STEVE POWELL: DRINKING
AND SINGING UNDER AFRICAN SKIES
by Graham Rae (2004-06-14)
Steve, how did you and Cliff meet?
I was teaching martial arts at the YMCA on Peter Street in Manchester and also used to work out on the weights at The Apollo Health Center on Deansgate. The Health Center was run by an old dear friend of mine named John Cuppello. Cliff used to work out there too. I’d seen him a few times and he really stood out from the rest because of his fantastic physique. He had written a book called Tuxedo Warrior and it was shortly to be filmed in Africa. Cliff was hired as an actor, stuntman and fight arranger for the film, which was directed by Andrew Sinclair, who directed “Under Milk Wood” with Richard Burton.
John Cuppello mentioned my name to Cliff, commenting on the martial arts I did, thinking it would be a good idea to get together with me to work out some scenarios for the action scenes. We met at the then-famous Quinten’s nightclub for a meeting, which was owned by owned by Chris Quinten of “Coronation Street” fame (note: “Coronation Street” is a British soap opera, and Quinten played the character Brian Tilsley – Graham). At that time I also became friends with Chris, who was also a black belt in karate and trained at the same gym on the weights at the Apollo Health Center. He later joined the YMCA class and I used to give him private lessons. Some famous TV celebrities used to frequent the club too and sometimes I would find myself sat with groups like Hot Gossip, the disco dancing troupe (from the 80s – Graham) as well as various other celebrities. Sometimes Chris Quinten used to park his Rolls Royce outside the YMCA and would drive me round to his club amongst the hordes of girls shouting out “Brian!” as they recognized him from “Coronation Street.” The first time I got into the Rolls I thought I’d stepped on his coat before realizing it was the thick carpet inside the car!
After our meeting, Cliff decided on a stick fight because he knew that I taught the Filipino stick arts. We used to meet at his house on Heywood Road in Prestwich, Manchester. He had a large garage for us to work out and practice the scenes in. I remember a large mechanical fish that was hanging from the wall of the garage, which was the prop that was going to be used in the film “The Pike”. I also remember seeing the newsreel of the promo for the film on a video at Cliff’s house. Joan Collins was in the promo and it was filmed at Lake Coniston in the Lake District. Cliff had written a book called The Pike and also another book named The Dogs of Kane, with “The Pike” being another film project that was offered to him. We used to practice at his house on a regular basis for about three weeks before “Tuxedo Warrior” was due to start.
We left for Zimbabwe on the 25th of November, 1981 and at the airport it was rather strange for me to see such people as Holly Palance (daughter of Jack Palance), John Terry from “Hawk The Slayer”, John Wyman from the Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”, Carol Royle and, later in the day when we arrived, meeting James Coburn Jr. We stayed a month filming in Zimbabwe, returning home on the 26th of December. Cliff was in charge of the action scenes which included ripping a room apart, a fisticuffs scene, a barroom brawl and the stick fight. When asked to show the stick scene Cliff went berserk and had the people nearly jumping out the windows. During the ripping-the-room apart scene, in another room were John Terry and Carol Royle. Cliff and another man have gone there to collect a gambling debt and I can remember John and Carol saying that they were terrified because of all the noise Cliff made destroying the next room whilst they were waiting for the follow-up scene. Doors were kicked in, shelves were torn from the wall and there was a general destruction of objects on the set.
One time Cliff was setting up a stunt for James Coburn Jr., who was to be shot and fall off a cliff. We had a massive airbag in place and I had decided to go off in the nearby bush to photograph some wild monkeys. I looked around and saw Cliff waving his arms frantically, because he was being swarmed by some local bees. By the time the evening came and a few beers had been downed, the story finished up as Cliff being attacked by a swarm of killer African bees.
James Coburn Jr. played a prank on me, which I later played on Cliff. James took me to a restaurant called The Acropolis, not far from The Rex Theatre (where some of the extras were hired from). The servings were too big to be believed: fruit was free, spare ribs that filled the plate came out in mini mountains and the steaks, which covered the whole of the plate, were at least two inches thick. James ordered a kebab and I ordered the sirloin steak, but there was no way a human being could eat all that. I saw the hidden smile on James’s face as I struggled with the mammoth steak, which looked like it could be at least half a cow. Needless to say I had given up the task before I was halfway through eating it. Cliff and I went there the following night. I ordered a kebab and Cliff ordered the sirloin steak. I’m still laughing now as I remember seeing the look on his face.
I was a bit of an astronomy buff and know the constellations of the stars. We were a little enchanted by the grape one night and I was about to pose to Cliff about my knowledge of the stars, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. All the star patterns seemed upside down and all moved about. I had come to the conclusion that the champagne was playing tricks before I realized that we were across the equator and the star patterns were different.
Cliff and I also took a trip up to Lyenga, also known as the Roof of The World, in the Zimbabwe Highlands. There we found a location that would perfectly suit the upcoming film “The Pike.” It was perfect as it looked a lot like the Scottish Highlands, being at high altitude, with a lake and pine trees right in the middle of Africa. Later that night, when Cliff and I were dining in the hotel, he ordered a cocktail called a Vucudu Botswana. There was no such thing, which had the cocktail waiter a little confused, so Cliff gave out the combination of drinks that were needed to make this cocktail. He then proceeded to charm the staff with stories of the Vacudu Botswana, which was a fictitious monster story that he was making up as he went along. He had them all tense listening to the story and then mentioned that he had seen something like it in the middle of the night in the lake outside the hotel the night before. I think there would have been a few outside checks by the African staff that night on their way through the grounds.
There was also a door in the dining room that needed the hinges oiling and every time a waiter would come though it would make a rather loud sound like someone with a really bad flatulence problem. This tickled Cliff and we spent most of the night laughing our heads off. We befriended an African waiter called Charles who was on his way back from there to Salisbury. At that time they were changing all the names of the African cities, so to be more exact we were on our way back to Harare. We were sipping champagne on the way back and Cliff often broke out into song. He had a really good voice and often sang the title tunes to his films. I don’t think Charles knew what to make of this – a couple of English guys filled to the brim with champagne singing their heads off, and the words to the song becoming more slurred as the journey continued.
I used to spend many a night with James Coburn Jr. at his house drinking and talking about his dad, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, and how Coburn used to train with Bruce Lee. In fact, I taught James Jr. some nunchaka moves and he picked it up really fast. We spent a month filming in the bush and various safari parks and it was a time I will never forget. Besides being called “Tuxedo Warrior” the film was also released as “The Omega Connection” and “The Africa Run”.
So what happened after you both returned to the UK?
Cliff, as far as I know, had contacted David Kent-Watson to make a film called “The Mancunian” which was later changed to “GBH” (stands for ‘Grievous Bodily Harm’ and is a police injury-related term – Graham). David and Cliff were old friends. They had worked together before on music projects, one of which was a song from the Bond film “Live And Let Die”, and the B-side “Some Other World”, which were both sung by Salena Jones. The record company was Indigo Records and the songs were engineered by David Kent-Watson at Indigo Studios, Indigo Records, Manchester.
Anyway. The first task for “GBH” was to round up as many heavies as we could, using many of the local doormen as heavies in the film. Shooting began in October 1982 at various locations in the Manchester city area, as well as Eccles, using locations such as the producer’s (Ingmar Rydstrom) home in Sale, and Heaton Park, the latter being a place where Cliff used to do his morning three mile run before returning home to his mammoth workout of 300 pushups and the weights.
Shooting took about a month and the film became a cult classic among many people. I often get emails from people who liked the film, with some coming from British soldiers who were in Bosnia and used to watch it every weekend.
I understand Cliff was a bit of a composer?
Besides writing three books, Cliff wrote numerous film scores and scripts, 12 of which were produced. He acted in the films, sometimes directing them, and arranged the action scenes. He had over 2,000 music scores under his belt, some of under his pseudonyms of Peter Reno, John Agar and Mike Sullivan.
The interview continues in part three of STEVE POWELL: DRINKING AND SINGING UNDER AFRICAN SKIES>>>
|"We were sipping champagne on the way back and Cliff often broke out into song..."|