24 AUGUST 1985, Page 35


Pigeons in the imng-room

d• P. J. Kavanagh Turn over' one-two `Running' one- two 'Mark it' one-two 'Shot 85 Take 3' one-two 'Action!' It is metronomic; the lead-up to the photographing of a scene in a film could be written down in rhythmical line of varied length, like an 18th-century Ode. It is a ritual as formal as High Mass at the Brompton Oratory and is an incanta- tion that can never be heard by an actor, however miniature his part, without an involuntary tightening of the stomach. We all sweat a lot, and it is not just because of the lights. Lovely ladies dab our faces with powder-puffs, murmuring 'Are you all right, my love? That's better, my pet,' as though they really mean it. Perhaps they do; the Action gets to us all. There are other, preliminary, reasons for tension: the cry 'Save the rehearsal light!' (which has been winking on and off, warning everyone inside and outside the studio). Now it turns to constant red and a bell goes off like a fire-alarm, all falls still and the Ode stanza begins — 'Turn over' until 'Cut!' We are on Stage 5 at Elstree, a bleak hangar large enough for Concorde and called by the crew, derisively, 'the Shed'. It has grass growing out of its roof and looks as though nothing has been done to it since Alfred Hitchcock's English days. It even has a resident pigeon, gargling among the roof-girders. No matter, in this case, be- cause a large part of Half Moon Street is to be filmed on location, but today, in the centre of the dark shed, there is a brightly lit cubicle, 'my' dining-room.

Before anyone imagines that the writer of this is playing a significant part in the enterprise it must be explained that although it is 'my' dining-room and 'my' dinner-party the point of the scene is Sigourney Weaver's encounter with a dicey banker and I spend most of my time busily rhubarbing behind the multiple candle- sticks. For quite a long while silently rhubarbing, an activity new to me. When, later, I was asked to vocalise this mime in order to create a dinner-party hubbub, I found I had been telling my astonished neightiour, in dumb-show, that the pictures on my wall had been smuggled out of Manchuria by Bobo Prendergast labelled 'High Explosive' and I didn't mind telling her this had caused an amusing fuss at Southampton, a chappie rang me and — 'Cut!' Thank God for that.

But this was late in the evening, about half-past nine. We had been picked up at 6.45 a.m., on the set dressed at 8.30 — there had been time to observe the pattern of life in the shed.

It took place almost wholly in the dark. There was some light reflected from the open top of the cubicle of the tiny set, and from one lamp pointed up at a reflector just outside it. This cast enormous shadows on the far end of the building if anyone moved about it, collecting a plank, or a girder, or a plastic beaker of coffee. There was much ingestion, all day, among the riggers and lighters and carpenters, but they had been on the set even longer than we had. They still leaped to their tasks, with pliers or plugs or some other tool of their mystery, with as much alacrity at the end of the day as at the beginning. It was extraordinarily reminiscent of the army: the same stunning idleness punctuated by brief flurries of activity at the word of command, the same suppressed guffaws at involuntary breaking of wind, the same teasing garrison-complaints to the Asian who, through the for-once-blessedly- opened doors, motored in the chow- wagon, backwards. The doors were at once shut again, and to universal grumbles he besought us to take more sausages, more chicken. In the dark it was impossible to see which was which.

So the long day passed: 'Settle down studio. Save the rehearsal light.' Clang. Against the back wall the tiptoeing sha- dows flicker to and fro, to and fro, 0 my Formby and my Harlow long ago. Nothing is quite as it seems, or as expected. For instance, in our dressing-rooms we have luxurious showers and lavatories of our own. But they are miles away and all of us have to use a Hitchcockian-epoch Toilet by the back door. If we do so we are sur- rounded by midgets in mediaeval costume, dozens of them, swaggering up and down in pointed shoes as long as themselves, actors in another film.

The director, Bob Swaim, confides to me that nobody knows just how tedious film-making is, how long it takes to get it right. Just like square-bashing; but I am on furlough till September. I hope the pigeon escapes.