“It’s not your fault. It’s just really, really, really, really, really, really, really unlucky” The Beachcomber
Hugh Bonneville is here to help us do the impossible.
In the film James, Miles, Davy and Bill stop for coffee at a cove littered with flotsam and jetsam. Amongst it they are surprised to meet ‘The Beachchomber’. This eccentric man is one of the characters that make the trip something of an odyssey. He tells the boys a strange story about how he spends his days looking for a lost consignment of faulty, brown Darth Vader action figures. They were swept off a container ship nearby some years earlier and he believes this cove will eventually be the place that they are all washed ashore by the rolling tides. It’s a nod towards the part in so many of us that are searching for something that we may never find.
It’s been a favourite part of the story for most people who have been involved in the development. I love that The Beachcomber gets interpreted in so many different ways. It is meant to throw up questions about what makes life worthwhile. And it’s lovely that the Beachcomber instinctively sees the gentle kindness of Davy, having spent too many years alone with his thoughts, suddenly remembering the value of community, and friendship; in needing people, and in being needed… But OH MY GOD… this little episode is running at well over ten pages and we only have a day with Hugh to shoot it. I brace myself for a day of fighting to get things shooting faster than ever. (The bit of my job that I hate.)
It’s 6am. I’ve been running around a while already trying to sort out the day’s fresh load of compromise when I’m told that Hugh has asked to talk to me. Immediately I think something must have gone wrong. I know his hotel is nice and we haven’t forgotten his breakfast – he can’t have been here long enough for us to fail him in any other way surely? I look around the morning mayhem – maybe he has.
I knock on the door of the green room where he is changing and preparing.
I’m thrilled that he has taken time out to come do this roll. I have been a fan of Hugh for so long. He seems the most ‘natural’ sort of actor on stage and screen with a gift for gravitas and exquisite comic timing – and here he is – staring seriously at the pages of the script. He looks up with an equally stern expression and I am ready for the complaint, in fact I almost apologise involuntarily. Of course the complaint never comes. He breaks into a broad smile, assures me that he is comfortable, happy to be here and looking forward to hanging out with Benedict, JJ, Tom and Adam. Then his stern expression flicks on again and he tells me he wants to talk about the script.
“Oh!” I exclaim. Rather taken aback. I have sort of forgotten that’s my job as well.
I sit down opposite him as he launches in to a detailed question about the meaning of one of his early speeches. Only now do I notice that he is wearing alarmingly small, denim hotpants.
Thankfully the shock subsides when I realise these are half of his ludicrous costume. But I don’t have the time or inclination to over-examine this as Hugh rattles through the ten pages asking if he can move the odd line. Cut a bit here. Add a bit there… He even says that he remembers a line from an EARLIER DRAFT that had a phrase he thinks was important. He’s so right. It IS important. I tell him that he should put it back if he’d like to. A few minutes later, he’s done and I leave him pawing over the words. I walk down the stairs with a spring in my step. It lasted five minutes, but it was the an insight into the incredible talent, skill and knowledge of a REAL PRO. A no-nonsense, business-like, approach to the job of bringing the Beachchomer to life the very best way he knows how. I am so proud to have been the writer (and producer) that will benefit from it and it is again proof that actors are horribly underused in the development of films.
I am determined that any film that Western Edge Pictures makes will have this input from as early as possible and that the writer is always in the room to hear it. And we’ll make damn sure that this all happens long before the actor in question is wearing his denim hotpants.
I tell a runner to “take more tea to Mr. Bonneville straight away!” – she looks at me confused as it’s only been a few minutes since she did exactly that – I just want to give him SOMETHING – and it’s all we have. “And make it hot… or strong or something!”
A while later. We are on the rocky cove. Hugh looks hilarious but the women on set seem suitably pleased to gaze at him. His performance is breathtakingly good. He makes catchphrases of some the smallest lines – wistfully opening the door to the pain and confusion in the soul of this lost man with just the subtlest of gestures and intonation. It’s a masterclass.
But as ever I’m worried about the time. We cannot waste a second today. And Hugh is getting progressively colder and more uncomfortable as a light rain starts to fall and dampen his hotpants. Then something rather wonderful occurs to me. Today nature is on my side and in a way that couldn’t be more apt, she is on the side of our Beachcomber. We CAN’T run over time and it isn’t ME that has to hurry the proceedings at all today – because the tide is coming in.
I notice that the sea is now lapping at the feet of Moritz, our young lighting apprentice, who is holding a reflector at the edge of our ‘set’. He is Bavarian and made of too stout a stuff to even acknowledge it, but nevertheless the Atlantic has decided we should move on and it won’t take no for an answer. I sit back and watch Hugh. He must be tired, but doesn’t complain.
‘Time and tide wait for no man’ and at last we are done. Hugh is taken to meet a train. I won’t get to see quite how good his scene is for some weeks yet. His day on set seems like it’s been at least two.
At this point I’m told that we don’t have a night security guard and someone has to stay there all night to watch the vehicles, make sure the pig is roasting properly for the next day’s carnival scene, then turn on the kitchen truck at 3 am to power the freezers and heat everything in time for the crew’s breakfast. I sigh.
The last of the crew leave. I sit alone with a beer in one hand and my ‘Night Security Torch’ in the other. I sit on the bonnet of the Land Rover looking at the cove. The pig is rotating slowly on the spit – looking at me every 37 seconds as if to say “You think you’ve got problems!”, the seagulls are settling on the cliffs and the tide is starting its endless turn again.
Adam and I met while playing teenage school boys in a ‘Taggart’ feature – his first job out of drama school. I was the good guy, he was the bad guy… our roles in real life soon reversed. Adam is a moral compass. (You just have to know how to hit it when it gets stuck.)
After years of friendship, during which we had both made the mistakes in life that most of the people I find I like best seem to have similarly made, we went for a long walk. On our walk I told him I had been thinking that he should join me in a new kind of film and theatre company. By that time Adam was about to start running a vegetarian food business out of Borough Market with his lovely new wife Anna, but acting and producing had always called him away from the various other businesses and sensible jobs he had done so successfully.
A week later he’d read all the stuff I’d written so far and agreed that he wanted ‘in’ on the company, which we then named Western Edge Pictures. We sat on the South Bank and decided pretty quickly that we wouldn’t make a ‘short’, as so many industry insiders in the UK feel is necessary. We wanted to go straight to a feature.
“Any ideas?” he asked, as we watched the grey Thames oozing towards the sea in front of The National Theatre.
“Well, I have this idea about some boys on a camping trip in west Wales…”
One of the first things I did in writing the story was cast Adam in my head, as Bill.
Adam is a good man. He cares about people and the world equally. His goodness is infectious to most people, and hilarious to me. His goodness has a bluntness. A straight, heavy, indelicate absurdity that no matter how sincerely expressed – I just can’t take it seriously. (Of course my seat in Hell is already paid for, but recognising the humour in his finest quality is at least what makes the character of Bill so watchable in Third Star I think.) You can totally see in Adam’s role, even though their views are poles apart, exactly why the other boys – indeed why we ALL – would love to have a Bill in our lives – and why I need Adam Robertson in my own.
So, skip forward to pre-production. It becomes obvious that Third Star is going to be a bit ‘bigger’ than we first imagined and the producing is going to need both of us full time. Adam immediately stepped aside from acting. He didn’t NEED to be a movie star. The film was more important. But a strange thing happened. The more we auditioned guys, with Adam reading Bill for guys trying out to be James, Davy and Miles, the more obvious it became that no one – no matter how good – was going to replace him as Bill. It seems crazy now to imagine we wouldn’t have cast him.
(It also seems crazy to imagine that we would have made the film without Kelly Broad who we brought in at this point to replace Adam in production. Another lasting friendship and partnership was created there – but that’s for another day.)
Over the coming months the cast was solidified around Adam. And he was unwittingly still providing me with dialogue for the film.
“Biscuits… they’re great on their own – but dip them in tea – it’s a whole other journey.”
A direct quote from Adam in the office that he would repeat as Bill on camera a year later.
That’s not to say there is no divergence between the character and the man. The complications of real life are after all inevitably greater than those of any invention. Adam is also considerably brighter than Bill (no matter how well he hides it.)
He is sensitive and passionate and for all his confidence and bombastic Alsatian pup-exuberance, arriving on set threw him a little. After all our hard work on bringing our first Western Edge picture to production, exactly as we planned to, I noticed a rare uneasiness about him in the first few days. Eventually I was able to ask him how he was doing and he admitted to being a little in awe of what we had achieved, and a little humbled by the opportunity to shoot in that location, with such a great crew, and with such a heavyweight cast. I was amazed. No one could deserve it more. No one could understand how we had got there more clearly than he and I – but where I, thrilled though I was by all of it, had begun already to be frustrated by the small scale, his humility was touching. Where so many men about to star in a film would find their ego taking over – he experienced a fleeting moment of doubt in his otherwise sure-footed stride though life.
Within days of course he was well into the groove. He went up a gear in fact. There are still so many ‘Bill moments’ that make me laugh. And his delivery of the line “Why can’t you take an overdose like normal people?” that he so effortlessly imbues with the innate humour and the gut wrenching tragedy simultaneously, as only great actors can, is just one example of his huge talent.
Any actor will tell you that playing close to yourself is the hardest gig you’ll get. Adam had to get his version of Bill spot on and all the while receiving less care than I gave to the other cast. He triumphed.
We opened the film in his native Scotland, at the Edinburgh Festival. Adam had won one of the festival’s Trailblazer awards fro exciting newcomers and was determined to enjoy the experience “to the max”. I realised, in a rare moment of warmth, that seeing that big-hearted freak on the red carpet in his kilt was pretty much all the reward I needed for the journey he and I had shared. His joy was typically unfettered, uninhibited and honest. Somewhere between an overgrown Hobbit on his way to a rave, and a young Sean Connery – as if shouldering the mantle of being the next King of Scotland would be as easy as breathing.
Long live Adam Robertson.
There is definitely something alien about Benedict Cumberbatch. This was exaggerated the first time we properly met. He arrived late, he often is, but with the flurry of apology that he means utterly, and sounds faintly bored of having to give so frequently. He was wearing his crash helmet and wet weather biker’s jacket. It was a modern style so had the moulded Kevlar pads and bumps that shaped his body like an exoskeleton.
He is immediately intelligent. He’s on his front foot and yet asking questions. One instantly gets the impression there is no depth to any conversation he is not willing to plumb.
Over the long casting period we discussed with him many times, which of our four leads he could play. What makes him different from most of the actors we saw was of course that he can play so many different parts. Again it’s the hint of ‘shape-shifter’ that gilds his gifts.
At first I was loathe for him to play James (thinking he may play another role). I felt that having become well known for playing Stephen Hawking so brilliantly he would be perceived as some sort of a “rent-a-cripple”… But there was something I needed in James that so few people could portray. And of course Benedict understood it immediately, which is why he is one of the great actors of his generation.
James is a hero. We have to love him. We have to understand why the boys love him and will go to the extreme they do with him… But he’s also a bit of a pompous dick. I like to think this is what makes him believable. All these characters have flaws because we ALL do.
But it takes confidence and belief, total artistic commitment and an amazing lack of vanity for a young actor in his first real leading role to know that he can play this character on the edge of likability and get away with it. Of course Benedict does.
The ability to play these complications is another matter. He is of course just a brilliant actor. All the boys were. For me his most impressive ability, as I have said before, is to be technically brilliant, while all the while looking as though there is nothing but gut reaction going on. Watching him physically train to play James (He dieted, ran the cliffs and swam in the cold sea), and also delve into the meaning of every line in rehearsals, and then plot the effect of his illness on his body and mind as it would be in each scene (shot in the wrong order), while all the while being a joy to be around was impressive to witness. To see it as one performance in the final cut was remarkable.
He is rare even amongst the acting breed. If the character description says handsome: he is. If it says Nasty: he is. Older: he is… Younger: he is. For this reason I just can’t wait to see what he will become.
Working with him was a delight. I learned so much. It was so often easy to see what he was like at ten years old. He’s a giggler, and a brilliant mimic and, like the other boys, he thought nothing of carrying kit up the steps from Barafundle Bay, even after having been on camera all day.
When we cast him in Third Star, his role in Sherlock was yet to make him the global star he is now. This of course did so well for us in to one respect and yet his schedule, by the time we released, made it impossible for him to do enough press. Fame had swept him up. And yet, when we talk, I am really aware that he is enjoying it by revelling in the experience of the work far, far more than any of the perks of it.
One evening long after the shoot he called me to ask if he could come to my home to watch Have I Got News For You. “Sure. Why?”
“Because I’m hosting it?”
I sat and watched him watching himself. He was thrilled that he “got away with it”, that his suit looked nice; that his memory of people laughing at the right times, on and off script, were real. He was edgy throughout and so relieved when it was over. It was strange to see him so effected by it at first– but of course I realised he was having to be himself. Like the great chameleons of the stage and screen, having to decide on a version of himself to go on camera was a risky business for him.
I’m not sure to what extent that was a turning point, but throughout that period I really felt he had to adjust to life as Benedict Cumberbatch in some way – and he found his feet. Whatever personal doubts he had had, that were inaccurate, are far fewer now. Being really appreciated for what he does best has made him happier in his own skin… So he can spend the rest of his life enjoying wearing other peoples.
I had been a fan of Tom Burke for a while. Having first seen him in the BBC’s Dracula I was immediately struck by the fact that he is gifted with that certain something you can’t look away from.
He came late to Third Star. That is to say that for nearly three years, whenever we had auditions we had asked his agents to get him in, only to find he was always busy. It is of course a quirk of fate, as in so many areas of making a film, that lead to his finally being available to come and meet us when we were finally well and truly ready to shoot.
His reading of Davy was perfect. What more can be said?
In his first reading I was able to see at last, right there in front of me, exactly why Davy is my favourite character in the script. Davy is no more confused about life than the other four, but his honesty (about everything that makes his life difficult) makes his fear and uncertainty seem to be far greater. In fact – his honesty make his life the most simple. This is subtle stuff to play at times and where the script let’s Davy down Tom’s portrayal more than makes up for it.
Tom is a handsome chap of course, but even in the rushes Davy’s calm face gained a kind of enigmatic beauty. For all his over cautiousness and moaning – that beauty comes from inside the character of Davy – and it’s why we would all want him as one of our best friends. But the brilliance in being able to create that is all Tom.
That talent would be enough for any actor – but I think what I cherish most from working with Tom on Third Star is that he is one of the funniest bastards I have ever known. I actually think his mind follows paths that only the great comic creators take. He is a skilled writer and I’m sure he’ll be an equally talented director.
It was actually only after filming Third Star that Tom and I became close friends. Some time later Tom did ‘Design For Living’ at the Old Vic. I went to see it three times and EVERY time, I found that I was still totally enthralled at his performance, in a way that one can usually only experience with someone who maintains a certain mystery, because their real personae is unknown to you. And that mystery is the alluring thing that he naturally possesses – and why he is so fascinating to watch as any character and equally exciting to know in real life.
This week, I am going to see his parents in a play together. His father, well known for his elaborate practical jokes backstage, is David Burke and his mother is Anna Calder Marshall. I’m sure I’m going to see evidence of where ‘the talented actor Tom Burke’ comes from. But I also know that at some point in the evening, when the lights come up, Tom will say something to me that I could never have expected in a million years. And apart from his love of the work and the text, in writing this, I wonder if it simply his devilish taste for seeing the absurdities of every human around him that drives his talent.
I cannot, for one second, imagine being bored by Tom Burke. And that is about the nicest thing I can say about anyone.