Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Interview with actor George Innes

In 2003 I was researching my book about the films of Michael Caine. I interviewed several actors and directors who had worked with Caine several times during his long, long career. One of these was George Innes, a British actor with a most remarkable career. If his name doesn't ring a bell, you'd probably recognise his face. Innes was the sailor who had his skull opened with a hand drill in Master and Commander, and he was Charlie Croker's second in command Bill Bailey in The Italian Job.

He appeared in many, many TV series over the years: The Avengers, Z Cars, Open All Hours, Dixon of Dock Greed, The Good Life, I Claudius (left), The Sweeney, Danger UXB, Shogun, Hart to Hart, M*A*S*H*, Hill Street Blues, Minder, Magnum P.I., Cagney & Lacey, The Bill - and the list goes on. By the time we finished the interview, I almost wished I was writing a book about Innes' career, not the films of Michael Caine. Anyway, here's what George had to say in February 2003 about his filmic experiences with Sir Michael. Innes started by talking about his role in cult British film The Italian Job:

'Nice character, Bill Bailey. I think that my agent possibly had something to do with the package. He had the director, Peter Collinson, he had Tony Beckley, me, he may have had the writer, Troy Kennedy Martin. I think he had several people in the show so it’s quite possible it was part of package. It certainly worked like that in those days.

'We were out to Italy, to Turin and Milan. Shot around the streets there. Then we came back and shot a little bit, in Bray Studios I think it was. That was for the interior of the coach scenes, when it was hanging off with the gold sliding around.

'We also went to Ireland, shot a bit in Ireland, because Noël Coward couldn’t film here with his tax situation. They shot the prison sequence in Ireland, which I wasn’t involved in. We also had a scene in the churchyard, the funeral of Aunt Nellie. I did a little scene with Noël Coward, but I think that went well. A nice little scene between me and him, where Bill takes it all very much to heart about the funeral. He starts crying and all that. Quite a sweet little scene.'

Not long afterwards Innes got involved with an epic film about the Thirty Years War:

'The second film I worked with Michael Caine was The Last Valley. That was nice. The whole bunch of us went out, a lot of us knew each other. I was working at Royal Court at the time. Somehow I heard about it. I used to knock around with a lot of stunt guys, I used to go horse riding with them. I heard they had a problem so I got in touch. I met [writer-director James] Clavell and he said here’s the script, give me a result tonight. This massive script! So I went and tucked meself away in a hotel somewhere and read it. So I went along to see him. He said which part do you want – this one or that one? One part you don’t say anything because your tongue’s cut out, the other part you say something but you’re not on the film so long.

'So I said I’ll have the part that doesn’t speak! Brian Blessed got the other part. I just let my hair grow for that one. I think we did something like 14 weeks on that, it was great. There was a little bit filmed near Windsor, the battle scene with the castle. That was shot at some lake near Windsor. They built the big set there and the cannons going off and everything.

'The rest of it we shot in Austria, we had a great time over there – nice hotel, a club, everybody get together, it was great fun. Mike did a lovely job on that. I had this young kid who had to ride on the back of the horse with me. Clavell’s daughters were in it. It was a great time. I worked with Clavell a few times after that – Shogun (see above), Noble House. Nice guy, really nice guy.

'Mike did a great job on it, I don’t know what he thought of it. It was a huge movie, but the problem was they had to cut it down. Clavell said they’re going to make me cut this, they just won’t show a film of this length. That’s what really did it in. It is a movie of great scope. It’s a bit like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the Russell Crowe film I just worked on, that’s a big movie. Of course they can show it as a big movie now. At that time, the studios weren’t putting out films of that length. The Last Valley lost a lot in the cutting. It was quite a massive movie.

'They built an entire village, used local people, it was quite amazing. I met my wife on that, she turned up in Innsbruck with her sister. They were just leaving to catch a train, they missed the train, it was pouring with rain and we turned up in this beer garden, a whole bunch of us. We thought they were German, but we got talking to them and found out they were American. I gave my room to her and her sister. Brian and I shared a room, and they shared my room. That’s how I got to know her and got married a couple of years later.

'It was a wonderful time for us, very romantic area. It was a wonderful place to be. We had a few things went wrong. When you get a bunch of guys together and stick ‘em in the middle of Europe for 14 weeks, we had a lot of the stunt guys, a lot of young guys, not too many women. It gets a little bit boisterous. Everyone was dancing to J’Taime and My Cherie Amour – my wife’s name was Cherie, so that was quite apropos.

'The thing about movies, although I’ve worked with Mike in a few films, you tend not to meet up with the same people. You might seem them in the next movie, or you might not see them for twenty years. Like in Master and Commander, I bumped into people on that I hadn’t seen in 20 years, like Bob Pugh. We worked together on a TV series, Danger UXB. And there’s me and Bob on ship, instead of blowing up bombs.'

It was thirty years before Innes and Caine worked together again:

'I’d been out of work for a while, I broke my leg, in the Shakespeare Globe in 96. I was out of work for two years, my leg was really gone. I’d taken a day job. I obviously still had my name is spotlight. I got a call to go along and see John Irvin and got a small part in Shiner. That pleased me because it was in the same area where I used to live, I was brought up around that way - Stepney and Bethnal Green. I used to go to the York Hall, where the big fights took place, we used to go and have a bath in there, a weekly bath.

'My dad had been a boxer. That whole thing of the East End was very much into boxing. It was nice to get into that. The night I got on it, we were down Brick Lane in a car park. I was talking to Terry Spinks who’s a boxer and Sammy McCarthy, Terry got the MBE this year. Terry was there as one of the guests, and Nosher Powell and Sammy McCarthy who was a big fighter when I was a teenager, he was everybody’s idol then. We’re standing in a car park, night-time, and having a chat and suddenly this voice from behind says, "Hi George".

'I turn around and I’m looking at Mike’s driver. And there’s Mike, an enormous guy, I never realised how tall he was. There’s no front to him, he just comes over and I introduce him to the people. He was so friendly, a lovely guy. That’s the nice thing about him, he’s so at your level, all the time. Of course, he’s on a totally different level. He’s always got a joke and everything, he’s wonderful, wonderful. '

The two actors were reunited in a film directed by Fred Schepisi:

'When we were on Last Orders with all those guys - Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings, Ray Winstone. It was hilarious sitting in make-up and having terrible things done to done to them – they go from young guys to their real age – putting bits on, taking bits off. They were all in there together, no special treatment. When we were on Master and Commander, Russell has his make-up done over there, away from us. But that was a big, big cast so you can’t all pile in. But in Last Orders was not a big budget movie and they were all crowded in – no embarrassment, just a great bunch of guys. '

In 2003, a new version of The Italian Job was being made:

'They’re doing a remake now. They were shooting it while we were out in Mexico [for Master and Commander]. They were going to be in Italy about Christmas time. It’s a huge cult movie. You bump into people all over the world who are into it. People who want their Mini signed! When we were doing NN, my driver on the last day gave me a Scaletrix thing of minis. It’s a universal picture. We had a lot of fun.

'I remember one time when we were up in the mountains, pushing the Aston off the top. I’m looking at it and thinking – I’d done a lot of heavy work, labouring and fruit market – I’m looking at this earth mover thing, trying to lift up this car and I’m thinking he’s going the wrong way about this. He’s approaching it downhill, he should be approaching it uphill. He goes to lift it, it slips away. He goes to lift it again, it slips away. By the time he gets it on the claw, the scoop, we’re all there – Mike’s there, Raf Vallone’s there, all of us and he’s only a few feet from us. He goes to push it over the top and Pat, the guy in charge of special effects, he’s on the other side of the wall – we’re up a mountain.

'It’s supposed to tumble down into the valley and explode. He sees it on the wall, thinks it’s going. The driver decides he’s going to have another go at it, leaves it on the wall, comes back for another run at it, Pat pushes the plunger and the car just exploded on top of the wall. Nearly blew us all up, it was massive. The guy then pushes it down and over and the whole place is on fire! We’re doing a bucket run from a little stream, trying to put out this fire! It was bad but it could have been worse. They had to find another Aston after that.'

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