Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Interview: Working with The Who

Part 1 of 3 rock opera-related articles by Tim Bustin

Forty-four years ago, rock giants The Who released the first-ever rock opera (an album in which the music tells a story). This was 'Tommy', a story about a deaf, dumb and blind child who lives through vibrations and music, channelling his sensations through the medium of pinball (hence the classic “Pinball Wizard”), eventually overcoming his conditions and creating his own religion to attempt to teach others how to live his ways, before he is finally rejected by his followers (drawing parallels with other religious leaders). 

This complex, sometimes pretentious, yet undeniably addictive composition was adapted into a movie, filmed in Portsmouth and starring acting greats such as Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson and Robert Powell, as well as musicians Tina Turner, Eric Clapton and Elton John, with Who singer and rock god Roger Daltrey as Tommy and the rest of the band making cameo appearances. Directed by Ken Russell, it’s a combination of eccentric, artsy suffering and brilliance, which won Ann-Margret a Golden Globe, an Academy Award nomination and Pete Townshend, Who guitarist and the creator and composer of Tommy, an Oscar nomination for his work in scoring and adapting the music.

PGS Nursery teacher Mrs. Sandy was fortunate enough to take part as an extra, during the filming in Portsmouth, and I was able to interview her about her experience on-set.

How did you get involved in it, back in 1974/75, do you remember?

I was at school with friends and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time when they were looking for young extras to be in Tommy.

Do you mind if I ask how young?

I was fourteen at the time (laughs). All very old memories. Fourteen at the time. And we then had to sign up and fill out some forms, get our parents to consent to because we were under age then. But, of course I said yes; we took two weeks off school and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and we did some locations: we did South Parade Pier and it burned down, and we went up to the top of the hill, Fort Widley; they use that at the end of the scene for the big holiday camp.

Yes, with all the pinballs which are buoys coloured silver?

Yes. We went to Rowland’s Castle, and Roger Daltrey had a double for the flying scene because he was flying on a kite, so he had a double for that, who was a spitting image of him and he was really nice as well, met him too; Oliver Reed I met, spent ages talking to him - I’d just got into fencing and his next film was going to be The Three Musketeers, so it was a good linking up point.

Yes, well I was going to ask you which famous people you met on the set, because I know a lot of people were involved in Tommy - so have you got any good stories about it?

I was chaperone to Vicky Russell, director Ken Russell’s daughter, who was in the film; I think she was a couple of years younger than me and because we were young as well we just got all put together and in the end we travelled with her in the limo, went down to town, had lunch, so that she wasn’t by herself. Her mum was really nice as well, so, yes, had a really good time. And we met Keith Moon.

Oh yes, I’m a very big fan.

Yes, the best one!

He must’ve had a lot of stories

Well, I was only very young at the time… no, he was really nice.

So, moving away from celebrities to you, is there a scene in Tommy where we actually see you - do you ever look back and say oh look there’s me, right there?

Right at the end, yes. I have the whole screen to myself, for just a couple of seconds. It’s right near the end, where Keith Moon’s on his big organ up at Fort Widley
Oh, when he’s driving the mini car with the organ attached to it?

Yes, just down there and I’m pushing someone in a wheelchair. That’s me, but I was in lots of other scenes, with lots of other people. You can’t always see yourself, but when we went to see it was like “Oh my god there’s me”.And then we went to a Who concert, and it was amazing.
Of course. It’s The Who. So, what’s you’re fondest memory of the whole experience, because, I you got to meet fabulous people, you got to be in a film, you got to see these amazing sets all around Portsmouth…?

It was just using Portsmouth as the backdrop and back then, it hasn’t really changed when you think about it. 
Except South Parade Pier; I was in it when it was burning

Oh, well that’s not really you’re fondest memory, is it?

No. This haze came over and there was a funny smell. "Why’s everybody running?" So we hid, my friends and I hid under the tables until the firemen came. Being young girls, we didn’t really know what to do, and then, because we were all dressed up as extras, our clothes got burned, and that was sort of scary, but then we had to go back to the Queen’s Hotel and there were really nice people in there; we were trying to work out if anyone was missing or not. Of course, it was quite a big event in Southsea at the time.

They used that in the final edit of the film, didn’t they - Roger Daltrey running next to the pier as it burned.
Maybe that was your craziest memory, or the bit you remember the most about filming

I think I remember them all, but South Parade Pier was…

The biggest?

Yeah. It was one of my biggest memories of the whole thing. And then, meeting Oliver Reed, he was just really nice and then Keith Moon was just crazy but being young at the time you don’t appreciate meeting these people until later on as you as you start to grow up. And you start getting into more and more different things, so, yes, I didn’t really appreciate it, and was one of the lucky ones to actually get involved

What did you think of the final film, when you saw it in the cinema for the first time? Obviously when you’re working on a film, you have no idea what the finished product is going to be like but when you went to the cinema were you surprised at what you saw?

We went to the cinema to see it, saw it for free, so we were lucky, we were invited to go and see it.
And yes because some scenes I wasn’t there for (because we were only allowed to have two weeks), we sort of had to pick which two weeks we wanted. But it was nice to see it as a whole even though I didn’t understand it at first because we were quite young.

It’s quite a complicated plot. Had you heard the album beforehand and tried to decipher the lyrics, because Tommy tends to be called either pretentious or brilliant.

I know, it’s like everything isn’t it? You have your fans and your critics and you just enjoy it. It was interesting to watch the scenes I was actually in from the other side because we were here, the cameras were here, and some scenes we thought we were doing a really good job and we’d do half a dozen to a dozen different takes and it was only putting a hand up but all the hands had to be in the right place - yes and I think looking at it, it was really interesting, It was hard work sometimes because you had to stand a long time with your hand like this or like this.

Well I suppose with a film like Tommy, especially as it’s quite an artsy film, was it ever confusing doing something in filming and you weren’t quite sure why you were doing it, but when you saw the film you thought, "Oh my God, that makes sense?"

It took a few times to watch it because the first time I watched it I wasn’t really concentrating. I was watching the scenes that had me, as you would, but the the more you watch it the more you get into it and it’s like most films, you have to watch films a few times, just to understand the story, and then you realise, and then there are other bits on there, hidden elements that can be drawn out, so yes it was good.

Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, with the rest of the Who (left to right: John Entwistle, Keith Moon,
Roger Daltrey (as Tommy) and Pete Townshend), at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.
Were you a fan of The Who’s music beforehand, and is that why you got involved, or did you get involved because you wanted to enjoy a different experience?

Back in those days it was the verge I think, because my mum was into Scott Walker, Mammas and Papas, those were the sorts of things I heard and then, I suppose, because that was our British music I’d listened to it, but because I was that age it wasn’t my type of music. My type of music went on to punk so… but it was a good basis.

Are you a fan of them now, because of that experience?

I just like some of their music and some of their songs, it’s like everything isn’t it? Some of it I really like, the songs from Tommy because I know them, so I go “Oh I know that one!” and sing along to it,  and then all the memories flood back.

I do like The Who’s music, but I’ve only been able to hear live albums, so it’s not quite the same, well it’s never going to be the same is it?

It’s like bands, you buy a CD or something and listen to it then you go and see the band live and it’s a whole different concept.

And The Who was also the best live band of all time, obviously?

Obviously, yes they were, yes they were really good live.

Yes, you said you saw them live. Was that in ’75 as well?

Yes it was at the Guildhall; we were invited to go along.

What did they play, do you remember? Was it a concert just for the extras of Tommy?

I think it was, just because they were wrapping up the film and everything and I think it was just a concert because it was The Who and to say thank you.

So did they play "Tommy"?

They played bits of it, some of their hits, I can’t remember; there are some things I can remember and some things I can’t.

I was just wondering because The Who were very famous after they made Tommy and for a good year or two touring just Tommy and they got sick of playing it.

Yes and they smashed up their instruments, like "I’ve had enough of this!"

Oh, they were doing that years beforehand. They used to go to opera houses and do that whole set and you’d get people who, you know, weren’t your average rock fan, were the kind of people who would normally watch opera, and you’d get these kind of people going to these rock concerts, which seems very odd.But I don’t know what are your views on it because it’s viewed as pretentious sometimes or ground-breaking and no-one can seem to make their mind up.

Well, it’s just good music and just to see a band live is just a bonus. Although music has come a long way since, I think Paul Weller, Oasis, for example, those sort of musicians, they always go back to The Who, don’t they?

Actually, Oasis’s drummer now drums for The Who: Zak Starkey, Ringo Starr’s son. So, finally, what was the best thing about your experience?

Everyone was just really nice; you just meet so many nice friendly people.

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