Filming Mystery Tour

Two people have written academic theses on it. It got us a 1989 Duke of Edinburgh Language Prize. It was written with Bob Baker, a great writer, a process which taught us so much about script writing. It remains the least-favourite (with us) of all our videos. I’ve often said, the stuff we won awards for taught us that awards are not necessarily a good thing, and are often not awarded to your best material.

It’s the most dramatic of our videos, without the leavening touches of comedy that enlivened Double Identity. It carries the syllabus well, the story by Bob Baker is intriguing, the dialogue we adapted flows. But it was not fun. Most of the videos were.

We had wanted to do “Kevin & Sharon Three” and had written a script where they went to the New Forest in Hampshire to decorate and repair an old cottage belonging to Kevin’s boss. There were to be side excursions to Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington. It never happened.

Oxford University Press wanted to do a mystery drama set in Oxford instead. They talked about Colin Dexter as a source of stories (I assume he didn’t ever know). Collaboration with Bob Baker who’d written for Dr Who, Bergerac and many other TV dramas was too good a chance to miss. The original title, based on the boat with jazz at the end (tickets for which run through the story) was “Oxford Rag.” Mystery Tour came in very late. It’s a very rare case of me choosing the title. It was a good one.

The filming process was the problem for me. The days were absurdly long, and the director, Misha Williams, believed that driving actors into exhaustion  was the way to get a brilliant performance. He got the performances, but some days we started on set at 7 am (6 am wake up) and finished at midnight. I disagreed with his methods. I think actors reach a peak of interpretation and can be pushed past it into exhaustion. Misha wanted to see exhaustion on camera. It fitted the story. They were fraught and worried. His track record, working with Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Tynan, directing the acclaimed TV play Border (best TV film at Cannes, and featuring Cate Fowler and Nicola Wright from MysteryTour) as well as episodes of Brookside and Eastenders is exemplary. He had done a film on Lewis Carroll which meant he knew some interesting and quirky locations around Oxford. He introduced me to the Eagle & Child pub where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet for a pint after work.

We were at a clash of working styles common at the time. The crew described the director as “film school’ often with an adjective beginning with F in front of film. That’s true. The crew were highly experienced TV people. Misha was “film” school. This meant that unlike most TV directors he knew full-well how to operate a camera, and was itching to get his hands on setting it. In those days that was poor etiquette on film sets. The director asked the camera operator for what he wanted. The camera operator got it. Misha would walk over, look through the lens and reset stuff. Immediate frosty atmosphere. On a BBC set in those days, the crew would have walked out.

Being “F-ing film school” also meant that Misha wanted hand held stuff, running with a jiggling camera, walking into rooms with a hand held camera, and all the other techniques which are commonplace on TV now. Now it’s easy as cameras are so light. Then they were only just about light enough to do it, and it was still very hard work. Paul, the camera operator, spent an entire morning running over a deeply rutted muddy field with a heavy camera on his shoulder for the ending. It was too much to ask anyone. The whole set was seething with anger. I said so. Misha replied “It’s an angry scene.”

We did not get on at all. The main reason was “F-ing film school” stuff, exactly the stuff that ruins so many Hollywood films today, all these years later. It came to a head for me when David had to ask for directions in a shop. We had to set up track and dollies for the camera, and the moody shot approaching the shop and going in took over two hours to film for a few seconds silent screen time. Then a scene with vitally important dialogue would be dashed off in fifteen minutes. Directors love these signature moody shots and will always protest that they add quality and atmosphere and are worth the money, time and effort. I preferred the approach of our other directors, equally capable of doing these shots, but also aware of the length of the filming day, and balancing priorities. Misha dismissed all that airily as “the producer’s problem.” i.e. I am an artist. Or, as the crew said, F-ing film school. His mother played Mrs Bishop, and we were told that she was a major Czech star before the war. She certainly had the Sunset Boulevard air of a great star. That’s probably where he got the attitude from.

It came to a head when he insisted that the character Nina open the door to David in a skimpy nightdress. I intervened and said, ‘No way, you’ve just lost us audiences in half the schools in the world.’ He said he wanted the writer removed from the set. The executive producer backed me up 100%. Stand off. I stayed. She didn’t wear the nightdress.

One scene was severely problematic. For Tommy, the old man who gives them information, they cast Ron Nunnery, a great old actor, who had worked in variety with everyone you’ve heard of. He looked and sounded the part. But that was without acting. He’d been employed for years playing the same character, and had only ever had to vaguely approximate to the script. He had to deliver a monologue in the past perfect tense accurately. He couldn’t do it. We tried writing the dialogue on large boards (idiot boards) so that he could read it. He couldn’t do it. We tried it with me lying on the ground giving him the line and him repeating it. He couldn’t do it. Misha got him to hold his hand near his mouth so we couldn’t see mouth movement and fumble his way through the scene. Then we recorded just the dialogue with him reading aloud from the script, so that we could cut it in later. He still couldn’t do it. Eventually, I did the lines one at a time and he repeated them. Then it was cut together. The end result, I’m told, is one of the best scenes in it. But when we went to lunch, everyone avoided him like the plague. It was somehow his fault that we’d spent three or four times as long as estimated on the scenes. I had lunch with him and listened to his great tales of variety theatre. He was a fascinating character actor.  He told the producer to “thank the dialogue coach” (me). He had been miscast for an ELT video.

Jo Mydell as Major Hammond. What a lot of medals!

There were fun bits of course. Jo Mydell played Major Hammond, the African-American commander of the US airbase. His scene at the air base ran way over time (surprise, surprise) and he had to catch a train to London to appear in the theatre that evening. He had no time to change and went in costume. As he got on the train, he realised that he had lots of medals that he didn’t know about on his chest. Then lots of US military people boarded the train. He was saluted many times, and they all went wide-eyed when they saw his medals and saluted again. He told me he was in terror of someone starting a conversation, because he had no idea what he had done or where he had been to get the medals, and had vague recollection of it being illegal to impersonate a military officer. He also had a nagging feeling that he must be much too young to have served in the theatres of war emblazoned on his chest.

The villains are all realistically villainous too.

So the on-screen result works. The actors are great. There are wonderful shots, but fewer happy memories of filming it. I remember the cast with affection. Paul Anthony Barber worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen as David. Nicola Wright was a superb Nina (and many years later appeared in English Channel Two). William Roberts, who played Curtis, the man who disappeared, also did audio work with us later. Dorian Lough, who played Paul, appeared in both Grapevine and English Channel. Jo Mydell appeared in Grapevine Three. Nicholas Colicos had been the tennis coach in A Week By The Sea.

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