Franc Roddam has directed award-winning documentaries and dramas for British television and mini-series for US television, and is the founder and chairman of Ziji Publishing, whose roster includes the five million selling novel The Last Templar.
He is best known however as the creator of the international television phenomenon ‘Masterchef’, which is shown in 150 countries, and as the director of the much loved feature film adaptation of The Who’s Quadrophenia.
The film makes its UK Blu-ray debut on 14th November, the same day the seminal ‘modpera’ is reissued in a Super Deluxe Edition CD package by Universal Music. I spoke with Roddam about the enduring affection for Quadrophenia and the experience of adapting the work described by Pete Townshend as ‘the Who album I am most proud of’.
HeyUGuys: I take it that you still feel great affection for the film after all these years as it’s quite rare for someone who has achieved as much as you have in your career to grant interviews in support of yet another home entertainment release for a film as old as this one; how do you feel it about after this much time?
Franc Roddam: I’m still charmed by it. I have six children and one by one they’ve all fallen in love with it. I’ve never shown it to them, they’ve found it through their friends. Each generation seems to like it; I’m just amazed that it’s still getting attention.
How did you come to get what must have been both a coveted and daunting job, directing the film version of Pete Townshend’s beloved ‘modpera’.
I had directed a film for television called Dummy, which was a drama. When The Who’s management were looking for a director David Puttnam recommended me, and I think Alan Parker also recommended me. That was the beginning of it.
The independent erroneously credited the direction of the film to Alan Parker in an article a couple of weeks ago, and I almost wrote to them to tell them they had it wrong.
I didn’t see that, I was out of the country.
As I recall it was pretty good in the UK, but I wasn’t even that interested. I was just so thrilled to have made a film; I was over the moon. In that age, or at that stage, directors didn’t seem to really care about box office, or how many cinemas a film opened in. Even the public seem to know about box office now. At that time, I was just thrilled to have made a film. After that I was offered a three-picture deal at 20th Century Fox, and I went to live in Hollywood. I then became conscious of all these things, and I became conscious of the American reviews, which were very very good. I think in Newsweek or Time they said that it was the best film to come out of England in 20 years. I didn’t realise that that mattered, that what the critics said mattered to the executives, but I found out that it did; I started paying more attention
Much has been made over the years of the anachronistic errors in the film: very visible trappings of the ‘70s including cars, clothes, posters and advertising, and other things. Was that attributable to the budget and time constraints?
Well there are not so many. There are two that I can think of: there’s one where you see a military band, a marching band, and you see in the background a film (poster) that came out later. I felt that their marching through was such a visual contrast, such a social contrast, to what our mods and rockers had been doing, it was like what we used to have to do as kids, as opposed to what we can do with now that we have freedom, I thought keep it in, fuck it. People all over the world who watch it won’t know any different.
The other thing was, when I did my first ever talk at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan, which is quite a prestigious thing, there were 600 people in the audience. They saw the film and afterwards I was waiting for the questions, wondering if someone was going to say something wonderful to me. One guy says to me ‘So I noticed there were two yellow lines on the side of the road, but yellow lines didn’t come out until 1965, but this is supposed to be ‘64’. So I was thinking, this is supposed to be my moment, so out of the blue the line came into my head ‘What are you, some kind of fucking traffic warden?’ That got the audience on my side.
There’s always one trainspotter in those audiences who wants to outsmart the director.
In those days we didn’t have CGI. A few years ago I was doing Moby Dick in Australia, and there was big orange ship going across the skyline. Normally we would have had to wait until that ship passed through and it might take an hour, but now we just kept on filming and just erased it. Times have changed for the better in that way.
First of all let me say that he was extraordinarily gracious. When we first met, he talked about doing a new arrangement with strings (of the album), and I told him that I didn’t see it that way. I’m not Ken Russell, and this is not a rock opera, this is about the street, and I’m going to be very realistic and I want rock ‘n’ roll in this movie. He said I think you have a great approach to this thing, and if that’s what you want to do, do it, and he stepped back. It was extraordinarily gracious of him and he did it without any rancour. He was a really good guy, one of my heroes.
A bit of amusing Quadrophenia lore for you to confirm or deny: when you were shooting the climactic scooter scene at Beachy Head from a helicopter, although the trajectory of the scooter and the helicopter’s flight path were worked out, the helicopter was almost hit by the bike?
The guys had worked out scientifically the physics of it, and I decided I’d be in the helicopter, I thought it would be fun to see this thing coming towards you while you were in the helicopter. They worked it all out with block and tackle to catapult it into the air, and the calculation was wrong, and I suddenly thought oh my God, ‘Director Downed By Scooter’, and it literally almost hit the helicopter, and afterwards I thought it was pretty hilarious.
That would have been a very bizarre headline, an accident to rival Vic Morrow’s decapitation by helicopter on the set of The Twilight Zone. One of the more fascinating bits of lore about the film that’s been repeated often is that John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) screen tested for the part of Jimmy. I take it that’s true?
Yes it is.
I’m just trying to envision him in a tonic suit walking through the advertising office where Jimmy worked.
I wish I’d kept the screen test. In those days we didn’t think about those things.
People certainly didn’t foresee DVD extras.
I would have kept the scooter too. He was terrific, Johnny. The commercial side of me said hang on, we’re in the middle of the punk era, and we’re about to make a retro movie, is there anything I can do to make this audience identify with it and not reject it. I contemplated that, and I met with Johnny, thinking he would say ‘ah, no’, but he wanted to do it, he cut his hair and put on a tonic suit, and he looked great. I was very interested in him, but the insurance company said no way, we can’t trust this guy to turn up. In a way it was a blessing in disguise, because Phil Daniels is just outstanding in the film, for my money anyway.
It’s an iconic performance like McDowell’s in Clockwork Orange; I just can’t imagine anyone other than Phil Daniels as the character.
I had the joy of going out for drinks with Johnny Rotten and Pete Townshend, on a night where we all got to know each other. That was some night, I can tell ya.
I can well imagine: the Punk and the Godfather.
Johnny has an extraordinary capacity to drink lager. He would get a can of lager, blow the dust off the top, and down it in one hit. And he could drink about 16 of them. Pete thought he would try and keep up with him, and he wasn’t drinking at the time, he had a full bottle of vodka in his hand, and off we went into the night. Great fun.