The film producer couple who are happiest when they are doing the Lambeth walk
Veteran film and television producer Steve Clark-Hall has lived in New York and filmed in exotic locations all over the world. But a lifetime of experience leads him to believe that you can’t beat living in Lambeth, with a view of the Thames.
“I’m a passionate lover of London and if you think about New York, London now has that energy. You’re in one of the four or five most vibrant cities in the world. You can walk across the river and go to Soho and go to the Opera House and go to the West End, and all the attractions, culture and stimulus that you have, you’re just very lucky”. Steve’s wife, Mairi Bett, who was brought up in Scotland and is also a distinguished producer, agrees: “I love it, my heart beats faster the moment I leave the train”, she says. “It’s wonderful to walk along the South Bank – I love the river and the energy about it, and you see people enjoying London for the first time.”
Steve and Mairi moved to a flat behind County Hall after twenty-three years in Chiswick, where they brought up their children. Steve acknowledges their immense good fortune as beneficiaries of rocketing property prices, and – a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party in his youth – hopes Sadiq Khan can do something about housing inequalities. He recalls the changes to the capital since his early childhood in postwar Cromwell Road, the most significant being the arrival of the Ugandan Asians, who, having taking over running corner shops, spearheaded London’s transformation into a twenty-four-hour city. Steve’s a fan of dynamism and development: both he and Mairi were disappointed by the scrapping of the Garden Bridge project, which Steve thought could have been like the High Line green walkway in New York.
The couple met in a pub in 1974. Having worked as a runner for the BBC for seven years, Steve had gone to Scotland to set up an independent production company. Mairi, who trained as a nurse, had left her previous husband “and was on the run really”; she was staying with her actor brother who suggested she meet a friend of his. “So I went to the local pub and here was this vision,” she recalls. “He had long hair, he was very thin, he was smoking.” (Steve comically oohs and ahs at Mairi’s words.) “He had this combat jacket on that was split, all the padding was hanging out. And he had cords on that had been washed too many times and were ankle-swingers. And I thought, what a mess. And then he opened his mouth, he started speaking and I thought, it was the most wonderful accent I had ever heard. So he had me. Because in Scotland, it was really quite exotic.”
After the birth of their two children, the couple returned to London in 1983, where Steve initially produced a magazine programme for the elderly called Years Ahead for the new Channel 4. “It was successful in terms of turning off the young audience, and turning on the old audience!” says Steve. “No, I wish to God it was still there, it would tell me how to stay warm in winter. And we lobbied for actual stuff – health, housing. It was a very successful programme.” Then, as social action broadcasting fell out of fashion he shifted into television drama and films, working with a former agitprop theatre director friend, John McGrath, on Scottish political drama Blood Red Roses and an adaptation of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Dressmaker. Mairi left nursing to become a TV production coordinator on shows including Bonnie Girls, from where she moved swiftly into being a producer. They’ve worked together on just two films – William Boyd’s The Trench, starring a young Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy and Daniel Craig, and Derek Jarman’s Edward II, which had to be rewritten and reconceived on a studio set after running into funding difficulties. Throughout, they have jointly run a production company, Skyline Films, as the vehicle for all their projects.
Their credits include Calendar Girls and six Guy Ritchie movies, from Revolver to King Arthur (produced by Steve), and United 93 and Jane Eyre (produced by Mairi). The stars they’ve worked with dazzle in the Hollywood firmament: Johnny Depp (“an absolute joy, the crew would have crawled over hot coals to work with him,” says Mairi); Idris Elba (“boy, he does so much”); Thandi Newton and Arnie Hammer “really annoying… nauseating really” in their good looks, grace and talent. Mairi describes a shoot with Helen Mirren in Tel Aviv, when a US studio insisted that a security detail accompany her to see the sights in Jerusalem, to which Mirren replied, “oh eff that”, hired a car and drove to Jerusalem alone. Alan Rickman became deflated when directing a low-budget film: he asked where his trailer was and Steve pointed to a fold-up chair. Mairi laughs when Steve describes Guy Ritchie as an “auteur”.
The producer–director relationship is never the same from one film to the next, says Mairi, and even if you have a brilliant time with a cast on one movie, you can take them on to the next one and the ambience has completely changed. Films and television programmes that production teams have been really happy with can fail to achieve commercial or critical success, says Steve, while others that one assumes won’t work end up huge successes, such as Saving Grace, starring Brenda Blethyn as a woman who grows cannabis in her greenhouse, which went on to inspire the making of Calendar Girls, too. The film Mairi most enjoyed making was Kinky Boots, for which they closed down a shoe factory in Northampton then rehired all the workers as extras. For later scenes they auditioned two hundered transvestites to play themselves in Raymond Revuebar, requiring them to choose just three outfits. “I couldn’t believe they paid me to do it,” she says. Steve had most fun with Lesbian Vampire Killers, starring Mathew Horne and James Corden, noting “I seriously think there is a missing genre in the film world.”
On the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and harassment claims, both Steve and Mairi echo hopes that there will be a “sea-change in attitudes”. Steve has found himself asking his younger female employees whether his own behaviour is all right. He says he was unaware of the sexual assault allegations around Weinstein before they came out publicly. But he is happy to say on record that Weinstein has been known for years to be “a bully, a pig and just a horrible person if you fall the wrong side of him”, and he hopes the change in the industry will be just as much about addressing this aggressive Hollywood stereotype. One of the difficulties of working with US studios, says Mairi, is executives who have decided, after years in the industry, that it’s acceptable to scream down the telephone in order to set the tone in the office. This leads to a discussion about bullying directors who shout at the wardrobe assistant first thing in the morning because, Mairi says, they’ve come in, probably hungover, without any idea of what they’re filming that day and need to create a diversion. Steve upbraids her for describing such directors as “he”; “the women don’t normally come in unprepared,” retorts Mairi. “The woman might come in and say, ‘I was thinking about those trousers and I’m not sure that they’re right.’ It’s a different thing.”
Steve is currently working at 3 Mills studios in Stratford on an eight-part television programme for a US studio and a US network which will start shooting in January. He’s lived through the transformation of the industry, from being very much the poor relation of film when he and Mairi started, to today’s lavishly funded dramas. They’ve been hurled into short-term funding crises caused by the reform of UK film financing under the last Labour government, aimed at ending the stream of low quality films produced as tax write-offs. While infrastructure has improved, filming in London is more expensive than ever, with the films produced by large American studios only driving up prices and rates. Steve points out the apparent popularity of the South Bank as a location is an illusion – it’s just that it’s accessible to film there. Want to film on the middle of a bridge or from a helicopter over Trafalgar Square? You can do it, providing you stump up the money.
In spite of the financial obstacles, Steve remarks, London remains an exciting entrepreneurial place where everything is possible – in anything from computer technology to hospitality to music. “I worked in Edinburgh, which is a great city, but there was never that combination of opportunities that you had in London. You have the finance and the like-minded people, you’ve got constant competition going on.” And that’s why after more than forty years in the film industry, Steve is back in the capital, at the very heart of the city in Lambeth. It’s a great vote of confidence in London – and also a challenge to politicians to ensure that, in the fast action sequence the UK has been thrown into, this extraordinary appeal doesn’t drain away.