The second series of ‘The Rat Catchers’ started transmission earlier this month. Planning of the series began a year ago with the selection of European locations for filming. Here producer CYRIL COKE and his directors tell the story of this filming in Vienna, Dubrovnik, Madeira, Amsterdam and Greece.
A rumble of thunder down the Fourth Floor corridor and a flash of lightning from Room 410. The Oracle had spoken. There was to be a second series of ‘The Rat Catchers’. Feigning nonchalance, I reeled off some possible foreign locations – Dubrovnik? Tripoli? Vienna? Amsterdam? Greece?
To my surprise there was no choked gasp of monetary apprehension. I opened my eyes. The Oracle was smiling. ‘Grand’ it said. It was just a year ago.
Authors were commissioned for the series – Victor Canning, Jeremy Paul, Stanley Miller and Raymond Bowers – and the surveys of the location areas began. Dubrovnik in January with a perishing wind, heavy rain and even snow was still compelling. The attractions of Vienna beat a blustery March, but a lot of imagination was required in Amsterdam in wet February. Even Greece, though sunny, was only just emerging from winter and there was still plenty of snow on the mountains. The Kingdom of Libya didn’t seem to want to be bothered about us very much so we switched those stories to Madeira. The Portuguese are much more efficient – and nicer.
I was very happy to get the same directors for the second series – Bill Hitchcock, James Ormerod and Don Gale together with the excellent Peter Lang behind the film camera. So on May 9, our unit arrived in Vienna, where Jeremy Paul had set his stories. And Bill Hitchcock says:
‘Romantic Vienna! The lilt of the waltz, the play of sunlight dappling the shady parks; the gay chatter of tourists as they ride in the colourful horse-drawn carriages, taking them past magnificent buildings standing proud in their history. A beautiful picture.
‘Our picture was quite different – at least on the first morning of shooting. We squelched about in thick mud, in a dark, dark wood, with a steady drizzle trickling down our necks, as we filmed Gerry Flood and Glyn Owen approaching a gloomy, forbidding and crumbling old mansion. That’s show-business!
‘Later, Vienna smiled for us – and maybe because of the sharp contrast with that sad first day, the subsequent pleasures of this truly elegant city are even sharper in our memories.
‘As the song says, “Take me back to Vienna” – any time!’
On May 15 we flew from Vienna to Dubrovnik. That is some of us flew, while others were stuck for the night in Zagreb. Ever seen 96 people try to get into 69 seats in a Caravelle? At night? We have. It can’t be done. Funny thing about Zagreb – each time I’ve been there I’ve never yet flown in and out without some awful crisis, which always ends up with me spending the night there – this time with no luggage whatever. You just cannot get a good shave with an Agfa Silette.
By a miracle all the equipment reached Dubrovnik, which was sunny and glorious, and on May 16 James Ormerod started to tear through a mountain of filming. James’ memories include:
‘The staggering efforts of the unit, Peter Lang, Tony, Keith and Vic, in getting through such an enormous amount of work in so short a time. And Helen, toiling away at all hours, and falling asleep over dinner.
‘Dubrovnik, rugged, ancient, and very proud. The faces of her people hard, romantic, beautiful, moulded by their violent history. The immense strength of those magnificent walls. Echoing voices, no juke boxes, no telly, no traffic. Simply the murmur of people talking, or at night singing in the cafes or strolling down the one main street, lantern lit and shining with the polish of a million footsteps. And the wine, the lovely Zilavka. I’d like to go back to Dubrovnik.’
Then came the long hop to Madeira. A Convair from Dubrovnik to Rome. Enough time in Rome to hurl some Austrian and Yugoslav small change into the Trevi Fountain and then into a Boeing 707 bound for Lisbon. Here we met up with the artists for Victor Canning’s stories. A Constellation lifted us way out into the Atlantic and we were treated to the excitement of a pretty ‘hairy’ landing on Madeira’s six-foot runway. Don Gale and Sylvia were there to meet us. They looked all fresh and calm.
Don’s memories of Madeira include:
‘The arrival of the unit when half the peasant populace of Madeira were indulging themselves in their favourite pastime “Let’s see if the plane lands”. The approach was so death defying that the peasants ran for cover and the unit to the bar… after they had kissed the ground as a thanksgiving.
‘Setting up to film the hi-jacking of a lorry on a mountain road and having to move everything further and further up the mountain as the cloud and mist formed and came up finally to engulf us.
‘Directing local extras, whose best friend had definitely not told them, in the heat of the midday sun. What with their lack of knowledge of English and our lack of enthusiasm to go near them, directing had to be imparted by long distance mime.’
This completed the filming for the first eight episodes so we returned to London where arrangements were well under way for the recording of the first programme on June 16. Near the end of August – six recorded programmes later – we were all off again on the final burst of foreign filming to cover the last five episodes. This time it was Holland and Greece.
While I went ahead with the advance party to Corfu, James Ormerod and his unit flew to Amsterdam about which James remarks: ‘Very flat Amsterdam. None of the climbing and hauling up of equipment we had in Dubrovnik. The surprising courtesy of our Dutch colleagues. Work on location starts at seven and goes on till sunset, but whatever the time, as long as there was work to be done, they joined in cheerfully and without any prompting.
‘Then the herring stalls. The succulent raw fish, deftly filleted, dipped in chopped onion. And the greatest delicacy of all – smoked eel. Unforgettable – except for Dubrovnik, and the lovely Zilavka.’
On September 1 the unit and all the artists arrived in Corfu for the Greek filming. It was sunny and hot – stinking hot – in fact the day temperature in the shade never fell below the 90’s during the whole time we were filming – except for the days of the gale, about which more later – and in some places, like the mountains and at the Acropolis, it must have been nearer 100 degrees. Despite great care we still suffered casualties from the heat.
The schedule for Greece was very, very tight and the terrain was tough so that at the end of our first day’s filming I found myself exactly half a day behind schedule. And we’d only just started. But we were now in the land of Hercules and this time we had Nick Hague and Jan Smith as well, so we caught up the slack and, on September 5 we were all aboard the 6 a.m. ferry to the mainland to go on that breath-taking, bumpy, hair-pin drive 160 miles through the Pindus mountains to the Meteora, right in the middle of Greece, where ancient monasteries are perched on the pinnacles of extraordinary rock formations.
Two days of very energetic, very hot filming and then we had the 230 miles drive down to Athens to board the motor yacht lllyris which we had chartered and which was intended to transport us serenely as we slept to the glorious island of Andros for two days filming. But it didn’t work out that way. Half-way through the drive to Athens the Gods deserted us and we ran into a torrential near-hurricane. ‘Oh yes, two-day gales can happen in Greece at this time of year.’ Now they tell us!
At Piraeus wet, tired and bedraggled we were told we could not sail till the early hours. So we downed our Kwells and hoped for the best. By 10 the next morning we were anchored in a bay sheltering from the gale with nothing in view except a forbidding shore line sporting a factory and a rather large slag heap. It was too dangerous to make for Andros. Already some ships had been sunk in the night. What should have been our filming day slowly ticked by, cheered up only by some mad games of poker and a sort of desperate hilarity.
I thought to myself ‘Coke – this time you’ve gone too far. You’ve got all the artists, crew and equipment stuck on a boat in the Aegean and there is nothing you can do about it. Black disaster lies ahead. The Oracle and the Little Queen of all the Rushes will be very displeased.’
But that night, after 14 hours at anchor, we made a rough crossing to the island of Poros which was sheltered. The gale dropped and at 6 a.m. it was clearly going to be a glorious day. We went ashore at 7 a.m. and, 12 hours later, we finally wrapped up the last shot, having completed two days filming in one. Once again my magnificent team of Spartans had caught up on our elusive schedule. Back to Piraeus for filming at the harbour, and then on to Athens where filming included some dramatic scenes at the Acropolis and, suddenly – 20,000 feet of film and 270 set-ups after we had started at Corfu – it was all over.
And the memories? Laughter – lots of it. Work – even more. The toughness of the unit -fantastic. Greek ouzo and retzina wine – the happy dusty little tavemas – the enchanting people – and how we all gradually fell under the spell of that magic country. And over it all – literally – that great, hot, gleaming, glorious sun.