Monday, 28 April 2014

The Man Who Sold The World

Every time I have a new book out, I am always asked if I have a favourite passage and what is it. This is my favourite excerpt from my biography of Benedict Cumberbatch, it comes from the latter stages of the final chapter, The Man Who Sold The World (named after the working title of The Fifth Estate) - and if you love Sherlock, then hopefully you will enjoy this...

On a stormy and bleak New Year’s Day in 2014, Benedict was back on the small screen for the third series of Sherlock after a two-year absence. The new episodes completely outshone any previous episodes and the series became the most watched non Doctor Who drama on British television since 2002. It knocked the ratings for Call the Midwife and Hayley’s departure from Coronation Street for six, with more than nine million people tuning into watch it on the night, and another three million watching it on catch-up TV. No previous episode could match that. It was another four million up from the last series opener A Scandal in Belgravia. Everyone was thrilled. ‘When we began Sherlock, and it was an instant hit, we thought it couldn’t get better,’ raved producer Sue Vertue. ‘But each series has outdone the last and this is our biggest rating yet. Trying to believe this is really happening is a job in itself!’

Unsurprisingly, the first episode was the most anticipated episode in the history of the entire programme. It had been two years since Sherlock had apparently leapt to his death in The Reichenbach Fall at the end of series two, and then showed up at his own graveside to catch Watson and Mrs Hudson grieving for the man who had changed both their lives. Now, two years on, it seemed everyone in the world wanted to know how he survived the jump. The producers were so keen to keep the secret that pages explaining how he pulled off his vanishing trick were blanked out in some copies of the script to protect any leaks. This is not surprising when you consider that, whilst still in pre-production, The Empty Hearse was said to have 13 different possibilities to explain Sherlock’s survival, although only three would actually end up in the show. We had TV illusionist Derren Brown putting Watson under his spell for the few crucial moments that allowed Sherlock’s helpers to position Moriarty’s body on the pavement in Sherlock’s place as Sherlock burst through a dow where mortuary registrar Molly Hooper stood waiting, Moriarty and Holmes faking the whole thing in order to get rid of Watson and finally, Mycroft and Shelock’s network of homeless individuals faking Sherlock’s death to save his friends.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also witnessed Sherlock being interrogated in a room in Serbia, getting rescued by brother Mycroft, winging his way back to London to prevent a terrorist attack, being reunited with a livid Watson and meeting Watson’s bride-to-be, Mary Morstan, played by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner Amanda Abbington. It was, raved most critics, a triumphant return for the most charismatic and fun character on British television. As Sheryl Garrett pointed out in her January 2014 article in the Telegraph, filming the episode was not without its problems. It was a grey, rainy day in April 2013, when Benedict climbed on to the roof of Barts Hospital in London, and jumped off. He had done this before, of course, two years before. Even the red phone box outside the hospital was still covered in tributes, mourning his character’s fictitious death. Between takes, Benedict had an umbrella to stop him getting too wet in case it ruined the shot, which resulted in a string of predictable ‘Sherlock Poppins’ headlines when the photo appeared in the tabloids the next day.

The constant scrutiny took its toll on Benedict. ‘It means you can have a lot less fun on location,’ confirms Benedict. ‘Before, I might have pretended to swim while I was hanging up there, or played about more between takes, but now you’re very aware that you’re always being watched.’ Normally at a shoot like this, there will be a few bystanders, people who happen to walk by and are curious to see what is going on but, wrote Garrett, ‘the second day at Barts is gloriously sunny, and as well as the paparazzi, there are about 300 fans making a day of it, standing behind crash barriers and watching avidly.’ This was despite the fact that, for much of the time, the most interesting thing to see was crew members hosing down pavements so that they would appear to be as wet as they did the day before. According to Garrett, the crowed were ‘too far back to hear any dialogue, but this still feels like street theatre” and when Darren Brown appeared, there was “an audible intake of breath.’

Of course, pictures of all of this appeared almost immediately on social media sites, along with the usual speculation about what their significance was. Sue Vertue had the job of monitoring the fans and asking them not to give anything away. For the most part, says Vertue, ‘they’re terribly charming and polite and self-policing.’ Amongst the fans, there were groups from China, the US and Japan who had timed their visits to London to match the shooting schedule for Sherlock. Once again, the third series was as short and sweet as the first and second with just three episodes. But perhaps that is the secret success of the show, to limit viewers to just three episodes per series. The second of the 90-minute episodes, The Sign of Three, was quite different to past episodes and took the show off in a completely new direction. Even if it wasn’t regarded as the strongest story of the series, it was an ideal opportunity to mix comedy with drama around the centrepiece of John and Mary’s wedding and to move away from the usual open and shut case that viewers had come to expect. While this one didn’t follow-up on the brief glimpse of new baddie Charles Augustus Magnussen at the end of The Empty Hearse, viewers were treated to some superb character pieces with the focus clearly on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, setting up what promised to be a grand finale.

While Sherlock doesn’t understand the significance of marriage, he is supportive, and determined to be an exemplary best man. There is no plotting to sabotage proceedings despite the fact that a longing glance at Watson’s empty chair in their Baker Street flat tells us all we need to know about how he feels. The wedding itself is skipped over entirely and we see no shenanigans, lost rings or unexpected problems which threaten to derail the proceedings. The episode did away with any and all the familiar wedding cliches, although we do get to enjoy a closer look at how Sherlock went about ensuring that nothing went wrong by threatening an ex and bribing a child with pictures of dead bodies! As Neela Debnath noted in her review in the Independent that January, ‘The Sign of Three was packed to the rafters with wit and comedy. There was plenty to leave viewers howling with laughter, mainly thanks to Sherlock’s general apathy towards humankind, which despite his revulsion to any sort of sentiment or nostalgia, his best man speech was, at times, quite touching as he revealed just how much John means to him.’ Certainly, continued, Debnath, ‘This is the most we have seen the pair express their feelings for one another, usually they are too busy saving the day to let something as trivial as emotion get in the way.’

The final episode of the series, His Last Vow, was seen in the UK on the same weekend that the news had started to be dominated by stories of wretched weather and the misery that was beginning to be inflicted across the country by the torrential downpour of rain and resulting floods. Although it didn’t quite pull in the same number of viewers as the first two episodes, it did become the most tweeted about single episode on Twitter, and even if it should have been just what the doctor ordered to cheer the nation up on a wet and windy Sunday evening, many thought the show had lost its way and had strayed too far from its original formula. As some correctly noted, viewers should not have to concentrate too hard to enjoy Sherlock.

To others though, The Last Vow, was in many ways, the best episode of Sherlock so far, as it offered a greater insight into Sherlock and Watson than ever before. According to a review in the Mirror, if anything, the episode focussed on the relationships between its characters and even introduced us to Sherlock’s parents, played by Benedict’s real-life mum and dad. ‘With some amazing visual sequences, a number of clever twists, a truly detestable villain and a strong story, [that led Sherlock into a long conflict with the Napoleon of blackmail, and the one man he truly hates], Sherlock continues to show why it is simply one of the greatest TV shows of all time.’ In one of those twists, after the end credits had finished rolling, viewers were treated to an extraordinary hallucinatory scene in which a video message is being played over again on every TV screen across the country. ‘Did you miss me?’ asks a straight-jacketed Moriarty as if announcing his return from the grave. It was the perfect climatic surprise to end the series with, and an equally perfect reminder, that yes, Sherlock would be back.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

My Story of the Essoldo

Because I dedicated my biography of screen hardman Ray Wintsone to my childhood mentor, Nellie Mercer, of the Essoldo Cinema in Tunbridge Wells, I often get asked about it and why and how she instilled in me a true love and affection for film and cinema. I first met Nellie when I was about 13 and had popped into the Essoldo on my way home from school one afternoon to try and get a lobby card from the film that was coming to the theatre the following week - Elvis's Girls! Girls! Girls! The poster and lobby cards were already on display in the foyer, and it was when I was about to slip one of the lobby cards out of its frame that a disgruntled voice from behind me asked me what I was doing! That voice was Nellie!

Although she appeared somewhat grumpy at first, when I told her I was an Elvis fan and had come to look at the posters and lobby cards, her  fierceness quickly disappeared. She was standing on the left hand side of the foyer by the door to the room where she kept most of her cleaning equipment along with dozens of quad posters, lobby cards and other film promotional materials. It was like stepping into an Aladdin's cave of cinema treasures. Nellie, probably in her sixties at that time, looked liked you would expect a cleaning lady to look, with a typical patterned overall and a head scarf that was common for the period. At the time I had no idea that we would become good friends, and would remain so for the next four years until I moved with my family south to Glynde. In the years that I dropped into see Nellie at the cinema after school, usually 3 times a week, she would give me an array posters, press campaign books, hanging cards (that advertised the week's film) and dozens of lobby cards, all of which were usually meant to be returned to the exhibitors offices after the film had finished its run, and whereas some did go back, a lot of them ended up in my private collection. Almost every week she gave me a handful of lobby cards and quad posters to take home. She also gave me her weekly complimentary staff ticket so I could go and see the movie that was showing that week as long as she considered it was a film suitable for me to see.

On other occasions, we went to the restaurant above the cinema, which in the days before we moved to Tunbridge Wells, when the cinema was a Ritz, was the Florida Restaurant - where David Bowie's parents were said to have met each other - and where Nellie invariably treated me to a milkshake during her coffee break. In my day, it was simply known as the Essoldo Restaurant, and was open from 10am to 8pm for morning coffee, luncheon, tea or supper every day except Sunday. It was decorated with framed giant sized publicity pictures of movie stars, including one of Elvis, which Nellie said she would one day get for me, and although she never did, she gave me loads of other goodies that I never dreamed of having. She was such a generous, sweet lady, who simply wanted me to have and enjoy the thing I loved most, which at that time, was anything to do with movies, cinema and Elvis! Our conversations were mostly about films and cinemas, and how things, even then, had changed over the last decade. I discovered and learnt so much about the history of cinema, movies and movie stars - old and new. Nellie always told me how each film, every week, was doing at the box-office and how cinemagoers were reacting to them. It really was my education, more so than anything I was meant to be learning at school. It was an incredible way to spend three after-school afternoons each week, and an incredible way to grow up, albeit briefly for four years or so, during my teen years.

There was such a different atmosphere about going to the movies in the 60s. My most memorable recollections are when Elvis's Kid Galahad and the third James Bond film Goldfinger were showing. We had to queue for both films before the doors opened, and the line stretched halfway down the distance of Mount Pleasant towards the railway station. Once inside the cinema, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. We sat through the black-and-white B-Film, British Movietone News, the Pearl & Dean adverts, the trailer for next week's film and an intermission before we got to the main features. For Elvis, there was the usual hysteria of teenage girls yelling, screaming and applauding every time he was on screen, and for Goldfinger, it was so popular, the cinema crammed in as many people as they could, and even allowed people to sit in the aisles, which would be unheard of today, and probably be considered a health and safety hazard.

Prices of admission ranged from 1/9d and 2/6d for a seat in the stalls to 3/6d in the circle upstairs, which today is equivalent to about 17p! I can't remember if we thought that was expensive at the  time, we probably did, but compared to going to see a movie today, we got a lot more for our money back then; two movies, cartoons, Movietone News and sexy looking girls selling ice creams in the intermission. I remember choc ices were always a popular choice! The Essoldo held about 1600 people, had four projectionists, a restaurant, a stunningly polished foyer and was described as one of the most luxurious cinemas in Kent. The films were usually shown for just one week with continuous performances but for the epic movies like Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra, there were two separate performances daily, and it would usually end up with an extended run of two weeks. In those days, of course, we didn't give it much thought, it was just the best cinema in town we went to for an afternoon or evening at the pictures. For me it became the place that still holds some of my fondest memories of my teenage years, and growing up in Tunbridge Wells, not only for the films I was fortunate enough to see, but also for being privy to some of the things that went on  behind-the-scenes of running a cinema, and of course, the fabulous posters and lobby cards I collected from my friendship with Nellie. I can't remember exactly what happened to them all, or how they got lost, but I am guessing they probably got left behind when we moved to Sussex.

The Essoldo also became notorious for the pop shows that visited the town. Stars like Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and Joe Brown all appeared on the stage for one night only when the live shows replaced the film. It was also where Dusty Springfield gave her debut performance when she went solo after leaving The Springfields. Usually there were two performances at 6.20 and 8.30pm and the ticket prices were a great deal more than the regular price for films. I saw a great number of classic films at the cinema, which without Nellie's kindness of giving me her ticket each week, I would not have seen. And of course, I never missed an Elvis film, which were hugely popular in those days, right up to Harem Holiday in 1966, which was the last of the Elvis movies I saw at the Essoldo, after that, when the Elvis films started to lose their popularity, they were relegated to the other cinema in the town, the Opera House, which was nowhere near as luxurious as the Essoldo. Today the Opera House is a Wetherspoons eatery, and the building that once housed the original Essoldo auditorium, where I sat in the dark with so many others, to share and experience the magic of film and cinema, is sadly nothing more than a derelict and much vandalised site that still awaits demolition.