Man of his time

Even with a lot of good luck, it still needs awful lot of sweat, toil and perseverance to get a film made in this country. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to actor/writer/director Nick Moran about his labour of love, Telstar - The Joe Meek Story.

Andrew Clarke

Even with a lot of good luck, it still needs awful lot of sweat, toil and perseverance to get a film made in this country. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to actor/writer/director Nick Moran about his labour of love, Telstar - The Joe Meek Story.

Actor, writer and now film director Nick Moran is a man with a passion for seeing things through. His debut movie Telstar is now battling Hollywood titans Terminator: Salvation, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince for audiences attention and is doing very nicely.

It's a colourful, atmospheric movie set in the early 1960s London and telling the story of eccentric record producer Joe Meek - a flamboyantly gay, seat-of-the-pants intuitive record producer who created a worldwide number one hit record - the ubiquitous Telstar - in his first floor flat with the vinyl dripping down into the shop below.


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It's a film which Nick has worked hard at capturing the colour, energy and atmosphere of rock'n'roll Britain in the early 1960s before The Beatles came along made everything fab. Telstar is not only the story of Joe Meek, it's a look at a Britain finding its feet in post-austerity world - a world that had suddenly gone from black and white into colour.

For Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels actor Moran, Telstar represents 18 years work. “It's amazing. I could have had a child in that time. It could have grown up and left home in the time, it has taken for this story to make it to the screen.”

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Telstar's journey first to the stage and then the big screen started in the early 1990s when Nick and his Suffolk-born best mate James Hicks were passing a shop in the Holloway Road in a cab and noticed a blue plaque which stated “Joe Meek, lived, worked and died here.”

Nick says with a laugh: “At the time I was an underemployed actor, spending too much of my time watching Home and Away and getting increasingly resentful at everyone else's success, so I thought it would be quite therapeutic to write a play about this guy. I had written a couple of bits and pieces before, so I knew I could string some words together and I thought that instead of sitting at home, it would be much more useful if I was writing something.”

Interestingly, even though he was an actor, he says that Telstar was never written to provide him with an acting vehicle for himself, he always thought of it as a play for others to stage,

“There was an amazing bit of synchronicity in the writing of it as Jim (Hicks) was living with his grandmother who was friends with Alan Blakely, played briefly by Marcus Brigstocke in the film, who was Joe's writing partner for three years. Alan was fantastically helpful, got us into the story and introduced us to a load of other people - and it took off from there.”

He said that because he and Jim Hicks had known each other for years and their strengths complemented each other well, he said the writing of the play and then the screenplay was an amazingly stress-free fruitful partnership.

“Jim's my best mate, he's my oldest and funniest friend, we've known each other for years, I knew I could handle the dramatic structure and Jim would inject all the gags and the dialogue.”

He said that fairly early on they knew they had something special on their hands and in an effort to get it noticed Nick started to hunt around for a well paid commercial so he could use the fee to stage their rough draft as a one-off performance in a pub.

“I thought that we would do a one-off gig in London, in a room above a pub, and then perhaps, if we were lucky, take it to Edinburgh. I never thought of it as a film. That would have been laughable. I was an out-of-work actor and I couldn't even afford to stage it as a play in a theatre.”

What Nick did have was some famous friends and at the initial rehearsed reading the roles were taken by such startling acting talents as Jude Law and Kathy Burke. Things started picking for the play then suddenly Nick's acting fortunes changed when he was cast in a small British gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and suddenly he no longer had the free time to devote to the play.

“Suddenly I was in demand as an actor and the play was put on the backburner. But, I never forgot about it. Every few months when I had some time off between films I would sit down and do another draft, we would run more workshops, just getting it into the best shape we could. We did a workshop for the Arts Council and all of a sudden it just, sort of, picked up its own momentum. I had done a brace of films, which were all right, nothing special, but I had some money in the bank and I thought I am going to take a year off and see if I can get the play on in the West End.”

Through sheer tenacity - and great writing - Nick and James' Telstar - The Joe Meek Story because a much talked about theatre hit at the turn of the century. Even today you can hear the pride in Nick's voice when he talks of the achievement. “We did it… and I did it not as an actor but as a producer.”

Contacts are everything of course. One of the major backers for the play was multi-millionaire entrepreneur and Crystal Palace FC chairman Simon Jordan. Nick was working in Los Angeles trying to hustle work in a fledgling sci-fi television series when Simon phoned up out of the blue and suggested that they make Telstar, the play into Telstar, the film.

“I can remember it now. I was hanging out in a sports bar, watching the football, it was 2 o'clock in the afternoon over there, I was watching the mid-week European matches when Simon phones up and says: 'Come home, we're making a movie.' It was that simple.”

He said that he flew back to Britain made sure that Simon was serious - and that he knew what he was letting himself in for and set to work adapting the play script for the big screen.

“It all happened so fast. Because Simon used the facilities at Crystal Palace that meant that we had to be finished by the start of the next season. I think, in the end, we did the whole film in something like 12 weeks. That was great because that meant we could use the infrastructure that already existed for the football club - payroll and legal services were all channelled through the club. I know several people who were very excited to receive their wage slips marked Crystal Palace FC.

“Simon has been great. He was really enthusiastic about the play and it was clear that he saw the potential in it to be a film. I remember asking him how on earth we were going to fund a movie. He just looked at me and said: 'Well I'll write a cheque.' Just like that? I mean, people scrabble around for years trying to get financing together, so I feel really lucky that it all came together so easily for us. This is why I feel that I owe it to the film to get out there and try and spread the message. It's a great story - a fascinating story of a remarkable man. I believe in it, James believes in it, Simon certainly believes in it and I feel we owe the film an audience.”

He said that after the 7/7 London bombings, the bottom temporarily fell-out of theatre attendances in the West End and Simon refused to let Telstar close and bank-rolled the play through a couple of months of uneconomic houses - simply because he believed in the show and knew that audiences would return. He was proved right.

Confident in the story he has to tell, Nick is touring the UK introducing the movie to audiences at special events and answering questions at post-screening discussions. He said that he has been delighted with the critical reaction and he now feels that it is up to him to raise the film's profile and deliver an audience.

“The problem that any British movie has is that it has to compete with the giant Hollywood blockbuster machine. Terminator, Transformers…they are huge summer events which, let's face it are critic proof. Good or bad people will flock to see them because they are the event movies of the summer.

“What we have here is a fun, lovingly made, critically well received movie that is something a little bit different. We don't have the budget for huge advertising or marketing campaigns but what we do have is word of mouth. The people who do see it love it and are busily telling their friends, which is great, it's the sort of advertising that money can't buy, but it takes time for the word of mouth to spread, so I'm put there trying to put a bit of word-of-mouth on the streets by standing up at screenings, introducing the movie and taking questions afterwards - trying to make screenings a bit of an event.”

The film's profile was also certainly helped by the presence of Kevin Spacey in the key supporting role of Major Banks, Joe Meek's financier.

For Nick, Spacey's enthusiastic agreement to appear in the film was further vindication of his belief in the whole project. “Because he was in his own play at the Old Vic, he didn't get to see Telstar on stage but he knew all about it and when he read the screenplay he committed to the film straight away.

He said that one of the factors that made the film so fascinating for him as a writer and as a director is it offers a view of Britain as a world leader in rock'n'roll. Elvis Presley was in the army, Chuck Berry was in prison and The Beatles were still learning their craft in Hamburg nightclubs.

The biggest stars were Brits like Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Adam Faith and Billy Fury. Riding on the back of this homegrown rock'n'roll explosion Joe Meek created a number one hit single on both sides of the Atlantic with the instrumental Telstar - named after the world's first tele-communications satellite.

“It a Britain which has largely been forgotten because The Beatles came along and reinvented the way we viewed the sixties. This was the sixties before swinging London, it was a Britain that was the standard bearer for rock'n'roll and made the country a musical world power.”

He said that he was hugely grateful to the crew and especially costume designer Jeff Banks who faithfully recreated the look and feel of the era and gave the film much of its atmosphere. “What I am particularly pleased about is that the film looks much more expensive than it is. For me too many British films look a bit rough around the edges. The sixties was a time of colour, of optimism and we show that. The film has a gloss to it that many British films don't have.

“One of the things that I have found when I have been around the country introducing the film is that the older audiences have really responded to it and several guys have come up to me afterwards and said:' Yeah, you've got it exactly right.' which is terrific.”

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