Friday, February 22, 2008

My Brush With Oscar

It's a long and winding road from English novelist R. F. Delderfield to my meeting with an Oscar winner; but bear with me. . . .

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a brief vogue, on British TV, for adaptations of the works of novelist R. F. Delderfield (1912–72). Several of his novels—typically sprawling epics encompassing several decades—were dramatised, and among these was his A Horseman Riding By trilogy (1978; although only the first two books were used for the TV series). It aired on PBS around 1980, and I was enthralled, so much so that I sought out the books and devoured them, thus beginning an admiration for Delderfield's work that holds strong to this day.

The main character of both book and series is Paul Craddock, played in the TV version by a young British actor—previously unknown to me—named Nigel Havers. In those pre-Internet days it was difficult to learn a good deal about actors, and all I knew, in the months after the series ended, was that Havers was featuring in a British film with the somewhat unpromising title Chariots of Fire. In spring 1981 the film was slated to open in Vancouver, and one rainy night I took my seventeen-year-old self down to the Captiol Six cinema on Granville Street to see it.

The Capitol Six—alas, no longer with us—contained, as the name implies, six cinemas. The main cinema, on the second floor, sat about 1200 people; two cinemas, on the third floor, accommodated about 600 each; and the fourth floor held three cinemas, each with seating for about 400 people. Chariots of Fire was on the third floor; hardly auspicious, but I was not daunted. I arrived while the previous showing was ending, and while I waited in the lobby I got my first taste of Vangelis's score; and it is not overstating the matter to say that I was hooked from that moment.

The film was wonderful, from start to finish. If I was disappointed that Havers's character—the fictitious Lord Andrew Lindsay—did not get the prominence I expected, I do not recall. I simply knew that this was a wonderful film, and over the next few weeks I saw it a half-dozen times. I bought the soundtrack album, and managed to wangle a large display poster for the film out of A&B Sound on Seymour Street when they were finished with it; the poster adorned my bedroom wall for some time, but was lost at some point, probably during a move. I also managed to get the press kit for the film—I still have this, thank goodness—from Golden Age Collectables on Granville Street, one of my regular stops on my trips to Vancouver when I was a teenager. The shop still exists, but is more devoted to comics now; during the 1980s it was a wonderful place to find movie posters, stills, and press kits, and several relics of visits there adorn the walls of our house to this day, including a wonderful three-sheet poster for the 1944 film version of And Then There Were None (in the downstairs hallway) and a lobby card for the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles ('It's Ten Times The Terror In TECHNICOLOR!') which is to my left as I type.

The press kit—do film companies still produce these?—for Chariots of Fire contained a good deal of information about the film and the artists involved; there were pictures of those behind the camera, as well as in front of it, so I got to know what director Hugh Hudson and producer David Puttnam looked like. On Oscar night 1982 I was on tenterhooks, wondering how many awards Chariots—nominated for seven Oscars—would take home. I had baked a cake—decorated, to the best of my ability, with the Chariots logo—specially for the event, and as the night drew on I became increasinly anxious. Best Costumes, Best Soundtrack, Best Original Screenplay: all very well, but would it win Best Picture? When Warren Beatty won Best Director for Reds things looked a bit iffy; and then came the opening of the envelope: Best Picture, Chariots of Fire. The next few moments are a blur; but I distinctly remember my brother John saying 'Get her some oxygen, she's hyperventilating.' I was as pleased and proud as if I'd written and directed the movie myself; well, I was only eighteen, so perhaps can be excused.

Fast forward a year, to the spring of 1983. I had graduated high school two years earlier, but was tagging along as part of a SETS (Student Educational Travel Services) trip to England, France, and Holland. I had taken the trip in 1981, when I was in grade 12, and was being allowed to participate again largely, I think, because the teachers running it liked me and decided 'Why not?' As I was not one of the students I was allowed a certain amount of freedom, and found myself associating with the adults running the tour, particularly Mr Phillips—principal of a Richmond, B.C. high school—and his wife. On 28 March 1983 the three of us went to the theatre (Key For Two by John Chapman and Dave Freeman, starring Moira Lister, Patrick Cargill, Barbara Murray, and Glyn Houston—who, incidentally had a major role in the TV version of Horseman Riding By—at the Vaudeville Theatre), and afterwards we went to a late dinner at Fortnum's Fountain, the restaurant at Fortnum and Mason, the great shop on Piccadilly.

We were nearing the end of our meal when the door opened and two men walked in. It did not take me long to realise that one of the men was David Puttnam, whom I recognised from the press kit for Chariots of Fire, and whom I had last seen accepting the Best Picture Oscar as producer of that film. The men took their seats a few tables away from us, and for several minutes a war waged within my breast. I knew that David Puttnam, producer of one of my favourite films, was sat not twenty feet away from me: the question was, what to do about it? Should I go up to him and say—what, exactly? Perhaps he would be angry; perhaps he liked his privacy. And the man was eating dinner; he wouldn't want to be disturbed. Canadians are nothing if not polite, and I hesitated to approach him.

And yet—how many times in my life would this opportunity present itself? If I walked out the door without saying anything, would I kick myself for the rest of my life? Thus the battle raged, until Mr and Mrs Phillips indicated that it really was time we left. The decision was made. I stood up and approached the table.

Remember: I was a nineteen year old Canadian girl from the suburbs of Vancouver, in a foreign city, who had never met anyone remotely famous, let alone introduced herself to a stranger in a restaurant. Yet I heard myself saying, as from far away, 'Excuse me, are you David Puttnam?'

He turned and looked at me, and for a moment I thought No, it's a terrible mistake, it's not him at all, ohmigod. . . And then I heard 'Yes,' and I could breathe again, and I said 'I loved Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled when it won the Oscar', and he said kindly 'Yes, I was pleased too,' and I asked him for his autograph. Then an awkward moment ensued, as I realised I had nothing for him to sign, except my London Theatre Guide which I had picked up at at the play earlier that night. Any port in a storm; so I folded it out to a blank spot and he fished for a pen, and as he signed it I said 'I hope you don't mind me disturbing you,' and he laughed and said 'I've been waiting twenty years for this!'


When he had signed ('For Barb, Thank's [sic] for asking, David Puttnam') he motioned to the man sitting opposite him—who had been silent up until then—and said 'You should ask him for his autograph; he's much more famous than me.' By then I was in such a daze I doubt I would have recognised my own mother, and I looked at the man and said 'Hugh Hudson?' They both laughed, and David Puttnam said it was Bill Forsyth, and the other man signed my programme as well ('To Barb, from Bill Forsyth (NOT HUGH!)'), and . . . well, that was it, really, but when I left Fortnum's Fountain I was walking on air, and ever since that date, whenever David Puttnam's name has been mentioned, I say 'Hey, me and Dave, we're like that', and I remember that magical night in London a quarter-century ago (where has the time gone?) when I was this close to Oscar, and realise that if I had left the restaurant without asking I would indeed be kicking myself to this day.

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