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Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Alchemist


David J Howe reports from the location of a new science-fiction thriller which investigates the murky world of corruption at a large pharmaceutical company.

Based on Peter James’ 1996 novel Alchemist, Red Rooster Film and Television Entertainment’s television adaptation went before the cameras at the end of 1998. The story, a tale of black magic and commercial intrigue, shot through with a vein of company paranoia, has been adapted for the screen by Laura Lamson, who also wrote the award-winning drama series The Men’s Room, and in the process has been re-worked, losing all of the black magic angle, and changing the ending.

During filming, I visited one of the locations for the shoot, a luxurious and well appointed artist’s studio flat, overlooking the river Thames in central London. This was being used as the apartment given to legal eagle Dan Simpson (played by Grant Show) by the mysterious pharmaceutical company Bentik-Lange. Also on set on this day were Ruth Gemmell playing biologist Julia Bannerman, veteran actor Edward Hardwick playing Doctor Bannerman, Julia’s father, and John Vine playing the evil head of security, Rowley.

The Alchemist’s director is the quietly-spoken and understated Peter Smith, who previously directed episodes of The Sweeney in the mid-seventies, The Price in 1985, Between the Lines in the early nineties and more recently episodes of Kavanagh QC. Smith came to this project simply by being suggested for it by his agent. ‘Presumably all the other directors they asked were too busy or not interested,’ he comments wryly.

‘I thought with questions of genetic engineering coming up every day in the newspapers, that this project was relevant to those concerns.’

Although James’ novel is a thriller shot through with black magic and horror, Smith seems keen to underplay the impact and importance of the effects angle, and when asked, responds by talking about the visual aspect of the locations and sets being used.

‘I’m not sure what the budget for the design department was, but I’m sure it was quite large. That was in order to build the interior of the futuristic pharmaceutical headquarters, and to make it as ultra-modern as it could be, as well as sterile and strange. There are buildings in Kuala Lumpur which were used as the basis for our building. We used the NatWest tower in London and panned down it and then treated the footage in the computer to change it into a different sort of building. We’ve tried to avoid shots of London, strangely enough, given that that’s where we’re filming. The Germans who put some money into the project didn’t really want to see red London buses or identifiable London landmarks. The feel of the production is modern and international. It could be set in Stuttgart or Bonn or anywhere, really. It’s not important where it is set.’

But what about the effects? For example, in the book there is a gripping sequence where a man – a worker at the pharmaceutical plant who has learned too much – is stripped down to the bone by a blast of powerfully corrosive acid…

‘Yes, a man is melted down in acid. The Germans saw the rushes of that sequence and were a bit worried. There was lots and lots of burning flesh. They were very worried, but what they saw had been taken by a second unit who had all day to do the effect. So they saw the unedited footage.

‘It’s a personal thing. I’ve always tried to make things reasonably realistic, although that’s a silly thing to say as if you see someone squashed by a car, you’re not going to make it totally realistic if you intend to shock someone, at least to the extent of engaging someone’s interest and stopping them going to make a cup of tea. You may not succeed but you try.’

I wondered if there were any other spectacular effects sequences, and Smith, again, seems almost laconic in talking down his production. ‘Not really. It’s a plot driven thing. There’s a car accident – someone drives into a lorry at 60 miles an hour and the car goes up in flames – but aside from standard things like that, there’s not really anything that stands out.’

So what about challenges. Surely there have been some challenges in bringing what is, after all, a complex thriller to the screen. What has been the most challenging part?

‘Today, actually, but you wouldn’t believe that as you’ve only been here for today. This is the first day that the producer hasn’t been here. She was so happy that she went away and … little does she know …’

Smith is referring to two occasions earlier when, for no discernible reason that I could see, one of the principals stopped working and started loudly complaining about something being wrong, and the entire crew – around 30 people – asked to leave the room being used for recording until the actor could be calmed down and persuaded by Smith to carry on.

‘It’s all quite challenging in a way …’ said Smith, once again being infuriatingly non-committal.

Changing tack, I wondered what Smith was most proud of in the production, and here, at last, was something he could enthuse about.

‘I’m not very good at answering questions directly,’ he apologised. ‘I’m a pessimist. Someone said to me once, “Do you know what the secret of film-making is? The secret of film making is to stop a disaster becoming a catastrophe.” And every day, something will be shot, but … and you’ve seen some of it today … things do go wrong. You’ve got something like 50 people working on the crew, if someone is sick … for example, one of the grips fell off the back of the van yesterday and twisted his ankle and isn’t with us today. That was a disaster yesterday because every shot moves and we needed him.’

This reference to every shot moving is something that I had noticed myself and wanted to raise. It certainly gave the actors problems, in that an entire scene is recorded in one continuous shot, with the single camera being wheeled along, panning and zooming to capture the action. There are no close-ups and few cut-aways. Why had this approach been adopted?

‘It was a collective stylistic decision. It has advantages. If you have a plot driven story, it works within that. It can be tricky, though. You can’t cut a scene in the middle and start again, and also you miss out something that’s very crucial, and that’s the close-ups of people. The actors get a little upset about that. It’s another concern for them. They have to face the way the camera wants them to face rather than what might feel right to them. Furthermore, the traditional structure of a scene is that you have a wide shot and then you have close-ups, and that’s how it’s happened since films were invented. In a way, it still is. Maybe like any art it reaches a plateau and doesn’t go any further than that. In cinema, people are desperate for you to go further. But it’s logical, you show what the scene is, what the setting is, and then you show the reactions on the artists’ faces. But if you do what we do, you do miss that because, for example, if someone is in shock, you see them in the background with shock on their faces.

‘With a plot driven story, however, there aren’t all that many crucial moments of people being in shock. It’s usually information that is being delivered – they’re talking about science for example – and you animate the scene by moving the camera. It’s interesting to see the background moving in relation to the people, and you choreograph the people to move in different directions. It’s tiring for everyone, especially the actors.’

Finally, I wondered if Smith had an overall feeling about the production. What was he trying to achieve? His reply was somewhat typical of this self-effacing man, who simply gets on with the job of creating television without trying to oversell what he is doing.

‘I don’t think there is any sense other than what the script is about. The concept of a company introducing and marketing a drug which carries a disease for which the company has the only cure, is feasible, although I’d hope that no-one is actually doing that at the moment. We know how things can become corrupt, however … and it’s possible, one imagines.’


Nobel prize-winning geneticist Dr Richard Bannerman (Edward Hardwick) reluctantly joins the pharmaceutical giant Bentik-Lange in order to continue his work. His daughter, Dr Julia Bannerman (Ruth Gemmell) is a strong supporter of her father’s work, and when she uncovers a link between a series of unexplained deaths of women during childbirth, and Bentik-Lange, she is forced to investigate further. In this she is helped by Dan Simpson, an American patent lawyer (Grant Show), who is working undercover to try and discover Bentik-Lange’s hidden secrets – a cover-up of shattering proportions.


Edward Hardwick is no stranger to the screen, having appeared as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes in ITV’s popular series of the detective’s adventures. He also appeared in Escape from Colditz in 1971, as well as the BBC’s 1970s series Colditz, and latterly featured in the acclaimed film Shadowlands, and in Red Rooster Television’s production Richard III in 1996.

Ruth Gemmell shot to fame in the film of Nick Hornby’s best-selling football novel Fever Pitch in 1996, but has also appeared in several notable television series, including Silent Witness, The Bill and the controversial series about vice girls, Band of Gold.

Grant Show is a popular American actor who made his name first as Officer Rick Hyde in the daytime serial Ryan’s Hope and then as biker Jake Hansen in the soap opera Melrose Place. Show has also appeared in several films including A Woman Her Men and Her Futon in 1992, Texas in 1994, and, in 1997, The Price of Heaven and Mother Knows Best.

John Vine is a veteran of many television series including the epic Knights of God, and appears in the forthcoming remake of Doomwatch.

David J Howe