Time was fast moving on, but it seemed that offers as a cinematographer were still too few and far between for me to consider the change as permanent. Was it time for a rethink? In spite of all my positive intentions it was inevitable that mind games would start tormenting me, making me question whether I was doing the right thing; with Suzy’s encouragement, I held out for as long as possible, my patience being tested to the full.
Inevitably the ugly face of temptation arrived, with this particular devil wearing Alan Hume’s hat, tempting me to take up the handles again. Alan had phoned, casually mentioning his next film with John Glen: Octopussy. ‘John was wondering if you would be interested, Alec?’ Alan knew how serious I was about moving up to lighting – we had discussed this many times – but even so he thought I should at least consider the offer, which did not take me long. I remained firm. ‘Please thank John for his consideration but I have to turn down the offer. Give my best to 007!’
Happy with my resolve, if saddened at my decision, I could not foresee John and Alan ganging up to talk me out of my so-called retirement from operating the camera. It was only on John’s insistence that I agreed to meet them at the Black Horse pub in Fulmer village for lunch, hoping that I might at least get a second or third unit as cinematographer.
We were going through the usual pleasantries of going back down memory lane – as you do – reminding ourselves of the good times shared together, when John decided that he had softened me up enough to say: ‘Alec, do this for me and I promise you will not regret it!’ Kind words – bold words – which strangely I remembered hearing from another smooth-talking director whose promises came to nothing, so how could I take John seriously with that statement? I am a weak man and easily manipulated. With the shared enthusiasm of both John and Alan my Achilles heel gave way. Octopussy would be my fifth James Bond film as camera operator and, if I am totally honest, I will also admit that I was a little relieved with the sudden opportunity to replenish a fast-dwindling bank balance.
Octopussy would be my second experience of working in India, which had previously given me the impression of a country in no hurry to move forward, a place where tourists bask in golden, dusty sunsets viewed from the balcony of their luxury hotel – possibly with an iced gin and tonic close to hand. In truth, when you look behind what the tourists see, there are people living in poor conditions, where ‘holy’ cows stroll through the streets depositing faeces everywhere and where the divide between rich and poor appeared to be enormous. Would I ever forget the discomfort of seeing that young woman feeding her little baby in the thicket? All of this was a world away from the Bond locations in Udaipur, including the Monsoon Palace, the Lake Palace and Jag Mandir. Putting conscience aside, Octopussy would bring back many wonderful images of my youth as a devoted fan of the Hotspur comic. There again I also enjoyed W.E. Johns’s Biggles series, with his far-flung colonial adventures – a childhood hero. Now, under John Glen’s baton, Octopussy would recreate all those wonderful memories, inspired with Alan’s wonderful photography and where we would share many interesting experiences. One I remember in particular was when I played 007, holding my trusty handheld Arri IIC while in a tuk-tuk being chased by the baddies who were firing at me –they missed!
A stroke of good fortune would find me and Suzy moving into the Palace Hotel. This opportunity came about when a room had suddenly become vacant and with no one else in any hurry to move in and knowing full well that this chance would probably never happen again we took up the offer, quickly killing off all of my principles about poverty. The five-star hotel, where the stars of the film would normally reside, was a different world, but although you might read this as my good fortune there would also be the downside that it allowed Roger Moore to carry on tormenting me with his endless wicked sense of humour, even when we were off duty.
Let me offer a short insight into Roger Moore’s quick wit, though possibly it will be more amusing if the explanation reads as script. On our return from foreign parts we filmed a short sequence with James Bond outside Sotheby’s, the auctioneers in Mayfair, requiring only the director, camera crew and make-up. After completing our filming, we drove to Peterborough to join up with the rest of the unit, who had gone ahead with the production vehicles in preparation for the train sequences being filmed on the Nene Valley Railway. Arriving late, I just had time to grab a quick meal, collect a call sheet and retire to my room. Here I should explain my preference was sleeping nude. Exhausted, I knew that I would sleep well …
It was in the early hours when I suddenly ‘sensed’ someone creeping into my bed – could I be dreaming? In a state of semi-consciousness I turned to look at the figure, now comfortably in bed and covered by the sheet, with only her blonde hair visible. Believing that my luck had changed I gently pulled the sheet back to unmask the fair maiden, only to find that she … was a HE!
Panic now took over very quickly. Waking from the shock, I jumped out of bed, shouting at him as my outrage slowly woke the man from his deep slumber; seemingly lost and still half-asleep he looked around the room before finally sliding out on the other side of the bed. There I stood, hands crossed over private parts, while he stood confused and on the other side of the bed wearing his shorts and vest. He looked around the room as he listened to my verbal onslaught, still not sure where he was or whether he had made a mistake – a big mistake – but for me this was no laughing matter, even if it did seem more like a scene from a Laurel and Hardy script:
(Shaking … shouting)
Who are you? What the hell are you doing in my room?
(Sleepily … politely … looking around)
This is … my room … Who are you?
Get out, you f***ing idiot, etc., etc. (I did go on a bit)
Still not wide awake, the zombie turned and slowly walked out of the room without another word spoken, leaving me in a state of shock from this terrible nightmare experience. I hurried to the door to ﬁnd that the lock didn’t work; a chair under the handle would sufﬁce until morning, I hoped that I might get some sleep.
Fade out, next morning, cut to …
Int. Breakfast Room. Day
A table for three, Elaine Schreyeck (continuity), Roger Moore (the enemy); a tired Alec arrives to join them for breakfast, Roger in the process of telling Elaine a story going around the unit.
Apparently this lorry driver sleepwalks when he gets involved with heavy drinking with his mates!
That was me, Roger; this man came into my room in the early hours … of … the … morn …ing …
Suddenly realising I had just made the unbelievably charitable mistake of providing Roger Moore – of all people – with ammunition for his deadly wit, which of course would happen now and too late to do anything about it.
Was he tight, Alec? (As in DRUNK)
The ﬁrst time, Elaine, only the ﬁrst time!
007 was now placed on my death list!
It was not just Roger Moore who could exploit the humour in a particular situation. Another of our UK filming locations included RAF Northolt, doubling as a South American airbase for the title sequence where 007 would make his customary escape, this time in a small Acrostar jet which I recall was to have originally featured in an earlier Moonraker sequence. The art department had been working at Northolt for a couple of weeks prior to the main unit’s arrival, building and dressing the set, which happened to include dozens of palm trees along one of the perimeter roads. These were visible from outside the base and so the inhabitants of Ruislip, unaware of what was going on, became naturally curious and questions were asked about the sudden appearance of these trees. I do not know exactly how the story got out –it was probably one of the sparks –but by the time we arrived at Northolt representatives of the local Ruislip press were eagerly monitoring the airbase entrance in expectation of the imminent arrival of hundreds of Argentine prisoners of war from the Falklands, having been told that the palm trees had been put up ‘to help make them feel more at home’! It just goes to prove that you should never believe everything that you hear on a film set.
Extracted from Shooting 007 by Alec Mills