Several years ago a producer approached me to make a feature film about Boudica (yes, Boudica, not Boadicea), the queen of the Iceni who gave the Roman invaders a bloody nose in AD60. And to play this feisty lady he had chosen a royal redhead – Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York.
However, this dream casting turned out to be just game pie in the sky; the film was never made. But, like many dreams, it was a recurring one, even after the BBC beat me to it. I didn’t see the corporation’s big production from 2003, starring Alex Kingston, but I believe it had a cast of hundreds. My dream would need a different approach – I needed a cast of thousands, and I needed them for nothing. Time to get on the godphone, my bejewelled 1937 rotary desk model with its hotline to the Almighty. The very next day, I had a letter from Ciric with an offer I couldn’t refuse.
No, I’d not heard of the Creative Industries Research and Innovation Centre of the Swansea Institute of Art, Design and Media either. But this high-tech organisation was offering me state-of-the-art film equipment, a large studio, a dedicated cast and film crew (of students), all expenses – and a fee. The film was to be of my choosing, the creative decisions all mine and (best of all) the final cut my own.
Holy cow. God had apparently taken my call (He usually puts me on hold) and followed it up by making one Himself to one of His secret emissaries on Earth – Steve Sullivan, video project manager and, by his own admission, a lifelong Russell fan. He sent along a DVD of his own short films. First up was A Heap of Trouble, in which nine naked men strode through suburban streets, singing lustily: “Nine naked men marching down the road could cause a heap of trouble for all concerned.” Here was a man after my own heart. As bold as the naked men in his movie, Sullivan travelled from Wales to convince me over lunch at my local that he was real. I in turn convinced him that a film called Boudica Bites Backwould give his animation students ample scope to provide Roman legions and warring Celts in profusion.
“How many do you need?” he asked.
“Thousands,” I gambled. “Tens of thousands,” he promised.
He sent another DVD to prove his point, the highlights of Ciric’s animation work. There were devils flying out of raging volcanoes. A giraffe emerging from a lavatory bowl. High-rise flats spouting fountains of coloured paint (as seen on TV). I sent him a CD of ten songs written and performed by my wife Elize, who would play our first warrior queen, Boudica. She was the wife of Prasutagus, a client-king for the Romans who passed away after 17 years of peace, leaving his estate to his two young daughters. Boudica assumed that she would continue to rule as queen of the Iceni but the Romans reneged on their agreement. They whipped Boudica and raped her daughters. Boudica turned freedom fighter and united the local tribes in a revolt, sacking three Roman towns, including Londinium. She lost the final battle in AD61 and disappeared into history, only to reappear as a bronze statue brandishing a spear and driving a warrior’s chariot straight at the Houses of Parliament.
I had five days to make a film dramatising her life in a song cycle of 25 minutes, relying on the talented drama and tech students from Ciric, a gifted professional director of photography, Mark Veysey, my editor Mike Bradsell, the wardrobe from the Welsh College of Music and Drama and make-up from the Bauhaus salon in Cardiff.
Elize and I showed up in Swansea for our week’s shoot with a story-board and costumes that had sparked a spontaneous riot of approval when viewed by Saturday shoppers at Ann Summers. We also arrived with a lorry-load of plastic swords, spears and shields, bought at the local joke shop for 99p per weapon.
These looked slightly tacky when, on our arrival, we were shown the real steel weaponry donated by local prop departments. But a good director thinks on his feet, so I opted to go with the real deal. Even more real were the Roman legionnaire reenactors with their polished armour, great banners and feathered helmets. Hitting my director’s stride, I commanded them to march in unison with a pukka left-right-left. Disaster – until the Roman centurion barked out: “Sinister, dexter, sinister.” Caesar himself would have been proud.
The battle blood was a toxic mixture of soapsuds and dye, which in one scene Boudica was to lick from her sword. (Don’t ask.) While all wrung hands in dismay, the enterprising assistant director, Rod Thomas, quickly popped down to the local convenience store and bought a jar of cherry jam. Boudica made a meal of it.
Miracles abounded. The Celts hoisted Boudica on their shoulders without dropping her. The high heels too spiky to run in were replaced with the head of wardrobe’s private pair of limited-edition designer biker boots. My own hair was coaxed into kiss curls for my cameo as Nero. The king and queen walked on water, literally, courtesy of CGI. “Filming can be fun,” is my maxim, and this time, so it was.
I was sorry when it was all over and it was time to store our unused plastic weaponry in our garage in Hampshire. As I entered the house, the godphone was ringing. I ran to answer it. “Thanks,” I said, sincerely, to the Void on the other end.
I haven't had time to check them out, but perhaps some of you enjoying the Thanksgiving festivities (Happy Thanksgiving!) might take a look at online versions of the film (? excerpts maybe?) which accompany the original article.