Very saddened to hear today about the death of Peter Wyngarde. He’s been a presence in my life for years. Oddly, I could be wrong but I’m not sure if it means I was involved in filming his final performance.
I have very fond memories of Basil, my boss and friend at Selectadisc (the much missed legendary record shop in Nottingham) being a fan of Jason King and watching episodes at his house. His favourite moment which I came to adore too was King walking into a café empty for a solitary woman, approaching her and asking “Do you mind if I sit here as all the other seats appear to be taken?” Classic.I also had a postcard of him framed on my wall for many years.
This was a pre internet age and it wasn’t always as easy to join the dots, so I’m not sure when I initially realised this was the same actor who played the karate chopping, guyliner wearing Number 2 in the classic “Checkmate” episode of The Prisoner. This was one of my all time favourite programmes but for several years the only episodes I had on VHS were two lots of two episodes- the opening two episodes and then Checkmate and Hammer Into Anvil were on the same tape so I watched these four many times over and over. It took a while to twig that it was also Peter under Klytus’ golden mask in Flash Gordon, administering the bore worms...
He was one of those actors that I couldn’t understand why he had seemingly disappeared from TV and film, though with the internet you’d read of a particular “scandal” in the 70s which apparently derailed his career, when actually he carried on working into the late 80s...
As a film maker I guess there was a pipe dream to bring him back to the screen, though I had no idea how to find him. Once we entered the internet age I discovered he’d appeared at a convention several years before and I intended to contact the organisers to see if they could give me contact details…but it was something I never pursued despite coming up with a short film storyline called Trans.
This was about a big businessman - think Alan Sugar/ Dragon’s Den style - who had trod on everyone on the way up and after losing everything was reduced to a small humble flat for his twilight years, surrounded by photos of when he was someone, rubbing shoulders with politicians and filmstars. His only contact was with a daughter who had taken too many life lessons from him in his prime and found his current predicament of literally thinking he was fading from the world an inconvenience to her busy business life.
Events several years later would take a random turn - I was one day speaking to Andrew Calverley, who had starred in my shot film Black Spot. He’d noticed I was a “friend” of Wyngarde on Facebook (which was actually managed by Peter’s friend, partner and custodian of his reputation and legacy, Tina, not himself and eventually would be closed down to be replaced by the Wyngarde appreciation page.) I mentioned my wish to make a film with Peter and cult actors and briefly mentioned Trans. It turned out Andy and Tina were good friends and I think he mentioned me and the idea to Tina.
This all snowballed to me sending a copy of Trans to Peter – can’t recall now if I forwarded it to Andy, or to Tina, who then passed it to Peter…and then one day I received a letter in the post with very tiny, spidery, hard to decipher handwriting. My parents were visiting at the time and I remember opening the letter, wondering who it was from and before interpreting the letter scanned straight to the bottom to see Peter’s signature…which just seemed mad that he was writing to me. He partly dismissed my idea at the time as a “sketch” (which was a fair comment as it really was just a brief synopsis I’d written for the initial pitch for a funding application) but said he had a piece of his own – a monologue - that he wanted to make and was looking for a cameraman and assistance to make it happen. I think he was proposing I help him with this piece and we could take it from there. Although I had no equipment of my own, I asked my cameraman friend Darren who I’d worked with on several shorts if he’d be up for filming Peter.
So we found ourselves on an August Bank Holiday at Peter’s flat in Kensington, not far from my day job’s head office to spend the day working on Peter’s piece. I can’t remember if I knew vaguely what the piece was about beforehand – he may have briefly mentioned it – but I hadn’t seen any script. It turned out that he’d really wanted to adapt a particular book, which was based in Shanghai in the late 1930s, of which he had personal experience of the world of diplomats etc from living there as a boy. Unfortunately he’d discovered the rights to turn the book into a film had already been bought, so I think his plan was to do a monologue piece based on the book to pitch himself as the ideal person to play the lead role in the adaptation. This seemed odd to me – HE’S PETER BLOODY WYNGARDE – but perhaps it was his way of really selling that he knew this world and character inside out. Unfortunately the script we were working from was handwritten by himself and was covered in asides, addttions and amendments, which made it…a challenge to follow.
It was without a doubt a “challenging” day. I could be wrong but I think we did a 2 camera set up, with one of us also doing the sound…but with no actual direction to be given as Peter was directing himself I was given the role of “script girl.” The only direction as such was at the end of a take when he’d ask us for our thoughts on his performance. Frustrations kicked in when it transpired the copy of the script he was working from wasn’t the same as the one I was working from which would lead to some issues. I was also apparently not very good at reading when Peter was either pausing for dramatic effect, or was awaiting my prompt. He’d get cross at this and I’d seeth, wondering why I was spending my Bank Holiday being shouted at by a man in his 80s. Peter was obviously a perfectionist though and his script to him was gospel – it was vitally important that he got EVERY word and nuance down as he’d written it, which was difficult when I was trying to follow his script…and as the day wore on and tiredness kicked in, it became very difficult for a long passage to be completed without something being missed, or on the next attempt being remembered at the cost of another line or aspect, all of which were important, I recall two particular moments where Peter consistently forgot the line “shoot the bugger” which resulted in him becoming so frustrated at himself I was almost scared to mention when he’d missed it. We’d also come to loggerheads over, of all things, prawn balls….where I was paraphrasing “balls” and Peter was misunderstanding thinking I meant testicles and wondered where the hell I was getting BALLS from.
But it wasn’t all bad – outside of the filming when we stopped for a much needed break and food at teatime, Peter was absolutely charming and unsurprisingly an enthralling raconteur…as he told us stories of the people he’d worked with, many stories from the world of theatre of people I’d never heard of, the majority of which long gone it struck me that this was the gold dust we should have been filming. His reminisces of these times, of working in a theatre, television and film world which no longer exists in that form were wonderful and all I could think was that one day, when he’s gone, so will these stories and there are less and less people who were there remaining to document and record them. We got some fun titbits about working on Flash Gordon and then he also dropped the bombshell that the intended sequel was to star him as the lead villain (I’d never twigged that it was Klytus taking Ming’s ring at the end and laughing, I’d always presumed it was Ming who had somehow survived) and that he had the script to the sequel somewhere in the flat. Darren and I looked flabbergasted and wondered where, in Peter’s chaotic flat, was this priceless script that we had no idea existed. He told a story of Christopher Lee approaching him at a studio in recent times and portentiously proclaiming “We are the last of the few.” Peter strangely seemed to take some umbrage at that remark, when I’ve always felt Lee was completely right.
What also became apparent during this filming was that Peter could still pull out a mesmerising, full bodied performance and his voice was like polished mahogany with a wonderful purr and timbre. Once again, it frustrated me that he hadn’t had any exposure for years and if people like Lee etc could have some career resurgence in their twilight years, then Peter was more than deserving of a similar treatment.
The rest of the shoot continued in a similar difficult fashion and as the hours passed we were all getting tired and it was becoming more difficult. By the time we’d finished around midnight I was exhausted, fed up and ready to get home and not looking forward to a 2-3 hour drive back home at such a late hour. However, there were a couple of things I was determined to get before we left – I asked Peter if he would do a video message for Basil, repeating his Jason King line from the café. He obliged, but fluffed the line both times and then sharply told me he was done with it, so I couldn’t even get the main thing I really wanted, which in my current mood felt like the final straw. I was supposed to get a photo of myself with Peter, but by this point I decided I didn’t want one and just wanted to leave.
Upon my return home I posted the video message on Facebook, tagging Basil but with no description, as surely the piece spoke for itself. But then I received a message from Peter who seemed very cross that I’d talked about the project on Facebook and had blabbed about it, which surprised me as I hadn’t put anything public about it, apart from this video clip of Peter which had nothing to do with his filmed piece. Infuriated by this I took the clip down and felt that the one thing I had got from that day’s shooting was now contentious.
I was going to be editing the piece for Peter and this became a long winded, frustrating process. The aging Mac I was using struggled with the HD footage which made the editing extremely time consuming when even making small adjustments. As we were far apart I would create an edit, face a long winded export of the footage (and hope nothing went wrong at this stage) then burn Peter a dvd and post to him…then await his comments and adjustments which I would have to decipher from his handwriting. Sometimes I would receive several letters in succession, chasing me for progress and updates, which I came to resent as I was trying to do this edit in my spare time, around my day job, young family and own projects – in retrospect, and in communications with Tina I realise now he was just “a dog with a bone” and obviously very keen and excited to see his performance piece. But as with the shooting, he had exact ideas of what he wanted – which was everything – which became impossible when it became clear that somewhere, as a result of the shoot, certain passages had been missed, or were included in one take and not the other but would not cut together even when going to the other angle. Eventually he did compromise on certain aspects which couldn’t be pieced together. There was the issue with the stills elements though – there were photos Darren had filmed at the time, but Peter also wanted some other images during certain sections which I had no idea how to source or what he specifically wanted, yet he would text me photos that he’d taken from the TV that he wanted included which I found…unorthodox…but bowing to his wishes put them in as he requested, even though I felt they were distracting and looked out of place.
One large sequence we realised we were completely missing was the recital of a letter – luckily I had my own sound recording equipment by then, so visited London and recorded this large passage, over which some of the photos Darren filmed would be placed…even though it was a very long sequence which I felt slowed the piece down, with Peter not visible on screen. However, by now I’d found myself in a better place with the piece and always enjoyed chatting to him when we spoke on the phone, so seeing him again was a pleasant experience as was recording this audio. As a thank you for all my hard work he gave me a bottle of red wine which he told me was his personal favourite…and very nice it was too!
Before the piece was completed I received a very worrying and strange email. Peter seemed to always have an update or awareness of the development of the book adaptation with the production company – I’d never known how he knew this, but he always kept me informed, possibly in case things moved forwards there and he felt he needed to get this audition piece in to the right hands asap. But one day I received an email from the production company stating that they had seen from my Facebook page that I’d been working on a piece with Peter and that they owned the rights to the property and that could my and his legal representative contact them regarding this breach of copyright. After Peter’s response immediately after filming with regard to Facebook I went back and checked all of my posts and confirmed that I had never mentioned publically working with Peter, nor that it was an adaptation of this book…and also my Facebook posts were all set to private as viewable to friends only. I wasn’t sure how they’d got hold of my email address as well. I replied back with the above and also stated I could confirm I was working for Peter, but it was a personal piece and I was doing the work as a favour. I was a bit shaken by email and passed it on to Tina – thankfully I never heard anything about it again but it did make me feel a bit more cautious about the ways of the internet.
Eventually the piece was completed and I sent Peter a bunch of dvd copies of the piece. I always felt at around 22 minutes it was too long, but it was how Peter wanted it. In terms of what he wanted it for, I felt that it was too long for that purpose, that he needed a punchier 10 minute version more about his performance than the storyline he wanted to tell. As one of those rainy day back burner projects I’d always been meaning to go back and re-edit it (now I have a better Mac!) to cut it down more to an essence of the range of his performance, in part for the sad eventuality of today, but it’s one of those things I’ve never got around to.
Despite the issues I’d had in doing this piece, I was even more committed to the idea of Peter having some chance to really shine in a film to show off and remind the world what he was still capable of doing. Working around the physical limitations of his age and condition – no jumping out of an exploding helicopter shouting “Yippe kayay mutherfunsters” – I came up with a topical Operation Yewtree idea, a three hander, almost a stage play but with flashbacks, and something that would deliberately blur the line between Peter, his acting persona, his public “perceived” persona and the character itself…in my daydream flights of fancy I hoped if I could get this written with the ticking timebomb of his age and the inevitable other takes inspired by the Yewtree fall out eventually surfacing then perhaps we could pitch it to his worldwide fanbase to fund it via crowd funding, for a chance to have Peter not just in a cameo in a film, but THE lead role. The role to give him his twilight years moment. A role that if it was to be a swansong would be something to show the world what fools they had been to have not been casting him for all these years “in the wilderness” However, I didn’t have the script, just the skeletal idea. Luckily, I pitched it to my wife’s friend Calie Rydings, a local writer, on the off chance that she would want to collaborate on it.
She did. And she took to it with incredible enthusiasm. Within a few days and weeks Calie whizzed through the first draft of the script and over the coming months we’d refine it further, eventually having a piece which we were both really proud of. With her enthusiasm for research she’d added plenty of thesp and theatre nods and winks which I hoped Peter would appreciate, she’d brilliantly done that blend of fiction and non fiction to where I wasn’t sure what was a piece she’d made up or something she’d found out. We had plenty of flashbacks for each character and medical procedure cut aways which provided a break from the dialogue heavy “main action.” There was a wonderful set up opening scene of an actor living surrounded by past glories, almost harkening back to my original Trans idea that I pitched to Peter, putting on a front even to his remaining friend. For the finale Calie had written the most wonderful, literally curtain falling monologue that was incredible and we were both SO desperate just to hear Peter recite those words. If nothing else, I just wanted to have an audio recording of him saying that ending, for our own satisfaction.
The script was called Poison The Well. I sent it to Peter. Unfortunately we heard nothing back. I’d send him the odd text, asking if he’d had chance to read it. I’d get the odd postcard from him. I’d hear that he had another script to read before mine, but he was so focussed on his own writing (he may still have been doing his own take on the adaptation, I wasn’t sure) but that he hadn’t had chance to read it. Perhaps it was presumption on my part, but I guess I’d hoped that after spending many hours working on his project for him, I might have got a free pass to jump the queue in his attentions, but that wasn’t the case. Calie and I were both very proud of the script, but with the topical timebomb still ticking I felt like I wanted to take it elsewhere while there was still time if Peter didn’t want to do it…eventually I had one last crack of the whip, asking Tina if she could ask him to read it, but sadly we never got a definitive answer either way. So since then I’ve passed the script to a few random parties, including even trying to get it under the nose of Sir Ian McKellen via his performance of King Lear at Chichester, though as I understandably never heard anything there I’m presuming the unsolicited script way isn’t the most favourable approach…
Peter apparently did send me one last letter some time ago but unfortunately it apparently got lost in the post, so I’ll never know what that said. From time to time I’d get a call from him, hoping it was something to do with Poison The Well, but I’d answer and he’d ask for Mitzy…then he’d be confused that it was me, realised he’d dialled the wrong number, we’d have a quick catch up and then off he’d go. Several weeks might have gone by and then I’d get the same Mitzy call again, which became a fun running joke. But then eventually he must have sorted my number from Mitzy’s in his phone and I didn’t hear from him again.
Not long ago I read J.G Ballard’s Empire Of The Sun for the first time – as Peter was apparently interned in the same camp as Ballard (though he doesn’t remember him) I meant to text Peter to say I’d read it and found the world of WWII Shanghai a fascinating and mad sounding time and place. Unfortunately I never did send that text.
Looking back I guess I hoped in a way our working relationship/ brief friendship could have developed almost into him being the Bela Lugosi to my Ed Wood (without me wearing my wife’s underwear) Yes, I was initially grumpy about that day’s shoot, but I’ve come to look back on it fondly – it’s one hell of a story. But on this day I look back on that performance piece and still feel both sad and frustrated that it can’t be shared for people to see. I know he did various interviews for TV programmes and I believe another documentary on The Prisoner since we filmed it, but as far as I’m aware I think that’s the last piece he did as a performance on camera. I feel sad that he didn’t get his twilight resurgence, though I don’t know how much of that was down to himself – not finding a project that wasn’t his own that he felt worthwhile committing to, rather than doing roles for the sake of it – or others not wanting to cast him. I feel sad I didn’t get to film him in a script we wrote for him. I feel sad that those stories he briefly touched on for that 40 minute break are gone now, though Tina has mentioned several times that he was working on his autobiography and I can only hope that a sympathetic publisher one day can release that, even in an unfinished and unedited state. I feel sad that another legend has gone, another that we will not see the likes of again.
At the end of the performance piece I filmed, Peter is talking to a servant off camera and says “Arrive a derci – it’s Italian…for goodbye.” He puts on a hat, gloves, sunglasses and sings, in a tired, old and world weary way, a rather haunting song in Chinese before solemnly ringing a bell. If indeed this is his final performance, somehow it seems quite an apt finale.
And Calie’s wonderful end monologue to Poison The Well seems even more poignant today
Int- theatre - night
Kingsley sits at the bare make up table and stares at his reflection in the mirror with lights as he removes his make up for the last time. He stands, revealing the table stood alone in the middle of a darkened stage lit only by a spotlight.
(as if uttering a sacred recitation)
I offer now an apologia pro vita sua.
That is to say I CANNOT be sorry to have forced them to bring out in fullness their charges against me.
It is far better that they should discharge these thoughts upon me in my lifetime, than after I am dead.
And yet, I entreat you, beware of what they say. Sometimes a man is wrong even when he is right and every word he utters just poisons the well.
Make no mistake, the lies will destroy us all.
Rip away the veil and what is left? A painted face. A faded curtain. A broken gas lamp.
Even when I searched to shine a light on the truths that burned within me, the disbelievers still cried 'Have you not yet learnt those dreams are scattered now, these fires are spent?'
And though I clung to simpler thoughts and tried to find some peace - it was still the same reply back into the darkness of my soul.
Perplexed, I hoped my heart was pure of guile, but instead they judged me weak and now I see that all men are mad awhile- even me.
It is the oldest tale in history-Truth without a home is simply despised then slain, before rising again another day, cold and broken from the tomb.
And I am spent.
(he breaths deeply, and a look of calmness descends across his face)
Yet, somehow, I rise again, like a flame, higher and more serene than any slander can disturb.
Perhaps life is simply a dream, or I an Angel, and all this world a deception. My fellow-angels by a playful device concealing themselves from me, and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world.
So away with you!
I will no longer cross myself in the dark, for I am moving quickly towards the light and it is pure and blinding.
As he steps forwards to the edge of the stage the applause builds. He looks out at the unseen audience and smiles, touched by the rapturous response to his performance,
The curtain falls.