|Rough and Ready for all types of Role|
Actor Dexter Fletcher has just been to Birmingham to star in a short film. And, finds Terry Grimley, the experience was far more enjoyable than the first time he found himself in the city.
At a tender age Dexter Fletcher played the son of both Diana Dors and Al Pacino (although not in the same film) and shared the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s stage with the likes of Ben Kingsley and Kenneth Branagh.
As a regular cast member of the long-running children’s TV series Press Gang, he helped inspire many of my younger colleagues to pursue a career in journalism. A leading role in Guy Ritchie’s cult British heist movie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, finally - as he puts it - bought him into his adult phase.
Fletcher has just spent four days in Birmingham making a short film, Year Six, in Screen West Midlands’ second series of ten minute Digital Shorts. It was written by Andy Conway and marks the directing debut of Francois Gandolfi.
"It’s a story about a school reunion," he explains "These two main characters break away from the crowd. It’s really a story about a story.
"This guy starts recalling a story about how they were both involved in a situation, but it’s had completely different effects on their lives. That’s what interested me about it. It’s one incident bu there are two completely different verions of it."
Four days work for ten minutes on screen is, he says,a pretty typical ratio.
"There’s not a great market for short films. There are short film festivals and they can be sold to TV. But they’re a very good calling card for first-time directors or art directors."
Fletcher is one of those actors who started as a child and just carried on - though not without going through the classic child actor’s identity crisis.
He grew up just outside Islington, which 30 years ago had yet to become one of London’s most desirable areas. Members of his family lived on the housing estate where Anna Scher set up a famous improvisation workshop for children and Fletcher joined in along with his brothers.
The kids were rougher and readier than their stage school contemporaries and the word went around among rough and ready film directors like Alan Clarke and Alan Parker that it was a good place to find interesting young performers.
Fletcher’s first film role was in a film version of Stetoe and Son, which is where he played Diana Dors’ son at the age of seven. Then Alan Parker cast him as Babyface in his all-children musical gangster spoof, Bugsy Malone.
"Then I was at the RSC when I was 11, so I had this classic career as a child, going from job to job. The first thing I did at the RSC was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Aldwych Theatre. Patrick Stewart was Oberon. It came from Stratford, and they took us to Stratford to see it.
"I worked a lot with the RSC when I was younger. I left school with no qualifications but I was doing theatre and film work and thought that was the best thing since sliced bread. Then I went to Tahiti when I was 17 to do Mutiny on the Bounty with Mel Gibson and Daniel Day-Lewis.
"After that I went to Stratford and did Henry V with Branagh and played the Player Queen in Hamlet with Roger Rees. That was the time I fell asleep ona coach and ended up in Birminhgam late at night. That was my firdt experience of Birmingham. I had rehearsals early the next morning and I couldn’t think of anything to do except start walking back to Stratford. Eventually someone stopped and gave me a lift."
His RSC credits built up with a series of Falstaff’s pages, starting with Merry Wives of Windsor and going through to Henry IV.
"I was 18 then, but I looked very young for a long time. There were very tight restrictions on how much child actors could do."
It was while he was in Stratford that he was cast as Al Pacino’s son in Revolution, an epic set during the American War of Independence directed by Hugh Hadson of Chariots of Fire fame. He was the elder of two actors who shared the role, the younger one being Sid Owen of EastEnders fame.
Revolution was one of the most notorious box office flops of its era, stopping Hudson’s career in its tracks and fatally damaging Goldcrest, the company which had spearheaded the revivial of the British film industry.
Fletcher remembers how spending on the film was clearly out of control, with cranes falling over cliffs and being abandoned and extras queuing up to be paid, then rejoining the end of the queue to be paid again.
"I ended up buying a flat and a car - earning too much money for a 19-year-old."
More films followed, but by his own admission Fletcher’s career then went througha crisis.
"I went off the rails for a while, having had too much too soon and having never had any real adult responsibility. I had a difficult few years in my late 20s when I had to make a difficult decision about who I was and what I should be doing."
Things happily came back together when he met his wife, the Lithuanian theatre and opera director Dalia Ibelhauptaite, and then followed a hunch to take up and offer of a poorly paid job in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
"It was Guy Ritchie’s first film and there didn’t seem to be anything to lose. Pople said, ‘you don’t want to do that - they’re not offering you any money’, and I said, ‘no, I think it could be good’. So I went and did it and it became this huge cult success."
Another opportunity came about when he was in Lithuania for his wedding. An English director was visiting at the same time to research his Lithuanian roots, and was giving a seminar.
The Lithuanians did not really know who Mike Leigh was, but Fletcher did. The upshot of their meeting, after they returned to Britain, was that he was cast as WS Gilbert’s valet in Leigh’s film about Gilbert & Sullivan, Topsy Turvy.
He is the second person you see in the film, but most of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. He is philosophical about this, saying that the experience of working with Leigh was invaluable.
Far more of his work survived in Band of Brothers, the critically-acclaimed Steven Spielberg mini-series about US soldiers in Europe in the final phase of the Second World War which featured a 50 per cent British cast.
"There are 30 key characters, and there were 15 Americans. The character I played was Sgt John Martin. He’s still alive, living in Phoenix with his wife. I spoke to him on the phone a lot when we were filming. I met him first in Normandy, and we stayed in Paris for a week.
"These old guys could drink you under the table. These war veterans drinking vodka and orange, telling the stories we all thought we knew - they started telling real horror stories then. My wife and I spent time with them in their home in Arizona and they came to Los Angeles a few times, because the series picked up a lot of awards."
On the strength of it he spent a year in Los Angeles, being touted for work. But the offers were for poor television roles on huge money but long contracts.
Instead he went to South Africa to play a leading role alongside Thomas Jane in Stander, based on a true story of a South African policeman during the apartheid era who turned to bank robbing and became something of a Robin Hood figure.
"It’s opening the Toronto Film Festival during September, and there’s a preview in South African towards the end of the month. Then it opens in October, probably in America first. I haven’t seen it yet, but it was a lot of fun to make."
His next role will be in a forthcoming production of Tristan and Isolde: "So I’m going to Ireland on Thursday to learn to ride a horse and chop peoples’ heads off."
Source: Birmingham Post
Date: September 3rd 2003