A day in the like of a location manager


One of the most dramatic moments I have witnessed whilst filming a series called Dempsey and Makepeace was in Limehouse Basin, not looking at all like it does today. It had a swing bridge, where you could cause the most enormous traffic jam if you kept it open long enough and get mentioned on the local traffic news, which we did manage quite successfully so to do. But no that wasn’t the dramatic bit.
We were filming a sequence in which Richard Johnson, playing the baddy, goes off the rails and drives his Jaguar car into the dark and murky waters of the basin. After the initial shots of him driving and being chased by Dempsey, we came to the final sequence where the car plunges into the water.
The car had been rigged on a special ramp, which would fire it off into the water courtesy of the special effects team led by Tom Harris and the biggest rocket in the world. I can now freely confess that at the time I hated Tom with a passion. Over the three series the explosions, the bullet hits, the cars blowing up were all a giant learning curve for him as well as my fellow location managers and me. Something like five cameras were set up to cover the action at various points round the jetty and even one in a boat bobbing about on the water. As the tension mounted over the last shot of the day, as always yours truly was to be found near the catering wagon, telling them it was nearly all over and any second we would release them to go home.
The cameras rolled, a man yelled “action” in that over-dramatic way many first assistants often have: if you weren't worried or concerned before, you sure as hell were once that cry had gone up. There was a thud as the Jaguar car moved about a foot forward and then slumped back onto the ramp; then an almighty whoosh as what looked like an exocet missile flew out of the radiator, across the water, over the camera boat (where panic nearly broke out but the damn thing was moving so fast no-one had time to react until it had passed overhead), and splashed into the drink behind them. The caterer said, “I don't think they got that quite right” an understatement if ever I had heard one. Stunt arrangers rushed about, special effects people rushed about, the grown-ups couldn't rush about because most of them were in the boat. But they soon got back to shore and then joined everyone else and rushed about with the others.
From my remote but perfectly visioned position, I realised that they had only one go at the rocket business, which was now many feet down in the basin. The only other alternative to get the car into the water was to get another car and push the Jaguar at speed off the end of the jetty. To my horror I realised the stunt arranger, a wacky Yorkshire man called Roy Alon, was not going to do this but Tom himself. It had been his failure so he felt duty-bound to get the production the shot they wanted. I gazed in disbelief as Roy described to him in great detail what speed, what gear and more importantly when to brake, so that he didn't end up in the deep end as well as the dead Jaguar.
“My God!” I said to the caterer, “It's all gone horribly wrong and the special effects guy has a death wish.”
“Oh dear.”
“Oh dear indeed. You haven't got anything to drink have you?”
“Yes, yes we have, but only Gin, I'm afraid dear Malcolm.”
“That's fine, thank you.” I lit a cigar and bit my lip and watched as the two cars began their run up. Remember this was a long time before 'health & safety' was invented and bravado and the show must go on were the buzzwords that we worked by.
“Sorry, I don't seem to have anything to mix it with.”
“It doesn't matter. Just give me the bloody drink.”
“Neat Gin?”
“Yes, for Christ's sake, yes. Give me the bloody drink.” I hissed in a stage whisper after all they were running sound and as the cars began to pick up speed I took a huge slug of the clear liquid. The Jaguar plunged off the end of the jetty, not quite at the jaunty angle it would have flown at with the rocket up its arse, but not bad. The entire crew held their breath as Tom in his car screeched to a halt and stopped just before the lip of the jetty. I took another slug and breathed out slowly.
“Cut.” Yelled a voice. The customary round of applause followed and Roy galloped to the car and ruffled Tom’s hair, “Well done, old son. Well done."”
“Well that wasn't too bad was it?” said the caterer, “How long will it take them to get the car out of the water?”
“I've no idea, I'll let you know tomorrow.”
“More Gin?”
“No thanks,” I sighed, “For you, that's a wrap.”
Many years later, dear Tom who I eventually came to like and warm to, told me he had never been so shit-scared in all his life, but with eighty people stood round looking for a solution, he had had no alternative than to solve the problem his own mistake had created. Hero or fool? Answers on a postcard to....
Malcolm D Y Treen AIMC GLM

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