Back in the Sixties, Lew Grade RULED British TV. Denied a franchise, he was nevertheless responsible for a SLEW of action series that formed the mainstay of what is now the classic period in UK television history.
His word was his bond – and he was shrewd. His studio made around three 26-episode series each year and financed others. Without Lew, there would have been no “Thunderbirds”, “The Saint”, “Randle & Hopkirk [Deceased]” or “The Prisoner” – in addition of dozens of others.
The money to make these shows – in 35mm film (colour from around ’63) – was derived from sales to AMERICA. But the talent was all British (with the occasional Canadian actor – Equity had an arrangement with Canada and Americans liked a familiar ACCENT).
And using colour film meant the shows could be sold ANYWHERE (although the channel that aired his shows in the UK did not GET colour until 1969 – so the home audience only saw them in black and white).
But even with foreign money, budgets were tiny – which meant the name of the game was ECONOMISE!
Sets, stock-footage and props were constantly recycled. The submarine set for one show cost a packet – so a sub was immediately worked into the plots of other shows.
Since clearance for pop music was expensive, Lew commissioned a pop song – and used it in several shows.
All of the shows had full scores – but while Edwin Astley provided lush, exciting main themes, the incidental music came from small groups, who recorded bits of music for every mood – which the music editor then cut and pasted into an infinite variety of combinations (the audience never realised they were hearing the same pieces over and over again).
Most of the shows featured “exotic” locations (in Sixties Britain, ANYWHERE outside the UK was exotic – air travel was still pricey then) but location filming abroad was out of the question. So Lew packed off a camera crew to get stock footage of as many foreign cities as he could afford.
Thus, most shows would begin with an establishing shot of Paris, Rio, Geneva, Hong Kong or wherever – with an obvious landmark – and the name of the city emblazoned across it. But everything else was shot in HERTFORDSHIRE (or neighbouring Bedfordshire).
Thirties Spanish-villa-style houses were borrowed for exteriors (a potted palm was always placed in the foreground, to add colour). And the studio back-lot became almost a second home to viewers (a foreign car or two, plus appropriate signs and props, would place it).
The studios themselves doubled for factories – even docks (a few crates with appropriate stencilling, a smoke canister or two and the occasional sound of a boat-horn put in by the sound editor in post, worked wonders). And the studio offices offered a RANGE of possibilities, both for interiors and exteriors.
And while the stars beavered away in the studios, the second units toiled outside. Doubles would keep their heads turned away from camera – and the panning shots of cars always tilted down to the wheel splashing through a little puddle as it passed the camera. Artistic – and it ensured the driver would not be seen in CLOSE-UP.
But my personal favourite ploy was Lew’s white Mark 2 Jag and red Renault Dauphine. Whenever a guy got into one, you knew he was in for a ROUGH TRIP.
The stunt guys ran them around the country roads for a bit – swerving from side to side – then catapulted them into a quarry. Shot from umpteen angles (the Jag even had an old, sacrificial camera mounted INSIDE – it got a great shot, before getting POUNDED) the two cars certainly earned the money Lew paid for them.
Of course, it is easy to poke fun at the way Lew’s people saved money – but without the ploys, Sixties Britain’s TV schedules would have been the poorer. These shows provided thousands of hours of excellent entertainment – not to mention work for most of Britain’s writers, directors, technicians and actors.
But – well – let’s have a few LITTLE laughs…