Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 20. Where All Roads Lead |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 20. Where All Roads Lead


On Postcard from Rome the producer was Elaine Bedell, who had come to us from radio and proved a natural at dreaming up pertinent action. A trim brunette so good-looking that she could enslave her presenters by just standing there, Elaine was also an excellent dancer: invariably a good sign, because it means that the person doing the dancing can think in pictures. When I told her that one of the reasons I liked the Castel Sant’Angelo was that Tosca had jumped to her death off the battlements, Elaine instantly had the idea of filming me in a helicopter as it hovered above the castle, thus to provide the perfect shot for a vertiginous voice-over. Though my dedicated hatred of helicopters had only increased after my high-speed horizontal close-up of the escarpment at Kakadu, I saw the point and said yes, but with conditions. If the camera was shooting past me as I looked down, the door would have to be removed, so I wanted a bar across the doorway. And I wanted a six-point harness. (A six-point harness has straps over both shoulders and both thighs as well as the strap at the waist, the whole assembly secured with a circular buckle that will open only at a firm whack from the wearer’s hand.) Elaine got on the blower and the guy at the helicopter pad said yes, yes of course, how could it be otherwise?

The Italian way of saying ‘How could it be otherwise?’ is senz’ altro and it’s a phrase you should watch out for, especially when filming. This merchant had obviously been saying senz’ altro to everything all his life, because when we got to the pad there was no bar on the doorway and the harness was only two-point, meaning that it was no more substantial than the thing you fasten over your lap in an airliner so that you won’t injure yourself from the shock when the voice on the public address system tells you that you have only ten more minutes to choose from the wide range of duty-free items. A two-point harness with frayed webbing and a rusty buckle: I had premonitions of diving from the door at the first lurch. The helicopter stood there in a pool of its own oil and the strenuously rejuvenated pilot looked the way Silvio Berlusconi does now, with a hair arrangement suggesting that any other qualifications he might have had — a pilot’s licence, for example — had also been obtained by mail order. But Elaine was up for the trip and I would have felt weak if I had downed tools. (In such circumstances, one should always say, ‘I feel weak and I’m downing tools,’ especially if your interlocutor is a young female you are trying to impress. Why are you trying to impress her?) Up we went in a rattling roar of loosely arranged machinery, and in due course we arrived over the Castello at a height of only a few hundred feet. The cameraman wanted the chopper to tilt a bit towards the side where I was sitting, so that he could get both me and the castle in the same shot. I shouted, ‘No tilting!’ Elaine shouted, ‘What?’ I shouted, ‘Keep it straight!’ and somebody must have thought I said, ‘This is great!’ because suddenly we were canted over at forty-five degrees and I was looking straight down into the castle’s circular courtyard. It looked like the barrel of a giant mortar. I held on to the rim of the door with all the strength I had, but the grip was awkward and I could feel my weight popping the threads of my ratty lap-strap. If the thing had snapped, I would have been going a lot faster than Tosca when I hit the deck. She would have been still speeding up. I would have been going at terminal velocity. They wanted another pass to get the shot right, but for the one and only time in my career I called off the deal.

There was an equally grim scene waiting on the ground but at least I wouldn’t need a harness for it. To help us tell the story of well-connected Roman decadence in faded palaces, we had recruited a female aristocrat from the permanently historic Vilaponte family. Though Rosetta, in common with the Colosseum, was no longer in possession of the full complement of her original marble cladding, she had a beautiful daughter called Liliana who was one of the stars of the upper-crust younger set. Buzzing around on the pillion of Liliana’s moped just behind her perfect bottom while holding an ice-cream in each hand spelled fun — we were trying to spell fun in large letters — but hitting the high spots with Liliana’s mother was no fun at all. The routine was meant to be as follows: Rosetta, with her inexhaustible connections, would row us in on various high-toned Dolce Vita-style settings, fashionable nightclubs, etc. She had the entrée, and other denizens would fall on her neck with spontaneous cries of greeting while we filmed over my shoulder to make me part of the fizzing scene. The facts proved otherwise. The arrival of Rosetta aroused no more excitement than if she had been handing out a religious tract. She was, however, quite canny on the financial detail. It took about an hour to set up the extra lights outside a nightclub so that we could arrive at it by limousine and still be visible when we climbed out. Rosetta would invariably try to renegotiate her price after the lighting had been done but before the camera turned. We were committed to the shot and it was too late to fire her. Pulling similar stunts many times, and always at the critical moment, she cost us a lot of trouble.

We had some good stories to tell. Dado Ruspoli, by then living in the attic of what had once been the family palazzo, was the genuine, non-hysterical version of crumbling elegance. He had been a favourite walk-on for Fellini. Later on, Francis Ford Coppola used him to dress the set of Godfather III. Like all the aristos, Dado spoke excellent English. He got the pronunciation of my first name right when he said things like ‘Clive, Rome is not what it was’, even while the noble planes of his face proclaimed that Rome had been what it was since the time of Tacitus. We also got a spine-tingling interview from Mussolini’s jazz-pianist son Bruno, who revealed, for the first time in any medium, that his father had been a fan of Fats Waller. But what held the Rome documentary together was the look of the place, which we revealed not only in some carefully chosen static shots, but in a swathe of travelling shots focused on the little car — a Lancia Lunchbox or whatever it was — that I was jokily driving. Traffic chaos was the story of Rome at that time, and we knocked ourselves out trying to tell it. My newly acquired driving skills were vital and soon proved barely adequate, but going the wrong way at the wrong speed fitted the story as long as the camera car could stay with me. If I did the wrong thing, I had to do the wrong thing again after the crew piled out of their car and set up on a tripod to catch me from in front. There was a light rigged under my dashboard to point upwards so that my facial expressions — mainly in the spectrum from fear to shame — would register on film. That kind of filming is very demanding on coverage but you have to do it. In any documentary you can always tell when the coverage has been skimped because suddenly you notice the lack of logic, and then that becomes the subject instead of the subject you were meant to be talking about. Take the scene where I got the Lunchbox stuck in a crowded square. It took a dozen difficult set-ups. I was getting better at helping to plan these, and at anticipating what would be required. It gave the satisfaction of being useful, but it filled up the day.

In the late afternoon and early evening, the city comes to its full life. As one who worshipped the very memory of Fellini, I asked for, and got, my scene at a cafe in the Via Veneto. If the audience had never seen La Dolce Vita, I would evoke it for them in voice-over. I got my scene at the Trevi Fountain. If the audience had never seen Anita Ekberg wading in it while Marcello Mastroianni looked on with suave lust, I would evoke that too. I even got a scene with the little Barberini fountain, Bernini’s fountain of the bees, once a meeting point for myself and my future wife when we were first in Rome. If the audience didn’t know who Bernini was, they might be encouraged to find out. For all these scenes I was in on the planning and the arranging, and I can say in general that the whole scenario proved the benefits of thinking things through in advance. But once again, as so often, the best thing wasn’t planned at all. We were set up to shoot a big open-air concert in the plaza at the head of the Spanish Stairs, with the whole of fashionable Rome present including the dreaded Rosetta, who, by that time, had been fired. She threw herself in front of the camera anyway, in a rare fit of altruism. The audience kept on arriving and she kept on arriving with them. Like any fashionable audience for music, they looked as if they had been temporarily placed under arrest, but the gowns and tuxedos did the visual business, and I’m bound to say that I, too, looked the part. I was wearing a cream jacket which had been tailored for me by the famous men’s outfitter Littrico in a separate sequence, during which Littrico had played up marvellously by telling me I had the same measurements as Gorbachev, for whom he had made a similar jacket the previous week. Thus several sequences tied together at the critical moment. The unexpected bonanza, however, came after the show. We were toting the gear back to the bus when I saw a familiar face at one of the tables in the cobbled street outside an expensive restaurant. It was Leonard Bernstein. Letting my crew go on ahead, I bent over his candlelit table and asked how he had liked the concert. ‘It was disgusting. Absolutely disgusting. Fully in keeping with the audience.’ I asked him if he would mind telling me that on camera. ‘I wouldn’t mind a bit.’

I raced off to catch up with the crew. Elaine, bless her, got the point instantly and we were soon back at the table, shooting from the shoulder with a little hot light held up on a stick to further illuminate the maestro’s craggy face as he sat there smoking. I asked him how he had liked the concert. ‘It was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. How they love art, the Romans.’ He went on to sing hosannas for the artistic taste of the Romans since Nero’s first solo concert, all the while encircling my upper thighs with one arm, whose exploring hand had a mind of its own. But anything for the camera, and anyway, as he knew full well, his affectionate embrace was happening below the frame. I thought the world of Bernstein, whose TV series on music had been one of the milestones of the medium. Along with Alistair Cooke, Bernstein had been one of my models for what a television presenter could do with a big subject. There were times, when he conducted, say, Mahler, that his range of portentous facial expression left the music sounding like a penny whistle at the Apocalypse, but the man who had written the score for On the Town could do no wrong in my eyes. His clear intention of invading my trousers I took as a compliment. He showed no signs of disappointment that I did not respond, by the way. He was just copping a feel while it was there. And from meeting many a prominent homosexual male I had long since learned that from their viewpoint it was always worth a try: apparently the rate of conversion made it well worth the effort. Perhaps I missed a trick by never succumbing. At one time I often saw Gore Vidal socially, and he several times assured me that my butch facade was trembling under the pressure of ill-concealed ambivalence. I had to tell him that much as I loved him — and I undoubtedly did — there wasn’t, from the angle of sexual desire, even one woman in the room who didn’t interest me more than he did, including the Dowager Duchess of Dubrovnik in her two separate wheelchairs. His vulpine smile remained undaunted. ‘Talk is cheap.’ But it wouldn’t have been in his nature to make a physical pass, and it was always possible that he wasn’t gay at all. Certainly the grandes dames who mobbed him seemed to be acting on that basis. With Bernstein, however, there was never any doubt. He was a crusader. Elaine thanked him very much as she tore me from his embrace.

As a producer, Elaine could take charge of anything, but not even she could control the weather, which dished us in a big way when we made, or tried to make, Postcard from Sydney. Back in the year dot, when I was making my first programmes at LWT before I met Richard, my very first documentary had Sydney as its subject, and I muffed it through staying loyal to a Mickey Mouse voice-over which kept saying again what the pictures had said already. This time I had a better plan. But it is always important not to fall in love with the plan, no matter how good. The lack of sunlight wasn’t Elaine’s fault, although she was at her most engaging when she behaved as if it was. She danced with anger as she cursed the sun, which resolutely failed to appear for more than twenty minutes in two weeks. Back in London, Richard gazed mesmerized with horror at the footage of a ferry ride in which I stood outlined against the sky at the front rail of the ferry as it ploughed the harbour. I looked passable for a man fighting the onset of the fatal final calorie, but the sky looked as if it were dying of despair. Ingmar Bergman would have thought our exteriors too gloomy for The Seventh Seal. A whole day at Bondi yielded a sequence with about twelve people in it, one of them a beer-bellied beach inspector who said, ‘Nar, ya come on the wrong day.’

We got a few minutes of sun for a surfing sequence that we shot at Manly. It was a rigged gag but the components were well chosen. One of the components was an Iron Man champion called Craig Wayne. As if sculpted from caramel marble, his naked frame was in the crisp bloom of youth. Wearing only the vestigial pair of trunks that the Australians call a budgie-smuggler, he could sit on a surf ski and bend forward to touch his toes with one hand while, with the other, he held his two-ended paddle aloft, twirling it like a drum majorette. The other component was myself. Clad in a neck-to-knee costume of pink and black Lycra, I looked like an ox wrapped tightly in the flag of some unsuccessful West African republic, and while sitting on the ski I could not lean forward at all, even with the ski being steadied from behind by the assistant cameraman. The idea, with the surf ski, is that you sit on it and paddle. The camera dwelt briefly on Craig as he dug in his paddle with a quick succession of darting strokes and headed straight for New Zealand. Then the camera was pointed at me. My idea for the gag was that I would go very slowly in comparison to Craig, but I was not ready for the possibility that I might not go anywhere.

The secret of paddling the surf ski is to compensate for each thrust of the paddle by very slightly tilting the body. After only a couple of thrusts, during which the frail craft moved forward less than half its own length, I rolled over and disappeared, leaving the ski floating upside down. To give me the small credit I’ve got coming, I had realized the comic possibilities before I got back to the surface, and while still puffing and blowing I was asking for all the retakes we could get of exactly the same fiasco. We had to work fast before the sun went behind the clouds again, but the rollover was well covered and I was already working out the voice-over in my head. The final result is still remembered by people who have forgotten the rest of the movie. I can say that for myself: I was getting better at realizing, on the spot, that the moment of failure is exactly the moment that you need for the story. A lot depends, however, on not doing too much with your face after you have just lost it. The really essential retake was the tight close-up in which I came up looking resigned instead of annoyed. Indeed I didn’t even look resigned. I just looked impassive, as if the whole thing had been inevitable. Let the audience make the interpretation and they would reach the right conclusion: that I was a man whose dreams had been overtaken by the passing of time.

There were a lot of other good moments. For the first night of a new production of La Clemenza di Tito at the Opera House, my black-tie arrival by speedboat — stand aside, James Bond — told the story of Sydney’s artistic and financial prosperity at a single stroke. But nothing could compensate for the lack of sunlight. Back in England, we put the whole thing on ice for a year and then sent out a crew to do re-shoots of the sky. Once again the sun failed to appear, so eventually I had to write the script to fit what we had, the first-ever movie about Sydney to feature empty beaches in the middle of summer. It was then, in the editing room, that I made my big error. Elaine still says that I should have strangled her for letting me commit it, but she is too kind. Richard, too, generously attempted to claim the blame. But it was entirely my own blunder, and arose out of misplaced cleverness. To tie in with our Opera House sequence, I thought it would be self-evidently absurd, and therefore cute, to say that Mozart had been born in Sydney. The fantasy failed to connect except with thousands of people who gained the impression that I was stating a fact. The worst of it was that I was going against my own principle: exaggerate by all means, but only while telling the truth. I never did it again but I shouldn’t have done it then. Besides, the joke wasn’t very funny, and there are never any excuses for that.

Still, the Sydney Postcard came out well for something filmed in the wrong weather, a circumstance which usually spells doom unless you can work around it. The sequences were well prepared and they connected into a plausible narrative. The Postcard format was getting a reputation for itself. It was a kind of miniature feature movie with me in the middle, doubling as pundit and clown. I was very pleased when I bumped into Ken Russell one day in Soho and he complimented me on what I was doing. ‘You’re making movies. You’re telling stories. Keep it up.’ Coming from a man who had mortgaged his house over and over just to stay in business as a director, this was high praise and I didn’t forget it. The Postcards were becoming part of the television landscape and I hoped to get better at playing my part in them. The only question was how big a part that would be. It was a matter of confidence. If the story was to be under my control from point to point, then I couldn’t let the director impose a visual style of his own, or there would be two narrators getting in each other’s way. There had to be a unified viewpoint, even in a collaborative effort. This was a perennial problem but my naturally minimal diplomatic skills grew sharper under pressure. Postcard from London, an attractive prospect because we could save on travel bills, was held together by its story, not by its visual style. Our young director Dominic Brigstocke was at the start of a fruitful career and he was eager to exploit the full resources of the camera. He was naturally good at coverage. When we were filming as I walked with Peter Cook through the streets of Soho on our way to the site of his old Establishment club, we got all the shots required to make the sequence tie up. (Filming anywhere in central London you need Hollywood money to ‘close the street’, so if you want to keep any rubbernecking civilians out of frame you have to shoot fast and tight, which can be very tricky.) But when it came to the wide shots Dominic found it hard to resist the less humble opportunities available to his virtuoso technique. We did a sequence in Hyde Park which was meant to allow me to comment, in voice-over, on all the modern buildings that had made a hash of the skyline since I had first arrived in London more than thirty years before. Dominic wanted to do a panning shot, supposedly from my viewpoint, that swept around the skyline. I politely let him do it but I asked also for individual static shots of each building. The static shots were the ones we used in the finished film, for a simple reason: you can’t comment on individual objects when the camera is panning past them, because however slowly it pans the image travels too quickly to allow even a phrase, let alone a sentence. On the whole, panning shots are to be avoided, because you can’t cut into them. A panning shot controls the pace of the narrative, whereas the ideal balance is obtained when the narrative controls the pace of the cutting.

Dominic took it well. He even took it well when I told him that if I caught him using a short lens on me I would throw it into the Serpentine. (A short lens won’t just make an ugly man like me look even uglier, it will distort the background, thereby reminding the audience that they are looking at an image, when you want them to be looking at reality.) Like every other young director only more so, Dominic had a prodigious knowledge of filters and focal lengths. He knew how to do it. But I knew what I wanted, and there’s a difference. Later on, keeping an eye on his work, I could see him getting steadily more in control of his effects. He had learned to avoid that fatal moment when the technique takes over.

Even in the most technical of all the art forms, technique is only the servant of expression, not the instigator. At the Royal Ballet School we filmed the dancers at their morning exercises. Alessandra Ferri was there. The few minutes I spent watching her at work added up to one of the most powerful visions of the beautiful that I had ever known. Even today, the memory is still with me: and I have tried to transmit some of its intensity through the compilation, on my website, of excerpts from her performances as Juliet both at Covent Garden and La Scala. Ferri was the last great muse of Kenneth MacMillan, a man of genius. To my astonished delight, he liked the way I wrote, and wanted me to write a spoken libretto for a ballet he had in mind based on the diaries of Nijinski. The project never had a chance, but the pay-off, from my viewpoint, was that I got to spend quite a lot of time in his company. He was already sick with the disease that would slowly kill him but he generously found time to listen to my views on ballet, almost as if they might be as interesting as his. I could have handled the friendship better, and that I didn’t is among my great regrets. But at least I saw something of him. The public saw less of our ballet-school sequence, because it had to be cut back to nothing in the editing room. At greater length, it would have unbalanced the picture, which had its own demands: the surest sign that it was alive.