Screen • BBC • The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui

Off-Cut: Arturo Ui

A love hate relationship with Bertold Brecht had frustrated me for years. In the end I decided that his ideas might work in the theatre, but were of little use to me.

I had read Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares in my teens and had almost lived at Sadler’s Wells Theatre when the Russians played there in 1958. This was the most credible acting I’d ever seen in a theatre. In contrast I’d never seen a Brecht which enthused me, but Arturo Ui seemed to be written for the screen. I reasoned that he must have been familiar with Warner Brothers’ gangster movies; indeed he’d lived in California for a while in the late thirties. His biting satire of HItler’s Fascism using Chicago gangsters as his image jumped out at me cinematically.

I had signed a new contract at the BBC. Gerald Savory, the Head of Plays, thought this idea was mad, but raised no objection.

I asked Jack Gold to direct Arturo Ui and Brian Tufano to shoot it. A BBC budget was unrealistic for this piece: set in Chicago, but not shot in Chicago; a period piece; a huge cast. We had to put a quart into a pint pot, as usual. Jack was undaunted, always cheerful, always looking for solutions. The rest of the crew found and dressed appropriate locations like the steam baths in Bayswater and disused docks in the East End.

Jack wanted Peter Sellers to play Arturo. I thought it a long shot, but to my surprise he accepted, inviting Jack and me to see him in Ireland, where he lived for tax reasons. We were hospitably received, given lunch and then he talked interestingly about the play, which he had clearly thought about. He acted some of it to us, brilliantly. We weren’t surprised by his accurate American accent but the focus, the rage he brought to the Hitler character impressed us. This was our warning, but neither of us realised it. We shook hands and left in high spirits.

Soon after I realised it was slipping away. He couldn’t be reached. His agent told me that he had changed his mind. It occurred to me that the minuscule BBC fee might have put both him and his agent off the idea. But the fact was he had done it. He had acted the part out to us and we had loved it and praised it. He had already played Arturo, in his mind. Why go through weeks of it for little pay? Move on. Perhaps a film start date had suddenly become more concrete.

Whatever the reason, time was running out and we had a problem.

To his disappointment we had decided against Len Rossiter, who had recently revived it in the West End. Jack suggested Nicol Williamson. I was wary. Having been at school with him, I knew his temperament well. By all accounts it hadn’t improved. We were on the tightest of schedules. Any silly behaviour could sink us. But I knew he was talented and in the end trusted Jack. Who would want to play silly buggers with Jack? Nicol not only turned in an electric performance, but behaved impeccably throughout, not losing us a minute’s shooting. Sam Wanamaker came in for a day to two. It was a showy part and demonstrated his abilities. He was line perfect on the first take, in fact only ever needed one take. He dominated the screen when on it, was quiet and friendly when off it. HIs professionalism was an example to the younger actors. Some of the other performances made me wince. We had scraped London for American actors, not being able to afford to import any, and the results were mixed.

Brian Tufano, who had soaked himself in old Warners’ gangster movies, shot it in black and white, lit it just like a Jimmy Cagney movie and had a fine time. It worked as a film, despite the non naturalistic language. They all did well, especially considering the budget. Jack once more validated my decision to ask him to direct a fiction film.

I’d decided to call it The Gangster Show, to the purists’ horror. I responded that I wanted my Uncle Fred to see it and he wouldn’t watch something called Arturo Ui. He did watch it and said it “wasn’t too bad”.

For me the drama happened before the shoot began. I’d committed the BBC and spent a lot of its money, committing to actors, crew, locations and so on, but still didn’t have the rights. No one at the BBC thought to ask me. Gerald Savory must have just assumed I wouldn’t go ahead without them. There was a problem with the Brecht estate. They refused outright. I couldn’t go ahead without the underlying rights, but the train had left the station. I just had to keep my nerve and continue to negotiate. Or beg. Eventually, just before principal photography began, the rights came through.
Lucky me.