Unusual among film directors, John Schlesinger was a diligent and enthusiastic theatre-goer and over many years we met in my own and other actors' dressing-rooms. Cold Comfort Farm (one of my favourite comic novels) was my first chance to work with him and I jumped at it.
Amos Starkadder, the hell-fire preacher to his congregation of "Quiverers", is a parody of the non-conformist preachers I remember from my childhood. My maternal grandfather was a gentle minister in the Congregational Church but my father's father, William Henry McKellen was a grandiloquent lay preacher, with a soaring tenor voice and a theatrical flair. One of his attention-grabbing tricks was suddenly to stop the flow of his sermon and, gesturing to the back wall of the church, gasp: "I can see the children of Israel!" The congregation's heads would turn round to follow his pointing finger. Amos would have admired that.
The day we filmed the comic sermon in a chapel in the village of Rye (where Henry James and where E. F. Benson lived and imagined "Mapp and Lucia") I worked hard and long. The quivering worshippers were played by local extras and Schlesinger wanted to shoot on their upturned faces early in the day, before boredom might set in. A score of times, acting full out, I shouted the warning "There's no budder in Hell!" and by the middle of the afternoon, when it was time for the camera to reverse its angle and film me in the pulpit, my voice was beginning to crack. Before I had finished, the extras were released and the sermon was preached to the few loyal professionals who stayed behind to give me the eyelines. Fortunately my voice took on a new strength and the resulting scene even makes me laugh.
John was often out of sorts during shooting: not with his cast, whom he by turns indulged and chivvied but with the BBC, whose slender funding was, he felt, inadequate. When the first take of a scene was half-good, it had to be accepted as good enough, the schedule was so tight. The BBC had luck on its side (or had consulted their weather forecasters) because the sun shone day after day and we never had to waste time while rain stopped filming. Offset, the actors' accommodation was minimal. There were only two small trailers for us all - women in one and all the men (plus the director at lunchtime) in the other. This meant many of us changed into costume in the open fields of Sussex. Thank goodness for the weather.
The BBC's miserliness persisted after filming. After its initial success on UK television, Cold Comfort Farm should have had an immediate theatrical release; but it had been shot on 16mm film and cinemas prefer 35mm. John Schlesinger himself paid for the transfer to the larger format and then took the resplendent new version to the Toronto Film Festival where it was a hit leading to a triumphant release in North America. I hope that by now John's financial outlay has been re-paid!
Among the cast of British eccentrics it was a joy to be entertained between takes by Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry and Miriam Margolyes, three of the most accomplished raconteurs in the business. — Ian McKellen, June 2000