Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 169: Chocks away!

Ten years ago, in 2000, I was invited to accompany a friend to the premiere of the Australian movie My Mother Frank, a film that starred Sam Neil and Sinéad Cusack. At the opening night party that followed, I found myself abandoned by said friend, temporarily, and noticed an elderly woman nearby, in the same boat. Being the courteous young man that I am, I sidled up to the woman, recognising her as an actress who had played a small part in the film, and engaged her in conversation. What I’m about to tell you is exactly as I recall it.

I complimented the woman (who I guessed must have been in her seventies) on her role in the film and enquired politely, about other pieces that I might have seen her in. The actress in question mentioned a couple of things that I hadn’t heard of and then, cursorily dropped the tiniest of devices into the conversation that exploded the dialogue, for me. The woman mentioned - as she distractedly glanced around the the film people that surrounded us animatedly working the room - that she had had a small part in a film called The Dambusters. I think I nearly spat out the nineteenth morsel of sushi that I was enjoying.

I’m of the generation of Englishmen, that was raised in the 1960’s on black & white Sunday afternoon movies (on TV) that depict with great pomp, fanfare and Britishness, just exactly how we won The War; films like Reach for the Sky, 633 Squadron and In Which We Serve. The Dambusters was a veritable jewel in the crown of these heroic tales.

The Dambusters, made in 1955, tells of the RAF’s 617 Squadron and it’s bombing of the Ruhr dams (the Möhner, Eder and Sorpe, in industrial Germany), using the prototytpe “bouncing bomb” developed by scientist/engineer/inventor, Barnes Wallis. In the film, (Sir) Michael Redgrave plays the affable and retiring Barnes, whilst the devilishly handsome Richard Todd, channels Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The first two thirds of the film detail the never-say-die spirit of Wallis and Gibson to develop the “bouncing bombs”, when all others had given up on Wallis’s fanciful and far-fetched idea. The final stanza of the movie deals with the “never say die” courage of the young men of the Royal Air Force, who in their Lancaster bombers, flew a great distance into enemy territory to deliver their payloads.

The Dambusters is part of my DNA, as it is for probably any male of my vintage and of my homeland, and here I stood with an actress that had actually been a part of that iconic film. Not only that, as quickly as my newfound friend had “thrown away” this titbit of information, I was already scanning the film in my mind and could only come with one “speaking” female part of any real significance....that of Barnes Wallis’s wife. I almost stammered the words out to her and, she turned to me with a beady eye and smiled. I was tempted to climb onto a chair and call for attention, wanting to silence the whole room, to stop them from clamouring around the new young talents of the day and draw attention to the filmic greatness that was among us. Before I could perform such an action, my friend told me that it was time for her to go, she thanked me for the conversation, grateful that I’d rescued her and thanked me for the praise I’d given her. She shook my hand and was off into the night.

When I contemplated writing this piece this morning and the themes that I wanted to explore, I recalled those events of ten years ago and how I’ve dined off that serendipitous meeting, from time-to-time, and thought that I’d best research my facts and find the actress’s name for this article. Here’s what I discovered: the part of Mrs. Molly Wallis was played by Ursula Jeans, who died in 1973. Who had I been talking to?

Day #169 Tip: Never abandon your script
Somewhere in the writing of the screenplay proper, after five months of hard work have gone into the preparation, I get to a point where it all seems to difficult and I want to throw the whole thing up in the air and run away. It usually takes a phone call to someone who knows me well, to remind me that this is not an option, that I’m not playing Monopoly now (and losing) and that I owe it to myself and whoever I’m working with (paid or unpaid) to complete the task.

The Dambusters is inspiring for many reasons, not least of all, to me, for Barnes Wallis’s refusal to give up and give in, even when others were writing him off as a “crackpot”. Jimmy Stewart’s boffin’ish engineer character faces a similar test in the film, No Highway in the Sky (Nevil Shute wrote the original novel that has James Stewart’s character all chewed up about metal fatigue, and planes falling out of the sky, and everyone else concerned that Jimmy S’s character is going bonkers).

Half a mile from the finishing line is a place for “creative u-turns” (a phrase coined by Julia Cameron); that’s the time when I must remind myself of Barnes’s Wallis’s tenacity and self-belief.

I must add a coda to this piece. I was a different person ten years ago and not always “in command of my faculties” at such events; it could be that the actress in question told me that she was the housemaid (if there is one) in the Wallis household in the film??!! My retelling of the conversation of that night could be completely unreliable, and I hate to think that I have may have sullied an otherwise impeccable professional reputation because of the mists and fumes of time and because I “got it all wrong”.

Whether this is so or not, perhaps I’ll never know. It’s a great film, and anyway I look at it, it’s a fond recollection.

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