Gallery: From film-maker to ferryman

Film-maker Luke Jeans is the epitome of the self-made man.

Andrew Clarke

Film-maker Luke Jeans is the epitome of the self-made man. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to an Emmy-award-winning television programme-maker who left school without a qualification to his name.

There can't be many people who emerge from a mid-morning swim in a pool to find rock superstar Tina Turner in the kitchen busily making them a ham sandwich.

It may sound the stuff of dreams but film-maker and editor Luke Jeans swears that the event actually happened. He explains that he was in LA, in the early 1980s, helping to make a 13 part TV series on the history of rock when Tina invited them to use her pool.

“After the interview ended, she asked us what we were doing next. We told her that we weren't doing anything. We had three hours to kill before we caught our flight back to London and she said, 'well, why don't you use the pool and I'll make you some sandwiches.' So that's what happened.

“Me and others dived in the pool. When I got out, I came into the house to find Tina in the kitchen literally making sandwiches for us all.”

Most Read

Sitting in his home studio, Luke laughs: “Not bad for a boy who left school at 14 without hardly any qualifications and started work as stage crew in the Hippodrome Golders Green before graduating into film-making during the hey day of independent television and ending up running my own business and winning an Emmy for a groundbreaking television show for Channel Four.”

Today, Luke still runs his own production company but has downsized, and turned it into a cottage industry - basing himself just outside Southwold. “I had to get out because I was heading for a nervous breakdown. That's the trouble of running a really successful company is that people just want more - but I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep a check on everything that I was responsible for.

“So what I did was walk away from my old company, sell my stake in it, and start again on a much smaller scale, still doing work that I believe in but on a much more manageable level.” Part of his quest for a more sensible work-life balance is his work as part of the team who operate the ferry service between Southwold and Walbserwick.

“It's a great way to just clear your head. It keeps you fit and you get to meet loads of marvellous people - people from all walks of life. Living where we do we sometimes even get the odd famous name. Only last month I had former BBC boss Peter Fincham, who's now head of ITV, in the boat with Alan Yentob, who was controller of BBC1 for many years and I could see them looking sideways at me, thinking 'I think I know you but I can't place you…' the way that people do when they see people out of context.”

Professionally, Luke says that he looks for the high profile jobs but they are jobs he wants. He is currently editing the DVD of a recent Childline benefit concert he filmed at the 02 Arena. Although, he does have traditional film-editing facilities tucked away at home he says that the new digital editing equipment makes working from home ridiculously easy.

“I was at an event recently and the BBC said can we have some footage for the lunchtime news. This was about 9 o'clock in the morning, I came home edited a piece together and drove it up to Norwich. Before I got back home it had already been put out. When they finally get broadband sorted out round here I won't even have to leave home to get it to them.”

He said that he did regret the reducing of staff and the responsibility for all elements being visited on just one or two people because they can't possibly have eyes in the back of their head. “People often refer to film crews but I prefer film unit, because the word unit suggests a group of people working together. I have had instances where you get a group of people together and they are all inspired, all very professional, and you can create magic - and it shows on screen.

“It is also allows you to learn your trade, develop skills, alongside more experienced people rather than just being thrown in the deep end and being told to get on with it. The thing is that in the old days there were people around to tell you, you had made a mistake, the problem is that today maybe some people don't realise that they are making mistakes.”

Luke is employed as a freelance trainer by the BBC and he makes the point that in a visual medium knowledge of the technical aspects of the job is in aid to creativity.

He said that being a documentary film-maker he is essentially a storyteller. “You have got to know what the story is - what story are you trying to tell. In the old days you used to shoot a ratio of 10-to-one - you'd shoot ten minutes of footage to get one minute of screen time. Nowadays film-makers are shooting 30, 40, 50-to-one. I have friends, who are editors, who are sitting down to edit a film or programme and they meet the director and say let's grab a cup of coffee and you tell me what the story is, so often these days the answer is 'I'm not sure, let's see what footage we have, which is crazy. A director needs to have a clear picture of the story in his head, he needs to sieve the information as he gets it and then interpret it. It's very difficult to make a film in the editing room. You need a focus from the very beginning.”

For Luke, there was never any doubt that he was going to work in the film and television business. His father, Michael Jeans, who worked as a potter in Walberswick, in a bizarre double-life was also one of the first director/producers for Anglia Television when the station first went on air.

“In those days you could change jobs because, they were inventing the language. They were making the rules as they went along because they were the first to do it. Dad had been a potter, but he had also worked on the theatre and when ITV started he was invited to make films for ATV and then transferred to Anglia.”

He said that he left school at 14, with no academic qualifications to speak of, but he was fascinated by the activity that surrounded the nearby Golders Green Hippodrome. “When I used to go past, the doors were open and you could see inside. When we reached the stage when I could no longer stay at school, I just went into the theatre and said: 'Have you got any work?' They knew me because I was already doing Saturday matinees and having left school I was working there full-time.

“I did all the jobs, which was great training and in those days theatre paid quite well simply because you worked bloody hard. The Golders Green Hippodrome was a touring theatre and that meant every Saturday night you had to strike one show and on Sunday put the new one in.”

After a couple of years however, there came a need for change, not least because the BBC had bought the theatre and the existing staff had been made redundant.

At 17, Luke decided that now was the time to pursue his dream of becoming a film-maker and contacted a friend who was a film editor and suggested he become his assistant. He then moved onto the BBC as a holiday relief props boy and, as luck would have it, was assigned to work on a new comedy series that rejoiced in the unusual name of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

“For me that was magic and this reaffirmed my desire to work in television. A lot of it was recorded on location and we dashing about everywhere getting all sorts of stuff. You'd be in the middle of field and suddenly they'd want a phone box and you'd have to go off and get a phone box. That was just so much fun to do.”

Then after six months applied to London Weekend Television for a job as assistant film editor.

“In those days LWT was based at Wembley Park and I was going over on the tube for the interview and it suddenly struck me that I didn't really want the job. I can't remember the exact reasoning after all these years but all of a sudden I knew I didn't want it but being young I thought well I can't back out of the interview now, so I went in to do the interview and the first thing they asked me was 'Why do you want this job?' and I said: 'I don't' and we had this strange, almost surreal conversation. And do you know, out of all the candidates, I think 60 people had applied, I was the one that got the job!” Luke lets a guffaw of ironic laughter.

Having found himself at London Weekend, against his wishes, he settled down learning the job working on shows like Aquarius, the fore-runner of The South Bank Show, before joining forces with director Tony Palmer, who Luke described as the enfant terrible of 1960s television. He gained fame as the film-maker who chronicled Cream's final gig at The Royal Albert Hall in 1969.

“I edited a series of 60 minute documentaries with him called The World Of … we did The World of Liberace, The World of Hugh Hefner, people like that… it was an amazing time and working for him was great because he was so well known. We were editing together one Saturday afternoon and the phone rang and he answered it and after the conversation finished, he turned to me and said: 'Have you anything planned for the rest of the weekend?' I said: 'No, well he said that was the Osmonds and they want us to film them at Wembley and we have to get down there this afternoon.

“So there I was a little while later in a van with the Osmonds with literally hundreds of screaming girls hammering on the outside. It was total madness. In those days you'd just drop everything and just go. A little later I repeated the experience with David Cassidy. I was what 20, 21 and having the time of my life.”

He said unfortunately his professional relationship with Tony Palmer ended on a very sour note which left Luke with a family to feed and no income.

“Tony Palmer phoned me up and said I have got this great job. They are making a film of Jesus Christ Superstar and I have been asked to make a making of documentary, do you want to come and be the film editor? This was a great step up for me, this was the leap from assistant editor to full-blown editor. I said yes of course.

“I went to see my boss at LWT and said: 'Can I have a leave of absence for six months? And he said no. He turned down my request. So I then immediately resigned because it was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I left on the Friday and I got a phone-call on the Sunday saying that the Jesus Christ Superstar project had been cancelled.

“So, all of a sudden I was in the wilderness. I had nothing. By this time I had a wife and family to support, so I got on the phone and phoned up Russell Harty, who was a mate, and explained what had happened. I had worked on Russell's show in the past and he got me back as a researcher on his show. He was great and I spent two years working on his show doing pre-interviews and taking celebrities like John Wayne to lunch, finding out things that Russell could talk to them about, finding the good stories and anecdotes.”

Luke said that he launched his own independent film-making business at the same time that Channel Four arrived on the television landscape.

He said that he immediately landed contracts with the new independent broadcaster looking after an Irish current affairs programme called Irish Angle which went out on a Sunday morning. He would re-edit programmes from RTE and Ulster Television for use in mainland Britain. “It was lovely contract which only took up two days every week, But, it was regular work and of courseit got me into Channel Four at the very beginning.”

He said that at the same time he was running an off-line editing facility in conjunction with a friend who was also working with Channel Four producing Treasure Hunt with Anneka Rice. “Treasure Hunt needed a lot of editing and after a while our facility had 32 editing suites, so we became quite well known within the industry.”

He said that one show which was edited there was Go For It - a Channel Four show for kids with disabilities and a chance conversation with the producer led to an offer for Luke to become one of the director's of the show.

“A chance to direct was fantastic. I loved doing it and I loved working with the kids. Then at the end of the series, she came to me and said that she wasn't making another series and if I wanted to submit an idea for a replacement series then she suspected that Channel Four would be quite receptive. So I came up with an idea which was like a junior version of Challenge Anneka except it mixed able-bodied kids with those with disabilities but we never drew attention to the fact that some kids were disabled, they all mixed together and just got on with it.”

The show was called Beat That and was presented by punk rocker Mick Scarlet in a wheelchair and became one of the most popular series on Channel Four in the 1980s. “I had a ball making it. It was different and it wasn't condescending. I think we did three series of that and it was huge fun to shoot - a different challenge every week. And the fact we won an Emmy for the show was just the icing on the cake and that was for the best children's show outside America.

“After three years I thought it was time to move on, to do something different but I couldn't get Beat That out of my head so we did Beat That Sport with people like Linford Christie and Steve Davis coming along and sharing their skills with the kids.”

Having won the Emmy he was then approached by the head of children's programming on ITV to develop a science show which was then rejected because in the meantime ITV had decided that perhaps they didn't want a science show after all. “Which was rather typical of the way that ITV was at the time. But, shortly afterwards I had lunch with the commissioning editor of Channel Four and she said what are you going to do next? I said that I hadn't really thought much about it. She then volunteered that they were looking for a science show. My ears pricked up and I said: 'Well I may be able to help you there.'

Luke adapted his ITV proposal for the new brief and was rewarded not with a children's series but a fully-blown, primetime adult commission at 8pm in the evening - with the running time extended from 30 minutes to a full hour.

“I knew immediately that this was quite a series. The budget was increased and it was made known that Michael Grade, Channel Four's controller, really loved the idea and was watching our progress with interest.” He said that he immediately went out and borrowed a number of kids scientific experiment books from the local library and said to his production team how can we make these simple experiments big? How can we make them into impressive, event television?

The result was Beat That: Einstein and a another series of challenges like: How can you toss a grand piano out of a RAF Hercules transport plane at 30,000 feet and still have it in a playable condition after it has hit the ground?

“It was all about the appliance of simple, scientific truths found in those kids library books. We did it but it nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. Every challenge we did had to be enormous. There were no half measures. We got the army incolved and over-turned a Chieftain tank and then had to right it again and the one that finished me off was making a water-based turntable for a car showroom. We were shooting in a Mercedes showroom and had built a huge swimming pool lined only with plastic, filled it with 10,000 gallons of water filled it with inner tubes and I just thought if this goes wrong if that thin tank bursts we are sunk, literally. It did work but the strain and worry about the costs and achieving the results just wore me down.”

At the end of series Luke decided to walk away and start afresh even though Channel Four offered to renew the series. Today Luke is busily developing personal projects making films for independent companies, films for the government on the effects of stammering with Michael Palin and shooting DVDs for people like Childline and, of course, helping out with the Southwold/Walbserwick ferry.