Several years ago my wife Teresa and I volunteered to work for a week on a short film by a director. The film was to be a fifteen minute demo for the director to demonstrate his skills in making a movie whilst staying in budget. The production was to be called After Celia and was written by the director Will James. The cast consisted of:
Derek Fowlds (Yes (Prime) Minister, Basil Brush, Heartbeat)
Louise Jameson (Dr Who, Eastenders)
Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shackleton)
Nina Young (minor roles in an number of Johnny English, Harry Potter movies and a couple of Bond movies)
Teresa contacted the director of the movie. All Teresa and I had to offer was our inexperience and our Golf pick-up truck. We were attached to the Art Department.
Art Department are first in and last out. This is because we have to dress the set ready for the actors and crew. Other sets may need to be dressed during the day and the first may be struck while the filming of the second scene is going on. At the end of the day when all filming is done, we have to strike the last set of the day.
Other than the sets, most of the day is spent on standby, bored stiff, waiting and waiting for the shout ‘Art Department! Can we have someone from Art Department please?!!’
During this article, the crew are identified only by their first names but the actors are fully identified by first and last name since in their jobs it goes with the territory. This article will give a taste of our experiences working in Art Department for about one week and includes a short story that I wrote soon after we returned home.
Covering Exit sign
Day 1 – Saturday, Shepperton Studios
On the first day my wife Teresa and I arrived at Shepperton Studios in Surrey at 07:20 and settled down to breakfast. By 08:00 Gary, the Production Designer, found us and introduced us to Art Director Victoria, and Gary’s son Rhys who was Art Department Assistant.
We began work in the David Lean building where we altered the reception which was authentic as it was but it didn’t fit the film director Will’s vision of a real reception.
Next we dressed the corridor by removing fire extinguishers and their brackets, and covering things like emergency break glass boxes on the walls. This is because this is bright items such as these distract the viewer from the action. We also had to fictionalise the office name plates. Two of the offices were occupied by Grant/Naylor, creators of Red Dwarf.
Will turned up before lunch to praise us on our efforts. Lunch at 14:15 was a very generously proportioned chicken pie for me and similarly well sized lasagne for Teresa.
Late afternoon we went to Sara Putt Associates offices and began dressing the set there ready for tomorrow. The work involved disconnecting the computers on a central cluster of desks so that we could change the layout of them to suit tomorrow’s filming.
Gordon (rushes runner) helping out by removing these ‘unsightly’ fire extinguishers
We saw no filming today as it was all on location in nearby Ashford High Street. We returned home at 19:00. Tomorrow was going to be very busy at Shepperton.
Day 2 – Sunday
Teresa and I arrived at Shepperton Studios at 07:20 and settled down for breakfast. At 08:00 we went down to the David Lean building to do finishing touches to the set. We then went to the set in Sara Putt offices to complete the finishing touches to that set then back again to the David Lean building to strike the set after the filming had been completed.
At lunch, pain in the ass floor runner Catherine (Cat) was looking for someone called Paul but he had left. It turned out that she had been asked to ask him if he would be an extra on the set. She turned to me to ask if I’d like to be an extra in the film. This episode is told here now in short story form and is so close to true as it could classified as non-fiction or biographical.
A short story based on real events by Gary Flint
‘We need someone to be an extra.’
I had only known the snotty little half-American kid for a day and a half but I had already developed a healthy dislike of her. She brandished her walkie-talkie like a flick-knife and demanded attention like a Sesame Street brat. As far as I was concerned, the bossy, hyperactive jumped up floor runner needed a bloody good spank, preferably from some perverted door to door loofah salesman. Damn! I’m not a perverted door to door loofah salesman!
‘Would you like to be an extra in the film?’ she demanded of me.
‘Yeah, all right. I’ll give it a go.’ Impetuous fool I am.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Cat’ they called her. She scribbled my name on her clipboard then the little squirt marched me round to Will James the director. He was just finishing his seconds in the busy restaurant.
‘No, I don’t want him.’
‘Why not?’ said Miranda, his wife.
‘Well, just look at him, it’s obvious.’
I developed a complex about that remark. A thousand glances in the mirror have not enlightened me to what he meant.
‘Well, who else are you going to get at this stage?’
Thank you Miranda; for reminding everybody what a desperate choice I was. I mean, I was only volunteering to be an extra in a poxy little demo for a poncy new director. I had already discovered that the less you were paid the less respect you got from this ignorant stupid git
Here’s the thing:
I was working for nothing.
After lunch Cat the brat, with her lethal walkie-talkie, led the way through the complex of Shepperton Studios to the wardrobe department. I was given an air force blue shirt and a lurid tie that seriously challenged my digestive system. I didn’t want to be reintroduced to my lunch again so I kept my head up, away from the glare.
Moments later I arrived on set.
‘Is that my tie?’
‘Is that my shirt?’
‘I don’t know….’ I started indignantly but Will James was already continuing his interrogation.
‘That tie – is it a Messini? Where did you get it?’
‘The guy in wardrobe told me to put it on.’ I protested defensively.
‘I told you Will,’ said Miranda coming to my rescue. ‘I packed it this morning with some other clothes. In case we needed them.’
‘But he’s wearing my bloody shirt and tie!’
As preparations for the scene were being made I still had to carry out duties for the art director. He was a thoroughly nice chap called Gary Pritchard who worked on a number of BBC productions. Moving large pot plants, fitting signs, hanging pictures, I hope I don’t sweat too much in Will James’ precious shirt, or tear the garment by accident in my eagerness to get things done. Then I heard the git have a go at the art directors’ son who, like me, was a volunteer working for nothing. Rhys, the young man in question, had simply tried to make a small but helpful suggestion. Will put him firmly in his place with a classically moronic reply.
‘You make your film, I’ll make mine.’
Seeing Rhys left red-faced and thoroughly embarrassed annoyed me. He was a likeable young man. He was keen, hardworking and very helpful. Above all else he was free. Will needed as much for free as he could get in order to stay in budget. It was a pity he didn’t appreciate that.
It was time for another extra and me to take our places on set. We sat at desks in a studio office while the grips wheeled the camera dolly up and down the track. Our job was to sneer at the imagined lead character as she ‘walked’ by.
Peter Fantastic, cameraman, was charismatic. Bald-headed, he looked a bit like Richard O’Brien but with worse dress sense. For that fact alone he deserved tremendous respect. He explained that they would film our parts separately and that I would be second.
They filmed my colleague’s scowl. He was another amateur and had far too nice a face to produce a nasty scowl. A dozen or so takes later the ever-grateful Will James uttered that it would have to do.
Although my role as an extra was simple, I didn’t even have to say any lines for pity’s sake, it was suddenly important for me to get it right. I was determined not to give Will James the opportunity bawl me out or give a grudging ‘it’ll have to do’. While my poor colleague suffered I tried rehearsing my bit. It was hopeless. I kept missing my pretend cue and I wasn’t even sure that there was enough hatred in my scowl.
‘Oh and don’t look directly into the lens,’ said Peter Fantastic. ‘As we track across you, follow a point about a foot in front of the camera, it looks more realistic that way.’
Oh that’s great that is – another bloody thing to remember on my first and last ever go at acting.
Cat was always about of course, strutting around like a velociraptor on heat. Then she got a reprimand from Will James.
‘I was only telling everyone to be quiet like you told me to,’ she protested.
‘Yes! But do it without shouting!’ He shouted.
The crew set up for my shot very quickly. Shelley Hirst, the director of photography shoved a light meter unnervingly into my face. It was replaced by a dusting brush flicking deftly across my nose and cheeks by the make-up girl. I still wasn’t sure about my expression but I was determined to get it right. I didn’t want to end up doing take after take for the rest of the day. Especially as Will James seemed to revel in humiliating anybody and everybody that he wasn’t paying.
‘Quiet for a take please, everybody quiet!’ ordered the director. ‘Turnover!’
‘Running!’ A beep from the tape machine confirmed that it was up to speed.
‘Mark there,’ said Peter Fantastic peering into the view finder.
‘Scene twelve, take one,’ the clapper loader ducked out of shot.
I sensed Will James somewhere behind the camera dolly and then I had it. I saw his smug face drift along in the air about a foot in front of the camera as it began to track past me and I fixed my expression. It seemed to take an age for the grips to pull the dolly with camera and team on it silently by.
‘Fantastic!’ shouted Peter.
‘One take wonder!’ cried the focus puller.
I couldn’t believe the clapping and cheering that went on for such a silly little bit of shooting. Even Will James looked grudgingly pleased. I felt relieved and elated at the experience. The euphoria quickly died down though as the crew started ripping the set up for the next shot and I had to get back to art department duties. Before I did, my colleague, the other extra, congratulated me but had a bit of bad news.
‘I’ve just overheard them talking,’ he said. ‘They’re on about changing the scene and doing away with your bit.’
So Will James had got the last laugh but I didn’t care. I’m not an egotist like him, well, not much. Anyway, who’s ever heard of Will James? On the other hand, who’s ever heard of Gary Flint?
After the filming in which I had been employed as an extra, there was much waiting around before we could strike the set and arrange the desks and computers as they were before. We were finally able to start this at 21:00.
When we finished we were given three make up mirrors to take to the set at a large house near Bath tomorrow. When we got home we unloaded the mirrors from the back of our open truck and kept them indoors. We needed to be on site at 08:00 tomorrow.
Day 3 – Monday, Hamswell House
Hamswell House is a 16th century house and was leased by Robert Whittington, a descendant of Dick Whittington, in 1543. Robert’s grandson William, was able to buy the house and grounds in 1622. The family owned the estate for over 300 years.
During the last century the occupants included Lord Justice Maugham, the Lord Chancellor and brother of the novelist Somerset Maughan. Major General Sir Charles Bonham Carter, the Governor of Malta, also owned the estate for some time. The house is a private home and is owned as it was when we were there by Rupert and Victoria Legge and their family.
The house had some remodelling over the years. The façade is Jacobean from the English Renaissance. The garden façade is Queen Anne or English Baroque from the 17th century. The orangery is from the 18th century. The estate is situated at the end of a valley in the Cotswolds.
These days the house is used as a venue for upper class weddings and is also a popular film location having been featured in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Skins and Casualty.
Teresa and I arrived at 08:20 and met up with Gary (production designer) and his son Rhys (art department assistant). Victoria (art director) would join us in the evening otherwise Art Department were first on site
We unloaded the make-up mirrors and started to dress the first set which was in the lounge. While we were doing this the rest of the crew began to arrive and park in a field to the west of the house. Will and Derek Fowlds turned up at about 10:00.
The next few hours were utterly confusing as we continued our work among the setting up activities of the rest of the busy crew. We dressed the lounge, study and hallway. Later we began to sort out the orangery.
I took Rhys with me to borrow some plants from Douch Nursery (owner was a friend of Will) on the other side of Bath. When we got there we turned off the road and into a north Georgia wilderness.
We drove deeper into the wilderness I started mimicking a certain guitar piece and Rhys quickly caught on and mimicked the banjo. Otherwise it was quiet and we felt a little tense. Would we be attacked by a group of ignorant hillbilly backwoodsman?
A couple of guys appeared and we suspended our rendition of Dwelling Banjos. These guys were positively Neanderthal in appearance and as they approached I began to wonder if I’d have preferred the hillbillies.
In fact they were friendly and helpful once we introduced selves and I sensed Rhys heaving a sigh of relief as I did. We soon had a selection of plants including a tall, pot-bound yet attractive palm.
The large sheet of polystyrene is painted black on the other side. This so that the sheet can be used to either reflect light or block light. Crude but very effective.
It was a very busy day and went on into the evening. We finally finished at about 22:00 and checked in at The Lord Nelson Inn at Marshfield. Fell asleep around 23:45.
Day 4 – Tuesday
We woke up 06:00 after a really good night’s sleep. Went down to the bar at 08:00 to have cereals for breakfast then we drove to get a view of Severn Bridge before going to Hamswell House for 09:00. No need to rush because all the work was done yesterday.
We parked in the field but no one was around yet except Derek Fowlds, He had been hoping to get a bacon butty from the catering truck but it was closed. It was a beautiful sunny day so the three of us wandered down to the east wall to admire the view and have a chat. Looking down the valley we could see a chalk white horse carved into a distant hill. Derek was a very charming man and we both admired him for his easy-going manner and his sharp dry wit.
The catering was provided by a mobile catering truck and a converted double-decker bus. They were parked on level ground at the bottom of the field. The bus had had some of the seats removed to make room for the tables and half the seats were turned around creating four-seat tables.
Victoria and Rhys turned up around 09:30 and we all breakfasted together. Gary had other commitments today so we wouldn’t see him until evening.
We dressed the orangery, a simple out building beyond the east wall. Next we redressed the orangery after the lighting crew buggered it up. Then we redressed it again after the camera crew buggered it up. Finally we redressed it again for no reason that I could explain. Much of the rest of the day the four sat around bored stiff.
‘Art department! Somebody from art department please!!!’
‘I’ll go’ I said to the others ‘I’ll give a shout if I need help.’
It was Shelly, director of photography, who had bellowed. Actually I liked Shelly. She wanted some dingle from the trees up the hill so I went and managed to rip a small branch with plenty of leaves off a tree. I took it to the set and had to hold it steady in view of the camera lens to give some atmosphere to the shot.
So that was it. Nothing much to do all day other than wit to be called. Victoria and Teresa went off to dress a bedroom. Gary turned up in evening after having spent the day working on the TV series Holby City which is set up north but filmed in Bristol. We left the location at 20:30 and immediately saw two foxes on way up driveway. In our room, the Moonraker Suite, we wrote our notes and fell asleep around 11:30.
Derek Fowlds with Nina Young and cuddly toy
Day 5 – Wednesday
Woke up at the Lord Nelson at 06:45 and arrived at Hamswell House at 07:25. The weather was dull and grey but the sun came out in the afternoon. When we got to the house Gary and Rhys were on their way to breakfast so we joined them.
We struck the bedroom set, removing all film gear and the druggets. We hoovered the floor and replaced the furniture and other bits pieces. Teresa and I weren’t required for a while so we ent into Bath for a look around.
Various jobs in the afternoon including cleaning an old 1960s Mercedes SE convertible and raking the stones at the front of the house. Left for the Lord Nelson at 20:00.
Day 6 – Thursday, Derek Fowlds
Woke up early at 05:45 and arrived at Hamswell House at 08:00. As we went up through the forest to the field where the catering trucks were, Derek Fowlds was coming out.
‘They’re not open yet.’ He said.
‘Okay, what are you up to then?’ I asked.]
‘I’m thought I’d go and look at the view.’
‘Mind if we join you?’
‘No, go right ahead.’
We had a fine old chat with Derek. He was charming, had a dry wit and a ready smile. We couldn’t find anything to dislike about him.
We chatted about all sorts of things within the film and TV industry.
‘I only do Heartbeat for the pay packet. The next series may be my last.’
I asked him if he was bothered about being associated so much with Yes Minister/Prime Minister.
‘Not at all, they were wonderful times. Nigel (Hawthorne) has moved on to Hollywood of course. Shame about Paul (Eddington) though.’
Derek Fowlds and yours truly
Paul Eddington had died from a terminal disease just a year or so before this conversation with Derek. I told Derek that I once saw Paul give a rare TV interview. At the time of the interview he had been given six months to live. I went on:
‘The interviewer asked Paul ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ to which Paul responded ‘A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be ‘He did very little harm’.’
Derek looked wistfully into the distance and said:
‘Yes, that’s Paul alright.’
I told Derek that our film careers begin and end this week.
‘Really,’ said Derek, ‘but you look like you’ve been doing this for years.’
‘No,’ I said ‘I’m just good at bullshit.’
‘Well, he said with that easy wry smile on its way, ‘I know I am.’
And with that the three of us made our way back up to the catering trucks for our bacon butties.
The day was spent preparing the Mercedes and watering down the bright stones to darken them for the final scene. Cameraman Peter Fantastic was setting up on the roof of the house for the scene.
Day 7 – Friday
Woke up at 06:45 to a grey miserable day and arrived at Hamswell House for breakfast at 07:10. I returned the plants borrowed from Douch Nurseries and got back to the house at 08:45. Art Department were at full strength today and we spent most of the morning on standby for a couple of scenes.
At lunch Derek Fowlds turned to us and said some pleasantry asked what we were up to.
‘Well, we’re off to Slough. Unfortunately when we get there we have to stop.’
Derek laughed, no doubt because of the undeserved unhealthy image of the town. Anstey, boom operator, said with a confused look:
‘Why do you have to stop at Slough?’
‘That’s where our house is,’ I replied, ‘if we hit London we’ve gone too far and would have to turn back.’
More laughter from Derek, more confusion on Anstey’s face. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a lovely girl is Anstey.
Not much to do in the afternoon. Most of the crew had gone to a location in nearby Badminton, but Department were left to finish tidying up. 15:30 we said our emotional goodbyes to Gary, Rhys and especially Victoria. Arrived home at 17:00.
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