"Nobody comes out of the theatre whistling the sets," the great Broadway composer Jule Styne said to me many years ago. And that goes treble if it's a movie theater. And yet the visual appearance of a film is vital to its success: If the room doesn't look like the room that that plot or those characters would find themselves in, it's hard to overcome - unless it's your kid's school play and Claudius and Polonius are seated across a coffee table from the discount furniture warehouse out on Route 26 by the grain elevator. Michael D Ford, who died a few days ago at the age of ninety, was not a household name, but on screen he gave your household the appearance of a real household - one whose inhabitants have a lived reality that pre-dates the start of the film.
That's really what a set decorator does: It's like moving in to a brand new home and making it seem as if you've lived there for decades, instantly. If you've been to a movie in the last forty years, chances are you've seen Ford's work. He won Oscars for Titanic and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. He did Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) and James Bond (The Living Daylights, License to Kill, Goldeneye). Peter Lamont, Ford's art director on seven pictures, liked to refer to him, affectionately, as "the Flower Arranger": you're the detail guy who comes in and checks everything is just so - the angle at which the curtain is tied back; the position of the tea strainer relative to the creamer two tables behind the one at which the protagonists are talking. But, with a flower arranger, someone will inevitably say, "Oh, what a beautiful arrangement of flowers!" The trick for a set decorator is to tiptoe just up to the point at which anyone notices you. You're there because people would notice if it were wrong; but you don't want it to be so spectacularly right that it's a distraction from the drama. As I noted at the time, in this shot from Gary Oldman's Darkest Hour I think they got a little carried away. That wasn't Ford's style: in the scene at top right you come away remembering Harrison not Michael, but the latter's contribution supports the former's - the cup, the striped cloth, the turquoise of the balcony rails and store fronts. These are all individually insignificant decisions, but cumulatively critical to a story's ability to persuade you to suspend disbelief.
Ford was born in 1928 and studied to be an illustrator at Goldsmiths College in London. His first film was The Man in the Moon, a very typical British film of its day - 1960 - directed by Basil Dearden and produced and co-written by his long-time collaborator Michael Relph, with an assist on the script from a pre-Stepford Wives Bryan Forbes, and a cast that included Michael Hordern, Shirley Ann Field, Charles Gray (Blofeld-in-waiting) and, as a Jag driver, Jeremy Lloyd (co-creator of the sitcom "Are You Being Served?"). It's the story of a chap who's apparently immune to all disease, and is as a consequence a) so carefree and breezy that he's played by Kenneth More; and b) signed up unknowingly by the men at the ministry for a training course intended to prepare him for a test flight to the moon. Michael Ford worked under Peter Murton (later the art director of Goldfinger), and when I met Ford at some Bafta thing decades later I mentioned a visual memory from that picture I always get a chuckle out of: Kenneth More is viewed through the window of some space-capsule isolation chamber, inside of which he's nonchalantly reading what seems to be either The Daily Express or the Mirror. Like many Englishmen of the period, he's brought a packed lunch - a sandwich, an apple and a thermos of tea. The joke is the contrast between the space-age scenario and the earthbound contentment of the man at its heart: Would it be less funny without the thermos? Or if the newspaper's funny page weren't facing us? These are fine calculations, but the effect of the whole depends on any number of parts.
Unfortunately, The Man in the Moon bombed, especially in America. Indeed, it was Kenneth More's first real flop after a grand run through the Fifties. So it didn't exactly launch Michael Ford's movie career, and he went off to do telly work ("The New Avengers" with Steed and his dolly bird augmented by a superfluous younger man) punctuated by the odd cinematic trouser-dropper. In 1972, for example, he was assistant art director on something called Up the Front, produced by my old chum Ned Sherrin and the ingenious Beryl Vertue (the lady who sold "Steptoe & Son" and "Till Death Us Do Part" to American TV as "Sanford & Son" and "All in the Family"). Up the Front was a First World War caper in which Frankie Howerd, for complicated reasons, has the Kaiser's master plan for the conquest of Europe tattooed on his posterior (the film's title is thus what the conjurers would call misdirection) and as a result is pursued across the Continent by German agents anxious to get their hands on Frankie's arse. (Somewhat drunk and desperate, he once tried to get his hands on mine, but that's a story for another day.) Also present were Zsa Zsa Gabor as Mata Hari and the great Bob Hoskins in his screen debut. There wasn't exactly a lot of art for an assistant art director to assist with, but there's a moment when Zsa Zsa's in her boudoir in a négligée with lots of décolletage and there's something about the swan knick-knack with the curvy neck right behind her that's just right for the over-ripe preposterousness of the picture.
Ford was in his fifties before he hit the big time with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and I wonder if all those years doing cheap'n'cheerful Brit filler was part of the reason he was famously frugal on the Hollywood blockbusters: On James Cameron's Titanic, a more or less open invitation to over-spend, Michael Ford was the only head of department to come in under-budget. He was indispensable to that film: Cameron, like so many of the statue-topplers and other historical dismantlers around today, was incapable of understanding the crew and passengers of RMS Titanic except through the tunnel vision of his own time. So he made a movie with an entirely contemporary sensibility: It would have seemed totally inauthentic except for the brilliantly authentic, detailed recreation of sets and costumes. That's what we have on such films now: period production design, contemporary feelings.
In recent years, Michael Ford preferred to paint, in a style that suggests what he might have done had that career as an illustrator taken off. I started with an old Jule Styne line about Broadway, which wasn't entirely true even then: I remember being at Winnie, a famously disastrous Churchill musical of the Eighties, at which the first-night applauded the set - because it exploded, as part of the show's recreation of the bombing of the Café de Paris. In drama terms, story terms, they're supposed to be shocked and horrified by the carnage, the death and destruction. Instead, they're delighted - because, as I wrote in Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, they've noticed the scenery to the exclusion of the plot and the emotion. Something of the same spirit has infected the movies since CGI took over, and enabled filmmakers to put a man in Sharpie-colored spandex flying around in the heavens as fireballs and disintegrating skyscrapers and giant reptiles whirl about him and a giant tear in the space-time continuum opens up. And, as at that first night of Winnie, the crowds cheer the scenery rather than the story. Michael Ford, the flower arrangers' flower arranger, is well out of it.
~Mark will be back later this evening with the conclusion of our latest audio adventure, His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes. And don't forget our Tales for Our Time sampler featuring Steyn on Conan Doyle, Conrad, Kipling, H G Wells and more from our first year of ripping yarns.
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