Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Walking On The Moon - Meeting up with my favourite Dr Who and James Dean's best friend on Moonbase Alpha

 In 1976 I was a student doing my Arts Degree. As I was an original nerd - or as we called them back then, an 'anorak' - my thesis was on Science Fiction Art and it's Influence On Real World Design. Pretentious, moi?

My long-suffering lecturer Dave Pearce advised me that as there was a new Gerry Anderson SF series being made up in Pinewood Studios outside london, perhaps I should get in touch with the production designer?....

To cut a long story short I was invited up and spent a few happy days wandering around Moonbase Alpha and meeting up with among others, Patrick Troughton, Martin Landau, Catherine Schell and later, Roger Moore, Cubby Brocolli and a certain golden-skinned robot...

In 2009 I was asked to write an account of my expedition for Andersonic Magazine. Here is that article...



WALKING ON THE MOON ©John Sinclair 2009

The set of Moonbase Alpha with Martin Landau centre bottom

‘Not there!’ I almost screamed as Jim dumped his super-8 camera and bag on the little chair at the back of the sound stage.
 ‘Ah, they won’t mind,’ my college pal answered off-handedly, and started rooting through his gear. ‘I’m sure there’s more film in here somewhere,’ he muttered.
‘Excuse me,’ a bemused voice came from behind us. I turned around to see a tall man in a futuristic outfit standing there and looking surprised at this unauthorized use of his chair. Oops.
Jim....’ I said, emphasising my words with a poke to his back. He didn’t answer, lost in his own private world. Or Moon....
‘Sorry,’ I stammered to the gentleman, and held out my hand in apology, forgetting my borrowed camera was still in it. The man who’s name was on the back of the folding ‘director’s’ chair noticed and smiled. ‘Nice camera,’ he said.
‘Er- yeah,’ I managed, and held it out to him. He took it eagerly and peered through the view-finder.
‘So it’s a semi-automatic?’ He pronounced the word Semi, the American way. Like the truck.
‘..Er, yeah...’ halfway through the second year of an Arts Degree course that included photography, I still knew damn-all about the inner (or outer) workings of a camera, so I just nodded.
He, however, may have been a very successful actor, but the visual arts were his first love. He knew photography and how to really use a camera.
‘You should see my favourite SLR – I’ve had it since the 50’s.’ Excitedly, he played with the focus of my college Praktika. ‘Not bad lens – 35-57mm?’ He could have been talking Martian for all I knew. He did something to the metering, and went in close on the lovely alien walking by, who smiled and curtsied gracefully, ‘Took some great pictures in Hollywood with that old camera.  Lots of black-and white stills of my best friend from those days with it – you might have heard of him...’
‘You’re wanted on set, Mr L.’
‘Oh. Speak to you later.’ And with that he gave me the camera back and went off to save Moonbase Alpha from certain doom. Again. All in a days’ work for actor Martin Landau but this particular day was to be one of the most exciting of my life. More about his best friend later....
It was December 1976 and I was standing on the command module set of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999. An Art and Design student doing my presumptuously-titled thesis The Art of SF Movies and their Effect on Real-World Design, I had been invited up to the show’s Pinewood base by long-time AP films production designer Keith Wilson.
And so here we were. Or rather, there we were. My pal Dimitri (known as Jim for obvious linguistic reasons) was doing his thesis on movie marketing, and so I had wrangled him an invite too.
After a lot of preparation, including borrowing that camera and getting the college techs to load it for me (a decision I would later come to regret) Jim and I arrived at the studios bright and early on a dim, dark and tremendously exciting day.
For those who’ve never been to one, film studios are an awful letdown: resembling nothing so much as typical industrial parks – which is what they really are- there is little to see of the magic made therein.  Despite that, Jim shot lots of footage as we arrived; even shooting some of horses grazing in a nearby field.
The Century 21 office building looked very familiar though.... Afterwards I was to learn that it had been used in every ITC show you could think of from The Saint and The Champions and Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) etc. right up to The New Avengers (which Keith Wilson would get to design the next season)and many films, including much of the Carry On series.
In fact, we had both not long seen Carry on Again, Doctor on TV, and this same corridor we were waiting in had played (if an inanimate object can be said to actually play a part) the Maternity Room waiting area. Just think; Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor and Hattie Jacques had actually walked these cheaply-carpeted halls! A few years later I was to see Tobe Hoopers 80’s flop Lifeforce, in which an extremely naked and extraordinarily beautiful French actress called Mathilda May had sat down in the very same chair I used.....
But I digress.
The complete dvd collection
We were ushered on up to meet Keith in his corner office on the 2nd floor. A very friendly man, he was in charge of the whole ‘look’ of the show and ran the art and construction crews. He showed us around his rooms, which were festooned with initial artwork for the next episode in production, then down the hall to where the various draftsman and technicians worked. We were shown how the conceptual drawings Keith generated went along the line to become full sets, props and costumes. As we walked around, one of the costume team came in with swatches of glittery fabric for the boss-man’s approval. They were to be used for an alien costume in the next episode.
‘It’s a hard job,’ he laughed, remembering how he had had to measure guest actress Joan Collins up and down for a particularly interesting outfit, ‘but someone’s got to do it!’
Out of there, he led us down the stairs and back through reception and straight through some doors and straight into a very recognizable passageway - a Moonbase corridor from the show! I hadn’t realized that the building was also a shooting stage, and barely managed to control my excitement when we came right out into the main control room set for the show.
The show being filmed was series two’s ‘The Dorcans’, but the lights were low as the stage wasn’t being used just then. Giving us the grand tour, Keith showed us how the set worked – how the walls of each set had to be able to ‘fly’ – that is, could be removed easily and safely for camera access. For the first time I realized that every set and prop constructed for any show had to work in the real world.
All the monitors were real, many of the control switches on the desks actually worked, and he proudly showed off his baby; one of the show’s hand-held communicators, which held a genuine 3” TV, at that time a technological marvel and incredibly expensive. ‘That’s the smallest operational TV screen manufactured anywhere. Cost a fortune.’
He pointed out the TV camera set up to live-feed the tiny unit. ‘That’s so we can have real-time actor interaction (sic) – we do it sometimes with the station monitors,’ he grinned, ‘If we get to do a third season, I’m hoping to get a colour handset. If the budget will stretch to it, that is.’ As I played with...  toyed with... er, inspected the communicator I remember marvelling that even with all this high-tech stuff, the writing on the prop was still done with Letraset, the same damn-annoying sticky-down lettering stuff that I was having such trouble with in college.
He then took us through into another, busier, stage where technicians were building a realistic-looking crawl space for the Commander to , um, crawl through; ‘It’s a shame you weren’t here last week,’ he sighed, ‘as we had a whole alien world set up in here. It’s all in the skips now though.’
And then we were warned to be quiet, as we were ushered into the set being currently filmed, an alien chamber, where the director was walking guest star Patrick Troughton through his death scene. Keith left us then, and I stood quietly as the ex-Dr Who worked out his actions. It was then that I noticed Jim dropping his camera bag down on an unoccupied seat.....’Out of film, gotta change it.’ ‘Excuse me,’ came a voice from behind us and that’s when we met Martin Landau.
Afterwards, as Mr Landau left to do his scene (and my heart rate had dropped down to almost normal levels), Pat Troughton sat down next to me and started to chat. Somehow I manged to respond (he was Dr Who for Chrissakes!!!) and we were soon getting on great. He wondered what we were doing here and the conversation turned towards the show. He’d never seen Space: 1999 before; ‘it’s on Saturday mornings, and that’s when my wife takes me shopping’.
I mentioned he was my favourite Doctor, (‘bless you,’ he smiled and graciously gave me an autograph) and asked if he ever watched any SF TV. ‘Not really’, he said, even though he had done a lot of it and in the movies. I brought up Jason and the Argonauts; ‘Oh, now that was fun. Two weeks in Greece sunbathing and doing the occasional bit of waving a stick at things that weren’t there, and then a few more days in the studios six months later doing close-ups of the same. Looked marvellous when it was finished. No idea at all how it was done.’ Did he ever watch Dr Who nowadays? He shook his head. ‘More of a Kojak man myself. Still a fantasy, but.... Anyway, the wife adores him.’  I said I preferred Starsky and Hutch (I was young, okay?). ‘There you are; like to like. I like action stuff about middle-aged men and you like dashing young men driving around in fast cars and kissing pretty girls.’
Catherine Schell and the very monster from that day (on right)
A monster walked up and threw its arms around the stunning Catherine Schell (it had been very hard to concentrate on Mr. Troughton with ‘Maya’ just off to my left...), who just giggled. It was a stuntman in costume for a metamorphosis bit with Maya. I have a problem with my memory here; I’m positive that it was the legendary Alf Joint in the gear; ‘I’m sorry I can’t make it any taller, guv, but I can’t get any heels on in this lot’, but research tells me that it was Roy Scammel in the suit. Ah well.
Lunch was called, and Keith took us over to the famous Pinewood restaurant. The swanky venue was already filled to bursting with blokes in bright orange boiler suits; actors portraying henchmen in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ then underway on the vast 007 stage. I found myself standing next to Bond himself, Roger Moore. Jim was happily chatting away to the series legendary producer Cubby Broccoli – and incidentally when I asked him later Jim had no idea who he had been chatting to!
 Keith knew him of old and Mr Moore was soon regaling us with tales of hilarity behind the scenes (he had a favourite gag of walking out of closets mid-scene or corpsing at inopportune moments) and maintained that the only difference between playing the Saint and Bond was that the budgets were bigger and the girls were better. Or was that the other way around?
After lunch, Keith walked us by the immense submarine base from the film, but that’s a whole separate story. Dropping a massive name here, the very next year I was to stand on another moon set on that vast stage and Superman himself Christopher Reeve would fly over my head....
Back on the set, I was allowed right into the middle of things to take as many pictures as I wanted (‘just don’t get in the way’). So I did just that, and if the camera seemed to be taking more frames that it should, I just accepted that it had extra features that I didn’t know about... Jim started to take some film as well, but an assistant director asked him to knock it off; stills were okay it appeared, but not actual footage.
Everyone posed for me; Catherine Schell did another little curtsey, Patrick Troughton gave a ministerial stare and Keith showed off his beloved props - a fan-boys dream. But all too soon it was time to go.
As we left, Mr Landau casually said, ‘if you come by again, let me know and I’ll show you some of those pictures of my pal. See you.’ And off we went. Mr Wilson said we’d gotten on well with Mr Landau, and did he tell us any of his tales of Hollywood? No, we said, and that’s when Keith told us who Martin Landau’s best pal was.
James Dean.
Back in college the next week, I handed over the camera to the techs to process the film for me. The tech went off into the dark room and came back out with a smile on his face. You know that feeling you get when you know bad news is coming? ‘Hey – you didn’t put the film in properly – its blank!’ he said, grinning. After a moment of silence, I managed to gasp out that HE had loaded it. ‘Did I? Tough $%^!’
I went back to my department more than slightly shell-shocked. My brilliant lecturer Dave Pearce – who had placed that first phone call to Pinewood for me - had heard what happened by then, and he dragged me right back down. He went off at the techs, cutting them a new hole and threatening them with the sack! Anyway, they were not fired – then, but both were to get official warnings and were a lot more diligent in their duties after that....
Fine, but I still didn’t have any pictures. Dave Pearce suggested that I should get in touch with Keith Wilson about my predicament, and he kindly sent me some production stills. What a guy! From then on it was my ambition to work for Gerry Anderson in some way..... So I finished off my thesis and sat back and waited to see ‘my’ episode. And waited. And waited.
For more than 20 years, as it turned out, as HTW Wales didn’t show season 2 until the late 1990’s and then only in an early-morning graveyard slot.
What did I think of it? Meh. It hadn’t aged well, and truthfully, my expectations – built up over all those years – were impossible to reach. It was an okay episode, but nothing special.
I was to go back to Pinewood many times over the years – I was there with Production Designer John Barry on Superman 1 and 2  (like I said above, on the 007 stage)– and went down with him to watch some reshoots of a little film he was doing called Star Wars. Ever hear of it? By the way he was working out of Keith’s old office....
Nowadays I don’t go to live-action studios very often as my work in the industry led me away from the Art department and back behind the laptop. I write mostly children’s TV – Fireman Sam, et al – but I’m still waiting for that phone call from Gerry Anderson....
John Sinclair October 2009

I was to meet Gerry himself a couple of times when I became a journalist. What a guy!

Any mistakes and erroneous dates entirely mine due to a faulty memory and thirty years of wine, women and Brains Beer and much too much time watching the many works of Gerry Anderson.....

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The day I got a Golden Ticket to meet the real Willy Wonka....

In 1996 I was sent off to Guidford to meet up with a real Hollywood legend, Willy Wonka himself, the wonderful Gene Wilder.

Here's the edited piece.....



 Running Wilder.....!

 Gene Wilder, Hollywood star, famous for his many extrovert comedy parts is here in the UK, touring in his first theatre play for thirty years, playing an extrovert comedy star.
NIA’s own John Sinclair calls backstage and gets the drop on the 'Waco Kid’....

Joumalists are blasé.
On this particular day however, we were all nervous. There was much over-enthusiastic chattering, much to-ing and fro-ing from the respective toilets, much anxious plastering down of sticking-up hairdos. And it was hot. Durn hot.

Just as nerves were close to frazzle point, he entered.
Gene Wilder. Hollywood comedy superstar, star of 'Blazing Saddles'. 'Young Fronkenstein' 'Stir Crazy’ and others too numerous to mention. And he was here. In the flesh.

Over for a limited season of the latest Neil Simon play, 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor', Gene is playing the central role of Max Prince, all-round entertainer/host of a top-rated l95O's American comedy show.

The play is set in Max’s 23rd floor offices where he and his team of supremely gifted writers struggle to create 90 minutes of quality material every week while also attempting to deal with the increasingly intrusive interference from the network executives. The show is another of Simon's semi-autobiographical pieces as it's based squarely on his own experiences as a writer working on the now-fabled Sid Caesar show.

Wi|der's much bigger than you’d expect.
Over six foot in a hunched shoulders and lived-in sort of way. Along with his trade-mark frizzy blonde hair his most outstanding feature is definitely his eyes. Paul Newman blue. Movie star blue.
In repose his face is rather lugubrious, like a blue-eyed bloodhound, endearing and warm, the sort of face you would trust with your car keys while you went for a dip.
Quietly spoken, obviously shy, it’s difficult to reconcile this soft-spoken gentleman with the outspoken 'Professor Fronkenstein' or the blanket-loving 'Bloom' from 'The Producers', and then he smiles, an oddly loopy smile, and you know it's him.

Even though it's thirty years since he last 'tread the boards’, he was tempted back by a combination of Neil Simon's script and Mel Brook's encouragement.

Sitting back in the top floor of Guildford's Yvonne Arnaud theatre he explained why.

'Max Prince is based on Sid Caesar, a hero of mine almost since childhood, and l had wanted to be in a Simon play forever – even though I had once acted in a little vignette of his on television - but I saw nothing in his work for me. Then I was sent this part in this play and l thought, why me?
‘I’m physically nothing like big energetic Sid Caesar, and thought, what could l bring to it, and then Mel Brooks (who had been one of the real show’s writers back then) said to me, 'Gene, you're like the real Sid Caesar, He was shy underneath as well. You could bring heart to it.'

Warmth is something that Wilder seems to project almost naturally, so did he have any problems with the sad, serious side of the play, the man's decline into alcohol and drug addiction?

He shakes his head. 'When l read it, I started laughing - there were tears running down my face, and it was all one liners until page 27, and I thought, that's not me, I don't do gags, then Max enters and it's all emotion. Funny, but funny behaviour, funny thinking, but as Neil Simon says, he doesn't do jokes, he's funny, but he doesn't know why. That, I can play.’

There seems to be an almost Chaplinesque quality to Wilder’s work at times, and he agrees whole-heartedly with this.

'Oh, you're talking about one of the Gods here. Often, when I run up against a problem, I think to myself, 'Hmmm, what would Chaplin do here?’ and that gets me through it.’
Where would he put himself in the comedy pantheon?

'I wouldn’t. I can tell you what I aspire to, but all I can say is, when you’re in trouble, tell the story physically. My old teacher, Lee Strasbourg from the Actor’s Studio in New York always said, ‘okay, the sound is off, no-one can hear you – could they get the gist of the scene or is it all in the words?’

Speaking of which, are there any movies in the Wilder pipeline? He thinks for a minute in that slow and intense way of his before answering.

‘Possibly,’ he mused. ‘I keep getting offered scripts, and when I see one I like and with a director I want to work with, then yes.’
His eyes light up when I produce a paperback version of his ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother’.

As he autographed it I asked if he was considering writing any more screenplays? He had been Oscar-nominated for co-writing Young Frankenstein.

Again he pondered the question, his pale eyebrows arching as he reflected. ‘A screenplay perhaps. If I get an idea, and I’ve the time and the inclination... maybe,’ he smiled.

For an actor so closely associated with Hollywood and the US, it’s a touch surprising that he actually trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Did he intend to go back to his old haunts while touring?

‘I don’t think so. I went back to my old high school and it was so, so small. Everything is darker and smaller than you remember it. I’d rather have my memories. I do love England though; I fell in love with it when I made ‘Sherlock Holmes’ here nearly twenty years ago.’

Are there any differences between playing on the British stage and at home?

‘Here I feel... maybe it’s my fantasy but I feel loved here. Welcomed surely; the audiences are really happy to come and see you.’
It was time, the hovering producer reminded us, to wander outside for some photographs.

It’s interesting to wander through busy streets with a genuine Hollywood star. Most people were oblivious, but every now and then, someone would recognise him and stop and stare.

‘That’s what I like about England,’ he said to me as we passed a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren, ‘you are all so polite. No one will just push a piece of paper in my face, but will wait until I look as if I’m free and then ask me. And they’re always so sorry for bothering me.’
Photographs done, farewells said, I thought that was the end of my encounter with Gene Wilder.

But I was wrong.

Picking up my local friend’s children from school later, we were standing at traffic lights, when Nicholas, the younger boy suddenly shouted, ‘there’s Willy Wonka!’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ his older brother Thomas said, ‘there’s no such real person.’

Sure enough, across the lights, there he was, Gene Wilder.
‘Hello again,’ I said, expecting that he had already forgotten me. But no, he looked up, smiled, said, ‘Oh, hello again. Got to go, theatre,’ shook my hand, waved at the boys, and hurried off.
Leaving two spellbound little boys.
‘You know Willy Wonka?’

Gene Wilder has that effect on people. He makes people feel good. The audiences at Guildford, Bath and soon at the Queens Theatre, London, will certainly feel good afterwards.
And two little boys are positively glowing...

Thursday, 12 March 2015

West Side Story star goes Oop North by way of Cardiff........!

And here's another of my irregular old interviews from my journalist days....This time it's from 1996 when I met up with Hollywood star George Chakiris backstage in Cardiff's New Theatre...

'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’; Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend' as a distinguished looking man holds out a string of diamonds to her.

A trio of young Puerto Ricans pick their way through the decaying back streets of 50's New York. Their speed picks up as the music builds and their leader, a tall, handsome guy, better tailored than the rest, explodes into a balletic mix of dance and street machismo that leads into the opening titles of ‘West Side Story’.

Jane Eyre looks out of a window across the wind-blasted grounds of Thornfield Hall, trembling as she remembers the manic laughter that drifted down from the forbidden upper floor.
Then she stiffens; the shadow of her employer, the mysterious and taciturn Mr. Rochester has fallen across her.

Three very different roles, one actor. Then again, Oscar winner (for ‘West Side Story’) George Chakiris is one of those talented players who refuses to be pigeon-holed and is equally at home in any of the theatrical disciplines.
With all this experience behind him it's perhaps not that surprising that his very first professional engagement was as a boy soprano.

"Oh yes,' he smiles. “I grew up in Arizona where I attended a local church. But when I was 12 my family moved to Long Beach, California, and my Arizona choir-master absolutely demanded that I should go to the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and audition for them. I did, was accepted, and was thrilled to discover that the choir regularly featured in movies.
My first film was called 'Song Of love' (l947) and starred a young Katherine Hepburn."


Growing up in Arizona and then Florida, George`s whole world was movies.

"When I was a kid I never heard of the theatre or even ballet. Los Angeles then and now, was and is a cultural desert for live entertainment. So movies were the whole world to me.  I used to walk home singing the songs and trying to remember the dance steps."

Surprisingly, George hadn`t envisioned dance as playing so large a part in his career.

“I had gone along after school on the off-chance, and I saw this wonderful, wonderful, dance school. I was hooked and so I got a job downtown in an ad agency as a messenger and attended class by night."

This led him back before the cameras.

"I had always intended to be an actor, but my first professional job was in the chorus of 'Brigadoon', and from there I went on to about a dozen others including 'Meet Me In Las Vegas' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' with Marilyn Monroe - I danced with her again in 'There's No Business Like Show Business' - a movie with Debbie Reynolds called ‘Give A Girl A Break`, and a little film called ‘White Christmas."

Was Marilyn as difficult to work with as they say?

"I personally never had any problems with her, shall we say. The thing to remember is that in those days she wasn't the legend she is today. She was a major star, yes, but she wasn`t MARILYN MONROE. She seemed to be thoroughly professional, and thoroughly together in her head. Poor Marilyn."

Then of course came ‘West Side Story`. Even though this was the role that would make his name, George didn't actually want to play the part of 'Bernardo', leader of the Sharks, in the movie.

"That`s right, I wanted to play the part that I played on stage - in London, if you can believe that - of Riff, leader of the Jets.  Really, I hadn`t expected movie dancing to be a large part in my life anymore as I had moved to New York by then hoping to find work on the Broadway stage.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. West Side Story had been running on Broadway for a year, I was sleeping on a friends couch, and the chance came to audition for the London stage production.
Now theatre casting can be far more adventurous than film or television casting, and I ended up as Riff even though I'm dark haired."

And yet George didn't decide to capitalise on his Oscar-winning theatrical success, but instead went off in other directions.

"l decided to concentrate on my acting and started this roller-coaster ride that is my career and is still not slowing down.

What would he say were the highlights of his career?

“A musical ironically, ‘The Young Ladies of Rochefort`, that I made in France in |967 with one of my heroes, the late, great Gene Kelly. Also I played ‘Dracula' on stage, again in London, and that was something I would never have been considered for in the US.
I must say that, ultimately I prefer stage to screen. Some of the best moments of my life have been on stage, like last year where I played the French diplomat in the British National Tour of 'M. Butterfly' - I always seem to come back to England don`t I? - or in one of the many theatre shows I played at home like `Guys and Dolls`, ‘Camelot,' or ‘The King And l’."


After all that he’s done, has he any ambitions left?

“Well, I do have one. I love the Merchant - Ivory productions - what I call those classic English movies. I would love to be in one of those, but as an American, it`s unlikely."

Many people would have thought it unlikely for him to have played Mr. Rochester.
How did it feel to be offered the part?

"Scared, amazed, originally, then scared, I mean, here I was, an American about to step into the shoes of one of the great British romantic heroes."

One last question, and it`s the one that has to be asked, cliché though it is. Does he still dance?

"Oh yes. I still attend class every day. it`s a part of my life now. It keeps me limber, and I feel all the better for it."

It obviously works. As you can see by looking at his youthful appearance. Amazingly, George will be 63 next birthday.

Pen: John Sinclair

Monday, 16 February 2015

The day Craig Charles pulled a gun on me...... with 700 witnesses....

In 1996 I took my life in my hands and went along to Cardiff's Student Union building to do a sit-down interview with Red Dwarf's Lister himself ....

 A laughable showdown with Craig Charles

It`s not often that someone pulls a gun on me. Even less often does it happen in front of 700 people. And never has the other end of the gun, the bit that does the horrible `hammer-smacking-percussion-cap` bit been in the rock-steady hand of a famous comedian: Craig Charles, poet, comedian, star of `Red Dwarf', top radio jock. Who smiles. And says the magic words; "I hate the ****ing press." The audience thought it was hysterical. And it had all started so well.....

I had turned up on time, caught up with the crew in their dressing room, checked everything was going to be okay for later, and had double-checked that the security guards out front knew that I was going to be taking pictures for the first five minutes.
Unfortunately this meant that Craig knew I was going to be out there; an easy target...
Dead on time, Craig bounded out on stage; an ebullient, wide-grinned character with exactly the same haircut he always wears. Carrying a gun.
He aimed it at the audience, fired off a few pretend shots, then saw me..... He pointed it at me, said those magic words. Then.... Bang!
It's amazing how loud a blank can be.
Luckily he ran off around the stage then, launching into his stand-up routine while I frantically shot off more pictures. His routine is a dazzling blend of off-the-wall comedy, weird reminiscences about growing up in Liverpool with a psychopathic older brother who used to cry if no-one would have a knife-fight with him on the way home from kindergarten (he`s a police Inspector now), speculations on life, (why don`t people who believe in reincarnation leave their money to themselves?) and surprisingly sad, vulnerable poetry about women and his childhood.
He pulled a girl out of the audience, (Babe alert! Babe alert!) then delivered an unexpectedly tender poem about how he would love to explore the inner, as well as the outer, contours of her being...
After the show he did a signing session, and he kept up his good humour all the way through it, cracking up when a girl pulled tip her shirt and said ‘sign this` (‘I never thought l`d envy a pen ....’ he murmured) and putting his moniker on the various bits of paper, video covers, books, bus tickets, pound of flesh, etc., put before him.
We spoke later in his dressing room where he cracked open a can of beer and inhaled it in one motion.
Smaller than you`d expect, but as they say, perfectly formed. He`s a rarity; a genuinely nice guy, one of those types that are happier performing in front of 1000 students than sitting around a table talking to one, er, journo.... He fiddled slightly with his cuffs and looked all around the room as we talked but then quickly relaxed. I asked him how he considered himself; poet, comedian, actor, what?
“A jammy ******* I reckon,’ laughed, leaning back against the scabby wall and gratefully throwing his heavy crombie into the arms of a surprised roadie.
“No seriously, an entertainer. I started out as a poet, got dragged sideways into stand-up, fetched up as an actor and then got into presenting. But entertainer is what I see myself as.
“One of the problems with this business is that you tend to get pigeon-holed and then they can’t see you in anything else (NOTE: this was many years before Coronation Street). I spread myself around a bit.”
Mention was made of a friend who had come along because she loved his poetry.
“That’s great, because, like I said, that was my first love. Thing is, I started using it as a vehicle for my humour, then that took over, and the poetry got sidelined, and now I'm back trying to get people laugh through my poetry; y’know, trying to get 360 degrees of life in my poetry.’
The audience loved you and it was a surprise the way you worked your rape case into your act.
“Aye, well, the public, bless ‘em, knew it was all rubbish, and they've been behind me all the way. If they thought otherwise. I wouldn't be here now talking to you. It was the same with the convicts; they were fine about it. A rape charge normally means that you`re in big trouble, but no, they were great. Even if one big guy l thought was going to flatten me only came over and said. `‘ey;  ain't you that Gary Wilmot!` I think I would have preferred the beating!”
You definitely have reasons to hate the press.
"The tabloids. certainly. I mean, the stuff they wrote about me! One headline, `Craig Charles slept with forty strippers!` I thought, yeah, in your dreams mate! I've just had my first holiday in two years, two weeks in the Caribbean, and the swines followed me everywhere!"
Ahem. yes. Time to change the subject. How did the acting come along?
“It all comes back to comedy; I was doing ‘Saturday Live’ with Ben Elton, and the producer Paul Jackson came up to me and said that there was this character he thought I could play in this sitcom called ‘Red Dwarf’. Now, I’d never done any acting in my life, but I went along, and because of that I've got lots more work, so people tend to see me more as an actor now. Like I said; pigeon-holing you in what you did last."
What is next in the Craig Charles itinerary?
"Oh, I`ve got the next two years pretty well bottled up. We finish this tour then it`s right into the next eight episodes of ‘Red Dwarf`, followed by a sitcom of my own called ‘Captain Butler’ where I play a pirate. Then it`s into a few months more of ‘The Governor`, and back into eight more `Dwarf's`; I've a chat-show to do called ‘Craig’s Funky Bunker’, and I intend to shoe-horn 120 live dates in there for sometime next year, so... After that, I think I’ll have a breakdown as way of a rest."
So that was that. As we left a pair of security guards stopped him and timidly asked for his autograph. He grinned wickedly and went into a little routine for them about the run-ins he used to have with their kind as a kid. When he finally left they were weak with laughter.
That’s Craig Charles for you.
He`ll talk to anyone.
Even the Press.

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Odd Couple.. plus one!

Some new old interviews from over the years..

Over the last more than twenty-odd (often very odd) years of working as a journalist I have met and interviewed a lot of big names ranging from TV and Movie stars to rock stars to authors and producers, etc.. etc....

Anyway, every week I'm going to publish here on my Blog some of the best or more interesting ones of them.

I won't run some of my least favourite names, no pack drill, but...there was the one where a very well known male singer tried very hard to get off with me... I won't post another where a big name actor with a lovable, friendly image was one of the most objectionable, rude oafs I ever met,  and can't run one (as it never happened) where the very big name comedian/actor reckoned that even though I'm mixed race I wasn't Black enough to do an interview with him....! 
....and I definitely won't include the one where a fading sex-goddess asked me back for a drink at her place and I chickened out. Something to do with the fact my girlfriend was waiting for me outside....

Anyhow, this first one from 1996 is one of my favourites, prompted by the imminent arrival of a new TV update of the show starring Matthew Perry from Friends....


They started playing the parts on Broadway thirty years ago, went with it to television where it ran for five years in the early 70's and now they’re on the London stage reprising their roles as slobbish sports writer Oscar who takes in his best friend, the prissy and neurotic Felix, who has just been thrown out by his long suffering wife.

John Sinclair chats to that older Odd Couple Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.

            Mention the hit play/ film/ TV series The Odd Couple to people and they automatically start whistling that irritatingly catchy theme tune. And so it was that I found myself walking through London's Whitehall on my way to interview the neurotic half of the twosome, whistling that damn tune and wishing it would go away.
            Probably best known for his many major film roles with everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Doris Day to Marilyn Monroe, Tony Randall has also starred on Broadway and on TV where he had his own show as long ago as 1953.
            They say that life seldom imitates art but if there was ever an actor destined to play the odder of the Odd Couple, Tony Randall is that man. His rented flat was a marvel of taste and restraint with everything just so, and Tony himself dapper in cravat, loafers and slacks.
            We began by talking about how the show was being received.
            “Oh,’ he laughed, “all the reviews were great, but all of them said how Jack and I were too old to play the characters! Seriously though, I think that Neil Simon’s play is so sharply written, so deep, that it’s universal. It doesn't matter how old we are or how decrepit; if anything maturity brings a new depth to the parts.”
            On the subject of growing up gracefully – or not, as the case may be, somehow Marilyn Monroe cropped up in the conversation.
            “Marilyn? She was a pain in the ass! You know, I don`t think anyone who ever worked with her could be tortured into saying a good word about her. You’d show up for make-up at 8.30 and she’d show up at five. Let me put it like this, the shine went off the situation very quickly.”
            Tony had worked with another great 50’s sex symbol; Jayne Mansfield in Will Success spoil Rock Hunter.
            “Dear old Jayne, what a woman! It’s sad, but she was really a take-off of Marilyn, but then Marilyn was a take-off of Marilyn! When Marilyn died, so did Jaynes’ career. The funny thing about that film is it reminds me of Groucho Marx. The closing line of the film is "You Bet Your life”, his TV catch phrase at the time.
            "Now, about 20 years later they started to re-run his old game show You Bet Your Life, and America went crazy over him again - and he was a very old man by then. Anyway, my 12 year old nephew Ben was besotted with him, and one day I ended up having dinner with Groucho. I took along a little tape recorder, and asked him to say a few words for my nephew. Well, he leaned forward, picked up the machine and said. ‘Hello Ben .... you son of a bitch!”
            “The boy took the cassette to school and played it to everyone.”
            Later, as we were leaving the building when he discovered I was Welsh he burst into song. In Welsh....! Everyone in the crowded lobby stopped to listen and applaud, and he told me that he had learnt that more than thirty years ago for the Broadway production of The Corn Is Green.
            On discovering that I didn't speak the language he shrugged and said, “Darn, I've been waiting all these years to find out what I was singing about!”
            What was that about ideal casting? Where Tony’s apartment was light, airy and neat, Jack’s dressing room was untidy, poky and eerily like Oscar’s apartment in the play.
            After he finally found somewhere for me to sit we talked about his amazing career.
            The list of people he has worked with is incredible; everyone from Rod Steiger to Jack Lemmon, but mention Henry Fonda and his eyes light up.
            He sat back in his chair and chuckled, a deep throaty gurgle, unaffected by the surgery he had for cancer a few years ago. “If it wasn't for him, maybe I wouldn't be where I am today. After l did a play with him in ‘52, he asked me what I was going to do. I said I’d had some Hollywood offers and he stopped me right there and said to go back to New York and work at it. I was good, he said, but Hollywood would ruin me.”
            Jack came out with a surprising titbit; he had actually acted with Humphrey Bogart!
            “Yeah, we did The Petrified Forest for TV in 1954, and Betty Bacall played the Bette Davis part and I was one of the hoodlums. Let me tell you, Bogey was short, bald, scarred, but he was the sexiest man who ever lived. You couldn't keep your eyes off him!
             “He gave me the second best piece of advice I ever had. He said he was about to do ten guaranteed weeks at re-shoots on The Left Hand Of God, and I said ‘so they guarantee you ten weeks?'. And he grabs my arm, really hurting me, pulls my face to his and growls in that Bogart voice. 'No kid, I'm guaranteeing them ten weeks!'
            Despite everything he is still best remembered for and as Quincy the medical pathologist of the mid-seventies.
            “I loved that show! And you know, we managed to get laws passed because of that show. We got Congress to allow pharmaceutical companies tax breaks to research rare diseases. Man, that was fun. Hard work though – I ended up producing as well as starring, but man, the rewards were huge.”
            The show that evening was as fresh today as the day it premièred in 1967. The pairing of Randall and Klugman was a classic example of opposites attract; their different persona's fairly crackled off each other.
            Despite their ages, despite their familiarity with the play, these two consummate professionals gave the packed audience a night they’ll never forget.
And there’s nothing odd about that.

Pen: John Sinclair