Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Shooting day five

I think it must be so difficult to be an international leader right now. There are so many nut-jobs around, that a semi-sensible Prime Minister is forced to suck up lunacy, simply to stop some sort of major crisis from kicking off. It’s all very well for the London Mayor and the leader of the Scottish National Party to front demonstrations against Trump, but to my mind, that’s one of the manifold benefits of being on the second tier of leadership: You can actually speak your mind instead of playing a game of diplomacy. Imagine having to talk to Trump or Putin like they’re sensible? Terrifying.

Yesterday’s filming started in the East End of London at 19 Princelet Street, which is a stunning Victorian synagogue situated within one of those grand Huguenot weavers’ cottages around Spitalfields. These days it’s rather run down and somewhat “shabby chic” like the theatre at Ally Pally where we got married. Chunks of plaster are falling off the walls, and the roof, which is entirely made of glass, has missing coloured panes where the rain surely comes in. They’re fundraising at the moment to secure the place and turn it into a museum of immigration and diversity. They certainly deserve the funding. This is a vitally important building. I was, however, a little underwhelmed by the way we were dealt with by the institution in the run up to the filming. I didn’t even know they were going to allow us to film there until Thursday last week. I guess I have become very used to people really getting behind 100 Faces and genuinely celebrating the vision of the piece, so it was a shock to find an institution which didn’t seem that bothered. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I ended up being made to feel that the only reason we were being allowed to film there was because we’d brought Steven Berkoff with us.

Nevertheless, the building yielded some rather lovely shots and had a stunning acoustic which we took advantage of to record three vocalists on the film: Ashley, Tim and Harry. Berkoff did his thing. Brilliantly. As did John Kleeman, whose charming wife, Julie, one of the Fleet Singers, came along to the shoot to offer moral support. It was so lovely to see her, although a little surprising out of context. It’s funny how we attach people so firmly to situations and locations that it becomes quite confusing when they’re in a different setting. Your brain starts putting two and two together and coming up with six! I knew her name. I knew I knew her but for a few seconds I’d decided she was a trustee at UK Jewish Film!

From the East End we travelled to Hampstead to film Dame Esther Rantzen. I was rather excited to be filming her. That’s Life played an important role in my childhood. We used to sit down as a family and watch the show on Sunday nights. It reminds me of having “homework tummy” - which is the sensation exclusive to a Sunday night when you realise you haven’t done enough prep for the working week! I realised as we filmed Esther, quite how many of the stories I’d remembered from the show. The badly stuffed cat. The piece they did on people who were able to roll their tongues in two places. The dog that jumped up to drink from a soda fountain. The dog that said “sausages”... People reading this who don’t know the show will think I’ve gone mad!

With Esther, you don’t really get to say what you want. Everything, from shot size, position and type of chair, even what she’s going to say, is pre-arranged and un-negotiable, which made me panic a little that I wasn’t going to be able to make her segment fit into the world of the film. But she’s a total pro and it was a delight to be in the presence of someone whose charity work alone would make most people feel entirely inadequate. She’s a legend.

Next up for filming was another Dame, Janet Suzman, who welcomed us into her beautiful house and gave us all a warm, fuzzy feeling inside! You can instantly tell what kind of a person someone is by the way they deal with film crews. Filming can be intrusive. It can be boring and repetitive. And some film crews will really test people’s limits. But ultimately, everyone is trying to make something good, and therefore, putting people at their ease is a really important thing. On both sides.

After Janet, we headed to the Finchley Road to film Bernard Kops, whom I have grown to adore in a very short period of time. I plan to work with him again after this. He’s 92 and still going strong. He has memories of Cable Street and the wartime Bethnal Green tube disaster, where hundreds were killed in a crush caused by a woman tripping on a flight of stairs, after an air raid siren created wide-scale panic.

Bernard was amazing on screen. Both Keith and Andrei immediately placed him at the top of their list of favourite faces. So much of the trick to getting older is maintaining ones own sense of being... and dignity. I appreciate that this doesn’t always happen through choice. But sometimes you get the impression that a person has simply given up. Kops keeps a steeliness, and a sense of style. He wanted to be filmed in his Greek Fisherman’s hat. “This is more “me” than my face” he said.

Next up was the biggie: Our 100 year old, Eva. Actually, though born in 1918, Eva is still 99 for a few months. She’s ferociously independent and still lives on her own. She’s kind, warm, witty and intelligent with a razor-sharp memory. She’d dressed up for the filming, and looked a million dollars.

There was something pretty special about passing the milestone of filming her. I suspect I’ve always thought if we could get our 100-year-old in the can, everything else would somehow slot into place. This is probably due to the amount of people who have seemed utterly incredulous at the idea that there might be a one hundred year-old Jewish person out there! In reality, of course, people are far more likely to know of the existence of a centenarian than they are of a 96 year old.

The day’s shooting ended, up in High Barnet, in the garden of a 17 year old A-level student. The house itself had been utterly gutted, and the garden was full of rubble and chairs piled high. The family were terribly apologetic, but it made for a very quirky shot. I actually like to arrive in a venue and work with what’s there visually, rather than trying to imagine what I want beforehand. If confronted with a building site, then the building site becomes the perfect location for our shot. It’s more truthful somehow.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Filming day four

It’s been a somewhat manic day today which started with us donning kippahs to film at Finsbury Park synagogue. I didn’t realise that this particular shul was the sight of a really hideous anti-Semitic attack just over ten years ago, which involved people breaking into the building, ripping books up, defecating everywhere and drawing Swastikas on the walls. It’s beyond ghastly, really.

Julian and his daughter Maytal are the proud custodians of the building and Julian was the first of our faces in front of the camera today. He has an old-school Jewish East End accent which I find incredibly charming, largely because you rarely get to hear it these days.

We had a hugely diverse selection of people coming through the doors during the morning, including a young Jewish girl who is half Indian and half Jamaican, someone who descends from the ancient Indian Jewish community of Cochin, and a pair of twins, who will represent, I think, 2009. The project is called 100 Faces - but there are actually 101 faces. I figured twins could be said to count as one. I hope this decision doesn’t confuse viewers too much. The twins are quite boisterous and Zionist, so, for many reasons, they could well end up being the most controversial aspect of the film!

We left the shul at just before 1pm, having filmed seven faces. I was very pleased with the shots we got. Finsbury Park shul has a fabulous atmosphere, but it’s not one of the show-offy synagogues, like New West End, or West London. Filming there meant we had to think a little more out of the box and carefully dress the shots by moving books and various religious objects about in the background.

The next face of the day belonged to the lovely Norman Bright, born in the mid 30s, who is a wonderful character with a great gift for comedy. He fed us Lucozade and tried a few jokes out on us as we set up the shot. He’s about to start running poetry and jazz nights in Stoke Newington and home publishes a monthly satirical newspaper which gets dropped through people’s doors, which I think is called “Born Before Biro.” I hope to have the same amount of energy when I’m in my eighties!

From Norman’s house in the Wild West of Clapton, we headed to the middle class, bohemian oasis of Stoke Newington, where we had lunch before filming two stonking sequences at Rachel’s house. Rachel is the education officer at UK Jewish film and lives in one of loveliest properties I’ve ever seen, with a glorious roof terrace over-looking London. Rachel will appear in the film frantically chopping cucumbers. The other sequence we shot at her house featured a young lass called Maya, whose father is one of the Cohen tribe and mother is a wonderful Malaysian lady, who converted from Catholicism. We’re certainly featuring Jewish people from a wide variety of backgrounds in our film.

Rachel recommended a bar on Church Street where they sell a wide variety of great beer, which appealed to Keith and Andrei on a hot afternoon. We found a lovely table in the yard outside but were a little disappointed to discover that the place only had one beer on draft. It was, nevertheless, a lovely place to sit whilst the world watched the World Cup final. As we left, we realised the beer place was actually next door!

We jumped back into the car and headed to Islington to meet Lubavitch Rabbi, Mendy Korer. We filmed him out on his balcony and he dusted off his line at top speed. He is obviously a man who is highly used to media work.

The last filming of the day took place back in Clapton with the deeply charming, quirky comedian, Penelope Solomon, who was our second singer of the day. Penelope likens being Jewish to sitting in a warm bath which needs to continually be topped up with lovey hot water. It’s an analogy which works rather beautifully.

The journey home took us back to Finsbury Park shul where Andrei had left a speaker. Fortunately Maytal was on hand to let us back in. She really has been an absolute brick throughout this process. When I was a child, someone called me a brick and I cried all day because I didn’t know it was a good thing. So Maytal, if you’re reading this, and don’t know what a brick is... Think Mensch and you won’t go far wrong!

38 Faces down. 62 to go...

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Truck Fump

Another day of filming starts today. We’re avoiding filming on Fridays and Saturdays because I wouldn’t want any of our faces to feel uncomfortable about being asked to film on Shabbat. As it stands, we have a full house, but for someone born in 1924. I have leads in this regard, but I’ll confess to being slightly concerned.

Of course, the issue is that, the further into the filming we get, the more pressure we end up under if people pull out, so the last day (next Sunday) could well end up like some sort of fight to the death!

I was grateful to have a day away from filming on Friday because it gave me a chance to go into the office and sort out a load of admin. We have five days of filming on the trot now, so there were a lot of people to email and a lot of venues to double-confirm. As it strands, everything is in order. It needs to be because things are bound to go wrong!

I met up with Fiona after work on Friday and we went to the anti-Trump demonstration. Fiona had marched, but I hadn’t made it in time, so went to the rally in Trafalgar Square instead. I didn’t stay long. I just wanted to stand up and be counted really. It was only a gesture, because the man himself was in Windsor so couldn’t hear the booing and jeering. That’s why I was so grateful to the people in Scotland who thwarted his game of golf yesterday with catcalls and out of tune bagpipes.

The rally was incredibly good-natured with some wonderfully inventive placards being waved. I was also pleased to see it hadn’t become a gathering for anyone with radical beef about any old issue. I saw a few Palestinian flags but people were mostly sticking to the brief of letting America know why we don’t want him in this country. A psychopath, so wholly lacking in compassion for the under dog is not welcome here. With any luck, his draconian policies on immigration will prevent him from reentering the States!

I’m sure Theresa May had a ball entertaining him. It’s actually the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for her, but to quote the old man sitting at the bus stop in Finsbury Park just now: “that prime minster of ours. She’s an arsehole.”

Friday, 13 July 2018

Day three of filming

Yesterday started in a Travelodge, somewhere near Wakefield. Despite being on the M1 and entirely lacking in breakfast facilities (other than the dreaded “breakfast box”) the place itself was a rather nice example of an English motel. My room was large. It had a lovely deep bath in it. We got in so late, however, that I didn’t get to take advantage of it. There’s nothing better after a shoot than being able to relax with a hot bath and a bit of TV.

From Wakefield, we travelled to Northern Leeds, where we had breakfast outside a little cafe before heading off to film our 23rd face, the youngstest in the film, a one-year-old lad called Harry. It’s rather surreal to think that he might show our film to his great grandchildren in 90 years time. Here’s a lad with his whole life ahead of him. What will he witness? Will humanity get its act together or will a cataclysmic event occur, brought about by our recidivist inability to learn?

From Leeds, we drove to Salford to a hugely Jewish district which, I was surprised to discover, was jam-packed with Charedi people. Hats. Ringlets. Peddle pushers. The works. Obviously, we’re all very used to seeing members of this particular community in Stamford Hill, Brooklyn and, of course, Israel, but there was something about the sight of them in a leafy Northern City suburb which rather surprised and delighted me.

It was here that we filmed a wonderful woman called Rochelle who was perhaps even more of a contradiction than the neighbourhood she lives in. Rochelle is a plain-talking, highly-witty Scouse woman, who also wears a sheitel and is ultra-orthodox enough not to shake a man’s hand on meeting him. What’s wonderful about her is that she’s really open and happy to discuss anything. You also get the impression that she wouldn’t make anyone feel unconformable if they held out a hand. I assume she’d either take it, or explain with a joke why she hadn’t. I took to her enormously. She’d asked her rabbi what she should say about being Jewish and simply been told, “just speak from your heart.”

We also filmed Rochelle’s two-year-old granddaughter, Amelia, who was suitably charming, if not a touch flibbertigibbet. Getting her to stay still was a little like trying to herd butterflies!

We drove across to the fancy suburbs of Western Manchester for the second half of the day, and faces twenty-five to thirty, which included an Austrian Kinder-Transportee/former dentist who has dedicated his retirement to reminding the Jewish community what an important role the Quakers played in saving Jewish lives during World War Two, and Joy Wolf, an indomitable charity campaigner who encourages young people to find their voices.

The day ended in Cheadle, with the deeply charming Debbie Hilton, a very close friend of Nathan’s from drama school. The plan had been to film her and both of her children, but her son had a melt down and that was the end of his involvement in the film. I’ve said all the way along on that I only want people involved who are keen to take part. I’m not interested in anyone feeling scared, angry or like they’re doing me a favour by taking part. Someone else will step in, and enjoy doing so.

Debbie sang beautifully and looked utterly luminous on screen. She confessed herself that her voice has got a little rusty of late, but you could tell what a quality instrument lies just beneath the surface. I hope she dusts it off and starts loving that side of her life again. It doesn’t matter where you sing. The important thing is that you SING. As loudly, as often and with as much joy as you can muster.

The journey home seemed to last forever. I didn’t try to rush. Andrei is a great companion and I decided to bore him silly by playing him the Brass and the Em albums, which he seemed to enjoy.
I came home to discover that one of my faces, an old gent called Eric, whom we were meant to be filming on Tuesday, has died. I only met him once. He was quiet, but charming and he had a lovely singing voice which I was excited about featuring in the film. We knew he was poorly, so we’d already started looking for a replacement, which makes me feel slightly less mercenary about replacing him. But it’s very sad. I guess if it does nothing else, making a film about the process of ageing is going to make you acutely aware of your own mortality, and your position almost half the way along the timeline...

Shooting day two

Two more days of filming back-to-back and I’ve woken up this morning feeling like I entered a black hole during the night. I forget how exhausting filming can be. Actually, the older I get, the more I forget (or suddenly learn) how exhausting everything can be! I am very grateful to the two days off we now have. There is, of course, a bewildering amount of admin for me to do, but I’m hoping that Keith and Andrei (camera and sound) will get to relax and sleep and look back on a very successful start to our odyssey.

I couldn’t have asked for a better team around me. Both are incredibly laid back yet highly enthusiastic about what we’re doing. They’re truly investing in the project. Banter, as we travel about, is great. We laugh a lot. Keith and I say terribly inappropriate things and Andrei hasn’t yet tried to escape from a moving car! The nature of the people we’re filming - Holocaust survivors, Kinder Transportees, those whose lives were saved by the Quakers during the Second World War - means that our discussions can also get quite deep. Andrei is Romanian and I have become quite fascinated with his stories about the 1989 Revolution. All of this has made me realise quite how shrill, yet hollow, some of the yelling on social media has been of late. Sometimes I think it’s important to recognise how lucky we are to be living in 2018, in the UK, before telling the world what terrible victims we all are. We might do well by taking a deep breath and working out what the word victim actually means.

Anyway, two days ago, filming started at 10am, at the Holocaust survivors’ centre, where we met four wonderful individuals who have seen, first hand, the reason why it’s vital that people like Trump and Putin are kept in check, and furthermore why the UK and the US’s backward step into self-protectionism is so worrying. Brexit has played its part in destabilising the world, be under no illusion about that. But at least, I suppose, we get to measure our apples in pounds and shillings. Philip, Ivor, Miriam and Manfred are all wonderful characters whose faces will light up the film. Miriam had a heart attack just over two weeks ago and yet she breezed in, looking fabulously glamorous, keen to get on with life. That’s the spirit of a survivor.

Faces 16 and 17 were filmed at one of Jewish Care’s centres up in Hendon. Jewish Care have been wonderful help for us during this project. Lisa Wimborne, who works for the organisation, is one of the first people I contact when one of my faces drops out. She has saved the day on more than one occasion.

We filmed the lovely Matthew, a guy with a deeply infectious smile, who is confined to a wheelchair, and a five-year-old lass called Daniella, who calls everyone dude! 

Lunch was in a kosher bakery, which meant I got to shovel shedloads of vegetarian baked goods into my pie hole - Barekas with cheese, barekas with mushroom, vegetarian sausage rolls... I was utterly spoilt for choice, but must learn how to spell bareka.

The next five faces were filmed in the staggering surroundings of West London shul, which has to be one of the finest synagogues in London. Rabbi David was wonderfully welcoming. He is understandably, deeply proud of the building, and the more I hear about what goes on inside, from LGBT weddings to World AIDS day services, the more I feel in awe.

Rabbi David sings in the film, as does a glorious cabaret performer called Melinda Hughes, who kindly filled in for a last-minute drop out and, in the process, made herself one of the leading lights of the film! At the same location we also filmed suave actor, Henry Goodman, Brass family member, Zak Easthop (who plays flugelhorn in the film) and Tahlia Kaye, an Indian convert to Liberal Judaism.

As we exited the shul, London was gearing itself up for the World Cup Semi-Final. We could hear groups of people singing “football’s coming home” and there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air.

The M1 was empty as we drove north. By the time we’d arrived in Northampton, the match had started and England were a goal up. We were in my home town to film our oldest face so far: 97 year-old Sidney Teckman. I want to be like Sidney at the age of 97. Open. Honest. Dignified. Witty. Sharp. Proudly wearing his RAF badge.

We were there to talk to him about the Battle of Cable Street, which, in my view, is the single most important event in British Jewish history. We did a little interview with him about his memories. Not really for anything other than preserving his testimony. People don’t really know about Cable Street. Young Jewish people don’t even know about what happened on that day in 1936. And they should. And we should be very grateful to those like Sidney and Bernard Kops, who stood up to be counted when they were given the chance. Bravo Sidney Teckman. We owe our liberty to you.

It was as we left Sidney’s house to start a journey to Leeds that Keith the cameraman revealed that bites on his legs which he’d got whilst filming the fires on Saddleworth Moor, had got infected. His leg had swollen up and he was beginning to worry. So the evening ended in A and E in Barnsley Hospital, surrounded by pissed-up football fans nursing injuries inflicted on themselves after our disappointing exit from the World Cup, which we caught at Leicester Services.

It was, Keith informed me, exactly eight years to the day that we’d wrapped filming on A Symphony for Yorkshire. Where does the time go, please?

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

The first day of shooting

Yesterday was gruelling, uplifting, hectic, moving, hysterical and occasionally, even restful.

At 10am, a small film crew arrived at Maureen Lipman’s house to film the first of our 100 Faces. She was a delight. An absolute charmer. Graceful. Warm. She’d written a wonderful mini-poem for her 7-second slot in the film, and delivered it, perfectly, in one take. She asked to have a quick look at what we’d filmed and when we played it back in the monitor, she said, “well, I think that’s a lovely shot... of my begonia!” She was right! We altered the shot and did another take!

The rest of the day sailed past in a whirl. I can’t help but think we’ve entered an episode of Challenge Anneka where the stakes see incredibly high and, instead of the ludicrous fake jeopardy you get with modern-day documentaries, we’ve got the toe-twitching, face-gnawing real deal! Already this week I’ve lost 3 of my faces. One went into hospital. One poor lass lost her uncle. One bloke told me he couldn’t be certain that he wasn’t going to be “recouperating”  on the filming day, so wasn’t prepared to commit to it, having committed to it. (Seriously!) We offered him another filming date (today) and, last night, he sent an email to say that “for personal reasons” he can’t now do that.

What was joyous about yesterday is that everyone we expected to film either turned up, or was in when we turned up, and, despite being already half an hour behind schedule before lunch, we caught up and finished the day ahead of time with a happy crew who’d even managed to sit down in a cafe for lunch.

Our second face was the incomparable “frum” comedian, Ashley Blaker, who schlepped down to Highgate to film his sequence in front of my mantelpiece. His response to the question “what does being Jewish mean to you?” was suitably witty and brilliantly delivered.

Faces three and four were in Highgate and Muswell Hill respectively. One sat on the balcony of his house and answered his question in Yiddish. The other’s response was political and delivered in front of a massive book case. He faltered a few times, 28 times to be exact, but we got there in the end. He has a wonderful face.

Next up was 80s club host and great friend, Philip Sallon and his sister Ruth. We filmed Ruth in her studio. She’d just finished work on a statue which she felt entirely summed up what she was saying, so we filmed them together! 

Philip was, as expected, utterly insane. To warm up for his six second cameo, he sang a song and made about ninety quick-witted quips. He opted to be filmed half naked wearing only a loin cloth with a Star of David attached!

Probably the most striking clash of worlds came in the form of Philip meeting the wonderfully dignified Steven, a Holocaust survivor and our seventh face, who, I’m quite sure had never encountered anyone like Philip before. Philip told Steven what to wear and told him to change what he was planning to say which made Steven incredibly tense. It came from the right place and because we weren’t running behind, it stayed amusing. I think it was only when Steven realised he could tell Philip to shut up that he found him anything other than terrifying!

Ruth gave us tea and biscuits before we headed off to Alexandra Palace for faces eight, nine, ten and eleven: a quirky, brilliant-minded school boy, a stunningly beautiful actress called Gabriella, Brass family member, and wonderful singer, Jack Reitman and the chairman of UK Jewish film, whose response to the question was particularly moving.

And that was that. Laura from Ally Pally looked after us incredibly well. I genuinely feel that our getting married there has made us part of the story of the building some how. When I first moved to London, I lived in a horrifying bedsit which had an incredible view up the hill to the palace. Back then I decided it was the most beautiful building in London. It’s certainly played a large part in my life.

I came home and had a bath because I couldn’t actually do anything else!

Monday, 9 July 2018

That flag

The UK seems almost as hot as Israel at the moment. I went down to Worthing in shorts and a T-shirt yesterday and still felt hot. Sadly, I wasn’t there to jump about on the beach in a carefree and jolly manner. Instead, I went down to work on the music for 100 Faces with our music producer, Paul. The task was to identify the best takes from the session with the Camerata in readiness for filming.

There comes a point at which being the director, composer and producer of a film collides - and that point has just arrived. Usually, I’ve been able to work on the constituent elements separately, or I’ve had a producer who’s been working full time with me to take care of the avalanche of ludicrous questions you get asked in the run up to a shoot like this, or take responsibility for all of those really important things like booking hotels for cameramen and sorting insurance, which get temporarily tossed aside when you’re trying to record an Israeli orchestra or create a shot list.

It, of course, entirely goes without saying that the train down to Worthing was badly delayed. We stopped in Littlehampton for an age. Quite why the train went to Worthing via Littlehampton and not Brighton, I’ve no idea, but there was talk of planned engineering at Three Bridges - none of which was mentioned on my Trainline App, which told me I could expect to arrive in Worthing half an hour before I actually did.

I don’t know how Brighton people deal with the dreadful Southern Rail service. Our woefully poorly transport infrastructure makes the UK begin to resemble a developing country. On the way back yesterday, the train was so overcrowded that I ended up sitting on the floor between the loo and the concertinered rubbery bit where the train carriages join. By the time I’d emerged at Victoria my back had gone into spasms. I’m surprised we weren’t given the option of sitting on the roof of the train!

Thank God for them England football lads, eh? They’re gonna show the rest of the world that we mean business. They’re gonna put the great in Great Britain again. Or England. Whatever. Who gives a shit? It’s all the same isn’t it?

I walked past a house in Worthing utterly bedecked in England flags and immediately felt uncomfortable. I wonder if there are citizens in any other country in the world who feel their own flag symbolises something other than pride in their homeland? I’m okay with the Union Jack, which, for me, represents unity. When I’m on my travels around the world, and I see a Union Jack, I’ll often feel a twinge of belonging. The England flag, on the other hand, feels like nothing but a flapping advert for racism, prejudice, and separation. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in feeling this.

I genuinely envy the Welsh and the Scots, who, it seems, can wave their own flags with pride and great joy without feeling like there are sinister overtones in doing so.