Oscar-winning film-maker Sam Mendes vividly recalls how his grandfather, Alfred Herbert Mendes, used to wash his hands. ‘He’d clean them incessantly, and I used to laugh about it,’ he said.
The 54-year-old director was still in short trousers at the time and didn’t know the reason for his beloved grandad’s obsessive behaviour.
One day he asked his own father about it. ‘And my dad explained that Grandad remembered the mud of the trenches during the war, when he could never get clean.
‘It shocked me — and I felt bad for laughing. I didn’t understand at that stage of my life what the trenches were. But that was still with him in his 70s. He was a teenager when he went to war, and that lodged in my mind,’ Mendes told me.
The director of hit James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre said his grandfather’s stories fuelled in him a fascination not just with the Great War, but with the man who led ‘an extraordinary 20th-century life’.
Filming on set: Sam Mendes is hands on with his directing role in 1917 which will be shown in London as this year’s Royal Film Performance
Mendes said his grandfather Alfred Herbert Mendes (pictured above) had obsessive behaviour due to him being in the trenches during the war
The film is out for general release on January 10. A still image from the film above shows cast members Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman)
They also inspired the acclaimed stage and screen director to make 1917, which in my view deserves to join the roll call of the greatest war films ever made.
The tales Alfred Mendes told his grandchildren about his two years on the Western Front, serving with the 1st Battalion, Rifle Brigade, form the outline of Mendes’s movie. It follows two British soldiers charged with entering enemy territory to deliver a message to another battalion’s commander — a message that could save 1,600 UK servicemen’s lives.
It’s a giant film, and Mendes admitted he would not have had the guts to make it without the experience gleaned from the 007 pictures. The fact that he’s a father of four children, ranging in age from two to 19, also affected his view of a war that wiped out a generation.
The film has been edited so that the audience feels as though they are looking through the camera. Colin Firth plays General Erinmore (pictured above)
On Wednesday, 1917 will be shown in London as this year’s Royal Film Performance (it will go on general release in the UK on January 10).
Mendes completed the movie only ten days ago, but already it is being mentioned as an Oscar and Bafta contender — and not just by me.
On one level, 1917 is a technical tour de force because it appears to have been shot in a single, continuous, two-hour take. Of course, it wasn’t. But it’s been edited so that we, the audience, feel as though we are looking through the camera. Mendes, Roger Deakins (his celebrated cinematographer), his creative team and cast spent six months ‘prepping’ the picture.
‘Every set had to be constructed to the length of the scene,’ he explained. ‘You have to go out there with a script, measuring distances.’
The creative team behind the film spent six months prepping the picture. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) in 1917
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the film and plays Colonel Mackenzie (pictured above)
An early scene of the two lance corporals, Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay giving extraordinary performances) hurrying through a series of trenches to reach an officer, required a mile of winding ditches to be dug.
Deakins built a new camera, small enough to go into fox holes and dugouts.
The crew worked with two scripts: one had all the dialogue; the second had maps of locations, with arrows showing where the cameras would go.
Mendes said Chapman and MacKay first put on their kit six months before filming. They were on Salisbury Plain, where sections of 1917 were shot.
‘We looked like a bunch of crazy re-enactors, sticking flags in the ground,’ Mendes laughed as we shared a pot of tea at the Ham Yard Hotel in Central London this week.
Mendes said Chapman and MacKay (pictured above) first put on their kit six months before filming
He and Deakins travelled to northern France and walked the area of the Somme, for background. They couldn’t film there, because all the old villages had been razed during the war, and the new ones were the wrong vintage.
They talked to a farmer who told them to bend down and feel the soil. ‘There’s shrapnel and barbed wire still strewn across the landscape,’ Mendes marvelled. ‘The farmer said it would take 400 years for the earth to push up everything that’s down there.’
Mendes’s grandfather, Alfred, who was of Portuguese Creole descent and lived in Port of Spain, Trinidad, was one of four sentries who stood honour guard when a war memorial was unveiled on the Caribbean island in 1921.
‘He was a live wire, my grandad,’ Mendes said. ‘He never really told his own children stories of the war. I think it was perhaps too close, when his own kids were young.
‘But he would have a rum on his porch in Trinidad and hold forth. If he was in the right mood, he’d tell you proper stories.’
The film is not an account of Alfred Mendes’s war. Rather, it’s inspired by him. The idea was to get a glimpse of the conflict ‘through the keyhole of one man’s experience . . . if you were to try to take on the scale of the whole war, you’d be lost’.
Mendes didn’t want to make a dry and dusty historical movie (‘like being made to eat peas’, as he put it).
Instead, he has created an emotional roller-coaster. Neither Blake nor Schofield have fantastical super powers — but they possess courage, dignity and honour in abundance. Which ensures that audiences of all ages will remember those who lost their lives for our freedom.
The blue fairy that sent Cynthia on her way to Hollywood
After Cynthia Erivo won a Tony award for her performance in The Color Purple on Broadway — in a role she originated in her home town of London — she thought she might be asked to do something exciting in the West End. Or land a juicy TV role.
Cynthia Erivo (pictured above) won a Tony award for her performance in The Color Purple
But it didn’t happen. ‘I was offered the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio at the National Theatre,’ Erivo told me.
‘I knew what hard work looked like — and I’ve never shied away from it — but I wasn’t prepared to go backwards,’ she said.
‘To take that part would be almost like laughing at the people who’d invested so much energy in me,’ added the actress, who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Erivo had been on the UK tour of Sister Act when she mentioned to her cast mates that she wanted to audition for The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. They asked if she was aiming to be an understudy. ‘I said “No! I want to play the lead”. They thought I was crazy,’ she recalled.
Fast-forward a few years and I’m in the U.S., where I spot Erivo’s face gazing down from massive billboards promoting the scorching film Harriet.
The movie tells the story of Harriet Tubman, the freedom fighter who used daredevil tactics to free slaves. I saw it for a second time this week (in London) and I was struck by how gripped a group of youths were as they watched Erivo’s no- nonsense heroine, pistol in hand, enter a plantation to free members of her family.
The actress has come a long way since she turned her back on the NT’s Blue Fairy.
She appeared in Steve McQueen’s Widows, and is presently portraying queen of soul Aretha Franklin in a TV drama called Genius, that’s filming at the moment.
Erivo puts her success down to her mother, Edith, who moved to London from her home in Nigeria when she was 24.
‘She has a streak of stubbornness in her,’ she said of her mum, who put herself through college, studying for two degrees.
‘She decided to learn to drive; so she did. I was in the car! I don’t remember being terrified,’ she said with a smile.
Erivo trained for months to have enough stamina to carry off the more athletic moments in Harriet.
The film’s director, Kasi Lemmons, wanted to present Tubman as a woman of action, and not ‘a humble old lady who wore old lady clothes’.
‘She had no fear and we wanted to show that,’ Erivo says. Two years ago after her Broadway success she sang at the Oscars Ball. There’s a lot of chatter that in February she may be walking the Academy Awards red carpet . . . as a best actress contender.
I hope her mother gets to be her date.
Search for a perfect boyfriend
Ah, how divine! In a scene from The Boy Friend, these perfect young ladees are ‘being finished’ at Madame Dubonnet’s (a hilarious Janie Dee) Finishing School in Nice. That’s Polly Browne (Amara Okereke).
She and her classmates are all hoping to attract husbands whose credit is good.
But first Polly needs to find a suitable boy in Sandy Wilson’s charming musical, which is in previews at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
It’s directed by Matthew White and choreographed by Bill Deamer.
The cast of the show are pictured above in their pastel dress costumes
Well, hello, lolly! The Hello, Dolly! musical, starring Imelda Staunton as matchmaker Dolly Levi, won’t begin performances at the Adelphi Theatre till August 11.
But by this weekend it will have sold £1 million worth of tickets. After the 30-week run, Ms Staunton will (as I revealed last week) portray the Queen in series 5 and 6 of Netflix drama The Crown, following on from Claire Foy and Olivia Colman.
Imedla Staunton (pictured above) is starring in The Hello, Dolly! musical as matchmaker Dolly Levi
Last Christmas, actor Paul Walter Hauser went to the cinema to see Clint Eastwood’s The Mule.
Little did he know that a few months later he’d be starring in Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, as a security guard who became the main suspect for 1996’s Atlanta Olympics bombing. It opens here on January 31.
Paul Walter Hauser (pictured above) is to star in Clint Eastwood’s latest film Richard Jewell