The 38th Anniversary of Filming Quadrophenia – Extract from Simon Well’s Book on the Cult ClassicWritten by Simon Wells
Leslie Ash, still just only 17, would recall a sense of adventure and the harsh reality when she came down to Brighton to prepare for filming the following week. “We all checked into a hotel the night before filming started,” she’d recall in her memoirs. “While the executives lorded it up in The Grand, our hotel was like the poor man’s relation; it was dirty and full of mice.”
Once everyone had decanted into their various bedrooms and suites, a roll call was convened in the lobby of Franc Roddam’s hotel, allowing everyone to check their times for make-up and other requirements for the following morning.
This would be the first time that the actors would see the cast list and the daily call sheets – the essential paperwork that was vital to maintain a sense of order to the filming. Having changed for the evening, Sting emerged in the hotel lobby carrying a large ghetto blaster. Settling himself in a corner of the hotel, he began previewing demos from The Police’s first set of recordings. Intrigued, Leslie Ash went over to listen to the songs blasting out of the tape deck. Being coy, Sting didn’t let on that The Police were his band. Nonetheless he asked Ash for her opinion on some of the songs’ merits; in particular a track entitled “Message in a Bottle”. “I don’t really think it’s chart material,” she replied coyly. Little did Ash know that the song had already been lined up as a single for The Police and would go onto become one of their signature tunes.
Gary Shail would also be privy to Sting’s enormous talent germinating in the hotel. “Me and Sting stayed up all night once,” recalled Shail to the author in 2014. “He played me “Walking On The Moon”. I said, ‘Y’know what Sting, that’s fucking wicked. You should release that song’. I’m sitting in this hotel room with this serious megastar and I was just eighteen.”
Some inadvertent embarrassment would surround Sting when the call sheets were handed out. Seemingly for the entirety of rehearsals, the cast had happily swallowed Sting’s enigmatic moniker without batting so much as an eyelid. Awaiting their timetables for the following morning’s action, the call sheets would reveal Sting’s real name; one Gordon Sumner. This discovery would cause a large of dose of collective hilarity for the cast of instinctive young actors, most of it directed in the Geordie’s direction.
Sting’s peers evidently listening to the hit parade of the time, they’d noted Punk jokester Jilted John’s novelty single, “Gordon Is A Moron”. The annoyingly catchy ditty had enlivened the lower end of the charts during the summer of 1978, demonising anyone unfortunate enough to share in the song’s title. Not surprisingly, the unveiling of Sting’s true name afforded the cast a chance to mercilessly jibe the wannabe pop star with the refrain from Jilted John’s song. While Sting’s reaction to the ribbing has yet to be recorded, to save any further embarrassment, all references to Gordon Sumner were swiftly erased from all of the film’s future paperwork.
Once the nervous assimilation had calmed down, Franc Roddam called the main cast to his hotel room to run through the script. While the paperwork was comprehensive in its directions, there was obviously no way that the scriptwriters could predict the improvisatorial moments that would occur when filming got underway. Mark Wingett would later recall a moment when they were going through their lines the night before.
Mark Wingett. “I think it was on the Sunday afternoon, Franc got us all in his hotel room to have the script reading. I remember getting half way through it and Franc saying, ‘Oh, let’s not bother’, and closing the book. So he used that script as a basis and most of it we improvised.”
“There was no script,” recalls Gary Shail today. “Everyday we were given a thing called ‘blue pages’ (rewrites). They’d give you the information that you needed in the scene, so we just made it up as it went along.”
Behind the scenes, Roddam and his team of researchers had been minutely plotting the riot scenes for the film. Given that the collaboration of the police and local council was still dependent on watertight scheduling, a vast amount of work had gone into ensuring than the riot scenes would not impinge on Brighton’s day-to-day activities.
Nonetheless, the town’s menagerie of small streets and lanes had offered the crew a ready made set that would have proved impossible to replicate in a studio. Like Quadrophenia’s most famous Brighton predecessors, John Bolton’s 1947 version of Brighton Rock and the whimsy of Henry Cornelius’ Genevieve (1953), Quadrophenia would similarly preserve some of the town’s architecture on celluloid. More inadvertently than by design, two other movies utilised Brighton as a backdrop with a contemporary music theme. The first was Jeremy Summer’s ephemeral juke-box movie Be My Guest. Starring David Hemmings and a pre-Small Face Steve Marriott, this 1965 yarn attempted to rival Brighton as the inheritor of the Liverpool sound. Remarkably, the film invoked no frisson whatsoever from the riots that had engulfed the town the year before, leaving the film to be consigned to the archives. John Mackenzie’s Made (1971) gave way to Brighton in a scene where Roy Harper’s alter ego found himself in the seaside town on a promotional visit.
Despite only being fourteen years following the tumultuous events of 1964, there was still period consequences to take into consideration for the film. British motoring habits continually evolving, a fleet of vintage cars that were faithful to the era were brought in. Despite a few immoveable reflections of 1978, the camerawork’s brief was to steer away from anything too redolent of a latter-day Britain.
After much deliberation, Roddam and his team had earmarked a modest but visually rich part of Brighton for the film’s base. Utilising the promenade from Brighton’s Madeira Drive down to the town’s historic Grand Hotel, this enclave would house the entirety of the Brighton locations. Madeira Drive’s sweeping expanse and its stone pillars were well positioned to host the Mods arrival from London on scooters and required little in the way of period dressing.
High above Maderia Drive, some steep walls would be earmarked to recreate an incident that had been played out for real in the 1960’s; a site where some energetic Mods had launched a group of rockers over the side. These violent sequences had been captured in photographs and moving film at the time; the most graphic of these shot by photographer Colin Jones. Following publication in the Brighton Evening Argus they were syndicated around the world. These genuine artefacts to hand, the production crew had credible reference points to work from. During the making of Quadrophenia, Brighton’s skateboarders had referred to the site as “The White Walls”, although far more aggressive stunts were scheduled to take place once filming got underway.
Directly underneath the lower promenade lay The Beach Café; a typically understated seaside eatery that appeared untouched by time. The café was established in 1964, ironically around the time of the original Mods and Rockers battles. Over the years it had served the unsophisticated palates of sun watchers and beach dwellers alike. This establishment would act as an important location for the Quadrophenia’s Mods communal breakfast, and later, for Jimmy’s despondent return to the town. Complete with vintage signage, Formica tables, fitted seats and other leftovers from summers past, there was evidently no redressing required in bringing the café’s decor in line with the film’s time scale. A happy accident discovered while filming was taking place, was the reflection of the nearby Palace Pier that was caught in the café’s windows.
Situated directly under the Palace Pier were several storage rooms; present to house the necessary utilities for pier maintenance and electricity generator ports. One or two of these units would be fortuitously vacant due to the run up for shooting, and would prove ideal as exteriors for the sequence where two of the Mods, Dave and Chalky, would find themselves homeless for the night. The original script had called for this sequence to be shot in a more salubrious beach hut. However, with Brighton’s immediate beaches not hosting any such constructions, these vacant spaces under the pier would prove more than suitable.
A stone’s throw from the pier, another location appeared tailor-made - in this case for the night club exterior. The venue chosen was yet another piece of The Who’s glorious past and had hosted some of their most amazing gigs. At the base of a marble stairway lay what was The Florida Rooms. During its glory days the venue had played host to many leading musical luminaries. Nonetheless, it was The High Numbers and later, The Who’s appearances in 1964 that earned the venue its celebrity. Utilising a grand stone stairway that took one down to sea level, the sunken area was as much a part of Brighton as its beach, prom and piers. The former exterior of the club would be utilised as the front of Quadrophenia’s beach-side night club, paying witness to Jimmy’s forced exit after his dramatic balcony diving episode.
In another part of the Aquarium complex lay a fortune teller’s kiosk, belonging to one Madam Victoria. A real-life clairvoyant, she had kindly loaned her frontage for the use of the film. To the left of her premises lay a pedestrian tunnel leading directly toward the beach. Ultimately, all of these locations would be employed for Quadrophenia duties.
Back on the main part of the promenade, another café, this time situated at the junction of East Street and Grand Junction Road, would be employed for a rather hectic sequence where it would be wrecked by a marauding army of Mods. The café, a small establishment set up on one level, was part of the Forte's cafe chain and was in 1978 known as The East Street Snack Bar. The cafe would call for special dressing to make it suitable for filming the riot scenes. In particular, the café’s picture window facing East Street would be scheduled to have a large table thrown through it.
Flying tables aside, the district in and around East Street would shoulder the majority of the Brighton shoot. East Street had a history much in line with Quadrophenia’s chaotic moments. Originally known as Great East Street, the site was a fortified boundary to foil 11th century Norman invaders. Like the town’s celebrated lanes, the area came into its own during the 18th century and while formally a residential area, as the area’s popularity increased, the street level properties were turned into shops to meet the demand of Brighton’s avaricious consumers.
Situated further down East Street would be Quadrophenia’s most iconic landmark, the alleyway. Later rechristened “Jimmy’s Alley” by generations of Mods to come – the tiny cut-through would appear tailor-made for Jimmy and Steph’s emotional union, and for an emotionally empty return by the lead towards the end of the film. Utilised as nothing more than a short-cut for years, the alley had no prior celebrity other than its accessibility and as a storage area for the detritus of the restaurant that backed onto the alley. Narrow, imposing, dark and with just enough room for one person to walk down, the cinematic possibilities were endless.
Obviously, the beach would require no redressing for the riot scenes, although the shepherding of later summer holiday makers and other revellers would be the most potentially pressing issue. Nonetheless, Roddam and his team were aware that as in 1964, the onlookers would play just an important a role in events as those battling it out on the beach. Similarly, with word of the filming out on the Mod’s and Rocker’s grapevine, there would be many characters out to engage with the re-creation without invites. Similarly, Brighton’s residential community, many of them informed of the filming by the local press and bush network, were also expected to turn out en masse to watch the proceedings. A potential audience numbering many thousands, steering events was always going to be an arduous experience for the director and his crew – as would become all too apparent over the following days.
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