Friday, May 4, 2012

WHO is MICHAEL E. BRIANT? - A Memoir / Review

There are several types of Doctor Who memoir - those which outline a busy career in television and film production (such as Barry Letts' recent book Who and Me) or those which are more personal and cover life's experiences rather than the day job.

Personality and a full and interesting life are very important to the success of a memoir. Anneke Wills' books, for example, are a complex, extremely moving journey of a woman's journey into maturity whereas Letts' book is about the development of a writer, actor and director and the changing nature of television production. Both can work extremely well as long as the author's exploits emerge from the page with enough enthusiasm, humour and insight. However, it's often difficult to get the balance right between the personal and the professional and the most successful books are those that can manage to juggle the two and appeal to a broad range of readers.

Classic TV Press have now convinced Michael E. Briant, a television director who has amassed some significant credits ( Z Cars, Blake's 7, Secret Army, Warship, The Onedin Line, Howard's Way among others) during what was regarded as 'the golden age' of television drama and beyond, that his personal and professional exploits would be of interest to those asking the question, Who is Michael E. Briant? Apparently, he's been asking that question too and this book would seem to be a rather good place to start. It fulfills many of the above criteria. While it is not an emotional confessional in the style of Wills' books, it does offer an insider's view of working at the BBC, a significant chunk of which was on Doctor Who, and a personal journey taking him from selling Revlon cosmetics to adventures sailing around the world.

It's written in a very accessible style, is bright, breezy and often witty, and yet still contains a great understanding of television production spanning several decades and his career progression through the BBC as floor manager, production assistant and director. As well as hair-raising tales about the dramas he worked on, he often reflects on production techniques and methodology that made these programmes so successful, elements of which he feels are sadly absent in today's hectic world of television production. More of that in a moment.

Naturally, we start with Michael's childhood and his budding child-actor career as a alumnus of the Italia Conti school as one Michael Tennant. It was a career which he saw through rose tinted spectacles as a life that demanded "no educational requirements, very long holidays between jobs, and the possibility of foreign travel." After elocution and deportment classes, Michael found work in plenty of stage and television productions, discovered a brief passion for racing pigeons and then was bitten by the 'messing about in boats' bug after starring in a John Gregson film vehicle, True as a Turtle.

The film's location work on a sailing yacht led to a lifelong infatuation with boats and sailing that gradually becomes evident as you make your way through the book. Coincidentally, the money he earned from the film enabled him to buy a cine camera and take his first steps in what would be his other passion of making television drama. The racing pigeons were quietly forgotten.

As the acting work dried up, Michael became a rep for Procter and Gamble, flogging Daz and Fairy Snow to the shopkeepers of post-austerity Britain in a Burtons suit and trilby. There's a very nice story about his job with Revlon that I think illustrates Michael's quick thinking and insight, something that would later hold him in good stead during the making of Death to the Daleks. Instead of lugging suitcases of samples around the chemists in his area, he decorated a hotel conference room, put on a Christmas exhibition of Revlon products and, with a bit of cheap sherry as enticement, brought the chemists to him. As he sat and waited for the chemists to arrive (with the eventual gathering "like a crowded Doctor Who convention") he saw a job advertised at the BBC for which he successfully applied. He was on his way, even if Revlon's Sales Manager thought he was mad for turning down a counter offer of a new car and a £750 wage increase.
"the camera should be the third person in the room"
Working at the BBC as an AFM, his first day was clearly a portent of the future. He was instructed to assist the AFM on Doctor Who and learned to leave Bill Hartnell's favourite armchair well alone and trust to the vagaries of the Visual Effects Department and to avoid Hartnell's ire if you dared to muck about with the TARDIS controls. He worked with Douglas Camfield on The Crusade, having the unenviable task of wrangling ants, procured from London Zoo, to eat the honey smeared on the arm of one Viktors Ritelis standing in for William Russell who clearly did not fancy an encounter with killer ants. This tale does not augur well for Michael's continuing relationship with Equity defying creatures and the star struck likes of iguanas and maggots were delights yet to come in his career as a director.

He describes BBC office etiquette and the roles of Production Assistants, Floor Managers and Directors and how he got into the habit of keeping a little black book of actors he worked with that would function as his own version of Spotlight. His experience was also shaped by the likes of fellow directors Christopher Barry, Hugh David, Michael Barry, Joan Craft, Rex Tucker and Peter Hammond and he is clearly very grateful for such invaluable training on the job, taking to heart Hammond's advice "the camera should be the third person in the room". As PA, he was lucky to work with Barry on The Power of the Daleks, on which the AFM was the irrepressible, and future Who director, Graeme Harper, and was present at the arrival of Patrick Troughton. He, Patrick and producer Innes Lloyd were certainly confounded by Sydney Newman's interpretation of the Second Doctor as a 'cosmic hobo' to such an extent that it required a drink in the BBC club and Patrick coming to the rescue.

A superb chapter about the making of Fury from the Deep follows with plenty of anecdotes about hiring helicopters, getting foam machines to an anti-aircraft platform in the Thames Estuary, seasick BBC crews (a recurring motif) and a tricky moment, filming the landing of the TARDIS on the sea, that saw Michael clinging to the side of helicopter skid a hundred feet above the waves. A successful day's filming also literally brought the house down, in true Errol Flynn style, at the crew hotel in Margate. His graduation to director is accompanied by a fascinating account of the short film he made at the BBC training school, The Kiss, and through the good auspices of Ronnie Marsh, who had become Head of Serials, his proper go at making an episode of Z Cars. He sadly found it a disappointing experience in comparison to directing four episodes of what he believed to be the better scripted The Newcomers. However, there are some great perceptions into the processes of making programmes and how they were assessed inside the BBC itself.
"an eighteen-month-old-baby crawling could have escaped from it and, if angered, finished it off."
His reflections on Colony in Space, his next Doctor Who, do cover quite a few of the anecdotes that he provided on the recent DVD commentary and the stories will therefore feel more familiar but I couldn't help raise a chuckle over the pitfalls of using the Portaloo in the Carclaze quarry location and rather sympathised with Michael as he felt somewhat out of his depth, encouraging his own death wish by thinking of crashing his car to get out of directing Colony in Space. The design and function of the IMC robot is a particular target of his disappointment, believing "an eighteen-month-old-baby crawling could have escaped from it and, if angered, finished it off." Considering it's a serial not held with much regard by Who fans and was something of a baptism of fire for him, I understand his frustrations.

At 28, Michael decided to go freelance as a director and, despite fearing the worst, found himself in gainful employment courtesy of Ronnie Marsh and the BBC and back working on Z Cars. Here, he again details some of the innovations of the time when he uses OB equipment, crews used to covering sports events and new lightweight cameras to record the episodes. Suffice it say, the OB van nearly overturned while shooting a vehicle pulling away using a car mounted camera and stunt man Stuart Fell put something of a dampener on one of the cameras too. His thoughts turn to how such dramas were built out of rehearsing the script, usually at the BBC's rehearsal rooms at the 'Acton Hilton', and genuine collaboration between actors, crew, producer and director. Clearly, it's something he feels is missing in the production equation of today's television drama.

Working on The Sea Devils kept his seafaring ambitions afloat, despite his concerns about costuming the eponymous creatures and building sets that conveyed their underwater habitat, and increasingly as his career progresses you can tell he gets a kick out of working on dramas that feature the sea or boats of any kind. It reflects his increasing ambitions to become a professional sailor that are encouraged by his work on Gerald Glaister's series Warship after further dealings with Doctor Who in the shape of giant maggots, Daleks and Cybermen and the perils of dropping ballcocks out of helicopters, watching John Scott Martin lose control of his Dalek and confronting the curse of Wookey Hole. An interesting aside in the chapter on Death to the Daleks is how he persuaded Barry Letts to allow him to record the episodes set by set rather than in story order. It inaugurated a rehearse record system that eventually became standard across the BBC.

Beyond Doctor Who, and a chapter about his sterling work on Robots of Death, there are some entertaining and informative sections about the filming of Warship (trying to film Bernard Lee with a seasick camera and sound crew and hanging out of helicopters to film ships and aircraft), Treasure Island (a run in with German naturists) and The Onedin Line (using six extras to film an attack on a pirate ship) and several examples of Michael's very quick thinking when things didn't always go to plan. While making the first episode of Blake's 7, he also shows how he recognised the talent of others and in this instance when designer Martin Collins enabled him to record everything in studio using one modular set. He also clearly enjoyed working on Secret Army and with the series's producer Gerry Glaister "who had a brilliant feel for good actors" and to whom he would later pitch the idea for Howard's Way.

After working on an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, a Francis Durbridge thriller Breakaway and the very intriguing Blood Money, which ran into problems with the Royal Household and the BBC, Michael found himself directing episodes of Secret Army spin-off, Kessler. While planning the series, he was naturally messing about with boats and a rather tense section of the book essays his sailing baptism by fire after he had to be rescued by a French warship during a major storm while crossing the Channel. From here on in the book becomes a love letter to his growing passion for sailing around the world and his directing career diverges to covering episodes of Emmerdale and EastEnders, a disastrous attempt to set up a production company, a brief spell as a reluctant HGV driver, and the vagaries of trying to teach the Dutch how to direct drama and sit-com and helming their versions of The Two of Us and After Henry. The final chapter culminates with a nail biting run in with Yemeni pirates as he sailed across the Red Sea.

Who Is Michael E. Briant? comes recommended. It's a highly entertaining book about Michael's growing confidence directing and working behind the scenes on prestigious (and not so prestigious) television drama and his derring-do on the high seas. It offers observations into how television was made in the 1960s and 1970s, is a story of personal achievement told with gentle and good humour and has a foreword from fellow Who director Christopher Barry.

Who Is Michael E. Briant?
A Memoir by Doctor Who Director Michael E. Briant
(Classic TV Press / Published 4th May 2012 / ISBN 13 978-0-9561000-6-1 / Format: Paperback / £12.99)


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