The video for Elbow's Lost Worker Bee could have ended up very differently.
I'd been contacted by Craig Potter from the band (a long-time twitter friend) back in March 2015 who said the band were to release an ep and would I be interested in making a video for it? Er… let me a little think abYES OF COURSE I WOULD! In particular they were looking for a story and Craig had enjoyed the improvised short stories I'd written on twitter occasionally over the years. This must have been around the time Jeremy Clarkson was in the news because a few days later I posted on my blog an old story of mine about Clarkson and his army of ducks. THAT'S the sort of thing we're looking for! said Craig.
Much as I would have loved to make this duck-based film, the logistics were quite simply beyond me, even with my brilliant film-making colleague John Panton and our Meat Bingo pals behind the project. Furthermore we knew we had a tight deadline and there was no way we could train that many duckling actors in the time available, let alone secure the services of an albeit soon-to-be-unemployed Clarkson.
So I started racking my brain and mentally flicking through old stories for something I could use – hopefully something a little more manageable. I thought about a story I'd written a while back that had a suitably simple premise. I'm not a Christian, but I'd written a tale about a man waking up in the desert to find himself already walking and who gradually remembers he is Jesus.
By now I'd heard the Lost Worker Bee track and the ideas coalesced very quickly. It would be a man, walking, lost in the wilderness – looking for something, like the bee in the song – and just like a bee in search of pollen he would encounter various dancers along the way that would guide him towards his destination. I often walk when I need to come up with ideas, so I took the dog out and as I explored the paths and lanes around where I live in Devon I saw the whole thing coming together in the places I was walking. That rusty water tank, the reservoir, those beehives, the beach…
I knew we had only a month to shoot it in. It would be almost impossible as both John and I have full time jobs. The only way we could do it, I felt, was as a piece of guerilla film-making. My whole concept was that we would just use family and friends. John could go out at odd times, grab an hour here and there and shoot it in various locations. It would be just about doable.
Ha. I am an idiot. Because I've known and worked with John long enough to realise that he doesn't operate like that. Everything has to be meticulously planned, story-boarded and worked out in detail. Nevertheless, I put my proposal to him and we discussed it at length. We were very close, but in the end John felt it just wouldn't be possible in the time available.
Reluctantly – this was such an amazing opportunity – but sensibly, I contacted Craig to say with great regret that we wouldn't be submitting a treatment to the record label. I briefly wrote out the story I'd envisaged, saying that this is what their beautiful song had inspired and that they could use it if they wanted, or just have it anyway. I thought no more about it… sort of buried it, I suppose.
Everything went quiet for a few weeks, but then Craig contacted me to say they really liked the idea and their regular collaborator on their videos, Mark Thomas from Soup Collective, would be happy to take up the project. Although initially enthusiastic, Mark decided after a couple of weeks that he was just unable to do it.
That's it, I thought. It's all over. I wish I hadn't mentioned it to a handful of friends and family, they probably just thought I was delusional. But Mark got in touch a couple of days later and said was there anyway that John and I could do it now? Of course I went straight to John who felt that, though it would be tough in the time available, yes, we should bloody well go for it! Which is what we did. From getting agreement from the record label to delivering an approved final edit took us just over four incredibly intense weeks. The irony that I had initially conceived of this as a piece of quick and dirty guerilla film-making was not lost on me.
Scouting for locations (a last minute change was serendipitous – a sink hole had appeared and been cordoned off on the beach where we supposed to be filming, so we switched to the estuary, which just looks magnificent in the video) negotiating location fees, casting for all the different encounters, liaising with the record label, navigating the paperwork – none of this would have been even remotely feasible without the incredible team that John brought together on the project. In particular Katie and Emma were absolutely amazing at casting the 'dancers' (all of whom were absolutely spot on with their performances) and Will was a reassuringly calm and professional presence throughout, supported by Mike Knowles at NOW Films.
Over the years John has assembled a bunch of friends, colleagues, ex- and current students and other acquaintances who now form a crack team – just a fantastic crew. The mood on set is astonishingly good natured. Focussed, efficient, but always jovial and collaborative even when everything seems to be going pear-shaped. Willie, the photographer there on behalf of the record label was a real pleasure to have around and felt just like one of the team. And we were incredibly lucky to have Sanjeev Kohli as our protagonist, who completely nailed the spirit of the piece and whose performance makes it such a joyful and uplifting thing to watch. And I have to say, although the ep is about Manchester, I think Devon does a pretty good job of looking stunning.
Sanjeev, John and I, and many of the crew stood in Matt's kitchen on the Sunday after we'd finished filming and we played them the track, which none of them had heard before. Through the five minutes of the song I know that we all pictured the scenes we'd been filming over the last day and a half. It was incredibly emotional for me and I really had to fight back sobs listening to it with this bunch of people who had breathed such joyful life into my story. I've heard the song dozens of times now, but watching the video still makes my heart soar.
Oh – I should say you may be forgiven for thinking all of this was an elaborate ruse for John and I to launch our Dad Dancing troupe – we make a very brief cameo right at the end and I think you'll agree we are HOT.
The section which should probably be called "Acknowledgments"
I have a long list of people to thank – you'll have to forgive vagueness in some areas, I will endeavour to update it with contact details and full names when I can.
Emily, Hanan and Liz from Polydor for their support. Mike Knowles of NOW films – it wouldn't have happened without him. Matt Tiller for his support. Mark Thomas of Soupco for his warmth and support as the project came and went and came back again. Will, Katie and Emma for their sterling work as John's lieutenants – and Katie of course for her lovely performance as the 'pollen'.
Likewise all our performers: Joe Hancock; our cyclist Dan Cox; Kelly Miller (and our dog Nutmeg!); Danny Strike; Liam Kilgannon-Avant, Zak Reed, Milo Simpson, Toby Wagstaff, Tommaso L Cruciani, Sam Ryan and Charlie Havill from Exeter Martial Arts Club, Molly Craig the majorette (and Morgan Richardson her admirer!); dancers Rebecca Hughes, Abby Carbines, Hannah Coombe, Emma Bennett, Lizzie Rew from the Richard Dale Theatre School in Exeter, George Smale our footballer, Toby Gorniak, James Matthews, Jackson Matthews, Ben Granville and Emmanuelle Michael from Just 4 Funk in Plymouth; our jivers Jay Adegbenro and Tessa Lothingland, and of course our lost worker bee, Sanjeev Kohli.
I must also thank our brilliant crew: Carl, Shane, Tom, Jeremy, Matt, Oli, Dale, Chris and Elliot from British Technical Films. Our work experience students, Georgie and Joshua, Kath for the wonderful catering, Alasdair and Willie the photographers on set, my wife Karen (and our boys Connor & Spencer) for putting up with my stresses, grumpiness and anxieties. Jo Panton who I know does an amazing job keeping John from going bonkers and of course John Panton himself for being a quiet genius.
And anyone else I've forgotten and the various people that others have been dealing with behind the scenes of which I'm unaware.
And finally a huge thank you to Craig and the rest of Elbow for inviting us, supporting us and encouraging us throughout.
[Photos: Alasdair McCombe & Karen Allain]