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A Private History of a Campaign that Failed


The Great Amwell Company's Mark Twain series: Life on the Mississippi
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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The period between 1978 and 1984 I worked a lot in the States. And the next thing I did is I got a job of doing a whole series of Mark Twain films, which were made for public television. And some of them are made on 16 mm, most of them are made on 16 mm, but two of them, if I remember rightly, two of them were on 35 and the others were on 16. And they had a wonderful production team, which was called the Great Amwell Company. Now, Great Amwell happens to be a village in Essex and it turned out that this name was chosen because the woman member of the production team, Jane Iredale is... The partner, Bill Perry, who produced the films, the series, and his partner is Jane Iredale, whose parents lived in Great Amwell, which is not far from where I used to live, in Suffolk. Anyway, that's how it's... that's why it's called the Great Amwell Company. And I made six... five or six Mark Twain... five, I think it is five Mark Twain movies with them. Mostly in America but in one case, in Europe, in Austria.

The first of those was Life on the Mississippi. We were based in Peoria and we were using the Illinois River to represent the Mississippi, because the Mississippi is unusable for a period film, it's too built-up. But there were stretches of the Illinois River, not far from Peoria which has one of... Peoria is one of those names in the movie industry, and they say, 'If they don't like it in Peoria, forget it, or, they'll never understand it in Peoria'. Anyway, we were based in Peoria and we were filming along this same stretch of the Mississippi... of the Illinois River standing in for the Mississippi; very nice shoot, very comfortable. And I had my usual American crew, which varied just a little bit, but there's a whole series of people who worked with me more than once. Just like I had George here on the Greek films, I had Tom Houghton. Tom Hoppe, Tom Houghton they were the two Toms who did many of... several of the American films with me. We became a little family. And, the Great Amwell Company, again, was a company where there was a family atmosphere. There was never any undue pressure, and the director was a very nice and very professional, a bit like Fielder, whose name is Peter Hunt, and there are, in fact, three Peter Hunt's, so he's known as Peter H Hunt. A very funny thing happened, not so funny for the person concerned, but one of the three Peter Hunts died and the other two got condolence notices, or their wives, rather. Anyway.

So, Peter Hunt was a very nice person to work with, very professional. So we spent a happy couple of months cruising up and down the Illinois River. There's a very nice sunset sequence there. I used my... I had my Bolex with me and there are some... even on a film of that sort, the Bolex proved to be quite handy. Once or twice I sent my chief grip, actually, I sent him off with the Bolex and he took the long shots of the ship, just to save time, because the schedule wasn't that generous. So the Bolex can come in handy even for quite professional filming, even today. The main camera was an Arri SR.

At one point I got a bit tired of this daily journey which we had from Peoria to... mostly we got onto the boat at Henry, Illinois and we had a converted... we found an old paddle steamer, which was called the Julia Bell Swain, I seem to remember. And this was converted to play two paddle steamers, the Paul Jones and the Alec Scott. In different parts of the movie there are these two boats which are actually the same boat. And, then we had ancillary boats and rafts and all that kind of thing. It was a very nice shoot. But at one time... at one point I got a bit of tired of doing this half-hour journey from Peoria to Henry, Illinois, where we got onto the boat, and I found in Henry, Illinois there was a little hotel called The Hotel Henry, and I said, 'I'm going to move into the Hotel Henry, then I can just walk to work every morning'. And it had a perfectly adequate restaurant where the wife of the owner did the cooking, and it was perfectly okay. So I was quite happy at the Hotel Henry, which had certain peculiarities, one of which was that there wasn't any cold water. We were shooting in summer, and I couldn't understand it at first, but the... both the taps in the bathroom gave hot water, produced hot water, and even the loo, flushing the loo, it was hot water. And I discovered the reason later. They said, 'All the pipes ran across the roof, and they just heated up'. So if you wanted cold water you would have to let it run and run and run, before it became cold.

And then at one point, towards the end of the shoot, there were a few thundershowers, and I looked at the ceiling in my bedroom and it started to sag more and more, which is a false ceiling. And I thought, this doesn't look very good, I think I may have to move out. And eventually, of course, it did burst, the ceiling did burst and the room was flooded, but by that time I'd already moved out, because I could see it coming.

The other thing that I remember about my sojourn in Henry, Illinois is that, at the age of 53, or whatever I was at that point, that produced my first visit to a laundrette, because I've always been lucky enough to have somebody or other to do my laundry for me. And I visited a laundrette for the first time in my life, at the age of 53 or 54, or whatever it was. Some very amazed local housewives had to show me how you go about this, where you found the washing powder, where you put the coins in, that sort of thing. But that was a very pleasant shoot. Then that was followed immediately by... well, not immediately, but in subsequent years, I did four more films.

Born in Germany, cinematographer Walter Lassally (1926-2017) was best known for his Oscar-winning work on 'Zorba the Greek'. He was greatly respected in the film industry for his ability to take the best of his work in one area and apply it to another, from mainstream to international art films to documentary. He was associated with the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, and the British New Wave in the early 1960s. In 1987 he published his autobiography called 'Itinerant Cameraman'.

Listeners: Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen is a Canadian who came to Europe to study and never got round to heading back home. He did his undergraduate work at Carleton University (in Biology) in Ottawa, and then did graduate work at the University of Western Ontario (in Zoology). After completing his doctorate at Oxford (in the Department of Zoology), followed with a year of postdoc at the University of London, he moved to the University's newly-established Audio-Visual Centre (under the direction of Michael Clarke) where he spent four years in production (of primarily science programs) and began to teach film. In 1974 Bowden became Director of the new Audio-Visual Centre at the University of Warwick, which was then in the process of introducing film studies into the curriculum and where his interest in the academic study of film was promoted and encouraged by scholars such as Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, and Richard Dyer. In 1983, his partner and he moved to Greece, and the following year he began to teach for the University of Maryland (European Division), for which he has taught (and continues to teach) biology and film courses in Crete, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

Tags: Great Amwell Company, Peoria, Mark Twain, Bill Perry, Jane Iredale, Tom Houghton, Peter Hunt, Paul Jones, Alec Scott

Duration: 6 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008