Our cissy and footsteps


In 1973 we were approached by EMI to make two short films. Just what their logic was is still a mystery to me. I think it had something to do with the old British Eady Levy still in place in British cinema exhibition. If the distributor could tag on a short British film to the main feature, then they could gather a (disproportionate) percentage of the boxoffice — sometimes as much as 30%. When I grew up we had to sit through a dire British film series called ‘Look at Life’ presenting Technicolor insights into scintillating subjects like underground tunneling, blood donors and the baking industry. I can only assume our short films were made for the same dubious British contribution to the box office slice of the Eady Levy.

With this logic, Nat Cohen, the wily then boss of EMI, commissioned two short fiction films, which I wrote and directed. Nat Cohen was an avuncular, vulgar man with a shifty, pencil thin moustache who looked more like a Soho strip club spiv than a film mogul. His lowbrow taste in film production had secured him a sizeable wallet and hence his puffed–up position running EMI. No one could remember any films he’d made except that they’d apparently made a ton of money —  one of his racehorses had even won the 1962 Grand National. He drove up and down Wardour Street in a cream Rolls Royce with a number plate that said Nat 1 (just to rub it in the noses of all of us snobby and opinionated film industry oiks who were less than enamored by him) to emphasize just who actually was the smart one.

The first of the two short films was called Our Cissy, which followed a simple man and his son, from Bolton, to the seedier side of London, as he puts together the pieces, following his stripper daughter’s death. The other story was called Footsteps and told the story of a single woman who, having been badly beaten in a mugging, had developed painfully sensitive hearing whereby she could hear, and possibly imagine, the minutiae of sounds leading to a murder in the apartment above.

We made both films on a shoestring and each took six days to shoot. As exploited as we obviously were by Uncle Nat, it was a nice antidote and break from shooting 30 second commercials and, considering that we shot the films at breakneck speed, for very little money, it was great training for the future. But probably they had little merit beyond this.

Suffice to say that Nat Cohen was very complimentary about the shorts, declaring them “miniature masterpieces”. However, to be frank, he was not known for his discerning creative tastes. His, and the British film industry’s, big hit that year was the dreadful On the Buses and so our two 30 minute shorts must have looked like Citizen Kane by comparison. Not that old Nat ever saw, or heard of, Citizen Kane.