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A HANDFUL OF DUST – CHAPTER 3

I started writing the screenplay for Handful with Derek Granger in 1982. The movie itself wasn’t made until 1988, which was pretty much par for the course then – that is if you got your movie made at all. Derek, like Jarman, was a fantastically generous teacher as well as a very gifted writer himself. People didn’t know it at the time, but Derek had pretty much written the screenplay for Brideshead, although John Mortimer took the credit. Mortimer’s script wasn’t up to much and so Derek and later Charles took the script by the scruff of the neck and reworked it. There’s no question that Derek should have had a co-writing credit on Brideshead, but things just didn’t seem to work like that then. We wrote in his house in Kensington Palace Gardens and also in the flat he and Kenneth owned in Brighton. It was an extraordinary penthouse facing the sea, across two the top of two large houses in Chichester terrace. It must’ve been about 80 feet of glass overlooking the sea.

Derek was also as tough as Jarman – I recently found some script pages of the movie I wrote for DJ and his beautiful handwriting in red is plastered all over it with comments like “This isn’t even literate!!” or just “What??” “WHY??!” “Rubbish.” At the time it just made me want to get better because it came from a good place, criticism at its best is, of course, always constructive. With Derek he used to constantly remind me – “You’re writing a movie here, give it room,” or “Why do you insist on trying to wrap up every scene. You can’t do that. The movie will keep stopping and starting. It needs to have a rhythm.” “Why do you insist on trying to write funny lines at the end of a scene? It’s not a fucking sitcom.”

We wrote several drafts over the years. The most intimidating thing about it was Waugh himself. In any adaptation there are great sections of the movie that require complete invention, as the author might have covered a really important piece of action or plot in just a couple of sentences. This means you have to write dialogue that will sit alongside Waugh’s. Thankfully Derek was a past master at this and I soon grew in confidence and contributed more and more myself. Derek had a great ear for the dialogue of that period. He had always been a great admirer of Waugh’s work and had, in fact met, him as a cub reporter for the Brighton Evening Argus when he interviewed him.

To put in context Derek’s faith and belief in me, a twenty four year old with one unproduced movie script under his belt, I had tried writing elsewhere at Granada, without success. I had left university with a law degree and so thought “Crown Court” might be somewhere I could ply my nascent trade. I walked up to Howard Baker’s office and introduced myself to a man who was completely taken aback by my apparent cheek at asking of I could write a test script off. The answer was a very firm, conservative, ”don’t be ridiculous rebuff,” and that was that. Undeterred I then persuaded the late great Bill Podmore to let me and a friend from uni, Mark Wheatley (who went on to write EastEnders), to write a script from an existing storyline. It was never going to be used – a writer was already ploughing away through it – but it was great fun and I think we did a pretty good job. Bill was very complimentary but, as we were both twenty two, at the time he said we were too young. I stood my ground and said that there were lots of characters younger than me in the Street and how could the older writers write for them? We lost a good humoured argument and I look back and think he was probably right. He did go on to commission me and Rick Maher to write two sit com pilots for him a couple of years later. (The better of the two was called “The Train Now Leaving” set in the buffet car of the Manchester – London Intercity train. There was a guard called Shakespeare who entertained the passengers over the intercom, based on a real guard who did exactly that on that line, but was never seen. It was deemed to be too technically difficult to shoot with the windows and travelling background.)

So Derek, well both Derek’s had taken a great leap of faith with me. It’s weird to look back and remember that back then we wrote in longhand which I then typed onto a portable Olivetti typewriter, which we then photocopied. When it came to editing the script, which we did I don’t know how many times, we had to cut and paste. Literally. An innocent button on a computer these days but then we actually did it with a pair of scissors and giant Pritt stick, then pasted the strips into a scrapbook. Finally when it was ready it would go to a company called “Scripts” who would type it up properly and put it into a folder. This was where everyone in London went in those days. Every great British movie of the previous few decades had gone through that small office, typed and collated into their distinctive covers with a window on the front so you could see the title and the author’s name.

We went through countless drafts and numerous Pritt sticks before it was made. I used to drive a bright yellow Renault 4 in those days – a kind of tin on wheels. One Friday Friday night in Brighton I had to leave because we were giving a party in my flat in London. Derek asked for a lift to Stenyng where he was going to have dinner and stay over with Laurence Olivier. Could I give him a lift? It was annoyingly out of my way, and meant I’d be late in London, but of course I agreed. When we got there, I stopped the car and waited for him to get out. “Aren’t you coming in?” he said in disbelief. “No,” I replied, I’m giving a party in London and I’m late.” “You’re not going to come in and meet the greatest living actor in Britain, if not the world?” So I found myself going in and being introduced to the great man. After ten minutes of being there Olivier turned to me and said “I’m so glad you’re staying for dinner. How delightful. You’ve quite made my day.” I didn’t know what to do. Derek smiled mischievously and I called London. Luckily most of my friends coming to dinner were budding actors and would-be writers and directors whose response was “Are you kidding? Of course you have to stay!” And so I did. The three of us had dinner and in the middle of it Olivier talked about the St. James’ theatre in King Street, St James. I made the mistake of saying I hadn’t known there was a theatre there. Olivier looked at Derek and said, “What did the boy say?” Derek told him, at which point the great actor slowly lowered his knife and fork onto this plate and said quietly, “I thought he did.” He then launched into a speech about how there had, indeed, been a theatre there which “I and my wife, Vivien Leigh, ran successfully for many years.” He talked about working with Orson Welles and Rattigan there. It was absolutely wonderful.

There was a week in 1988 that was a really big one for me. I directed my first Coronation Street – the storyline was Hilda Ogden’s departure – and visited the set of A Handful of Dust at Carltons Towers, the stately home of the Duke of Norfolk in Yorkshire. I was so happy, just directed my first Corrie and here I was on the set of my first produced movie. Charles was keen between set ups to know how my Corrie had gone, he himself having been a director on it years before. At the end of a tiring day – not for me them – Derek and Charles sat down to discuss a scheduling problem for the next week. I went to make my goodbyes but Charles asked if I could stay. The problem was the following Tuesday they had the local hunt, fifty people, horse and hounds, booked to film. But they also had to shoot one of the most difficult scenes of the movie – the death of the young boy. They started talking about the second unit which was to do the hunt and a short scene with Anjelica Huston. The location manager volunteered to take the second unit and was completely ignored by Charles. They started to talk about other directors they could try and get hold of, but Charles needed them there tomorrow to do a recce. Then he suddenly turned to me and said “What are you doing on Wednesday?” I laughed thinking he was joking but he said “I’m serious. What are you doing?” Well I was editing of course. So I managed to get hold of Jules Burns, even though it was a weekend, and asked if I could do it. He spoke to David Plowright and they gave permission as long as I didn’t take any credit. We recce’d the next day with me frantically taking notes – I think it’s more stressful directing something for someone else’s film than your own. Went back to Manchester, did some editing and then returned to observe the shoot on the Tuesday morning. As I approached the front of the house the hunt, which I would be shooting the following day, filled the forecourt. Derek was running around corralling extras, as he always did, like a manic third assistant director on amphetamines, and Charles was sitting high up on a crane. It was a fabulous sight. Then Charles saw me and shouted “Tim, take over the ‘B’ camera!’ What? I thought I was just there to observe. So I went over to the second camera and the first came over and briefed me as to what Charles wanted. I had the most terrific two days. On day two as I looked through the viewfinder at the hunt coursing through a field I remarked to the cameraman that I thought they looked a bit small. “It’s a movie Tim. It’s going to be in the cinema,” he said with just a touch of cascading condescension.

Later that day I had a scene with Anjelica Huston. Well when I say a scene I think it was two lines. I was as nervous as hell. The total pro that she was, she sensed this in a nanosecond and came over, put her arm round me and said to everyone “How lucky am I to have the actual writer of this movie directing me today?” I, of course, was immediately smitten.

One of the problems with Handful was the end. The part in South America. It was a problem in the novel. It’s like a different chunk. But Charles had come up with the idea of starting the movie at the waterfall in Venezuala to give it some symmetry. There is a great piece of sound editing and design at the beginning of the movie. A bird is calling in the jungle, a loud urgent call and this becomes a pheasant’s call as the camera comes from behind a bush to reveal Carlton Towers. A piece of sound editing I think David Lean would’ve been proud of.

But there was a sequence I’d written that I’d never been happy with. It was basically a montage in South America, to move the narrative and geography on. Charles had shot it beautifully but I still felt it clunked a bit when I saw it. This was when I got my first lesson in movies soundtracks. George Fenton was doing the score for the film and I went to a recording session at Abbey Road. The session was due to start at 9 and to my dismay the first sequence that was cued up was the dreaded montage. At three minutes to nine the orchestra were all assembled and ready, but no composer and no music. Not a good start I thought. Then George burst through the door of the control room, in jeans and a rugby shirt, followed by a stressed and harassed looking assistant and ran downstairs. The scores were handed out. George tapped his baton and they started. I couldn’t believe it. These musicians had never seen this music before and it poured out of them effortlessly. After a couple of rehearsals they recorded it and it was wonderful. Fenton had given the montage a subtextual narrative that made it fully justify its place in the movie. It was so overwhelming, a couple of tears trickled down my face. Everyone else was being completely business like, so I quickly wiped them away before anyone noticed. But it went from one of my least liked parts of the movie to one of my favourites. It’s so easy to forget that movies may start with a script but in the end they are so much more than that. They really are the sum of all their parts. Movie making, at its best, has to be one of the most collaborative artforms in the world.

It remains to be said that I will be forever grateful to Derek (both in fact) for giving me this chance when it must’ve made more sense than it did to me (and certainly more than it did to Howard Baker). We went on to write Where Angels Fear to Tread, which Charles also directed, and some other projects that didn’t see the light of day. Derek is, to this day, one of my closest friends, loved by Rachel and my girls. He’s extraordinary and is 100 years old next April, still as bright and curious as ever, keeping his head down during this crisis so that this time next year we can hopefully celebrate his 100th birthday.

The Cross Chronicles

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A new patient in an old people’s home accuses a resident with dementia of murdering his father sixty years earlier. Is he right or is it a case of mistaken identity?