CHUCK ‘N ME and Little Richard too Oct ’09

Here’s a true story that’s so strange you’ll be singing Do de do de do do de do — the theme music to The Twilight Zone.

LONDON UK 1972. London has an afternoon newspaper, The Evening Standard. It’s bought by commuters for the long ride home on public transport. I never buy it. Well this time, I did. Why? I don’t know. Maybe the fickle finger of fate. Soon I’m reading the FOR SALE classifieds. One leaps off the page: Film stock. 16mm. Lots of it. In cans. All good stuff.

I get home, phone the advertiser. “Is it Kodak or Ilford? Negative or reversal?”

He’s an Australian: “Gee, mate, I don’t know.”

He’s in Chiswick, which is not far away. I drive there.

It’s a ground-floor apartment. The seller, Marty, has taken it over from another Australian who worked as an assistant cameraman. Marty inherited a closet full of cans of film. They’re piled high. All re-cans and short-ends.

Cameramen don’t like using re-cans. They could be fogged or mislabeled. As an assistant cameraman, you’re meant to either re-use or return. You’re NOT meant to take them home and fill up an entire closet.

Marty’s wife is getting agitated. “Do you think it’s stolen?”

“My guess is your friend didn’t buy it. So it’s not yours to sell. I can’t buy it.”

I make my goodbyes and get back into the car.

Fate strikes again, in the guise of a tapping on the window. It’s Marty: “Look, we need the closet space. You can just take it. No charge.”

Reluctantly, I accept his offer. I won’t use it for commercial work — it’s for fun projects. Dilemma resolved.

It will take me ages to shoot this much film, maybe a few years. The next day I buy the largest deep-freeze possible and freeze the film solid.

So here’s where the story gets weird and weirder.

A few days later I get a call from a Peter Clifton. Peter who? I can’t remember ever meeting Peter. Anyhow, he’s tracked me down and wants us to do a shoot — and it’s tomorrow: “Do you have any 16mm film stock?”

Do I have film stock? “Sure, Peter, in my freezer. How much do you need?”
“We have three cameras on towers, a couple on the stage and you. I’ve bought every foot of raw stock I can find. Kodak has none left.”
I empty the freezer. Our kitchen is piled high with defrosting cans. I also have some new Kodak stock, which I’ll shoot myself and save these re-cans for an emergency.

Next morning, Tricia and I are at Wembley Stadium. We shoot the crowds arriving. Do interviews, and, once the show gets started, shoot audience reaction, anything that the five other cameras can’t get.

Late afternoon, Peter Clifton finds me. “We’re running short. How much extra stock do you have?”

“About 16,000 feet.”

“16,000! You’re kidding me!”

The five cameras run out of stock during Little Richard. I’m praying that my re-can stock is still good. Some of it was in that closet for a year or more.

It’s dark.

I’m shooting dancers on the grass near the stage. When my shots all start looking the same, I go backstage. Chuck Berry is on. Besides the three cameras on towers, there’s a camera on either side of the stage. They’re playing it safe, keeping well back. There’s only one place for me to go, and that’s on the stage right in front of Chuck:

I screw on my 5.9mm wide-angle and plunk myself down in front of him. You can see me in the finished film, Chuck playing right into my lens:

The next week, Peter phones. “Your on-stage shots are great and without that 16,000 feet, we would be sunk. No Little Richard and no Chuck Berry. But you never told me, how come you had so much?”

If I hadn’t bought that newspaper, noticed the ad, driven to Chiswick, had a closet of film stock dumped on me: No Little Richard, no Chuck Berry.

All together: Do de do de do do de do!

Go to see Chuck Berry (and me).

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