A Flash of Blessed

With a loud 'Halloo!' coming from the far end of the Portakabin, you knew when Brian Blessed was in.   This was during the summer of 1979, when I was sewing for Flash Gordon at Shepperton Studios.   Burnt out after working night and day making tutus and sylphides (sylph-eeds) for Jean Lamprell in Covent Garden, I had left and almost - almost - taken a 9 to 5 job in Accounts for the Rotary Society.  

The cliff-edge to ordinariness had not been reached by a narrow margine.  It was only on my way out after a successful interview that I had seen the girls I would actually work with in Accounts, where an accusing look had been thrown in my direction which said: 'Who do you think you are?'   "A theatrical costumier..." my mind gulped back, and so I had backed out of it.  

And somehow, here I was, Working In Films, working for Dino de Laurentis.  This turned out to be the exact opposite of working for Jean Lamprell.  For a start, there was nothing to do.  Four machinists (myself among them) marked time by sewing together three metre-square pieces of heavy-duty backing scrim.  Day after day.  Soulless activity, but at twice the money I had been getting before, I did not mind so much.  I was sorry the Italians in charge of the department could not speak English, so I could not tell them I was used to making six historical costumes all at the same time, nor, due to the lack of work, could I prove my worth.

Every so often a short stubby man would appear at the near end of the Portacabin for a discussion with those Italians in charge; ribbons of Italian would flow across the room, accompanied by wild gesticulations.  Then short stubby would storm out.  It turned out short stubby was the main designer;  the Italians in charge were asking him for costume designs - which he had no intention of doing yet as he was designing the sets. 

This, the Italian, method of making films was to allow it to evolve.  Not, as you might think, to plan well in advance. During our lunch breaks, freed from the druggery of sewing scrim, there were pleasures to be had as we wandered about the studios and saw the sets being built.  In the special effects studios we saw the immaculate details of the model landscape - a train-set enthusiast's dream - which was to be used for the crash scene at the beginning. 

The staff canteen was interesting: extras from another film came in wearing full Victorian costume to line up for sausage and chips.  They were the snootiest people on the lot.  I was told that extras always are - something to do with still needing to prove themselves. 

The voice of experience said that that nicest people were those at the top: "Margot Fonteyn? an absolute sweetie darling, you'd never meet anyone nicer".   I don't know if this is always true; but having seen a few actors arrive for fittings - hmmm...  Back at Jean Lamprell'swe knew Christopher Lee was a sweetie, but... where is Oliver Tobias now?  He co-starred with Lee in 'Arabian Adventure' (1979), but had inconsiderately turned up for a fitting not wearing any underwear.  He could have asked the limo driver to stop off at M&S to buy some.  He was not a sweetie.

 Brian Blessed though, he was a sweetie, a really lovely man who had a huge generosity of spirit.  He turned up to be fitted for not very much.  A week or so after I had started at Shepperton a slight man had arrived at the opposite end of the portacabin from the Italians in Charge.  There he had proceeded to set up his gadgets and go about his business without any fuss whatsoever,  using hissing steam to shape felt into all sorts of headwear, and make leather into all sorts of other necessary, yet flimsy items. 

I mean, they seemed to be made of nothing much, yet Brian needed fittings in order to wear them.  To compound my incredulity that this artistry was happening, seemingly all by itself, the hatter - for so he must have been - told me he left his home to come out to Shepperton every morning at 5 am.   Leaving home at this jaw-droppingly early hour he did not mind at all.  

And Brian did look good in the creations made for him.  It seemed as if London had a lot of talent in making costumes.

Slowly costumes designs arrived,  and with them arrived more people to sew them.  I still had very little to do! Sue, an underwear expert arrived.  She was blond and tubby, the proud owner of a Ford Capri.  In the end her expertise was much needed, as there was a lot of 'underwear' to be made.  In the happy-go-lucky way of Italian film making, they made underwear for one Dale (Flash Gordon's girl), then changed their minds and brought in another.  I'm not even sure that they didn't change Flash himself.  

There certainly were a lot of changes.  Instead of a 'U' certificate, the film was to be an 'X' certificate.   This required the underwear to be more revealing.   But that was not a good idea for audience sales was it?  Realising their mistake, the Italians changed their mind yet again: it would be a 'PG'.  So new underwear had to be made yet again.

I am not sure what I did sew in the end.  It seemed to be an interminable wait for instructions.  As the months went on I came to be known as the little earth mother, as I was expecting my first baby.   Somehow in honour of this we used some scraps of red fur from the giant costumes to make teddy bears.  I remember the actors moaning about the heat and the weight of the giant costumes, which we could not do much about.

One afternoon I thought it would be interesting to watch some the filming, to see some of the action.  But it wasn't. Interesting.  A small army of people stood around with plenty of equipment seemingly doing nothing, waiting for something to happen.  This went on for some time. 

So now you know what it is like to do filming, let me take you from Shepperton Studios in 1979 to Elstree in 1981 or so; from Flash Gordon to Star Wars via Brian Blessed, who remembers Sebastian Shaw with much fondness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5x-ZQVOEeXM




Parallel Lives Part 1: What do you do with round face?

Born on the same day as Carrie Fisher, Isobel Montgomery Campbell considers her parallel life.  

It must have been in 1978 that Richard and I came out of the Putney Gaumont with our heads reeling.  We had finally been to see Star Wars, and it was just as everyone had said –there was nothing else like it. The speed of the action was breath-taking, the realism of the world Lucas had created was entirely convincing, we had been propelled into a different universe.

And in amongst it all, I was relieved to find that in this different universe, the Girl was good. I approved of her.  Up until then, let us remember, the girl in action films was usually some helpless sex symbol, handicapped by high heels or tight clothing – but this one was an equal member of the gang.  On the whole her clothes were practical, and instead of high heels she wore action boots.  And this was important, because Star Wars was –and possibly still is– the biggest film ever made. Which meant that the equality of the sexes it portrayed was equally ground-breaking. And part of that equality was portrayed in the humour.  The girl’s feisty repartee showed she was relaxed and on top of her game, even when stuck in a garbage masher.

Then at some point I chanced upon Carrie’s date of birth in a magazine, which I was intrigued to find was the same as mine.

Now I’m not one to believe in astrology, but there are a few similarities between us.
The first one: when Carrie talked on the The Ellen DeGeneres Show about her face having big round cheeks, I immediately identify with that. My father had laughingly said I had a round face, just like an apple. I hated my cheeks! Which contributed to a deep sense of self-loathing Carrie seemed to have too. It took me many years to stop believing this – I was fortunate to have a husband who kept telling me I was beautiful.  But really it was only when Catherine Zeta Jones came along with the same face that I believed him.  

Where do we look for a sense of self-worth? Far too often it is in the images that surround us. I now believe that it is what is in your head, not what is on it, that makes you beautiful.  

Sebastian, writing about seeing Dame Edith Evans act for the first time says “I was convinced that I had seen not only a great comedy actress, but a dazzlingly beautiful woman.  I never wavered in the first of these convictions, but not even her greatest admirers would claim she was beautiful. The fact is, in face and figure, she was what the Americans would call homely.  A great actress has the skill –the genius– to present herself as she wants the audience to see her.”   

Isn’t that the secret –the same old same old: your beauty comes from within.

Now my cousins say to me: “I have those cheek-bones!” the very ones I was so ashamed of in my youth. Yet when Sebastian had them, they were so handsome.


Launch Day Today!

Well, it's three years to the day since I first set eyes on the manuscript of Sebastian's memoirs, visiting his nephew Geoffrey.  I was intrigued to hear that they existed at all, as I was curious about my famous actor cousin.  I took the fat wad of paper home, and next day began to read them.

Pretty soon that soft 'on edge' feeling I have when looking over unpublished work (usually unpublished poetry) disappeared, and I could relax and enjoy the tale!  This is the sign of good art: when the thing stands alone and it doesn't matter who made it.  Poem, photo, book, sculpture - the thing must be worth more than person who made it.  There was no coy "Aw, these memoirs are by my cousin-who-was-in-Star-Wars, let's publish them!"  sort of thing - Goodness, spare me from gooey sentiment like that!  The problem was, though, that the manuscript (this one at least) ended with the first air raid of World War 2.   Expressing my disappointment to Geoffrey, he said he did think he had something else.   The something else turned out to be an untyped manuscript, in Sebastian's own shaky handwriting. This led up to 1943 or so.   Another treasure, but not The Main Thing.

However, I had the idea that we could complete Sebastian's life story from the other direction as it were, and I wrote off to people I know he knew to ask for their own memories of him.   Very quickly Sir Ben Kingsley responded.  I am truely touched by this, and SBK has been very supportive - turns out he and Sebastian were good friends back in the day.

Slowly more and more people came forward with their memories of Sebastian, and his greatest fan, Susanna Kolar got in touch.  Her research into Sebastian over the last 20 years laid the foundation for The List of Appearances.  And I located Sebastian's own memory of being Darth/Anakin, taken from an interview published in the now defunct 'Starlog Magazine'. The project was a go-er!

Now it is a beautiful book for you to enjoy: lots of behind the scenes as readers meet a grumpy WH Auden, Sebastian as a smooth Othello, a wistful hero, beautiful young man.   

And I hope you do, or have, enjoyed it.    At least his record is 'out there' now.   Any time anyone posts a comment on a Star Wars fan site, the proof of his suitability -  and why he was chosen for the role - is now in the public domain.  He led an interesting life, not one I entirely agree with to be honest, but we are all the richer for having met him.   As it happens he really was - for me and for many others - a father for those of us who needed one.  





Up the Creek with Amazon

Well, here I am paddling my own canoe in the book-publishing world, and somewhere along the flow of waters I find I'm up the creek with Amazon.

Amazon - I use it all the time! even though there is some guilt attached when I do, as cheap prices mean cheap wages.  

Now I find this cheap pricing affects me. Should I list my book with Amazon? Turns out if I do, they decide how much they'll pay me for it.  And having worked out their ratio, I can see that that is not a price that covers my costs.

But, heaving a sigh, I decide to continue paddling.  I'll go with Amazon. I start to fill in their online form.  On page one I make a bad decision: I say I am a Business (as I am to the Tax Man). Next thing I know, Amazon want to know how many staff do I employ?  How many hundreds of books do I sell a month? This is not where I want to be.  Zero and zero at the moment. I start back paddling: Back Back. Back Back.  No good, the page just keeps reloading, missing the page where I made the bad decision, insisting that I must be a business and that I must tell them all my businessy stuff.

I heave another sigh. Okay, I'll be a business.  I'll go and find my Unique Tax Reference.  I'll Go And Search for It, just to please you, Amazon.  I find it. I'll fill that box with my UTR numbers.  But Amazon, or whatever is Amazon, won't have it.  Nasty red rejecty 'not verified' words appear next to the numbers. 

I ask for help.  I am variously helped ('Greetings from Amazon!') by Julian, Althea and others whose writing style makes me suspicious.  I think they are robots.  The commune with each other and tell me to contact 'seller-verification'.  I contact Seller Verification.  They reply that they understand my problem, but in order to resolve it, I need to contact 'seller-verification'.   I continue on this loop for a Whole Day.

I am surely up the creek with Amazon. I decide to do without it.  I pick up my canoe and head off into the jungle of Selling the Book on my Own.  

Which is why you will not find Sebastian Shaw, Memoirs and Recollections, available on Amazon.