An Extra Life On… Harry Potter 7 Part 2 (pt1)

 

I know it makes me sound like a bit of a cock, but it’s always rather fun to get a phonecall from one of your casting agencies and to say to any accompanying friends (and frankly whoever else is within earshot): ‘Just a sec, it’s my agent’.

Even more so if you then turn to those around you and announce that you’re going to be in the finale of Harry Potter.

A month or so after Gulliver’s ended, having paid my board and lodging meantime with the odd gig on Holby City or some other BBC drama trying desperately hard to be decent, I got the call I’d been eagerly awaiting. In fact, it wasn’t just the opportunity to be a ‘Deatheater’ in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II, but a ‘Special Deatheater’. If you’re imagining a black-clad guy in a wheelchair, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, waving a wand with all the conviction of a female second-violinist and shouting ‘TIMMYYYY!’ then you’d be mistaken (although frankly I’d pay to see that film). The makers were auditioning not just for ordinary bad guys for the final sequences of the film, but co-ordinated, convincing wand-wavers who looked like they were genuine harbingers of doom, rather than baddies who were the other kind of ‘special’.

Yes, auditioning.

Not something you often get in the sub-human world of Extras. Something more familiar to proper actors, genuine thespians. Okay there were no words to be learnt, no emotive soliloquies to be rehearsed in front of the mirror, but still, it was quite a big deal. And I was nervous.

The agent had put forward a bunch of ‘suitable’ representatives to apply for the available roles, and I imagined these to be fit, agile, martial-arts-trained candidates who’d be practising backflips beforehand. Turns out they’d just chosen any old random people. Probably just those with a ‘W’ in their name. For example, my friend who’s a trainee stuntman and a Commonwealth gold-medal trampolinist (and not as much of a nonce as he sounds) didn’t get put forward, yet several non-gold-medal-winning citizens did.

That’s like if your company was hired to send a contract team to work on an I.T. project, and rather than deliver your best computer-loving nerds the company sent a random collective – a handful of tech geeks mixed with some guys from finance, a couple of admins, a receptionist or two, a cleaner, and the fire safety officer. That’s basically what they did.

And one of those guys was Steven Seagal’s brother.

Not literally. But if you saw this man, you’d be like ‘Is that Steven Seagal’s lesser-known, out of shape, less-coordinated older brother?!’ Cos he bloody was. Ponytail and all. And when I saw that guy, and a bunch of other out-of-shape folks looking just as anxious as me, I relaxed. This’d be a doddle, I thought. This is what that single Ju Jitsu belt, achieved at Uni between periods of extreme wastedness, was all for.

They dished out sticks of wood (wands), taught us a few basic attacks and defences, and then paired us up for ‘combat’. Imagine fencing, but done 20ft apart, with no contact. Which means you have to make your actions look all the more convincing. And so, two hours later, after much lunging, stick-waving, sweating, thrusting (calm down, ladies), leaping, tumbling, somersaulting, pretending-to-die-on-crashmats and the hilarious sight of Steven Seagal’s brother turning beetroot as he attempted his 4th press-up, we went home.

The next day, I got the part.

Fast-forward a few weeks, Autumn 2009, and I found myself at the world-famous Pinewood Studios dressed in by far the coolest costume I’d worn so far, in fact the coolest I’ve ever worn. Imagine Darth Vadar’s fencing outfit: black top that zips up at the back, embossed with some kind of other-worldly pattern, butt-hugging trousers that tuck into leather gaiters, over pointy boots, leather cuffs from wrist to elbow, a cape with an unnecessarily deep hood, and a scabbard. I felt like I should’ve had a Squire to help me put it on, and when I walked out the dressing room everything went slo-mo.

The anti-climax was that the wand itself was a lot like a seven-year-old whipping out his willy at a porno shoot.

Other than that, I haven’t walked with as much swagger since I was the first guy in my year at school to get a hand-job. Yes, I loved that costume.

After breakfast, a lot of us started practising our moves, going through the actions we’d been taught (The Matador, The Tommy Cooper… you can probably envisage the accompanying hand gestures) and generally readying for battle. The battle – the one many of us had been excitedly preparing ourselves for for weeks – was not in fact one of good versus evil, of wand versus skilled wand, but more a battle of keeping a straight face while the Big Names around us over-acted for their lives. Or it was for the next few weeks anyway. The first few days were spent inside the 007 Stage in an impressively-realistic-looking wood, with roots so convincing that if you tried hard enough you could actually trip over them (I never did that, no, not in my cool costume, no…). This is the scene where Voldemort and his posse are waiting – like weasels in The Wild Wood – for Harry to turn up. And when he does, we did our best ‘Oh my God it’s Harry Potter, I’m going to tiptoe warily towards him’ actions, wands en garde, until Big V zapped him with some laughably-pronounced spell that sounded like he was struggling with a particularly stubborn bowel movement.

And that was that. Not a massively thrilling start to filming of the most anticipated film of all time (Part 2), the highlight of the week being Helena Bonham-Carter’s burping (strangely sexy it was too), but it got better. The next week, I’d get to wave my wand at schoolchildren. Without the resulting knock on the door from the Authorities.

Yep, only in the film world…

Next time: The battle for Hogwarts, and Hermione’s pillow talk.

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An Extra Life On… Gulliver’s Travels

I have to say, despite the mild discomfort and the worrying lack of pudding, Robin Hoodwasn’t all that bad. In fact as far as ‘work’ goes it was a bit of a laugh. The good thing about it – the admirable thing – was that very little was done on green-screen. I’m pretty sure most people reading this will know what I mean by that, but in case you don’t – It was the Real Deal, yo!

Yeah okay the castle was polystyrene, but it was actually there and not ‘added in Post’. Yes a toddler with a tantrum could’ve battered his way through the fortifications, and yes stray arrows did pierce the flimsy wall and have to be plucked out with a well-aimed rope, and yes many more arrows were added in post-production at a cost of a grand each. A few Extras even got crushed to death, like in Ben Hur. No not really. But everything else was genuine, painstakingly and lovingly captured on up to seven (yes, seven) cameras at once.

Contrast this with Gulliver’s Travels, where much of my time was spent literally surrounded by great walls of luminous green, as if I were a microbe on the Joker’s scalp.

The first scenes we did were inside the ‘Lollapalooza’ village, filmed on an old army parade-ground near Aldershot, where us Supporting Artistes played casual townsfolk enjoying a lazy day out, a heavenly relief from storming a castle in heavy armour. The town centre was real enough – food-stalls, flower carts and the like – but any surrounding buildings were magically CGI’d onto five-metre green walls marked with calibration points. Gulliver, you are no doubt aware, was a giant, but of course he (played by Jack Black in yet another of his note-worthy ‘sensitive’ roles) did his bits elsewhere and was added later. So that the Background could follow his movements, we would be told to look at a tennis ball on a pole, or an orange cross on a cherry-picker. During the scene where he fights with a similarly-sized robot (you know you’re in a bad film when a giant robot gives Jack Black a wedgie), we were following not one but two fluorescent tennis balls on long poles, our heads tracking side to side as if watching a tennis match, with the A.D. shouting ‘Look at Gulliver! Now the robot. Back to Gulliver. He hits him… they wrestle… WEDGIE!!’ and us lot reacting accordingly, to the best of our abilities. (I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, but I have no intention of watching the film to remind myself.) It was a dazzlingly sunny day, and we’d been told not to wear sunglasses (apparently such technology had not reached far-off mythical islands), so had to stare up into the bright sky unprotected. Myself, I’m particularly sensitive to light, and couldn’t keep my eyes open without being blinded, so if you pause the DVD and spot a guy in the crowd with his eyes scrunched shut, possibly streaming, that’d be me.

The big bad robot won this round of the contest (Booo!) but later in the film Gulliver would get his revenge (Yaaay!). It’s fun to speculate how he did this, since I’ve no what actually happened. I like to think he sailed off to Skull Island, buddied up with King Kong, and trained for many days in a loincloth in the jungle, lifting huge rocks, smashing his shins against Jurassic-sized trees, then swimming back to Lilliput with the gorilla on his back. All to a soaring 80s power-ballad.

Anyway, after the mano-a-robo tussle, we moved to Pinewood Studios for a different kind of battle, where we swapped shorts and t-shirts for naval uniforms. Thick, heavy, waxy-coated uniforms, that kept the water out, and the sweat in.

Oh joy.

This time I was one of the bad guys, so was yet again cheering the loser (I now better understand why people support Manchester United.) I was proudly stood behind the Blefuscian King, once more staring at a tennis ball in the sky, cheering as our man (well, robot) struck the early blows. But then Jack fought back, no doubt recalling at a crucial moment his training from Skull Island, and defeated the metal beast. I’ve no idea how, I really don’t remember. But what I do remember is that the food here was decent. Despite the fact we had to queue behind the crew before getting served – nothing unusual there – the grub was good. And that counts for a lot. If you ask an Extra if they were on a particular film, they will often respond as so: “Yeah I was. Food was good on that”.

Feed your armies well, and they will serve you well.

And then there was Anvil Head.

Let me tell you something. If you’re ever job-hunting and see an advert for a Third Assistant Director, do not apply. The ‘Thirds’ are the liaison between the Crew and the Scum. They are the ones who sign them in, tell them to go where they should go, tell them they shouldn’t be where they are, tell them not to wander off because they’re needed (nearly always a lie), and so on. I’ve met very few good thirds, and those who are rapidly move up the ladder, because to be a good third you need to be a nice friendly likeable person, but at the same time not so loveable that you can’t give people firm directions when needed. Much like a teacher. So the good ones soon get promoted, which therefore, logically, tells you that most thirds are cretins.

None more so than Anvil Head. I can’t recall his real name, but he was a laughably bad Third, with a squat body topped by an over-sized anvil-shaped head, and all the social skills of a tapir. As he came over to announce in his comically nasal voice ‘Alright guuuuuys, back on set now’, it was customary to ignore him at least the first two times. Eventually though we’d clamber up from whichever shady resting spot we’d found and trudge back to set, re-fastening whichever items of clothing we’d undone. However it was comforting to note that, no matter how little worthiness we felt we had as Extras, we would never achieve the genetic low-point that was Anvil Head.

The set at Pinewood was not the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage that some of us would work on later for Harry Potter, but an imposing structure made of those big iron shipping containers, stacked five-high in a rectangle.  (This, for building regs purposes, is classed as a temporary structure. Like a garden shed.) Through a narrow gap in a corner we slipped, brushing aside a flap of green felt, to discover that the entire walls were draped with it. Hundreds of square metres of bright green fabric, onto which would be generated a vast ocean and an armada of ships. One of these ships, though, was real. I say ‘real’, it was in fact half a boat – like a cut-away cross-section in a maritime museum – propped on pistons. We clambered aboard and took our positions, myself, being an officer, on the poop deck (snigger), overlooking the crew. Enormous fans billowed the sails as the gurney rocked the boat side-to-side, cannons went off, and water sprayed over the deck. These scenes, despite the stifling heat and the urge to tear off your neckerchief, rip open your thick coat and gasp for air, were pretty good fun. Gulliver was talking to the Captain of the ship, so yet again we were gazing up at an orange mark on a pole. But, unlike before, Jack Black himself was on the ground below us, in front of his own little green-screen, over-acting his piece into a microphone and splashing around topless in the ‘water’, his chubby arms slashing at the air, ape-like. This was the first and last time that the lead actor joined the Second Unit for filming, but it was certainly memorable. After all, it’s not every day you get to see Jack Black’s mighty moobs bouncing around.

Next time… Wand waving and celebrity belching on Harry Potter 7

An Extra Life On… Robin Hood (pt2)

 I should make something clear now, before I delve any further into the whole-other-world of Extras, and that is this:

They aren’t called Extras.

Strictly speaking, they are Supporting Artistes. Yes, with an ‘e’. Also known as S.A.s, Background Artistes, Background, or Crowd. You see, several years ago a legislation was passed against their unfair treatment, because somebody somewhere grew a conscience and proclaimed that ‘Extras have feelings too!’. Thus the Unions stated that we shouldn’t be known as ‘Extras’ less that implied that we’re superfluous, expendable, insignificant, and that we should be regarded as equals. Therefore we are now ‘supporting’ the main actors, and should be treated as humans, not cattle. This also means that we’re meant to receive the same food and drink as the cast and crew.

Excuse me while I stitch up the gaping holes in my sides.

On Robin Hood especially, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more scum-like or more cattle-like.

Here is what DIDN’T happen: After shooting a few scenes in the morning, during which the Supporting Artistes were very well looked after and not made to run about in the July heat more than necessary, we all sat down with the rest of the gang for a delightful, hand-prepared meal and chatted to each other as equals, nattering about how the scenes went, sharing stories of previous work, and exchanging business cards. Ridley then stood on his chair, thanked the Background for their stirling work so far, and we all went back to Set with smiles on our faces for a thoroughly rewarding afternoon of filming.

No, that didn’t happen. Here is what did: At around 1400, about eight hours after we’d had breakfast, with not even a tea or Hobnob to fill that gap, pick-up trucks drove onto the sprawling woodland clearing carrying large polystyrene cubes, full of smaller containers of food. The trouble is, the caterers never know when the director’s going to call lunch, they can merely anticipate. And what’s preferable to lunch being called and the food not being ready? Yes: cook it in plenty of time and leave it to go cold.

Imagine you are hungry, trying to conjure up some passion for the umpteenth take of the same scene, and are freely perspiring into your thick armour. Lunch arrives, but you can’t go grab it yet. Your morale drops even further knowing that when you finally get your mitts on it, it’ll most definitely be cold. Tepid at best. You edge closer to it, envying the bastards who are lucky enough to be positioned a few metres from it. Then you finish another take, look over at Ridders… he seems happy… he nods… you start walking… and then ‘Okay that’s lunch!’ and you charge towards those polystyrene containers like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, head back, mouth gaping, running with pure joy.

Only to be greeted by a tuna steak that’s grey and cold.

And there’s no fucking pudding.

It really is survival of the fittest, with no respect for the elderly or infirm. They often get out-run and out-elbowed, and being at the back end of the queue, then have less time to eat their even-colder grub.

Meanwhile, the crew, stars and stuntmen get a nice spread with several choices of every course, on top of the paninis they’ve been brought during the day.

And pudding.

Hardly ‘fair’ is it?

But if you get found sneaking into the crew food area, if you so much as nick a mug of their filtered coffee (infinitely preferable to sachets of Nescafé Original), they snap at you like you were a servant in a country manor, helping yourself to Lord Trufflewhit’s pheasant and lighting up a Cuban.

And if you complain, if you kick up a fuss and moan that you’re entitled to the same food and that you’re not a lower class of human being, you’ll not be asked back the next day, or possibly ever again, because mysteriously you won’t be needed. And they don’t even need to give an excuse.

You can probably understand why much of a Supporting Artiste’s waiting time is spent moaning.

But anyway, back to the exciting, glamourous world of film-making! I was lucky enough to see some of the ‘rushes’ from the shoot. Nah, that’s a lie ? one of the French soldiers videoed it on his phone and I had a peek. If you’ve never had arrows fired at you (I’m guessing no), this is what it’s like: Whereas with paintballs you might catch a fluorescent blur before the stinging pain, arrows are a more mercurial beast. This movie, filmed from the ramparts, (in reality, lofty scaffolding with a rocky façade,) played like so:

(Fade In)

A WIDE SHOT of the battlements against the sky. All quiet.

1st A.D. (voiceover)

ACTION!

A pause… then a mist of ARROWS hovering mid-air, like the grey crest of a giant wave… then WHOOOSH! as they rain down on us, far more quickly then their graceful arc through the sky would suggest.

BLOKE TO RIGHT

Aaaaggh!!

(Fade Out)

The resulting bruise, apparently, is very similar to that of a paintball.

Several days into the scenes in the woods, and we’re doing a night-shoot. These can be a drag, but they also mean higher rates of pay, and a chance to have a sly nap amongst the ferns. One night, us brave soldiers on the hill did Absolutely Nothing all night, except watch dubious video clips on somebody’s smartphone.

Meanwhile, in the village at the bottom of the slope, there is much singing, whoring and revelry. My old friend Rumour has it that the merrymakers were told to really get stuck in. So ? presumably faithful to the cause of making the most realistic film possible ? one Supporting Artiste plunged his grubby hand down a busty wench’s top, giving a bit more ‘support’ than necessary, resulting in accusations of sexual assault and the police being involved.

All while I was up on the hill watching midget-porn.

A few days later, after much charging, bow-twanging, and cries of ‘PUDDIIIING!’ as we laid siege to the French (the caterers eventually got the message), came the grand finale to our attack, and my personal highlight of filming in sylvan Surrey.

If you’ve seen Robinus Hoodus Maximus (they may as well have called it that, or Gladiator II: Ye Mediaeval Years), you may remember the English climaxing their assault by blowing the bloody portcullis off. By this point we’d mounted the hill and were clustered in a crescent around the castle gate, within nose-blowing distance of the Frogs. Soldiers hid behind walls of shields while our hero Russell helped a ‘Powder Monkey’ hook leathery elephant-bollock-like sacks of explosive onto the iron lattice blocking our way. Once they’d retreated to relative safety, a few lucky archers got to dip arrows into buckets of fire, and take aim. If you’re a Heathy & Safety officer, look away now….

This wasn’t CGI. At all. Random everyday archers, not stuntmen or specialists, lit their arrows with real fire and, as the shields were lifted, left loose at the giant testes. We’d been told to imagine that when the arrows hit, there was a huge explosion, and to react accordingly. Note: Extras aren’t renowned for their reacting. Somebody had presumably told my colleague Ridley this, because when those arrows hit home and there actually was a huge explosion, a great churning ball of flame, about ten metres high and wide and singe-ingly close to us, 300 of us soldiers went ‘SHIIIT!’, shielded our faces with our arms, and reacted thoroughly convincingly.

The A.D. shouted ‘CUT! See you Monday,’ and we all skipped back to base, re-living the moment and ? for a brief second ? feeling slightly less worthless than normal.

Next time: Green screen aplenty, and a topless Jack Black, in Gulliver’s Travels.

Boom.

An Extra Life On… Robin Hood (pt1)

When I tell people I’m an Extra in TV and films, without fail they immediately and unabashedly ask ‘Does that pay well?’. Which doesn’t tend to happen when you say ?I’m an accountant? or ?I’m a carpet cleaner?, or any normal job, but then the world of Extras is far from normal. In fact, it’s fair to say, it’s in a little world of its own.

I became acutely aware of this during a stint on the recent Robin Hood. Whilst stumbling up a hay-strewn mound towards a polystyrene castle, I found an arrow flying just past my left ear. A rubber-tipped arrow, to be precise, but a high velocity missile with the ability to bruise and maim, nonetheless. Any other business in this country, and the Health & Safety Executive would’ve been round faster than you could say ‘Workplace accident’ and hundreds of people would’ve been jobless. But no, not the world of film. It gets left to its own devices, like a special kid in a wendy house.

So, let’s backtrack a bit, just like in the films where they tease you with an exciting opening scene, then cut to ‘Three weeks earlier’…

Actually it was about three months earlier, and I’d responded to an ad asking the general public to put themselves forward to be in Ridley Scott’s ‘Untitled Robin Hood Adventure’. (Of course it’s not really Mr Scott’s film, he didn’t write it or anything, he just waved his arm where the camera should point. The story of the original script ? and it was very original ? of how it got bought for millions of dollars, and then totally gutted and changed into a vastly different adventure altogether, is an interesting and tragic one, especially from a writer’s viewpoint. But I digress…) There I was in West London on a Saturday morning, queueing with other white and warty hopefuls for all of about six hours, so that our shining lights might be discovered and we would get to fight alongside Russell Crowe. After they’d taken my measurements and I’d informed them I’d done some archery (all of 20 years ago, but it counts), I went home and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

In fact I realise now that this was a test, since much of an Extra’s time is spent waiting. There is a genuine skill to waiting around and not dying of boredom.

Eventually, several weeks later, I got the call to be one of the archers, and so I ended up in a cosy costume on aforementioned mound with a hand-made longbow and a handful of semi-lethal arrows at my waist. NOT, I should point out, on my back. Apparently this is a historical untruth created by ? who else? – the film business. Genuine hunters of yore had their quivers around their waists, since this meant a much more subtle movement when cocking an arrow, thereby less likely to startle the deer. I was told this on my first day by the very bowyer who hand-made all the 150 bows. This was like a school field-trip to an educational mediaeval re-enactment centre! Only with a wodge of pocket-money thrown in.

Days on film sets are long. So long that you will be convinced somebody is cheating Father Time and crowbarring extra hours between the standard twenty-four. We were shooting in some woods in Surrey ? the very same place where Ridley shot the first scenes of Gladiator, where his favourite hunk Russell had given the infamous order: ?At my command, unleash Hell? – which, for those of us without cars, was about an hour’s coach trip from Euston. Big films are kind enough to lay on coaches for the crowd, but they tend to leave unnecessarily early, 0430-0500 being the norm. Which, for many, means getting up around 0300 to get a night-bus into central. These are the sort of hours you usually only see when you’re catching a low-budget flight to Lanzarote, when you’re excited to be getting up because you’re going on holiday.

Once at ‘Base’, consisting of a few big marquees in a chewed-up field, we proceed to breakfast. Then, at the given hour ? 0600 or 0630 perhaps ? some loud-mouthed A.D. (Assistant Director) yells at you to sign in and go to Costume. Wearily and grudgingly, we file over to get our payslips, and form a long queue to dress up. This is officially the start of an Extra’s day, and what better way to commence than with some good ol’ waiting! Stood there in a 50-deep line, gazing bleary-eyed at the floor, trying to block out the inane conversation next to you, and wondering why you couldn’t sit in breakfast fifteen minutes more so you could chew your Weetabix properly.

Thus begins an Extra’s day, which, depending on whether you’re filming indoors or out, and what time of year it is, may last around twelve hours. 150% of a typical working day, filled with lots of waiting, and climaxing with yet more waiting as you queue to be signed out.

Oh hang on a sec! The film business is meant to be all glitz and glamour! I completely forgot. So yes, once we all got our battle garb on, we got whisked by minibus to ‘Set’ ? a few minutes’ drive through the woods ? and sent to pick up our weapons. Weapons! And shields! To attack the French, no less. What grander way to start the day? And all in the name of King Richard the Lionheart and England. Huzzah.

After all 300 of us archers, swordsmen, pikemen and engineers (blokes with spades) had lined up and been briefed by our general (or an A.D. who doesn’t seem to know what a megaphone is), we took up position on the slope below a small French castle and awaited orders.

And awaited.

And awaited.

Typically the first assault of the day commenced around midday. Yes, a whole six hours after arriving at Base. Three quarters of a ‘normal’ working day. What some people would call ‘lunchtime’. But lo, lunch for the film world is barely a whiff on the horizon. However, while we stand around… then sit around… then lie around… wondering what’s taking so damn long, and initiating conversations with Random Bloke next to us, possibly with the words ?So have you done much of this before??, the crew busy themselves preparing the shot ? lining up the cameras, laying cables, setting up props, kindling realistic-looking fires, ‘touching up’ the Extras (oo-er), and basically doing all the hard work before the ‘stars’ arrive on Set. (One day, Russell didn’t turn up until about 1500 because he was watching The Ashes in the pub.)

And then the fun starts. Arrows are handed out to the archers, and we’re told to fire OVER the castle walls, not AT them. Then on the command of ‘Action!’ or ‘Background Action!’ we attack. With apparently no real input from the school of Orderly Warcraft, we run/shuffle/amble up the slope, those with arrows firing them vaguely in the direction of the battlements (some of course hitting the walls, presumably those who didn’t do archery when they were ten), and one or two whizzing past your own head. Just as you’re about to fire one home, thinking ‘Why, that turret’s no bigger than a Womp Rat’, somebody will run straight in front of you and you’ll have to use emergency evasion so as not to wound your own team, either ceasing fire just in time, or launching the missile about 30 degrees to the left of the castle, narrowly missing a catering truck.

Then, just as you’re thinking ‘Am I insured?’, somebody far away yells ‘CUT!’, an A.D. nearby echoes the message, and all of us return to our starting positions, panting and grinning and thinking this is the awesome-est job ever.

All of which excitement lasts about three more takes, then the ennui begins to hit…

Phew!

 

(Click to Enlarge)

 

I remember a decade or two ago, back in the day when tries were worth four points and the Six Nations were only five, England played Argentina at Twickenham and trounced them about 80-odd to not-many. Sadly, those times are long gone now, the Argies finishing the last World Cup in third, one place behind us.

That’s higher than New Zealand and Australia.

Steve singing the anthem.

So this was never going to be a walkover, and after England’s shaky start last tournament, I’m a tad nervous about this match. Losing it and possibly coming second in the group would likely mean a Quarter Final against the hosts, or even a Kiwi-crushing French side. So I’d love a comfortable win (and at these prices I think 80-odd points would be a reasonable return) but frankly I’d settle for any sort of win, even if it’s entirely from Jonny’s boot.  

We approach the brand new Otago stadium with thousands of red and white supporters, and a surprisingly large number of opposition fans. Turns out that a considerable percentage of these are locals, presumably so inebriated that their colonial heritage has slipped from their shrivelled minds. However, I take this as a compliment of sorts, since they obviously feel insecure about a strong-looking England.

Is this our new scrum half?

After nothing less than daylight robbery in exchange for four cans of your finest Heineken, Sir, we huddle amongst the mixed crowd in our chilly-despite-the-roof seats. The teams troop out to approval-inducing music that is neither Karl Orff nor Song 2, and the anthems are sung. The English voices are reassuringly more vociferous than the non-English ones, but that turns out to be about the last we hear of them until Ben Youngs – who frankly should’ve been on from the start, although hindsight is a most useful capacity – scores the only try of the game, to massively relieved cheers. On the way to the ground I chatted to an ex-pat in a bowling-alley-cum-profiteering-ground, and joked that after all the exciting games of the last 24 hours, this one would no doubt end 9-6.

As Argentina lead 9-3 with 20 minutes to go, I wonder if I’m being disturbingly prescient.

However, we ultimately win 13-9, to an audible sigh from the Albion faithful. But it could’ve been so very different. Thankfully whichever curious virus that prevented good ol’ Jonny Wilkinson from converting most of his kicks – to increasing incredulity and calls for Toby Flood – also struck Contepomi. If the opposition kicker had been o’Gara or Carter, we’d be buried.

About to miss, again...

It’s funny that in 2003, all the other nations were saying that we only won the World Cup because of Jonny Wilkinson. After tonight’s woeful performance, I’m wondering whether this time we can win it in spite of him.

 

This guy was Definitely on drugs.

KICK OFF

Friday 9th September 2011. Days to go until the Rugby World Cup: 0.

At about 1600, The Rambling Rose and its pilots trundle into the South-Eastern city of Dunedin (the Celtic word for Edinburgh, which tells you something about the country’s heritage), and into the centre, where there’s an obvious carnival atmosphere, including a house-party roadside where 3 guys hold up cardboard signs saying ‘HONK FOR ANAL’.

So of course I honk. When in Rome…

Shortly we arrive at the Dunedin Holiday Park, near an area called Vauxhall (the part of London I left about a week ago), and are directed to bay #1 – ominous perhaps? – where for a couple of hours we sit, by the entrance, sipping tea (naturally) and watching the procession of cars and campervans slither in. The site is rammed, predominantly with English, but a few other nations including a noticeable appearance by Los Pumas – the Argentinians.

We head to the Dunedin Pirates rugby club round the corner from the site, where a few hundred locals and tourists are squeezed in to watch the opening ceremony on a big screen, and of course the first fixture: New Zealand vs Tonga. The latter are the underdogs, being the Kiwi equivalent of the Scilly Isles, but let’s not forget that they have some thoroughbred rugby pedigree – the legend that is Jonah Lomu is of Tongan origin (DEFECTOR!). However, this should be a comfortable warm-up for the hosts.

As the throng watch the introduction – over-long and over-choreographed as they all are these days – there’s a bristle of anticipation, not just from the NZ and Tongan fans but from everyone, from the kids seated at the front to the Argie wearing a Mascherano football top, to the friendly drunk next to us. Indeed there’s been a palpable sense of something special around the country all day, with central Auckland reportedly teeming, and a general sod-off-work-at-lunchtime Friday feeling. The fireworks die down, someone shouts ‘Play the bloody game!’, the teams come out to excited cheers, the anthems are sung, and the Tongans finally kick off the 7th Rugby World Cup… and then the sound cuts out.

Not that anybody notices for a while due to the roar that fills the room – well they’ve been waiting almost six years for this day – but fortunately it’s promptly rectified, and not a moment too soon, as the All Blacks are on the attack and soon enough open the scoring with a penalty, with a try soon after that. Followed by quite a few more tries, as they play rugby more akin to 7s than 15s.

With the break still some time away, I take a quick trip to the Gents, where I overhear the following father-and-son conversation from one of the cubicles:

“Hurry up”
“Why?”
“Cos we’re missing the rugby!”

And that’s how things are here. Watching the rugby always takes precedence over watching your son have an awkward shit.

Back to the game, and the islanders concede a couple more tries before scoring a penalty on the stroke of halftime. But the game’s already over, the Kiwis may as well play their Under 16s…

Who was it that said it’s a game of two halves? Not a rugby player, I know, but that old soccer adage most definitely applies here, as the All Blacks get complacent and fluff some decent opportunities, while the Tongans fight back and make a fair game of it in the second half, applying solid forward pressure and bullying their opponents into conceding, to much applause from the mixed crowd in the room. But the home nation score another fluid try and spoil the Reds’ party, finishing with a score of 41-10.

So a comfortable win in the end, but not as crushing as was hoped, and from an England point of view there are some positives to take from this:

The Kiwis lacked a killer instinct for parts. Ok, they thought they’d pretty much won and weren’t focusing as they might do for bigger games, but they should’ve sealed this match much sooner.
Secondly, judging by what Tonga did in the run up to their try, England would ruin their scrum.
And thirdly… Never thought I’d say it, but if I had a choice between France and New Zealand in the Quarter Finals, on this performance… I might just choose the All Blacks.

And so to bed. FOUR matches tomorrow, three of them of little consequence, one of them huge.

BRING ON THE ARGIES!

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Falling Down and Building Up

So, after 26 hours of plane-and-train-based travelling, mostly spent failing to sleep and wondering if it’s possible to make seats any less comfortable, I finally find myself in Christchurch, New Zealand. Capital city, if you like, of the South island, and focal point of the recent earthquakes. I share a shuttle from the airport with a civil engineer who’s also here to investigate, albeit in a more professional manner than mine. The suburbs look like any other grid-based suburb you’d find worldwide, with no real hint of damage; it’s not until the very centre, a couple of hundred square metres, that the devastation is plain to see. Picture an urban-based zombie holocaust shoot-em-up, with crumbled buildings, potholed roads, traffic lights ominously blinking amber, and an unsettling sense of ‘Where the hell IS everyone?’ and you’re probably close to how central Christchurch looks. What’s curious is that the majority of the destruction is confined to a very small area, bang in the city centre, with cracks and undulating streets rippling outwards.

As we tour the roads bordering the steel-fenced perimeter (wondering where on earth so much metal trellis came from) the driver tells me that he was in the middle of the earthquake when it struck, ferrying passengers. As buildings either side shook and started to fall, he swerved to the centre of the road, avoiding cascading bricks and narrowly eluding possible death when a tumbling lamppost brushed the bonnet merely inches from his head. He considers it a rather miraculous escape.

Speaking of miracles and matters devine, I spotted several churches which had steeples, roofs and windows missing, ecclesiastical skeletons which make me wonder how you could class such an event as an ‘Act of God’ – surely that’s some kind of self-blasphemy?

'NO GO'

And on the subject of things that move in mysterious ways, 20ft campervans are rather cumbersome beasts aren’t they? In case you’re thinking ‘I wouldn’t know’, the answer is ‘Yes’. After an early-morning coach with the ‘Nakedbus’ company (not as exciting as it sounds), I hooked up with my younger sibling in the town of Oamaru, about halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin. When your recent driving experience has been based around a small hatchback, converting to a 6.6 metre behemoth with the handling capabilities of Mr Creosote is like playing tennis left-handed. Blasting out my ‘Rawwwwk’ CD doesn’t exactly help the boy-racer mindset, so I shove in some Doors and discover that the resulting ‘Hey man it’s the 70s, why the need to drive so fast?’ way of thinking is the perfect state in which to helm The Rambling Rose.

For that is its name.

The public voted! Well, about 14 of them. And I went against the flow and decided that the name only one person chose – myself – was the one the van should be christened. And so it came to pass, and there was much rejoicing. Ok, the bloke on the next campsite thought it was a good name (‘Nice, sounds like a pub’), and so it stuck.

Oamaru

After a night’s stop in Oamaru, a town which is so colonial Victorian I kept thinking it was a film set, Mark and I head inland a tad – via a quick wine-tasting – to the town of Kurow, which, we are informed every 5 metres, is the birth place of the Kiwi captain, Richie McCaw. Every other shop is adorned with a poster bearing his teenage face, not quite the hard-bastard face we are familiar with, but an imposing kid nonetheless. We stop over by a placid turquoise river that wouldn’t look out of place at the Augusta Masters, and, after a spot of laidback post-breakfast canoeing, hit the road – hit’s probably the wrong word… Caress? Embrace? – and cruise down Route 1 on the road South.

Nice place for a canoe...

We go via the Moeraki Boulders – large near-spherical balls of rock on the beach that I’m convinced are Alien eggs, awaiting an awakening a la War of the Worlds – and the Totara estate, which was the first place to ship frozen meat to the UK back in the 1880s, shaping the entire future of New Zealand’s meat exporting business. From there it’s a few miles to our next stopover, our base – as well as the England team’s – for the next few days, the East coast city of Dunedin….

Alien Eggs at Moeraki

Name Our Van!

Mark and the Van

IN ABOUT A WEEK, I will be joining my brother in lovely New Zealand. Completing The Almighty Trinity will be our trusty (hopefully!) campervan, who will be escorting us all around the country as we follow the World Cup.

It needs a name. 

What shall we call it? Or what shall we call us?

Something very English, something classic, something proud. What do you think??

Why’s the Victoria Line so hot?

If you’re a Londoner, you may have noticed that the Victoria Line Tube has introduced new carriages recently. And if you’re a grumpy old git like me, then you might’ve thought:

How come the brand spanking new trains are so much hotter than the old ones? How come travel fares go up way beyond inflation yet the standards have regressed? How is that progress?! ANOTHER TYPICAL BRITISH COCK-UP!!‘ then muttered to yourself about how the country’s declined since ‘my day’ and something about how teenagers are to blame…

Well, I posed this question – not quite in the same words – to TFL, and they gave me this more-in-depth-than-expected response:

“Dear Mr Franklin,

Thank you for contacting us regarding the heat on the new Victoria line trains. I’m sorry if you have found them to be too hot, and as a regular Victoria line user myself I can understand your frustration.

The heat comes from the air in the tunnels, and after a train has been in service for an extended period of time this can cause the carriages to become hot. As the entirety of the Victoria line is underground, ventilated air is normally hot air circulating in the tunnels, as the Victoria line does not have any open sections like the other lines to cool trains down.

Fitting air conditioning to trains for the deep Tube lines is a particular challenge, partly because of lack of space on the trains, but more importantly, because conventional air conditioning systems, like those used in cars, buildings and many trains, would cause even more heat to be created in the very small tunnels, compounding the problem, rather than curing it.

Tackling heat on the Tube is one of the biggest challenges facing London Underground. We are currently doubling the capacity of all the main ventilation fans serving the Victoria line, in readiness for increases in the speed and frequency of train services. We will then install cooling systems above the platforms at four of the busiest stations on the Victoria line, to feed cool air into the tunnels.

On the new trains, there is a regenerative braking system, which means that energy created when the brakes are used is turned into electricity that will go back into the line, thus saving energy.  However, we could not switch on this system until all the old trains, which do not have this system, had been replaced which has only happened in the past couple of weeks. Consequently the energy generated by the brakes on the new trains is being turned into heat which goes into the ventilation system.  Now that the old trains have been removed, we have turned on part of this braking system with it being fully utilised by next spring.

Once again I’m sorry if you find the Victoria line to be too hot, however I hope that you can understand the challenges we face to overcome this issue. Please contact me again if you need any help in the future.

Kind regards…”

I have to say, I was almost impressed.

The Fifth Horseman (Short Film)

 A duologue between two scientists about the imminent end of the World, and drastic measures to save it.

(Click the image to view)