Film-Making for Pyromaniacs: The Making of Blake’s 3½

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Whilst rummaging through a bunch of old files, I came across this article written in 2002 about a fan video made over a decade before that. The video was called Blake’s 3½ and it was made by FMtv, one of the North East film-making groups that eventually merged to form Timebase. I thought it might give an interesting insight into our early days as film-makers and the fun we had back in our youthful days!   Paul Ferry (2018)

Attack of the Autons* had left everyone at FMtv feeling a little low. We had worked for years on the project, and the finished product was disjointed and funny in all the wrong places. What was worse was that we didn’t quite know where we had gone wrong; everything seemed dandy from the rushes, but once it was all edited, it just didn’t seem to hang. We began to suspect that we didn’t really know how to sustain a film that ran to over 10 minutes. We wanted pace and action, but the product we created was sluggish and dull. We didn’t really feel like making another film, but felt that we probably should; at the time, we still ran a Durham local group, and film-making was one of our attractions.

Blake’s 7 film seemed like a good idea. As long as we steered clear of the Liberator bridge or any other sets, we could probably achieve a workable spoof. Costumes were easily recreated with baggy shirts and leather jackets, and a few of us owned Blake’s 7 related props. Philip T. Robinson assured us that he could create Federation Trooper helmets out of cardboard. From anyone else we’d have taken this as an idle boast, but Phil had built Cybermen helmets from cereal boxes for The Penultimate Adventure**, so we knew he was true to his word. The finished results were astonishing, considering that each one was made of half-a-football, cardboard and perspex. Unfortunately, we were unable to find black boiler-suits on our zero budget, so had to cope with the same blue coveralls which we used for the Autons on Attack of the Autons, with cardboard Federation insignia covering the AP logo on the breast pocket, indicating that many of them originated from the Austin-Pickersgill shipyards in Sunderland.

Casting initially seemed quite easy; I had massive bouffant hair at the time and was instantly cast as Blake. Neil owned a leather jacket and studded gloves (and a rubberised vest which he bought specially for the occasion – he says) became a natural Avon. The part of Vila went to Andy Loughran, because he had a Vila-ish haircut and owned a pyjama top, which looked like the sort of thing that character might wear. Our group was, at the time, 100% male and so the casting of any female characters was out of the question… though I seem to remember there was some talk of casting Davey McCourt, who had played Mrs Ferret in Autons, as Servalan. We decided to leave it at that, just the three principle rebels and Orac (as a voice only), which led naturally to the title Blake’s 3½. Other reprobates from the now-sadly-defunct Durham group*** to appear in Blakes 3½ included Graeme Nattress as the High Priest, David Griffiths as Savage in Black, Michael ‘Cecil’ Johnstone as Savage in Hat, David Chadwick as Savage with Eyepatch and Paul Walters as Evil Doppelganger Bodysnatcher Alien # 1. Other savages and troopers were portrayed by ‘the Munchkins’, juvenile members of the Durham group who had previously appeared to unfunny effect as UNIT troops in Attack of the Autons. One character we had trouble casting was Travis, but Phil suggested an acquaintance of his called Rupert Booth (who…?), who was making his own series of videos north of the Tyne. Also along for the ride was a college mate of Graeme’s called Barry Williams, who had just started working on Rupert’s films, and Cecil’s brother Tim, who we’d never seen before or since. Both of them ended up playing savages. We didn’t have a script as such for Blake’s 3½, just a vague storyline around which we would ad-lib the action. This was a throwback to our first film, BedTime, and probably happened due to the hassles concerning the script of Attack of the Autons, much of which was thrown out in favour of improvised action (which could be why it was so disjointed).

Our first filming took place late in 1991 at Finchale Woods near Durham. This has always been our favourite woodland location, being largely deserted and interestingly landscaped, and has appeared in more films than I care to mention here. Neil, Phil, Graeme, Andy and I shot various scenes with the three principles plus various Fed Troops, both in the woods and around the scenic iron bridge. Filming did not get off to an auspicious start; during the scene of my teleportation mid-way up an embankment, I started to slip on the loose earth and ended up sliding on my backside all the way to the bottom. This scene was considered so amusing that it made it into the finished film (minus the hysterical laughter of Phil). In fact, slipping was a major problem on this shoot. During a simple scene of Blake, Vila and Avon running over the iron bridge, we had to stop and re-shoot three times as Neil, Andy and myself slipped, one-by-one, on the frosty planks of the bridge and fell over.

With the woodland shoot in the can, we were ready for the main body of the film, the scenes around the savage encampment. For this we found an excellent location, an abandoned army barrack site near Phil’s house, which was about two acres of waste ground peppered with semi-derelict bunkers and hangars. Nobody ever went there, except the odd resident walking their dog, and although the land was owned by the nearby prison, they never found a use for it, as the bomb-proof bunkers proved too expensive to demolish. We started filming at the bunker site on New Year’s Day 1992, which some of you may remember as being one of the coldest UK winters in living memory. The site was covered in snow and we were all absolutely freezing. We sheltered in one of the bunkers and found an abandoned metal dustbin which we fashioned into a makeshift brazier. The brazier looked so good that we used it as the centrepiece of the savage headquarters, and also the base of operations for the shoot. Some of the cast and crew would stay with the warmth of the brazier whilst others went off and filmed. Unfortunately, Neil and I were needed for almost all of the filming, so the only time we got warm was during the filming of the savage HQ scenes. For these scenes, which feature the HQ being raided by Fed Troops, who slaughter the battling savages, we decided to try our hand at pyrotechnics for the first time since Autons. You’d have thought we’d have learned our lesson, as on that film one of our firework-effects went astray, hitting Auton actor David Ryan in a very delicate spot. But hey, David wasn’t on this film, so who was gonna complain. We had started toying with the idea of guns that fire fireworks (don’t try this at home kids – seriously), and I had shot a scene as a Fed Trooper firing a gun with a banger stuck in the end. Neil had a bumper sack of fireworks, so we started ramming roman candles in the end of toy pistols, which lit the darkish bunkers up magnificently. We set off smoke bombs and fired flaming arrows. It was all getting a bit intense, so we went outside.

The group of actors playing the savages all really got into their parts. Their costumes ranged from various bits of fur that we had acquired to woolly jumpers and hats. They weren’t the world’s most convincing savages, but they’d do. Some of the furs were culled from a ladies’ fur coat which Neil and I acquired in a charity shop. “It hasn’t got a belt, I’m afraid,” said the lady behind the counter, but we didn’t have the heart to tell her we were going to rip it apart anyway. The collar of the coat became the interesting hat which Cecil wears throughout the film. Clad in their furs and woollies, the gang donned various beards and started to growl “Ahrr,” and “Aharrr,” like pirates in some piratical 40s B-movie. Racing down embankments to beat me up, or carrying Neil off to their HQ, they presented some of the most humorous moments in the video.

At the edge of the bunker site was an abandoned non-bunker building which became the ‘house’ where Blake & Co have their final shoot-out with Travis. The building featured a strange ladder which led to it’s roof, which Avon ascends for a better vantage point. Again, there were plenty of pyrotechnics used in these scenes, from the firework pistol fired by Neil on the roof, to the red smoke-bomb used to flush out Blake and his men. The coughing you hear as they stumble from the house is real; the building had little ventilation and filled up with smoke almost instantly. The last scenes we shot at the ‘house’ involved the Creature which attacks the Fed Troopers, allowing the good guys to escape. The costume for this was the hairy body-suit that Phil had designed for a video we started called Species(before the release of the film of the same name), but with a new head piece which included a torch for a mouth (?) and dark sunken eyes. At the last moment, Phil suggested that the Creature should be played by one of the Munchkins, which would add some humour to the situation. We agreed, with reservations. Retrospectively, it was a terrible idea; the costume was visibly far too big and the Creature was about as threatening as a fluffy bunny. Neil had brought along a stunt dummy, lovingly named Gerald, who we dressed up as a Fed Trooper to be thrown around by the Creature. When the dummy would land in a heap on the ground, we would cut Spike Milligan-style to a real actor in a similar position, which looked mad, but quite funny. Eventually, we stuffed Gerald in a hole in the ground, ready to retrieve the next day, and headed to our nice warm homes.

Despite being frostbitten from our first session, we returned to the bunker site the next day – well, some of us at least. We didn’t need most of the secondary cast for the 2nd day, so they were probably quite glad to be stood down. Andy, who had been unable to make the previous days shooting, did turn up however. To explain Vila’s absence throughout much of the film, we had him crawling into a hole in the ground to get drunk. It was very game of Andy to do this, as the hole in the ground led to an underground chamber which was full of stagnant water (and probably rats), but he crawled down to within inches of the lethal pool, until he was out of shot.

One of the big scenes for this day was the duel between Neil as Avon and Cecil as Savage in Hat. For the lead-in to this, we were a bit short on savages from the previous day, but this was OK, since they were supposed to have been decimated by the Feds anyway. In the end we had three; Cecil, Andy in a big red beard and Munchkin Kristian, armed with a fearsome staff which is actually the camera’s monopod. In the scene where Savage in Hat invites Avon to choose his weapons for the duel, Cecil had intended to say, “You insolent hound-dog! My minions shall strip the flesh from your bones!”, however this didn’t come out right in the first take, with him instead saying, “You insolent hound-dog! My minions shall strip you!” before collapsing into hysterics. Unfortunately, subsequent takes fared no better and the line was eventually cut.

Additional footage for the battle between the Feds and the savages was filmed this day also. We retrieved Gerald from his hole in the ground and proceeded to fire flaming arrows at him. Neil doubled as ‘East European Santa Claus Savage’ for the scenes involving the firing of flaming arrows, ‘cos nobody else was mad enough to do it. The last seen of poor old Gerald was as a flaming heap from which we had to hurriedly rescue Phil’s Fed Trooper helmet.

Later in the day, Phil, Andy, Cecil and the Munchkins left, leaving Neil and I to do some last minute ‘experimental’ effects shots. These largely involved fireworks and just plain fire. Firstly, Neil decided that he would double as a savage being hit by a plasma bolt – this involved him taping a banger to his robes. I advised strongly against this, but he did it anyway and lived to tell the tale. We almost didn’t live to tell the tale, however, of our next little exploit. Neil had, in his firework bag o’ fun, an Air Bomb, which is basically like a huge banger designed to fly into the air and explode very loudly. Our idea was to place the Air Bomb in a piece of pipe and aim it at the far wall of one of the deserted hangars, this we would film. To make it look better, we slid shut the hangar doors, which were stiff and rusty, plunging the hangar into semi-darkness. The theory was that the air-bomb would shoot at the wall at the far end of the hangar and explode dramatically upon impact. Unfortunately, what it actually did was shoot at the wall, bounce off the wall, bounce off the ceiling and head back toward Neil & I. Luckily for us, the air-bomb exploded in mid-air upon it’s return, saving us from film-related sudden death. Annoyingly, the footage wasn’t all that great either, and is seen only briefly in the finished product.

It was starting to get dark and extremely cold now. Neil spent ages setting up a blazing trail of fire on the ground, using vodka from a flask that he had with him. This completely failed to work, so we used the rest of the vodka to soak a rag on the end of a stick, and filmed some exciting cutaways of blazing torches. And that was about it. Having spent about eight hours exposed to the elements, we trudged stiffly home, hoping that the tape hadn’t frozen in the camera and failed to capture all this excitement.

It took quite a while before Blakes 3½ was eventually edited and completed as a film. With the addition of a few primitive video effects, some wonderful model effects and some dreadful cardboard cut-outs, we eventually completed the film to premiere at a local video-making group that was just starting. The final voice-overs were ad-libbed onto the film about 10 minutes before the start of the group meeting. The finished product was better than Attack of the Autons in terms of production, but the jokes were really too few and far between and the film was overlong and quite slow-moving. Retrospectively, it probably scared a lot of people away from the video-making group, because this was the one and only meeting of the proposed enterprise. It was also the last completed film from FMtv for some time. There were other projects which we tried to launch – Balde Runner****The Autograph Hunter***** and a proposed horror anthology film – all of which were partly shot, but never completed. It would be 1998 before a spoof of The Sweeney called The Michael would be the next completed FMtv project… but that, as the cliché goes, is another story.

Paul Ferry (2002)

* Attack of the Autons was FMtv’s third film, a spoof of Terror of the Autons.
** The Penultimate Adventure was FMtv’s second film, a spoof of the stage play The Ultimate Adventure.
*** The Durham Group was a Doctor Who Local Group that ran in the Durham and Teesside area from the late-80s to the mid-90s.
**** Balde Runner was a spoof of Blade Runner and The Terminator that was never completed.
***** The Autograph Hunter was a spoof of The Twilight Zone that was never completed.

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