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Wodehouse - Behind the scenes

On a cold, grey Thursday morning just twelve days before last Christmas, Great Meadow Productions was hanging out the flags in Belfast City Centre. We were filming ’Wodehouse In Exile’ – starring Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role of Nigel William’s screenplay about how P. G. Wodehouse came to face a charge of treason during World War Two.The flags in question were not controversial Union Jacks – an absence of which was sparking off Loyalist protests and riots across Northern Ireland during filming – but merely 15ft high, bright red and black Swastikas. Consequently the only public reaction was hoards of merry, iphone-waving office workers streaming out of the Belfast Customs House to photograph the phenomenon of their workplace being transformed into the Third Reich’s radio studios in Berlin in 1941.

’Wodehouse In Exile’ is not just set in Berlin, but also in wartime Le Touquet, Upper Silesia, Paris, London and New York. So geographically at least, Northern Ireland might not seem the most obvious place to shoot it. But as any independent producer will tell you, what you need more than anything else for such ridiculously ambitious, low-budget drama is the kindness and genius of the practitioners of our business. HODs who will work miracles on tiny budgets, with small teams and tight time frames. Actors who arrive on set line-perfect and give thoughtful, powerful, subtle performances. Just because they love the script and the work.

Our company has been blessed in this regard. This is our fourth such drama, and the others – ’The Long Walk To Finchley’, ’When Harvey Met Bob’ and ’Room At The Top’ – all relied upon the skill and generosity of the remarkable casts and crews of the British and Irish film and tv industry.

’Wodehouse In Exile’ took this reliance to new heights. With a run-up of just four weeks and only sixteen days to shoot the 85 minute, period film, there really was only one way to do it. Producer Kate Triggs and director Tim Fywell surrounded themselves with the best possible people and trusted them. In the first week of prep production designer Tom McCullagh (pictured right with Tim Pigott-Smith), and location manager Andy Wilson drove them to a succession of extraordinary locations – a disused flax and paper mill for the dark satanic Tost interment camp in Upper Silesia, Ballywalter House for the Hotel Bristol in Paris, Hillsborough Castle for the British Foreign Office, Tyrella House for the Wodehouse home in Le Touquet, Montalto House for Ethel’s daughter’s home in London, a disused technical college in Belfast for a plethora of foreign locations, and - most astonishing of all to me - Stormont, for the grand reception of the world-famous Adlon hotel in Berlin (when I produced drama for the BBC from Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s Stormont was definitely a no-go area for film-making). It was Tom and Andy’s experience and reputations that got us into these places.

A particular benefit of the tight budget for me personally was that we couldn’t afford a stills photographer, so it gave me an excuse to do it myself. Taking them was great fun. Our brilliant DOP Owen McPolin and gaffer Brian Livingstone lit everything, Maggie Donnelly costumed the cast wonderfully on no money, Tom designed the sets and make-up designer Pam Smyth made everyone look great. I pointed the camera and pressed the shutter. I especially like the one of Stormont with the balloon lights (pictured right). I’d never seen these used before – they filled them up with helium and float them up to the ceiling. Hey presto: no scaffolding in Stormont’s hallowed hall!

What you can’t tell from them though, is the fact that much of the time I was taking them I was in costume, because (for economic reasons, of course), I played a very small part. So the shot of Wodehouse in camp, flanked by his two fellow inmates in grass skirts is taken by an aging 6ft 5in man also wearing a grass skirt. Isn’t low budget drama great?

Robert Cooper – Broadcast Magazine, March 2013

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