A GLIMPSE INTO THE WORLD OF TELEVISION
Having twice been exposed to the world of television in the last 6 months, and being subjected to some rather erroneous food tasting, I had rather assumed that my short-lived career in TV was over! Not quite so it would seem. A late night call from a friend indicated that NTV (Russian national TV broadcaster) were looking to find various nationalities that had either parents or grandparents who fought in World War 2, and that he had mentioned that both my parents had had an interesting experience in those harrowing times, and thought I might be prepared to be interviewed alongside an American, a Canadian and a Frenchman. Keen to resurrect my flagging ‘TV career’ in true Lazarus style, I answered in the affirmative.
A couple of days later, and I received a phone call from the Producer of this NTV documentary, and he subjected me to a few questions about my parents’ experiences in the war. After 5 minutes listening to my one-way rhetoric, he decided that I did indeed have a story to tell and we arranged for the cameras to come into my apartment a week later. I have to say, it’s one thing being in the comfort of your sitting room watching the end result of any programme, be it film, drama, sit-com or documentary, but it’s an altogether different equation to actually sit down or walk around making one. The following Sunday saw me welcome one or two crew to my humble home of 40 square meters, but it transpired after the first of the gang arrived, another three were to follow suit, and my apartment was full to bursting point, especially as they decided the lounge was the only viable option to conduct the interview in!
The NTV crew were highly polished professionals and knew exactly what they were doing, and within an hour we were ready to rock and roll so to speak. My lounge had undergone a startling metamorphosis from a simple room into one of cameras, light umbrellas and various bright lamps bouncing off the walls at various angles to optimize the limited natural light available. I was ushered into my seat at one end of the room and so the questioning about my parents’ role in World War 2 began. Slava, the man conducting the “Spanish Inquisition” began innocuously enough with the sort of questions one could answer standing on one’s head, but then rather smoothly transgressed into murkier depths of questioning such as what would my father have thought about the Novichok scandal, which was skilfully thrown into the mix in between questions about my dual life both in the UK and here in Moscow. It was almost as if he were trying to keep me awake by throwing a curved ball when I least expected it, but your scribe had anticipated such a tactic and answered in a non-committal way by saying “he would have just smiled.” This evoked a slight smile from Slava, and I couldn’t help wondering if my father above would be looking down upon me in approving manner for having ducked an awkward question with panache! The ‘tennis match’ continued unabated with serves being returned with interest if you’ll excuse the sporting parlance, and finally it was time to call it a wrap, and both parties had enjoyed the occasion, with the NTV Producer nodding his tacit approval.
During our original meeting which involved drawing up ideas to discuss, the subject of my friendship with Liza Boyarskaya came up, and they rather cagily asked if I thought I could entice her on to the programme. I informed them that Liza nowadays was performing mainly in her native St. Petersburg with only occasional visits down to this neck of the woods. I told them I could sms her just to see if, by any small chance, she happened to be coming down here, and lo and behold, she answered that she was down here for less than a day on March 23rd playing the part of Sasha in Chekhov’s Ivanov, and would be happy to come on the programme with me and simulate an English lesson. The producer was shocked, but in a happy way, and they conferred during a break, then suggested flying me to England to do part 3 of the documentary there- I readily agreed! We did the interview with Liza in The Theatre of Nations which is a lovely red bricked building and very cozy inside. Liza looked her usual lovely self despite having just got off the Sapsan after a good 4-hour journey, we started our lesson in earnest which is usually just us chit-chatting. After a few minutes, the producer came up and said: “Simon, we need you to be correcting her; at the moment it looks like two old friends catching up on news!” Liza interrupted and told him in no uncertain terms that this was exactly the format of our lessons, so the producer capitulated and let us carry on. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of months, so we had a lot of catch-up to do. Fortunately, I was able to assist her with some forgotten words and phrases from time to time so that assuaged the producer. When we had finished, Liza went straight to her dress rehearsal and we then walked around the centre filming me as if I was a tourist ambling around in no particular direction. In synopsis, the NTV approach here was what I would expect in the fast-paced Moscow I know and love: a very business-like approach, totally professional and they knew exactly what they wanted to achieve and set about doing so in no uncertain terms.
On April 10, my slumbers were rudely interrupted at 03.00 by my least favourite tune- my alarm clock. I scowled at it, contemplated throwing the phone across the room, but then common sense prevailed. I was booked on to the 07.00 Aeroflot flight to London, and was due to be met by the NTV Director/Producer at 10.00 at the drop-off point in Heathrow. My reverie was interrupted by a mustard yellow Mini whose blonde-haired driver waved cheerfully at me, and the potentially tricky rendezvous was complete. We made it down to Sandhurst in Kent in record time, the village my sister and I effectively grew up in, and after a brief shop for a dinner party that evening, we started off by buying flowers for my parents’ grave in the local farm shop. Lisa, the lovely NTV London Producer, went to get permission to film me there, and she encountered the owner who exclaimed he knew me and my family ever so well as he had lived there all his life. He was interviewed and revealed a couple of things even I didn’t know about such as my mother doing some strawberry picking on his farm back in the year. This prompted a wry smile from my side, as the thought of her getting down on her knees and subjecting herself to a few hours of hard labour would have been rather anathema to her!
Next stop was the local pub, The Swan, where I was welcomed back like the prodigal son by Juliet the owner of said pub. They filmed us gossiping about the local yokels, then all too soon it was time to move on to the village green with its war memorial which acted as a shrine to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in both wars. Following that we moved to the church, which is situated on top of a hill, as many churches were when built at that time, in a bid to avoid The Black Death in 1665, which was making its nefarious rounds in fatal manner. We started at the gravestone of my parents where I had to do some hasty removing of daffodil deadheads. There was a raw wind blowing and lachrymosity was impossible to avoid as it was only +7 with a chill factor of +2. We had to stop filming a couple of times to clear my tears and I felt a bit embarrassed as I was sure that Lisa and Boris, the cameraman, thought I was indulging in a moment of outpouring of grief! That done, we moved into the welcoming warmth of the church itself where my father was Rector for some 22 years; and I couldn’t resist going up into the pulpit where he religiously (excuse the pun) delivered his sermons every Sunday. There were indeed a plethora of halcyon memories floating around my head, and I even played a few bars of a well known Chopin Nocturn for them on the piano until my lack of practice brought my performance to a premature end. We then moved to Tenterden, an exquisite Miss Marplesque 14th century town in the heart of the Weald of Kent, for some further footage to add to the flavour of what we had already got.
Our final filming was at my sister’s house where she had thoughtfully laid out all the appropriate memorabilia of my parents’ derring do: my father’s uniform with badges sewn in, (he was seconded to Brussels with MI5 to liaise with the French Resistance as well as spotting Nazi sympathisers in operation and hauling them in for interrogation) various books he had written, a photo of my mother in her WRNS uniform (she served on the submarines in the war) and various family photos depicting my sister, Penelope, and myself as small children. Penny arrived back victorious from her tennis match and was invited to say a few words about her recollections. NTV seemed very pleased with the whole proceedings and I must say I enjoyed doing this very much. In comparison to NTV Moscow, NTV London were very much more laid back with a relaxed questioning style and easy-going manner. That said, both styles from the respective NTV teams were exactly right for the destinations we were filming at. Would I do it again? In an absolute heartbeat!