The Totally True Tale of Fisherman Phil, Sir Dickie's Five Tenners ... and a Very Young A. A. Man
It never ceases to amaze how the most innocuous of mundanities can sometimes act as the trigger to bring forth a long locked away memory. And be assured, this is an entirely true story albeit that its main events took place some 37 and 38 years ago and the memory, especially if just newly out of hibernation, can delight in playing small tricks ...
The other week I was idly browsing though the vintage selection of DVD titles on Amazon. You know, proper films that were made in my day as opposed to second and third sequels of 'Pirates of the Caribbean', 'Mean Girls' etc. True classics like 'The Lady Killers', Lindsay Anderson's public school masterpiece 'If' with its ending worthy of Monty Python, or even that extraordinarily avant garde anti-war offering starring David Hemmings 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' of 1969 with its interjections of cartooned British lions bloodying the noses of shambling, Turkey ravishing Russian bears. And then I spotted it! A Special Collectors Edition no less! 'Oh What a Lovely War' filmed entirely in and around my home town of Brighton in 1968, and officially released in early 1969.
I'll say it's special! For one thing this surreal musical parody of World War One has never, ever, been made available for home viewing before. Never on video, and the BBC stopped screening it decades ago. Its director was none other than Sir Richard Attenborough, its positively steller cast included Sir John Mills as Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig and Kenneth Moore as Kaiser Willhelm II. Imagine Mel Brooks' 'The Producers' in red pantaloons and picklehaub helmets and you've got the basic idea. More than that though, I was actually in it! Really. In June '68 my best mate Andy and I were sitting our Brighton Schools Certificate exams (a sort of dry run for G.C.E. 'O' levels the following year - of course they're obsolete now too) in some Education Deptartment building near the sea front due to the unfortunate fact our school sharing a common party wall with what had then become the body repair shop of the Southdown Motor Services omnibus company. Have you ever heard an old fashioned angle grinder working at full stretch? A sound that resembles a Tiger tank going flat out with half the North African desert down its cylinder bores. And as Fate would have it Andy needed to telephone his parents that lunchtime, which in 1968 meant finding a public call box, and so it was that the pair of us were on the upper Marine Parade whilst a marching military band was being filmed down on the Madeira Drive below. And yes, two of the hundreds of little black dots looking down from above really are us!
But then, this was not the first film Sir Richard had made in Brighton, and neither was it Andy's and my first appearance on the big silver screen ...
The previous year, 1967, had seen the making of a strangely surrealist black comedy called 'Loot' based, I think, on a Joe Orton play of the same title. It's stars were the English actor Hywell Bennet and the lovely, late American actress Lee Remick who actually said 'Hello' to me although I'd no idea of whom she was at the time. As well as directing, Sir Richard also featured, playing a sadistic police inspector. Best of all though one particular sequence for this film, consisting of a battered funeral cortège which cinematically at least runs away down a very steep hill - actually Bear Road, Brighton - and ends up in the sea - actually some two miles distant - was filmed on an unmade cul-de-sac high above the town near the race course, with a terrace of old former workhouse cottages down one side and their mostly unkempt gardens across the dusty track on the other. And the last house in this terrace was the home of my good mate Andy no less, plus his three younger siblings (two sisters and baby brother) their parents, and miscellaneous live stock ranging from pensionable aged chickens to a lame greyhound. Now given what the title says up top let's now introduce you to 'Fisherman' Phil as I'm going to call him, who was best mate Andy's dad.
Fisherman was in his early forties back then, a quite large ex-paratrooper with longish, jet black hair which gave him something of a Romany appearance, and who might have been described as an amiable, friendly, beer swilling, Old School spiv. Although, it also needs to be said, he was too a devoutly religious and in his way very moral man. If Fisherman had ever held a proper job in his life, which is doubtful, all memory of it had become erased by time. He'd tried numerous infallible get rich quick schemes - the greyhound which had turned out to have an incurable congenital defect in its pads being but one - but otherwise casually occupied himself between drinking bouts with his mates in moving odd bits of furniture about for the antique dealers (in the '60's Brighton was second only to London as the centre of the antique trade) as well as collecting and selling bait for fisherman both professional and amateur. Again, in the 1960's, Brighton was still home to some dozen or so fishing families operating their broad beamed, shallow draught 'hoggies' from off the shingle beach between the (then) two piers, The Palace and The West.
Fisherman's vehicle, necessary for these two operations, was a venerable red and white Volkswagen Camper, the original split screen version, with a desperately underpowered 1200 cc air cooled flat four mounted in the rear to shove it around. Everything in that family seemed to have a name, and the V.W. was no exception, being called 'Jenny'. Indeed, but a couple of years later returning from a camping trip to the New Forest with about eleven of us on board plus sundry tents etc. 'Jenny' broke a piston ring somewhere in the wilds of east Hampshire and had to stagger back to Brighton on only three cylinders ...
Now of course if Fisherman could purloin the unpayed services of teenaged lads to help with the enterprises then so much the better: Thus they could lift the chiffoniers or whatever through Jenny's side loading door, and out again at the other end, with any stairs etc. thrown in for good measure. Likewise the all too well remembered bait digging trips. Are you familiar with baitings for rod and line sea fishing? Most of us will at some time have strolled along an idyllically sandy tide line near dusk, perhaps hand in hand with a new special friend, and maybe pondered for just a moment on the strange little twisted wet sand-casts which are the visible sign of the lug worm? A sort of cute little pink earth worm that lives by the sea perhaps? Well, first off, there's the blow lug. Mostly found in estuaries these live in 'U' shaped burrows in the sand and grow to around nine inches in length. Next there comes the most common, the black lug (in the south at least sometimes referred to as the 'runnydown') and these black beauties can reach anything up to a foot or more in length. Fancy the thought of picking one up? You can feel the hooped rings beneath the outer skin pulling together and apart as you hold it in your hand ... And then the giant king ragworm! Nereis Virens. These greenish grey two foot long plus nightmares (that's around 70 centimetres for any of you younger ones who aren't making for the toilet yet) have in addition four tentacle like feelers located at the head end, and a hard pincer like jaw that is perfectly capable of penetrating human skin. Whatever one might say though, Fisherman always knew exactly where to start digging on any expanse of flat low tide shoreline, and it was never where the visible casts were to be seen either. But if possible the actual digging, pulling out, handling, and bucketing into pails of seawater was undertaken by the 'helpers'. And eventually home again with maybe ten or more galvanised buckets full of sea water and lugs all slopping around in the back of 'Jenny' whose sills and floor pan not surprisingly already resembled Swiss cheese. Once there the lugs were then gutted, salted, and then stored in newspaper wraps of ten or twenty at a time in a row of decrepit old Tricity fridges lined up in a sort of scullery beyond the kitchen. And anyone in the house, visitors included, were expected to take their turn in answering the surprisingly large number of knocks that came to the door. Ten bob's worth here to a couple of guys in an old Morris Oxford, a half crown wrap there to slip in the saddle bag of a lad no older than ourselves on a push bike.
So anyhow, there's an Austin Princess hearse and six black funeral cars lined up down the unmade cul-de-sac. They've been there for three days. It's very inconvenient, although the assistant director in charge of this scene - Sir Richard sadly is never to put in a personal appearance - does his best to sooth resident's protests. Because the scene requires that the vehicles look as though they've been shunted and bashed somewhat the entire staff of a couple of local garages have been working for two days taking off doors, boot lids etc. and fixing on 'designer distressed' (as we'd say today) scrap ones. The paid extras are trying to sleep in the cars, playing cards, running on the spot, anything in fact to relieve their boredom. Despite all, trays of tea and biscuits still appear out of the various houses when needed. And it is at this point - about tea time - that Lee Remick says 'Hello' to me.
A helicopter appears overhead and begins circling: Whopp, whopp, whopp, whopp ... And it soon becomes apparent that the harassed Mr Assistant Director is trying to communicate with it by means of a crackling walkie-talkie set. Looking up avoiding the early evening sun, and you can just make out the cameraman crouching in a harness in its open side door. A polite request goes out for non film personnel to go indoors. Meantime, in Fisherman's head a devious plan is already forming ...
There are further delays: The helicopter continues to circle: Whopp, whopp, whopp ... Across the deserted race course, out to sea, then it swings back over Bear Road cemetery and the valley of Bevendean which is nowadays a bungalow estate but back then housed Goodridge's Riding Stables. Frightened, whinnying horses toss their heads, and hind hooves lash out at their stall partitions. A blue and white Morris Minor police 'Panda' car creeps up, summoned by Mrs Goodridge's infuriated 'phone call, and necks crane at windows as its driver has a 'quiet word' with Mr Assistant Director. So how much is the chopper costing? A tenner an hour at least probably. Finally, at last, all is ready. It is Fisherman's cue to play his ace. The front end of 'Jenny' is driven some four feet out of the garage which by virtue of being the end house Fisherman's uniquely has. Mr Assistant Director rounds with exasperation: “Got to dig me bait,” Fisherman protests in his turn. “Time and tide wait for no man. Sorry, but you'll have to clear the road now.”
And in the blinking of eye it happens. Hand to hip pocket, wad of notes out, five tenners are peeled off and bunged in Fisherman's hand. Fifty quid? That's a month's wages! Even Fisherman can't believe his luck. Coming back into the small square front room he addresses his wife in astonished tones: “Here Gill, look what he give me ...!” All us kids in front of the black and white T.V. are slack jawed impressed. What point concerning ourselves with exams, eh? And then Mr Assistant Director re-appears at the living room door. There's a fleeting moment of tension.
“Can I have you two lads outside quickly please,” that's Andy and me, “and ... you.” The last called was another lad of about our age, totally unknown to anybody although he'd been in and out of the house all evening and possibly belonged to one of the regular extras. More than a little nervously we three troop out and are at once separated.
I get marched to roughly half way up the road by a bustling lady in glasses who slips a yellow jacket over my school sweater and hands me a brown bus-conductor like cap. I'm made to stand behind the bonnet of one of the cars to play an old fashioned A.A. patrolman. That I'm only fourteen is easily got round since I'm meant to be tired and am told to fold my arms on the surface of the bonnet and rest my head upon them. Which I do, and wait. And wait. I close my eyes then a couple of minutes later open them again to scrutinize the few square inches of black cellulosed surface before them. Even when mild back ache begins to make its presence felt I remain stock still like a true pro actor. Hang on, pro? Am I going to get fifty quid as well then!
Finally the scene is shot. Hywell Bennet walks up the road delivering lines to another actor whose name now escapes me. The cortège, me, and the house fronts form a fleeting backdrop. The entire sequence, as we later discovered, occupied less than thirty seconds of screen time. Three days and a helicopter just for that? Well actually no. The following day the cortège was filmed from above moving off and racing down Bear Road which had to be closed to normal traffic for the purpose.
Dismissed, I wander back down the road to the end house. Andy holds up a pound note. A single green 'oncer'. It's between the three of us. By dint of his mum tipping her purse out on the kitchen draining board and searching the house for any more odd coins 6s and 8d is duly counted out to me and Stranger (that's 33p in 'new' money). When it's time to go home I pedal my old Hercules cycle slowly past the line of now deserted black cars to the junction with Bear Road. My bike is a very old roadster with lever brakes and is a family hand-me-down. Even in the '60's other lads' bikes had five speed dérailleur gears, drop handle bars, and those quaint little racing half-guards. But at least I've made my professional debut in show business now! A small knot of film people at the end of the road ignore me. Still, as the wind begins singing in my ears as I zoom off at the start of the long, long freewheel down Bear Road with my 6s 8d carefully wrapped in handkerchief stuffed in trouser pocket, I'm relieved to know that if he asks I can truthfully tell my rabidly anti-trade union father that no, I did not have to get myself an Equity card first.
Copyright Terence Hugh Hazelton, 2006
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