Monday, 13 July 2020

interview: Joe Bangay

I interviewed photographer Joe Bangay about his work on Queen Kong in January 2003. This interview, during which Joe read from some of the production notes he wrote back in 1976, originally appeared on my old Queen Kong Lives fansite (archive.org link). Joe passed away in 2017, robbing the world of so many outrageous anecdotes. I'm glas I was able to preserve a few.

It sounds like you’ve got more memories of Queen Kong than most of the cast.
"It was one of the most amusing times, as a photographer, that I’ve spent. With an Egyptian director, a producer who was always running out of money, and the most beautiful girls you could get in Britain."

How did you get involved?
"There was a producer called Keith Cavele and he used to call me in to do photographs for him, special work. We didn’t bother about doing stills of the whole film. My technique is: I read the script and pick out the vital times when I should be there. Because he’s incredibly mean with money so he’d pay me for the time I spent there. And I made sure I got all of those pictures."

What sort of films had you done before?
"I was John Huston’s photographer. I’ve done the big ones: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Big Sleep, The Winner, The Quiet American. I did about five Bonds. I was a film photographer in the seventies when films were fashionable. As you know, films went bust in 1979/80. That thing of Lew Grade’s - Sink the something or other? - Raise the Titanic! It broke him and it broke right the way down the business. Because it was pretty fraught, to make a living, at that time. So I’ve not done many films since.

"But I was one of the leading guys in the field. People like Terry O’Neill and I were doing major films all over the world. I did a Sophia Loren film, a couple with David Niven. I was never a stills photographer, I was a specials photographer. In those days it was a trade where you were friends with the producers. You’d say, ‘I’m looking for pictures,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, a good week to come in is in a couple of weeks.’ I spent three weeks on The Man Who Would Be King with Huston and Connery."

My favourite film of all time!
"It is a great film. It should have done so well. Yes, I did the specials on that. Shakira Caine played a part in it, and Michael’s there. His dad died in the middle of filming and John Huston sat in a chair and smoked cigars and did bugger all whilst Bert Batt directed the battle scenes. They used to like me on the set there because both Caine and Connery were mad about HP Sauce and I used to take six bottles out with me! Queen Kong was quite different. It was a place for nutters."

If you were working on these big budget films, why did you take a job on this little movie?
"Well, I did quite well financially frankly. If you own your photography and control the set - nobody else was allowed on - you’re going to make money, aren’t you? Nobody got on set except me. At that time Robin Askwith was quite a name. Rula Lenska had just done her big series on television about rock chicks so she was quite a big name. There were so many funny things on the film.

"I had done two films with Keith before. One had been a very sexy film called Golden Lady which all went wrong. It was easy to make money on because Prince Charles had a fling with the leading lady at the time - which gave you two pages in the News of the World. I know a lot about films, I know all the big actors. Tony Quinn - I did Caravans and one or two other films with him. I’d sit and play chess with him in the morning after breakfast for an hour. And let him win otherwise he’d be bad-tempered all day. We had the Queen of Persia on the set in purdah, in secret, because she put money into the film.

"I’ve had lots of adventures on films. I worked with this chap called Don Short. He was Showbusiness Editor of the Mirror and he walked out because they double crossed him. He told Richard Harris he wouldn’t print something and the bloody Mirror did so he walked out of the Mirror. We went into a partnership and we went round the world together. We did Jane Seymour’s first film, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. For ten years I was on every big film, British-inspired usually."

Then you ended up on Queen Kong.
"It was the last film I did, I think, probably. I wrote a lot of stuff. I’ve written books as well, so I wrote a lot of the copy for it as well. Keith got a good bargain from me. He paid me money but he got a bargain. He got his biogs written for him and he got the cream of the pictures. Bastard though, what he did is he borrowed the stills from me when he was going to try to sell the film and he never bloody returned them. The wife he worked with was a great friend of mine. We went to Cannes - to sell Queen Kong or something - and we went down the hotel and Keith was in bed with the leading lady of his next film!

"It was very different then to how it is now. I was a great friend of Bob Mitchum, I did a lot of his films. He liked me, we were quite friends. He was honorary godfather to my youngest daughter. I have this lovely house on the river bank at Marlow, near the studio. It’s very private and people used to come here. I always used to go to Cannes, I went to Cannes for 13 years nonstop. So there you go - you’ve got a bit of the background. I’ve got a huge library of these people. Queen Kong was different though."

Can you remember what you thought about it at the time?
"It was a laugh. My children - I had five daughters - were always coming on set for the fun of it. I thought it was a great idea. the last film I’d done with Keith, I’d done quite well. Frankly we all found that we could trust Keith. Queen Kong ended in a legal mishmash and the artists being called under the Shepperton Tree. Have you heard about the Shepperton Tree? It’s a big oak that stood outside Shepperton offices. It’s now gone. But all big decisions on films were always announced under the tree. So this raggle-taggle bunch of page 3 girls, B-grade actresses, B-grade actors and a really hard-bitten crew were all called together and told:(a) we’ve lost the legal rights, and (b) we’ve run out of money anyway. Then six weeks later Keith got some money together from somewhere, called us back and we finished it off. Obviously he’s made his money again, he’s sold it on."

Frank Agrama is the guy who’s selling it.
"He was the director, wasn’t he? He brought his Egyptian wife and his son over. He hadn’t got a clue, I thought, he was the worst director I’ve ever seen."

He was used to the Italian film industry.
"He brought some money in - that’s why he got the job. A charming but slightly devious Egyptian gentleman; I hope I’m not libelling him. He had a charming Egyptian wife who was always on set. We had fun - I’ve never had so much fun on a film in all my life. You might find something funny in the Express today. I talked to Vicki about it and she said her first job after leaving drama school was running around with a tiny loin cloth, carrying a spear in Shepperton woods.

"All sorts of things happened. For example, we had a big tug-cum-steamer - we shot a lot of stuff at sea. We used to berth at Newhaven, where we all stayed, and went out, up and down the Channel, near the French coast. We were pursued by playboys in speedboats who were tossing their phone numbers to the young English actresses. It was quite funny. We had a girl called Barbara Allen, who was one of the page 3 girls, and she mesmerised the French by water-skiing topless behind the steamer whilst filming. Valerie Leon could tell you about that - she shot some of her scenes on the boat.

"We landed at Newhaven. Keith had got us in quite a good hotel, believe it or not, and the partying was fantastic. We had 30 beautiful girls on this trip, all partying in this hotel. One famous writer - I won’t name any names - was crazy about one of these girls. And we all said, ‘Right, we’ll fix you up.’ We got her to say okay, then he was so nervous, he got so drunk, we delivered him to the bedroom door and he collapsed to the floor and passed out!

"The monkey we made looked terrible, but we finished the film off after Keith got extra money, went down to Bournemouth and that village down there. We had this guy in a monkey suit climbing all over it while we filmed it. Then we had a big monkey’s hand on the end of one of those things you do lights with down the motorway. It was quite a laugh. We had a big stage built in the air in Shepperton, a giant picnic table. My children all felt like film stars when they walked on this set. For crowd scenes, anybody who happened to be going past the studio was pulled in to make up the crowds. But I haven’t got stills, I’ve only got memories now, which is a pity.

"Valerie Leon is very upset because one of the critics on the internet is saying she had her tits taped up. She said, ‘My bosom never needed taping up.’ Rula Lenska was in the first stages of her divorce from Brian Deacon so that was a bit atmospheric. Rula was not happy about the role once she’d got it. She wanted the film to be scripted properly. Robin Askwith was always on time and always knew his lines, a bit like Olly Reed.

"I worked a lot with Olly, we were quite close friends. I had a fight with him in the middle of a Japanese dining room. He threw me so bad, I whizzed down the table and cleared all the food off it onto the laps of the geisha girls. I finished up in jail with Olly the next day because we got drunk at his hotel and he threw a television set out of the window which landed on a police car. So we got busted but let off by the station sergeant. We went fishing in the afternoon to one of those indoor trout-fishing lakes, but Olly was still drunk from the night before. He jumps in the lake, wades towards the fish and then pisses in the lake, so we get pulled in by the police to the same station and the same sergeant says, ‘Oh, not you two again...’

"That’s all by the way. Who else was in Queen Kong? I’ve actually got a call sheet for the film. Every film I’ve done I’ve kept a file on. Ah, here it is, next to ‘Pantos.’ There was a girl killed herself later, Trudi Van Doorne. Mireille Allonville, she was French and she had the most enormous tits and a sexy walk. Felicity Devonshire - she was the top topless model in the country. She was a bit stand-off-ish but very, very grand. Mandy Perryment, she was a top page 3 girl. Paul Cowan, the assistant producer, is doing major films now - he was a lovely man. There’s a lot of well known names there. Jeannette Charles played the Queen in it."

This was made at the same time as the Dino de Laurentiis King Kong and was obviously designed to take advantage of it.
"It was a rip-off, yes."

Do you recall that being discussed much?
"Oh yes, I was there during all those discussions."

Were cast and crew thinking ‘surely we’ll get sued over this’?
"No, nobody thought it. It was so unlike it and it was so bad that no-one would take it seriously. Keith Cavele by the way was doing pop music with EMI before he got into films, and his first film was called Exposé, Tony Richmond’s film. Ah, former Baby Doll star Linda Hayden, who is now married to Paul Elliott. The film had a cast of seven men and 47 girls. 'When some of the French money for the production failed to arrive on time, the cast and crew held a strike meeting under a palm tree. Queen Kong took the opportunity to quit the film to return to her philosophy.' She was a philosophy student.

"Caron Gardner played a prostitute - she’s still a kept woman and she was in those days. Carol Drinkwater was in it - very weird girl, she  was. Used to do all sorts of weird things. Annette Lynton was in it, she’s married to one of the Pink Floyd boys, possibly the drummer. She was a classy bird, married into money. Anna Bergman was in it - that’s Ingmar Bergman’s daughter. Maria Pavlou played Queen Kong; she was a philosophy student at the time and Keith was having a bit on the side I think. She was a classical dancer and a pupil of Marcel Marceau. She also published Britain’s leading Buddhist magazine and held conversion classes amongst the crew.

"We were doing Queen Kong down in Bournemouth, wrecking the model village. She wrecked an oil installation and her coat caught fire. They got another gorilla suit. She used to compose herself by going into the corner to read Goethe. ‘Robin Askwith said, “Being held 30 feet off the ground was no kid glove stuff. I always do my own stunts, but it was a bit hairy.” The film was always designed as a spoof send-up of King Kong and takes a dig at women’s lib. To produce the early footage about the jungle search for Queen Kong, a harbour tug at Newhaven was converted into a search ship called the Liberated Lady with an all-girl crew. This boat-load of scantily dressed models from the page 3 agencies of London had a sprinkling of cool, organised actresses to shepherd the dumb blondes.'"

Did the people making this film seem to know what they were doing?
"Well, everyubody who was in it knew what it was all about. It was a very sociable film - everybody had dinner together. People were aware what we were doing."

Did people think, ‘God this is awful but it’s not taking long and it’s paying the rent?’
"That’s what Rula was saying: ‘I hope to God it doesn’t come out.’"

When the legal action from RKO and De Laurentiis started, what was the reaction of the cast and crew?
"Well, they were disappointed because they would have liked to have seen themselvs on screen. I’ve found another funny bit: ‘In one sequence, a High Priestess played by Hai Karate ad girl Valerie Leon leaps aboard from a native canoe to kidnap the sleeping hero. In the first take, Miss Leon got caught up by her bra on a deck spike and was stripped of her costume. In the second take the lady pirates on board were swept away and had to be rescued by the rescue boat. On another day, associate producer Italian Virgilio DeBlasi, in the face of a refusal to work in the sea because of its roughness, jumped in to prove its safety. He nearly drowned and had to be rescued.’"

Were you following the legal side?
"I knew Keith was going white, and Frank Agrama was, because they had money riding on it. Keith, although he was stopped from selling the film, I notice he got the money together afterwards to finish it, so he had a completed film. Which Frank obviously had a copy of. ‘After shooting, the cast went fishing in the rescue boats. Mackerels, well-cooked, washed down with champagne kept cold by immersion in the sea. The sight of so many bikini- and loincloth-clas girls dancing about the boat was too much for the passing fish trade. At times the ship, the Liberated Lady, looked like the flotilla leader of a naval revue as pleasure boats and fishing boats clustered around. The director Frank Agrama fell overboard into the sea and had to be rescued, taking the main camera crew and cameras with him.’ You know now why we did Queen Kong, don’t you? It was a bloody laugh, wasn’t it? Legally I can’t help you. You’ll have to talk to Caroline Cavelle. She’s a barrister."

Do you recall the dance/dream sequence?
"Recall it? Yes. It wasn;t anything special."

Any idea why it was dropped?
"It wasn’t very good."

Do you remember anything about the band?
"That was shot in the open, the band playing on the open stage in Shepperton. It was a big set, you know. I didn’t realise how funny it had been, until I read these notes."

Did everyone get paid on it?
"Eventually. I didn't get paid until I wouldn’t give him the stills, then I got my final payments. The actresses got paid weekly, I know that. Maybe they lost their last week’s pay. I got paid weekly but I didn’t get paid the last week because he didn’t have to pay me, did he, to get me the next week."

What do you remember about Virgilio de Blasi? The finished credits are Keith Cavele as Executive Producer and de Blasi as producer.
"He brought money in. That’s why he was in it it. He was an old boy who came for the crumpet. I think there was an arrangement whereby he had access to the crumpet."

The co-producer was Andre de Genovese.
"He was an Italian money man, Virgilio’s money man. Charlie Simmons built the sets - good sets. Casting director was Miriam Brickman - she’s around still."

And there we must leave it. RIP Joe Bangay 1930-2017