A Galaxy of Stars
Michael Denison (R) poses with wife Dulcie Gray and Jack Hawkins for a publicity still from Angels One Five , 1952.
Denison was a leading man of the forties and fifties who usually played splendid young chaps with a dash of humour and a warm sense of panache. He was terrific, a sort of British Jimmy Stewart (kind of) and I remember seeing him in black and white movies when I was growing up, so it was kind of a shock to find myself working with him on a series of Jeeves and Wooster Croft Original Sherry commercials in the mid-eighties where he played Jeeves - tagline: 'One instinctively knows when something is right'.
We were on location in Greece - the first and last time I have ever been there - and were on board a glorious motor yacht that had been built in the Twenties in Bangor, and could now be chartered for holidays or commercials. We lived on board for the duration which was about a week, steaming from Athens to a island somewhere to film. Peter was directing for Beechurst, where I was still a Camera trainee. I can actually date the shoot precisely - it took place in October 1985 and I know that because Orson Welles died during our shoot and one of the creatives announced it on set.
I'd wanted to work in the movie industry since I first knew there WAS a movie industry, and my career was launched on the back of a milk commercial featuring Roger Moore on the set of the latest James Bond movie. This is how it worked: you saw Roger Moore running around for the forthcoming bond movie with explosions and stuff and then someone would yell 'cut' and he'd stop acting, you'd see the camera and the boom and the lights and stuff - and he'd have a drink of milk during a break in shooting. Preposterous, of course, but to me - revelatory in that movies were actually made by people, and that those were jobs you could have. I don't think I wanted to do much else after that, and although movies were my first love, the shift to being an author wasn't really an issue - I was simply moving from one branch of the STORY tree to another.
The point is, once I figured I wanted to work in the industry, then I also spcifically wanted to work with James Stewart, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. I viewed them all as unlikely, but I was a huge fan of Welles, although I'm not sure quite why - maybe The Third Man in which he had a small part and how good that 'cuckoo clock' speech. Perhaps it was his 'legendary' status. Not sure. In any event, he died on that Corft Original shoot (not on the shoot, obviously, in the States ) so I couldn't work with him, and Jimmy Stewart had retired but lived until an impressive 1997. I did get to work with Kubrick, however - but we'll get around to that later on.
So anyway, Denison is there on set and he's 70 but the perfect gentleman, very quiet and delightful and polite and being a splendid chap with a dash of humour and a warm sense of panache. I wanted to say something to him but didn't know what to say or if I should or not, but Mike, the focus puller, said I should just go up and say something. So then I had to pluck up courage to do so and find a good moment, and well, what could I say? I needed to mention a film he had worked on, and had a list of three - but only one I could be sure of as I didn't want to get the wrong film, and IMDB or even the internet wouldn't be invented for another seven years. I just knew he had been in 'Angels One Five', so that was the one I opened with, saying in a wavering voice how much I had enjoyed him in that movie.
'My dear fellow, I'm afraid to say that was Richard Todd.' I felt my face redden with embarassment. His face then cracked into a broad grin and laughed and said that yes, of course that was him, and he was absolutely delighted that I enjoyed the film. I think he was a little surprised I knew about it as it would have been an old film even then - made thirty years previously and I was only 24. He said that Jack Hawkins - who was the star of Angels One Five, as Group Captain 'Tiger' Small' - had been a true gent and a good friend, and that was where it ended as I was called away to put some track down or something.
Because of the general feeling that you didn't chat in a fan-like manner to artists on set, it was pretty much the only time I did it. The unspoken rule was that you left artists alone, or spoke when spoken to, or when they clearly wanted you to chat. I've spoken to many artists on set, but I think Denison was the only one I approached to have a gush (Aside from Desmond Llewelyn, but more anon). In any event, I was a nobody, and Denison could not have been more polite.
Recalled 15th May 2020