Well this did look good. This was glamour. A colonnaded palace in burning white, gardened by exotic plants and azure pools.
“I could get used to this”, I said.
“Well don’t”, they said. “You’re only here for the night.”
It had been a long and interesting day; flying out of England’s winter in a private charter. I had been picked up at home by a driver on his way to collect Ronnie Taylor,the cameraman. We met in the back seat and shook hands, agreeing we were off to something very odd in a desert. I told him I was playing See-Threepio. He seemed unsure what to say.
In our own departure lounge, the crew must have looked like any holiday group clutching duty free and magazines. But we were each travelling with a purpose. It all had a slightly first-day-at-new-school quality. I felt rather shy of the many faces I didn’t know and quickly realised I was only a rather small part of what seemed to be a giant undertaking. And I felt they all had more important jobs than mine.
We were airborne. I was seated across the aisle from Sir Alec Guinness. He was behind The Times. Soon he finished the crossword and I plucked up the courage to lean across and chat. The risk of having my head smashed-in by the lunch cart was worth it. My opening gambit was that, for ages he and I had been the only ones actually cast in this film. And we were with the same agency. After that our lives diverged. He’d had a limo to drive him across the tarmac to the plane. I’d got on the bus with the others.
Some of the others I already knew from the months of preproduction I had spent at Elstree Studios, especially in the design and props department. People who had worked on machines and creatures, cantinas and landspeeders – props in general – guns and gizmos, Bantha poodo and Gaffi sticks. All props. Little did I realise that soon I too would be classed as a ‘prop’. But that was later.
The heat was a surprise as we stepped onto Tunisian soil, well, concrete. It had all been so quick.
Things slowed down at customs control. Miles away in Elstree, we had not always known how to describe some of the weird things we were making. Like the bits on Threepio’s arm – the piston-like slides, the metal studs. All the bits and pieces that added to the total design effect. We’d had to call them something. Thingummies wouldn’t do. Someone coined the word ‘greebly’, as in, ‘arm greebly’, ‘hand greebly’, ‘head greebly’ – you get the idea. Unfortunately the Tunisian customs official didn’t. And no dictionary in the world could provide a North African translation of 1 x Box of Assorted Greeblies on our luggage manifest.
Someone eventually explained that a greebly was something that looked good but didn’t actually do anything. The officer understood. He know a lot of people like that.
1x Box of Assorted Greeblies was OK. The duty free was OK. But the magazine…
One of the electricians had brought in a copy of Playboy. Typical. Though an unintentional error of taste, this was clearly an affront to the local moral code. Several more officers were brought out to be affronted in this way. The more they carefully studied each offending photo, the more affronted they got. Things looked serious and only some sweet-talking from our production manager got things moving. The penitent ‘sparks’ agreed to leave the offending magazine for further forensic examination. We could go.
Sir Alec and Lady Guinness were whisked once more. We boarded our coach where the conversation amongst the laughing sparks crew was all about the meaning of art and how their mate had looked a total prat.
After a general wander about the wondrous holiday destination I went to bed exhausted, as much by the journey as my general nervousness about playing this strange role of See-Threepio. My room was beautiful and very convenient, just by the reception area. Eventually, I slept.
I woke up. A bus of German tourists were lengthily upset about their room allocations – or lack of them. Personally I don’t have much German – I know Threepio does – but their meaning was pretty clear and very loud. My watch said it was 3am. I said something rude.
Three hours later, Maxi and I were on our way to the town of Tozeur, the town nearest our set location. Maxi was my dresser then and an expert with props. We had to get there early, to work on the costume.
An interesting journey. Good roads – but only in the middle – so we endured a repetitive game of ‘chicken’ as our driver dared others off onto the hard shoulder (actually rock-strewn shoulder) and out of his way. We were definitely on a winning streak as our driver had honed his skills over many days. But Fate got its own back. I watched the large rock swoop towards the windscreen almost in slow motion before the glass achieved a sort of jump-to-lightspeed quality. That slowed him down.
Our new hotel was, well… handy for the location.
We began to assemble pieces of Threepio on Maxi’s bed – a somewhat humble beginning for this gilded character – no offence to Maxi.
By midnight I was feeling strange with lack of sleep but there was urgent work to do before our pre-dawn call. Threepio was still incomplete. We had to stick the hands together. I put on a black cotton glove. Maxi dabbed superglue around and built up each finger with three pieces of sculpted steel. The glue fumes were a little acrid but we persevered with the plastic back and wires. Then I took it off. I lie. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Our creation was completely stuck to my hand. I could tell Maxi thought I should sleep in it.
A dog howled in the street below.
I began to feel more nervous about the days to come.