Filming Grapevine One

Grapevine One was the first return to our original concept for ELT videos. That was to have separate sketches or vignettes with no continuing story, linked together by having the same band of actors play all the parts. This is what we had done with our stage shows and our first B&W open reel videos at Anglo-Continental. Four of the vignettes originated in our stage show scripts: Lambert & Stacey, Quiz of The Week, Chips With Everything and One Dark Night. We had done a version of Chips With Eveything on video ourselves, years before.

Early on, we established that Bob Spiers was to direct. Bob Spiers had one of the greatest pedigrees of any British comedy director. He directed some of the last Dad’s Army, then many series of Are You Being Served, and the second series of Fawlty Towers. Bob’s immediate view was to cast comedians rather than actors, or rather actor / comedians, and he chose Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen who had worked as a duo. He chose Cathryn Harrison, because he said she was a superlative actor with a strong sense of comedy. This was to be the basic team of three, and we assembled one Sunday in December in Cheltenham (Karen’s birthplace) to start work on episode 1 in the Regent Arcade shopping mall there.

Introduction (Episode 1): The basic cast: Cathryn, Jim, Steve (from a continuity Polaroid)

My most vivid memories are of long talks with Bob on the nature of comedy late into the night at the hotel in Clifton, Bristol, where the team was mainly based. Bob also travelled in my car, because back then CD players were rare in cars and I had one. the Traveling Wilburys album was the music of that shoot, also playing in the camera car and producer Rob Maidment’s car. We moved around a lot, never getting far from Bristol. I missed a few of the episodes, including the most famous of all, A Day In The Life of Dennis Cook, and One Dark Night. The Grapevine editor, David Wilson, had to be present anyone to check script, so my previous function had gone. It was clear that David was fine working on his own, as was Tim Falla on levels 2 and 3. We were deep in writing Grapevine Two as well. We also established the team that was to carry right through Grapevine, Only in America and English Channel, with Digby Elliot as camera, with Martin Payne as assistant camera, Jeff Powell as grip.

A Day In The Life of Dennis Cook: Cathryn Harrison as Tricia Cook, Steve Steen as Dennis.

A Day in The Life of Dennis Cook is our most requested video ever. It’s also one of the longest, and that’s after cutting the conversation with a policeman who shoos Dennis away when he’s busking. Jim is the voice over narrator. Jim also makes a tiny appearance, tossing a coin into the hat in the busking scene. It operates in a different way than the other scripts. Dennis is everyman and Steve embodies this perfectly. Cathryn’s performance as Tricia is also memorable. She’s always slightly stiff, twitchy, disapproving.

When Dennis falls down the stairs at high speed, everyone was trying to think of how to get the sound effect (without pushing Steve downstairs). Cathryn volunteered to do it. It was a party trick, so she was Dennis’s “stunt double” to get the noise.

Lambert and Stacey: Jaye Griffiths and Cathryn Harrison

Lambert & Stacey: Steve Steen, Cathryn Harrison, Jim Sweeney

Lambert & Stacey was the most memorable for filming. It was done in a desolate car park in Bristol that looked the sort of place where criminal deals might be made. As Bristol police told us later, we had chosen correctly. It was the main centre for that sort of thing. While we were filming very late at night, several lone cars came in, saw us filming and drove away at high speed. It was freezing cold, made much colder by the amount of water sprayed on the ground to make the lights reflect and give it an eerie atmosphere. One ongoing problem with Grapevine and English Channel is that neither Jim nor Steve could drive (and we kept writing scripts where they had to). The car was driven down the ramp into the car park by Rob Maidment with a hat on. Jaye Griffiths joined the team for that one and was also in English Channel. The role of a police officer proved prescient. She later played a police inspector in The Bill.

The Keys: Steve Steen (postman) and Cathryn Harrison (mother)

The Keys was done on a housing estate, with Chris Harris (who both Jim & Steve greatly admired) as the sympathetic neighbour. It was a house for sale, and as it was winter, the garden was bare. The garden under the window was needed so that the neighbour could be told to “be careful” with the plants. Multi-purpose compost was laid on the grass, and the bottom was cut off shrubs and they were placed in it. The scenario had a director’s two nightmares: children and dogs. Well, only one of each. The dog was a bit of a star, highly trained and extremely clever. Unfortunately it had to spend much of the day in the house with the actors, support crew (costumes, make up etc) and a buffet. It was soon found that the dog could perform brilliant tricks for a sausage. Its trainer was outside watching filming. The cast and crew kept themselves entertained feeding the dog sausages and sandwiches all day. Then we came to the point where the dog had to close the door. “It’s easy,” said the trainer, “We just hold a sausage outside, and call.” Ah. But the dog was thoroughly surfeited with sausage and declined to do so. After forty minutes, the shot had to be faked.

The Keys: Chris Harris climbs the ladder (a brilliant routine!)

The Keys really only featured Cathryn, with Steve as the postman. Jim, who was there anyway, just becomes a passer-by. We thought it a slighter piece, but when I started to tour talking about Grapevine One, it proved the second most popular. I think the harassed young mother resonated with many teachers! The cute kid added the “Ah!” factor.

Quiz of The Week: Cathryn Harrison & Jim Sweeney

Quiz of the Week was a format we revisited later in English Channel and My Oxford English. Quiz shows work for carrying the language. Jim played the quiz show host and was so successfully smarmy, that he said at the end of filming, ‘Maybe I should take this up for a living.’ He asked to keep the spangly jacket. Cathryn was brilliant as the nervous (and not too bright contestant). Her versatility came out in One Dark Night where she played it like a 1940s well-spoken English actress, and played it so straight that it greatly enhanced the humour. This was based on bits of our old stage Dracula and Frankenstein scripts … with a twist. Contrasting her two costumes shows what a great job Sarah Garrett did on dressing Grapevine One.

One Dark Night: Cathryn Harrison & Jim Sweeney

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