London Film Festival: Rainy night in Scarborough

`Little Voice' opens the London Film Festival tonight. It's been a long, hard road... By Geoffrey Macnab

IT IS a windy, overcast autumn afternoon in Scarborough. A few sightseers stand on the seafront, waiting for the Royal Yacht Britannia, which is about to pass by on its final voyage. Behind them a small film crew sets up its equipment while a large red Oldsmobile, not the kind of car much seen in these parts, reverses down the esplanade.

As the Britannia hoves into view, the Oldsmobile reappears, now driven by Michael Caine. The sightseers turn and gossip among themselves, uncertain whether they ought to be watching the movie star or the yacht, which is continuing to inch its way across the horizon with a navy destroyer following at a discreet distance behind it.

"We should be proud of that. Our tax money goes to that," growls a technician, beckoning at the Britannia. Caine glances out to sea himself. "I was on it when it was in St Petersburg," he remarks. "That destroyer behind it is packed full of rockets." He gets out of the car, which is reversed back down the esplanade, and walks after it. Moments later, the car reappears for a second take, moving at a microscopic pace. The crew want to frame the shot with the Britannia visible in the background, but Caine is driving so slowly that it proves impossible.

Three weeks into location shooting on Little Voice, the musical comedy based on Jim Cartwright's award-winning play, and the actors and technicians are already looking weary. That's what night-shoots do. Working hours are 3pm to 3am. It is now 4.30pm, which means everybody has just had breakfast. It is almost dark and the cold is beginning to bite.

When Miramax bought the film rights to Cartwright's play in 1992, they intended to make it in the US. There were any number of false starts. Initially, Sam Mendes was set to direct with his then-girlfriend Jane Horrocks recreating the role she played on stage. At one stage, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt were pencilled in to appear. When Mendes pulled out for what producer Elizabeth Karlson calls "personal and professional reasons," he was replaced by the burly, Bridlington-born Mark Herman, who promptly switched the action to Scarborough. This is Herman's third feature, after Blame The Bellboy and Brassed Off.

"Jim Cartwright had a couple of bashes at the screenplay," Herman remembers. "Sam Mendes had a couple of drafts too. Then I was invited to fix it - to try to turn it into a film, which I don't think the four previous screenplays were."

Having driven the Oldsmobile along the esplanade twice, Caine has finished his work for the day. "But I was up till 3am last night," he protests lest anyone thinks he is slacking. Relaxing in his caravan, he reflects on what brought a star like him to an out-of-season seaside town like this. "The short answer is a brilliant script, the best script I've read since Educating Rita."

Caine plays Ray Say, a "sleazy rogue" who wears jewellery and snakeskin boots. Ray thinks he can make his fortune on the back of talented but terminally shy singer, Laura Hoff (Jane Horrocks). "Ray is a tacky London agent who is failing northward," Caine explains. "He started in London but I always have the feeling that Ray will one day end up in the Hebrides. He's just a failure. He screws the mother to get to the girl. He's so nasty he's funny. I try to make him sympathetic but it's quite difficult." No, Caine will not be attempting a Yorkshire accent. He'll be sticking to the usual cockney, but he'll make sure he doesn't speak too fast. He knows from experience that that is not a wise idea. "When I did Alfie, I had to do 175 loops to make it understandable in America."

Cartwright's play was set in an industrial northern town. "You wouldn't believe Michael Caine in Rochdale but you would in a place like Scarborough," Herman remarks of his decision to shift the action to the seaside. Besides, he confides, after The Full Monty and Brassed Off, he didn't want audiences to think that stripping ex-steel workers or brass bands would be coming round the corner every five minutes. "I was keen to add a new element to the story, which is the seaside element. But I'm sure I'll upset Jim Cartwright because it was very much a Lancashire piece before."

By now the main camera is towering over the back street. It is trained on the window of the flat above the record shop. This is the moment in which pigeon-fancying BT engineer Billy (Ewan McGregor) rescues Jane Horrocks. The two stars shiver side by side in the basket of the crane while the technicians shoot the scene from various angles.

McGregor came to Scarborough straight from playing young Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas' Star Wars prequel. Back in his caravan, he is already studying for his next role - as disgraced financier Nick Leeson in Rogue Trader, which starts shooting as soon as Little Voice wraps. "I finished Star Wars on Monday, picked up a new motorbike on Tuesday - I only had one day to ride the fucking thing - then I went to New York to do press for A Life Less Ordinary. I had one day off, then it was straight up here," he complains.

During the 9pm lunch break, the talk on set is is all about local pub entertainer Seaside Danny Wilde, an Elvis impersonator who was accompanied the previous night by various elderly ladies from Sheffield with pompoms and tambourines. Most of the cast, apart from Caine (who once met the real Elvis in Vegas) have been to see him perform. "He's great. He has such a following. He's on four times a week and it's always packed to the gunnels," Brenda Blethyn enthuses, (Blethyn plays Little Voice's woebegone mum, Mari Hoff).

Jim Cartwright's work has been adapted for the screen before. Alan Clarke made a brilliant version of Road for the BBC in 1987, with Jane Horrocks, Leslie Sharp and David Thewlis. With its imagery of battered housewives, drunken, incontinent soldiers and lonely old men, this was barbed and bleak. One of the challenges that Herman faces with Little Voice is staying true to Cartwright's original vision. The cast insist that there has been no prettifying. "Aggressive", "vicious", "desperate" are the words they all use to describe their characters.

"He's kept pretty loyally to the play," Jane Horrocks says of Herman's adaptation. Having played Little Voice in the original stage production, she knows the part inside out. "The character speaks through the records - hence why she's a little voice."

Interviewing the various cast members in the Scarborough car- park where they have set up camp, it's hard not to be reminded of an old-style seaside theatrical troupe like the one described in JB Priestley's novel, The Good Companions. They're stoical and cheerful despite the cold, the rain and the gruelling night shoots. "We're a happy mob," says Caine, "everybody loves everybody else because we're doing everybody right." Horrocks puts it more bluntly. "We're all in the same bag really. There's nobody who's up their own arse."

`Little Voice' is showing tonight at Odeon Leicester Square. It is scheduled for release in January

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