Rod was a regular in the George. He had his own special pint glass and a place reserved at the bar. I knew he’d been an actor but didn’t recognise him from any film I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen nearly every film ever made in Britain. That’s my special area of expertise; I’ve written two books on it.
Maybe he knew that.
Maybe that’s why, one Thursday night during the interval in the film quiz, when Wayne was playing his usual selection of Barry Gray TV themes, Rod spoke to me.
‘Like films, do you?’ His voice was wet and his breath smelled of lager.
‘Like films? Your, er, whatsit. T-Shirt.’
I looked down. I was wearing a tacky print of Michael Caine in Get Carter I’d bought at the Vintage Magazine Co twenty years before.
‘Oh. Yeah. I write about them.’ I picked up the three pints from the bar, and made to move away.
‘Ahh. Well, then. I’ve worked with Mike Caine, of course. Lovely bloke. Horse Under Water, back in seventy-eight.’ Rod, wheezed, and turned away. I slowly lowered the pints back onto the bar top.
‘Did you say Horse Under Water?’
He looked over his shoulder, evidently pleased to have grabbed my attention.
‘That’s a Harry Palmer novel, right? Len Deighton. A sequel to the Ipcress File.’
‘You do know it, then? Not a bad film. Tremendous fun to work on. I played a naval officer in that one, all decked out with the proper kit, scrambled egg on the hat and what have you.’
‘I didn’t know they’d filmed it, actually. I thought the last one they made was The Billion Dollar Brain. And those two TV movies recently, but they don’t count.’
‘Well, they did. Pinewood, summer of seventy-seven.’
‘Why haven’t I heard about it, then?’
‘You learn something new everyday.’
He raised his glass and downed two thirds of a pint of Stella as if it were Tizer.
That night, after dinner, I picked up Halliwell while I was watching TV, and flicked carelessly to where Horse Under Water would have been, if it existed. I grunted to myself – it wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. Just to be sure, though, I shuffled over to the computer to check IMDB. Nothing there either. I smiled, and shrugged; I had been worried for a moment that an important item of trivia had passed me by, but I had obviously been the victim of an imaginative old pisshead prankster.
The next time I went into the George, Rod greeted me with a wave. I waved back, but purposely ordered my drink at the other end of the bar. He slid down from his stool and, leaning on the bar the whole way, made his way along to stand at my side.
‘Hello again.’ He raised his glass in a salute. ‘I’ve got something to show you.’ He reached for his inside pocket – the jacket didn’t have one – and then into his trouser pocket. He pulled out a dog-eared Polaroid and slapped it onto the bar, into a ring of spilled beer.
The picture showed the water tank at Pinewood with a half-formed fibre-glass submarine floating in it. In the foreground stood middle-period Michael Caine – a little doughy, thick wavy hair. He was wearing his Harry Palmer glasses and a toothy smile, alongside a younger version of my drinking companion. Caine was holding a clapperboard: HORSE UNDER WATER, 03/08/77.
I thought at first it was a Photoshop job. I picked the picture up and looked closely. If it was a fake, it was beautiful work, printed on genuine Polaroid paper and with just the right amount of fading. All the red had washed away with the years.
‘Mmm.’ I tried not to sound too interested. ‘I couldn’t find any information on this film, though.’
Rod’s face fell. ‘Oh. You looked it up, then? And you didn’t find anything at all? Shame.’ There was something more there – not only disappointment but also… fear? ‘What about these?’ He reached back into his pocket and this time retrieved a small stack of similar polaroids. He dropped the first one onto the bar. Rod and a young Timothy Dalton; in the background, a sub-James Bond set, decorated with tape-banks and steel staircases. On the clapperboard:WHO IS JERRY CORNELIUS?
‘Jerry Cornelius? As in The Final Programme?’
‘Eh?’ Rod smiled absently.
‘The Final Programme. Robert Fuest, 1973.’
‘Ken Russell, 1969. I should know.’
‘Are you sure? With Jenny Runacre…’
‘Marianne Faithful. Here’s another for you.’ He looked excited, and knocked back half a pint or so, before tossing another picture onto the bar. CARRY ON ROCKING. Rod, Kenneth Williams and Freddie Starr.
‘Oh, come off it! Freddie Starr was never in a Carry On film.’
‘He was in Carry On Rocking. I should–’
‘You should know, right.’
‘Look.’ He pointed at the photograph with a thick brown finger. ‘1983. Poor Ken’s last Carry On. I had a speaking part in that one. You must have seen it.’ He looked at me, nodding and gesturing, as if that would help me remember. Pleading.
‘I’ve got to go. Thanks for showing me these. They’re very clever.’ I turned to order at the bar, and did everything I could to signal dismissal.
‘There are a couple more here. This one. Do you like those old Hammer Horror pictures?’
It had to be a set up. My second book was on Hammer. I was well known as an enthusiast. Despite my suspicions, when he proffered the photo, I snatched it from his hand. ’The Horror of Frankenstein. Ralph Bates.’
‘Nearly! That’s Ralph alright. 1972. Read the clapper.’ Rod was triumphant. He knew he had me. I admit that I was excited. The board was a little out of focus, but I held it close, and squinted. FRANKENSTEIN 1980.
I shook my head.
‘I know every Hammer film made. Even the handful I haven’t watched, I’ve seen stills.’
‘Well, if that’s what you think, then I will leave you be. Of course, I’ve got a lot more than just photos, but you wouldn’t be interested in those. I don’t suppose posters and props and things of that sort are in your line.’ He snapped the photo from between my fingers, and scooped up the others from the bar before dropping them back into his pocket. ‘Good luck with the quiz.’
‘Wait, wait, Rod, just wait a moment. I need to know a bit more about your collection. I’d like a copy of that photograph, if nothing else.’ The song Wayne used to open the second half of the quiz, the theme from Timeslip, exploded from the struggling PA system and Rod’s reply was lost in the noise. He returned to his perch, and as I made my way back to my table, raised his glass one more time, and winked at me. There was something in his expression which made me feel I was failing to appreciate a very rich joke.
I was keen to talk again the following week and was disappointed not to see him when I came in from the rain an hour before the quiz began. I had spent the week scanning newspaper review archives, back issues of Sight and Sound, and even ringing a few people I knew through work, but hadn’t come up with a single bit of evidence that any of Rod’s films had ever been made.
I went up to the bar, staring at the empty stool. Eventually, I caught the landlord’s eye, and beckoned him over. He was a glum looking Yorkshireman with a drooping white Teddy Boy hairdo. ‘What can I get yer?’
‘I was wondering if you knew… Where’s Rod tonight?’
He nodded as if I’d said something wise.
‘Did you know him well?’
‘No, not well. We were just chatting last week.’
‘It’s bad news, pal. Ambulance came last weekend. He’s dead.’
My legs seemed to soften in an instant, and I felt blood flood my head.
‘Makes you think.’
I ordered a pint and retreated to a quiet corner. I felt slightly guilty that the first thought to cross my mind had been about his collection. Who would get it? Were there relatives? What if they just threw it all away when they were clearing his flat? I jumped up, leaving my pint, and made my way back to the bar.
‘Do you have a number for Rod’s family? I’d like to send flowers, or a card.’
The landlord held up a finger.
‘Wait one moment.’
He ducked behind the bar, and came up with a sheet of notepaper.
‘Here you go. His daughter. Said to give it to anyone who was a friend of his.’
I scribbled the details into my notebook, thanked the landlord, and left the pub without drinking a drop.
I used a phone box not far from the George, and got an answer on the first ring.
‘I was a friend of… well, I knew your father. Rod.’
There was a silence, followed by throat clearing.
‘I suppose you’re another of his alcoholic friends from that bloody pub.’
She was far better spoken than Rod, but there was still a touch of estuary nasal in her voice.
‘Well, I did meet him there, but I’m not an alcoholic.’
‘People rarely recognise when they are.’
‘No, really. I’m a journalist.’
‘Jeffrey Bernard was a journalist.’
‘I write about films,’ I said, and then found myself improvising. ‘I was interviewing your father for an article.’
‘Oh, really?’ Her voice became warmer.
‘Your father was in some very unusual and interesting films, including some I didn’t even know had been made.’
‘Oh, well, you’re in luck. He has copies of all of them, I think. Used to make me watch them when I was a child. Would you like to see them? A published article would be a lovely memorial to Dad. It’s just a shame that it didn’t come sooner.’
‘I will do my best, Mrs Harwood, to honour your father’s memory in what I write.’ My performance was sentimental enough to make Tom Hanks gag.
We arranged that I would meet her, with her husband, at Rod’s flat on Saturday morning, and said goodnight. My head was throbbing. Those films had not been made. I knew they hadn’t. I shrugged. Saturday morning would settle it.
I arrived early and was standing drinking coffee when they pulled up in a waxed and polished BMW. Mrs Harwood was older than I had expected, with stiffly dyed orange hair and the kind of wide eyed ogling expression that contact lenses encourage. Her husband was shorter than her, completely bald, and wore polarised aviator glasses. When he shook my hand, his palm was cold and smooth.
The flat was above a Halal butcher, and the door was burned black and graffiti covered. There were three locks. I forced myself to stay calm, and resisted the urge to push past Mrs Harwood once the door was open. The flat smelled of antiseptic and urine and there were cat scratches all over the stair carpet. There was another door into Rod’s flat itself, and this seemed to take even longer to crack, even though I suspected that a good push would have done the trick. She gestured grandly, ushering me into the sitting room.
‘Please. Go ahead and have a good rummage.’
I stepped through the doorway, and whistled aloud. One wall was lined with photo albums dated from 1965 to 1993 and there were several old fashioned tea crates in the centre of the floor. These looked exciting so I approached them first. Reaching in, I grabbed a roll of 8mm film in a Scotch box. Written on it in biro was DAN DARE, PILOT OF THE FUTURE, REEL 3, 1979. Excited, I grabbed another: BLEAK HOUSE, REEL 1. Then another: YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK, 1990, INCOMPLETE.
‘We’ve got some papers to go through in the bedroom. Make yourself comfortable,’ said Mrs Harwood. Mr Harwood snorted sardonically. Once they had left, I pulled out my notebook and began to write down each title as I pulled the reels out. After thirty minutes or so, Mrs Harwood shouted from the other room.
‘If you’d like to watch some of those, there’s a projector in here. It’s not in very good condition, but I think it works.’ Mrs Harwood was clearly impressed by my enthusiasm, unlike her husband, who shouted over her: ‘Load of old rubbish anyway. I suppose muggins here will have to take it all down the dump. Typical.’
‘The dump?’ I walked over to the doorway with a reel in my hand, and my eyes wide with amazement. The bedroom was damp and reeked of cigarettes and lager. There was a well-used 8mm projector, and a screen on an easel, but little else. Mr and Mrs Harwood were kneeling on the floor, sifting through a stack of yellowing papers, most of which they then transferred to a bin bag. Mr Harwood looked up.
‘Yeah. The dump. Where you take old things that aren’t any use anymore.’
I couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses, and I was glad.
‘You can’t do that. This collection is historically important.’
Mr Harwood’s lips pulled back from slick yellow teeth.
‘Don’t tell me what I will and won’t do, son.’
Mrs Harwood began to cry. Unsure what to do, I carried on as if I hadn’t noticed and set to work with the projector. After a minute or two, I had had Dan Dare threaded. My fingers were crossed as the silent, scratched image faded up. There was Nicky Henson in a sub-Star Trek space tracksuit, his hair hanging down around his collar and pipe in hand, piloting a poorly realised but nicely designed spaceship. Next to him, Richard Griffiths, presumably as Digby, was snivelling and doing his usual bit of business whilst grappling with a control lever. Cut to a treen destroyer in pursuit – Gerry Anderson’s work? Cut to Rod in facepaint and a plastic vest, as a Treen commander barking orders and pressing buttons. Cut back to Henson and Griffiths; more shouting; a fizzy explosion. I was captivated. A lost British response to the Star Wars phenomenon. Dan Dare’s ship crashed into the surface of a lush, jungle planet, and then the reel ended.
I stared at the white rectangle of light for a moment, and then exhaled.
‘That was very interesting.’
‘What you could see of it, through the scratches. Load of old rubbish.’
Mr Harwood looked at his watch.
‘We’re done. Are you going to be long?’
‘I’d like to watch another, if you don’t mind.’
‘There’s plenty of time for that later.’
Mr Harwood switched the projector off, and drew the curtains. As we left the flat, Mrs Harwood grabbed my arm.
‘Sorry about my husband. He’s always been jealous of Dad. To be honest, I think he’s glad to have me to himself again.’
‘Please don’t let him do anything silly,’ I pleaded.
‘I’ll try.’ She gave me a smile, and squeezed my arm. She was flirting. I’m not used to being flirted with, but in comparison with Mr Harwood, I can see how I might have appealed.
‘Can I come back soon? I’ll need to catalogue the films, and all the photo albums.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. If it was up to me…’
‘Please. I’d really appreciate it.’
She pushed her hair behind her ears and nodded. Her husband whistled for her, as if for a dog.
‘Are you coming, or what?’
As the BMW pulled away, I waved limply, and lowered myself to sit on the kerb. There was every chance I was going to become a rich man, or at least famous on the cult film circuit and, despite the sheer improbability of it all, I was excited.
I spent the next few days carrying out some peripheral research when I should have been writing my column for Cable and Satellite Monthly. First, I phoned every expert on British film in my professional address book and ran some of the titles by them. ‘That one rings a bell,’ was a common response, but I knew that these were the Emperor’s new films – no one wanted to admit they didn’t know them. I took the opportunity to gloat a little: ‘You haven’t seen it? Oh, you should. It’s a real lost classic.’
I also tried phoning agents and relatives of Michael Caine, Nicky Henson, Diana Rigg, Brigid Forbes, Nicholas Rowe, Timothy Dalton, Freddie Starr, Eric Idle, Joan Collins, Lewis Collins, Shane Bryant, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithful, John Alderton, Dennis Waterman, Paul Freeman, and a lot of other actors. No-one was very helpful, but even those that were didn’t recognise the films I was asking about.
What I couldn’t understand was how Rod had managed to act only in films no-one had heard of. I actually had a panic attack – tight chest, near-blackout, wobbly legs – at the thought of how embarrassing this whole business could be if someone analysed the film frame-by-frame and found that it was a trick. Perhaps Rod was just a front for some hoaxer’s elaborate con?
That Wednesday, I phoned Mrs Harwood to confirm the second viewing. Her husband answered the phone.
‘Oh, it’s you. I’ve been thinking about these films.’
I could hear him breathing across the mouthpiece of the phone, and the phlegm rattling in his throat.
‘Since you seem so keen, I might be willing to let you take them off our hands.’
I nearly whooped.
‘That’s fantastic news, Mr Harwood. I’d be happy to look after the archiving for you.’
‘Calm down, son. I was thinking that, just between you and me, this might be a business transaction. Funerals aren’t cheap, and that old sod sure as bloody hell didn’t leave any cash behind to pay for his own do. How much?’
‘Well, if you can’t, then I’ll have to dispose of them some other way.’
He seemed to be enjoying himself – the thrill of bargaining. I hadn’t done much bartering, and gave myself away immediately.
‘No! No. Right. Two hundred reels of damaged 8mm film, mostly incomplete features. That can’t be worth more than…’
‘I’m not a mug, sunshine. Don’t waste my time.’
He put the phone down. I redialled.
‘Mr Harwood, I was going to say that they can’t be worth more than, say, £200.’
‘£200? I might not be Barry Norman, but I know this stuff is interesting. I’ve been doing a bit of research, see? I was thinking of five grand.’
There was a long silence. I switched the phone to my other ear and cleared my throat.
‘I don’t have that much money. I probably never will. You’re not really going to dump it all if I won’t buy it, are you?’
‘Maybe. Or maybe I’ll sell it to someone else. I can put an advert in one of those film magazines.’ He was twisting my arm very effectively. The thought of Barry Furst, Mark Sidley or any of the others taking my story from me made me feel nauseous.
‘Can I speak to your wife?’ If Daddy says no, ask Mummy. The old classic. Laughter echoed down the line, sounding like a saw cutting tin. For the second time, I heard the click of a phone being dropped into the cradle.
I spent the afternoon trying to think of ways to get £5,000 together. No sources I hadn’t already tapped sprang to mind. That evening, not long after I’d finished putting together an estimate of how much I could make by selling everything I owned, my phone rang.
‘Hello?’ I said.
It was Mrs Harwood.
‘Mr Riley? Can you meet me now? My husband’s out, and I thought you might want to take Dad’s stuff away before he gets back.’ She giggled, exhilarated. ‘I feel very naughty.’
‘I can’t express… That’s fantastic. Thank you, Mrs Harwood.’
‘Please, call me Stephanie.’
She picked me up at my flat in her worn out Nissan Micra.
‘We’ll have to be quick. My husband will ring me when he gets home and finds I’m not there.’
‘Well, he won’t be too angry, will he? I mean, it’s not as if…”
She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Not as if what?’
The evening was drawing in, and the flat was dark when we entered.
‘Where’s the light switch,’ I whispered.
‘I’ve brought a torch,’ she replied, suddenly standing very close to me. I could smell her perfume, which was the same one my grandmother had used. She clicked it on, and shone it around the flat. The broken circle of yellow light slid across bare walls. And bare floorboards. I snatched the flashlight from her hand and jogged forward into the living room. My footsteps echoed – the room was empty.
‘Where’s it all gone?’ I whimpered.
‘Daddy’s things! Where are Daddy’s things?’
The torch dimmed, and went out.
‘For fuck’s sake!’
I pushed past her and slapped the wall around the doorway until I found the light switch. The forty watt bulb on the ceiling bloomed, illuminating an almost completely stripped room. In the middle of the floor, though, was a shoebox. I went over and knelt next to it. A note was sellotaped to the lid.
‘£200 worth of tat. Pay the wife. H.’
‘Daddy’s things,’ said Mrs Harwood again, before wailing. She launched herself toward me, rested her head on my chest and grabbed my arms with her fingers. I wasn’t sure what to do, but let her sob over me without hugging back. I was in shock.
She pulled away after five minutes, leaving my t-shirt covered in warm salty water and snot.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. I nodded. ‘What’s in the box?’ she said, pointing at it.
I looked down and nodded again.
‘I’ll open it.’ Inside was one reel of film and a handful of photographs – just Rod, alone, on one anonymous sound stage after another.
‘Is it worth anything?’ she asked hopefully, looking up at me with a contact lens stuck to her cheek.
‘I don’t know. The reel’s not labeled.’
* * *
They found Harwood’s BMW later that night. Mrs Harwood called me to ask if I’d go with her to identify the body.
‘I don’t have anyone else, Mr Riley.’
The body on the gurney was him, alright. His bald head wasn’t white anymore – it was a sticky red – but his yellow teeth still grinned from behind his shrunken lips.
I spoke to a policeman while Mrs Harwood cried.
‘Looks like the daft bastard flipped a cigar out of the front window and the wind whipped it in through the back window. The back seat was piled high with flammable material – film reels, apparently. Went up like…’ He gestured an explosion with his hands. ‘Ka-boom.’
‘Know him well, did you?’
‘No. Talked to him twice. Hated him. But it’s a shame about the films. Some of them were rare.’
I laughed grimly at my own joke.
‘Well, we did find a couple of reels intact.’
* * *
First the leader, then suddenly a handheld shot of the inside of a car taken from the back seat. Above the driver’s seat, a shining white bald head.
Cut to an exterior shot. The car passes at a leisurely pace. It’s a BMW.
Cut to another car, in pursuit – a 1975 Ford Escort, being pushed hard. The driver looks familiar, but glare on the window half conceals his face.
Cut back to the BMW. The driver fiddles with the radio, and laughs. He looks startled when a horn sounds.
Cut to a POV shot from the Ford Escort. It pulls up alongside the BMW, and a hand extends. It’s holding a fat cigar.
Cut to the terrified face of Mr Harwood.
Cut to Harwood’s POV as a smiling mid-period Michael Caine, riding shotgun in the Escort, flicks the cigar through the open window of the BMW.
Jump-cut: the BMW exploding and careening from the road. The Escort pulls up alongside. Rod, in the driver’s seat, turns to Michael Caine, and gives him a nod of approval. They pull away.
Illustration adapted from a photograph by Noom Peerapong via Unsplash.