It’s been Oscar week – Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne, who – as the papers I read failed to point out – once appeared as incestuous mother and son together. I took the student daughter of a friend, who was staying with me at the time, to see that film (‘Savage Grace’) and she was very quiet as we left the cinema. ‘Did you not like it, Nancy?’ I said. ‘I didn’t know what was going to happen next,’ was her slightly overwhelmed response. I came across Eddie Redmayne, (still not so well known) a year or two later. He’s slight, was wearing an old fashioned tweed jacket, and was waiting in the café at the Almeida, where, at the adjoining table, I had the odd thought that I had seen him, on the big screen, completely bollock naked.
Another female student up here in Durham asked me the other day if I had written any films. I said that I had written a fair few for television – one is described in the entry under ‘Institutionalised’ below. There was only one that hit the big screen – and ‘written’ is not quite the word for it: I worked on it for only a week, but it is mainly responsible for this web site. If you Googled in my name a few years ago it was as if I was the author of only two films – the Agatha Christie adaptation (for television) mentioned in the previous post card, and ‘The Element of Crime,’ a Danish film, made by the auteur, prankster, Dogma theorist (etc) Lars Von Trier. Both jobs added together took up only seven weeks of my life, a balance that completely skewered the rest.
My agent had rung, a Friday afternoon. She never called me ‘darling,’ but that was often her tone. ’You’ve been working on that stage play a bit too long,’ she said. ‘Do you want to earn a bit of money? You’d be working a week. It’s to do actable dialogue for a Danish film they’re shooting in English. All I know about the director is that he’s apparently the Danish Spielberg.’
The script was couriered round. It was both wooden and puzzling but it sounded a lark, the money was welcome - and so began one of the oddest weeks of my working life. The young Lars Von Trier was holed up at the Strand Palace Hotel each morning, where we would talk about the film in sections and I would go away and come back the following day with a ‘do-able’ idiomatic version. It starred Michael Elphick, was to be filmed entirely in studios, but was set somewhere like Egypt. The plot, opaque, centred round a string of brutal murders, maybe of women or detectives (I don’t remember). I didn’t understand a word of it, but assumed the director did. There were a number of ‘philosophical’ speeches for the actors I had to render speakable: ‘your golden words,’ as my agent put it. Trier, slim, boyish, lay on the bed, in a back room with no view but of the internal workings of the hotel, ducts, ventilators, etc. and on our second meeting, the Tuesday, asked me how I had got to the hotel. I said, ‘Waterloo Station and then came across Waterloo Bridge.’ He asked me to describe Waterloo Bridge, that he had seen the film ‘Waterloo Bridge’ (with Vivien Leigh) but didn’t know what it was like in reality (it was a hundred yards from his door). The conclusion I drew was that he never left his hotel room, which would square with later accounts of his phobias. On the Wednesday I needed to find a filthy English equivalent of a Danish nursery rhyme he hadn’t been able to translate, and I came up with (from an extensive childhood repertoire): ‘Mum does it, dad does it, horses have a try. Cats do it, dogs do it. Why can’t I?’ That went straight into the script, and about a year later I watched the distinguished English actor, Esmond Knight, spouting this doggerel on a big cinema screen at the Electric, Portobello Road. On the Thursday we came to a crux. I just didn’t understand the motivation of the young woman character. That affected the dialogue, and director and me got to arguing – slightly angrily - before the Danish tyro conceded, disarmingly, ‘I don’t know what her motivation is either. It doesn’t matter.’ I was then – more than now – a realist, straitjacketed I sometimes think. Hitchcock’s films, great though many of them are, finally miss the top slot in my pantheon because you know he’s interested in getting to the set pieces, willy-nilly: motivation and character take second place. But by the Friday my job was done. Money was paid over and I got back to my (deservedly unproduced and realistic) stage play. ‘Element of Crime’ opened at Cannes, may even have won some award. My agent sent me a long, though damning, review of it from the ‘New Statesman’ with a hand written note, in red ink: ‘O, dear.’ And the slim young man became a great Dane, so to speak. I do think the film was garbage, and Trier might – these days - be the first, disarmingly, to say he agreed.
I had asked for my name not to appear on the credits, not because I was unhappy, but because my role was as script doctor, no more. But as the credits rolled in front of a thin audience on the Portobello Road that afternoon, there it was. I had hit the big screen. As his reputation and expertise grew, so my name, in the new algorithms of search engines, became entwined with Von Trier’s. There came a time to end that, cut the cord, hence a website of my own. So, yes, I have had an Adventure in the Screen Trade, and one where, as the great scriptwriter, William Goldman says – rightly – ‘nobody knows anything.’