reluctance. Only it would have helped, during the next 7 weeks or so if there had been an encouraging or helpful word. However, I had already formed my own opinion of him and was able to carry on with a growing confidence without him.
The job was a 50-minute episode of a new series called THORNDYKE. It was a sort of pale shadow of Sherlock Holmes but a later period and with two Doctors solving the crimes. Slight problem with my Episode, there was no script yet. At the moment it was merely one of the short stories in a large old volume and was being adapted by C. E. Webber. I phoned, and got the impression my writer was having problems, so arranged to go and see him. Television studios were only large enough, obviously, to accommodate a finite number of “Sets”. And there needed to be enough space for cameras and sound “booms” to operate whilst sill leaving room for the other cameras to get to their next position. The entire ethic in 1964 was to record your programme “As Live”, to avoid the need to edit the telerecording without stops for actors to change, or alterations to scenery or furniture. (These things happened silently whilst scenes proceeded nearby in the Studio!). The only exceptions were when you “played in” sequences previously filmed outside on location.
Our Story, “A Case of Premeditation”, required a normal (8 to 10 minutes) of exterior filming but Mr Webber had identified 15 necessary studio “interiors”. Too many for Studio 3 at T.V.C. Whilst we were agreeing his ideas for the running order of our show a thought occurred to me. There were 5 short scenes where our “Murderer” acquired the materials for his foul crimes, (climbing boots, heavy walking sticks, dead rat…etc). I said we’ll have all 5 scenes, but I’ll design a set which will combine them all in the Studio space of only one. Just call it “Shop Montage”. By using a double in identical clothes to the Murderer and pre-recording his dialogue, we were able to record all 5 scenes as one, continuously. Actual Murderer alternating with murderer’s double’s back/legs/hands in shots favouring the shop assistants. On the day of recording it took a lot of rehearsal, but golly did it work!! I recorded an ominous drumbeat and had the sound chaps put it on a “loop” so they could fade it in and out as we dissolved between the 5 sections of the montage. Montage (normally used in Feature Films as a means to condense passage of time or changes of location) was almost unknown in a TV Studio. Mine was noticed by certain folk who featured in my later career, but I don’t recall my current employer, John Robins, seeing anything unusual.
It’s possible our strained relationship could be my fault. I had no idea how the Producer/Director thing was supposed to work – for my Production Exercise there had been no such figure, and in my career as an actor the Director was the only guiding light. It simply didn’t occur to me to discuss anything whatever with that man. And of course, I now had an office with my name on the door! And a secretary. Or, I should say, a Production Secretary and a First Assistant Director. And once C.E. Webber delivered the script I acquired a Set Designer, Sally Hulke. All good at their jobs and very experienced. The only untried, possibly dodgy operator was me.
One huge problem reared up straight away. Instead of 3 or 4 actors as in “March Past”, I now had to find more than a dozen. At that time, and for many years to come, the BBC refused to employ Casting Directors and this stupidity was to waste huge amounts of time for Directors, Actors and their Agents. Later I was hired by various Commercial TV companies and discovered that my office was a haven of calm where one could think, plan and hold sensible discussions. Simply because actors and agents knew better than to bother the Production Team when a Casting Director was available to describe the Roles available and discuss their suggestions. Silly old BBC refused to learn from the film industry’s many years of experience and used people called “bookers” to negotiate contracts. Bookers were perfectly nice folk, only as one of them explained to me, their pay grade was very low on the BBC salary scale. So they were absolutely forbidden to give any casting advice, to make any suggestions or to express any opinion as to an actor’s suitability. They were there to offer a job to any performer I nominated, having first checked their fee the last time they worked for the BBC. This was the fee they offered regardless of the size of the role. It was an unfair, stupid system which had the effect of keeping actors’ wages disgracefully low.
I had spent most of my acting career in provincial theatre and being onstage yourself does tend to prevent you seeing many Films or West End shows! I simply didn’t know enough actors to cast “Thorndyke” well, and a Casting Director would certainly have found me a better selection than some of the “old mates” I used.
The phones in the office were seldom without an Agent ‘wanting a word’ and every day dozens of letters arrived complete with photographs of their Clients whom they were convinced would be ideal for my show. Each photo would be accompanied by a short biography. Just to read all of this stuff diligently would take ages, and I ended up taking a briefcase-full home each night. As an ex-actor I was sad that all of these glossy pictures had been paid for by often out-of-work artistes. I asked and was told the BBC would return them – I’m afraid I didn’t believe it. I met as many as I could and was often amazed when I felt confident my choices were going to be OK.
The schedule was set in stone. My episode was 4th in the series, and numbers 2 and 3 were already being put together by experienced directors. [‘A Case of Premeditation’ was actually the second episode broadcast – a sign perhaps of how successful it was; the first episode was directed by Gilchrist Calder.] The date was already set for me to start rehearsals. The episodes went into Studio 3 Television Centre at fortnightly intervals for 2 days each. At the end of the second day you had 2 hours to record your one-hour programme. Any Exterior scenes you had previously filmed had to be played in and recorded in sequence. Any incidental music or effects were mixed into the soundtrack by very capable engineers in the Sound Gallery. The programme was recorded on a Telecine machine, which copied electronic images from TV cameras to 35mm Film. The idea was to get your entire 55 minutes in one continuous “take” which would avoid the need to edit in retakes. [Each episode of Thorndyke was 50 minutes; ‘A Case of Premeditation’ was broadcast on Saturday 10 October 1964, 20.40-21.30]
I rarely managed this, but do remember the hideous tension, as actors keep forgetting one particular word, or microphones persist in appearing in that particular shot. And the studio Clock is a constant reminder that you are about to lose the Recording Machine as it’s booked out to somebody else at 10 o’clock.
On the way to the moment when we successfully recorded the last re-take (and John Robins and I thankfully parted company), there were a few shocks in store. He had of course been mainly occupied by Episodes 1, 2 and 3. The ones directed by people he had actually chosen, and not the one he’d been landed with, yours truly. All the material for each episode had to be rehearsed, exteriors filmed (and edited) along with your 2 days in Studio 3 during a 2-week period. And the “Regulars”, the actors who appeared in every show, needed time off to get their breath back. Looking back, I’m astonished I did not go and watch the preceding episodes being recorded. During my “traineeship” I never encountered a director who objected to being “observed” and it would have helped to accustom me to the tense atmosphere in the Studio and the speed at which decisions had to be taken. And if the series had a “house-style”, I might have noticed and learned something from my seniors. I was terrified of turning up at rehearsals without having planned the characters’ positions and movements and the camera-positions and movement required to cover them. So this is what I did at home in the evenings and weekends. That plus wading through the small mountain of photographs and casting suggestions. At the age of 35, I had never been the Man in Charge; now I was and not sure I was up to it! Not sure either if I actually liked it. Must have been an awful chap to live with – wife and children hardly entered the equation.
Later on, I slowly realised, I was not on my own. Not just my judgement spelled success or failure. My next producer turned out to be the great James MacTaggart and conversations with him reminded me that we were involved in a collaboration and other people’s ideas could be seamlessly woven in. Meanwhile the Rough Tough Fucker informed me that my 9-10 minutes of exterior scenes would not be shot on film and must be completed in one day. Nine minutes in a day would be pushing it! Feature Films normally achieved 1-2 minutes per day and instead I would use a 4 camera Outside Broadcast Unit. If R.T.F. had given me a bit more notice, I could have checked out this mode of working, but the First Day of Rehearsal was suddenly upon us.
I had previously worked as an actor alongside 4 of my cast, the others got the jobs via the interviews I had managed to squeeze in. The exception was John Le Mesurier, whom I had seen in a couple of films, and knew would be ideal as the devious, murdering Baddie. This was before he became nationally known as the ineffectual Sergeant in “Dad’s Army”. His agent told me John was free but would need to see a script before negotiating the deal.
At the first read-through I met Peter Copley and Paul Williamson, who played Dr Thorndyke and his fellow amateur detective. Producer and his staff plus Make-up and Wardrobe are invariably there, especially if Filmed inserts are imminent and measurements, costumes, wigs and beards need to be sorted. I went to shake hands with Le Mesurier as he came in, only he’s waving the script saying, “Brian, Brian. What a load of Rubbish! Where’s the truth in this?”
Wondering if this is some sort of daft joke, I said, “But Mr Mesurier, I sent you the script weeks ago.” “Oh, I never read scripts. I leave all that to my Agent. I’ve just looked at it on the train!” Two of them in my first production! Thank goodness the Plonker count went down in subsequent shows. (But he was a good choice for the role.)
Our single day on location had fine weather, and I arrived in the tatty ex-builder’s van that I was half-way through converting into a “Dormobile”. I had re-sprayed it (not altogether successfully) in a combination of green and red, but there was a fair proportion of rust on display. I parked up some distance from the O.B. van, having noticed that it had 5 gleaming E-Type Jaguars around it, along with several other large and expensive vehicles. Evidently covering Motor Bike, Car, Dog and Horse-racing paid better than Drama ever would.
The cameramen were keen to show that their multi-camera unit was viable for drama sequences on location. Having fresh subjects (like Wanda Ventham) suited them just fine, and I was totally happy with the way they framed the shots I listed in my camera script. They, and the boom operators, coped well with the problem of keeping the microphone(s) out of picture. So much more difficult than it is with just one camera angle. To be brutally honest, the system, though speedier, must always involve compromises. Close-ups seeing both eyes of two people in conversation would also see the other camera in the background. So the shots have to be the point of view of an observer, rather than that of the participants when you use two cameras rather than one at a time.
The O.B. method makes it possible to record an entire sequence with all the required picture and sound “edited” together. The “joining” process happens at the Mixing Desk in the O.B. van. The vision mixer for my Production Exercise had understood exactly my intentions in the camera-script. I was hoping to find similar skilled and sensitive hands on this job. I introduced myself to the crew in the van and asked who was the vision mixer. “You are!” they said.
Of course, I should have checked earlier. These O.B. units had evolved to broadcast live events. There’s no need for a camera script at the Boat Race or the Grand National. The person in charge can switch to whichever camera has the most vivid view at that moment. Of course he does it himself, it’s quicker. Only, it really needs practice to do it well. I had to simultaneously watch my screens, read the script (to identify the next cutting point) and look down at the controls to cue up the right camera. More than once I got it wrong and ruined a perfectly good “Take”. Cast and crew somehow remained patient with me, I got all my sequences, and a huge respect for the iron nerve and split-second timing of that talented band of Vision-Mixers I was to rely on later.
One more R.T.F. related unpleasantness remained. (Once we arrived in the Studio for our final two days in harness, he said very little. I suspect he’d renounced any responsibility for my show as he never wanted me anyway.] Towards the end of cast- rehearsals there was always a “Producers Run”. The room we rehearsed in was by far the smallest I ever had. On these occasions the cast would sit or stand around whilst director listened to writer’s and producer’s reaction to the run-thru they’d just watched. Not this time. Apart from the regulars and Mr Le Mesurier, Robins had hated everything! Usually, these thoughts and helpful suggestions are given in a quiet tone for the director to use as he/she sees fit. My actors were able to hear every angry word, and one or two poor souls I had acted with in the past received special mention. “What does that stupid ass think he’s playing at?” was delivered in a loud voice whilst pointing at the individual in question. I’ve modified the word ass.
Despite the Boss’s morale-building endeavours the final two days rehearsing and recording “Thorndyke” went quite amazingly well considering there was an amateur in charge. Scene followed scene, and a story emerged with a sort of logic! All due to the thing being finally in the hands of top-class BBC technicians and a splendid vision mixer.
My Trainee Contract expired in a few days, and I received a nice letter thanking me for spending six months on the Course. It also explained that the BBC felt it was unlikely that I would be offered any engagements in the future.
Having no agent, it was a case of telephoning old contacts to see if there was any acting work going. If the BBC didn’t want me as a director, it was unlikely the commercial TV companies would take a chance either. Years before, I had acquired a useful side-line recording commentaries for documentaries and training films. I can’t remember what it was about, but shortly afterwards, I was in a sound-studio near Wardour Street, and nearly at the end of the session. A very decent producer stopped his recording and said, “Brian there’s a guy on the phone says it’s urgent, do you want to take it?”
So it was that an hour or so later, I puffed into TV Centre where James MacTaggart put a rather heavy script into my hand. “You’d better like this,” he said, “you sit down on Monday.” In one bound, from groping around in the Fourth Division, producer-wise, I was to work for MacTaggart at the top of the Premier League. Tony Garnett was also involved in The Wednesday Play script department, but my show had been developed by Roger Smith (later Ken Loach’s script editor). I’m afraid I assumed Roger had got the script this far, and now that it was in production, editing it was my job. I should at least have gone to discuss it with him!! And Jim!!!
The play was “Moving On” by Bill Meilen. Bill came from Wales, and if you were around when the hideous Aberfan Disaster happened you would have seen him on the newsreels. He’s one of the heroes who rushed to dig out the poor buried children. Well done National Coal Board. “Moving On” was about his experiences in the Korean War and was his first work for TV. He was an actor, so he knew how important it is to invent characters! Everyone, even the “smaller” parts were individuals. Most of the scenes were set in a British Army jail in Japan. Bill had spent some time in just such an establishment it seems. He was intriguingly vague about the reason why, but certainly knew his subject.
Most TV comes in strictly defined lumps. To make commercial TV profitable, ITV has to sell so many minutes worth of adverts per hour. The entertainment slotted between the adverts is ruthlessly chopped to fit the gaps. Dear old BBC could tolerate much more variable running-times. All the same, I was convinced there were too many words for these particular events. I read each scene out loud, or described the action (seeing it in my head) and jotted down the timings from the kitchen clock which had a second hand.
So I knew to within a minute or two how long the play would last. It was nearer 90 minutes than 75, but more importantly, there were too many ethical discussions, as if Bill thought he needed to underline just how awful people could be to each other. I suppose I should have discussed this with Roger Smith but that never occurred to me. And Jim MacTaggart too should surely have been in the loop?
Instead, I phoned Bill Meilen to ask him to come and stay at my place in Streatham for a couple of days. The poor lad somehow kept his temper when he saw his script with acres of dialogue crossed out. We argued every point and some precious lines went back in. It must be galling to lose carefully crafted discussions about the nature of violence and the effectiveness of punishment that have taken much time and care to write. I hope I convinced him that just seeing the grotesque cruelty of the “Glass House” was enough, and actually better than hearing the “warders” arguing about their grim trade.
Obviously Jim MacTaggart and Roger Smith must have noticed the script was now drastically slimmer. It had lost a lot of words but retained all the action. Had the new job description gone to my head? It seems it never occurred to me that being part of a team involved sharing ideas. As an actor, in my experience, you never discussed your role with colleagues, that was the director’s job. (A fellow actor offering advice would have implied, at that time, that you “Didn’t know your business”.)
“Moving On” was a much longer, grander production than “Thorndyke” with more actors, more rehearsal, more sets, more days in the studio, which had to be the Biggest! Studio One.
As a “Play for Today” [it was actually a Wednesday Play, perhaps the most prestigious drama strand, it was of interest to well established performers, so the flow of photos and suggestions from Agents was even heavier than for my first effort. But it was a joyous feeling at the Read-Through to just know in my bones that this cast were well capable of doing justice to the script. The doomed hero of the story was David Collings and his chief tormentor Peter Jeffreys. Both must have served in the forces and it showed. The first time I saw it I couldn’t believe how hard Peter threw a Lee-Enfield rifle at Collings (a deliberate provocation as the boy wasn’t looking at the time). David always caught the heavy object (also one handed) a split-second before it collided with his skull! Memorable too was Eric Thomson, Emma Thomson’s father. I believe this was before he achieved fame with “The Magic Roundabout”.
In 1965 the BBC did not employ Location Managers, and I was lucky to have Michael Hart as First Assistant. He sorted out an actual Army Test Range to be the rough country where the prisoners did some especially nasty exercise.
And it was on that Blasted Heath that my less than complete communication with MacTaggart was exposed. The morning’s work went well when the location represented a wild battlefield in Korea. In the afternoon it had become a rocky field near the prison. We had to be taken to the Location Caterers sited somewhere near for lunch but on our return, the field was already covered by a couple of inches of snow, and more arriving every second. This was obviously handing us a huge continuity problem as the scenes we were shooting would be alternating with scenes at the Prison camp. These would be recorded in Studio One three weeks later including scenes where the Parade Ground would be seen through windows and quite devoid of snow.
I got Michael Hart to rush me to a phone where I asked Jim MacTaggart if we could postpone filming and come back when the snow had gone. To my surprise he refused. I kept telling him the place was white with snow and the stuff wouldn’t cut with studio. He kept saying, “Look it might improve, just do your best.”
There were a couple of fit young extras supplementing David, Eric and 9 or 10 actors playing smaller parts. They knew that this was a punishment detail and our job was to make it look as ghastly as we could. I spoke to the lads and the crew, mentioning my chat with the Producer and the fact that the show really needed these scenes. It was a unanimous message: “Let’s do it!”
By now there was another couple of inches of snow and it didn’t stop there. The Boys struggled up rocky inclines through unpleasant vegetation getting soaked in the process, and literally crawled along furrows now full of drenching snow. Then did it again for closer shots, never a complaint.
By the time I was back in the office next day, Jim had seen the “rushes”. There was a wonderful overnight processing system in operation, and he was obviously impressed. He said as much. “The material is amazing. Great stuff! Too bad you can’t use it.” I was aghast. “Why?” Jim: “It’s snowing. It won’t match the Studio.” Me: “But I told you that on the phone.” Jim: “I know but it wasn’t snowing here.” Sometimes even one’s heroes have an off day!
So the brave bunch got paid to do it all again once the snow melted. I’m sure Michael Hart arranged for the extras among them to join us for our 3 days in Studio and the last few days before that. “Outside rehearsals” during the ‘60s and early ‘70s very often took place at Boys Clubs or Territorial Army barracks as in our case. So many of us at that period had done National Service and knew how to march and shoulder arms but I was a bit surprised, a day or two before we were due in the Studio, to hear the sound of marching feet and barked orders in the Drill Yard outside. I left my rehearsal to find Michael drilling any actors I wasn’t currently using, plus the extras! This because he’d heard me say I’d like activity in the Parade area whenever we saw it through windows in the sets.
I should mention that Michael Hart had been on the Directors Course with me a few weeks earlier, having worked his way up through the BBC system. In one sense, he was a rival for the opportunity I had been given with this production. And he was doing everything he could to make it work out well for me. I’m glad to say he did move up and direct his own shows afterwards. So many of us got our chance because the BBC had been allotted a second channel; until then there was only BBC1 and I.T.V. At that period films made for the Cinema weren’t allowed to be shown on TV. For a few years there was a Golden Age for British actors until American TV material (which of course was cheaper) turned up to spoil the party.
Jim MacTaggart and his two script editors arrived at the Drill Hall Producer’s Run before we moved it into the studio. I knew already that I had been extremely lucky to find this special group of actors. They had used the three weeks of rehearsal to sort out exactly who they were and where they fitted in to the story. There was one physical demonstration of confidence that was hard to believe was actually happening. Peter Jeffrey’s Sergeant challenged David Collings to prove he wasn’t a coward and borrowed another lad’s Lee-Enfield rifle. This thing makes a very heavy and effective club. We had a fight arranger devise the moves, but the actors went at the scrap so fiercely I was sure one or other would be seriously hurt. From that moment Jim, Roger and Tony were silent and utterly absorbed. At the tragic end of the play, there was a long, long pause! And very few “notes”!
It was the Director’s job to prepare a “Camera Script”. On the existing dialogue script, which was printed only on the right-hand side of the page, you used the left-hand side to give every shot a number. Also, which camera (One to Six). What size C.U. = Close Up, L.S. = Long Shot, which of the 4 lenses, which performers in picture, and what to do if they moved. Since there might be 600 or more shots in a Wednesday Play you were guaranteed several sleepless nights and probably writer’s cramp whilst setting out all these details. The days being fully occupied by rehearsal, the only time to do it was in the evening and weekends, so family life was completely suspended. Paddy and the children were left to cope while Daddy does his thing.
We had three days in the Studio to make the equivalent of a Feature Film. And in fact, only the final three hours were used to actually record the programme. The first two and a half days are to accustom actors and crew to the properties, costumes and scenery. Also, to make sure cameras and sound are able to do any needed moves in time so that the show can be recorded in long continuous “takes”.
During these three precious hours when you had a 35mm recording machine, the Director’s concentration and timing-skills were used to the full. Cameramen did not have scripts, merely a numbered list of the shots allotted to their camera. They could not be expected to read dialogue whilst constantly peering into the viewfinder or framing the next shot. So you were constantly pre-warning: “She’s going to rise, take her to the door … now!” When one scene ends and another begins you cannot leave it to the actor in the new scene to judge when to walk or talk. She or he could be 20/30 yards away and not able to see or hear. So the director decides how long to hold the outgoing shot, then says “Cue and Cut!” The vision mixer cuts up the new scene as the actor responds to a hand-signal. Exciting when you all get it right. Sixty, seventy or more times.
“Moving On” won very good reviews and excellent viewing figures. I hope it did as much good for Bill Meilen’s career as it did for mine. After his Aberfan heroics, he went to Canada and became a Professor of Drama. I showed up late for a Directors Meeting at TV Centre. In the noisy throng I couldn’t see a soul I knew. Christopher Morahan must have just been addressing the group because he got up and quieted them down with “Oh and I forgot to mention, I watched a play called “Moving On” the other day. Don’t know who made it, but I would have been very proud if it had been me.” His stock was extremely high at that time (and deservedly ever since). An admiring crowd folded around him again, and I never got the chance to say: “That was me!”
The reason I was eligible to attend was because Jim MacTaggart had handed me a script by Alan Seymour called “Autostop”. I didn’t know this was slang on the Continent for hitch-hiking, but once explained, the thought of exotic and romantic film locations was very appealing. A journey, via France, Auschwitz, Austria, an Italian beach at Brindisi, a storm-tossed crossing to Greece in a stolen sailing yacht. My young attractive leading man’s many encounters with lovely young women… This was a wonderful opportunity to reveal an utterly different and lighter facet of my ability, after the blood and sweat of “Moving On”.
I went to see Jim to discuss the project and told him I liked it. The usual 3 weeks rehearsal, 3 days in the studio and 3 hours recording time. I asked how many days filming would I get for the foreign exterior scenes? “None,” he said, “we’ve used up all our allowance. You’ll have to do the best you can with Stills.”
A few years later I would have let someone else have a go at “Autostop”. My prosaic old brain feels deeply that if your scene is set in Vienna, you should have at least one shot that looks as if you are actually there! Eileen Diss, my splendid designer, worked miracles, but you can’t produce multiple European street scenes in a Television Studio. Moving traffic is a bit of a no/no even for one place and we had to pretend we were in many places in our 3 hours of recording time. So dialogue in a scene would imply that it was happening in Athens but you never saw a single Greek street or ancient ruin. Apparently there wasn’t even enough money for a few “Stock Shots!” (for example if you wish to indicate you’re in London, just punch up 5 seconds of Trafalgar Square and 3 of Westminster Abbey and you are there!)
My hero, David Hemmings, hitched his way (for a Still Camera) down a country lane at Box Hill (near Dorking) chosen because it could have been anywhere. Only problem, it didn’t actually look like Southern Europe either. We had some fun at Ealing Studios shooting more stills against black curtains. The prop-boys enjoyed finding ever more crazy angles for the little stolen sailing boat caught in a stormy night at sea. David and an Italian mate clung on as best they could whilst the prop-lads chucked buckets of water at them. You can only hold still photographs for a second or two, so we needed an awful lot of water.
Once again we managed to complete recording the show in the allotted 3 hours. I suppose I must have watched it, but cannot remember if I liked it, or what the reviews in the papers had to say about it. I was agreeably surprised when the author Alan Seymour phoned to invite me to lunch at the BBC club, the Restaurant, not the Canteen. We sat down, ordered, and our glasses of wine arrived. “Right!” he said, “What went wrong!”
Brian Parker – List of Television Work
Before Your Very Eyes: Ep.2 (Associated-Rediffusion, 24 February 1956)
Onion Boys (BBC, 1957-58, 2 episodes) – Father Bourven
Sunday Night Theatre: The Great Adventure (BBC, 25 May 1958) – John Shawn
The Sky Larks: Down in the Drink (BBC, 19 September 1958) – Lieutenant Wainwright R.N.
The Red Grass: Ep.6 (Associated-Rediffusion, 10 February 1959)
Television Playhouse: Notes for a Love Song (Associated-Rediffusion, 20 March 1959) – Black-Coated Office Worker
Television Playhouse: Once a Crook (Associated-Rediffusion, 1 April 1960) – Detective Constable Andrews
Scotland Yard (BBC, 1960, 2 episodes) – Police Constable/Detective Constable Flaxman
No Hiding Place: Told by a Dead Man (Associated-Rediffusion, 28 April 1961) – Detective Constable Watkins
Goodnight Mrs Puffin (BBC, 24 August 1961) – Victor Parker
One Step Beyond: The Tiger (Associated-Rediffusion, 7 February 1962) – Solicitor
First Night: The Happy Ones (BBC, 7 March 1964) – Purves
Z Cars: First Class Citizen (BBC1, 29 April 1964)
March Past (BBC, 1964) – untransmitted production exercise written and directed by Brian Parker
Thorndyke: A Case of Premeditation (BBC1, 10 October 1964) – ad. C.E. Webber
The Wednesday Play: Moving On (BBC1, 24 March 1965) – w. Bill Meilen
The Wednesday Play: Auto-Stop (BBC1, 21 April 1965) – w. Alan Seymour
Londoners: A Little Touch of Henry (BBC2, 16 July 1965) – w. Ronald Eyre
The Wednesday Play: The Girl Who Loved Robots (BBC1, 20 October 1965) – w. Peter Everett
The Wednesday Play: A Designing Woman (BBC1, 27 October 1965) – w. Julia Jones
Softly Softly (BBC1, 1966-71, series 1-7) – 18 episodes
King of the River: Sunset for a Sailorman (BBC1, 12 July 1966) – w. Colin Morris
The Troubleshooters (BBC1, 1966-68, series 1-3) – 4 episodes
The Wednesday Play: Everybody’s Rich Except Us (BBC1, 25 January 1967) – w. Thomas Clarke
Champion House: The One That Got Away (BBC1, 13 August 1967) – w. Anthony Scott Veitch
The First Lady (BBC1, 1968, series 1) – 4 episodes
Vendetta: The Paradise Man (BBC1, 5 August 1968) – w. Barry Thomas
Gazette (Yorkshire TV, 1968) – 3 episodes
Saturday Night Theatre: An Hour of Love (LWT, 1 March 1969) – w. Roger Smith
Dr Finlay’s Casebook: The Times We Live In (BBC1, 23 March 1969) – w. Vincent Tilsley
Saturday Night Theatre: Fly Away Home (LWT, 23 August 1969) – w. Stephen Fagan
Hadleigh (Yorkshire TV, 1969-71, series 1-2) – 6 episodes
Big Brother: The Wife Factor (LWT, 5 September 1970) – w. Adele Rose
Seasons of the Year: A Place to Go (Granada TV, 19 July 1971) – w. Anthony Skene
Sunday Night Theatre: The Chaps (Granada TV, 15 August 1971) – w. Tony Hoare
The Guardians: This is Quarmby (LWT, 21 August 1971) – w. Arden Winch
Upstairs Downstairs (LWT, 1972, series 1) – 2 episodes
Thirty Minute Theatre: And for My Next Trick (BBC2, 3 April 1972) – w. Jack Rosenthal
The Sextet: Stanley’s Style (BBC2, 18 July 1972) – w. Douglas Livingstone
Play for Today: Shakespeare – Or Bust (BBC1, 8 January 1973) – w. Peter Terson
Play for Today: Land of Green Ginger (BBC1, 15 January 1973) – w. Alan Plater
Crown Court (Granada TV, 1973-77, series 1-4) – 4 x 3 episodes
Play for Today: Steps Back (BBC1, 14 May 1973) – w. David Halliwell
6 Days of Justice: A Little Local Knowledge (Thames TV, 5 June 1973) – w. Robert Holles
Second City Firsts: The Movers (BBC2, 5 November 1973) – w. Ian Taylor
Play for Today: The Lonely Man’s Lover (BBC1, 17 January 1974) – w. Barry Collins
Steven (BBC2, 4 June 1974) – devised/directed by Brian Parker
Emmerdale Farm (Yorkshire TV, 28-29 October 1974) – w. Neville Siggs
Centre Play: Initiation (BBC2, 30 December 1974) – w. Peter King
Z Cars: Snouts (BBC1, 17 February 1975) – w. John Foster
Centre Play: Grace (BBC2, 8 September 1975) – w. Andrew Davies
Play for Today: The Happy Hunting Ground (BBC1, 10 February 1976) – w. Tom Hadaway
Second City Firsts: The Visitor (BBC2, 20 March 1976) – w. Denise Robertson
Playhouse: An Accident of Class and Sex (BBC2, 26 March 1976) – w. Maggie Wadey
Centre Play Showcase: City of Fear (BBC2, 17 September 1976) – w. Robert Buckler
Brensham People: Going, Going, Gone (BBC2, 3 December 1976) – ad. Hugh Whitemore
Second City Firsts: Waifs and Strays (BBC2, 31 May 1977) – w. Chris Bailey
Centre Play: The Tip (BBC2, 21 June 1977) – w. Jack Gardner
Life at Stake: The Train That Never Arrived (BBC1, 3 March 1978) – w. Elwyn Jones
People Like Us (LWT, 1978) – 4 episodes
Play for Today: Donal and Sally (BBC1, 14 November 1978) – w. James Duthie
Wednesday’s Child (BBC2, 1 November 1979) – w. Elaine Morgan
Spy! – The Venlo Incident (BBC1, 10 February 1980) – devised by Allan Prior
Playhouse: Elizabeth Alone (BBC2, 3-17 April 1981) – w. William Trevor
Play for Today: Willie’s Last Stand (BBC1, 23 February 1982) – w. Jim Allen
ITV Playhouse: Skirmishes (Thames TV, 27 July 1982) – w. Catherine Hayes
Shades of Darkness: Seaton’s Aunt (Granada TV, 1 July 1983) – ad. Ken Taylor
Storyboard: Lytton’s Diary (Thames TV, 30 August 1983) – w. Ray Connolly
Love and Marriage (Yorkshire TV, 1984-86) – 2 episodes
Weekend Playhouse: You Don’t Have to Walk to Fly (LWT, 8 July 1984) – w. Gawn Grainger
Off-Peak (STV, 11 August 1985) – w. Alma Cullen
Time for Murder: Dust to Dust (Granada TV, 7 December 1985) – w. Charles Wood
Screenplay: Knowing the Score (BBC Scotland, 30 July 1986) – w. Alma Cullen
Inspector Morse: The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (Central TV, 13 January 1987) – w. Julian Mitchell
The Beiderbecke Tapes (Yorkshire TV, 13-20 December 1987) – w. Alan Plater
The Bill (Thames TV, 1988-2001, series 4-17) – 44 episodes
El C.I.D.: Dog Days (Granada TV, 21 February 1990) – w. Terry Hodgkinson
The Sharp End (BBC1, 1991) – 4 episodes
Strathblair (BBC Scotland, 1992-93) – 2 episodes
Ellington: On the Nail (Yorkshire TV, 2 May 1996) – w. Alan Clews
My thanks to Anne McNally for typing up Brian Parker’s handwritten memoirs and for providing the photographs.