I got the word the day before. I had phoned Central Casting in Wardour Street to see if there was any film extra work for the following day. You could call in as many times as you wanted between 4 and 6 o’clock. When someone answered you quickly gave your name and then you would hear it at the other end being repeated around the room like a witness being called in an old Ealing comedy court room scene as various assistants checked the following day’s requirements of the film companies. Most days this was met by someone saying “Nothing at the moment. Try later.” But this time they said. “Yes, there is something. Have you still got your shaved head?” I replied that I had. “OK, there’s a day’s work on Hawk the Slayer being made at Pinewood Studios. It’s a sword and sorcery epic and you’ll be background action in some scenes with Jack Palance. A car will pick you up at 5.30am and take you to the location in Buckinghamshire.”
Jack Palance? The Hollywood star? Wow! And a car? This was a new one for me. In all the films I had been an extra in, I had never once been driven there in a car.
But that was nothing to the shock I got the next morning when my intercom buzzer went and I looked down from my bedsit window in Fortune Green Road to see a great big black Daimler limousine parked outside.
“Good morning, sir”, the driver said as he held open the passenger door. I nodded and climbed into the back of the car with space almost as big as my tiny bedsit. I knew immediately that there was some kind of mistake but I wasn’t going to question it. No way. After all a free ride in a limo to your place of work isn’t something that happens every day. And if I kept quiet I might even pull off a return ride home at the end of the day too.
But as we drove through the back roads of West Hampstead and Kilburn the driver explained that I’d be sharing the journey. “I have to pick up the actor Patrick Macnee on the way and then take you both to the location shoot in Black Park in Buckinghamshire.”
First Jack Palance and now Patrick Macnee?? This was just getting better and better. I had always been a huge fan of The Avengers and now it looked like I was going to be sitting next to John Steed for an hour or so. How many extras could say that? I started thinking about past episodes and what kind of questions I could ask him?
But getting the lowdown on Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson was never going to happen. We eventually arrived in Fulham, West London and pulled up outside an address. The driver jumped out of the car and rang the bell. The front door opened and a thin, balding man stood there still wearing a dressing gown and nursing a cup of tea. He came over and stuck his head into the car.
“Hello, I’m Patrick. Only just got up. Fancy a cup of tea?”
This was definitely not Patrick Macnee the suave bowler-hatted John Steed of The Avengers fame. It was in fact Patrick Magee the celebrated actor who I recognised from films like A Clockwork Orange and Zulu.
20 minutes later he was sitting beside me in the back of the limousine cruising down the M4. He opened a bag he was carrying and produced a script.
“Right, let’s run the lines shall we? Where’s your script?”
He obviously thought that my presence in his official car meant that I was an actual actor with a role in the film. I thought he may not like having me in his car if he discovered that I was just an extra so I decided to try and fudge the issue.
“Oh,” I said with terrible overacting whilst slapping my forehead with the palm of my hand, “I’m sorry, I forgot to bring it.”
“Forgot to bring it??” he squawked in disbelief as he started thumbing through the script looking for his first scene. “You young actors never cease to amaze me. Highly unprofessional”. He gave me a disapproving eye. “You should have it with you.”
“Well…” I looked out of the window for inspiration but all I could see were cars and lorries making their way on the opposite lane into London. “It’s not a big part.” I thought the less I said about the matter the better.
“Anyway, where’s my bit?” He started scanning more pages. Then something struck him and he looked up. “Apparently Bernard Bresslaw is in the thing… I wonder what part he’s playing?” He flicked to the artists’ call sheet at the start of the script. “Gort, a giant.” He considered this for a moment and chuckled, “good casting.”
The remainder of the journey was taken up by me testing the renowned actor on his lines whilst at the same time avoiding his questions about who I was playing so he could return the favour. When you’re an extra you have no idea of the script ahead of time so I wouldn’t know what Jack Palance scenes I was going to be in anyway.
We eventually arrived in Black Park and found the unit setting up on the edge of the big lake. An assistant director came running up to the car, opened the door and was all over Patrick Magee but totally ignored me. “This way sir, your trailer is ready.” Even Patrick thought the man’s actions were rude and said so. “But what about my friend here? Where is his trailer?”
“Oh he doesn’t have one. There’s a separate tent for the extras!”
“Extras?” One of Patrick’s eyebrows shot into orbit. All I could hear as he was led over to his trailer was “What was he doing in my car then?” and “I knew he wasn’t an actor, the fella didn’t even have a script.”
I eventually found myself in a tiny tent with two other bald-headed men and we changed into white cheesecloth robes and told that we were going to be priests who fired burning arrows. All three of us were excited about meeting the legendary Jack Palance.
“This way”, said an assistant who then led us out onto a spot beside the large lake and introduced us to our leader, the Head Priest. He was wearing a bronze headpiece, silver boots and an identical white robe to ours. As he turned around to face us we saw it wasn’t Jack Palance but Patrick Magee!
“YOU!”, he looked at me with irritation and disbelief.
Central Casting had misinformed us. There were no scenes planned for three bald men and a Hollywood superstar. Only three bald men and a fourth balding man with a beard wearing silver boots - Patrick Magee.
The scene was set up. There was a small wooden raft floating about 20 yards from the bank which had a dwarf called Baldin tied to it (hilariously played by Peter O’Farrell), screaming for mercy. The three of us plus Patrick Magee had to stand around a burning furnace holding bronze bows and chanting. We then had to light the end of our wadded arrows from the flames and shoot them high into the sky so that they just missed the raft and fell into the water.
We had a run through but it was a disaster. Two of the three burning arrows landed on the raft setting it alight. Two stuntmen in wetsuits jumped into the lake holding tiny fire extinguishers above the water. They swam out and quickly doused the flames.
The man in charge of the burning bows came over to us and explained how you fired the bow so that the arrow overshot its target. “The secret is to aim high”, he said, “that way the burning arrow head will drop on the far side of the raft.”
We went for a take and out of the three arrows fired, two of them hit their target on the far side of the raft but one scored a direct hit on the raft, once again setting it alight causing the stuntmen to go diving back into the water again holding fire extinguishers aloft and swimming one-handed. Of course there were no prizes for guessing who that incompetent archer was? Patrick Magee gave me a pitiful look and shook his head. This was not the RSC.
The bow master came over to me with a stern look on his face, “Which part of fire the arrow high, did you not understand?”
“I’m sorry”, I replied. “I’ll get it right next time.”
But of course I didn’t. This time my burning arrow landed right between the dwarf’s legs causing him to scream out loud in sheer terror!
“Aaahhh!! Put it out! Put it out!!”
Eventually through trial and error and a bit of movie trickery they got the scene in the can. Patrick Magee called out his chants, us three priests chanted back, lit our arrows and fired them up into the sky. By sheer fluke one of them landed just in front of the raft in the water, another one just overshot and landed on the far side and mine came down close to the raft but crucially in the water. The bow master was astonished but delighted as was the director Terry Marcel.
There was then a brief scene where Hawk the Slayer himself (played by Nigel Terry) magically appeared to halt our sadistic priestly ways and rescue Baldin from the burning raft. We were then chased into the bushes by Peter O’Farrell as the dwarf cracking his lengthy whip and enjoying himself far too much. It was all a bit camp to be honest and even slightly Benny Hill.
The shooting over we were then ordered to the extras tent to change back into our normal clothes. Bernard Bresslaw and Jack Palance were about to start filming some of their scenes but I swiftly changed as I didn’t want to miss a free ride home in the limousine. I quickly signed off and ran to where the car had been parked just in time to see it driving away with Patrick Magee stretched out in the back. He pretended not to notice me.
I eventually got a lift home with one of the make-up girls who lived near me in Swiss Cottage. It had been a funny kind of day. I still cringe whenever the film gets shown on TV which is a shame as Hawk the Slayer is not a bad little movie.