Thursday, April 16, 2009

 

John Cater, Peter Rogers and Clement Freud

The deaths have been announced of two men with enormous track records in entertainment: Peter Rogers, who fabulously produced every single Carry On film; then celebrity cook, glacially slow Just A Minute speaker and contributor to the gaiety of the nation through Parliamentary Liberalism Clement Freud. Both of them and their work have been presences through my whole life, and I’m sorry that I never met either of them. I did, however, meet John Cater, an actor whose death was also announced recently, and I’d like to celebrate that genuinely nice chap as well as the two more famous men.

Intellectually, I’ve known for many years that Clement Freud was a Liberal MP, but as he lost his seat and largely disappeared from politics at around the time I started getting interested, it’s always been difficult to feel that political presence in the man who I’ve always known as a lugubrious regular alongside Nicholas Parsons (the only time I can remember hearing a Lib Dem conversation about him was scurrilous rumours that he and Roy Jenkins used to compete to see who could go for longest without visiting their seats). So as well as lauding Stephen Glenn’s very appropriate tribute, I’d like to direct you to Paul Walter, whose Clement Freud’s Vital 12.5% puts in perspective just how important Clement was to the Liberal Party during his time in Parliament – first elected on a day when, astonishingly, we won two by-elections on one day (26th July 1973) and, in those days long before being able to get 63 MPs elected, at a stroke increased our Commons representation by a third on top of what we’d had a few hours before. And, of course, I was always a great fan of Band On the Run, too (Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five is still one of the most stirring rock anthems). But, for all those people who talk about how off-message he was, you can read via Jonathan Calder how sharp his instinct was for getting a political point in at the most unlikely moment.

John Cater – Intense, Reliable, and A Disturbing Sort of Spear-Carrier

You probably knew of Clement Freud, and you’ve almost certainly watched some of Peter Rogers’ films, but you may not be able to place the name of John Cater. He was an actor with a hugely impressive list of screen credits across fifty years – from Saturday Night Theatre in 1958, via the Dr Phibes movies, Dad’s Army and a regular role in The Duchess of Duke Street to, oh, never mind, Bonekickers last year – but taking in along the way an enormous number of roles. I particularly remember him for his appearances in arguably my three favourite series of all, Doctor Who, I, Claudius, and the one I’ll always associate him with, The Avengers.

He was quite slight, and often bearded, with an inquisitive look to him; though usually found in moderately-sized rather than leading roles, he was a very reliable character actor, and managed to combine a light touch for comedy with an extraordinary intensity. He was always terribly watchable. In Doctor Who – The War Machines, the 1966 story that warns that the Internet is coming and it will TAKE OVER THE WORLD! he’s Professor Krimpton, one of the developers of the deadly computer system who, on seeing his boss become a starry-eyed zombie, first laughs and just thinks he’s flipped, as you would, then fights against the Machine’s hypnotic control in a very disturbing scene, then eventually succumbs. A decade later, he was one of the Emperor Claudius’ two trusted Greek administrators towards the end of the serial, the one who saw what was coming and didn’t betray him.

Back in the mid-’80s, however, it was John Cater’s death in an episode of The Avengers that made him unforgettable for me. During a Channel 4 repeat run, I got hooked on the series first through some of the Tara King episodes and then on catching some of the black and white Mrs Peel outings. It was in one of the latter, Death At Bargain Prices, that he plays a store detective who befriends Mrs Peel – sent there to investigate strange goings-on – and comes to a particularly nasty end. Though he’s also an entertainingly diffident foreign spy in the later episode The Living Dead and “Disco” (not who you imagine) in the Cathy Gale story The Nutshell, for me he’ll always be Jarvis, creeping around Pinter’s Department Store. But what harm could come to you in a big store? Well, when there’s a large jungle set up in the middle of it – to show off camping equipment, of course – where better to find yourself winding up with a spear through your chest, for one of the most haunting images of my teens?

In the last couple of years, I met John twice at different Doctor Who events, and had the chance to chat to him (and to get him to autograph my Avengers DVDs). Spry, animated and a great conversationalist, he came across as a genuinely lovely guy, with a wicked twinkle. Discussing I, Claudius, he talked about how Derek Jacobi would always learn his lines at least one episode in advance, so he could sit doing the Times crossword as other actors got it right, and how another actor he worked with, Ronald Culver (father of Michael), would do the same. From the inside, he too was very impressed by I, Claudius, but unimpressed by the industry not giving any work to its director, “the great Herbie Wise,” because “directors over forty are past it” – recalling Herbie’s being asked “What have you done?” when going for a job on The Bill, “whereas actors can get away with it, because there’ll always be old fart parts for old farts like me.” He remembered, in The AvengersThe Living Dead, “being a rather silly second lieutenant to Julian Glover,” but enjoying playing the piano badly and being asked by a gruff shop steward, “Are you in the Musicians’ Union?” And as he’d always been a bit of a muso, he joined on the spot and still kept it up to that day, which gave him the odd free entry to concerts and things. He found that episode’s director John Krish a real gentleman – he got him a car home despite the unions making a fuss, and did him a copy of The Living Dead when he couldn’t find one (he recalled that John also did a film, Decline and Fall, which John regrets was ruined by the editors forced on him).

I mentioned, of course, my memory of that gloriously surreal Avengers image of him lying dead with a spear in his chest, in a jungle, in a department store, one of the moments that so captivated me about the series when I was new to it. He told me about the filming, and the “mechanism” he was fitted with:
“Yes, I remember that shot. The props man passed by as I was being set up for it and shouted, ‘Stick it up his Jacksie’. And I thought, how rude! ‘You wouldn’t say that if I was Laurence Olivier,’ I said. ‘But you’re not, are you?’ he said. ‘Stick it up his Jacksie!’”

Peter Rogers, Carry On Up the Khyber, and The Worst DVD Commentary in the World, Ever!

Peter Rogers was a brilliant producer. To have made so many Carry On films, and for so many of them to be brilliant – as well as some that were all right, some mediocre and one or two downright dreadful – means he deserves to be remembered for giving people an awful lot of pleasure and, for someone who clearly had a sharp focus on the bottom line, for being responsible for the one of the most successful British film series ever made. I think only James Bond can touch it.

The best way to celebrate him, then, is to bung on one of his films and simply enjoy it. If you need a tip, try going for Carry On Cleo, or Carry On Screaming, or Carry On, Don’t Lose Your Head – yesterday, Film Four showed Leslie Howard’s version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, and though that’s much-lauded, Don’t Lose Your Head is not only (naturally) a much funnier film, but a far more exciting one. The 1934 adaptation may have a strong plot and some good lines (if none to match “The Duc de Pommes Frittes has had his chips!”), but the action in the comedy version beats it hands down, and you can’t beat Sid James’ joyous foppery. For years, every time Leslie Howard’s Pimpernel came round, The Guardian’s film review would praise its swordplay as “exhilarating”. And every time, I’d raise an eyebrow, because that film contains no swordplay at all, still less any to compete with the genuinely exhilarating swordplay at the climax of Peter Rogers’ Don’t Lose Your Head. Or, of course, you could simply watch the finest of all his films, set in part in the aforementioned town of Jacksie, Carry On Up the Khyber.

Ah, yes, Carry On Up the Khyber. It may be an inappropriate way to remember him, but I didn’t hear all that many interviews with Peter Rogers, and the one that sticks in my head with fascinated horror was his DVD commentary for that movie, an experience so dreadful that – years before I started blogging – I was moved to send an e-mail round relating it. So here, from the 24th of May 2003, is my reaction to his reaction. I hope you’ll find it entertaining, if a cautionary tale in why being brilliant behind the camera doesn’t necessarily mean entertainment in front of it…
The Worst DVD Commentary in the World, Ever!

OK, I admit that (paraphrasing Donald Cotton on Helen of Troy) it’s impossible to know this without the most extensive surveys, but yesterday evening I listened to such a mind-boggling train-wreck of a commentary that I had to share it with you. Or give you a warning.

The DVD in question is one just bought for me by my beloved, the Special Edition of Carry On Up the Khyber (or “Carry On the Regiment” as a team of censors unfunnily tried to persuade them was a better title). Now, for the most part this is a terrific DVD, with added subtitles, a nice little booklet with Doctor Who references, rather good extras – even the bonus Carry On Laughing show (usually unimpressive), The Sobbing Cavalier, is quite a fun Civil War piece – and the film itself is fantastic, which is why we went for the Special Edition even after getting the original DVD release. But the commentary is astoundingly painful.

The Carry On Special Edition commentaries I’ve heard so far have mostly been Jim Dale on his own, which are only so-so, or a team of the more minor actors, which are rather more entertaining, each moderated by Carry On reference book author Robert Ross (Barbara Windsor doesn’t seem to be doing any). For Khyber, sadly, almost all the actors are now dead, and presumably they didn’t think Angela Douglas, say, was a big enough draw on her own. You can imagine Mr Ross thinking, ‘Hey, this is the best Carry On, so for something really special, let’s bring in Peter Rogers, the producer of all the films. That’ll work.’

It doesn't.

By half-way through, I was actually wondering if they’d get to the end of the recording; if this was a marriage, it’d be at the stage of acrimonious divorce due to irreconcilable differences. Ross has gone into it with a trayful of fascinating facts and a set of questions to prompt heart-warming anecdotes; Rogers is under the impression that he’s being paid to sit and watch a film – with gritted teeth – and regards any attempt to engage him in conversation as the utmost impertinence.

Before this, my most grumpy commentary was with Nigel Kneale on the laserdisc of the Quatermass II film, being prodded every few minutes by his moderator and either staying silent or snapping viciously at the stick that’s prodding him. At least, though, Kneale is a brilliantly evil old curmudgeon who hates directors, actors, and above all every single young person in the world, and can be relied on to say something waspish and indiscreet (notably taking a fiendish delight in Brian Donlevy’s flying hairpiece) that makes the long periods of silence bearable. Rogers’ lofty hostility beats this hands down as a grim listening experience.

Peter Rogers appears to have entered a bet with someone that he can take profound personal offense at any remark, even if it’s actually praising him, rather like the “I Couldn't Disagree With You More” round on the much-missed ’90s panel game If I Ruled the World. “So, this film is often thought of as one of the best British films ever made – do you feel proud of it?” asks Ross hopefully, for example. “Proud? No, certainly not. What a thing to say,” is just one of the affronted retorts I remember from last night.

Rogers’ other tactic is silence. Getting any reply at all out of him is like pulling teeth. You get the feeling that Ross was considering shooting himself after the 433rd complicated question which had been greeted with “… (pause) … (more pause) …No.” Admittedly, he asks for trouble a couple of times, trying persistently to correct Rogers on facts which the other man clearly isn’t going to give way on (tip: never mention Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in his presence), but you can’t blame him. I’d probably have strangled the rude old git.

He’s hypersensitive about money; he puts down Ross’ attempts to infodump to give the listener something for their money (“You sound like a football commentator”); he says, in the tone of a headmaster cleaning urine out of the drinking fountain with his hands, “As long as I make people laugh, I’m happy.” At one point, he has the cheek to remark, “You’ve not asked me any questions for a while,” immediately qualifying it with “Not that I want to answer them.” Most of all, he just doesn’t want to speak. I suspect he’s never heard a DVD commentary. Except as a lesson in how not to do one, you shouldn’t try to hear this one, either.

Oh, and it closes with Ross somehow forcing himself to say, “Thank you, Peter Rogers. It’s been a pleasure.” “I wish I could say the same,” he stiffly replies. Straight up!

Finally, though you won’t see John Cater in either of them, tonight BBC4 spoil us with two episodes of The Avengers. At 7.40 you can see Obsession, a reasonable story notable for Purdey’s ballet career and sad love affair, asides about Middle East politics and being the first time Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw (later to be a memorable Citizen Camembert himself) worked together, and that’s on again tomorrow night at 12.25. Steed’s pretty damned terrific at the end, too. If you’re seriously sleepless, they’re also showing a signed repeat tonight of the very much better House of Cards, the last of Peter Jeffrey’s strange trilogy of villains spread across a decade, each time a different old foe bent on revenge against an Avenger, where each uses a playing card motif, each has a dubious continental connection, and each one is dead… But that episode’s not on until 2.30am, so I hope not to be watching it this time.

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Comments:
Thank you for the link, Alex. I hope you are well? My girls enjoyed the latest Doctor Who episode.
 
You're very welcome. I thought you had an excellent piece! And good for your girls :D
 
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