|Spencer Leigh played Icky - arguably the most memorable and popular character from One Summer - certainly he had all the best lines! Since moving to the US in 1991, Spencer has moved out of the acting limelight, so as well as discussing his experiences on One Summer, I also took the opportunity to learn more about Spencer's career since that time.|
Were you aware of the impact the series has had and the fact that so many people still remember it?
It has had an impact. I know that because many years ago I was working with a director on a video with the band Oasis and when the guys, the Gallagher brothers, met me, they couldn't believe it. Icky was their hero they told me and that 'One Summer' when they were growing up was the big TV show for them. And the same thing happened to me with Richard Ashcroft (of The Verve) we also did a video with him, and he said the absolute same thing. So I know it's had a big of impact on a lot of people. I was also at a wedding with this actor Rhys Ifans a while ago and he also complemented the show, saying it had influenced him. So I know its been well received and not just with celebrities.
It's great that there is a website,
I think it was a very good show. Even when I look back at it now as an adult
from a different perspective - God I don't even have a proper copy of it - I
only have the first two episodes. I watched the show recently because my girlfriend
wanted to see it. I was glad to look back at it with many happy memories it
was a wonderful experience There were a lot of good people involved - and we
were all very young, naïve, wild and spontaneous.
There were a lot of young guys in 'One Summer'. Were most of the guys in that involved with the Everyman Theatre?
Well Dave (Morrissey) and I were involved in the Everyman Theatre. I was part of the Youth Theatre. I can't remember if Ian (Hart) was, but Dave came later on. The theatre was a pivotal place, and there was a bar below were we all used to go and drink. The theatre was an important cultural centre for a lot of us, we came from diverse backgrounds - it's like sport, it was a great escape. I was in an Alan Bleadsdale play called 'No More Sitting on the Old School Bench' at the youth theatre. I think a couple of the guys - Mike Lannigan who had a small part in 'One Summer' (Collins) was also in that play. It would be interesting to check out the archives of the Everyman actually.
Somebody made a comment that there are a disproportionate number of very successful actors from Liverpool and that they put it down to the Everyman. That because there was the focus and this gathering point and encouragement going on in Liverpool that wasn't necessarily happening in other regional areas.
Yeah definitely. I mean all my mates, if we didn't have that, God knows, we would have been in trouble. It's a bit like 'One Summer' dare I say it. Here was a place that you could get some freedom, and you could learn something new as well as you could meet, you know, chicks - you could meet girls. But you could also meet older intellectual people and maybe you didn't get that kind of stimulation at home, which I think was very true of almost everyone. It sparked a different thing that probably none of us had ever had before. When I look back now, it was sort of like a classless society. It didn't matter where you came from, and I think that was a really crucial thing. It didn't matter, as long as you were in the play and you were having a good time and you were meeting people. It certainly didn't matter to me.
So you were saying, if that hadn't been there, who knows what people would have been getting up to. Was that picture of Liverpool that was represented in 'One Summer', was it an accurate representation, were things really that bad at that time.
I think things were really bad in Liverpool. I think it's a really rough city. I mean I think it's a fantastic city and by God I'm glad I was born there. But it's a tough place. It's always been a tough place. It's a seaport, so that means there's all sorts of nefarious things happening, drugs and poverty, its inevitable. There's a lot of thieving and people live those lives. I don't think 'One Summer' was much of a farfetched story, in fact I think things were probably more violent. You're limited to what you can show on TV. There were knife gangs, and bottling was common. I'm sure now with the new drugs and guns it's probably more violent, not unlike America, I haven't lived there for so long. Its difficult to make a comment on society today in Liverpool, but I can say it's a fucking tough place. No one can deny that - it's a hard place. And people stealing cars absolutely - I knew loads of people that used to nick cars, or if they didn't nick them, they stole things inside them or off them. Petty thievery you know - not an uncommon thing.
You were saying when we spoke before that your girlfriend had asked to watch the tapes that you had. I'm just curious to know what her reaction was to seeing it, presumably she hadn't seen you doing something of that style before.
She loved it. She wanted to see more but unfortunately I only have episodes 1 & 2 on tape. I don't know where the rest of the episodes have gone.
So when would you have last seen the compete series?
I haven't seen it since 83. I remember it and have very good memories of it though. It's not the kind of thing you forget because to be a kid from Liverpool and then the next thing you're doing a five hour TV series. You can't really forget that can you? It changes your life. One day you're just a kid in Liverpool waiting for the bus, the next day you're working for 6 months on a TV show and you're one of the lead characters meeting all these fantastic people for the first time. It's a life changer.
What was the process you went through to get that part?
Lots of auditions. At the time I
was going to a local drama school, that wasn't a particularly good one. But
I had been in the youth theatre and someone told me there was this TV show that
they were going up for. I eventually heard about the audition and I was like,
God I'd really like to go for that, what have I got to loose. And then I went
to meet the director Gordon Flemyng who was a fantastic guy at the hotel and
the casting director. I did several auditions and I had a great sense that I
was going to get the part because I knew the glove fit. When I went there I
felt fantastic. And after being there about 3 or 4 times I felt like if I didn't
get the job I'd done great. It really helped me with my confidence, it really
helped me in a big way. It was a fantastic feeling to go and meet these people
and read this script and read words that you understood.
What your reaction to the script when you first read through it?
I just thought it was great didn't
I, because it was something I could relate to. But also I didn't know any better,
so it was bound to be great. I'd love to reread it.
That was another thing I was wondering - reading a couple of newspaper articles from the time, I got the impression that it did actually change quite a lot over the process of the production.
I can't fully remember that. I can remember the experiences, but I'm sure it did. With TV shows and movies, they shoot one thing, and it may not be what's in the end product.
I mean the only real bitter disappointment for me at the time was that Willy Russell very much opposed myself and Dave being the guys. I have a lot of respect for Willy Russell, he's a fantastic playwright and just thinking back that was obviously something to do with him and the director. It had nothing to do with us.
I've read a few press articles that say he wasn't happy because of your age. I understand that obviously both of you were older than the characters, but that's really very common when playing juvenile roles.
Of course . Just to take two kids who've got no experience is an amazing risk for a director, to get them to shape these characters or to understand the role. Even if they are similar to the character, it was still a big leap of faith on behalf of Gordon Flemyng.
And I think the proof of it all is that the people who remember the series now were 14 year old and they found it completely convincing.
Absolutely - I mean I got loads of
letters off people saying how great it was and I never received a letter saying
what a piece of shit it was. Just before One Summer - Boys from the Blackstuff
came out, another Liverpool drama written by Alan Bleadsdale which was a fabulous
show. I remember One Summer being one of Channel 4s first big TV productions,
so it was a big thing when the show came out, and it got repeated again quite
quickly afterwards.. I'd
like to watch it all again to be honest with you. Once upon a time they said
it may get released again but I don't know if that was true or not. It was never
released on video.
It would be great if Willy Russell put his name back on it. If they ever re-released it I think it would be a fantastic thing. There were some very talented people on the show. They had a legendary cameraman called Peter Jackson he was a fabulous guy and very highly heralded at Yorkshire TV. He was a wonderful guy, that was very helpful to me while shooting. Gordon was a great guy (Director Gordon Flemyng). I was greatly influenced by him, and we stayed in touch - I would speak to him all the time. I was sad when he passed away. There were a lot of interesting people on the crew. Yorkshire were doing some wonderful TV drama at that time. I don't know what they are producing now, but they definitely did some very interesting TV dramas. They had a show called 'Harry's Game' (also produced by Keith Richardson) about the IRA which was a fantastic show.
The other person I've contacted who presumably you didn't have any contact with at the time - is Alan Parker who did the music.
Yep - great great music.
Yeah - again it's one of those things that people remember about the series.
Fantastic harmonica, I think the Manfred Mann guy played it - Paul Jones. I don't know if you can get hold of that but I would love a CD of that music.
Actually - we did get as far as confirming he thinks he's still got the original recordings in his archive and he's going to have a look, and he has all the rights to them.
I used to have it on cassette - Gordon gave me a cassette of all the different takes of it which was fantastic so it does exist. And then unfortunately I lived in an apartment building that burned down and the tapes went with it.
He also said he'd sent the master tapes to Yorkshire Television, so I guess it's possible they might still have them.
If Alan finds that I'd love to get a copy. I'm not too much of a nostalgic person, but that would be something nice to have.
One thing I remember you saying when we had that brief chat in London, was you said something along the lines of, how memorable it was because you were so young, and you said you were all young and crazy and naïve. I was wondering what kind of effect that had during the production. You had a big group of young men all together. Did that mean that there were crazy things going on?
I don't remember too many crazy things going on. It was slightly different for Dave and I because we had to be a bit more focused but when the other guys came around and when we did scenes with them it was obviously a different vibe. It was obviously a lot funnier, and less serious. Whereas when we were doing it by ourselves, just Dave and I and James Hazeldine. Even so it was fun. Also I think by then we had started to get a little more intense with the acting and could focus on things to do with the part. Like I say, we weren't professional actors, so it was a leap of faith on behalf of the director really.
Obviously you and Dave Morrissey both turned in absolutely brilliant performances, but really all the young actors did terrific jobs. Was that just Gordon Flemyng knowing how to cast well, or did he know how to work with young people?
I think that basically we had a lot of faith in Gordon Flemyng. He was this interesting Glaswegian guy who was an ex-alcoholic. He was quite a tough guy and I think we did all sort of relate to him. He had that going for him, as well as he had made some interesting TV shows. I was definitely put under his spell.
You said you kept in contact with him.
Yeah, I did keep in contact with him. I did a play in a lunch time theatre and he came along to see it. He was a very nice guy. I stayed in touch with him and ironically many years later.... he has a son now that is an actor called Jason Flemyng who was in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. He once told a friend that I was Gordon's favourite actor. Isn't that a funny thing to say, or a sweet thing to say. I just think that he had a good control over us and we all had faith in him. Dave and I were discovering the characters as we were going along but I think he allowed us to be spontaneous, and he knew when to take things down, if things were looking a bit large. Because I think sometimes when people don't have the skill they tend to be a bit actorish whereas I think screen acting is often really subtle.
So was there any ad-libbing involved?
I actually know a bit were there was some ad-libbing when Dave Morrissey says a classic line 'there's a thistle in my prick'. Which is the scene where we're feeding the birds and I think we roll down this hill. If I recall - and I think he got a thistle in his ah - penis. I think he actually says that, I'd have to look at it as I say. I just remember him saying that, and it was a really funny.
I can imagine
A strange but funny thing to say.
That was a question that people asked me a lot - because I think that people found the dialogue and just the actions so totally believable that they assumed (it was ad-libbed).
No I think that that's the skill of Willy Russell as a writer to be honest with you. Oh I think we made things up as we went along, but I think they were more things to do with what went on in the scene. I don't recall changing the dialogue much. But I do remember there'd be scenes where we'd add something to it - but I guess that's just acting. I remember the scene in the barn and I turn the book upside down. The reason I turned it upside down is I thought, well this kid can't read.
That's funny because that was one of the examples I was going to give to ask if it was ad-libbed. There are a couple of things like that - particularly from you that are perfect visual comedy that come across brilliantly and really adds to that character a great deal. There was one scene were you and Dave Morrissey are settling into your room and Kidder comes in with coffee and you say something like 'would you mind if you knocked' and he has to go back outside the room. Do you remember that?
Oh that's a beautiful line. I'm afraid to say that I think that could be in the script. I can't quite remember - I remember the line when you just told me - it's an absolutely beautiful line.
The delivery was spot on as well. Did you keep in contact with any of the other people from the show? Any of the other boys from Liverpool?
Sadly not, because after One Summer came out then Dave went off to RADA and I decided that I wasn't going to go to drama college and instead I went to London and got an agent. So I lost touch with those people. Every now and then I'd bump into other friends of mine who were at RADA as well and occasionally I'd see Dave, but it was occasionally. I saw Ian a couple of years ago when I was living in LA and he was doing a movie. He got my number from some other actor friends of ours and called me up. But I kind of lost touch with people. I remember Mike Lannigan being a great character - who was a really really funny guy. I can't remember that many people that we were super tight with. It was just one of those things, you don't realise the demands you have on you until you get involved in something like that. It's actually quite a demanding thing. But when you're a young kid you've just got all that energy and spontaneity so you just go with it. But any actor who gets a part on a 5 hour TV show is usually incredibly stoked and is also usually under incredible pressure.
With James Hazeldine's death last year - I know from Dave Morrissey that he was very good friends with him so obviously it meant a lot for him to work with him. But do you have any particular memories of working with James?
He was a great guy James Hazeldine. I actually didn't find out until Christmas time that he'd died and I was looking someone's name up on the web doing some research and low and behold it said he was dead. I was really really upset to be honest. He was a fabulous guy, the great thing about James was he was a really regular guy and he was also a very well established actor, but he never made you feel uncomfortable and I think that really helped Dave and I performance wise.
Given that the two of you were so new to it all, did he play a part in teaching you the ropes.
I don't know that he necessarily taught us the ropes but I think by watching him you did learn a lot because he had this wonderful way about him as an actor - his line deliveries were always amazingly simple and naturalistic which is something that we all aspire to.
You did have some absolutely classic scenes with him. There is a scene where you are cutting up wood, and he comes in and says 'what do you think you're doing', and you say 'nothing', and he says 'exactly', but it's the delivery that makes it roll around funny.
I remember that very well. I remember doing that scene and I remember James just really laughing a lot. I think we shot that quite early on actually, because we were at that house for quite a while in the schedule and I just remember him really laughing, and he just kept taking the mickey out of me, the way I said the line, but kind of in an endearing loving way. And then I think he realised that this chemistry was going to work. He was a really charming guy. I remember after we'd done the show he'd go to his house in the countryside - he lived outside Oxford - and he invited me over with my girlfriend. He was a genuine guy and a very respected actor. I feel very honoured to have worked with someone like him. There were a couple of scenes - he was one of those actors that you just got so much off. Because so much of acting is about reacting as well and with someone like him he'd say a line to you and you'd do the right thing - you didn't even have to think about it. It was there, and I think that's what acting is, and you're not thinking about the lines. Acting is about reacting.
You mentioned the house where you filmed. Do you remember where that was?
I just remember it was somewhere in Yorkshire. The location scouts at Yorkshire would know exactly where.
The reason why I ask is the person who asked that question had met Peter Kindred the production designer running a B&B in Wales.
Someone else told me that too. We shot some of One Summer in Wales - I don't know if it was the same time he was looking for places (laughs)
Well actually he has a website and on his website he says he that while he was working on the show he fell in love with Wales and decided to move there. But unfortunately he sold the B&B recently and no one can get in contact with him. I think about 6 months ago and he's moved on.
Well there's a story isn't it. How funny.
Did you spend a lot of time in Wales?
Lets see - what did we film in Wales. The scenes where we steal a tractor, I think that was all Wales, and the scene where we're stuck in the middle of nowhere. When we jumped off the train was in Yorkshire I think. And when the cops peed on us was in Wales. The kids camp was definitely Wales.
The only thing that I do know that I do have - talking about Peter Kindred is that I do have a book - when he drew the One Summer books that Kidder gave us, I still have one of those books. I kept it - it's probably one of the only mementoes I have from One Summer.
That's amazing. Does it have many pages, or only the pages we end out seeing?
No - I think it has a whole story of images.
So did Peter Kindred draw that up himself?
I think he did, or he got someone to draw it up through his art department.
It would be absolutely wonderful to see that...
Was there any scene or line that was a highlight for you?
There were absolutely tonnes of lines. The whole thing - like I said last time - I think it was such a shame about Willy Russell because for one I was such a huge fan of Willy Russell's work, and still am a fan. I went and saw all his plays - the original Educating Rita, all his plays that he wrote at the Everyman and Playhouse. I was a huge fan of his - he was a big important figure in Liverpool. So when I originally got the script I thought, 'God it's written by Willy Russell, wow, this is a really great thing', and then unfortunately like I said what happened happened. I think a large percentage is to do with the writing. If you've got something that's well written - I'm not saying that it's not difficult to make a mess of things, but if you've got something that's well written it makes a big difference - a big difference for everybody. I think the show had a lot of pathos - especially Icky's character. And I think that's the genius of the writing.
On the guestbook one of the questions that people are asked is who their favourite character was. A lot of people say all three of them, because they were all great characters. But the highest percentage do say Icky. What is interesting is that people's reason's for finding Icky their favourite differ. The character of Billy in some ways is a lot more straight forward. The character of Icky - there is a lot more interpretation - a lot more unknown about him.
Yeah I agree.
One thing I found interesting, and I'm wondering if it was something you were aware of at the time or if this comes as a surprise to you is that there are a fair few gay fans who identify with Icky. Does that come as surprise to you?
A bit of a surprise. I'd never thought of it that way. That's interesting though. In what sense?
I think the thing is - because Icky is shown as being jealous of the relationship that Billy and Kidder has, and there's that absolutely classic scene between Billy and Icky where Icky says 'If I could be anyone in the world I'd be you.'
I think that to me is one of the
most crucial scenes in the whole film. I'd never thought of that. I think it's
because he's envious of him, is how I looked at it. He's envious that he's kind
of a smart guy, he's strong and has those kind of virtues. While Icky is obviously
lost, a little bit slow, and really doesn't see much of a future. He sees Billy
- Billy obviously has a future. I'd never looked upon it that other way, but
I can see how people could relate to that.
I think in a way that makes it an even more interesting program, that it can be interpreted different ways like that.
Sure - I think the audience can think what they want to think, and that's their prerogative as the audience, how they see things.
It's interesting the idea of homosexuality - that Kidder is gay at the end - is really done in a very understated way and it really isn't an issue during most of the program. Presumably it was in the original script
but it almost seems like it's been added in at the end to complicate the relationships. To make the relationships less black and white.
Yeah - but it was beautifully written. I just think - it's like when you put kids in a sandpit, when kids are babies and they don't know what racism is, they don't know what any of this bias is. Until one day an adult says, oh that guy's a chink, or that guy's a nigger or something like that. And it's a bit like that on One Summer. It doesn't really matter what Kidder is. It's only at the end revealed. They never really think about it do they? It's interesting - I forget what was going on in England at that time. I wonder how homophobic people were.
I'm not sure - I would have thought it would still have been fairly controversial.
Yes - but it's very subtly done isn't it? If someone's good to you they're good to you, and that's what that guy is to those kids. I think it's a genuine companionship with these two young kids and he's nice to them. I think he sees that they're wayward kids and maybe it's also like adopting these kids. Now in the States it's very a popular thing for gay couples to have kids.
When we were talking about Willy Russell's reaction to the series before, is that something you were only aware of after the program was finished and those articles appeared in the paper, or when the production was actually going on did you know?
I kind of knew. Because quite often the writer will appear on set when you're shooting, so I think it had already happened. I can't even remember if the script I have has Willy Russell's name on it - it may have already been taken off. Who knows what the show would have been like. If some other actors had played Billy and Icky, would it have been as popular?
He obviously had a very clear idea in his head of what he wanted and you guys obviously weren't it, but I get the feeling he wanted much younger naïve boys. But it would have been a much different production if you had had younger boys.
I don't think it would have worked. It's a very common thing to do, there's always shows where the actors are older than the character they're playing .
I saw something else that he'd done a few years before that I know he's very fond of called 'Our Day Out'.
Oh yes - fantastic thing.
It's great - I presume that his vision of One Summer would have been something like that . And if it was it would have been very different because I think Our Day Out's terrific - but I think in a way there's less depth to it because although the child performances are great they are still fairly one dimensional I think, and I think that's inevitable when you've got 13 year old kids.
I think you're absolutely right. I know he's very fond of Our Day Out. I remember seeing that on TV and being blown away by it at the time. I'm sure he did want it to be like Our Day Out, but I agree with you I think the characters would have been different, I put that down to the director. I think being a director myself you realise how important casting is and you've got to cast the right people in the role. When you cast the right actor in a role, you can see something in their reading and you know you can take that further, you know when the actor is absolutely spot on. Directing young actors its like horse riding. You've just got to know when to be gentle with the horse and when to be firm. I think Gordon Flemyng knew what he was doing, I really do.
When you were filming the show did you have an expectation that it would have the impact that it had? Does it surprise you that people remember the series the way they have?
When it came out I thought it was going to be good, but I didn't necessarily know how good it was going to be. And when it started getting pretty good reviews and people really liked it ,it was a wonderful thing. As an actor you just try to do the best you can do. You're not necessarily in control of the whole product are you? So you just hope that what you do is as good as it can be. I was never fully aware. Only now am I aware when people have come up to me, how important it was for them and what impact it had. Like I said those guys from that group Oasis came up to me when I was working on their video, and said it was a major TV show and it had left a very strong impression on them. I think a lot of people related to it. I think it's good story telling, and people relate to good story telling.
I wonder were all of those people teenagers at the time.
It has to be people of that generation, I can't see how it could be anything else. I have a head for TV shows of the 70's that I grew up on. I think it's that kind of thing. Those things were memorable to me. One Summer fits into that category. It captures a period in time, where it was memorable for people of that generation who were growing up. - I still think England makes the best TV drama in the world. I watch TV here in the States. We have PBS which broadcasts British TV dramas, they're always incredibly well acted and written.The British make great television.
Did you watch the show as it was going to air? What was your family's reaction, was it something they were very supportive of?
Yeah I watched it in my living room with my family in Liverpool. Every Sunday night when it was on we'd watch it. I remember it bringing a lot of happiness to my family and also to my friends. I also remember - like all these things, being in a TV show, the other side, people being a bit off to you. Celebrity has weird effects on people, but most people were fantastic. When One Summer came out, I remember, I'd just be walking down the street and especially in Liverpool people would just come up to you all the time and tell you how good it was and how much it meant to them, which was a really nice rewarding thing. Or you'd go to places and someone would want to buy you a drink. It was a great thing, I'm really proud of that show.
I think when you're involved with something like that it never gets rubbed out of your mind. David Morrissey has moved on to do many things but I'm sure he often thinks about One Summer, and that it was the catalyst for many other things. Being given the opportunity to do something like that - working with these fabulous professional people and going to Yorkshire.
I remember something funny. Dave and I would occasionally drive up from Liverpool. I had an orange Volkswagen and we'd go up to Yorkshire TV and whenever we'd go there, I think they thought Dave and I were two thugs. The security guys would always check us out, always want us to sign in, even if we'd been in and out of the building 10 times, still. We were always very uppity about it, we were like - oh God it's typical - Liverpool - they thing we're like yobs.
And I wonder did they do it to everybody and it was just you being sensitive?
Maybe yeah, maybe at the time but it was funny.
So after you finished One Summer, did you go straight to London after that?
Well the show got repeated about a year later. It had its initial impact then it got repeated again and after the second time I thought I'm going to go to London and see if I can get an agent so that's what I did. In the meantime other shows had contacted me. I didn't quite know how to go about it. I remember there was a soap in England called Brookside, which was a local thing. Anyone who'd been in One Summer they'd call up, you know? To see if they were available or interested in meeting them.
But doing something like that wasn't of interest to you at the time?
No - it wasn't of interest. All I was really interested in was doing more dramas. It seemed to me - I'd had this one opportunity and being quite naïve I thought - God now I've done one maybe I can get another (laughs) I didn't realise how hard it was.
So in looking at the work you did after One Summer, the thing that pops out most obviously is that you'd done several things with Derek Jarman. There's a big jump from a narrative drama like One Summer to some of Jarman's more experimental stuff like The Garden.
It was a huge jump. What happened is one of his producers had actually seen One Summer and I met up with him and he asked me to be in Caravaggio. That's how I met him, and I just became friends with Derek and every time he made a movie he'd put me in it. I wouldn't even ask. I was fascinated by him as a person, this English eccentric and radical. And also the people he surrounded himself with, that was part of his charm. He was an English Warhol.- but without the money (laughs).
I found an article that I think was done only a couple of years after One Summer - probably just after you'd done Caravaggio, for some glossy magazine, with you and a group of about 4 other young British actors. The article was called 'The Brit Pack'. It had a comment in it that you'd just done Caravaggio and something along the lines that there was the risk that working with someone like Jarman was going to impact on your chances of doing other more mainstream gigs. Was that actually an issue do you think?
When I think about it now it probably was an issue. I mean in the 80's people were very homophobic and I think to be in allegiance with Derek was definitely not everyone's bag. But in saying that many talented people worked with him, I mean like Nigel Terry, and Robbie Coltrane, and Michael Gough, and Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton to name a few. There were lots of fantastic people in Caravaggio, and I think Derek was quite a catalyst for making peoples careers happen. So I think it was six of one and half a dozen of the other as they say.
What else were you doing at that time?
I got called in to do a lot of other English TV stuff. I did Inspector Morse and that was a good experience and something I'm quite proud of. I thought that was a good TV show. I think I was in the first Inspector Morse. And it was terrific to work with someone like John Thaw and Gemma Jones. For me it was always about working with people, I really enjoyed that as an actor. I did Boon, with Michael Elphic, all the regular TV stuff, which is the staple thing you do as a working actor in England. But it's very easy to get caught in that - you'll do a Casualty, and you'll do a Boon, and you'll do this one and you'll do that one and before you know it you're a jobbing actor.
What have you been doing more recently?
Right now I work in documentaries. I've been working in advertising for the last few years, directing TV commercials. I came to America around '91 - it was relationship related shall we say. I had an agent who was at ICM, and they sent me to see the ICM people in the States. Basically they mentioned all these European actors that weren't working - and said to me they didn't think they could help me. It was at the time before 'Train Spotting' or any of these movies came out that sort of allowed English actors back into America. So I had to work out what I was going to do. I ended up marrying this girl who I'd know for a long time in England,she was an American and that got me my green card.
I ended up meeting someone I'd known a long time ago in England who was Jake Scott, the son of Ridley Scott the filmmaker. He was a director and I knew him from London so I asked him to give me a job. He said, well I can't get you an acting job, but I could probably get you some work in production. That sounded good to me and I thought it would be interesting going to work for Ridley Scott's production company. So I worked there for a couple of years.
So is that where you were doing the music videos?
Yes, I was working in music videos - I became his assistant, and basically he was one of the biggest music video directors at the time. We did various videos for people like REM, the Rolling Stones and SoundGarden. We also worked on a lot of big commercials for companies like Nike and such. To be honest with you I'd put my mind off the acting for the time being because I just thought this is the direction I'm going and I'm going to go with the momentum of life. After a couple of years of working for Jake he suggested I should try to direct my own stuff. My first commercial was for a thing called 'Rock the Vote' with Cypress Hill for MTV. But it was too racy and they decided not to air it, because it showed them swearing, and all the expletives were beeped out.
It never made it to air then?
Eventually it did, but it took a while. In the mean time I started directing little commercials and then after a couple of years of being at that company I moved to another company, because whenever you work at a place where you've been an assistant it's very hard for people to see you beyond an assistant. So I moved to another company and was doing that the last couple of years really. I've directed TV commercials for all sorts of things from women's soap to tractors. I've sold all sorts of things! (laughs) And then I needed to find a new challenge - in commercials you have to deal with a lot of people and you're selling a product - you're not necessarily selling yourself.
So there's a lot of compromise involved I suppose.
Yeah I think advertising is. It's very easy to get caught up in advertising because it is a lucrative business.
Fortunately I got to know the Criterion people and I've just started working for them as a freelance producer/director. I'm trying to develop projects about British filmmakers from the 60s to the present. I'm a huge movie fan, I'm interested in exposing these filmmakers to another audience that doesn't necessarily know them. I think through dvd and documentation you can do that.
Do the Criterion releases get released in the UK, or only America?
No it doesn't get released outside the US, but because it is such a well known collection, a lot of people that know about movies know Criterion. The Criterion Collection are dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world.and publishing them in editions that offer the highest technical quality. I remember Dave and I would discuss films, we were both very keen on the British 'kitchen sink' dramas from the early sixties, the likes of Saturday Night Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life,and A Kind of Loving. These films appealed to me for many reasons. They were working class dramas, brilliantly acted with people like Allen Bates, Albert Finney and Richard Harris. Criterion will be releasing This Sporting Life, so I'm very excited about that.
I wanted to ask about Criterion - I hadn't been aware that you had worked on other projects with them. Did you first become involved with them because of the link with Derek Jarman* or did that come up because you suggested it? (*Spencer Leigh directed a documentary for Criterion's release of Jarman's Jubilee, as well as appearing in many of Jarman's later films himself)
No, I met the guy who owns the company, Peter Becker, through a mutual friend and we became good friends. He was quite surprised by my extensive knowledge of movies, and he would often discuss films that they were going to release. I remember once, well prior to working for them, he came over to my house in Los Angeles and showed me Mike Leigh's Naked. I was very impressed by it and I thought the performance by David Thewlis was brilliant and I was delighted when they released it as part of the collection. Anyway I met him and we had the common ground of the movies. He suggested I work on Jubilee because I knew many of the people from working on other Jarman projects.
The movie I'm working on at the moment, I originally went to see in 1987 - around the time I was doing Caravaggio or maybe a little later - I watched it and I thought 'oh God another Merchant Ivory Edwardian movie'I'm doing it as part of a whole series of releases for a Merchant Ivory Collection.
Which one is this?
Maurice. I've since changed my opinion, but it took me quite some time to go down the road and re-examine it. It was also the first lead performances of Hugh Grant and James Wilby who I recently interviewed who is a very nice chap. Movies are just an amazing thing. The way they effect individuals. For me it's about being involved with the medium, even if I'm not being an actor, which I'm not at this moment in time. But just the idea of... It's something that really excites me.
So are you interested in going back to acting in the future?
I think directing is something I really want to continue to do, and is the path I'm taking right now. But I wouldn't write it off. I think if someone said to me, would you like to do something Spencer, and they said to me we really want you to do it, I'd probably say yes if I thought it was something I could do or something I was interested in. Actually only recently have I felt this way, but I don't write it off. I never thought that way until a couple of months ago.
Do you think there was something that set that off, or was it just a question of moving into another phase?
I think it was a question of moving into another phase, and I think that at the time I was at a different stage in my life. I'd met someone, I was married and I was living in California, and I didn't have connections, or commitment. I was in a whole different place and I didn't have an American accent. There were lots of things that were the catalyst for it. I think if I had stayed in London I would have remained being an actor. But I don't know if I would have gone down the road where I am at now. It's those funny things that happen in life isn't it?
It's interesting, this is the first project I've done doing this kind of research. And it's interesting to see the different paths people have taken, and just to see where everyone's ended out. And like you said - there are still further paths.
Absolutely. I admire people that were in 'One Summer'. I haven't watched much stuff that Dave Morrissey's been in. But when I was watching TV the other day when I was in England I saw something - he's coming out in this thing 'The Deal' - it looks fantastic. I think he's an incredibly talented guy. He was always a very intense guy, and I liked that about him. But I've been involved with lots of projects with people who've gone on to be incredibly successful which is quite an interesting thing too. But anyhow I think he's very talented guy, and I'm very glad - you know what I mean? Same with the other people that were in that project - obviously Ian Davies or Ian Hart. It's great to see him - every now and then I'll see his name and I'll be very curious to see it. To see where people have gone and what they're about.
Thanks so much for your time Spencer - it's been great.
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