Swellboy on… making movies

A Big Apple trip could be the perfect chance to break into show business

Image: Brijesh Patel

While in New York, I like to catch up with friends who no longer live in the UK, among them Taki. While he revels in taking the position of diametrical opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie (and, as a liberal who aspires to bourgeois status myself, I do not always hold with what he has to say); he is au fond a loyal man and a kind friend. I took him up on his invitation to dinner with Michael Mailer (film producer and son of Norman Mailer) and we went to The Standard hotel and – inevitably – the Boom Boom Room in the meatpacking district, which, given that I try not to go further downtown than Brooks Brothers on 44th and Madison, was quite an excursion for me.

In-between exercising his wining charm on young female diners on adjacent tables, Taki ordered a steak. There were different kinds of steak, including one that could be prepared quickly and one that would take about 20 minutes. He went for the speedy option, but even this proved a little on the slow side (we were in New York, after all, where time is money), so he beckoned the waitress over and asked how much longer he would have to wait for his nourishment. “You see, I am getting on,” he explained “and I don’t know how many years I have left.” The steak arrived almost immediately and, assisted by a couple of bottles of Morgon, was pronounced well worth the wait.

This line betrays a genius for the off-the-cuff improvised dialogue that will serve him well come the Cannes Film Festival, when he will be appearing in a film being made by Michael Mailer with, among others, Alec Baldwin. Taki was already gleefully planning the fight scene. It is, if I recall, a film about the making of, or at least finding the funding for, a film. I immediately tried to wangle myself a role in this epic as I quite fancy the idea of seeing my name in a terrazzo star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Indeed, it may surprise you to learn that this is not the only film project that I am considering.

The other day, at a lunch given by IWC in honour of Cate Blanchett, in the basement dining room of the brilliant Arrigo Cipriani restaurant Cipriani Downtown, I sat next to the charming producer of a film about Dickens and his mistress Nelly Ternan, the one with whom he was travelling in the summer of 1865 when his train crashed at Staplehurst, killing 10 and injuring around 40.


Travelling by rail in Victorian Britain was a species of Russian roulette, for instance the summer of 1845 witnessed carnage on the British railway network: during one particularly nasty week in August there were 17 accidents. Punch came up with a travel essential called The Railway Pocket Companion, a survival kit that comprised a set of surgical instruments, lint, a bottle of water, a glass and instructions for drawing up a will.

Anyway, back to the movie, Dickens in this instance is not being portrayed by Simon Callow, but by Ralph Fiennes. I asked if the producer was fearing legal action from Mr Callow, who, I believe has a monopoly on all theatrical and cinematic portrayals of the author of David Copperfield. I then asked who might be playing Wilkie Collins, hoping that she might think of me for the role, but alas that part had already been snapped up Tom Hollander.

The important male roles thus disposed of, I put on my film distributor’s hat (a rather exuberant post-boy cap in a decisive tweed) and offered some thoughts as to how she might make the piece more relevant to modern tastes, or rather the tastes of modern movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“Who is playing the dog?” She looked politely perplexed. “You have to have a dog,” I continued. “It did wonders for The Artist. And while you are about it, have you thought about making it a silent movie and setting it not in England but in France? (After all, I believe Dickens was returning from a holiday, or possibly a dirty weekend, in Paris, so it is not too much of a stretch). And would it really be tampering too much with the story if Dickens were played by a French actor and the character’s name were changed to, say, Balzac?”


She took my suggestions very seriously, and assured me in so many words that I was not to call her but that she would call me. However, I fear that I must have given her the wrong number as I have not heard a word about either my part or my suggestions about making the film more attractive to Mr Harvey Weinstein.

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