On a job built for two.
This is an extra chapter that didn't fit in the time frame I'd set myself for "Blown Out Of Proportion - Misadventures of a Glassblower in France". I'd decided that the Brexit Vote was the perfect cut off date for my first memoir. Incidently, I don't like the term 'memoir' which, to me, always sounds a little pretentious.
In late April 2019, we received a phone call from a TV production company. They had been told about Chris and wanted to know whether he could build them a working glassblowing studio as well as appear as a body double for an episode of a French police drama series called Tandem. Without too much hesitation, he said ‘yes.’
The Head of Set Design, Philippe, (“Bonjour, je m’appelle Philippe . . . avec deux P”) and his assistant duly came over to visit and discuss what they wanted. Our first concern was Chris’s health. Not only had he had a mysterious cough since the previous November, but he was scheduled for knee surgery at the end of May, having broken his meniscus at the beginning of April.
After they left, we spent the next few days discussing what Chris could do and roughly how much he wanted them to pay him to do it. We phoned a glassblowing friend on the coast to ask his opinion.
“So, are you supplying any of your equipment?” our friend asked.
“Of course. The glory hole, the bench, the irons, the hand tools, the cullet, the colours, pieces of glass to decorate the set to make it look authentic.”
“What’s happening about the furnace?”
“Building one from scratch?”
“Working or fake?”
“For how long do they want you?”
“They’re saying three days of actual filming.”
“I see. Well, for your time, sourcing materials, and building it all, you should ask for a minimum of 100€ per hour. For the rental of a functioning studio, the normal charge is 300€ per day, but you should charge more because you are building it and taking the studio to them.”
We danced nervously around the numbers, which to us appeared eye-wateringly large. The Set Designer, Philippe, came back the following week to finalize the budget.
Being hopelessly British, we couldn’t bring ourselves to name a figure straight away, but Philippe was a hardened professional, and our Englishness finally got to him. In exasperation, he burst out,
“Look, my total budget for zis one scene in zis one episode is 3000€. No more, no less. Can you do it for zat, or not?”
“Oh, yes, of course we can!” We were relieved. This figure was one we’d already bandied about between us. “But can we be in the credits?”
By the end of the meeting, Philippe had agreed to hire Stan as an Assistant Set Decorator through his company. For Stan, this was the best outcome. He would be paid 97€ per day; the minimum wage for that sort of job. As a film student, the experience would look good on his CV, and any salary, even for a short time, would count towards his pension. It was also ideal for Chris. With a dodgy knee, Chris was worried the physical strain of building the equipment would be too much for him, and Stan was the perfect assistant.
Chris underwent surgery then took a few weeks to recover.
They scheduled filming for the end of June. We drove over to look at the location in the Arboras village hall. The building hung out over the valley. The upper room jutted out into a void and was open to the elements on three sides. At the far end of the hall was an area arranged like a small office, partitioned off with glass, with large picture windows overlooking the valley.
We thought it looked like a superb spot for a glassmaking studio, especially with a gentle breeze ventilating it. We peered through the fretworked gates and planned where everything would go and where we could place the gas bottles for security.
Back at his studio, Chris started designing the furnace, working out exactly how many bricks, fiber, gas piping, and joints he’d need. Luckily, he already had burners. As it was necessary to test the furnace before installing it, Chris set it up initially in his workshop. His studio was over-crowded already, so it was a logistical nightmare.
One of the many problems we needed to overcome was that a real glassmaking crucible would have been very expensive and would have pushed the budget over the top. So Chris looked for alternatives. The dimensions of any eventual substitute had to be just right for the cavity at the heart of the furnace, yet deep enough to hold a worthwhile amount of molten glass. As a working furnace, it had to withstand a lot of heat for at least three days. The crew wanted to film glass being blown, but no one could say how long production would take. We couldn’t have the crucible disintegrating on the first day. We tried a few alternatives – everything from ceramic vases to metallic mixing bowls. As the melting temperature for steel is so much higher than for glass, we thought we could get away with it. We couldn’t. It didn’t work. Nasty things happened to the surface of the metal bowl with the heat. In the end, another glassblowing friend, Robert, lent us an old mini crucible. It was cracked but held together with a coating of glass, so we hoped it would survive the stresses of the furnace.
We sourced the bricks from a specialist pottery supplier, 67 kilometers from us on the eastern side of Montpellier. But they didn’t sell gas piping. We found that 85 kilometers back towards Spain, in a camping shop south-west of Beziers. Of course, it would have been better to buy everything in one place, but that would have been too easy. The camping shop sold rubber tubing in 1.5-meter lengths (the maximum amount allowed by law), but we needed at least 5m. In the end, we bought a roll of flexible copper tubing, but even that wasn’t enough. Back home, we added some flexible tubing donated by a friendly plumber. To marry the rubber to the copper tubing Chris and the plumber had to cobble joints together from spare parts.
Meanwhile, the temperature outside steadily rose. Already, as we wandered the shops looking for supplies, it was around 35°c. The weather forecast predicted over 40°c for the week of filming.
The government issued warnings about staying safe during the canicule (heatwave), but the film team had a schedule which they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, put off. I predicted camera operators falling like Horse Guards, and I started to worry about Chris surviving the day. He may look like a spring chicken, but he isn’t one. I told Stan to ensure they both drank enough water. I also asked him whenever possible to drop Chris’s age into a conversation with the crew, hoping they’d cut him some slack if he began to feel odd and need a rest. My fussing was unnecessary, as they worked in wet clothes and had bottles of iced water available. An air-conditioned marquee was set up outside to where people could retreat.
Nevertheless, the combined operating temperatures of the furnace and glory hole were 3000°c. To cut down on external noises, the TV Company had cleverly installed windows. Outside, the temperature now rose to 47°c. On the set, it reached 50°c. Soon the director ordered Chris to shut down the glory hole. The heat was affecting the cameras and their operators, and its noise ruined the sound recording. The furnace roared too, but this was the one bit of our kit they couldn’t do without. Stan had to cut the gas to the furnace during dialogues and re-light it afterward. The name ‘Stan’ was the most frequently uttered word of the entire day. Only once did he nearly blow himself up. At one point, the flame didn’t take when he turned the gas back on. Distracted and in a hurry, he relit it, and a ball of flame shot up his arm, leaving the unpleasant aroma of singed hair floating around the set.
Outside in the pine trees, randy cicadas loudly proclaimed their availability for procreation. An assistant went out to silence them. Unable to shout or hit the trees without interfering with the recording, he silently waved a ‘dead cat’ around. Never had so many bugs been so effectively silenced by a fuzzy microphone on a pole. The actor, Lionel, proved to be no good at portraying a glassblower, even after repeated demonstrations by Chris. Luckily the two of them were about the same age and looked somewhat similar, so Chris was duly sent off to dress up in the other man’s clothes. Unfortunately, Chris’s tummy was slightly rounder than Lionel’s, so the shorts wouldn’t do up. Already, Chris was horrified by having to wear someone else’s shorts - and sandals with socks - while glassmaking, but that he had to film with his fly open was nearly too much to bear.
For Chris and Stan, it had taken two weeks of extremely hard work, and I think Chris wished he’d asked for more money, but the filming was actually completed in a day.
The following year, we finally saw the episode. Tandem Series 4, episode 7, if you want to find it on Youtube. We spotted - but only because eagle-eyed Stan pointed it out - that Chris was clean-shaven while Lionel had designer stubble. We cheered when Chris’s easily recognisable chin came into shot.
But our cheers turned to disgruntlement when we realised they hadn’t put Chris in the credits. They credited Stan as an Assistant Set Decorator, but there was no mention of Chris without whom they couldn’t have made that episode. Although he didn’t say anything at the time, I could see he was quietly disappointed.
Later on, I wrote a polite email to the production company thanking them for the experience. I complimented them on the episode and casually mentioned our surprise at not being credited or thanked in any way. I did not receive a reply.