I loved period drama and in the early 70s A Family At War, written by John Finch, was my first drama series. We would shoot most of each episode in studio and then go to various locations to shoot outdoor sequences and reconstructed events. My most memorable episode was filming in Llandudno – David, one of the characters, was shipwrecked at sea (Second World War). There was an explosion (seen from shore) when his ship exploded and then a lot of sequences of him and his mates in lifeboats. The “explosion” was a bit of a damp squid – we had a special fx guy called Spud Taylor (if I remember correctly he had the odd finger missing!) He’d set up this explosion out at sea and we had a couple of cameras lined up on the prom waiting for nightfall – needless to say quite a lot of people had gathered for this event. Spud and the 1st AD were on walkie talkies and when we heard Action all we saw was a tiny flash of light on the horizon then heard Spud’s voice over talkback saying excitedly “Did you get it? Did you see it?” We were all so embarrassed as this was the limit of his explosives and the public grumbled and drifted away. I think we had to use newsreel footage of a ship being torpedoed in the end. After that we spent three days and nights filming all the lifeboat sequences. We stayed at the Grand in Llandudno and climbed down the steps from the pier into various boats. When the tide was in we didn’t have too many steps to climb but some nights it wasn’t easy climbing up slippery wet steps with script and shooting bag. We obviously had to make sure we shot the lifeboat without any land in sight and had a motorised boat pushing us round all day as the tide would very quickly turn us in the wrong direction. I’d recently been on a boat trip round the Greek Islands and knew that I didn’t really suffer from seasickness but the sound guy next to me had a really rough time. He would shout “sound rolling” then heave up over the side. I always remember climbing the pier steps back up to the hotel for dinner and then being faced with greasy fish and chips. Quite a few of the extras in the lifeboats were ill but we didn’t care about them because they had to look the worse for wear having been shipwrecked for days. Props department thought they were being clever and made up some “dead bodies” to float around in the water. They can’t have counted them “in” and “out” as the lifeboat turned out further down the coast to rescue these lifeless dummies!
The second John Finch period drama I worked on in 1973-4 was called Sam, a story about a family living up in Barrow and the hardships they faced around the turn of the century. We made quite a few trips up to that part of the world. One I remember vividly was working with director Bill Gilmour and we had an actor carrying a suitcase across a field. It was very, very windy and we had to fill the case with bricks otherwise it was stuck out at right angles to the actor. This was our first setup and Bill had his master shooting script with him. He opened his folder and the wind whipped every page out of the folder and blew them seaward.
He took it very well!