Image above: Torin Douglas talking to Alvin Rakoff in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at ArtsEd; photograph Roger Green
The Chiswick Book Festival 2021 celebrated the work of Alvin Rakoff, a long-term resident of Chiswick who has had a long and distinguished career in film and television.
Alvin, 94, had just brought out his autobiography I’m Just The Guy Who Says Action! and Chiswick Book Festival Director Torin Douglas opened the evening with a reference to the recent book launch.
“It’s not everyone who has George Clooney ask the first question at their book launch”.
Alvin Rakoff is Canadian and has worked with many of the best actors in the business in a career spanning several decades. How did he wind up in Chiswick?
He’d come over from Canada in the 1950s, when British TV was just finding its feet and met Richard Briers, (The Good Life). Their wives were both actors and were working together on shows such as Dr Who. Richard told Alvin he’d found a great house in Bedford Park and as luck would have it, the next day the details for a house in Bedford Park dropped on the mat.
Alvin and his late wife Jacqueline Hill restored the house in The Orchard to its former glory. It had been ‘modernised’ by a DIY enthusiast who had lowered all the ceilings to preserve heat. The house has an artistic history; George Bernard Shaw had read The Devil’s Disciple there to friends in the living room.
Working with Laurence Olivier in Voyage Round My Father
Alvin is perhaps best known for directing A Voyage Round My Father, John Mortimer’s story about his father, which he adapted for television in 1982, produced and directed by Alvin. Laurence Olivier played the father and Alan Bates the son; Elizabeth Sellers the mother and Jane Asher, Elizabeth.
“It was one of the great joys of my life working with Laurence Olivier” he told the audience in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at ArtsEd.
“He was terrifying. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Terrifying but an inspiration to work with”.
He recounted how on one occasion he had to go and persuade the great actor to come out of his trailer. After three or four times a runner had been set to get him and failed, Alvin went to see what was the problem and found him trembling and saying he couldn’t go on. He was ill for the last 22 years of his life and died of kidney failure in 1989, aged 82. At this stage he had moments when he couldn’t remember his lines or his moves. They re-did some of the lines in post production and he delivered them with such perfect timing that no one would have known.
Richard Briars’ wife Ann Davies played one of the ATS girls, one of four of five neighbours who he inveigled into the film. Even then Chiswick was full of luvvies, as he told the audience at ArtsEd on Friday, his secret trademark was to people his films with actors who lived in his street.
He recalled how the film had come about almost by accident. He had started filming when the trade union ACTT told everyone to down tools because it was becoming apparent that the American backer didn’t have the money. “It was all bluff”.
Some seven years later he was working at Thames TV when the head of drama came in and asked if there were any projects he fancied doing. A film crew which was supposed to be flying to Saigon had become available at short notice when the TV company had decided it was too dangerous for them to go there.
Alvin collaborated with John Mortimer on another famous production – Paradise Postponed, which he remembers as a physical feat, recording as they did for five, sometimes six days a week over a ten month period.
In the early days of television, directors were gods. You had absolute power, he explained, as everything was live and every decision was yours, from where the actors stood to the camera positions to the wardrobe decisions. He rather regretted the advent of videotape, when the “suits” took over and scenes could be rerecorded.
“I’m not very good at taking orders”.
Image above: Alvin Rakoff in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at ArtsEd; photograph Roger Green
Giving Sean Connery his big break
When he arrived from Canada he was told the BBC wouldn’t consider employing a Canadian, but found a job within four days of his arrival. Going from script to script eventually they offered him a full time job. He directed the opening episode of Z Cars, a police soap which was to run from January 1962 until September 1978.
He made a risky decision in offering a lead role to a young unknown, Sean Connery, to whom he’d previously only given walk on parts.
The production was Requiem for a Heavyweight, a play by Rod Sterling produced on live TV in the Playhouse series in 1956. The lead role was supposed to be played by American actor Jack Pallance, who’d played it before. He pulled out at the last minute, having got a better offer, leaving Alvin casting around for a replacement, ringing anyone who he could think of to ask them for suggestions.
His wife suggested Sean Connery. “Are you mad?” was his reaction. “He mumbles”. “Yes” said his wife “but women will love him”. Taking soundings from his secretaries he found he got the same reaction, so decided on taking the risk.
Sean was a body builder and the role was that of a heavy weight boxer, who takes a bad beating from a young up and coming fighter and shouldn’t fight again after suffering brain damage.
“He had the body of a boxer” said Alvin. “He had great presence but I was not convinced. I had sleepless nights about it. I was terrified this kid would screw things up. What if he panicked? It was a two hour live show”.
His superiors thought he was wrong to give the role to someone so inexperienced, but when it came to it, Sean Connery played the role superbly.
It opened the door for him to get the James Bond role.
“I had a call from Harry Saltzman (who co-produced the first nine of the James Bond film series with Albert Broccoli). They were considering Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner), Roger Moore and Sean Connery. They picked Connery, who starred in the first James Bond, Dr No, in 1963. Roger Moore didn’t get his chance until 1972.
Working with Peter Sellers
Another of Alvin’s famous leading men was Peter Sellers, who played lonely, desperate businessman Benjamin Hoffman in the film Hoffman in 1970. He blackmails an attractive young woman (Sinead Cusack) into spending a week with him in his flat in London.
He and Sellers got off to rocky start, Alvin told the audience, as writer Ernest Gebler had convinced him Alvin wasn’t the right director for the piece. But Alvin was contracted, so they were stuck with each other. They were not at ease with each other as filming started, but there grew a mutual respect and after Alvin told him it was better for him not to cry in one scene, but to struggle with the effort not to cry instead, Sellers told him it was the best piece of direction he’d ever received.
Sellers was a hifi enthusiast and kitted out Alvin’s house in Bedford Park with the most up to the minute sound system, bits of which still remain in working order, he said.
Iterestingly Sellers didn’t like his performance in the film, deciding it was too revealing of him. He is most famous for his comedy roles, in which he could hide behind a character.
Gving Alan Rickman and Simon Russell Beale their first breaks
Alan Rickman was another actor to whom Alvin gave his first break.
“He came into my office at the BBC. I knew straight away he was right, (for the part of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet) though I’d learned never to say yes or no straight away. I always slept on it”.
Likewise he gave Simon Russell Beale his first break in A Dance to the Music of Time for Channel 4.
“It was a massive undertaking” he asid. “Twelve books in the series condensed to four episodes”.
Others in the stellar cast were Alan Bennett, Edward Fox, Sir John Gielgud and Miranda Richardson.
Alvin Rakoff not only published his autobiography at the age of 94 but held the audience spellbound with his story telling and reminiscences.
His book I’m Just The Guy Who Says Action! is available from Waterstones in Chiswick.
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