Shooting Theatre

Feature in Issue 9-3 | Autumn 1997

Last June, The Right Size and Peepolykus collaborated on A Salted Nut, a pilot of a new sitcom for The Paramount Comedy Channel. Sam Hoyle was on location in Dungeness, Kent and gives a day-by-day account of the shoot.

In the search to push forward the boundaries of situation comedy and to find new talent beyond the stand-up circuit, The Paramount Comedy Channel is developing projects with theatre performers who are new to television. A Salted Nut was written and performed by The Right Size, Peepolykus and character actor Chris Green. The project was innovative because it set out to apply the devising skills of physical comics to a format that has traditionally avoided experimentation and adhered to a rigidly linear, narrative format. My role on this project was Production Co-ordinator and Wardrobe Continuity. Oh, and due to budgetary constraints, I was also called on to perform a variety of cameos. Such are the joys of low budget film making…

Day 1

Eventually leave London at 6pm, having checked all equipment and props onto the minibus. Even after working on the project for a number of weeks now, I still have no idea of how we are going to shoot a thirty-minute film in three days. I’m not too worried, I just spend the journey contemplating the amount of sleep I’m not going to have over the next few days.

Arrive at the location – 8.30pm – pandemonium is hotting-up nicely. The location is a six-storey Victorian building with one small room on every floor – very striking and completely impractical. The lack of storage space is evident as we unload; the ground floor kitchen quickly becomes an assault course worthy of SAS training standards. Karen (Production Manager) wears a look of sunny disposition fighting blind panic. The evening’s filming has been abandoned – we need the time for tomorrow’s set ups and we probably can’t find the camera anyway.

Day 2

The day starts badly – the hire company have not provided cables for the lights. Cables are not on my checklist, but still feel terrible. Karen’s expression has changed from blind panic to white terror. Our schedule is rapidly rewritten, but we have still lost precious time. Cuts to the script starting to loom…

Today is dedicated to shooting Chris’ scenes. He plays Lyndzei, a mad landlady with a shady past. Chris is 6’2” and will be wearing a pink lycra jumpsuit, big make-up and a very large blond wig. The make-up girls are ecstatic at the prospect of Chris and spend the day becoming increasingly obsessive about the curls dropping out of his wig. I, on the other hand, spend the day looking at his crotch – making sure nothing drops out of his girdle!

The unknown quantity of this piece is the lack of TV experience our cast has; Chris probably has the most. This becomes evident as the sixteen-hour day draws to its close: Chris has kept it together admirably. I spend the day in one of my cameo costumes which unfortunately involves wearing heels, which curse heartily as I run up and down six flights of stairs. There is a surreal moment when, whilst making notes on my own continuity, I look in a mirror and see my mother staring back at me! I fight the rising hysteria which has started far too early in the shoot. Get to bed late, get up early…

Day 3

Dedicated to Peepolykus’ scenes. I’m happy – no cameos! Spend most of the day on a flight of stairs dodging Javier Marzan as he throws himself down them. Michael (props) is distraught because he cannot find a thing. I can’t help – I’m too busy trying to track down three sets of pyjamas. Peepolykus do really well, but find some difficulty marrying their improvisational style to the strictures of TV. In other words, they have to do what is written in the script and not deviate. However, because of this we discover the first of the many joys of this type of work – the performers are skilled at rewriting on the spot – creating funnier material than was originally written. This ability proves particularly useful when we have to accommodate the effect of cuts to the narrative. Gary (Director/Producer) is delighted with the work – new ways of using the camera have to be devised to accommodate the gags, and they work well.

At about 3.30am I decide there is no point returning to the B&B, and so climb into bed next to Chris. Karen, stricken at the prospect of cast sharing with crew, now has an expression of stunned disbelief. I explain that Chris and I have had simulated sex in a short film for Channel 4 before, so sharing a bed will be OK. However, I am tired and do not articulate this very well. Karen, armed with this new information about my relationship with Chris, now looks horrified. Get to bed very late, get up very early (about three hours later)…

Day 4

Final day – The Right Size. Today, the cameo character I am playing wears flat shoes – I cling to this piece of good fortune with unnatural intensity. All of the scenes are shot in one room, which is great – but it is the room at the top of the building, accessible only by a very thin, winding staircase. However, the physical constraint unexpectedly provides the performers with raw material which accentuates and develops the physical comedy. You try not to laugh when watching two grown men wearing suits, attempting forward rolls in a room the size of a toilet! The physical demands extend to the crew; Danny the cameraman, veteran of The Fast Show and Harry Enfield, has never had to move so quickly and so often to get his shot.

By lunchtime it is evident that we will not be able to film all the scenes. We have lost too much time from the cable fiasco. Gary decides on a major cut and rewrite. It is Karen’s job to break the news, and The Right Size, understandably, take it badly. They have to learn within minutes the difference between being their own theatre director and having to put themselves in the hands of a TV director. They realise there is no point arguing for the scene’s retention – it has to go, and that is that. However, they adjust, and we continue.

Meanwhile, I have cleared out a cupboard in which I must sit for my cameo. This cupboard has not been entered for years, and is populated by spiders and a beautiful white leather trunk. At least I think it’s white until have to move it – I then discover it is actually covered in mould! When the time comes for my cameo, I am shut into the cupboard with spiders colonising my legs and my nose pressed against the trunk, but find myself strangely happy. For the first time in days I have had twenty seconds of peace from the maelstrom outside the cupboard door! Feel rather aggrieved when it is opened and the shot is taken, because then I must leave this oasis of tranquillity.

And so another thirteen hours of shooting passes and we wrap. Everybody is tired but happy. We have produced a lot of inventive and inspired comedy – we are gratified and relieved that the experiment has worked so well. Of course it has its faults, but it has been a long time since I have seen such potential. Hopefully it will turn into something rather special.

Everybody except myself, Karen and Michael decamp for home. We must strike the set, pack up and clean the location. I don’t get to bed…

After loading, driving back to London, and then unloading I get home at about 7.30am, having worked a 24 hour day. The next time you hear actors complaining about their lot, ignore them. Of course, I am so tired I am beyond sleep. I have a much needed bath, turn on breakfast TV and then wake up eleven hours later with my nose dipping into the cold cup of tea left untouched at my side. With a crick in my neck I go to bed. Telly – it’s too glamorous for me…

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Issue 9-3
p. 6 - 7