October 1974, train from London to Wales. We are making a 25-minute corporate film for Acrow Engineering with the catchy title, The Steel Stockholder’s Strongest Supporter.

It’s not going to be a visual film. The most exciting thing that happens is steel bars go on and off racks, and there may be some shots of rusty steel on the ground.

Can see the audience yawning, maybe even hanging themselves, as they’ll do six years later in Airplane!

To provide a human face and a strong link, I have hired BBC presenter Michael Barratt. We’d just made a 20-minute film together on sausages that had the audience applauding wildly. In America, think of Ed Morrow or Mike Wallace hosting a sausage video.

So we are off to British Steel in Port Talbot, South Wales, to shoot the opening sequence-actually just one shot of Mike in front of the molten steel, saying, “This is where it all starts…but will the steel be looked after?”

Just one 15-second shot. Who needs a tripod? Not me. I can shoulder-hold without a quiver. Who needs lights? Not us. Hey, there’s lots of steel fireworks and plenty of factory lighting. So, no lights. Hope I can pull this off.

Take a taxi from the station to the mile-long steelworks, which will be the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

British Steel in Port Talbot, South Wales

I have a small 16mm Éclair ACL camera with one fixed 12mm lens, just fine for to-camera pieces. Tricia has the lavaliere mic and a Nagra SN recorder. If you’ve seen The Conversation, the Nagra is the miniature tape recorder that Gene Hackman uses. It’s 5 x 4 inches and less than an inch thick.

The British Steel PR man gives us tea and biscuits in his office. “When is the crew going to arrive?”

“We are all here,” I reply.

“Where’s your equipment?”

“This-the camera-and Tricia has the tape recorder in her pocket.”

“But you will need lights. Last week we had the BBC here and they had three trucks with lights and generators. It’s dark in there.”

So he takes us inside the foundry and he’s right. It is dark. VERY dark. I have screwed up.

I find a good spot for Michael where I can see the steel being poured from a cauldron behind him. His face is in total darkness. Then I see a collection of cardboard boxes. Even a newspaper. The guardian angel of filmmakers is with me.

I stack up the boxes between Michael and the camera. Tricia runs the Nagra recorder. I watch the cauldron as it moves into place.

Borrow a lighter from the PR man. Light the newspaper. It catches fire. The boxes start to burn. The cauldron is about to tip. Roll film.

“Action, Michael.”

The flames light his face. “Here at British Steel is where our story starts.” The flames are burning higher. Michael is now behind a wall of fire. The cauldron is pouring. Sparks are flying. “The molten steel behind me will find its way into the buildings and bridges of tomorrow.” The flames get lower. His face is lit by a red flicker. “But will this precious asset be stored properly or will it be left to rust on the ground?” Crump. The boxes collapse. The fire dies out.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life,” gasps the British Steel man.

On the return trip to London, the three of us are killing ourselves with laughter.

“Did you see his face when you lit the box?”

“No, I was too scared. The flames were so close to the lens.”

“If this doesn’t come out, we can never go back.”

The film comes back from the lab and it’s perfect. The flames and fire light so much better than sterile lighting from three trucks.

Even today, I meet total strangers who say, “Stefan Sargent? You’re the guy who lit the fire at British Steel!”

Fame at last.

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