Monday, 20 September 2010


In this special feature we recall TP's involvement in one of the finest British pictures of the 1960s, The Charge of the Light Brigade - an epic telling of the infamous loss of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War.  As TP recalls, it all began with a phone call.

The Offer:  A Call from Woodfall

"I was filming an 'Armchair Theatre' play for ABC in London when I was called from the set to take a call from my agent.  He'd just got a message from Woodfall Films ['Charge of the Light Brigade' producers].  Could I leave for Turkey in a few days time."

Most actors impulse when such a call comes in would be to say a ready 'yes', but for TP there was a whole string of obstacles in the way.

"I was to record an O'Casey commentary for a documentary film the next morning and the following week I was to begin work in the lead part in a new play by Maggie Ross called 'The Cupboard' for the BBC.

"My agent told me that the BBC would release me from the play if they could find a satisfactory replacement:  but he also told me I must be prepared to give up the BBC contract before seeing the Woodfall script.

"So I had to ask him to summarise the script over the telephone. 

"I must have spent ages trying to decide, because the director asked me where the hell I'd been."

The Part:  W.H. Russell, War Correspondent

W.H. Russell
TP was to play the only civilian in the film, W.H. Russell, based on the ‘Times‘ reporter who came to be regarded as the first war correspondent.   It would be his eyewitness reports that would break the news of the loss of the Light Brigade to disbelieving readers in England some weeks later.

The part had been originally cast with the playwright, John Osborne who had written the film’s original screenplay, but there then followed a dispute with a new script being written by Charles Wood and Osborne quitting the film.

TP as Russell
This is how TP came to get the part.  He'd made a strong impression earlier in the year in Joseph Strick’s film of Ulysses and it was evident in his performance as Buck Mulligan that this was an actor who could hold the camera.

As he said at the time, “This film is an opportunity I cannot afford to turn down, but it means that I’ll be away from my wife and children for three months and I’m not over the moon about that."

Researching the Part: Looking for Russell

TP was also determined to know as much as he could about the WH Russell and the background of the times: "[It] ... involved a huge amount of reading.  Russell's reports were responsible for changing the whole structure of the British army.  I also made a point of reading about the history and politics of Turkey in that era and its' revolution.  You become educated in a strange sort  of way in the theatre and in films."
An Excerpt from Russell's Times despatch on the loss of the Light Brigade 
The Crimean War was the first to be photographed and images such as this 8th Hussar's cook house (below) by the pioneering photographer, Roger Fenton, were examined intensively by the design and costume departments to ensure the higest degree of authenticity.

The birth of war photography.  Roger Fenton
captures a meal time for the 8th Hussars

The Location: Turkey

A film about the Crimean War set in Turkey? Some mistake, surely!

In 1967 the Crimea was well behind the iron curtain and much of the actual ‘Valley of Death’ where the charge of the Light Brigade took place was now part of a large Russian military base. So, the search was on for an alternative location with scouting trips booked to Greece, Istanbul and Ankara. Even before a frame was shot £35,000 had been spent on reccies alone.

Finally, Ted Marshall, the film’s art director checked out two villages just outside of Ankara, Pacenek and Saraycik, and it was there that he found the perfect ‘Valley of Death’. ‘It was dramatic, beautiful and workable. It was ideal’, said Marshall and, what’s more, it got the thumbs up from the ever demanding Tony Richardson.

‘Ideal’ as the Valley appeared, it was in fact a swamp, and it would take 350 workers and three miles of pipeline to drain the valley over a period of six months.

Then there was the logistical nightmare of negotiating with 750 landowners for the use of their valley. Not to mention the crisis just prior to filming when they discovered they’d missed out on one farmer whose small patch of land lay right in the middle of the valley. He held out for a nerve wracking three weeks before agreeing a price.

As TP told the Irish Press’s Des Hickey before leaving for Turkey, “Working in these places is like being in a war. You get up at six in the morning. They drive you 50 or 60 miles to a location. Then you probably spend the day sitting in a tent!”

The Director: Tony Richardson

Richardson checks a set-up
Even after a remove of over forty years, TP still talks with awe when remembering Tony Richardson: 

"Working with Richardson was such a rewarding experience.  Here was a man responsible for more than 3,000 personnel, but he was meticulous in every detail.  For instance, he examined over ten hats and period waistcoats before he finally decided the ones I would wear.  I was taken aback when he said to me seriously one day - I'll be held personally responsible if the film does not gross twelve million dollars."

The Leading Players: Gielgud, Howard & Andrews

The 'Charge' cast was led by what could only fairly be described as lions of the British acting profession with Sir John Gielgud as Lord Raglan, Harry Andrews as Lord Lucan and Trevord Howard as Lord Cardigan. 

Together they richly evinced all the foibles of the ruling class at war from Gielgud's almost surreal doughtiness and incompetence to the brutality and masochism of Howard's Cardigan, endlessly feuding with his despised brother-in-law, Lord Lucan (Harry Andrews).

The following series of portraits was taken on location by Marvin Lichtner for a feature in The Observer Magazine.

Harry Andrews (Lord Lucan) / Trevor Howard (Lord Cardigan)

Lord Cardigan: "Lucan, you are a stewstick ... Why don't you draw your horse from around your ears. 
Bring your head out of its arse."
Lord Lucan:  "Fetch off."

John Gielgud (Lord Raglan)

"Young ladies should concern themselves with what is pretty.  England is pretty, babies are pretty .. some table linen can be very pretty."
David Hemmings as Capt. Nolan

Jill Bennett as Miss Fanny Duberly

Also Starring:  The Turkish Army

An advantage of the Turkish location was the availability of a well trained army with a fine cavalry.  Some 2,500 infantrymen were loaned by the government for their usual army pay of a few shillings a week, a packet of cigarettes and a pass to the Government brothel.  Woodfall in return agreed to fund the cost of a new barracks for the cavalry, a deal which would cost them doubly when the army threatened to walk off the film unless they got a new barracks too.

A total of 3,500 uniforms and 1,000 civilian costumes were
produced for the film over a period of two years including specially
commissioned buttons made in Rome

From Fenton to the present day.  Costumed Turkish
soldiers are  transported to the location

A Cardboard Army:
These cutouts replicated a force of 2,000 russian infantry men populating the distant sides of the valley.

In Charge of the Charge:
Bob Simmons

The action scenes for the cavalry charges were co-ordinated by Bob Simmons who also worked on the action scenes for all of the Bond movies.  This was an epic job which amongst other tasks  involved training 100 horses and riders to fall at full galop, a further 60 to jump over firing canon and 30 to limp with bodies on their back for the aftermath of the charge.  He was also responsible for drilling the entire cavalry force of 600 to march and charge in formation.  As Simmons ryely observed when interviewed on location: "It's a lot easier to train horses than some of those bastards that pass themselves off as actors."

Lessons in the Park:  Hopefully he wasn't including TP who had already done his groundwork:  "My agent had told me some time ago that if I got this part I should probably have to do a lot of horse-riding. How right he was.  As soon as I opened the script I saw 'Nolan and Russell turn their horses around and ride away.'  Fortunately, I had decided on the precaution of taking riding lessons in the Phoenix Park.”

Watching the Charge: TP was able to watch the filming of the main charge sequence: "I watched the Charge of the cavalry spellbound and intensely moved. It is magnificently spectacular and the climax very pathetic as the British cavalry are shot down by the Russians on either side of the valley."

Postcard from Ankara:  TP Writes Home:

TP took time to send a postcard to his sister, Imelda, which provides a nice, snapshot of his time on location. He refers also to his wife May who was shortly to join him in Turkey. 

"You probably know I’m out here on a film … the pressure of work has eased off and I’m enjoying myself hugely. Turkey is very beautiful and the climate is pleasant just now (80 degrees). There are some very pleasing actors including Sir John Gielgud who is very witty indeed. May is coming to Istanbul in the beginning of July and I will be in London in the middle of that. I hope you keep well. Love, TP.”

A charming portrait of Sir John Gielgud
taken by TP during a break from filming
New Friends:  Charge of the Light Brigade introduced TP to actor Peter Bowles who would become a firm friend over forty years.  TP pictured him and his wife Sue on a beach visit (below).

Peter Bowles then turns the camera on TP.

Thursday, 3 June 2010


Photo: Mike Jones (   
The building pictured above has all the appeal of a local government office in Staines.  However, for many years it was a keenly anticipated destination for TP whenever he was appearing in a BBC drama ... the Television Rehearsal Rooms at Acton.  But, let's just rewind the clock briefly ...

Draughty Scout Huts and Drill Halls ... 

When the BBC commissioned Television Centre in the late 50s the designers and engineers came up with probably the finest, bespoke production and studio facility ever built; but, crammed as it was with studios, workshops, production and design departments, no one had thought to include rehearsal space for the actors and artists for the programmes that were to me made there.  

For much of the 60s, then, rehearsals took place in draughty scout huts and drill halls, dotted all across London.
TA Drill Hall

Many of these belonged to the Territorial Army but when that organisation embarked on a major closure programme, the BBC realised it faced a chronic shortage of suitable venues and needed a permanent fix for a looming problem.

The 'Acton Hilton' ...

The result was the leasing of the Television Rehearsal Rooms at Acton, just a couple of miles away from TV Centre.  Completed and opened in 1970, it featured 18 rehearsal rooms across seven floors and included Green Rooms and a large, top-floor canteen. 

Rising far above any other buidings in its  locale, it soon became known amongst BBC staff as the 'Acton Hilton'.

Like a Magic-Box

As a dedicated facility the Rehearsal Rooms were very popular with actors, directors and production staff alike.  While outside there was a bleak, urban sprawl, inside, it was like an amazing magic-box with a kaleidoscope of sit-coms, variety specials and major dramas being marked out, rehearsed and tech'd to an exacting standard.

"A spring in his step ... "

TP in rehearsal at Acton
Now, TP always took the rehearsal process very seriously.  Simply put, he couldn't get enough of it and would always arrive punctually, with a spring in his step and keen to begin the day's work.  Until lunchtime, that is.

"Let's Break for Lunch ... "

That's when everyone percolated to the top of the building, to the large canteen and there TP would find himself in the lunch queue, with perhaps Arthur Lowe in front of him, or Ronnie Barker behind.

There'd always be plenty of repartee ringing around the room as old pals hailed one another, exchanged gossip and  indulged in bringing each other down to size.

Indeed, it was a wholly democratic environment; an entire trade at lunch with household names, jobbing actors, directors, PAs and floor staff all sat at the same tables.

"You've always been a big fan of mine ..." 

TP would often by surprised by some of the people who would  approach him in the canteen, revealing themselves as admirers, particularly from the world of Variety where
The Liver Birds:
Polly James & Nerys Hughes
posing for a publicity shot
outside the Acton Rehearsal Rooms
they seemed to regard 'legitimate' actors with a certain degree of awe. 
One such 'fan' who often stopped to chat was Ernie Wise, though luckily he never seemed to have TP in mind for one of his plays 'wot I wrote'.

Emperor's New Clothes ...

Looking back,  TP always recalls the Acton years as the happiest of times: working at the 'Beeb' and working with the best.  However,  by the 1990s, and with the success of initiatives such as Channel Four's film arm, a death knell was sounding for BBC TV Drama and new strands such as Screen One and Screen Two began replacing studio-based productions.

These were all-film affairs.  Shot on location and, rarely, with any dedicated rehearsal period.  Consequently, the Rehearsal Rooms were becoming redundant, a victim it might have been said of  'Emperor's new clothes'.  

Indeed, irony of ironies, the Acton Hilton would finish its days as a storage facility for all the costumes that had adorned many hours of classic TV drama, but were now deemed surplus to requirement. (Though years later once they'd been sold off, the BBC was hiring them back again at great cost for the likes of  Middlemarch and Sense & Sensibility.)

This curious, ungainly building is now no more having been demolished a few years ago, and yet it is remembered with great affection and mourned by all those who worked there.

The BBC Television Rehearsal Rooms, Acton


RELATED WEBSITES:    Mike Jones, a distinguished 'Beeb' veteran,  has created the ultimate tribute site dedicated to the BBC Rehearsal Rooms and much of the information used in this article has come from his site.  Also,  for all those with a curiosity in UK TV studios down the years this site is an absolute treasure trove.  As they used to say in the TV Times adverts, 'I never knew there was so much in it!'