The film was being shot, and I was in it

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The Independent Online
HERE'S a simple enquiry to which I do not expect an answer. One often sees in films, particularly television films, scenes set in imposing safe-houses, probably in the home counties, houses with long, winding drives and a place to park a very fast car or three. But do our security services actually possess such safe-houses? A lot of them? Only one or two of them? Do they possess a single solitary safe-house, or are these things to be found only in the world of film?

Here's another nagging question. Often on film a detective will drop in to a night- club, which is shown as a generously-proportioned place with tables and a bar and a piano and a beautiful singer beside the piano. The detective is shown to a table, the manager joins him, and a bottle arrives. And at the end of the song the singer, too, joins the detective, and a piece of information is given which advances the plot by one notch.

But does such a night-club exist? Did it ever exist? Does any singer make her way around the floor in the way these night-club singers do?

I asked a friend from Hollywood and he said: 'No, this is all the convention of films; if such a place did exist it would be a gay bar with a Casablanca theme, and the woman going around the tables would be a bloke.'

But another source tells me that Josephine Baker, in jazz- age Paris, did indeed join the clients at the tables, and that part of what the clients came for was to meet her, and that her contemporary, Bricktop, was known for her personality rather than her singing. So perhaps the convention contains the memory of a reality.

Christopher Isherwood pointed out that if Sally Bowles had been at all like Liza Minnelli was in Cabaret, the club at which she sang would have had a queue around the block. But now Berlin is doomed forever to try to provide a nightlife that will live up to the one made famous by film.

Another thing that exists on film but not in history is the Wild West town. For a start, the men were unshaven and wore long hair. Also these towns were mud heaps. It is highly unlikely that any of the women wore those pretty gingham frocks of 1950s films. Finally, far more of the cowboys were black than Hollywood has ever liked to admit.

And that brings us on to slavery and the South. The mismatch here between film and fact derives from the idea that the oppression of the slaves nevertheless produced a gracious, cultured lifestyle for the rich white owners with their white, porticoed mansions and their white-dressed southern belles.

In fact, less than 1 per cent of slaveholding families in either the 18th or the 19th centuries fitted into anything like this stereotype.

A typical owner's house would have been a small, square log cabin, possibly without windows, very likely without any glass, surrounded by a yard with a few China trees and a couple of Cherokee roses, with turkeys and chickens, dogs and babies all sharing the same space as the pet pig.

In other words, the vast majority of the slave-owners lived in a kind of squalor unknown to the film-makers, and unknown, no doubt, to the writers of steamy Southern romantic novels.

Film establishes an idea in our minds - the swanky, mysterious safe-house, the spacious night-club with the singer who joins us at our table, the wholesome version of the Wild West, the much-to-be-mourned South - which history is too feeble to dislodge, or reality to replace.

In film, it was always convention that you started the car without so much as turning the key in the ignition, that you always found a parking space outside your destination, that you lived in gigantic interiors (convenient for film crews to manoeuvre), very often penthouses with views of the vast, twinkling, city below.

And there in those penthouses you had sex, exorbitant amounts of it, accomplished with astonishing skill by both parties. Or, if not sex, maybe you were murdered. At the very least you would have a body. So that if you inhabited that filmic reality, you might say to yourself, as you came home from the night- club: 'Hmm, it's Thursday, I wonder what I'll find back at the penthouse - will it be sex, or the feet sticking out beyond the settee, or will it be the ligature around the neck as I turn to switch on the lights?'

I once had the honour to step into the experience of filmic reality. It was on my first trip to Jerusalem and I was staying at the American Colony Hotel in the Arab section.

The American Colony, staffed by Palestinians and managed by Swiss, in an old pasha's palace, is one of the most pleasant hotels in the world and much favoured by journalists.

I was a little nervous, it being my first trip, of stepping outside this civilised den, and as I set off on my first walk I paid particular attention to left and right turns and the sequence of markers on my route. A sign at the end of the cul-de-sac in which the hotel stands, pointed to the American Colony Hotel. (A name, incidentally, which does not refer to the state of Israel, but rather to a group of ex- patriates who found a happy life there many years ago.) Much later, as I retraced my steps, I came to the turning- point at which I expected to find the hotel sign. But it was gone. What seemed to be a new sign pointed to 'The Cedars of Lebanon'. A car- bomb had exploded outside the hotel entrance, and the souvenir shop was a wreck.

There were many soldiers around, and it took me some moments of consternation to realise that a film was being shot, that in this film there were guns and bombs, and that the Israeli army were therefore in close supervision. For every actor with a gun there was a real soldier with a loaded weapon.

Inside the hotel there were similar duplications: there were real waiters and waiters of filmic reality. There were real cameramen filming filmic cameramen, real hacks and actors impersonating hacks. Once you got the hang of it, it ceased to be alarming. We were in filmic Beirut.

I sat down in the courtyard to watch the filming of that noble scene: the hard-boiled hack coming down to breakfast. At the next table drank the producer, a man - it seemed - grasping at straws, for when I told him what I did for a living he said: 'My God, this film is about you]' Having never set foot in Beirut, I demurred. But to no avail. I must, I absolutely must, meet the star. I must talk his part through with him. A meeting was fixed.

I was embarrassed. But as luck would have it I bumped into the star a short while before the meeting, and was able to 'share my problem' with him. And so we had a little meeting in the bar. And the theme of this meeting was abstruse. We discussed how, when we met again, an hour later, in the same bar, I would play 'me' meeting him for the first time, and he would play him meeting 'me' - the me, that is, of filmic reality, the safe-house, night-club, Beirut-bopping, South-will-never-rise-again me.