An encounter with a celebrity – a day of photographic terror!
Sometimes the exciting jobs that you are commissioned to execute, turn into periods of exquisite fear and terror. Such was the day I photographed Spike Milligan (1918-2002). I suspect that you need to be of Anglo-Saxon heritage to appreciate the skills of that great British comedian. Born in India of British parents, Milligan was a staple in my adolescent humour development, with the likes of The Goon Show, several books, of which Puckoon was a favourite; and he was a mentor for many of the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
When Australia Post contacted me regarding an in-house campaign using Milligan as the presenter to illustrate serious staff training concepts in a comical manner – I was their man!
Days of discussion with the client and his advertising agency’s art director encouraged us to book a television production house studio. There a series of sets could be constructed to enable a rapid completion of what was now a very large job. It meant that my assistant and I had to move my entire kit of Broncolor lighting gear and a full Hasselblad outfit to the TV studio. The client was responsible for bringing the Great Man to Brisbane and providing him with accommodation.
The accommodation requirement was of a greater concern than was immediately recognised. It became clear that Milligan had a need of perfect quietness when sleeping – which was found some eighty kilometres away from the city! Fortunately this was not my responsibility. My responsibilities were of a more photographic nature. I had to ensure that the various sets were full of the props specified by the client; that my assistant could light the sets to my satisfaction (and do so at a rate that kept ahead of me and The Great Man); and that we kept shooting to a schedule.
Because there was a video crew (not part of my team) documenting portion of my shoot, I discovered a further distracting impediment to my job. A young camera assistant thought that because we had a famous comedian in the studio, it might be fun to practise his repartee and impress the Great Man.
What he did not understand was that humour was a serious topic to Milligan, and his lame attempts were not only not sought nor appreciated. For a while I thought my job was at risk.
It turned out that this was a man who had worked most of his career with not only that venerable of Institutions – the BBC – but had worked with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and acted on stage in the West End of London. Whilst working with me he was unfailing in his desire to perform faultlessly. He was also unfailing in expecting me to work faultlessly for him. It was a huge learning curve for me.
Here I was – a young photographer working with one of the greats of British comedy – and learning at every step of the way. This was a lesson in professionalism being taught by a craftsman of the highest order.