A wee dram with Steve Roberts (part 2)

It was on a drizzly Tuesday evening in May, that I popped up to ‘The British Grenadier’, a pub in leafy Colchester, to interview Steve Roberts, director of ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’ and creator of Max Headroom. I sat myself down at a table near the door with a pint of ale, a fag and a bloody great microphone, and waited.
A few minutes passed and Steve entered the pub in a damp raincoat, as he ordered a pint of Adnams I asked if he missed the British weather, surely it must be far nicer in Los Angeles, where he’s resided since 1986? Like all who’ve gone to sunnier climbs, he disagreed, stating that changeable weather was more interesting. Not an opinion I held, I grasped a list of questions, and rattled off the first.

Casting:
Suzy Figgis cast it. Getting hold of Trevor Howard was the first step, which was Strat’s function as Producer.
Trevor very generously said he would look at it, and we all had lunch, Viv, myself, Strat, Trevor and his agent.
Breathing anywhere near Vivian was a remarkable experience, having lunch with him when there was drink flying about was something else altogether.
Trevor just sat there, staring and chortling, he eventually said to Strat ‘There people are entirely insane, I must do this.’ and it was that simple, there was no cajoling.

So when you started out with the casting, was having Trevor like the perfect person to have on board as Sir Henry?
Yeah, and Viv liked the idea very much, because he worshipped Trevor anyway because he was one of the great and grand old actors and thought he’d be a perfect Sir Henry and couldn’t really believe that he’d do it.
There was an awful lot of smarts about Viv amongst the madness, as you’d anticipate, he was not just a raving idiot, he really got stuff and I think he thought we wouldn’t have a prayer of getting hold of Trevor and was absolutely delighted and charmed when trevor clearly took to Viv, in truth he really did.
Trevor called him the word that he reserved for people he truly liked which was ‘Sporting’, and if he called you that he was on your side, and that was Trevor.

Were there any other people that you had in mind if Trevor hadn’t been able to play the part?
There were back up ideas yes, but they were never really discussed beyond ‘Let’s talk to Trevor first, and then we’ll start to look somewhere else.’

Do you think he enjoyed sending up his image as a cinematic icon of his time?
Hugely, he absolutely loved it yes. Because he saw something very glorious in this and he knew exactly what Vivian was about. As trevor said, ‘If the man had had any discipline at all he could have been one of the great geniuses’ maybe he still is, but I think the lack of discipline was unfortunately what crucified him.
Trevor also played another similar role I think it was the year after in ‘The Missionary’ starring Michael Palin, where he was a similarly mad member of the lower aristocracy.
So perhaps he enjoyed sending up his image in later life, after all, he was no longer the kind of leading man he’d been in the forties.
Yes, he enjoyed it, so much so that he volunteered to do things that he wasn’t being asked to do, he was a grand old actor, I was scared shitless of dealing with Trevor because I thought ‘I’m going to get attitude all the way’ because established actors like that sometimes really do believe that they’ve done it all, but Trevor was never like that.
I was also warned by a great authority on this that Trevor would get pissed and fuck up, put him and Vivian together anywhere near a bottle and expect them to work and expect to work and make a movie, which is essentially an exercise in discipline, although I don’t want to use that word inappropriately, but you’ve got to go about what you’re doing or you’re dead. they thought that this would never work out, but the truth is that Trevor Howard never drank a drop when he was working, Vivian did but Trevor never, ever did and there was a particular occasion that I ‘broke’ the set because it was late, we were finished and just as I broke the set the First Assistant came up to me and said there’s one shot that we could do, it’s a cutaway and it would save and awful lot of time if we can knock it off now because it’s a night shot and here we are. But it’s of Trevor, and he was already heading off for make up to get out of his kit and go to the Pub, which is what we all did after we’d finished shooting. So I went across and just said ‘Trevor, there’s this situation, what do you think?’ and he said ‘Let’s do it now’, turned around and walked straight back and I didn’t even have to say ‘Is there any way I can persuade you?’, he just was up for it, spent another hour when he should have been finished and going home, actually shooting stuff late at night.
So he was very committed.

Sheila Reid played Great aunt Florrie as a much more away with the fairies than the persona in the radio sessions, how suitable a Florrie was she?
Of course she is away with the fairies in the original writing because when Slodden is talking about having some sort of spiritually religious event, she’s totally overwhelmed by this idea that they’ll have a seance of some sort, she’s written as that wispy, spiritual character.
Shelia read it exactly as it was written, that’s straight from Vivian, it was the way he saw her.
remember, when we were shooting Vivian was there, and when we were casting Vivian was there, in the casting session he was very clear that Sheila Reid was absolutely the right Florrie. There was a classic moment that Vivian fucked up so royally that it was evidence of his presence at the casting. Some rather well known lady actress came in who I shall conveniently forget the name of, and sat down there, casting is not all that easy to do when there’s someone across from you looking for work, anyway Vivian looked at her and after a pause he said ‘Do you think you could really get upset enough to cry?’ and she looked at him with these eyes, absolutely floored him and said ‘I’m an actress you silly fucker’ that’s the first time I’d seen him absolutely embarrassed because he realised he’d asked an inanely stupid question of a particularly professionally well-endowed woman who simply wasn’t going to sit there and be talked to like that, and what she said resounded around the room.
But he was there, he was always there and it was a part of our understanding, I’d always take Viv aside and say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ or he would take me aside and say ‘You’re not seriously going to go ahead with this are you?’ we would always talk it out, he was always very reasonable in those situations.
So Florrie as portrayed by Sheila Reid was absolutely what Vivian always wanted.

There seems to have been quite a coup for getting well renowned actors in the film, how did that come about?
They all read it and loved it, really straight forward. Nobody needed persuading, whether they could understand this or not, as a total concept didn’t matter. They simply knew that what was on the page was extraordinary and wanted to be part of it, so we didn’t have any problems at any level.

Had any of the cast heard of Sir Henry before?
Oh absolutely, a few of them had, Patrick Magee had and he was one of Viv’s great supporters, not publicly but he truly thought that he came from a great well of verbal genius, and Magee got that, personally.
They all knew what they were doing and why.

How much did the script and the plan have to change from it’s original form to become a suitable shooting script?
Not substantially, the compromises were not actually on the screen in a way, they were how we were able to shoot what we wanted to shoot, because we shot the whole thing in nineteen days, which certainly isn’t a world record but it’s very, very fast.
With a budget like that you don’t have time to mess about, so if it’s wrong you either get it right swiftly and lose something else or it stays wrong, and I’m talking about performance and stuff. But a time did come where we hit a time issue and had to dump about three pages of script and that was a bloody nightmare because we had to sew our way around it in the editing and it never really quite worked, there’s a great logical leap in the narrative structure which we just couldn’t do anything about, we didn’t have the money to shoot it any other way.

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