The Rhythm of Life (1997)
Documentary series about music with George Martin
I’d known George Martin since my days being slipped into a couple of Beatle recording sessions at Abbey Road by Paul McCartney, so I was thrilled and flattered to co-write this series for him with the director/producer Alan Benson. (BBC-2)
A Day To Remember (1994)
A documentary I presented as part of the BBC’s fiftieth anniversary of D-Day programmes, this film included me seeing for the first time my father’s grave in France. His body had been washed up in Brittany after he’d been lost at sea in 1944 while serving with the Royal Navy, but, until the BBC located the little French churchyard, I’d never known where he was buried.
Perfect Scoundrels (1990)
Actors Bryan Murray and Peter Bowles virtually bullied me into devising and writing this series for them. After seeing The Sting I’d always vowed I’d never write a film about con men, because the stories were too difficult to design. But having started I loved writing the episodes, although each scam took months to dream up and get right.
Defrosting The Fridge (1989)
A BBC 2 film about English people who played American football, it starred Joe Don Baker and Phyllis Logan. A very ambitious project for producer Terry Coles and director Sandy Johnson in terms of scale, it worked well, the sub-text being globalisation.
Lytton’s Diary (1985-86)
The original idea for this came from actor Peter Bowles who, at the time, was intrigued by gossip columnists. We did two series of six episodes.
Forever Young (1984)
I’ve always felt that this Channel Four film (not the Mel Gibson movie) is the best constructed screenplay I’ve written, the idea coming to me from a photograph of a fourteen year old Simon and Garfunkel. What would have happened to them if they’d split up before they became famous, and then met again in mid-life? A film about betrayal and broken ambition, it was also about emotional pain being passed from one generation to the next.
Honky Tonk Heroes (1981)
A trilogy of plays with music set in a south London country and western club.
Almost Tomorrow, Our Kid and An Hour In the Life (1977)
Three BBC plays commissioned to commemorate the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
James Dean—The First American Teenager
Written and directed by Ray Connolly
We see his face on the sides of buses, in magazines and on billboards as he helps sell the world cars, jeans, beer and soft drinks. While in the souvenir shops we find his image on T-shirts, posters, calendars and postcards. Always he’s the epitome of cool, the perfect marketing image for the young. Yet he’s been dead for over half a century. He is, or was, James Dean.
Dean’s time in the spotlight was brief. Just six months after his first film East of Eden was released in 1955 he was dead, killed, aged 24, in a road accident while driving to a racing car meeting in California.
Since then his image has been frozen in time as that of the vulnerable, misunderstood kid, an identity borrowed and worn by teenagers and students ever since. But who was James Dean? What made him the perpetual symbol of youthful angst? Was he that good an actor? And why, after so long, does he still seem so contemporary that advertisers pay five million dollars a year to use his image?
I’ve been interested in James Dean since, at the age of fourteen, I saw East Of Eden a few months after his death. I can remember thinking I’d never seen an actor so convince me that he wasn’t acting, that here was someone who said his lines as in life, as though he wasn’t sure what he was going to say next.
As one would expect of someone who died so young, biographical details on him are short. His father was a dentist in Los Angeles, but when Dean was nine his mother died from breast cancer. Sent back to the family home in Indiana he was brought up on a farm with his aunt and uncle, a comfortable middle America, Quaker upbringing. Nothing rebellious there.
He was obviously never going to be a farmer, but as he grew older it was clear he had a gift for drama. Winning a state competition in his senior year at high school, he was upset to only come sixth in a national competition. The ambition was already there.
Two days after leaving school at 18 he returned to California, where one year in college proved enough for him. With Hollywood just down the road, he picked up a few tiny parts in movies and commercials, but, restless
for immediate success, at 21 he caught the bus to New York where television was then producing weekly live television dramas.
Age mates Paul Newman, Martin Landau and Steve McQueen would all compete with him for the same parts, and at first he was often rejected because he was small, never more than 5ft 6in, and wore glasses. But he was very clever and articulate, extremely inventive, exceptionally photogenic and fashionably Bohemian. Within eighteen months he’d appeared in over thirty TV plays.
Joining the Actors Studio as an observer, thus following in the footsteps of Marlon Brando, he inhaled the spirit of method acting. And then after two very brief appearances on Broadway he was called to Hollywood to appear in East of Eden. He was 23 and flew there carrying his belongings in a paper bag. With his first advance from the movie, he bought himself a second hand MG sports car.
Even before East of Eden was released director Elia Kazan and Warner Brothers knew they’d discovered something special, but already Dean was proving difficult in a Hollywood more familiar with the quiescent Fifties stars of the studio system. He knew how good he was, and he had a pathological need to be noticed.
Quickly he was pushed into his second film, Rebel Without A Cause along with Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, a study of middle class delinquency, complete with its fabled chicken run sequence.
It was here, too, that his famous red zip-up jacket and blue jeans made their appearance—though they nearly didn’t. Rebel Without A Cause had been perceived as a low budget black and white film, and indeed a week’s shooting had taken place in monochrome before it was decided to begin the movie again in colour. By such commercial whims are iconic images created.
Almost as though racing against time he began his third movie, Giant, just days after finishing Rebel Without A Cause. This time he appeared alongside Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Taylor became a confidante, but Hudson hated him. “He was hard to be around,” Hudson would say many years later. “Full of contempt.” Dean thought Hudson was a lousy actor.
By now his pay per movie was soaring, and he had a Porsche sports car which he raced successfully at amateur meetings around California. What he really wanted, though, was a racing car, so during Giant he bought a silver Porche Spider, only to be told by the studio’s insurers that he wasn’t allowed to drive it until filming was completed.
He had no option but to comply, but between scenes he took the time to appear in a road safety commercial. “And, remember,” he says in it, “drive safely, because the life you save…might be mine”, laughingly changing the line from “might be yours”. By now he had just a few weeks left to live.
On Friday, September 30, 1955, a week after finishing his part in Giant, he picked up the new Porsche, now with the name “Little Bastard” painted on the front. And, after lunch with his father and an uncle, he set off with a mechanic for a race meeting in Northern California.
At three thirty that afternoon a traffic cop pulled him over and gave him a ticket for speeding. He proceeded on his way. Then at 5.45 pm a young student on his way home for the weekend made a mistake on a dead straight country road, and pulled his old Ford right across the path of the Porsche.
The mechanic was thrown clear in the impact and survived with a few broken bones. The driver of the Ford had a bruised nose. But James Dean was killed instantly, his neck broken, his head almost cut off his body in the impact.
When his second film Rebel Without a Cause was released a couple of days later it was an instant worldwide success. Thousands of fan letters poured into Warner Brothers refusing to believe that Dean was dead, insisting that he was hideously crippled and being kept out of sight in a sanatorium.
A year further on the cult of denial and hysteria was still gripping when Giant was released, the studio having to keep secret the fact that Dean’s voice in his last scene had had to be dubbed in editing by another actor because the original sound quality had been indistinct.
James Dean’s image was already like that of a rock star, yet he was dead before rock and roll was properly born, before Elvis recorded his first hit. So what made him a legend? I think it was a synthesis of his brilliance as an actor, that ability to convincingly display neuroses on screen, and the fact that he came along at the birth of our obsession with youth culture. When we made this documentary producer, David Puttnam, christened it James Dean: The First American Teenager, because that was exactly how he seemed to our generation.
And pivotal to this lasting image was his role in Rebel Without A Cause, which places the characters of Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo around Dean like a teenage family.
Bizarrely none of the three young epoch-making stars were to reach the age their parents were in that film. Sal Mineo was stabbed to death outside his home in Los Angeles in 1976 at the age of 37, a couple of years after we interviewed him; while Natalie Wood drowned in 1981, aged 43.
Both their careers had both been fading by then, but Dean’s early death fast-tracked those of several other actors, Paul Newman getting the leading roles in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the story of boxer Rocky Graziano, and The Left Handed Gun, a psychological Western, both of which Dean been contracted to play.
For years after Dean’s death young film actors aped his mannerisms, not least Warren Beatty in Splendour In The Grass and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, while later Martin Sheen, a huge fan, based his performance in the movie Badlands on Dean. So although you may not have realised it you’ve probably been watching Dean’s influence on cinema for years. Marlon Brando is usually credited with having had the greatest effect on film acting, but I would suggest James Dean was equally important. Certainly he was no mere Brando copycat.
For fifty years James Dean has been forever young. But he was more than that. Certainly he was difficult to work with. He was selfish, vain and a stealer of scenes from other actors, but he was also one of the great architects of movie acting.
The James Dean myth is interesting both as a social phenomenon, and a way of marketing for youth culture. But, for me, his real contribution was in the master class of screen acting he gave in his three movies. And, in that, he was better than his legend would suggest.