It’s December 1997 and David Howe travels deep into the Surrey countryside in search of a film crew currently working on the television adaptation of novelist Stephen Gallagher’s 1988 novel Oktober.
The car I’m travelling in jolts and bumps over potholes as we pass through what appears to be the middle of a Bavarian pine forest, although we are in fact just outside the M25 in Surrey. The muddy track is grooved and scarred by the passage of many vehicles, and the light drizzle speckles the mud-splattered windshield as we move deeper into the woods. Small white arrows are pinned to jauntily-angled wooden stakes along the way. Some say ‘UNIT’, others ‘OKTOBER’. We are on the right track.
Suddenly the leafy canopy breaks and we emerge into an open area in which an unfeasible number of cars, jeeps and land rovers are parked. Across the makeshift car park is a line of caravans and generators, and, off in the distance, bright lights can be seen shining across a lake.
Leaving the warmth and dryness of the car behind, I trudge across some of the muddiest ground I have ever encountered (the suggestion to ‘wear boots’ was never more appreciated) and head towards the lake, where a small wooden house is surrounded by technicians scurrying to and fro, setting up lights and cameras and generally preparing for the evening’s filming.
Seemingly unperturbed by all this frenzied activity is my host for the shoot, Stephen Gallagher himself. Not only did he write the novel on which the television show is based, but he also wrote the screenplay and is directing. As dusk starts to fall, I manage to grab Steve for some pictures with a soon-to-be-crashed Mercedes before retiring to the warmth of a crew bus to find out how Oktober came about and how it has all been going.
‘It’s been good,’ smiled Steve. ‘It’s been one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had. It’s also been extremely wearying and exhausting and in one or two places quite harrowing as well.’ Steve is being modest. He and his crew are currently on the sixth week of a seven week shoot. The end result will be three, hour long episodes of a dramatic thriller with science fiction undertones, starring Stephen Tompkinson of Ballykissangel and Drop The Dead Donkey fame.
‘We have 42 days altogether,’ confirms Steve, ‘and I’ve got three second unit days with a reduced unit of around six people that’ll take it back to France to do some ski sequences that we just weren’t able to get while we were over there.’
The filming in France seems to have been fraught with problems, not least because the French truck drivers decided to go on strike the week they were due to travel out. Ultimately, however, this turned out to be the least of their problems. ‘We had a week spent in Geneva and [Chamonie] in France where we spent three days on top of the [edwee de midi] near Mont Blank which is 4,000 metres up. A lot of the crew suffered badly from the lack of oxygen and we had people dropping out left right and centre. The unit nurse was loading them onto the cable car and sending them down. At least one guy was hospitalised. I felt like Erik von Stronheim having led them up there. There were only three of us that weren’t affected. Luckily the three were the cameraman, Stephen Tompkinson and myself.
‘It was a frightening time. There was the lack of oxygen … the cable car journey was quite scary to some people … the claustrophobia once we got up there … There was an element of nervousness which communicated itself when the first couple of people fell ill. I mean everyone really hung in there and tried to do the best they could. It was a really tough time. On the second day we took up the mountain everybody we thought was OK from the first day. The first day we lost something like eleven people which meant that my storyboards went out the window and I had to rethink everything. “What can I get on film to tell the story with those people I’ve got left?” On the second day we lost a further eight people. Even the nurse was having to take oxygen by the end of it.’
Oktober is the story of one Jim Harper, who finds himself on the run from a large multinational organisation as his body is host to one of their experiments, and they want him back. Gallagher first started writing the novel in 1983 and it wasn’t published until 1988. Like many authors, Gallagher’s work has variously been optioned for film and television adaptation, but unlike others, Gallagher seems to be hitting projects which actually happen.
The road to getting Oktober on screen was complex and involved, as Gallagher explains. ‘What happened was that about two years ago I was approached by a script editor at the BBC to ask if I had any ideas for series for BBC 2. They wanted an open-ended, long-running series. A sort of contemporary thriller but with a weird edge to it. Although the words “British X-Files” were never used, you could tell that this was what they were really after.
‘Now we back-track a little. Around 1990, a producer called Ian Smith had optioned Oktober, two years after it had been published, and Mike Newell was going to direct it. I had numerous meetings with Mike, I very much enjoyed the contact, but at the end of the day, the funding wasn’t there and we went our separate ways. Ian went on to be production manager on City Of Joy, and I think the last thing he was production manager on was The Fifth Element, for Luc Bessant, while Mike went on to do Four Weddings And A Funeral! As for me, I went back to my little office and carried on writing novels. However, as a result of this, I had some half developed ideas of what I would do with Oktober for the screen. Therefore when BBC-2 asked about ideas for new series, I wrote them a little presentation about Oktober and asked them what they thought.
‘They got quite excited about it and within two weeks, it had shot up through the entire strata of the BBC, and arrived on the desk of Michael Jackson, the controller of BBC-2, who would give me an answer by Thursday. Thursday came and went, and the next Thursday came and went. And a full six months went by with no response or contact whatsoever and there’s nothing more frustrating and annoying than that. Those lower down the ladder were all quite gung-ho to get this in motion, the idea being that we would adapt the book, and then at the end of the story those characters who were left alive would move on into other stories involving corporate misdeeds or whatever. Time passed, and all these people moved onto other projects and the impetus that had been built up was lost. I have not to this day had any response from controller level at the BBC on Oktober. Well … we’ve shot the thing now. I’ll probably get a call next week asking to go in and talk about it.
‘Given that no-one at the BBC had actually paid me anything, and also that I’d got the thing up and running and still had a certain head of steam about it, I decided to take it elsewhere. And the only other game in town is really ITV.
‘It just so happened that Nick Elliot, who was Head of series and serials at the BBC, had just left the Corporation and had joined the ITV network centre. Virtually the last thing he saw as he was leaving the BBC was the last Bugs script that I did for them, and virtually the first thing he saw when he arrived at ITV was a letter from me talking about Oktober. He knew my work and so wrote to me asking if I’d come and talk about it, let them see some material and they’d see what they thought. Initially, I thought that was all going to go nowhere as it all seemed a little luke warm, however, Elliot’s assistant, a lady called Jenny Reece, really championed the project. She read it and bent Nick’s ear about it and eventually, they suggested I try and get a producer involved in order to pay for a script to be developed. I didn’t tell them this, but I would happily have done a script for nothing in order to advance the project further. So I went to Brian Eastman with whom I’d been working on Bugs. I explained to him that I had this thing up and running with ITV but I couldn’t do it on my own, so was he interested in coming on board. He read the material – he’d never read the book as it turned out – and he optioned it on the basis of the outline and knowing what I wanted to do.
‘It was around that time that I basically attached myself to the project more directly. At the BBC, there’d never been any inkling that I’d be directing it, but when I took it across to ITV, I did so on the basis that I would both write and direct it, and waited for someone to challenge that view, but no-one ever did.
‘So I had a script and a producer, but we still weren’t home and dry because ITV started this little dance, saying that they really liked it, but they had seven projects they liked but only three slots in which to place them. It was Brian who suggested coming up with some ideas for casting, as if we could attach some names to it, then we might be able to swing the balance with ITV in our favour. I’d wanted Stephen Tompkinson for the part of Joe Lucas in Rain when that was in development for the BBC but whenever I’d suggested him, everyone looked at Drop The Dead Donkey and thought “Light Entertainment”: how can you cast him in a thriller? It was only when he did Brassed Off and showed that there was a dark side to him as well, that people started to take my suggestion seriously. Steve was the very first actor I suggested for the part of Jim Harper in Oktober, he’s the only one I put forward. He was the first and only actor we showed it to: I had lunch with him and his agent and he came along thinking he was just up for the part and had to pitch for it. We were there just hoping he’d like it. We got on like a house on fire and he really liked the material and we just took it forward from there.
‘Within two weeks of attaching Stephen’s name to the project we received the go-ahead from ITV. They claim that this was coincidence, and that Stephen being attached to the project had nothing to do with their decision, but I have my doubts.’
Over this extended period of development, the basic requirement for the production kept changing, and each time the scripts needed adjusting to take these things into account. ‘One of the difficulties with Oktober was that the brief I kept getting back from the potential producers kept changing,’ explained Gallagher. ‘First it was going to be four, one hour episodes, and then they wanted it to be three hours long in two 90 minute parts. Then it finally settled down as three one hour parts and the structure had to change quite a bit to accommodate all those alterations.
‘The two 90 minute ones were quite exciting because the climaxes from the original story fell in the most natural places. When we went to three one hour episodes they wanted the climax of the first part to fall in the same place as that between the 90 minute episodes, which meant that I had to do a bit of radical restructuring and re-plotting a bit later on. I don’t think I’ve been in any way unfaithful to the original book, although I’ve changed a lot of incident and dialogue, but, let’s face it, it’s several years on from when I did the original book. I don’t feel I need to slavishly do the same thing again. I confident that I’ve taken all the same impulses and have told the story with pictures instead of words.’
Steve Gallagher is primarily a writer, used to telling his stories with words, and creating pictures in his readers’ minds. How has he found the switch from writer to director, especially as Oktober has been his first experience of directing.
‘What I’ve found the hardest is going right in at the deep end. I’m surrounded by people with lots of technical knowledge, but I don’t have the terminology with which to put my ideas over. I’ve been learning new terms, words and approaches from the very start. On Day One I found out what a ‘dirty single’ was. This is the term for an over the shoulder shot where you have a close up of somebody, but someone else’s’ shoulder is just fringing the shot. In the old days, such an image was unthinkable, you just couldn’t do it, but modern camera techniques allow you that flexibility and it’s also considered acceptable. Every day I’m discovering new ideas and techniques, and different ways that I can tell my story on screen. It’s very exiting.
‘Despite my initial problems with communication, every day I start out with a long list of shots that I want to get and I strike them off the list as I do them. I look at the rushes at the end of each day and, one way or another, what I intended to get has been what I actually did get. So somehow the crew are managing to pick my brains as I stumble inarticulately through what I want to achieve and they’re giving me pretty much what I want.
‘In some cases, I’m seeing something in the rushes that’s better than I’d hoped or expected, and in other cases there are things that just didn’t work out. We’re running over anyway, and so I suspect that some scenes will be cut and others will be treated in a different editorial manner. I’ve even been able to go back and re-shoot some material even though we are on an enormously tight schedule.
‘I was told by the first assistant director after the first week of shooting that whatever I do after this, I’ll never do anything as hard as this. I suppose it really has been a case of jumping in at the deep end and has been something of a baptism of fire. Stephen Tompkinson has been wonderful for me in that respect because not only is he an extremely good actor, he’s also technically competent and very generous. When you get those three things together in one actor, you’re smiling. Stephen is right at the centre of the production and his presence on screen really holds the whole thing together. The strength that he brings to the part is of great benefit to me because I don’t have to worry about the central performance, which is very much critical to the overall success of the production.’
With much of the filming complete, how has Gallagher found directing the necessary action sequences, including what is to happen at the cabin today.
‘We started as we meant to go on,’ he laughs. ‘In the first week down at Woolwich we had a 100 foot stunt dive off the top of a building. We then moved down to Broadstairs for the second week and drowned a Volkswagen in the sea, right up to its doors. All our actors, cameramen and even the camera were kitted out in wetsuits and everyone was in the freezing sea up to their armpits. I was pleased with that material as we managed to achieve very good production values and it’s all there on the screen. It all went a bit quiet after that until we were 4000 metres up and everyone was being stretchered down off the mountain suffering from oxygen deprivation. We’ve had a couple of extremely good looking fight scenes that were superbly choreographed and executed. One of them was in a dissection room that we built out in Wembley, and the other was a big set-piece fight which comes just before the finale of episode three, and that was shot in the dog-pen set which we built down in Camden, so those were quite big sequences.’
Outside in the growing dusk, the drizzle has eased off leaving it simply cold and muddy. A tea wagon steams to itself in the background and people make frequent trips to obtain polystyrene beakers of hot liquid, partly to drink, but mostly to warm the hands.
Inside the cabin, preparations are nearing completion for one of the main sequences, in which a car is driven into the cabin, smashing through the wall. Stephen Tompkinson and Maria Lennon playing Jim Harper and his friend Linda disable the driver and then drive off in the car, just before the cabin catches fire.
‘Today is probably the biggest and most complex sequence of the entire shoot,’ explains Stephen. ‘It depends on a combination of a number of skills. We’ve got three cameras rolling on it, we’ve got the stunt driver, we’ve got the riggers who have rigged the house to break away, there are pyrotechnics as well. This is just a gravel area by a lake and the cabin doesn’t exist.’
I look across to where it is standing: large as life. A wooden cabin containing two comfortably furnished rooms and a blazing log fire in the hearth. Certainly it is somewhere warmer than the December night that is drawing in outside. ‘Three days ago we started shooting here, and three days before that, the house wasn’t there,’ insists Stephen. ‘The production designer bought a job lot of old floorboards and built the place from scratch. He apparently based it on a houseboat that he stayed in on a lake in India. Everyone who walked into it on the first day said that it was lovely and that they could live there. Of course you wouldn’t want to live there because it would be cold and damp and filthy, but it really caught people’s hearts at that moment.
‘Because Oktober is all about archetypes and shared nightmares and the things that we all have in common in our subconscious minds, what I’m trying to do is hit as many of those unconscious pedals that are common to us all as possible. The comfort and safety of the cabin was one of these pedals and obviously I hit it with the production designer and everyone else on the unit as well because they all responded in exactly the same way to it.’
At that moment, Stephen is summoned away to supervise the sequence of filming that will culminate with the total destruction of the cabin. I watch as he puts Tompkinson and Lennon through their paces. The car revs up, and drives straight into the side wall of the cabin. Glass appears to break, wood smashes, and everyone rushes to ensure that there are no problems. There are not.
There follow more scenes inside the cabin as our heroes overpower the driver, jump in the car and reverse out of the cabin. As darkness really takes grip, preparations are made to ignite the place. The pyrotechnics are set, and the flames start. Stephen is not happy, though. It doesn’t look right, it isn’t his shot. Suddenly, the cabin itself catches – this was always a possibility – and the fire starts to burn out of control. The cameras keep rolling, Steve smiles broadly. He now has his shot, and the burning cabin is merrily warming the crew clustered around.
Another impressive sequence is in the can for Oktober, what looks like an impressive debut for Gallagher, and a thrilling television production for the spring of 1998 on ITV.
OKTOBER – THE PLOT
Jim Harper doesn’t know it but he’s a walking experiment. One minute he was a lovelorn teacher at a school in Switzerland, the next he’s escaping from the secret Alpine laboratory of a multi-national pharmaceutical company, with a security division larger than most governments’. They hunt him ruthlessly, for his body contains their secret enzyme which could make illegal millions for the company – and can turn him into a weapon of enormous potential. Fleeing to England, and with no-one to trust but his beautiful companion Linda, Jim has to discover what the Oktober project is and how it can be stopped. If he fails, the prospects for the world are truly terrifying.
PETER DIAMOND – STUNT CO-ORDINATOR
Peter Diamond has been working as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator in film and television for many, many years. He is one of the most experienced and accomplished at his art, and was brought onto Oktober by the first assistant, Roger Symons. ‘I’ve worked with Roger on several other things,’ explained Diamond, ‘and he got in touch with me and asked if I wanted to be the stunt gaffer on this. Luckily, another show that is quite busy for me is Hart Beat, and this was going through a quiet patch, which allowed me to fit Oktober in.
‘I met with Stephen Gallagher, who explained exactly what he wanted and then asked me how we could achieve it – which is what they hired me for. What I try and do is interpret Stephen’s ideas onto film, and it seems to be working very well.’
The stunt today involves driving a car through the wall of a cabin. How does Peter start to plan such an effect. ‘First of all you have to try and analyse the danger and then eradicate it. That’s the important thing about stunt work: we’re all in the make-believe business and you have to try and not get hurt, because if you get hurt, then the business suffers.
The most difficult aspect was that they had already filmed some scenes with the car after the crash was supposed to have happened, and so I had to try and maintain continuity with that. We had to make sure that the car didn’t get damaged and thus mess up your continuity. So the biggest problem I had was not to break the windscreen – which is usually the first thing to go on a car smash – or the headlights. We very carefully placed everything in the cabin in a good position so it would look effective on camera but in fact, would not damage the important parts of the car.
‘You can’t control exactly where everything is going to smash, but from experience – which I hope I have enough of – you can visualise where everything is most likely to go. We had a cable tied to the back of the car to slow it down once the crash happened and the reason for this was that inside the cabin there was a table made of real wood. If that had caught under the tyres, it could have been thrown off line and gone up into the radiator, the engine, anything.
‘We needed to slow the car down to ensure that it was safe. Supposing something had come through the windscreen or the side window and had knocked the driver unconscious. The car would still be running and it could have ploughed on through the cameras and everything. As a stunt co-ordinator you have to try and anticipate anything and everything. People don’t realise the work that goes into it because everything looks simple and effective on screen, but you have to think of everything.
‘The car would have reached only around 20 or 25 miles an hour when it hit the cabin, but it still did quite a lot of damage. Of course they’ll enhance the crash with sound, smashing glass and tyre squealing and so on so it’ll look far more dramatic on screen.’
JOHN RAFIQUE – SPECIAL EFFECTS
In charge of the Special Effects team on Oktober is John Rafique, from Elements Specialist Design. The company has only been in existence for a few months, after John and some others set it up after working at other effects houses and wanting to strike out on their own. Shows they’ve been involved with include a children’s television series called Chucklevision – ‘a sort of knockabout show, very cheap and cheerful, with jokey props and slapstick’ – and they also worked on a Christmas television commercial for Boots, the Chemist.
For Oktober, the effects required ranged from relatively simple bullet hits up to a complex prop used to hold a dog. ‘In the storyline these dogs are penned up in cages,’ explained John, ‘and there is one cage where the dog has been fitted with medical drips and other apparatus. They wanted a special cage to keep this dog in where he would be happy and we arranged all the drip-lines so they ran to a special collar. The creation of an effect like this involves a lot of co-ordination between us and the dog handler to make sure that everything was right. For example, the production designer had specified that the floor of the cage should be made from perforated steel, and we had to check that what we wanted to use would be okay for the dog to walk on. We had to make sure of the collar size for the dog, and just about everything else to make sure that there would be no problems come the filming. We then had to prepare the cage a week early so that the dog handler could take it away to their house where the dog is most comfortable and get it used to going in the cage so that by the time we were on set all was well.
‘All these considerations had to be factored into our timescales and this was actually a bit of a problem as the effects requirements expanded, and there was considerably more than we originally planned for. As a result we lost six days from the timescale in producing the cage. We managed it but only because the dog fell ill and couldn’t look at the cage when it was originally planned. That gave us an extra couple of days to get it all finished off.
‘The most challenging effect has probably been the cabin and the car. The designer came to us and said that they wanted to see the car going through the wall of the cabin and the fire coming afterwards. So between us, the designer Julian Fullalove, Stephen Gallagher and Peter Diamond we had to figure out a way of doing this. We generally come up with the ideas and the others then tell us if there are any snags, like blocking camera angles, particular safety considerations and so on.
‘The problem was to stop the car from moving once it had crashed into the cabin and what we used was quite a simple method: weights on the back of the car. We would normally use a large piston but were unable to do so on this shoot because of the area we’re filming in. The piston has a small air hole and it’s the air pressure that lets the piston out at a steady rate, thus slowing the car down and preventing it from running out of control. That method is used because it’s infinitely variable: you can change the size of the air escape hole depending on the weight of the car involved and whatever speed it will be doing. In this environment, however, it’s too dirty to use a piston and so we used plastic bins with sandbags in instead. The car’s exhaust had to be strengthened to withstand the pull of the car, but that’s the only modification that was made.
STEPHEN TOMPKINSON – ACTOR
Actor Stephen Tompkinson is on a bit of a roll at the moment. Perhaps best known for his role as Damian, the investigative reporter in Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s Drop the Dead Donkey and as the priest Peter Clifford in Kieran Prenderville’s Ballykissangel, Tompkinson was chosen for the part of Jim Harper in Oktober by director Stephen Gallagher based on a firm belief that he was right for the part.
‘This has been brilliant,’ enthuses the actor whilst relaxing after another gruelling day in front of the camera. ‘It’s such a departure from anything I’ve done before. Steve Gallagher saw this dark element in me which was fair enough. This is non-stop action this thriller. It’s got chase sequences in it that would put James Bond to shame!
‘This has been a hard shoot. As far as preparation went, I’ve lost a stone and have been keeping myself quite fit. The character is really all there on the page, the writing’s that good. I couldn’t wait to turn the pages of the script when I first saw it. I couldn’t believe I was being offered it, actually. It was great.
‘The appeal of the character came out of the fact that the story is very much like The Thirty-Nine Steps or North by Northwest in that everything happens to an ordinary fellow. How do you cope with it, when you’re dealing with a multinational company who are well capable in their way of just torching you rather than let you tell tales? What do you do? Who do you trust? Friends turn out to be enemies. There’s nowhere to hide.’
As the plot proceeds it becomes apparent that Harper has been given a very special sort of drug, and that certain people will stop at nothing to ensure that he does not live to tell the world about the experiments that have been carried out on him.
‘The idea behind the drug,’ explains Tompkinson, ‘is that were you to think of your loveliest and happiest thoughts and you did this in front of an audience, then they would all experience the same thing. But likewise, if you wanted to release all your darkest demons then they would experience that as well. That’s what “the company” hadn’t thought out. My character can actually put his pain onto anyone and slay them with pure emotion and feeling. It’s a fantastic idea, and there’s nothing else like this being made at the moment in this country. I’m very proud of ITV for actually getting the script to put on. It’s not like the inside of a hospital ward or a police station, or even the rural loveliness of Heartbeat or Ballykissangel. Oktober is completely raw and yet its only three episodes long. I would love it if they showed it on three consecutive nights as the plot rolls along so fast that you really get hooked by it. Steve has a beautiful economy of words and I think that the show could stay in the viewing public’s memory as, for example, Edge Of Darkness, or something like that. It really has that enduring quality. It’s a really immediate story and you care about this person because he is an innocent, and yet suddenly becomes worth 50 billion dollars on legs and it’s easier to kill him than to risk the secrets he carries being made public knowledge.’
Despite appearing in numerous shows since leaving drama school in 1987, including Chancer, Minder, The Manageress and Brassed Off, (in fact Tompkinson is proud that, since 1987, he has only been unemployed for three and a half weeks, when he went to Australia to watch the cricket) Oktober is the first time that he has really achieved ‘star billing’.
‘The other shows are real ensemble pieces, but this is the first time I’ve carried the story,’ he explains. ‘It’s not a pressure, it’s great. It’s what any actor always wants. You train for three years doing all sorts of things. I’ve worked in all manner of supporting roles since 1987 and now suddenly I’m starring. It’s as though I’ve earned my stripes.
‘What’s great is the variety. Variety is what I’ve craved. Actors are an odd breed. You’re never happy when you’re unemployed, but as soon as work comes along you worry about getting typecast. For example, when playing Damian I felt that maybe I was going to be comedic for the rest of my life, but then I won the comedy award for best actor, and then Ballykissangel happened which was poles apart from Damian, and then Brassed Off, and now this. The common link is really the strength of the scripts. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in great scripts.’