By Tom Parkinson
‘How the hell did you get involved in that’ is a line I am often thrown when I try to make sense of the ups and downs of my career. It is never as simple as in the story books. Sometimes involvement in a production can start with a passing remark, a chance meeting, a need for money, a career advancement, but it has to start with an idea about which everyone says ‘that’s a great idea’.
It also has to have a team who have had partial success in the area you are working in. Success enough to make the idea ‘bankable’. When I tell friends that I produced one of the 20th century great theatrical moments, the Jack MacGowran one-man performance of the Samuel Beckett written and directed Beginning to End, they always as one ask, ‘How the hell did you get involved in that?’
Well it was convoluted.
I was working on a documentary feature on the great racehorse Nijinsky. It was winter so there was a hiatus as Nijinsky would be nibbling away under Vincent O’Brien’s care in Tipperary. Needing to pay my Christmas excesses I swung back to the worldly reality of script polishing with a parcel arriving the next day from Tony Tenser containing an expected but delayed Roman Polanski script for A Day at the Beach.
I read the script that weekend. It was extremely hard work, thoroughly unpleasant, with possibly the most unsympathetic downbeat lead character in modern literature: a sour, failed alcoholic intellectual, made more harrowing by his mistreatment of his young crippled daughter on their rain-sodden day trip to the beach. And when the script decides, for some unknown reason, to make this nasty bit of work sympathetic, the narrative falls apart. The only redeeming feature was that it had not one iota of romance.
Tenser’s office at that time was on the first floor of an ageing building situated on the corner of Meard and Wardour Street opposite the freelance film technician’s work pub ‘The Intrepid Fox’. Upon entering it was obvious that Tony’s office décor was not there to impress, neither was it particularly practical. It did, however have the advantage that everyone visiting would bump into everyone else visiting, which gave a pleasant atmosphere of bonhomie. Also it was possible to listen in to most of the conversations mainly encouraged by Tony’s ability to speak normally at the kind of decibel levels used by people seeking help as they are about to be murdered.
So I sat down in a corridor which was a make-do foyer and found myself next to the great Irish actor Jack MacGowran and his wife Aileen. Jack and I had met a few times previously mainly on Tenser and Polanski films. When we first met, Jack was getting off the booze and being helped by Aileen. Meeting them now, Jack was still on the wagon and he and Aileen had a young daughter, Tara. Jack had worked with Roman’s wife Sharon Tate in Vampire Killers (or You Have Left your Teeth in my Neck, a much better title). I realised that Jack was here to discuss a role in this bizarre script that sat in a brown envelope on my lap.
There is a page one rule for all script polishers: do not interfere with the casting because it is similar to alchemy, totally lacking common-sense. So I switched the conversation to Jack’s work with the great Samuel Beckett. He told me he was working with Sam on a one-man theatre play which was a compilation of Sam’s novels, stories and plays. He had already tried it out in Dublin but Sam wasn’t happy with the script and wanted to work with Jack on a re-write. They were targeting the script’s completion in about 12 months’ time. Sam also wanted to direct it, and insisted that it be rehearsed and premiered in Paris. Not even thinking what a madcap idea that was, I told Jack I had a couple of French theatre producing friends who might be interested. I saw Aileen had taken a note.
I will skip over the discussion in Tony Tenser’s office about the script which would become the totally forgettable and equally unprofitable Paramount film A Day at the Beach. Jack and Aileen had heard most of the discussion from the corridor, as had half of Soho. When I came out, they asked me if I would be interested in helping out with a Beckett one-hander in Paris.
‘It would be a privilege.’
Almost twelve months to the day later, Jack called me from Paris. He and Sam had completed the re-write, but were now having difficulty taking the next step, could I help. Fortunately or unfortunately the project I was about to begin working on had fallen through and I could come over and produce. There was some garbled words between Jack and Sam finishing with Jack wanting to know how soon I could start. ‘Monday.’ Sam said Jack said they would be delighted to have me on board.
‘Have you a start date?’
‘Sam has a commitment in Berlin in about ten weeks’ time, so would need to open by then.’
‘Have you booked a theatre?’
‘Have you signed up any crew? Set Designer, Stage Manager, Lighting Man and Publicist?’
‘Have you any finance?’
I suddenly realised that in ten weeks starting from absolute scratch I had to produce a complex English-speaking one-man play written by a Dubliner and featuring another Dub in the capital of the French speaking world.
How the hell did I get involved in this?
Tom writes about his memories of meeting and working with Beckett in the March edition of Tinteán.
In retirement, Tom Parkinson continues his involvement in the media, mainly with Foxtel ARTS and the European Classica Channel. He lives in Sanctuary Lakes, South West of Melbourne and writes a monthly Nature column for the local community.