Thursday, 24 December 2015

My scrape with the Serious Fraud Office

I haven't picked up a paintbrush for many years, but there was a time when I used to have occasional exhibitions of large abstract works on glass, which I used to produce fairly prolifically. I'm not entirely clear (no pun intended) as to why I chose to paint on glass. But having experimented with the medium and various paints including household gloss, which I wouldn't recommend, I discovered a water based pigment that actually worked rather well and was easy to handle and manipulate on a glass canvas.

I shan't bore you with any more details about the paintings themselves other than to recount an incident, which I had completely forgotten about, but could easily have formed the basis for one of Franz Kafka's short stories. If memory serves me right, it all started when I had my very first exhibition at the magnificent Burgh House, a Grade I-listed pile situated in the heart of Hampstead.

In retrospect, the show was probably one of my most successful in terms of sales and publicity. And during the private view,  a tall and gaunt figure sidled up to me early on. He looked and sounded just like the fraudster by the name of Lord Melbury who once appeared in Fawlty Towers . "I rather like this piece, old boy," he remarked while gesticulating at one of the very few pieces that had employed household gloss. "Reminds me of the London Underground map," he added with a wry smile. The piece in question was very large, and was a little like an early Jackson Pollock on a white ground. The London Underground would have been one of the last things I'd have likened it to, but I wasn't complaining as this distinctly eccentric character pulled a cheque book from his top pocket and proceeded to write me a cheque. "I don't suppose you could deliver it to my office could you, old boy?" he asked. I was more than happy to oblige and enquired where that might be. "Oh, it's very central. I'm at the Serious Fraud Office."

I later offered to give him and his other half a lift home to their flat in Highgate. On dropping them off, he turned and poked his head back in the car. "Do come in for coffee old boy. I have something I'd like to show you." Thinking this might be a collection of Jackson Pollocks or maps of international underground networks, I turned off the engine and followed them in. On taking my seat, he presented me with a polished walnut box and removed the lid. Inside was some kind of shotgun or rifle broken down into several  parts. I was a little nonplussed, downed my coffee and took my leave.

A couple of weeks later I found myself delivering the painting to the Serious Fraud office on a Saturday. He showed me to his office in this rabbit warren of a building and I proceeded to hammer hooks into a distinctly flimsy partition wall to hang the painting. This completed, the call of nature took hold and I desperately needed to find a gents. What I hadn't quite realised was that the Serious Fraud Office is the last place on earth one should go exploring as certain areas are no go zones that house highly sensitive, confidential files. I was to discover this at my peril as on opening a pair of large double doors, I inadvertently set off alarm bells that quite literally reverberated around the entire building and within seconds several security guards were on the scene. So I had to explain that I wasn't in search of private paperwork so much as a  public convenience. It was,  I hasten to add, not one's finest moment.

The story doesn't end here though.  Some years later I was informed by an acquaintance that the tall eccentric chap who had bought my painting had disappeared off the face of the earth and was wanted by the Metropolitan Police. "What on earth for?"  I enquired.

"Fraud apparently.  I trust that cheque he paid you didn't bounce," he quipped. Strangely enough, it hadn't.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The trials and tribulations of making a short film

There I was in the bar of the Holiday Inn in Welbeck Street with my old partner in crime, John Mac (whose grandfather was the subject of one of my earlier posts - 'Bit of a Ladies' Man'), when the subject turned to my children's book (Sleeping with the Blackbirds), which I'd written some little while back.

John has boundless energy and is always looking to get involved in interesting projects, and it was his suggestion that I try and market the thing. I should explain here that the book was originally written for my kids and published by Penpress to raise money for the homeless charity Centrepoint. But following the publication and the drafting of a commercial participation agreement that released me from any tax liabilities, my wife became seriously ill and the book was put on the back burner and received precious little in the way of marketing.

As it happens, I had already written a script to promote the book that had featured a letter written by the tale's protagonist, 11-year-old schoolboy, Roy Nuttersley that appears at the beginning of the book. As an ungainly young boy who's being tormented by bullies, Roy writes to Amnesty International (only he refers to the charity as Amnesia International) pleading for their help.

I shared my script with John who loved the intrigue of it, but wasn't entirely convinced by all my visual thoughts, which were pretty static. "We just need something more visually dynamic," he said while scratching the top of his head.

In the letter narrated by Roy, we learn that his tormentor, Harry Hodges is the son of a criminal who is in prison, and it was this section of the script that excited John. "We have to find a prison to film in mate. Then we can move away from beautifully lit domestic still lifes and into atmospheric interiors with eery sound effects." I could see exactly where he was coming from and nodded in agreement. This was to be John's first valuable contribution.

His next visual idea concerned the very last scene in which Roy talks about offering his services free of charge for any future publicity. My original visual was a simple newspaper headline taken from the book. But John hated it - quite rightly. I didn't much care for it myself. He gave me one of his funny looks and I could tell he was deep in thought. "Look. It has to end with a dramatic crescendo - a flourish. I know... we can have a load of paparazzi shot against a black background firing off flashes in quick succession followed by a dramatic shot of a newspaper falling onto paving stones in slow motion." The thing with John is that he makes it all seem so easy. But he hadn't quite finished. "And to finish the whole thing, why don't we have a flock of animated blackbirds flying across the screen, forming a black background out of which we could reverse out some nice reviews?"

Most conversations of this nature would probably have just ended here. After all, the logistics of producing a short film like this to John's exacting standards would require a huge effort. But as with everything John throws himself into, he doesn't just do ideas; he carries them through. Within a couple of days he had produced an exquisite black and white storyboard that he had photographed himself and had arranged a meeting with his contacts at Hogarth Worldwide - London's premier post-production house. Needless to say, they loved it and were keen to produce it.

From this moment onwards the project began to take on a life of its own.

I found myself playing the roles of location scout, stylist and casting director, all rolled into one.

First off, we had to find the right voice for our eleven-year-old protagonist Roy Nuttersley. So at John's suggestion I ran an ad on the website Star Now, and set up an audition in the bar area of the Regents Park Holiday Inn. This is a perfect space for voice auditions as it's large, quiet and free. Ten parents answered the ad on behalf of their 11-year-old sons, along with one chap of 40 who was keen to audition for the part himself. Needless to say, we politely declined his offer but arranged to audition all the other candidates. We were very fortunate to have so many young actors to choose from, and by mid-day, we had pencilled two possible candidates, but following lunch this changed with the arrival of Jacob Tofts. His mother deliberately sat at another table so as not to distract her son, and Jacob took a quick look at the script and then proceeded to read it with such natural expression and feeling that John and I knew immediately that our quest was over. We'd found Roy Nuttersley. The following week we arranged to record Jacob at one of Hogarth's lovely sound studios. Jacob is not only very talented, but also utterly charming and personable. I have no doubt that this young lad has a very bright future ahead of him.

Finding a prison to film in isn't one of life's easiest tasks. John's initial idea was to use the prison set at Wimbledon Film Studios - the very same set that had been used by TV productions like The Bill. But we soon discovered that the studios had gone into liquidation in 2014 and that the film set had been torn down. So I looked into finding decommissioned prisons that one could hire out. But the trouble here was that these looked too modern for a suburban fantasy, were miles outside London and were also prohibitively expensive to hire. Most locations charge for the day; we only needed to film for a couple of hours. So it was with enormous relief that I stumbled upon Oxford Castle Unlocked, the 1,000 year old site that comprises various historic edifices including a crypt, and yes, a prison - or to be more precise, Prison D-Wing. The gaol was built in the 1800s and remained in use as a high security prison until 1996, and the whole site is now run as a museum. I was on the blower right away and discovered that we could film for an hour before the place opened to the general public. With these facts quickly established it was time to arrange our first recce.

As we thought, the prison with its corridors, creaky gates and Dickensian cells was absolutely perfect for our purposes. The only problem was that John was going to need a minimum of two hours to set up and shoot at least four sequences, so he took the manager aside and suggested we double the fee if the museum could double the filming time by opening up 2 hours earlier. It worked, and two weeks later we were back, this time with camera, lenses, lighting equipment and a fully kitted out prison guard in the form of one Philip Francis. Phil does a lot of film extra work and looked the part in his prison guard's uniform, which I had managed to secure from Foxtrot costumiers and ebay. While John positioned his camera and lighting for the first shot Phil told me about his previous jobs. Among other things he'd been a gardener and had lovingly tended the late Douglas Adams's garden.

With the central section of the film in the can, we now had to find props and a studio for all the other scenes. My first port of call would be The Stockyard in the less than salubrious NW10; an extraordinary Aladdin's Cave of a place. Whatever you need for your film production, you'll find it here, whether it's great big Grecian columns, Norman arches, statues, water mills, petrol pumps, bus stations - you name it. With the constant stream of vast articulated lorries coming and going and carrying off enormous quantities of props for some far-flung multi-million pound productions, I felt something of a fraud. After all, all I needed was a couple of antique book shelves, some old books and a few fake rubber flagstones. The lovely Reg who's been part of the place man and boy helped us find everything we needed and arranged for a couple of strapping lads to put it all in the back of my old jalopy of a car. Then I had to spend the best part of a week tracking down all our other props - everything from flooring and tablecloths to camping stoves, teddy bears and kettles - all of which had to look right in camera in black and white. This entailed trawling the internet where possible, but more often than not, traipsing round fabric suppliers, DIY warehouses and specialist shops.

The studio we chose to use was Photofusion in Brixton. It's a good space, and being Brixton, doesn't charge West End prices. It took John three full days to shoot most of our set-ups here, including the paparazzi, one of whom was yours truly minus spectacles.

The opening shot of the clock was shot in John's living room, and the final setup of the stack of newspapers falling onto the paving slabs was filmed in my garden at night. For authenticity, I mocked up the front page of the fictitious Echo that appears in the book and even went as far as setting the type for the editorial. John was keen to create a rain machine for this scene to add atmosphere, but as luck would have it, the heavens opened for real.  This, however, was very bad news indeed, and caused John to swear and curse profusely, as it meant he'd be unable to use his very expensive tungsten lighting, which would be open to the elements. The alternative was battery operated LED lighting, which was fine until John realised that he'd need some 'fill-in light' to highlight the side of the newspaper stack. After much further swearing and cursing I offered my mobile phone, which has a powerful LED torch. Surprisingly, it worked beautifully. While my son helped operate the Heath Robinson rain machine, I had the unenviable task of dropping the stack of newspapers onto the fake paving stones while being rained on by the rain machine as well as the real thing. I think we did about 30 takes, and my son had a lot of fun soaking his old man in the process.

With everything filmed, it was back to Hogarth to talk about music and sound effects. From my own experience of making commercials, music can often be something of a sticking point, but in this event, we got lucky from the outset. Andy the brilliant young sound engineer at Hogarth played us two tracks that he thought had the right feel. The first one was very good, but the second was absolutely perfect, and John very cleverly suggested building a ticking clock into the rhythm section to tie in with our opening scene.

A couple of days later, we were invited by Vee, Hogarth's senior editor to come and have a look at the first rough cut. Seeing this on the big screen for the first time was quite something, and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It worked really well, and little Jacob's voice sang out as clear as a bell, while both music and sound effects added just the right level of atmosphere and intrigue.

The animated blackbirds sequence was the last piece of the jigsaw, and as John rightly said when he had the idea in the first place, it would be "a beautiful and memorable way to finish the film."

It's mind-boggling how much work goes into producing a two minute film. But you know instinctively when it gives you goosebumps after the first viewing that you've done something right, and that all that hard work had been worth it.

View the film here:

Take a look at the website and hear Nigel Havers read an introduction and some extracts here.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Playing with words

"Malla what, mate?" would no doubt be the response from your average spotty teenager should you attempt to engage him in a conversation about malapropisms. Admittedly it's not one of the most attractive words in the English dictionary; and not one that does justice to such a comic slip of the tongue.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me elucidate: a malapropism according to the Oxford English Dictionary is the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound.

It just so happens that over the years I've heard my fair share of malapropisms, and I have to say that they nearly always make me smile.

My grandmother was something of a dab-hand in this department. She would inadvertently produce some absolute corkers on a whim, but the only ones I can recall now were those she'd use on a fairly regular basis. I can hear her now saying that she had had a particularly good night and had "slept like a toff." I'm not entirely sure how your average toff snoozes, but it used to conjure up all kinds of weird and wonderful images in my young head.

On having her small garden paved with crazy paving (as was the fashion back in the early 70s), she would proudly open her kitchen door and invite her guests to admire her "crazy pavement."

I also had an uncle who was a prolific exponent of the art. One of his most memorable verbal slips has gone down in family lore. For all the years I had known him, this particular uncle had always sported a toupée, and on one occasion was asked by an inquisitive work colleague how he managed to keep his hair piece in place. "Oh, it's very easy really," came my uncle's confident response, "I have a special fixative which I simply apply to my foreskin." I imagine that must have brought a few tears to his eyes.

Then, of course, there are those deliberately contrived malapropisms. Lillian Jacobs, my parents'  manic and highly eccentric neighbour should have been a professional stand-up comedian. She would deliberately and quite brilliantly construct her sentences with wonderfully ludicrous malopropisms and deliver them in an absurdly comic falsetto voice. I can almost hear her now: "Annette, I can't tell you how moved I was. I was overcome with emulsion." Like some of our most gifted comedians, she was also completely bonkers - harbouring a genuine and totally irrational fear of thunderstorms. At the merest hint of an impending storm, she would knock on our door and hide in our broom cupboard until the storm had passed; at which point we'd have to knock on the cupboard door to give her the all-clear.

In the 80s I was very fortunate to work for an advertising agency whose Creative Director was the verbally dexterous Ken Mullen. As the only advertising copywriter to be quoted in the Penguin Book of Modern Quotations, Ken is a master at creating ingenious malapropisms. On one occasion he described a rather verbose senior member of staff who was occasionally hired by the glitterati as an interior decorator, as the agency's "internal defecator." And on suffering a torturous meeting with two clients who weren't perhaps the sharpest knives in the drawer, he later described the experience as "stalling between two fools."*

* To be a tad anal, this particular line can be more accurately defined as a spoonerism where a pair of vowels or consonants are interchanged for comic effect.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 20 March 2015

The lost art of negative advertising

These days, all forms of communication seem not only to be governed by the rules of political correctness, but also by a total aversion to any form of negative sentiment.

Only a few days ago, a junior account handler came back from a client meeting with a request to remove the word 'but' from some copy I'd written, on the grounds that this was too negative a word. If one were to follow this strange form of logic through to its conclusion, I suspect you'd have to lose an awful lot of words from the English dictionary.

As a copywriter, I am staggered and pretty irritated by this fear of the negative. After all, some of the finest and most memorable ads ever written have conveyed negative messages. Can no-one remember those wonderful ads for Albany Life that graced our newspapers back in the day? Headlines like: 'Are you making plans for your wife's death?' And: 'Answer these ten questions
and work out the date of your own death.'

Then, of course, let's not forget the famous pregnant man created by Saatchi & Saatchi that carried the less than positive headline: 'Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?'

Negativity can, of course, also be charming and witty. Parker pens ran a lovely ad penned by Tony Brignull that encouraged the reader to: 'Rediscover the lost art of the insult.' The long copy cited examples of very witty insults and put-downs, and encouraged the reader to let rip with a Parker fountain pen. Besides being a joy to read, it sold a lot of pens.

But perhaps the most negative yet remarkably successful and cost-effective adverts ever penned in the history of advertising were written back in the 60s, not by a copywriter, but by the client himself.

Roy Brooks was an estate agent in the fashionable Kings Road, Chelsea. He was, by all accounts, a sardonic individual with a sharp tongue and a very distinct way with words. And he clearly loathed the kind of disingenuous classified ads that plastered the property pages. So to put matters straight and to stand out from the crowd, he penned his own classified ads. To give you a flavour of the kind of thing he'd bash out on his typewriter, here's one he wrote for a property in Pimlico:

Wanted: someone with taste, means and a stomach strong enough to buy this erstwhile house of ill-repute in Pimlico. It is untouched by the 20th century as far as conveniences for even the basic human decencies are concerned. Although it reeks of damp or worse, the plaster is coming off the walls and daylight peeps through a hole in the roof, it is still habitable judging by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bottles in one corner. Plenty of scope for the socially aspiring to express their decorative taste and get their abode in The Glossy, and nothing to stop them putting Westminster on their notepaper. Comprises 10 rather unpleasant rooms with slimy back yard, 4,650 Freehold. Tarted up, these houses make 15,000.

Besides being brutally frank, and not unamusing, the ad feels honest and undoubtedly appeals to that universal, deep-seated human instinct we all share of wanting to track down that elusive bargain.

The ad below is another wonderful example. I particularly like: '3 normal-sized bedrooms & a 4th for an undemanding dwarf lodger.' And: 'Nature has fought back in the garden - & won.'

So incredibly effective were Roy Brooks' classified ads that in time, even people like my father, who had no interest whatsoever in buying property, would turn to the property section of the Sunday Times just to read Roy's latest offering.

Roy Brooks himself became a multi-millionaire on the back of his successful classified ad campaign, and though he died over 30 years ago, his company still runs to this day. But alas, the property ads that appear on the comany's website are the run-of-the-mill variety, laden with the customary superlatives, and not a single negative adjective in sight. Enough to make poor Roy Brooks turn in his grave no doubt.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds