FULL METAL ALCHEMY: The Making of “The Alchemist” (Part 1)

Here it is. The full story- at least, until my friend Tris reads through it, and points out all the things I’ve forgotten in the comments. The tale begins…

Part 1: Halcyon Days

I’ve always had a problem finishing things. Even now, I’m nervous about starting a project simply because I don’t want to add to the terrifying pile of projects I’ve started, but never actually finished. I sometimes think that I’m never quite going to get to grips with it– I want to be prolific, I want to be the kind of person who people look at and go- “Wow… did he really manage to do that much?” But it never seems to work in practise.

However bad things get, though, if I ever need to cheer myself up, remind myself that things aren’t too bad, and that there is hope even in the darkest moments, I just have to think back to the first time I set myself an insane task, and actually finished it. A time of myth, a time of madness, a time of running around Cornwall College campus with a video camera, a time of great things.

A time of Alchemy….

* * *

It was the video camera that did it.

Back in the late eighties, Video cameras had only been on the market for a relatively short amount of time, and had only really begun to filter down into the dark wilds of Cornwall. Things always took longer to get to Cornwall than anything else, and the video camera was no exception. In my case, the first real contact I had with them was at Secondary School, as Pool School actually had its own camcorder. It was used to record various ‘important’ school events– and while my memory is fuzzy on exactly what my first genuine encounter was, I do remember the unsettling experience of watching back part of a Drama Society production that I’d ended up dragooned into. It was a lengthy- and somewhat tortuous- mixture of clunky comedy sketches and other variety-type things relating to ‘The History of Pool’, where I was the official Narrator. (I ended up getting the role thanks to a previous play, which was something computer-based, and I played ‘The Ghost in the Machine’- a part which, for some reason, briefly involved me being painted bright green. Anyway, that’s another story for another day…) Watching myself onstage was, as usual, the horrible realisation that, no, I really wasn’t anywhere near as charismatic or cool as I wanted to be, but that, combined with my growing interest in films and filmmaking, was enough to spark a fire in my head. I’d already gone through a phase of wanting to put on a play (It was going to be a version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy- and, for some unknown reason, it was going to feature a death-slide stunt…), but now, I had a target. I was going to make a film!

Did I know about editing? No. Did I know about lighting? No. In fact, did I have any idea what I was doing? No.

That didn’t stop me, of course. I didn’t even set out to do something sensible– instead, I aimed to film a surreal story which I’d originally invented and told to some friends of mine in order to prevent ourselves from dying of boredom on a school camp in Northern Brittany. It was heavily based on a Doctor Who comic strip (a fact which came back to bite me later on), but did at least have enough genuine 100% weirdness of my own so that I wasn’t simply ripping it off. It was a road map, and I wanted to see where it would take me. It was called Funhouse (Briefly ‘The Diabolical Funhouse’), and it was a tale of a sentient house that was actually the gateway to hell. All good stream-of-consciousness stuff, and my version of Funhouse was going to throw a private detective into the Funhouse to try and survive demons, creatures, and various other monsters that I may have been planning to construct from papier-mache’ (To be honest, I don’t remember). As it turned out, I went for the ‘I’ll write the script as we go!’ idea, which soon meant that we ran out of momentum after a few shooting sessions. We shot footage of my friend Vivian Townsend in a sandy mackintosh wandering around the ‘Drama Area’ (aka the back of the Main School Hall), and a handful of outside sequences, before it all fell to bits, we got bored, and things moved on.

There was, however, something tremendously exciting about it, and I couldn’t help feeling I’d tapped into something amazing. I can still remember the first time that myself and David Simpson got the chance to go out and just shoot footage with the camera- we headed over to the front of Cornwall College campus, where there was an overgrown garden area, and shot some stuff there, just to see what it could do. There was stuff of me wandering out of bushes looking intrigued, and other footage that- I’m fairly certain, and probably quite glad- is lost to the mists of time. I also remember that the exposure settings on the camera were really messed up, so everything outside was bleached out, and when I played the footage back, it was like we were wandering through a snowfield. The idea of being able to create my own television, of being able to tell a story that way was fascinating. It excited and intrigued me, and I wanted more.

Funhouse took up most of the 2nd year of school, along with the Drama Society productions, and by the time we hit the third year, I was determined that this time I was going to get it right. I had an even more ambitious idea which started out as a sequel to Funhouse called Lost (no, it didn’t feature me being stranded on an island…), and then transformed into a fantasy epic called The World of the Questor. It eventually morphed into a self-produced one-man audio play, the original version of which lasted a gob-smacking 3-hours. I later reduced it down to 90 minutes, and I haven’t had the nerve to listen to either of them in years. Anyway, World of the Questor stalled, and there were other projects- including a point where my friend Tris and I had our only school falling out, over what could daftly be described as “creative differences”, resulting in rival productions, neither of which really produced that much- although I do have strong memories of being told about one sequence shot that involved Dave Simpson emerging from a bush and introducing something as “A totally kitsch Bullock Production!” Ah, the fondness of youth…

I can’t remember if it was before or after, but it was around this time that Tris also had the idea of spoofing 80s action series Airwolf, leading to the surreal extravaganza known as The New Airwolf: The Next Generation, which originally started life as The New, New Airwolf, and involved Tris attaching an Airfix model of Airwolf to a camera on a wire, and then sprinting around the School Playing field with it. It also involved me doing a horrendous Ernest Borgnine impression for the first- but sadly not the last- time, but once again, that’s another, more complicated story.

When the ‘split’ happenned, I even ended up briefly shooting some stuff with Gareth Hood, a chubby yet brilliantly sardonic guy who was sharp as a nail, and whom I recently discovered- via the delights of Friends Reuinited- has actually moved to the Middle East and converted to Islam, which came as somewhat of a shock. As with most of my other plans, however, this came to nothing, and by the end of the third year, most of my filmmaking plans were relatively abandoned. There didn’t seem much point in continuing to shoot random bits of footage, and nothing we had done had actually amounted to much other than a few slightly embarrassing gags.

Then, in the fourth year, the phenomenon known as “Rock Mime” started, and wouldn’t go away. It was originally done for the very first Comic Relief day, and was a chance for people to dress up as their favourite (or least favourite) pop band, lipsynch to a track, and abuse them for the purposes of comedy. The first one was a roaring success- my main memories being a pretty accurate version of the Pet Shop Boys, where ‘Chris’ kept holding up signs with snarky comments on them, and Tris playing the part of Black (responsible for late eighties hit Wonderful Life) with the aid of a gigantic polystyrene nose, which wouldn’t stay attached to his face, and he had to hold up with his microphone. Given my shy, retiring nature, I was soon roped in for performing, and in the second Rock Mime, along with Tris and his friend Graeme, we were Bros, while in Rock Mime number 3, I was a saxophonist for Rick Astley (Tris once again). It was all great fun, giving me one eternal memory when legendary school geek David Nevett (who somehow actually managed to be geekier than I was- a fact which, in a weird kind of a way, I was almost grateful for) essayed Shaken’ Stevens, and his act involved Tris leaping out at one point, and threatening him with a custard pie (which was actually made out of shaving cream). Of course, when it came to the performance, Tris wasn’t having any of this ‘threatening’ nonsense, and poor old Nev ended up staggering offstage caked in shaving cream. Cruel, yes- but terribly funny as well…

Anyhow, one thing I couldn’t help noticing was that people were actually videoing these Rock Mimes, and once I saw the resulting videos, I was both interested and slightly horrified. Someone had gotten hold of various video special effects, and simply cranked them up to maximum, making the videos into an experience close to watching Top of the Pops after a few too many magic mushrooms. Along with this, there was the knowledge that these had been produced in an editing suite that was actually at Cornwall College, the sixth form venue that was just across the road from us, and that both the edit suite and the cameras were VHS. Everything was compatible, everything was easy- and this struck me as rather interesting. I immediately started thinking “I could do that”, and talked my way into doing the filming on Rock Mime IV. By this point the original principle of the Rock Mime had gotten slightly diluted, and now people were more often simply using it as an excuse to get up and just do a dance routine, rather than anything that counted as funny. Nevertheless, there were two performances- both of which I remember as being pretty damn full at lunchtime- and I filmed both of them, one from a still shot at the back of the hall, and one from a roving camera (which unfortunately was at the back of the audience, meaning lots of jerky camerawork, and nearly tripping over chairs). It all went okay in the end- Tris once again performed, this time as Jason Donovan, and even Nevett was back, this time as Robert Palmer, with backup from English teacher Mr Brown and legendary northern Physics teacher Mr Howarth. I filmed it all, and got my first taste of editing- it was random, it was jumbled, and I used way too many funky ‘image manipulation’ effects, but I did get to do the first in a long line of spectacular credit sequences, and it re-ignited my taste for filmmaking.

The next Rock Mime was the final one before our GCSEs, and our departure from Secondary School, and it turned into our year’s official ‘last hurrah’- a “Golden Oldie” show, with each band being a vintage hit. We ended up with a bizarre rogues gallery- including a blacked-up Jackson 5, Gary Glitter (which should prove how long ago this was- the song performed was “Do You Wanna Touch Me Now?” which, frankly, I thought was a bit suspect even then…), David Bowie (Nevett making a return performance, although a misplaced set of socks, supposedly meant to pad out his crotch, ended up making him look like he’d developed a hernia), and Tris dressing up for the first of many times as Barry Gibb for the Bee Gees. I even got to request an aisle at the front so I could get decent shots, and I went totally crazy in the edit suite, splicing the performances together with clips from Monty Python and Star Wars. It was ludicrous, but I was hugely proud of it and, knowing that (barring a GCSE disaster) I was on my way to Cornwall College for A’Levels, I started to think about what uses I could put this edit suite to. I was going to be attending a Sixth Form college where they had cameras, and edit suites, and I’d already gotten to know the people who ran them. There was no way we couldn’t try and take advantage of this.

Little did I- or my College lecturers- know exacty what I was letting myself in for…


5 thoughts on “FULL METAL ALCHEMY: The Making of “The Alchemist” (Part 1)

  1. “A totally kitsch Bullock Production!”
    Y’know – I’d TOTALLY forgotten about that one!!!
    Also forgotten about the whole creative differences thing too. Al I do remember about my own video making experiences of the time was that Gareth Hood moonlighted for me on occasion – particularly when I did a weird disco dancing competition thing. That’s about the time Tristan Berry dropped a stage block on my foot and my big toenail turned black.
    Then there was another time when I was filming with Viv Townsend, Dave Simpson and Laurence Kell, when Laurence was pretending to wield a stick as a light saber and we threw a large square of foam at him to fend off and it smacked him straight in the face while his eyes were still open. He couldn’t see anything for ages.
    For me though, the overriding memory is that Nevett as David Bowie in the Rock Mime V thing. He just didn’t get what we were trying to do. Every act was retro and I’d made this ridiculous Bee Gees costume consisting of 2 large blocks of wood nailed to the bottom of an old pair of school shoes – that I then painted in white gloss. Then I’d got a pair of jean so tight that even Russell Brand would refuse to wear them, got my mum to stitch in some ridiculously large triangles of fabric to flare them right out, a shirt open to the waist with a chest wig, a huge silver foil medallion, painted on beard, wig and huge rubber teeth.
    Once I’d tried this lot on, I shoved a pair of socks down the front of the jeans and the “bulging Barry Gibb, pinnacle of masculinity” look was complete.
    When the performance came around, Nevett saw me shoving these socks down my jeans and said “Wurrrr, that’s a great idea” and got a huge pair of what must have been woolly hiking socks and rammed them down his trousers too.
    His were in completely the wrong place though and instead of looking like an impressive meat & 2 veg, looked like he needed surgery – fast.
    It still haunts me to this day.
    Early video footage is at a premium these days, as the tapes have been misplaced and lost etc but I did find one little gen a couple of weeks ago…


    • Re: “A totally kitsch Bullock Production!”
      I meant to e-mail you about that- I looked at your redesigned website, found that footage, and couldn’t quite believe it. I think, above everything else, it was the sight of your red-and-grey ski jacket that brought it all back. Weird to get the chance to see a wander through Pool School corridors after all these years. And, oddly enough, putting “Now You’re Gone” by Black over it just makes it feel even more poignant- at least, until the soundtrack changes to adverts, and you start doing your Barry Norman thang…
      Hope you’re enjoying the nostalgia. I’m going to do part 2 fairly soon…


      • Re: “A totally kitsch Bullock Production!”
        And by the way– I still have the edited version of Rock Mime V, plus the rough version of our legendary Theatre Studies final project, The Terry Wigan Show.


    • Re: “A totally kitsch Bullock Production!”
      By the way- I only just worked out that this wasn’t your usual strategy of striking anonymously. Welcome to Livejournal, sir!


  2. Taking The Plunge…
    Thank You!
    Hope you didn’t mind me jumping all over your posts there but I figured I should just take the plunge.
    Not that I’ll be blogging on anywhere near your grand scale.
    We must get our entire back catalogue on the web – there’s simply too much footage to miss out on – one I’d particularly like to see again is “Get The Funk Out” by Jason Donovan (or was it “When You Come Back to Me” by Xtreme?)
    Here’s to our mutual domination of YouTube…


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