Friday, September 10, 2021

I’m Just the Guy Who Says Action, by Alvin Rakoff

At the end of this fascinating, moving memoir, the TV and film director Alvin Rakoff recalls a final conversation with his dying wife, the actress Jacqueline Hill. She wanted him to tell her about the holidays they’d enjoyed, such as exploring Spain and Portugal in a dilapidated old car.

“The past, as I said, is a sunshine memory. I ranted on. Embellishing certain characters, exaggerating minor problems, emphasising funny moments, trying hard to remain focused on storytelling.” (p. 170)

The implication, surely, is that much of the rest of the book has been gilded. And yet the thing that strikes me is how packed it is with telling, honest detail. It’s largely about the production of a live TV drama, Requiem For A Heavyweight, in 1957, and Rakoff giving Sean Connery his first leading role (with a small role for Michael Caine, too). The play, he says, is now lost to the ether: a scratchy audio recording of most of it survives, as well as some photographs and the camera script full of Rakoff’s notes on how it should be staged and framed. YouTube also has the original, US version - directed by Ralph Nelson and with Jack Palance in the lead role.  

But the book is less an effort to recreate the lost production as to share a vivid sense of the thrill and terror of making it, what it cost Rakoff and his leading lady and then-girlfriend Hill emotionally, and - for all its success - the uncertain time that followed. How extraordinary the commissioning process seems today. Roughly every eight weeks, Rakoff would be summoned to see Michael Barry, “HDTel” or Head of Drama for the BBC’s sole TV station. Even the description of Barry’s office is striking:

“Curtains forever drawn. One dim bulb from a desk lamp, the only source of light. Presumably so he could more readily monitor the output from the nearby studios, relayed through the dark-wooded set in the corner. He himself wore his customary alpaca jacket over armband-hitched shirt sleeves. Complete, of course, with a tie.” (p. 151)

“He would give me a broadcast date. Nothing more. And as I would leave his office he always added, ‘A comedy would be good. A comedy would fit well into the schedule. See if you can find a comedy.’ Neither I nor any of his other subordinates managed to find many comedies. I would go away. Find a play. Buy it. Print it. Cast it. Involve a designer. Consult make-up, hair, wardrobe. Rehearse. Work out a camera script. … Then into the studios for broadcast. Live. Collapse with crew and cast for a few drinks after the show. The next day I would be back in Michael’s office and he would praise what I had done - usually - or tell me - a rarity - if he hadn’t liked it. … The meeting would again end with him telling me the date of my next commitment. And as I got to the door, the inevitable phrase came, ‘See if you can find a comedy.’ The routine was cyclical.” (p. 34)

Then, after Requiem, when Rakoff is too exhausted to commit immediately to the next production, Barry treats it as betrayal and pretty much casts him adrift - at least, for a time. Rakoff picks up with the noted film producer Michael Balcon, who seems to wield just as extraordinary power and hold just as powerful grudges.

There are plenty of insights into the mechanics of making TV at the time - the cameras, the politics, the personalities to be juggled, the impact of that work. For example, he notes how Look Back in Anger revolutionised British theatre when it was first staged by the Royal Court in 1956.

“A revolution, incidentally, started by television writers who were the first to show more interest in ‘the man on the Clapham bus’ than the ladies’ tea party at the vicarage.” (p. 111)

We follow the production of Requiem through casting and rehearsals, into Studio D at Lime Grove Studios, where there was so little space that one set had to be constructed around the moving actors as the play was broadcast live. Tension mounts as rehearsal after rehearsal fails to get this trick shot right, just one of a hundred stresses to contend with - the account of the live performance makes exhilarating reading. But it’s the details that make it so vivid: the etiquette of getting rounds in for the crew in the British Prince pub down the road, or of Connery bringing his then girlfriend to sit in on rehearsals, of Rakoff and Hill keeping emotionally distant while working together, of the crisis in their relationship.

It’s often very honest - about their sex life and about other people’s bad behaviour - and there’s an edge to some of the humour, Rakoff and Hill finding a couple of incidents comic that I felt more disturbing. But then perhaps that’s the gilding. When Rakoff is comforting his very ill wife with tales of that perfect 11-week holiday in 1960, she makes a typically insightful remark.

“Only poor people can afford [such] long holidays … Nobody wanted us back here.” (p. 170.)

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