Neville Smith was a Scouse actor we had worked with often. He was a fanatical Evertonian. He wrote a screenplay, The Golden Vision, imagining a fan who, one Saturday morning took a call from the manager.
“I’ve a lot of injuries, so you’re playing. This afternoon”.
It was a sweet fantasy, common to fans everywhere whatever their club, and Neville wrote it with a mixture of affection and sharp Scouse wit. Ken enjoyed directing a cast from the Working Men’s Clubs, comedians and singers. They were seasoned performers, close to their audience and naturally slipped into funny improvisations.
For one scene Ken and I interviewed John Moores the Chairman of Everton. He was a very wealthy employer in Liverpool, running the Littlewoods’ mail order and football pools companies, the very football pool Uncle Harold wasted his money and his dreams on each Saturday. He was frank, saying a football club was an important safety valve for the working man. He could take his frustrations out on the ref and the players on a Saturday. Wasn’t that better than causing trouble and strikes during the week? Ken and I were too amazed to reply, not because of his sentiment but because of his readiness to state this calculated use of the beautiful game openly.
I had mixed feelings about spending all this time at Goodison Park, idolising Everton. I wished Neville had been an Aston Villa supporter and was glad my Granddad wasn’t there to look severely at me.
Some years previously Ken and I had seen a programme about Ernie Mack, a Liverpool agent for club performers. We both immediately knew he could be an ally. He not only represented many of them, he could get gigs for new acts, knowing all the club secretaries. So we started to work through him. When we cast someone who was not in Equity, like Peter Kerrigan, or another docker we thought talented, Ernie would book a small gig and with the contract achieve Equity membership. This method was central to what we were able to achieve in those years.
It naturally caused complaints. I was a committed Trade Unionist, a member at different times of Equity, the Writers‘ Guild and the ACCT. But I’d always made a clear distinction between a pre-entry closed shop, which I opposed, and a post-entry closed shop, which I approved. To prevent someone from working because they were not already a Union member was an attack on their individual liberty, a selfish attempt to restrict entry in order to favour existing members. You’re qualified if a producer or director wants to cast you, not just because you’ve spent years at a Drama School and then ages in provincial theatre. Talent and being right for the part trump everything. We were the experts and if we made a mistake we would pay the price. It was nothing to do with training or being qualified. That was an understandable but indefensible attempt at exclusion in a business with much unemployment.
But once cast, I was adamant the actor must join the Union. The fee and the working conditions had been won by other actors combining together in solidarity to win them. So joining and paying the dues ought to be mandatory. History from the Todpuddle Martyrs, through the Combination Acts and Taff Vale reminds us of this. Ken and I were clear on our position and were comfortable with it, despite sniping from Equity.
We spent countless nights going from club to club spotting acts. Ken was not a smoker, drank little beer and spoke quietly. It was not his idea of an evening out. But he knew he would find gold. I was entranced. This was a theatre I could relate to. It reminded me of teenage nights at the Birmingham Hippodrome seeing all the top comedians of the day, admiring their skills in handling the audience. My great regret is never seeing Max Miller on stage, just on film and hearing his records.
The masters of comedy control the audience, telling them when to laugh. Stand up is the purest theatre, requiring courage and skill. Great comedians are the aristocrats of the industry. In the clubs the acts had to fight the bingo and the noise from the bar for attention, then enact the drama of recognition, wittily playing back people’s own experiences with a twist of self knowledge That might seem crude but in fact it was very intelligent and perceptive. The performers we booked and turned into actors were central to the success of film after film.
I also jumped at another idea from Neville Smith. After a Lifetime, set again in Liverpool, was about two sons in the days after the death of their father. The emotional core was the regret that he was now dead and that it would now be impossible to say the loving things one omitted to say when he was alive, be unable to express the gratitude one feels. It was a touching piece, acted by performers from the working mens’s clubs with understated grace and directed sensitively by Ken. It had sentiment without being sentimental: that is, the emotion was earned.
I didn’t mention to anyone just how personal it was. I had spent my life longing to be close to my Mom and Dad, telling them how much I loved them, and regretting I would never have the chance. The longing was buried deep. It was emotionally dangerous. I was disturbed by the two brothers reminiscing and regretting, but did not connect it to my own experience. The dam of my feelings didn’t break.
But I hadn’t hesitated to say we must make this film, and it remained one of my favourites. So one deceives oneself, if the emotional need to do so is there.
Related link: Watch The Golden Vision on Youtube