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REGIME CHANGE, MAIGRET AND SHERLOCK HOLMES – CHAPTER 6

A change in the executive structure of either a film studio or a television company is something everyone in these industries has to deal with at some point or other. I feel I’ve had more than my fair share of them mid project. Three major ones along with a few minor ones thrown in for good measure. The problem is that the “out with the old in with the new” often extends to projects that are in development and, even worse, sometimes production. Of course if a new creative head is brought in, their role is to shake things up and improve the situation and so they should. But sometimes it is done for the sake of it. You can usually tell when it’s the latter because the excuses or reasons you are given are just, well, bullshit frankly.

I had come off Coronation Street and was asked by Steve Hawes, now head of drama – the first man I met in Manchester, before I became a researcher ten years before – to develop a TV series based on the Simenon novels featuring the great detective Jules Maigret and hopefully starring Michael Gambon. It was to start with a two hour TV movie which I was writing and directing. To say I was deliriously happy would be a gross understatement. Steve had commissioned a detective series from me before this, which we had shelved once he’d managed to acquire the rights to Maigret. No mean achievement in itself, as the Simenon estate had been famously guarded about them for decades. Another great detective had, in fact, been spawned from this notorious reluctance of theirs.

NBC wanted to acquire the rights to Maigret back in the late sixties, early seventies and were rebuffed again and again by the Simenon estate, no matter how much money they offered. So they backed off, but instead of finding something else they just reinvented Maigret and relocated him to California. And so Columbo, starring Peter Falk, was born. It’s a great series but the similarities are pretty blatant if you know what to look for. Columbo’s famous faux naivety and ignorance about things, which sucks suspects in and give themselves away is classic Maigret. As is his habit of forgetting a question at a crucial point in an investigation, then turning at the door, on his way out, to throw a devastating inquiry at the suspect who then knows the game is up. They wear the same kind of raincoat, except for the colour, and a trilby on occasion. Then just to give a nod to the French, Columbo drives a Peugeot.

I digress. Hawes had become something of a mentor to me and dispatched me to Boedeaux, which was going to stand in for fifties Paris. He sent the production designer Mike Grimes – who had designed and built the Sherlock Holmes Baker Street lot behind Granada’s bonded warehouse – out with me and we forged a great friendship. A good thirty years older than me Mike was a caring, compassionate, immensely talented, man who made it clear he would find whatever I wanted and do his best to achieve whatever I came up with creatively. We would make a memorable series together he assured me. He would drive round the city and the surrounding countryside (I still have a photograph of us together outside Chateau Margaux) every day while I typed away furiously in my hotel room – having got to grips with a French keyboard (no laptops then), who knew they were so different? We would meet for dinner in the evening (where he would insist on ordering his own food loudly in English with a faux French accent, claiming my French would just confuse the waiter) and discuss the day’s work, ideas, and future places for him to recce.

This went on for three weeks or so, when we got a call summoning us back to Manchester. Steve Hawes had been replaced as Head of drama. The new head had immediately cancelled Maigret. It was, of course, hugely disappointing (not least for the fact that we had had an invitation the following Sunday to go to lunch with Anthony Barton, the English owner of Chateau Leoville Barton. These lunches were world famous. Opulent and munificent, where Mr Barton would suddenly produce decades old vintages for the delectation of his guests. A once in a lifetime opportunity. The older me would’ve stayed and returned to Manchester a few days later, but they we go…)

The script was of course in no way ready for anyone others than Hawes to see it. It was a rough draft, or a working draft. However the new powers that be in London demanded that it be sent even though the show was no more. No amount of caveats work with people you don’t know. A week or so later I got a message from the new head which said that I had written a “radio play.” In terms of executive insults to writers this is right up there with the best of them. I was absolutely furious. It wasn’t just rude it was grotesquely unfair. It was being judged as a fully-fledged draft, not the beginnings of a work in progress.

But that was it. So in the matter of, I think, about twelve weeks I’d gone from being thrilled at the prospect setting up a series of Maigret in France for Granada – writing and directing some episodes and assembling a team of writers and directors to do the rest and playing with the idea of some form of a writers’ room like they had in the States – to the realisation that maybe the time had come to leave Manchester. I’d been there for nine fantastic years, hadn’t made any film drama, but I had one produced movie screenplay under my belt and another going into production. The plan was to try and go to the BBC and get work on East Enders and then forge a new career there.

Hawes and Grimes went on to make some French language Maigrets before Mike sadly died a few years later. Granada went on to make a series of Maigret three years later, as they still owned the rights, with Michael Gambon, ironically in the lead. I was invited to direct but when the new producer told me he saw it all in “pastel shades”, I declined. This was very different to my version with Hawes and Grimes, which was much grittier and truer to Simenon and all the better for it. I thought the Granada series was awful, an opinion I suppose wasn’t unique to me as it only lasted for two season despite the wealth of Simenon material. Comparing this to the success of their Sherlock tells you something. The tragedy was that they had the ideal casting in Gambon. My sadness at not having made our version was compounded by meeting Gambon, before the series was shot,, and him expressing his regret that I wasn’t involved. I’m convinced to this day that we would’ve made a series that would have succeeded as well as Sherlock. My sadness was resurrected decades later when ITV made their sorry version a few years ago with a miscast Rowan Atkinson.

So this was this was my first experience of a regime change and it has to be said they never got any easier with experience.

A few weeks later I was called in to see the new drama supremo, Sally Head. I had the advantage of other staff directors going in before me and their coming out saying that maybe there was no future for them, or indeed any of us, in the new set up. I wasn’t in the best frame of mind anyway after Maigret had been booted into touch. I’d been kicking my heels for weeks and was coming to the conclusion that, with the way TV seemed to be changing, there would soon be no room for staff drama directors anymore and that we’d all have to go freelance sooner or later. For me it was a matter of sooner. I’d had some interest manifested in me by other companies. Humphrey Barclay had wanted me to direct Thompson for him at the BBC, a comedy series with Emma Thompson and others. But it would have meant leaving Granada without, at that stage, any film drama under my belt. I was also wary of going into comedy too soon as I felt you became easily categorised in the TV industry – “Oh he does, Light Entertainment, she does soaps. She does crime drama” – before I’d managed to direct any drama. (It’s the same in movies as a director or screenwriter. You are apparently whatever genre your last project was. It’s amazing for such a creative industry how unimaginative so many people in it are.)

Anyway I met Sally in what was a fairly frosty meeting, very polite, but cool. I told her that I wasn’t going to be a problem for her. I’d decided to leave and go to the BBC. If she could give me any help in that regard – she had come from the BBC – I’d be immensely grateful. She said she would. We talked about TV drama in general and then she said that she wasn’t really sure that staff drama directors had any place in the world any more. Well I couldn’t disagree with her on that. So we left it there, with her asking me to pop into the office next door and talk to a producer called Matthew Bird. He was setting up a new film comedy series located in Spain in the autumn, called El Cid, and could really use some advice on crewing with Granada crews as he didn’t know anyone. I met with Matthew and we discussed various people and crewing possibilities. He seemed, and it turned out was, a really nice man. We were about to finish when Sally poked her head round the door and said, “I think Tim should direct the final two episodes.”

I worked with her for a few years and we came to have a grudging mutual respect, if not like for each other. (She once described me as the most arrogant director she’d ever worked with, which I felt was one, untrue, and two – she’d worked with Philip Savile FFS.) I directed Sherlock Holmes under her aegis and, while we were waiting for my movie Jack and Sarah to be greenlit, she offered me the third Prime Suspect and the second set of episodes of the first series of Cracker after Michael Winterbottom had directed the first. Neither of which I was able to do because the movie was always “just about to happen”. With hindsight, of course, I could definitely have fitted them in in. It’s an enormous regret on my part. Again the older me would have found a way to make it work.

But I did work with Jeremy Brett and hurrah for that. What a remarkable, at times barking, talent he was. I directed two episodes in the series The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes – a miracle in that John Madden had used almost all the film stock allocated for the entire series in his first episode – and a two hour TV movie, The LastVampyre. My only regret is that our ideas for the series were slightly ahead of technology at the time. To simulate the POV of a woman falling down a mountain side we carved a hole in a polystyrene ball, put in what was called a zap camera and chucked it over. It didn’t really work, but we intercut some of it. Same for a POV of an ape swinging through a tree. This was done with a man on ropes with a helmet camera. Again not convincing but we’d done our best. With the latest cranes, gimbals, mounts, tiny cameras and CGI these days I think it would’ve been markedly better.

Jeremy was a delightful handful. He had been doing the series for some time by then and had really made the part his own. But he wasn’t a well man by this stage. Indeed for the last film we had to rehearse some of it in the Lister hospital, Jeremy, Edward Hardwicke and I. Thanks to Jeremy we had a generous filming schedule, which we needed. The thing about Jeremy was that his daring, his pushing the boundaries of the character to the absolute edge, was what made it such a wonderful portrayal. (How he never won a BAFTA for it, let alone ever be nominated is beyond me. I think there was a snobbery then about actors in series like this, which was only changed once John Thaw won for Morse.)

But this daring could, more often than not, go completely off the scale and his performance would be in danger of becoming well over the top. However if you curtailed these instincts, Jeremy would rein it back obediently, and you would never get these glances of mad genius which made him so extraordinary in the role. So to stop him was a complete mistake in my view. It was a trade off. The only challenge was that his enthusiasm and conviction that he was undeniably right in these moments of craziness, was such that you had to be on your mettle to counter argue with equal conviction and enthusiasm and win. But when he had an idea that you wanted to run with his excitement in your acceptance was positively childlike.

My first real experience of this conundrum was when we were filming the episode The Illustrious Client with Anthony Valentine playing the villain, Baron Gruner. An aristocrat who was in the habit of marrying implausibly young, rich, women, then murdering them and going off with the cash. I was still getting to know JB at this point and was a little terrified of him, to be honest. There was a scene where they confronted each other for the first time. Now it has to be said that Valentine had embraced the “madder, more insane and wacky the idea the better” philosophy and had decided to compete with, or at least encourage Jeremy to go as far as he could. It was a contest Valentine could never win it has to be said. Anyway as Jeremy entered the drawing room in rehearsal and began his three or four pages of dialogue with Anthony, he saw a pair of fencing swords mounted on the wall above the door in a V. ‘There’s too much dialogue!’ he suddenly announced. ‘I agree’ proclaimed Valentine. ‘Alright,’ I said grabbing my script, ‘let’s make some cuts.’ ‘No!’ boomed Jeremy, ‘I have an idea!’, ‘Excellent!’ said Valentine, ‘let’s have it!’. Jeremy then walked theatrically to the door underneath the two swords and said, ‘When I come in, I grab the two swords off the wall, throw one to the Baron and the we do the entire scene en garde, sword tip to sword tip, circling each other like birds of prey about to strike, with the occasional sparring blow as we talk.’ All the while he was miming this, arm outstretched. Then bloody Valentine gets up from his chair and mimes holding the sword opposite him. They circle each other with glaring intent, eyes glinting, and perform the entire scene. It’s right up there with the best village hall amateur dramatics you’ve ever seen. They finished, thrilled and delighted, and turned to me. Apart from the fact that the swords were ten feet off the ground and Jeremy would need a ladder to get them, it was a truly terrible idea. But I hadn’t a clue what to do or say. A rabbit in the headlights I just stared back at them, speechless, for a moment. Then I yelled ‘I LOVE it! I absolutely fucking love it. But I have an idea.’ ‘Yes?’ said Jeremy eagerly. Dramatic pause. ‘What if the swords… are invisible?’ I said. There was another moment’s pause as Jeremy stared at me, taking this in. I didn’t know which was this was going to go. He then spun on his heels and declared to everyone in the room ‘The boy’s a genius! A genius I tell you!’ He turned to Valentine to seek affirmation, ‘He is,’ he said ‘he is…!’

It may sound like a daft, ridiculous story but it was all about the handling of Jeremy. Indulging him, while at the as time being discreetly firm. Enabling him to be at his best and give us his brilliant Holmes.

I must mention Edward Hardwicke, who played Watson to Jeremy’s Holmes. He was a good natured, lovely actor who very much looked after Jeremy. His father was the famous actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke. When Edward was born his father was working in Hollywood. He bought a large leather bound sketch book and wherever he worked he’d ask whomever he was working with to write a piece of advice and sign it for his infant son. Edward brought it in to show me one day. It was quite magical. A real piece of Hollywood and theatrical history. Advice and autographs from Spencer Tracey, Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and Paul Robeson to name a few. But on one page there was a beautiful hand drawn coloured cartoon followed by some salient advice, signed by Walt Disney.

The last time Jeremy and I worked together he summoned me and Rachel, my wife, to the Midland Hotel in Manchester where he stayed, for Sunday lunch. Jeremy wasn’t drinking by this stage as it played havoc with his meds. He asked me what my favourite type of wine was. Claret, I replied. He promptly ordered a bottle of Chateau Margaux for Rachel and I. God knows how much it cost. He explained to R that it was a thank you, because I looked after him so well. When we were working he said, he felt safe (of course he said this to other directors, I’m sure, I’m just relating it as it happened to me.) I think in part this was to do with something that happened on the previous film.

Jeremy had made the long, complex, analytical speeches that Sherlock gave effortlessly, his own. These speeches could be really long. Pages of the stuff and at the beginning of the series, years before JB, could do them in practically one take. But not anymore. The power had faded. But of course the writers kept writing it because it was so good. I knew that some directors hadn’t worried so much in the past, when he began to falter, because they knew they could cut around it. But what I began to realise was that it really upset Jeremy on set, not being able to get through it. It was as if he felt he was letting everyone down. Which of course he wasn’t. It didn’t matter how many times you explained to him that you could cut round it, he felt you had to do it because he himself couldn’t do his job properly. It also meant that his performance was now filled with the wrong kind of anxiety. So I took him aside in his trailer one day and told him that I had come up with a new way I wanted to shoot the long speeches. I wanted to do them in sections so that I could change the lens and sometimes the angle. So if it was okay with him I’d like to break the speeches up. It was no longer necessary for him to try and do them in one take. I hoped that was okay as I knew how much he loved doing them that way and that it wouldn’t interrupt his flow. He leant forward, put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Thank you. You are a very, very sweet boy.’

He knew at once that it was nonsense but it had taken the pressure he was feeling in front of everyone on set, off him and relaxed him He was more confident. I think he found it reassuring that he could work in smaller sections and not be worried about mucking it all up. Every now and then, on a good day, he would complete the entire speech, even though there was no need to do so, then turn round and give me a little wink.

A few months before he died it was my birthday. We came home to find the answer machine on the phone almost entirely filled with his mellifluous, nicotine toned, soft r’d voice. Telling me what he was up to in Clapham and hoping I was having a marvellous day. It was funny and touching and then to cap it all he sang “Happy birthday” with complete gusto, as if in a concert hall to an audience of hundreds. It was wonderful and so funny. When it finished it was quickly followed by a second message that said “Oh, by the way darling boy, the last message was from Jeremy. Much love.” As if it could have been anyone else. It was the last time I heard from him.

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?