Screen • BBC • The Parachute

Off-Cut: The Parachute

When I called David Mercer to ask him if he had something he was burning to write, he just said he had an image of a man on the end of a parachute. That’s all he knew. I called his agent, Peggy Ramsay, and put through a commissioning form. That was allowed in those days. As a producer I could commission a screenplay about anything from anyone. Producers were allowed some discretionary judgement.

Some months later a screenplay arrived. I did no work with him on it because I didn’t feel enough in sympathy with it to be of any help. The subject was Germany between the World Wars and the rise of Nazism, involving a powerful Junker family. So far, very interesting. But the writing was theatrical and camp. Not my cup of tea. I didn’t know how to make it and didn’t particularly want to, but I thought it should be made. David was an important writer and shouldn’t be censored. I offered to hand it over to another producer, but neither he nor his agent, Peggy Ramsay, would hear of it. Crucially I had to appoint the right director. I waited eighteen months for Anthony Page to be free, much to David’s irritation.

Although Anthony had never directed a film, I knew he had the sensibility to handle this material. I gave him an experienced crew, including Tony Imi on camera, but otherwise complete freedom. I knew he would want famous theatrical names. That was fine. They would carry this odd piece. He cast John Osborne, Jill Bennett, Alan Badel, Isabel Dean and Lindsay Anderson as a Nazi interrogator.

Lindsay’s casting rather amused me. I had an abrasive relationship with him. I thought he was a phoney. I’d see him striding around the NFT as if he owned it, wearing a flat cap, trying to look like Bertold Brecht. In fact he came from Indian Army stock and was resolutely posh. His interest in left politics was merely fashionable, of no substance. I also thought he talked a better film than he directed. He wanted acolytes and I made it clear I would not be one. We kept a wary distance. I would never have thought of casting him. But he was brilliant.

I was nervous about John Osborne, whose acting I had never seen and who had a temperamental reputation, but bit my tongue. In the event he behaved impeccably and was remarkably good.
On the first day the crew put Anthony on the spot. Tony Imi had borrowed an antique camera from Samuelson’s and set it up, the wrong way round, for the first shot. With a straight face he invited Anthony to look through it to approve the camera position. This he did after a confident swing of his scarf. Of course, he could see nothing. After a moment’s hesitation, he approved. The whole crew collapsed. Anthony got the joke and joined in. He was accepted. Everyone rallied round him.

We were shooting on a large army base and had it dressed as a Nazi headquarters, with swastikas everywhere and Nazi extras marching up and down. Unfortunately this coincided with a NATO conference. There was consternation when army brass from all over Europe, including West Germany, confronted their past. It took some smoothing over.

Anthony captured the mood of the piece, bringing out the menace and sadism beneath the camp behaviour.

The film was praised by some. It puzzled many.