Written by Alan Cox of Cygnet RC, 1997.
By Christmas, the film 'Sliding Doors' should be on release in cinemas. In this romantic comedy, which stars John Hannah and Gwynneth Paltrow, the hero is an oarsman, and the story calls for him to row a race in an eight on the River Thames. To stage this scene, the producers asked Julia Newens (a former CSLRC member, who with her husband Chas runs the well-known Putney marine business) to round up two likely boats and crews. The requirements were pretty racing colours, but mature club oarsmen. The result was that John Hannah would row with a crew drawn from UL, IC, Vesta and Cygnet dressed in the purple of the University of London, and Cygnet would provide the opposition eight rowing in its own colours.
John Hannah, who had not rowed previously, was coached for his part by Julia Newens. After a session in a tub, he came to Cygnet for a Sunday morning outing in an eight where, on leaving the water, he was warmly greeted as a new novice member by Cygnet Vice-President John Bull. Hannah proved to be a natural oarsman, which was as well as he was now destined for promotion to the five seat of an Elite eight!
Two days were scheduled for filming on the river, with a third for a scene of post-race celebration in a bar. The call was for 7.30 a.m. at Putney. It was a cold clear morning, and the first instruction of 'get your breakfast from the van' was simple enough even for oarsmen to follow. Once dressed in clean kit and checked over, the two eights took to the water. The screenplay called for a close race which the hero's crew narrowly wins (have I spoilt the plot?), and meshing blades would be 'jolly good'.
Several times the crews raced from Putney to Fulham, initially with a stand-in rowing for John Hannah, and later with the man himself. They were well matched for pace, and needed little adjustment to keep level. Indeed, a real spirit of competition between the crews was evident. After a substantial lunch, (film crews seem to eat very well), the action moved upstream towards Harrods, where attempts were made to film the race from ahead by a camera on a motorised catamaran. This was less successful, as the camera boat had no chance of keeping ahead of the eights, and its wash almost sank the crews.On the second day, the closing stage of the race was filmed between Hammersmith Bridge and Furnival Sculling Club. This scene included the sound recording of dialogue between actors on the bank in competition with aircraft passing overhead every 90 seconds, and many takes were required to get this one right.
Sometimes, the luvvies do suffer for their art: the director had called for the crews to row to a standstill on the finish line and for John Hannah to celebrate by punching the air with both hands. This is not what a rowing coach would advise, as on one take the oar handle caught him hard in the face.The racing work done, a 'going afloat' scene was staged with a camera crew on the Furnival pontoon. By now the tide was well up and, just as all was ready, there came steaming under Hammersmith Bridge at full power a motor yacht with pretensions of being a minesweeper. Camera and sound equipment was hurriedly lifted, but the nicely levelled dolly-track was unceremoniously swept away. Scene postponed!
And so to the post-race celebration, which was held in the bar of the Blue Anchor at Hammersmith. Here, the hero mounts a table and leads the bibulous multitude in dancing "Father Abraham". It was at this stage that the director made his first big miscalculation. He must have known the old adage about never working with children or animals, but clearly did not understand how oarsmen can share the worst characteristics of both. Having rehearsed the crews in the dance, he departed saying "have a drink to get warmed up" and deposited £30 with the landlord. It took little guile to persuade the bemused bar staff that an open-ended tab was running and, about five rounds later, when the crews were asked to behave as a drunken rabble, no acting skill was required. A precious moment occurred later as an assistant director enquiring after change from the bar bung learned that the bill had run to over £90. To their credit, the management learnt fast; during further work on the bar scene on the third day, only alcohol-free beer was offered.
These were entertaining days. Incredible as it may seem, there really are kind and wonderful folk out there willing to pay people to row, drink beer and sit around in the sun. What's more, Cygnet proved able to take it! Watch out for us in "Sliding Doors", although we may not feature for long. Also keep an eye on Barry Norman's "Film '97" , as a video crew were also there making a location report for a future programme.
The Cygnet participants were: Ritchie Brookes, Ian Stevenson, Anthony Forsythe, Steve Keating, Toby Haggith, Chris Shea, Jason Harris, Mark Davies, Steve Morgan, Andy Rawkins, Pat O'Connor and Alan Cox.