March 19 2008
Lunch with Chris Morris. Le Pain Quotidien, Gt Marlborough Street, London
We know each other from my brief appearance in his seminal late '90s TV series Brass Eye.
Literally “seminal” in my case: I had a bucket of fake ejaculate thrown in my face and spent forty five minutes howling in a trailer loo being pseudo-rogered by Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin (inexplicably to me now, I also turned down the chance to play Noel Edmonds’ golf caddy).
He gets straight to it: “It’s a comedy… about suicide bombers.” I nod politely. Chris is supremely talented and I am dying to work with him again… but not literally. I learnt that on Brass Eye. I nod away, casual, chilled even, but inside, my mind is scrambled egg.
Five letters divebomb my brain, flashing neon like a Saturday night in Piccadilly. The letters form a word. The word is “FATWA”. I retune: “Barry is a “revert”,” Chris is saying, “a convert to Islam. He is violent, lonely, very angry. I based him on a few people I’ve met, including an ex-member of the BNP who bought a Koran so he could insult Muslims better and ended up accidentally converting himself. He’s dangerous, but he’s a twat.” “A dangerous twat?” “Yeah. You’d be perfect.”
Have I any questions? He means about character, storyline. Only one springs to mind. “What are my chances of being assassinated?” “This isn’t a tilt at religion,” he replies, “it’s about five idiots who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery. They just happen to have formed a homemade terrorist cell.”
So that’s alright then.
January 4 2009
Ten months, three filmed “rehearsals”, one screen test later and I’m still waiting. Waiting to be officially offered the job. Waiting for Chris at the Selfridges salt beef bar during a break from a costume fitting for Silent Witness, in which I will play a dishevelled detective.
I tuck in to my one and half salt beef and tongue and reflect. The screen test went OK. I took time to adjust, largely because I’d come straight from a voiceover for a Harpic loo cleaner commercial, but I think I’m nailing Barry (my character) down. I’m particularly pleased with the accent: guttural London growl with the occasional flourish of street patois. Yes, he’s definitely coming on.
Chris arrives. We make an odd couple, him dressed in trademark flowery shirt and purple trousers, me dressed as Colombo, both carrying cycling helmets like some pre-arranged sign of recognition.
The meeting is brief. He tells me I’ve got the gig and leaves. I am ordering extra tongue by way of celebration when he reappears: “One thing: the accent. Have a rethink. You sound like Ali G.”
March 3 2009
Research is flying. I read several books on Islam and discover along the way that “fatwa” does not mean what I thought it meant.
Characterwise I decide that Barry’s murderous persona was triggered by his wife evicting him to the garden shed so she could spend quality time with her lover. No-one else need share this invention, but it helps me get a handle on his screwtheworld anger. I imagine him at night listening to his wife’s moans of sexual congress drifting down to the shed from his open, ex-bedroom window. That’s got to make him angry.
I take my eldest unmarried daughter, ten, to a local Mosque to observe ritual, soak up atmosphere and buy a “kufi”, the knitted white hat I will wear throughout the film. Outside, I lecture her for several minutes about respecting other people’s religions.
The entrance hall is empty except for a man in a wheelchair, two long racks of shoes, a small shop, closed, and a flight of stairs. Melodic Arabic sings from a battered speaker on the wall .
To show my daughter I’m comfortable I saunter to the wheelchair-bound man and ask him when the shop will open. He ignores me. Thinking he might be deaf as well as crippled, I kneel and shout the question again. He looks pained and continues to ignore me.
As the sigh of exasperation leaves my lips, I realise why. He is praying. The battered speaker allows disabled worshippers to participate in the service currently taking place upstairs. Horrified at my insensitivity on so many levels, I stand erect, silent, purplefaced, next to my daughter. After a few minutes she whispers: “Daddy, what are waiting for?”. I silence her with a “SHHH! Can you not see they’re at prayer?”, and tut and roll my eyes, like the hypocrite I am.
April 13 2009
On the train up to Sheffield a week before filming I Google Street View our digs and laugh at what must be last year’s image of a building site complete with men in hard hats and a concrete mixer. When I arrive three hours later the men in hard hats are packing up for the day. They leave the concrete mixer outside my window.
We travel to the unit base to work some stunts and perfect our “smooth running”. Invented by Chris, “smooth running” is a means of moving fast while carrying volatile explosives.
You crouch down with your back straight, elongate your stride and run as fast as you can. Within two minutes I have tweaked a hamstring. After five I am absolutely knackered.
I spend the next twenty minutes bouncing my overweight body around a concrete floor whilst punching myself in the stomach as hard as I can to simulate trying to set off a bomb strapped to my back. I wind myself several times and crick my neck .
“Stunts” consists of Waj, played by Kayvan Novak, beating up Barry, played by me. Kayvan is a lovely, gymstrong man, ten years younger and prone to clumsy. After half an hour he has shut my leg in a car door, face-punched me four times and chipped my tooth with the metal end of a jumpwire.
I don’t want to complain on the first day but I’m feeling fragile by now, so when Chris asks Kayvan to “see what it’s like” if he throws me into a car boot with my hands tied behind my back I demur.
Instead, I am asked to lie in the boot and smash open the armrest with my head, so that my face appears suddenly in the backseat of the car. Everybody tells me that the armrest has been specially adapted. There is no possible way I’ll get hurt. Just in case, I ask Gareth, our stuntman to show me. He cheerfully obliges, and splits his head open.
April 14 2009
The ringing phone wakes me up. Chris would like to thank me for my generous offer. “Which offer?” “The one you made a year ago, to shave your head completely.” I’m about to argue, but am distracted by the noise of a man in a hard hat turning on the concrete mixer. I sit up to shut the window but am poleaxed from the pain of yesterday’s exertions. I pause to scream silently.
Hearing no dissent, Chris hangs up. An hour later I sit in a truck while Vicky Make-Up rubs tea-tree oil into my newly shaven pate, a not unpleasant experience to be repeated many times during the shoot. I look in the mirror and am tittilated by the hard bastard staring back at me.
Later that night in the pub I am approached by a man with facial hair similar to mine who enquires if I’m a “bear”. I cannot reply. Back home on the Net at the building site I discover he was asking me out.
April 19 2009
First day of filming. Those comfortable feelings of inadequacy greet me like a puppy with halitosis. But this not a place for misplaced ego. There are no trailers; we change and are made up on the costume/make up truck, eat on an old school bus and ablute wherever we can.
Try as I might during filming I can never train my body to have a crap before pick up at 5.30am. I spend most days with one eye out for a comfortable loo. This literal inconvenience is nothing compared to the news that greets me at the catering truck. Chris has declared a “halal set”. No breakfast bacon butty? For six weeks? Kill me now.
According to the clapperboard, the film is called “Boilerhouse”, directed by Rodney (or “Rhod” on the days we have a Welsh clapperloader) Bung. Best not to advertise we’re filming a Chris Morris comedy about suicide bombers on the streets of Sheffield. One tweet and some idiots turning up and we may not be able to work. I tell anyone who asks that we’re shooting an ad for Bombay mix.
Chris’s method of filming is exhilarating: two cameras, no marks, numerous takes and the loosest adherence to script. Freedom to move where and say what you want with directorial guidance. I consider myself a good improviser but am put to shame by Chris, who shouts hilariously surreal mots justes from behind the camera during takes.
When Arsher Ali, playing Hassan, asks me if I’m serious about bombing a mosque, Chris shouts: “Say, ‘I’m serious as beetroot.’” I glare at Arsher and repeat, portentously: “Serious as beetroot, bro, “ then spend the next ten minutes in the adjoining room trying to recover Barry’s fuck you stare. The crew can hear me through the wall, whinnying like a gelding .
The day ends with Riz Ahmed (Omar), by his own admission an “occasional driver”, careering at 60mph along a main road with me in the front and two cameras and Chris in the back. Every time he makes a point. Riz uses the accelerator for emphasis Now I really need a comfortable loo.
April 22 2009
Morning is spent on an allotment in the Peak district watching Fessal and a sheep explode. Except neither of them are there: Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) is in Glasgow performing in a Bollywood version of Wuthering Heights, and the sheep won’t leave her dressing room, citing “artistic differences” (actually, we were sheepless).
Instead, we watch Pebbles, our portly third AD scamper about a field to give us an eyeline while Chris shouts “Bang!”. After three takes Pebbles is too knackered to scamper, so we are instructed to watch a spidery tree in the distance and “imagine it running about”. I find this hard to do.
Adeel arrives in the afternoon to shoot a scene in his garage. With his diffident charisma and lugubrious face, he resembles an Indian Mike Leigh, whose photograph Kayvan manages to switch temporarily with Adeel’s on Facebook , causing some strange emails to Adeel and much hilarity among the cast.
Adeel oozes comic timing. When he looks at me with his sad eyes and bearded face and describes how he has disguised himself as a woman in order to buy hundreds of bottles of bleach to “dye his hair”, I find it impossible to contribute any further. I am sent outside again to calm down.
April 23 2009
Market day, Sheffield city centre. I sit in a van hidden in an alleyway, dressed as a Mutant Ninja Turtle. Chris and the camera crew hide in a shop doorway around the corner. On a “GO!” in my walkie-talkie, I exit the van and begin “smooth running” down the busy street.
I find it impossible to see wearing the turtle head and as I turn a corner come greenface to shockface with an old lady pushing an old lady shopping trolley. She screams. I panic and do the same.
I skirt past her and bodycheck a large, tattooed man, then hurtle on towards some market stalls. The smooth running is killing me, all I can hear is the sound of my Darth Vader breathing, I’m sweating like a pig in the turtle suit, I still can’t see and I’m paranoid the tattooed man is chasing me.
The script requires I stop at a fruit stall and shout: “Fuck off, you Feds!” at a display of oranges, which I think are bugged by the CIA. The lady stallowner (who knows we are filming) has her young son with her, in front of whom, ridiculously, I am reluctant to swear.
My embarrassment causes me to scream ten times louder and four octaves higher, causing the stallowner and the boy to double up.
Chris is unhappy, feeling that you wouldn’t laugh if a six foot Ninja turtle screamed abuse at your oranges, so he asks me, in order to get a better reaction, to destroy the stall completely on the next take. “Does she know, I’m going to do it?“ I ask “does she know I’m going to smash it up?”. “She’ll be compensated,” replies Chris, gnomically.
May 6 2009
My cold is getting worse. Apart from feeling shit for a week now I’m worried it is inhibiting my acting. Which might not be so terrible, considering that I wake up sweating every night convinced I’m giving the most over the top performance since Nicolas Cage in Face/Off .
On take two smooth running down the high street in my Ninja Turtle onepiece, my hamstring goes completely. I spend until lunchtime crouching behind cars out of shot as the other three glide past me down the road.
In the afternoon Riz (dressed as a Honey Monster) and I film a scene on a bridge where he has to grab my face. We have become friends, Riz and I, bonding with the others in our building site digs during a tough shoot, but in the tension of the scene Fizzy Riz keeps unintentionally squeezing his fingers into my face really, really hard, take after take. I ask him to go easy. He’s most apologetic, but he doesn’t stop.
On the twentieth take my cold, my bent hamstring, my tiredness and my paranoia get the better of me. I grab Riz’s face, lift him up and slam him into the side of the bridge screaming: “Does this hurt? Does this hurt? Coz it fucking hurts me!” The ensuing total silence is broken by a mobile phone ringing the theme tune to the Benny Hill Show. It’s my phone, ringing in my underpants, the only place to keep it in the Turtle costume.
I put Riz down, apologize for the phone ringing (an unforgiveable sin on set), reach into my pants and answer it. It’s my daughter, in floods. She has just discovered I won’t be able to see her play the Big Bad Wolf at her school concert tomorrow.
May 18 2009
6.30am. Pissing with rain. Vicky Make-up covers my head and face with camouflage paint.
Arsher, Kayvan and I are to be on “manoeuvres” all day in the Sheffield hills.
I know that any tiredness or discomfort I will feel will be tempered by my respect for Chris, an indefatigable, brilliant man who works harder than all of us, eschews any trappings of status and rarely loses his cool.
However, my own cool is sorely tested on the first take when we roll down a hill army style and I face-butt a patch of stinging nettles. My cheeks puff up red and spotty under the khaki and brown.
By five to seven that evening we are soaked, exhausted and in pain.
Chris, soaking wet himself having shooed away any attempts to umbrella him, has had an idea: “What if…” we are supposed to wrap in five minutes, “ what if you jump in the river and wade upstream, using sticks as rifles?”. Silence. “You can’t be any wetter,” he argues, with annoying logic. “Why don’t you jump in the bloody river yourself,” I’m thinking. He reads my mind. “It’s not deep,” he says and jumps in, the water barely past his purple-trousered ankle.
We move fifty yards further upstream for a camera angle. I jump in the river and am immediately submerged up to my waist. Surprised by the depth, I fall face-first into the freezing water. It soothes the nettle stings.
Later, wrapped in towels, while Vicky swabs vestiges of greasepaint from my swollen face, I hear Pebbles the third ad enter the costume end ie the other end of the truck.
Through racks of clothes he cannot see me or my reaction as he asks Charlotte Costume: “for tomorrow, Chris wants to know, is Nigel’s costume flameproof?” None of the footage we shoot today will be used in the film.
May 22 2009
Morning. A group of young recidivists watch from a walkway above Sheffield Magistrates Court as I drive Barry’s car slowly and repeatedly into a brick wall, dressed like Osama bin Laden. I have a tricky speech to Arsher in this scene, which after a few takes, is getting stale.
Chris suggests I slam the car door repeatedly whilst speaking to freak out Arsher, who doesn’t know I’m going to do it, and free me up. It works brilliantly. My head swells with self-congratulation.
Much later, around 3am, my ego is cooled when I awake on the grass verge of a motorway service station near Leeds to find that the everyone has disappeared.
I had fallen asleep while not being used in a scene. I ring Joe, the First AD. He is in the van with the rest of the cast and crew, almost back in Sheffield. Filming finished an hour ago . “I knew I’d forgotten something,” he tuts, cheerily.
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