Staring Daleks and Cybermen in the face
Some people's lives just seem so cool. John Christie has rubbed shoulders with Cybermen, worked on Blue Peter and has been to India with Miranda Richardson to film elephants.
Some people's lives just seem so cool. John Christie has rubbed shoulders with Cybermen, worked on Blue Peter and has been to India with Miranda Richardson to film elephants. His own creations, meanwhile, can be found in the Tate. Steven Russell met the artist and film-maker
SOMETIMES you can't help feeling sorry for our interview subjects. Like John Christie. He'd doubtless prefer to be chatting about his latest artwork, about to be exhibited in Suffolk, but it's just too, too tempting to haul him back 30 or 40 years to his time as a BBC cameraman and shows like Dr Who, Dad's Army and Blue Peter. Well . . . for someone like me, they represented a golden age of TV and I simply can't let a prime opportunity pass. Luckily, affable EastEnder that he is, John is happy to talk about his career from the beginning. After A-levels he went not to art school but joined the Beeb as a trainee cameraman and stayed “quite a long time”. Programmes he worked on included the aforementioned classics as well as I, Claudius - the drama serial set in Rome - and the evening magazine show Nationwide. Oh, wow!
“Yes, 'oh, wow!'” he grins. “But nobody took very much notice at the time. It was just how it was. I never really filed away lots of anecdotes. It's only later that you start to realise how much all these things mean to people. In some ways I wish I'd kept all those scripts we used. Someone was saying the other week he'd been on a Dr Who convention and he suggested it to me. 'Just try to make something up! They're desperate for people!'”
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He does recall how that swirling vortex in the opening credits was created by pointing a camera at a monitor and triggering a visual feedback - a howl-around, as it's known in the trade.
Nowadays, of course, most film techniques are achieved with computer technology. Then, most effects were basic but effective - pulling something on a piece of string, for instance. “All those things looked so tatty upfront. K-9 (a radio-controlled robot dog) was always breaking down. I just remember it lying on its side with bits off it. And it couldn't go through doors. Most of the sets had a little metal strip on the floor between areas, and K-9 couldn't get over those. So you'd never see it going through doors!”
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John, who remembers most the era of fourth doctor Tom Baker, came face to face with Daleks and Cybermen during his time behind the lens, as well as other aliens. “What's weird is that you were doing this thing that nobody thought too much of, to be honest, but it was frightening children all over the country. And yet it wasn't frightening at all when you were there, because it was people dressed up, you could see the bits falling off, and the sets were really tatty. It is amazing that people found it magical!”
Blue Peter was enjoying its halcyon era, with Valerie Singleton, Peter Purves and John Noakes - “a very nice guy and always prone to things going slightly wrong, but that was part of the charm”. The Old Grey Whistle Test is another programme that sticks in the mind, particularly the appearances by Jimi Hendrix.
He worked on a few episodes of Dad's Army and recalls being caught out at rehearsals as a Walmington-on-Sea virgin. Cameramen were given numbered shot cards, showing when they were required. “I remember looking at my cards and thinking the first shot was number 60 and that would be quite a long way in. I wandered off and when I came back, shortly later, they'd been looking for me!
“Because they didn't want to wear anybody out” - many of the players were veteran actors and often had a lie down in the afternoons - “they used to have this system where they would set the positions, not bother about the words, make sure the cameras could get the shots, and then they would maybe do the move - which might be Captain Mainwaring walking to his office, followed by someone - and then go on to the next scene.
“So, of course, they got to shot 60 really quickly. And I wasn't there! But after that I knew what was going on.”
A studio-based episode would usually involve a one-day shoot in autumn or winter, with crews in at about 9.30am to set up, rehearsals starting an hour later, breaking for lunch at 1pm, and then going through until about 5.30pm. Recording would start at 7.30pm, before an audience, and things were usually wrapped up by 9pm.
Life at the BBC was great, but perhaps not as creative as he'd expected. “Even the people in charge of the camera department were more interested in things like central heating and cars,” he chuckles. “It was run by people who were engineers.”
John had a strong artistic drive and became involved in making books, nurtured by friends who ran little presses. One, artist Ron King, taught him skills such as screenprinting, letterpress and how to set type.
The first book John produced, on art, was published in 1975. What was the appeal of this craft? “It's about being able to make something. I was generally working on my own things but I would also help him (Ron). That was kind of the unspoken deal.”
When a big commission came through to produce a collection of books for America, John decided to take the plunge and leave the BBC. After about three years he realised he wasn't making enough money and became a freelance cameraman, as well as continuing to make books.
It's brought a life of variety and (no pun intended) colour. There have been lots of documentaries - historical films for the Timewatch strand have been fun, for instance - and lots of travelling: America, Africa, Australia, India, China, Pakistan . . .
When producer/writer wife Genevieve started her own independent production company in the late 1990s, John got heavily involved: coming up with ideas for programmes, filming, directing . . . “Made the props. Everything,” he quips.
One of the most intriguing projects was The Great Nazi Cash Swindle, screened on Channel Four five years ago. It told how the German SS produced about �3 billion of forged British banknotes during the Second World War.
John came across the tale of Operation Bernard in an antiquarian book catalogue in 2000 and “the greatest forgery of all time” immediately captured his imagination. The SS had selected skilled Jewish internees and made them produce virtually-flawless notes that could fool the Bank of England.
SS major Bernhard Kr�ger not only chose inmates with useful practical skills but hairdressers and musicians to cater for this unfortunate self-contained community.
Miraculously, all the prisoners saw out the war and John managed to track down six of them: two in the US, one in Canada, another in Amsterdam, a fifth in Prague and the other in Berlin.
Such are the vagaries of TV film-making that the idea was almost sunk in infancy. It was turned down by Channel 4, Channel Five and the Discovery Channel, before Channel 4 had a rethink.
The original Nazi plan was to shock the British economy by dropping money from planes, which would have dented people's faith in the pound in their pocket. But the Gestapo, John says, argued that “'this kind of behaviour is the sort of thing that will bring the Third Reich into disrepute'. Right . . . and so all the other terrible things they were doing didn't reflect badly on the Nazis?!”
In the event, the SS used the money for its spying operation and bought gold, jewellery and American dollars.
Other documentaries have included Addicted to Death - The Harold Shipman Story and a film on the creation of the majestic ocean liner Queen Mary 2.
Art and books were still part of life. In 1994 John produced a limited-edition book on the work of writer and artist John Berger. Later, early in 1997, John C phoned his friend and said “Fancy doing something else?” He had no firm thoughts about what, however. Perhaps a film . . . but how to start? “Just send me a colour,” suggested Berger. “I took quite a long time thinking 'What's he talking about?!'” admits John Christie.
“We were at a funeral, of Genevieve's auntie, and I was idly looking at some white and red flowers in a jar. When I got back, I thought I'd try to find the colour in my paintbox. I found Cadmium Red and all of a sudden I had a reason for sending it. So I made him a little card thing with Cadmium Red on the outside and my letter inside.
“He sent something back almost immediately. Commenting on the colour, he said it's like the colour you see when you're young and you close your eyes and look at the sky. That's the colour you get through your eyelids.
“This kind of correspondence continued for a couple of years. We didn't know where it would lead when we started.”
What it did result in was a book called I Send You This Cadmium Red: a collection of the letters, notes and drawings about colour - and even a scan of John and Genevieve's yet-to-be-born daughter! - that had gone back and forth. All 10,000 copies sold out - 5,000 in English and 2,500 each in German and Spanish - and it was named one of the top 10 art books of the year by the New York Times.
John's own artistic endeavours have become something of a focus since he, Genevieve and their two school-age children moved from London to Suffolk in 2006: initially renting in Framlingham while an ancient barn on the outskirts of town was converted into their new home - a major undertaking that he project-managed.
His pastels-on-paper are on show at Peppermint Shed, at Sproughton, until August 21. John makes a wooden construction and then arranges geometrical shapes - sometimes cutting them up with an electric saw - until he's happy. These then provide the inspiration for the pastels.
Books remain part of his soul: John is part of the four-strong team that's started Full Circle Editions - described in detail elsewhere in this newspaper - producing high-quality books with an East of England flavour.
Neither has filming been forgotten. John hopes to still do occasional work for Plan, a charity helping children and their families in 49 of the poorest countries to escape the cycle of poverty. He's filmed their projects in Ethiopia, Senegal, Mali and Sierra Leone.
“It brings you back to earth. All the aggro of building and planning” - with the converted barn - “rather pale against someone who hasn't got any water. But they're always pretty positive experiences, these visits.”
Once, he accompanied Inspector Morse actor Kevin Whately to Mali. The Whately family had been long-time sponsors of a local girl, who'd grown up and married. The trip involved meeting her, and another child the actor was now supporting. “That was fantastic and he's a very nice chap: down to earth, and like the person you see on Morse.”
There have been trips to India and China for HSBC, making short films for the internet about its sustainable business policies and microfinance (providing financial services to low-income clients). A couple of years ago he did some work for the mineral-mining company Rio Tinto, travelling from Brazil, through Mexico and on to Alaska.
An interesting project involved filming actress Miranda Richardson in India for an ITV programme about threatened species - in this case elephants. “It was quite tricky sometimes, because their territory was being eroded and they had been on the warpath and killed people. Their normal routes were being turned into farmland and they got very cross. You don't half run if it looks as if they're coming towards you while you're filming, because they can move pretty fast!
“We went to a place where they'd gone into a village and virtually fished these people out. There was a hole where people had broken through their hut to get out, and they'd been chased in the dark and stamped on and killed. Then the elephants brought the bodies back and laid them out in a row. It was weird. They were behaving in an absolutely uncharacteristic way because their established way of life was being altered by man.”
The last camera-work John did was for a new Channel 4 lunchtime series on drawing that starts on Monday - Life Class: Today's Nude.
It brings to mind - loosely - another documentary he and Genevieve mentioned earlier, and which they both worked on: a history of page-three girls for ITV. “I was filming it, and what was funny was that my assistant knew the names of all these girls and I didn't know any of them! Anyway,” he laughs, twinkle in eye, “every time we were photographing one of them, Genevieve would turn up . . . I had to pretend not to be all that interested.”
John Christie's new works are exhibited at Peppermint Shed gallery (6 Lower Street, Sproughton, near Ipswich) on Saturday, July 18 and Sunday, July 19, from 10.30am until 5pm. They can be seen at other times until August 21, but potential visitors need to make arrangements by phoning 07757 504487 or emailing email@example.com