Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
FRINGE REPORT INTERVIEW: MICHAEL SARNE
He walked out of his finals to record the smash hit 'Come Outside' in 1962. Now he's making the director's cut of his legendary international cult-movie Myra Breckenridge. Oh, and he's a fabulous fringe theatre director, and at 62 he's dead cool and sexy. John Park meets Michael 'Mike' Sarne
Michael Sarne strolls into Soho's Blue Room precisely on time, and stretches out in a chair. He's 6 foot tall, slim, astoundingly cool, casually smart in light grey tweed suit and open green polo shirt. He's ultra-masculine, a cross between Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood with laughter lines on his face and an easy, powerful laugh. His eyes are blue-grey, there's a light graze of stubble on his face. He's exactly as a film director might be in a film - but better mannered.
Instinctively, women want to come and talk to him. One of them's just asked him to re-release his 60s pop songs. Being the gentleman he is, he's thinking about it.
This year Michael Sarne directed The Nunnery, Clive Evans's sharp and original look at alcoholism featuring Sarah-Louise Young (FR Awards 03 - Best Actress) and Claire Gordon.
'I started doing fringe when I was making commercials - working with people like Aspect and WOHC (Michael Chow). I directed 120 of them, mainly tv and film, and corporate videos.' There were awards at Cannes. A glamorous time? 'Viscious foul-mouthed creative directors with vile attitudes to life.' No, apparently. 'Scum of the earth. Materialistic to a fault.' But respite awaited - a small theatre in Soho run by a remarkable woman.
Jacqueline 'Jackie' Skarvellis met Sarne in the nick of time. 'He sloped in off Old Compton Street to survey my fringe theatre.' It was the Play Room Theatre Club, a corker of a venue based at The Old Swiss Tavern - now Comptons, 'a trés gay wine bar.'
'We immediately hit it off. He volunteered to direct some new plays there.' Jackie ('I was thinner then') was in Kenneth Tynan's scandalous nude Oh Calcutta! at The Duchess - to fund her own fringe habit. 'Mike was an easy-going laid-back guy.' No change there.
Sarne directed Skarvellis as Electra at The Play Room - and again in the 1993 movie The Princess & The Punk. But that's skipping a step. At the Play Room, they moved on to a director-writer collaboration - starting with Jackie Skarvellis's play Understudies.
Wankers! came next. 'It was an experimental staging, with the audience in the middle and the cast surrounding them. By the end they were in shock. Mike's a highly inventive director with a great sense of humour and a keen eye for detail. His work on all my plays was very innovative and I thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration.'
'It was marvellous rebellion,' he recalls, 'profane and real. Fringe theatre the way Jackie was doing it would touch you in a way tv commercial work can't.' Over the years they worked on ten or so productions. Would Jackie do it again? 'I only hope there will be an opportunity in the future for us to work together again. He's so erudite, witty - and so much fun to work with.'
'I was working with real actors,' says Michael Sarne. It came as 'a shower-bath for my mind psyche. All the fringe actors were enthusiastic young people giving marvellous performances all over London - in places like Angel, Soho, Chelsea, The Man In The Moon. All putting on different shows - Greek Classics, modern dramas.
'The 60s and 70s. Ah. But I suppose I'm embroidering it. It was an alternative way of looking at the world - immensely satisfying. Letting their hair down, taking their clothes off. Wonderful. Liberating. Ever since, I've been a terrific fan of fringe theatre.'
He's adored working with Jacqueline Skarvellis. 'She had Everybody Wants To Be Betty Davis on at the Brighton Festival this year. She was in Kings Road recently. She acts, she's an operatic singer, writes.' After she'd finished writing a piece, he wouldn't let her change a word of her dialogue. 'I told her: make the performance fit the words.'
For Sarne, fringe theatre is a thread that has connected neatly across the two centuries. Here's Clive Evans with a play written for senior actresses. One's died. Another's walked out. The theatre's booked. Send for - Michael Sarne.
Clive Evans: 'When Claire Gordon told me Mike Sarne would like to direct The Nunnery - without even seeing the script - I thought: Wow! Mind you, I don't think he ever did read the script, except cursorily. He prefers to "be the audience" and watch the performance. He throws in suggestions, cuts and changes as he goes along.'
'Mike has a wonderful sense of the absurd' says Clive Evans. 'His relaxed approach was an asset when the company could have become hysterical with such a short rehearsal period. And he's got the enthusiasm of a schoolboy.'
Sarne: 'Maybe commercial theatre doesn't turn me on as intimately as fringe. 'I took the kids to The Lion King - it left me a bit cold. A lot of money had been spent. I like theatre when it communicates. Someone close is communicating with you as a human being. It's a chemical reaction between you (as an actor) and the audience.
'It's the same as two people meeting at a party. (As a director) You manipulate that. It's participating in life. Participating in a way that churches do, and synagogues and mosques. Those places give me a feeling of communicating and sharing. It's unlike a West End show. Except one.'
Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus made an enormous impact on Sarne. 'Paul Scofield did what a very good fringe show does. He managed to talk to you and create the theatre in your mind - take you through the story. The best of Shakespeare does it.
'A human being is talking to you, and for a moment you suspend disbelief - that as well as being a human being, the person's an actor. You share and experience - it's between the two of you. We're human beings, we're unpredictable. Maybe you meet on your best behaviour. But you communicate. Film can't do this, nor can video.'
So it's the fringe or nothing? 'A well-rehearsed spectacle is so artificial. I don't believe anyone is really getting across to you.'
What theatre should be, according to Sarne, is 'Encountering and being changed. Whether it's by Ibsen, or performed by Jim Davidson, Eddie Murphy or Paul Scofield. Catharsis. Watching someone going through something, and sharing it. It's the Cathartic Principle of Greek drama.'
Sarne sees analogy with the performer's own progression. 'It's lovely to watch an actor through the years. To see the actor change through rehearsal. It's a great experience for a director. Actors doing things, seeing things, feeling things. They couldn't do it before. Perhaps an actor hasn't had particularly dramatic events in life yet - like childbirth, their heart broken - it's been peaceful up to now. And the part may call for all those things. So they put themselves in the situation.'
'Human experience is one of the most exciting things about the future. Working with Sarah-Louise Young (in The Nunnery) was great. She's young, she's not frightened to experiment with herself and her performance. The other day we read a new film script by Clive Evans. It's complex, and Sarah Louise put everything into it. She lived it, laughed, cried. You travel with her through a great experience. And at the end it's just a play.'
So how did the move into films happen? he wrote and directed The Road To St Tropez (with Melissa Stribling, Udo Kier, Gabriella Licudi and the honey-voiced English actress Fenella Fielding) in 1966 and got asked to do commercials till around 1969.
'I spent a couple of years in the States doing Myra Breckenridge.' It was released in 1970 (with Mae West, John Huston, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett, John Carradine, Tom Selleck; written by David Giler, Sarne and Gore Vidal).
Gore Vidal hadn't spoken to Michael Sarne since the film was made. There'd been a major falling-out.
Sarne today: 'I hadn't met Gore Vidal in 30 years. I saw him last year in Ravenna where he lives. You can't get a decent lunch. It's a very boring place.' Somehow thoughts became words. The head waiter became indignant: 'What do you mean? We have Gore Vidal!'
Sarne's cracking up at this, when - lo! - the great man appears. He's had an accident and been rushed to hospital. Sarne: (thinks): 'Huge lips - as if an angry child had done his make-up.' (aloud): 'What happened to you Gore? I heard you fell on your face when you were drunk.' Gore: 'Oh! The other infamous person.' Could be the cue for a touching reconciliation.
Gore Vidal wrote the novel of Myra Breckenridge in 1968. Sarne's film followed in 1970, and Gore immediately distanced himself from it. In reality, the film was an era ahead of time. The subject matter - transsexualism, celebrity, same-sex relationships, glamour - and style, including intercuts of archive - was brand new. Woody Allen, Pennies From Heaven, the opening up of cinematic subjects, all have made what Michael Sarne tackled in 1970 almost commonplace now.
Being first isn't always easy, and Sarne was battered by outraged public opinion. Lesser men have been destroyed in similar circumstances. Sarne went to Brazil. Why? Sarne: 'After Myra Breckenridge - and the drugs' (yes a true 60s man) 'To get my feet back on the ground. I was coming back to the world.'
He taught himself Portuguese and made two important films. He wrote O Pistoleiro (1976) - about a young assasin in Bahia. He wrote and directed Intimidade (Intimacy), shown at the UK National Film Theatre in 1975. In the 1990s he was one of the directors on Glastonbury, and wrote and directed The Punk.
Clive Evans: 'Mike's charm must have endeared him to Mae West. He calls her a sweetie. I feel sure she felt the same about him.' Michael Sarne met the legendary Miss West ('Is that a gun in your pocket?') while directing her in Myra Breckenridge. Clive Evans: 'Mike is fascinated by grubby sex, and the vagaries of human nature. He bubbles over with visual and verbal images.' One of which got him into trouble with The White House.
An actress fellates, and it cuts to an archive clip of little Shirley Temple milking a cow. The bucket of milk tips over, spraying her face with milk. At the time, adult Shirley Temple was a UN Goodwill Ambassador. President Nixon personally rang the head of the studio and demanded the scene be cut. It was. But now, in the director's cut, it's going back in.
Director Billy Wilder took Sarne aside: 'You remind me of a story of two directors. One's successful, one's not. The successful one's 10 years ahead of his time. You're 20.' Thirty years, in fact. Thanks to a changed world - a world Michael Sarne's taken his part in changing - and the huge recent success of Myra Breckenridge at events like London's Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (March/April 03), the film's about to be recut and issued on DVD. How does Sarne feel about his new cult-director status?
Delighted. 'It went down really well. It was written up well in the programme notes. People were finally seeing the funny side.' It's bringing back the fun of the shoot itself. 'I walked on set one day. Raquel Welch was up on a cross, wearing a loin-cloth, being photographed by (iconic 60s fashion photographer) Terry O'Neill. I asked her what she was doing. "I'm being crucified because Marilyn Monroe was crucified."' That old confusion between life and art. 'I said: "Do stop it. It's just a fucking movie".'
The film was unavailable for twenty years until it was shown at L'Etrange Festival 2001. Sarne: 'Horror / vampire / bizarre films. They really liked it.' 'Van Ness Films made a 30-minute tv film The Backstory of Myra Breckenridge in 2002. They interviewed Raquel Welch (and Michael Sarne). They saw the funny side.'
The Houston Texas 2002 Lesbian & Gay Festival, Rice University picked it up. 'It went down extremely well. There was a long Q&A.' Joy to a director's heart. People started asking Fox Studios to release it to DVD. Finally Fox asked Sarne to go to Los Angeles to supervise a director's cut.
Sarne sees an aspect of both the novel and film as: 'having a bit of fun about a man wanting to be a woman. Being English, we grow up with pantomime.' His first steps in acting were in panto: 'in the chorus of Babes In The Wood with Danny La Rue at The Palace, Manchester. Bob Monkhouse was Buttons.' He spent 3 months with them.
It was 1958 between school and university. 'I saw it as a finishing course in laughter, and not to take life too seriously.'
When Myra Breckenridge was released in 1970, disgusted American audiences, without panto's liberating tradition, took it very seriously indeed. Of its new popularity, Sarne thinks 'It's the silliness that makes it funny'.
In the 60s, (now director) Stanley Sheff created an event hugely popular with acts like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. Sarne was transfixed: 'He was a young guy doing a light show at the Whiskey A Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard.
'People were dancing, it was a disco. He gave me the idea - to go to the studios, ransack the trash cans and create a complete movie out of offcuts. Robin Hood fires an arrow. The other film clip receives it - falling off a cliff. In the imaginary heaven of movies, you create another world that's utterly coherent. A new context in which to come to life again.'
Inevitably, there were clashes between director and producer. Integrating black-and-white with colour (to make a dramatic point), for example, caused a major impasse. And here's Raquel Welch intercut with Laurel and Hardy. Ideas that - when Sarne introduced them in Myra Breckenridge were dangerous new thinking - are the commonplace language of film today.
Michael Sarne went to London University in 1958, attending the School of Slavonic and East European Studies for 3 years. He spent 2 months in (what is now) St Petersburg) while studying Russian - an unusual choice in the middle of the Cold War, but Sarne loves languages.
He speaks German, French, Portuguese 'strongly, and weaker: Italian and Spanish.' Not surprisingly, his literary heroes are international: Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Tolstoy. His childhood language was Czech - his parents were refugees.
'My dad came from Teplitz'. Michael was born at the start of World War Two. 'We visited Prague in 1947 between occupations by the Germans and the Russians. Dad had factories there before the war.' He stayed there a year, aged 7. 'My parents were breaking up. It was an emotional time. The war ended. The family ended. My mother came from Breslau. She was Jewish. Her parents died in the Holocaust. She doesn't know where.' What words are there? He says simply: 'She was very upset.'
'Dad lost everything. Mum went to France. My brother and I were brought up in London.'
Michael Sarne is fired by one of several current projects, one he understands well from the world of his childhood. He'd read a book In The Shadow Of The Swastika and received the film rights:
'A girl wants to be allowed an education. She joins a show touring the German army doing Jewish impressions. She's half-Jewish, there's a gay transvestite too. After the war she helps the Allies during the trials. At 22, she's translator for the English judge.
'It's full of ironies Some of the people coming in front of her were people she's performed to.' Michael Sarne met her in her late 80s, married to an English vicar - a confessor to the Royal Family in his 90s - 'and looking 30 years younger: a man who'd led an utterly blameless life. He made us shepherd's pie.
'After the war, they met at the YMCA and came back to England. Love at first sight, and married blissfully for 60 years.' Sarne asked the vicar if reading his wife's book had given any surprises. 'Yes,' he replied, 'I never knew she was Jewish.'
Another project is the Dirty Havana trilogy by Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. Sarne describes the novels as 'strange, dark, and dirty. It's the underbelly of Havana. Scatalogical, a bit like something by Charles Bukowski.' He's also working on a new script by The Nunnery writer Clive Evans, but this time as producer.
Michael Sarne was expelled in his 3rd year at University. It was 1962, and he'd made the No 1 hit single Come Outside with Wendy Richards. (She went on to become a major star in EastEnders and Are You Being Served.)
Sarne was sitting his finals when 'photographers came in and took pictures. They sent me down for 12 months as a punishment. 50% my fault, 50% theirs. I was supposed to go back and take the exams, but by that time I was on tour.' Looking back now, does it count as unfinished business? 'Part of the big shopping list.'
The records are finally being re-issued. 'When Robert Stigwood (his then manager) went bust, he told EMI (for contractural reasons) they couldn't release the records. They weren't available for 40 years.' But the fans hadn't forgotten, and one got in touch. She sent Sarne a list of the labels she'd written to without luck and asked for a copy of Come Outside.
Sarne: 'I went to Abbey Road and asked for the old tapes.' Result: positive. Tact: small. 'They said: "We're so happy you've shown up. We were going to throw them out. We need the space."
'They were two-inch tapes. Even the Ampex machines they ran on don't exist any more. The legal department said "We give you all the rights", which was a relief. So now I've become a record producer (Cherry Red Records). I thanked the lady. I said: "If it wasn't for you ..." There was a surge of satisfaction. It felt like putting right the past. And Myra Breckenridge too. I feel I'm remaking my life right after all this time.' And the Russian degree? 'Maybe that's next.'
Sarne remembers being with a friend at the Directors Guild. A distinguished director joined them. 'He looked disgruntled. He'd been a hero of the British New Wave of the 1960s. He said 'You working?' My mate's working all the time. The distinguished director said "I haven't worked in 8 years. There's a huge tree on my estate. There's been a storm. It's landed on my tennis court. The insurance man said I could have made the hole myself - they're not paying."
'I thought: Here am I, I'm happy to get a gig. I don't have a country estate, I don't have the problems associated with it. By doing the fringe, my feet are anchored on the ground. I'm going up for a part in an audition playing an old lag. I can't imagine (names the director) doing it, because he's too important, has too much baggage, and he's too rich.'
Sarne loves the way time has changed perceptions. 'Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney - they're touring. To me, when I was young, anyone at even 40 would wear a tweed jacket with leather patches. I never imagined being unshaven, wearing jeans at 62. It's great." He's playing music again. He and David Baker are doing another album together (two guitars) and going on the road playing pubs. He smiles, 'Stuff like Save The Last Dance For Me, Dream Lover, The Runaway.'
Any views about film critics? If so, Michael Sarne's too polite to say. But also, he was one himself. 'Bitchy. One of the bitchiest. The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes 1966). I tore it apart. I was vile.' The following week, he ran into Bryan Forbes at Pinewood Studios. 'He saw me from 20, 30 yards aways. "Ah, Michael Sarne. I hear my movie didn't please you." I thought it over. I thought - he's so right - I don't have any business reviewing films. I haven't reviewed a movie since.'
Hes a proud dad. There's a son and daughter in their 30s. His focus over recent years has been bringing up his present young family of three girls, from 6 to 16.
The future. Ah, he says, 'Young people have a future. Old poeple have a past. So I take an interest in what's taking place tomorrow - it makes you young.'
There aren't many people who've directed a hugely controversial movie, shot countless commercials, learnt 5 languages, directed lots of risky theatre AND had a No 1 hit record. What drives him? 'I try not to be pretentious. It's important not too enamoured by one's position and status in life. People try to obfuscate. I try to be clear - I'm a great fan of clarity, and demystification. It can upset - the truth has a value all of its own. So I try to avoid getting up myself.' Not much danger of that.
John Park / August 03
(c) Fringe Report 2003
Back to Start
Fringe Report (c) Fringe Report 2002-2013