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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/9/2021)

(Review of Alvin Rakoff's memoir, I'm Just the Guy Who Says Action)

Canadian Alvin Rakoff was one of the busiest directors of his generation. Like Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, George Roy Hill and Arthur Penn, he started out in live television in the 1950s and went on to amass over 100 credits on stage and screen. Still active in his 95th year, Rakoff has paused to look back on a pivotal production in his career in I'm Just the Guy Who Says Action, a lively and engaging memoir that takes the reader into the control box in Studio D at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios on Sunday 31 March 1957, as a star was born.

Such was Rakoff's standing at the BBC that he had been entrusted with The Hole in the Wall, which was the main highlight on the night that ITV was launched on 22 September 1955. Two years later, head of drama Michael Barry asked him to handle Auntie's take on Rod Serling's Requiem For a Heavyweight, which Ralph Nelson had directed to a prestigious Peabody Award under the Playhouse 60 banner in October 1956. As American shows weren't broadcast on British television at the time, Rakoff was required to come up with his own interpretation and, when original star Jack Palance opted not to reprise his acclaimed performance, he also had to find a new leading man.

In impressive detail, Rakoff recalls the casting process and how difficult it had proved to find someone who had the physical attributes and acting chops to play washed-up pug, Harlan `Mountain' McClintock. He had already cast soon-to-be-wife Jacqueline Hill as Grace Carney, the employment agency worker who tries to help Mountain find a new job, and was taken aback when she made a suggestion for her co-star.

Twenty-five year-old Sean Connery had been struggling to find a niche on stage when Rakoff hired him for his one-hour teleplay, The Condemned (1956). They had rubbed along well enough, but Rakoff wasn't convinced Connery had the acting depth or the accent skills to take such a demanding role. Barry was equally sceptical after Hill had kept insisting that Connery would attract a female audience to a very manly subject. But, as the brief rehearsal period progressed, Connery grew into the part.

Beside giving a future James Bond his big break, Rakoff had a good deal more to deal with as the transmission date approached. As the BBC didn't allow advertising, he had to cobble together some new scenes to plug the gaps in Serling's teleplay. One sequence provided a role for another promising newcomer, Michael Caine, who had become friendly with Connery while they were treading the boards in the provinces.

While still Maurice Micklewhite, he had taken his stage name from a billboard for Edward Dmytryk's film version of Herman Wouk's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Caine Mutiny (1954). Rakoff recalls the problems he had when alcoholic actor Paul Douglas was cast in the 1958 BBC adaptation, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. The compassion he felt for Douglas is deeply poignant. However, Rakoff was also responsible to his cast and his superiors and his decision to dispense with a household name conveys the pressures endured by directors during this unique period in TV history.

His dealings with Ealing supremo, Michael Balcon, also prove instructive, as Rakoff kicked against his insistence that he could only direct features after he had mastered the task of producing. He also devotes touching passages to his courtship with Jacqueline Hill and their last days together before she died of breast cancer at the early age of 63 in February 1993.

Yet, the most compelling part of the text - which contains the odd glitch, such as the misspelling of the Boulting comedy, Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1959) - revolves around Shot 277 of Requiem For a Heavyweight. The frustration that no visual record of the performance survives hits home hardest while reading this white-knuckle account of the intricate operation (that had repeatedly failed during run-throughs) required to stage a walking-and-talking scene involving Connery and Hill in a space so tight that props and extras had to be stationed just out of the view of the pursuing cameras as the actors moved.

Maybe someone will get round to releasing the audio taping that Rakoff made in the control room. Let's hope the same is also true of the excellent Thames series, Shades of Greene (1975), an anthology of Graham Greene short stories to which Rakoff contributed `Cheap in August'. In the meantime, we should raise a glass down at the British Prince and delight in the fact that this vivid, erudite and frank recollection gives us the feeling of having been there when a mumbling Edinburgh bodybuilder discovered that he not only had it in him to become a decent actor, but also a star.

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