Ahead of its screening at BFI Southbank, Gareth Davies – director of many of Dennis Potter’s early television hits – recalls the challenges of bringing Son of Man to the screen on something close to a shoestring.
Dennis Potter‘s work will one day be critically reassessed and in that process I believe Son of Man will be judged a pretty shoddy production which did not serve the excellent script and cast.
It’s a platitude that critics can only judge what they see and should not concern themselves with the problems, technical and structural, that existed in the 1960s. An historical analysis, however, might usefully consider the factors that led to poor production values.
First of all no excuses, the main fault was mine. I knew that four days in Studio 1 would be inadequate to stage the production. I suggested that we delay the production until the arrival of Colour TV and try to assemble a coalition of European TV stations and shoot all the crowd scenes in a desert location with each station feeding in its own Jesus and disciples.
I was told not to be silly and to get on with mounting a studio production. Ironically Son of Man was later shown to the European Federation with several members regretting they could not afford to make their own production.
Decisions now had to be taken over the set design and this is where the errors of judgement started.
Having fantasised about shooting in a real desert I foolishly concurred with the idea of a realistic set in the studio. A desert would be constructed out of sandbags topped off with real sand which would double as Golgotha. The Sea of Galilee measured 8′ x 4′ which meant that when Brian Blessed as Peter cast his net he caught more cameramen than fish.
The cast was tiny for the Sermon on the Mount but large by the standards of the time and under constant financial pressure. ‘Mark, Luke, Thomas…..? Yes I know they’re the Disciples but do we really need 12?’
A miniature Jewish village square would be constructed inaccessible to studio cameras. To shoot these scenes I was permitted to dress 3 cameramen as Jewish peasants and equip them with small industrial cameras under their robes. These had never been permitted before and took a lot of bargaining.
I retreated into the security of doing what I knew best – working with Dennis and the actors to develop our understanding of the play and pretended that everything was going to be wonderful.
An anecdote:- The rehearsal room floor was covered in hundreds of yards of multi-coloured tape marking out the various sets. When the final rehearsal ended it was the job of two young floor assistants to pull up each inch of tape. This could easily take two hours and then they had to go to the studio to check their props.
We decided to make the final rehearsal a word run only, at speed and with no movement. Colin Blakely wandered the desert pulling up a few feet of tape. All the cast followed Jesus and by the end of the run the floor was completely cleared and the two floor assistants were in tears.
Without that sort of company spirit, led by Colin, I don’t think we would have survived the next four days as well as we did.
The morning of the first Studio day:- I was approached by a man who introduced himself as the Head of Engineering. He called me Gareth and asked was I watching the Test Match? After a few minutes of this bizarre conversation he suddenly said ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve decided you can’t have the hand held cameras. They’re not up to standard.’
Eventually I said that I would simply cut to black where every hand held shot had been planned and HoE stalked off. I got my cameras back but too late to rehearse with them and they were not successful.
Next I was approached by my Designer, white-faced. Permission to use sand in the Studio had been withdrawn as it interfered with the running wheels of the camera dollies. However, oatmeal had been ordered and would be spread over our sandbag desert as soon as possible.
Unfortunately whenever we turned the wind-machines on to make the desert seem bitterly cold, the air filled with flying oatmeal which stuck to the woollen robes of the cast. The wind had to be switched off, leading to one critic calling the production ‘Curiously airless’! He was right.
All these factors damaged the production but I can’t pretend that they were responsible for the massive overrun that occurred. We were simply overwhelmed. With a stop time of 10pm we finally managed to crucify Jesus at midnight. None of the Pontius Pilate scenes had been recorded.
Up to this point the BBC had frankly not been at its best, now it upped a gear and responded magnificently.
Starting with chaos at midnight, within the hour the actor’s contracts had been sorted, a programme evicted from the small studio where our Roman sets were standing unused. Gerald Savory put an arm around my shoulder, told me everything was going to be wonderful and to get some sleep.
The next morning in Studio 2 a duty Vision Mixer arrived, complete with her knitting, to find two half-naked boxers rehearsing killing one another with viciously spiked gloves. ‘I’ve come to do Jackanory’ she said. Not any more.
Everyone rallied and we finished but Dennis was not well served. My decisions on the style and design of the production were wrong although I’m still not sure what would have been the right approach. The last time I saw a recording it still had a boom in shot!
There are no villains in this tale. I imagine senior engineers believed they were correcting poor planning decisions made by their junior staff. Certainly wrong judgements were made by young programme makers swept on a tide of enthusiasm both for the play itself and for the sheer joy of walking into a big empty box and making magic.
For many of us a BBC Drama Studio was the real National Theatre, shorn of elitism and available from Land’s End to John o’Groats.
Reactions to the production were mixed. Rev Donald Soper was quoted as saying he wouldn’t watch because he knew what it would be like. The first of many telephone complainants to the BBC was disgusted that ‘…this man has hair on his body!’
A year later Graeme McDonald showed me a letter from the Mother Superior of a video-savvy Convent. They loved Son of Man so much, they had played it so often, that their 1 Inch Video reel to reel recording had worn out. Could they please buy a new copy?
How was Graeme to explain that the nun’s actions were illegal and that he should report them? The situation was resolved discreetly.
- The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-1994 is out now – it is the first book of its kind, an anthology dedicated to Dennis Potter’s extensive career as a journalist, collecting the best of his TV criticism, essays and non-fiction.The editors are Ian Greaves, David Rolinson and John Williams.
- BFI Southbank hosts a Son of Man screening and panel discussion on 2 June as part of its comprehensive Dennis Potter season.