Thus opens The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, the last in the BBC's occasional series of Marple adaptations, which goes out next Sunday. It shows how important cars are in evoking a bygone age. No amount of whiskers and corsets or 'thees' and 'thous' is enough if the vehicles are wrong. Big Car-Buff Is Watching You; not only do you have to get the right model, colour, and number plate, you also have to get the right engine noise.
Paul Hardiman, production editor of Classic and Sportscar magazine, snorts at the number of films in which a classic Ferrari with a V12 roars off to the sound of a V8 engine. 'The worry is, if they've got that wrong, how many other things, that you don't necessarily know about, have they also got wrong.' (He singles out Bullitt for its accuracy: 'You can actually hear Steve McQueen double-declutching his green 289 Mustang Fastback.')
Fake engine noise pales, however, beside what he reckons was the most heinous error: Steve McQueen's use of a British motorbike sprayed up to look like a German BMW for the famous vault over the barbed-wire border scene in The Great Escape. Hardiman also noticed that Inspector Morse once referred to a B-Type Jag - which doesn't exist. But he is alive to the perils of this sort of pedantry: 'people who complain are very quickly dubbed train-spotters.'
Hardiman also concedes that producers have become a lot more careful about authenticity. 'I'd like to think it was under pressure from disgruntled viewers.' But men like John Geary have certainly helped. Geary runs Motor House Hire, a company in Olney, Buckinghamshire which specialises in providing period vehicles for films. 'Everyone is an expert with the freeze- frame button on the video these days,' Geary says. 'You just can't have the attitude of 'that'll do'. Films take great care with script and costumes; it's important that we keep up our side.'
In the past 17 years, Geary has furnished cars for countless period productions - Brideshead Revisited, Howards End, House of Eliott, The Mirror Crack'd and the next Merchant-Ivory film, The Remains of the Day. He insists on seeing the script months ahead so he can 'put cars to characters'.
His research, naturally, is meticulous. For The Remains of the Day, he took a magnifying-glass to a photograph of a Devon street taken in the late 1950s and discovered that more than half the 20-odd cars there were pre-War. 'When we did the film, we had exactly the same mixture.' An episode of House of Eliott set in Paris required a very rare Hispano-Suiza. Having finally convinced the owner it was safe to hire it out, Geary had to re-upholster the back seat of the car with bruised - 'not brushed' - velvet.
But you don't just need a keen eye for detail in the vintage business; you also have to treat your cars as stars. The leading cars are much like their human counterparts. No young pretenders from the chorus line must overshadow them. So in The Mirror Crack'd, for every Cadillac convertible or Jaguar XK150S in the foreground of the shot, there will be a fleet of (mostly black) Fords and Austins in the rear. All expensive, ageing stars have to be mollycoddled. Owners - the over-protective Hollywood agents - invariably accompany their charges on set.
George Gallaccio, producer of The Mirror Crack'd and the new Inspector Alleyn adaptations, remembers one shoot of a street scene when 11 period cars turned up, each with its own entourage, its gang of groupies. The hardest part of Gallaccio's job was persuading the owners to allow him to dirty their precious vehicles. For the sake of authenticity, they couldn't all look as though they were fresh out of the showroom. According to Gallaccio, these star cars can command fees of pounds 1,000 a day.
They don't get themselves to the set: often they insist on being transported by trailer. Once there, they are never involved in anything as demeaning as a crash or a chase. (One car in House of Eliott was insured for pounds 500,000.)
Running someone over, which does awful things to the suspension, can be achieved by performing the accident in reverse and then running the film backwards. Skilful use of cutaways and sound also help. On Tender is the Night, Geary recalls simulating a crash in a forest by the simple method of cutting off the roots of the trees for the car to hurtle into. Such moments bring to mind an exchange in Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. The Director: 'Children can be such a nuisance on set - like dogs.' Actress: 'And cars.'
As for period car-chases, 'they look rather silly, for the simple reason that they don't go very fast,' says Gallaccio. On A Pocketful of Rye, a previous Miss Marple film, he mocked up a chase between a police Wolseley and the baddie's Rolls-Royce by placing a number of impediments in their way. Only in period films do quite so many tractors back into country lanes.
John Geary spends a lot of time tutoring actors in the art of driving period vehicles (in very old cars the accelerator pedal is in the middle). But sometimes learner luvvies fail the test, and Geary drives himself.
In these straitened times, lavish period drama filled with Cadillacs and Jags may seem an extravagance. But it would be a shame if they stopped being made altogether. We do them well. And it is important to keep train-spotters on their toes.
'The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side': BBC1 next Sun, 8.05-10pm.
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