Susannah York

As you may or may not be aware, Susannah York died over the weekend. Did I ever tell you about the time she held my face in her hands and gazed into my eyes? No?

Late summer 1996. I left university with a respectable humanities degree and no job prosepcts, so I ran away to join the circus film industry. My first job found via a friend led to my first professional contacts and a second job followed almost immediately: lighting assistant on a low-budget British film (is there any other kind?) shooting in London and Norfolk (from which I had only just escaped, having attended the University of East Anglia). The cast included the then-unknown Andy “Gollum” Serkis and one Susannah York in a small role as the protagonist’s mother. Although I was aware of her work in a vague sort of way, for me should would always be Superman’s mum. York’s son Orlando Wells was also working on set as a runner.The title of the film ended up being Loop, although the working title during the shoot was “You Can Keep the Animals”.

The London portion of the shoot went well enough, if you don’t count the complaints, threats, and police intervention during a night-shoot in a residential area for which we didn’t have a permit and which necessitated the use of an insomnia-inducingly loud lighting generator. We ran lots of long cables and hid the generator around the corner so as to reduce the noise interfering with recording of the dialogue. Local kids figured out what we were up to and would occasionally switch the generator off, meaning that all the lights would go out mid-shot, so we had to post one of the runners as a guard.

In Norfolk things were more pleasant. The gaffer (head electrician) left part way through the shoot for another job which held more appeal for him (something about “actually getting paid”, I think), leaving me to take his place, which was pretty laughable. I mean, I got quite good at the spark’s job of setting up the actual lights, but I don’t know my AC from my DC, so making me responsible for the power supply was asking for trouble. Miraculously the only problem I had was one evening when I got something in my eye. I don’t even remember what it was, but it was quite painful and wouldn’t go away, despite repeated attempts at washing or rubbing it away. At one point the lovely Ms York insisted that she take a look, so I knelt down in front of her chair as she held my face and investigated. Unfortunately she was no more successful than anyone else and in the end, as my eye was quite inflamed by that point, an assistant director drove me to the local doctor to have it cleaned out. During my absence the generator broke down. Not normally a problem, apart from the interruption to filming, but for the shot in progress an actor was laid on the floor with the camera on a tripod directly over him. As the whole scene was plunged into darkness various crew members turned on their torches to make sure that no one accidentally knocked the camera over onto the actor’s head, or indeed kicked the actor as they walked past. Needless to say my return was greeted with much relief and enthusiasm.

Still, it was a lovely few weeks’ shoot. The weather was glorious, and the tiny village in which we were staying was very welcoming; the one and only pub was happy to stay open as long as we liked, as they’d never had so much business. Susannah York hung out with us and was happy to share movie anecdotes (her favourite director to work with was Robert Aldrich, she said).

Loop was shown once at a tiny film festival in London some years after it was finished, and then showed up one wet Wednesday afternoon on BBC2 when no one was watching. I have a copy on DVD.

R.I.P, Ms York.