Usually, I enjoy visiting film sets. I love the excitement of seeing so many professional people working together – at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds – to create a vision that will have begun perhaps nine or ten months ago inside my head. I love being part of it all.
But this time it was different. I’d overslept and left home in a hurry. I couldn’t find my phone. I had the beginnings of a headache. Even as I got out of the car on that damp October morning, I knew that I’d made a mistake and that all in all I would have been better off staying in bed.
It was a big day. We were shooting one of the opening scenes in the seventh series of Foyle’s War – the first appearance of Sam Stewart, Foyle’s driver. Played by Honeysuckle Weeks, she had become a stalwart of the series and she was one of my favourite actors. When I wrote lines for her, I could always hear her saying them. The new season would find her married, out of the police force, working now for a nuclear scientist. I had decided to give her a big entrance and I wanted to be there to show my support.
This is what I had written.
27. EXT. LONDON STREET (1947) DAY.
SAM gets off a bus, carrying shopping. She has just had bad news and she pauses for a moment, thinking of the implications. She is surprised to see ADAM waiting for her.
SAM Adam! What are you doing here?
ADAM Waiting for you.
ADAM (CONT’D) Let me take that.
He takes her shopping and together they begin to walk home.
On paper, it may not look like much but I had known all along that it would be a major headache. My wife, Jill Green, was the producer and those two words – LONDON STREET – would have been enough to make her groan. Shooting in London is always a horrible business, prohibitively expensive and fraught with difficulties. It often seems that the entire city is deliberately doing everything in its power to stop the cameras turning. Planes will fly overhead. Pneumatic drills and car alarms will burst into angry life. Police cars and ambulances will race past with their sirens blaring. No matter how many signs you’ve put up warning people you’re going to be there, someone will have forgotten to move their car or, worse still, will have left it there on purpose in the hope of being paid. There’s a natural assumption that TV and film producers have deep pockets but sadly this is far from true. Tom Cruise may be able to shut down Blackfriars Bridge or half of Piccadilly without a second thought, but that’s not the case for most British television where even a short scene like the one I’d written can be almost impossible to achieve.
Leaving the car, I found myself entering a time warp. This was 1947. The production had managed to get hold of two streets of Victorian houses and had worked hard to turn them into a perfect reproduction of post-war London. Aerials and satellite dishes had been covered with ivy or plastic roof tiles. Modern doors and windows had disappeared behind frames that would have been measured and constructed weeks before. Street signs and lamp posts had been camouflaged and yellow lines covered with sackloads of the powder known as Fuller’s earth. We had brought in our own props: a bright red telephone box, a bus stop and enough debris to simulate the sort of bomb damage that would have been familiar to Londoners years after the war. Ignore the people in Puffa jackets, the lights, the dollies and the endlessly snaking cables and it was indistinguishable from the real thing.
There was a whole crowd of people standing around me, waiting patiently for filming to begin. Along with the crew there were about thirty background artists all in costume with period haircuts. I examined the action vehicles, which were being manoeuvred into position by the second assistant director. They included an Austin Princess, a Morgan 4-4, a horse and cart and, the hero of the scene, an AEC Regent II double-decker bus from which Sam Stewart would emerge. Honeysuckle was standing with her screen husband across the road and, seeing me, she raised a hand. But she didn’t smile. That was when I knew things weren’t going well.
I looked for the camera and saw Jill deep in conversation with the director, Stuart Orme, and the rest of the camera crew. None of them were looking very happy either. I was already feeling guilty. The script that I had written for this episode, ‘The Eternity Ring’, had opened in New Mexico at a test for the nuclear bomb. (Stuart had managed to shoot it on a beach at the crack of dawn, stealing the scene in the two hours before the tide came in.) From there it had moved to the Russian embassy in London, the Liverpool docks and then to Whitehall and the headquarters of MI6. It had been a huge amount to ask and Scene 27 might have been one step too far. Sam could have walked home. She could have just turned up at her front door.
Stuart saw me and came over. He was only one year older than me, although with his white hair and white beard I found him slightly intimidating. But we had already worked together on one episode and I was glad he had come back for a second. ‘We can’t shoot the scene,’ he said.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, fighting an irrational worry that, whatever had happened, it would turn out to be my fault.
‘A lot of things. We had to move two cars. We’ve had issues with the weather.’ It had only just stopped raining. ‘The police wouldn’t allow us to start shooting before ten o’clock anyway. And the bus has broken down.’
I looked round. The AEC Regent II was being towed out of shot. Another bus had arrived to replace it. ‘That’s a Routemaster,’ I said.
‘I know. I know.’ Stuart looked harassed. We both knew that the first Routemaster hadn’t appeared on London roads until the mid-fifties. ‘But that’s what the agency sent round,’ he went on. ‘Don’t worry, we can CGI it in post-production.’
Computer-generated imagery. It was very expensive but at times it could be our greatest benefactor. It gave us views of a bombed-out London. It allowed us to drive past St Paul’s when we were nowhere near.
‘Look, I’ve only got ninety minutes to shoot the scene. We have to be out of here by twelve and right now there are four set-ups. I can’t do it. So if it’s all right with you, I want to drop the dialogue. We’ll just film Sam getting off the bus and we’ll pick her up meeting Adam when she gets home.’
In a way, I was quite flattered. As I’ve mentioned before, the writer is the one person on a set who has nothing to do and it’s one of the reasons why I usually stay away. I have a bad habit of always being in the wrong place. If a mobile goes off during filming, it will almost certainly turn out to be mine. But here was the director actually asking for my help and I saw at once that what he was suggesting wouldn’t make any material difference to the episode.
‘That’s fine,’ I said.
‘Good. I hoped you wouldn’t mind.’ He turned and walked away, leaving me with the realisation that he had actually made the decision long before I arrived.
Even without the dialogue, though, it was going to be a close-run thing. Stuart was going to have one rehearsal and then try for the take but it was still a complicated set-up. A twenty-metre track had been built, allowing the camera to glide along the first street as the bus came rumbling towards it at right angles down a second. The bus would turn the corner and come to a halt. The camera would continue its journey, reaching the stop just as two or three passengers got out, followed by Sam. At the same time, other vehicles, including the horse and cart, would pass in both directions. Children would play on the pavements. Various pedestrians would walk past: a woman pushing a pram, a couple of policemen, a man with a bicycle and so on. It would involve very precise timing if it was all going to be captured in a single shot.
‘Positions, everyone, please!’
The actor playing Sam’s husband was sent back to his trailer, none too happy. He would have been up since the crack of dawn. The driver of the Routemaster was given his briefing. The background artists took their places. I went over and stood behind the camera, making sure I was out of the way. The first assistant director glanced at Stuart, who nodded.
The rehearsal was disastrous.
The bus arrived too soon and the camera too late. Sam got lost in the crowd. A cloud chose that moment to block the sun. The horse refused to move. I saw Stuart exchange a few words with his director of photography, then briskly shake his head. They weren’t ready to film. They would need a second rehearsal after all.
It was already ten past eleven. That’s the thing about film sets. There are great stretches of time when nobody seems to be doing anything, followed by brief bursts of highly concentrated activity when the actual filming takes place. But the clock is always ticking. Speaking personally, I find the stress almost unbearable. When Stuart said he had to be done by twelve o’clock, he meant twelve o’clock on the dot. There were two real policemen holding up the traffic at the far corner. They would want to leave. The owners of the houses had given us permission to shoot for an exact amount of time. The locations manager was there, looking worried. I was already wishing I hadn’t come.
The AD picked up his megaphone and barked out fresh orders. ‘First positions!’ Slowly, stubbornly, the passengers climbed back on board and the Routemaster reversed. The children were led to their positions. The horse was given a lump of sugar. Fortunately, the second rehearsal went a little better. The bus and the camera met at the corner exactly as planned. Sam stepped down and walked away. The horse set off exactly on cue although it did rather spoil things by veering off the road and mounting the pavement. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Stuart and the cameraman muttered a few words, then decided they were ready. Jill was looking at her watch. It was now eleven thirty-five.
Because this was a big scene with so much production value involved, we had our own stills photographer there along with a couple of journalists who were planning to interview Honeysuckle and me. ITV had sent down two senior executives who were anxiously watching over the entire operation along with health and safety people and paramedics from the St John Ambulance. In addition, there was the usual army of sparks, gaffers, first, second and third assistant directors, make-up artists, prop masters … a whole crew of them standing there, waiting to see a sequence that we now had less than thirty minutes to shoot.
There were final checks, glitches, a silence that seemed to stretch interminably. My palms were sweating. But at last I heard the familiar litany that comes with every shot.
‘Camera rolling. Speed …’
‘Scene twenty-seven. Take one.’
The snap of the clapperboard.
The camera began to glide towards us. The bus rattled forward. The children played. Obediently, with a spring in its step, the horse set off, pulling the cart.
And then, out of nowhere, a vehicle appeared, a modern, twenty-first-century taxi. It wasn’t even a black cab, which might have been adjusted, along with the bus, using CGI. It had been painted white and yellow with an advertisement for some new app in bright red and the legend ‘GET £5 OFF YOUR NEXT RIDE’ across the front and back doors. Just to add to the merriment, the window was rolled down and the driver was playing Justin Timberlake at full blast on the radio. It stopped, right in the middle of the shot.
Stuart Orme was usually a pleasant, easy-going man. But his face was thunderous as he looked up from his monitor to see what had happened. It was impossible, of course. The police should have blocked off the traffic. We had our own people at each end of the street, keeping back pedestrians. There was no way any vehicle could have come through.
Already, I was feeling sick inside. I had a bad feeling about what was about to happen.
And I was right.
The door of the taxi opened and a man got out. He seemed completely unconcerned by the fact that he was surrounded by a large crowd of people, many of them in period dress. He had a sort of cheerful self-confidence that was actually quite cold-blooded, utterly focused on his own needs at the expense of everyone else’s. He was not tall or well built but he gave the impression that, by whatever means necessary, he would never lose a fight. His hair, somewhere between brown and grey, was cut very short, particularly around the ears. His eyes, a darker brown, gazed innocently out of a pale, slightly unhealthy face. This was not someone who spent a lot of time in the sun. He was dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow tie, clothes that might have been deliberately chosen to say nothing about him. His shoes were brightly polished. As he moved forward, he was already searching for me and I had to ask myself – how had he even known I was here?
Before I could duck down behind the monitor, he found me.
‘Tony!’ he called out, amicably – and loudly enough for everyone on the set to hear.
Stuart turned to me, quite furious. ‘Do you know this man?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ I admitted. ‘His name is Daniel Hawthorne. He’s a detective.’
The camera crew were staring at me. The two women from ITV were muttering to each other in disbelief. Jill went over to them, trying to explain. Everyone in the street had frozen in their positions as if they had suddenly turned into one of those ‘Historical London’ postcards. Even the horse looked annoyed.
They did manage to do a second take before time ran out and at the end of the day they had just about enough footage to cut a sequence together. If you ever watch the scene, you can see the telephone box, the horse and cart, the two policemen (in the far distance) and Sam walking away. Unfortunately, the camera missed most of the background artists, including the woman with the pram and the man with the bicycle. Sam is carrying a shopping bag, but you don’t see that either.
And in the end we ran out of money and when we got to post-production there was nothing we could do about that bloody bus.