Secretary’s Blog: 8th May 2020

Dear Members and friends,

In a previous Blog I mentioned the frisson of fear when you are on stage and the curtains open. It’s different in a film. Maybe like the difference in being a bowler or a batsman in cricket. As a bowler you get a second chance but as a batsman, when you are out that’s it! On stage, you forget a line and there is the humiliation of the prompt when your error is revealed to an entire audience. In a film, you can start again.


However, there is still that hint of excitement when, for example,  when you hear “Lagaan, scene 32, Take one.  Roll camera, roll sound,  (Clapper Board with scene number and take number snapped in front of camera),  andddddddddddd  Action!”   followed by “Cut”! when you are filming a scene in the open air, supposedly in 1890, and a jumbo jet flies overhead. It is said that there is a scene in Ben Hur when this does happen! I liked Alfred Hitchcock’s “To catch a thief “ with Cary Grant when he is sitting in a boat and wearing a red scarf with large white  polka dots. If you follow it carefully you will see how the dots move around. What happened to continuity?


A scene can take a long time and for a good reason. Take a scene when you and I are talking. The scene is shot over my shoulder, again over your shoulder and again facing both of  us. That means it is shot three different times. I once did an advert for Fishermen’s Friend Lozenges and they shot it so 30 odd times up to 2am and each time I had to suck a new lozenge; I’ve never been able to touch one since. I was soooooooo tired having been there since 8pm and been sitting around for 5 hours. They shot a scene with a dog first and I was slightly put out that the dog took priority over me.


On one occasion in Hong Kong (and I apologise to those of you of a sensitive nature) I was in a commercial for “Park and Shop” where “Mrs Wong” was demanding air conditioned glass houses so that her salad products arrived for the customer in pristine condition. I was a “Director” of the company and was sweating at the amount of money this would cost. They shot me in close up, a few seconds take, and there was the make up girl,  a man to put the glycerine on my forehead to look like sweat, another to take it off again after the shot, The Director, his assistant, The sound man, the lighting man, the clapper board boy and heaven knows who else to shoot this tiny scene. Looking at this huge company (and I have to forget  when I am watching a film at the crew involved) I asked the Director how it was possible to make porn movies. How does the “gentleman” maintain his level of interest in a supposedly intimate scene with so many people watching? He said a friend of his did some in L A and they tried to shoot early in the morning before interest dropped!


Films were lovely but adverts were better. There you are booked by your agent for 4 or 8 hours, plus overtime if it runs over, whereas for films it is by the day for a set sum and you can arrive at 8am but maybe not called before the camera until 3pm.


Once I was in a bar in Hong Kong, chatting to a friend who said to a man who had just come in “Hi. Do you know Noel?” He said, “No. But I’ve seen him on television”. For a moment I felt so important. Now I am totally unknown but maybe being a Granddad is far more important, as the following piece shows. (By the way, Granddad is how the boys like to spell it!).


At least I am on Google. If you look up “Noel Rands” or “Noel Lester Rands” it gives details of my fleeting fame!


Unforeseen Consequences

I would never have guessed at the time that taking part in play readings at the British Embassy in Tehran in 1980 would change my life. The invitation to take part had come from  Martin Williams, then 1st Secretary Commercial and later Head of Chancery. I left Tehran in 1990 for Bombay and Martin left for other posts including Head of Chancery in Rome and the same in New Delhi when I arrived there in 1984. One day he received a telephone call at the High Commission from Amal Allana, a television film director whose father, Ibrahim Elkhazi, was the finest poet in the English language in India. She was making a television series about 4 famous freedom fighters in Pune (formally Poona) and did he know any English actors in Bombay? “Try Noel Rands at Midland Bank”. She called, came to my office, and asked if I would play the part of the Secretary to the Marquess of Reading, the Viceroy of India, in the two episodes about the trial of Gandhi. We discussed this and I commented “We made many mistakes, didn’t we?” and she replied “Yes, you did. You made many mistakes. But remember two things. At the time you didn’t think you were making mistakes and at the time the Indians didn’t think so either”. I felt rather relieved. I  was taken to “Smart and Hollywood”, a tailors who made costumes for TV dramas and met the Marquess and another colleague. However, remembering how annoyed London had been over my acting in Cairo, I turned it down, thinking it was a shame as I had liked the other two actors.


A week later, Amal’s assistant called saying they really were stuck and could I think of anyone. I weakened and agreed to do it. The filming would take place in Pune in the grounds of the building used in the Attenborough Film and Tom Alter, an American who had lived in India for ages, had been in Gandhi as the doctor when his wife was dying.  (in passing may I mention that outside Pune is village which is the home of the Varkari sect. This provides most of the Dhabbawallahs in Bombay which provides an amazing service. After you have gone to work, your maid or wife cooks your lunch which goes into metal Tiffin boxes. There are usually 3 with a metal strap round them and they are collected from your home or the local station. There they go on a train to Bombay, are collected and delivered to your office. There are between 4,500 and 5,000 dhabbawallas and 175,000 to 200,000 Tiffin boxes a day. You see them pushing wooden trollies piled high with boxes which are colour coded or numbered or have a sign on them and it is estimated that there is maybe one mistake in 6 million deliveries.  Quite often a person’s name signifies their occupation, like Baer or Fletcher in the UK. For example Darawallah is a Wine merchant – Dudewallah is a milkman. The owner of Gallery 7 in Hong Kong, which I helped run for 5 years, told me her sister was at school with a girl whose name was “Yasmin SodaBottlePopBottleOpenerwallah!” Maybe “Rands” is not that bad a name after all)


To cover the excuse for my trip to film in Pune I arranged to meet the Chairman of Bank of Maharastra at the Head Office for a banking meeting. The Marquess (played by Lance Dane) and I shared a room at the hotel where we stayed overnight. Tom mentioned that when he was in the Attenborough film, catering was supplied by the Blue Diamond hotel and was served at an impressive buffet. Ours was more basic. I enjoyed it and it was an experience. (About 12 months afterwards I was at a lunch at the British Ambassador’s home in Rangoon and one of the other guests was from the British Council.  I mentioned filming in Gandhi and he said “Didn’t you jump over the flower bed to announce Mr Gandhi had been arrested?” He also had been in the film! Small world. ON a later visit, I was at an evening reception of VIPs together with a visitor from BBC World Service. We stayed behind after the guests had gone for a nightcap and Mrs Fenn, the wife of the Ambassafor, told us that after a previous Reception, on a Sunday, her butler produced a large and expensive ruby which had fallen out of a ring. She waited for a call from te owner on the Monday and again on te Tuesday. On the Wednesday she went down the guest list to see who was wealthy enough to own it. She narrowed it down to three, called and one said that indeed it was hers. She asked why she hadn’t called to she relied that she was worried that f it wasn’t found she might think one of her servants had stolen it and spoil the relationship. So she called her Astrologer who told her not to worry as she would receive a phone call on the 3rd day. And that day was the 3rd day! Don’t underestimate astrologers)


Some time later I was asked if I would act in the trial of Tillak, a newspaper editor, as Government Secretary and assistant to the Governor of Bombay Governorate, George Lloyd. He was played by an Englishman called David Gray and he was accompanied by his wife Caroline. I liked them enormously; they were staying in smart rooms in the Royal Bombay Yacht Club. I was sad when same time later her left her for a younger and rather glamorous Indian lady.


We had a scene where I, heavily bearded,  (glued on!) had a tracking shot of David and me walking along the side of the building and turning into the entrance. I kept getting the words wrong and Amal remarked “Noel. If Oh Shit was in the script you would be word perfect!” The scene was split in two and we completed it. Since then, I have never taken lines casually! Amal told me not to worry and in one scene ”Tilak” needed 34 takes!


This lead to me acting in adverts for “Fryums. You wanna tryum” where I played the husband with a wife and two small children. It seems I looked more like her husband than her actual husband. (My “son”, by the way, is now a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army!), as a commentator on Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile record in an advert for Jensen and Nicholson’s paint and also in an advert for Dinesh Suiting with the cricketer Sunil Gavaskar and a blonde girl. I am looking down my nose at him over my copy of the Financial Times with a London Underground sign behind us. This appeared in just about every magazine in India. When I arrived in Hyderabad, Delhi, Bangalore or Madras my regular driver would fish a local magazine from under his seat and said “Sahib. Is this you?” On one occasion in Bombay I had a call from the General Manager of Indian Overseas Bank in Madras saying “Mr. Rands.  Usually we see you in one of two places, Either in our office or on television. WE have not seen you in either place for far too long. When are you coming to see us again?”  On my next visit, 10 days later, he and his colleague wanted to talk about Indian film stars and whether I would be interested in doing a rather important piece of business. Later, when I was visiting Madras to promote a conference on Countertrade (I didn’t just do acting!), the day of my appointment, the Friday, was declared a Bank Holiday to commemorate the sudden death of Abdul Gaffar Khan, known as the Frontier Gandhi. On the Saturday I tried to squeeze them in and when I arrived, unannounced, at IOB the Representative from Bank of America was left waiting as I was shown in. A senior visitor from London was once asked by a rival British bank “What does Midland get out of Noel’s acting?” He replied that I was the best known correspondent banker in India and could get an appointment in any office any time I liked! It was true but Oh how fleeting is fame!.


Lance lived also in Bombay and we became great friends. He was enigmatic as the story of his past kept changing as he told he was a different age to various people and also varied where he had been born. However, he was a brilliant photographer using available light and varying the shutter speed rather than flash and his photographs were pin point sharp. He introduced me to his friend David May, a businessman and also a photographer, and I was invited for dinner. He lived just up the hill from my flat. One of his servants was an extremely handsome 17 years old who had just arrived from Mangalore, named Vaman. Two years later Lance was evicted from his flat and moved in with me, together with an incredible collection of artifacts. It was like living in a museum. (When the Chairman, Sir Kit McMahon, arrived on a visit, I put Lance in charge of showing Lady McMahon the Elephanta caves and she was charmed) For 3 years I had done my own cooking as my maid, and later her brother who took over, didn’t cook. Not as bad as it seems; using my trusty Madhur Jaffray BBC book I would order the food, arrange for the items to be chopped and peeled, and so the drudgery was cut out. (There was a big ledge outside the kitchen window. A US visitor from Crocker National Bank, when told I missed the barbeques on my terrace overlooking the Nile, asked why I didn’t but a small barbeque on the ledge. I said “Watch” and put out of the window on the ledge a small piece of raw meat. Within seconds there was a flurry of wings and the meat disappeared. “That, I said, was a Kite Hawk” My maid” said,” Yes, now they go to eat Parsee people”. The Towers of Silence were not that far away where the dead Parsees are placed on racks on the top and are devoured by the birds. They do not believe in defiling fire or the earth.


David was retiring and so Lance suggested I recruit Vaman (who had announced that he wanted to work for the man at the bottom of the hill). It worked out very well even though it had an uncertain start. He joined me in March 1988 and I was going to stay with the cartoonist Marion Miranda in Goa, taking his wife, Charlie,  and son with me. Vaman came as well plus Melwyn, my driver and I borrowed the office Mercedes. The Deputy High Commission asked if there was a chance of my going via Pune to deliver the Queen’s Telegram to an English lady, a relic of the Raj,  about to celebrate her 100th birthday (actually it was a copy in case the original was delayed). It was a difficult journey as the road from Bombay was in an awful state and Melwyn was fasting for Lent; his wife was pregnant, had twice had a miscarriage and he wanted to pray at a Catholic shrine in Goa. We left the home after delivering the telegram and I took over driving. We left Goa on a long drive and Mrs Miranda said we must stop as it was getting dark and Melwyn must eat. On the left we saw the lights of a restaurant and impetuously I turned into the entrance, not realising that Melwyn’s  frantic “Sir! Sir” meant that I had missed the drive and was driving into a ditch. It was a bit like the end of “The Italian Job” with the Mercedes balanced in the middle and the front wheels in the air. I suggested putting stones under the front wheels but was told by Melwyn to get out and get help. Charlie and I went I to the restaurant where Charlie as a bare chested man for his sahib. It turned out he was Captain Saxena who owned the restaurant and had a cook who had worked for Lord Mountbatten. Helpers shot down, stones were put under the wheels, I was asked to get in and reverse and out we popped like a cork and parked. In the end it was a really jolly evening and Captain Saxena was great fun. Despite that, Vaman decided to stay with me.


At the end of the year I was transferred back to London and I took Vaman with me, again as my cook/housekeeper,  as my new job, Private Banking (which I hated) meant I had to entertain clients at home an d do a lot of travelling. After a couple of months I was on an Overseas trip when news came that his mother had died suddenly of a heart attack. When I got home (he was 20) he threw his arms around me, burst into tears and said “You are all that I have got”. I promised always to look after him. My parents loved him. He came with me to Hong Kong and after some time I told him he had to meet people of his own age. He went out one Sunday and met Mary, from the same part of India, and they married in St Joseph’s Cathedral on 2nd January 1994. Vaman was the working in an art gallery as a framer and ended as Manager of the Framing Department. Victor was born on 23rd April 1996 and I was flattered to be asked if he could call me “Grandad” I took him on his 1stday to school and also every day after we moved to Croydon. We returned to London on 31st July 1999 and Justin was born on 16th January 2001 so I have two grandsons which I adore. Victor got a BSc (Hons) from Nottingham University (I used to drive him there and back) and Justin is now at York.  An ex colleague asked “Are they really your grandsons?” Well, I have been there since the day they were born, taken them both to cricket matches when they have been playing and to school everyday and, quite frankly, I think I have earned the title. Vaman, by the way, worked for a UK framers on Museum Quality works and once made the frame for a Francis Bacon which sold for $30M. We all live together in rural Croydon, currently battened down.


Next time I will tell you about filming in Hong Kong and also the Rann of Kutch where again I had a glued-on beard. I do hope this has not been too self-indulgent.


Noel Rands

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