When I’m working abroad accommodation is usually provided, but if I get offered a job on a new production in the UK I often have to find somewhere to live at short notice. Liz has become increasingly insistent on helping to find somewhere, as a result of spending weekends with me in what she describes as my “quirky accommodation nightmares.”
The country cottage outside Warkworth in Northumberland was typical of what she means: a picturesque stone built house that was very handy for work and had a reasonably equipped kitchen, but no furniture whatsoever. My refusal to switch on the expensive and wasteful storage heaters because I only ever slept there – on a makeshift mattress with a very efficient duvet – was vetoed by Liz, who had fanciful ideas about cooking and sitting around with glasses of wine when she came to stay for a few days.
Looking back to my first film, in the late eighties, I was determined to make the most of my new found wealth by going for the cheapest possible living accommodation. The B&B that I selected in Slough turned out to be in a gothic horror of a house that should have been a film set itself – but being woken at three in the morning by water dripping though the ceiling was just a bit too basic and I knew it was time to move on. I booked into the local Youth Hostel, which was fine for a few days, but I hadn’t quite anticipated having to share with a stranger with a severe case of food poisoning. A more permanent solution in the form of a caravan on a site in Seven Hills Road – just round the corner from Pinewood Studios – was a definite improvement. It was great during the summer months, but an unusually severe cold snap in October resulted in the house plants that Liz had brought me dying of frostbite and the clothes in the wardrobe turning black as they were covered with mould. The caravan site has gone now and a cutting for the M25 scythes through where it once was, but I still remember it every time I drive down the lane. Eventually, at the fourth attempt, I discovered the place where I still stay when I’m working at Pinewood and I’ve learned to ignore the muffled laughter when someone gets me to admit that I’m living in a convent.
Working on a foreign location often means being provided with five star accommodation but even that can have its disadvantages. I was once kept waiting outside my hotel for several hours because Hilary Clinton was staying there and her security had locked down the whole street whilst she checked in. And even when everything is working well, it’s amazing how quickly I realize that I’m taking the luxury for granted and don’t actually want someone to leave chocolates on my pillow or tidy my shoes – and that’s when the desire to have a place of my own usually takes hold. In Belgrade, I was so keen to get away from my hotel that I took on a city centre apartment without really thinking about potential drawbacks. It was a traditional building with a fine classical doorway, leading to a lobby and a stone staircase with a rickety cage lift rising up through the stairwell, all very romantic and reminiscent of classic films like The Third Man. I was feeling very pleased with myself as I settled down to sleep on my first evening, thinking of Harry Lime dodging into dark doorways off empty streets. I was vaguely aware of the street below closing down for the night as I heard tables and chairs being dragged across the paving to be locked inside the cafés and the last calls of friends as they parted company… but instead of it getting quieter the talking got louder and then thumping music started, and more thumping music from a different direction. This wasn’t a street that was settling down for the night – quite the reverse – it was party time! This went on, seven nights a week, until I eventually settled for sleeping on the generous sofa in the rather quieter living room, congratulating myself on being able to get used to anything…
.. However, on the 3rd November 2010 there was a small earthquake in Serbia, which killed two people and injured over a hundred. Belgrade was a long way from the epicentre but at the time I fully expected to be buried in rubble as the electricity cut out, the building was plunged into darkness and my flat started swaying unnaturally from side to side -and this went on for what seemed like a very long time. I do remember grabbing my mobile phone as I waited for the ceiling to collapse on me and even had the presence of mind to consider what position I’d like my mangled body to be found in when the rescue party arrived. I splayed my arms and legs into the most dramatic yet comfortable pose possible and waited for the inevitable. As the swaying continued and I could still feel my arms and legs I was struck by another anxiety: I had very little Serbian vocabulary. The only words I could remember were the translation of “go f..k yourself” taught to me that very day by one of the construction crew, who had been highly amused by my attempts to say it with an English accent. Please, please may I not be tempted to use these words in shock as my rescuers approach! The more my imagination tortured me, the less I thought about the earthquake and I eventually realized that it had stopped – probably some time ago. When away from home things always seem worse at night.