A fine romance: take two

In John Gilbey’s seasonal tale, life imitates on-screen romance when a film crew is duped into choosing the distinctly unphotogenic University of Rural England as the location for its next blockbuster

December 23, 2021
a fine romance
Source: David Parkins

The vice-chancellor slammed shut the lid of his laptop and swung his heavy gaze around the table.

“Right, that’s it…Unless any of you have any bright ideas about how to get us out of this mess – like finding an envelope stuffed with a couple of million quid, for example?”

The senior management of the University of Rural England stirred uneasily, hoping that this wouldn’t be another of his bitter monologues. Glances were exchanged, but then the registrar – a pale, gaunt figure, long regarded as the v-c’s sidekick – offered a lifeline.

“Well, Peter, there is something which might offer an opportunity. We’ve been contacted by a film production company in the States – they’re keen to use our campus as the location for their next feature, and seem to be rather well resourced.”

Peter raised a single sceptical eyebrow. “What are we talking here? Merely ample or truly loaded?”

Briefly consulting his notes, the registrar said with some awe: “It appears that they tend rather towards the latter.”

The vice-chancellor allowed himself a slow smile – his first for some months.

“In that case, I suggest we make every effort to become their new best friends. Set up a meeting, will you?”

 

The air in the grandly named Video Conferencing Suite still bore hints of its former life as a chemical store.

“Frankly, I’d have preferred a business-class flight to Los Angeles and a weekend of alcoholic orientation before the meeting,” groaned the vice-chancellor, “but I suppose your way works too.”

The registrar, urgently checking that the audio was still muted, hit back: “Time seems to be of the essence, Peter – they have a very tight schedule for principal photography.”

The vice-chancellor grunted. “It’s started already,” he thought to himself. “We haven’t had our first meeting yet, and already the buzzwords are breaking out.”

A discreet chime announced the incoming video call, and a series of figures appeared, bathed in the golden light of a Californian dawn. The film-makers were keen to jump straight in to business.

“What we have is an amazing opportunity,” began the putative spokesperson. “We have a truly epic screenplay, a bunch of hugely talented production people and a pair of A-list youngsters set to be the romantic leads. You have a beautiful historic campus, college quads, lawns, libraries, a great hall, landscapes to die for and a horde of good-looking students and faculty to act as our dramatic base. This is a gift, folks – a true meeting of minds! We are really looking forward to working with you on this.”

“That is most gratifying,” agreed the vice-chancellor. “I’m glad you appreciate the nature of what we have to offer. Naturally there will need to be a discussion around – remuneration…Something in the nature of a facilities fee, plus some sort of profit-sharing agreement?”

“Sure,” replied the spokesperson, “my people will talk to your people. The important thing is that we have an ‘in principle’ agreement so that we can get the wheels turning at this end. We have to finish location work by Christmas, and the clock is ticking...”

The vice-chancellor smiled disturbingly into the camera. “Subject to contract, I think you may take our cooperation as read. I will brief our legal people to expect your call – and I look forward to welcoming you all to the university. Just one thing: I’d be grateful for a copy of the screenplay – I need to assure myself that this project will not impact on the reputation of the university.”

“Well,” came the reply, “I’ll need you to sign a non-disclosure agreement first...”

The rising colour and fixed glare of the vice-chancellor’s face sliced through the technology like a knife.

“Oh, what the heck – there has to be trust, right? I’ll email the spec script over to you now.”

Couple dancing with an older couple looking at each other in foregroun
Source: 
David Parkins

Outside in the corridor, the vice-chancellor rubbed his hands in delight – but the registrar looked troubled.

“I can’t help thinking, Peter, that they may have us confused with another university. I mean, their description bears only the most fleeting similarity to our campus.”

“I think,” replied the gloating figure, nodding to the head of marketing, “we may have our colleague here to thank for this. This bunch clearly haven’t scouted the locations in person. They’ve spotted our website and maybe the prospectus too…All tastefully done, wasn’t it, Claire? Glorious architecture, vibrant landscapes, smiling squeaky-clean students with perfect skin, amiable and caring faculty in elegant oak-panelled rooms, more than a hint of Merrie England...”

Sensing approaching censure, marketing sought a solid footing. “My remit is to present the university in the best possible light, Peter. All the imagery is technically accurate, however well framed it was, and – well – a certain amount of stock material is necessary to protect the privacy of our staff and students...”

The vice-chancellor held up a meaty hand. “It isn’t a criticism. You’ve done a wonderful job, and if it comes to a fight I’m sure we can prove that all the landscapes shown are local – within a day’s drive, say – even those shots of Stonehenge if you made an early start. Ironic really, a set of fantasy merchants being taken in like that. I suppose we’re lucky there’s so little street-level imagery of the town on the Web – I’m glad the local drug barons managed to chase them off when the camera car turned up...”

Much later, the vice-chancellor sat in his flat perusing the newly printed screenplay. He muttered darkly as he ploughed through the 80 pages with an increasingly furrowed brow – then cast it aside with an oath. Having trawled the Web for details of the lead actors, he’d known that a romantic comedy was inevitable, but the sheer sickly sweetness of the treatment threatened to give him a coronary. He stomped around the room, whisky glass in hand. This wasn’t academia! All this nonsense of young lovers stressing over trivia! Where was the drama? Where was the gritty reality?

“I could have written a better screenplay than this!” he yelled out loud, then took a drink and remembered that he already had. He strode to the rarely visited guest room and, prising a dusty archive box from the top shelf, began sorting through battered folders of typescript. There it was, his first and only screenplay – 30 years old and universally rejected or ignored.

Concrete Campus: A Tragedy of Angst and Brutalism. Perhaps it was the title that put them off? Riffling through the pages, a photograph slid out on to the floor. A glossy monochrome print, 8 inches by 10. The lead actors in Much Ado About Nothing all those years ago – 1976 it must have been. He saw himself when he still had a neck, with his arm held tentatively around Elizabeth, who was strikingly beautiful even in this amateur photo. In an instant, all the pain came flooding back and he glared at the glass, reluctantly decided against refilling it, and stormed out.

The arrival of the film crew was greeted with a high degree of excitement by the university. Word had got out that, in a nod to reality TV, all but a few of the main characters would be drawn from the ranks of URE faculty – and fervid anticipation among the star-struck academics was running at fever pitch. Rather less rapture was visible on the faces of the production team, who descended from the black executive SUV and looked around them with apparent disbelief. Poorly maintained buildings of many periods had coalesced over time into a blur of eccentric compromise edged with sheds and temporary structures now decades old. The surrounding countryside, if it can be called such, is dominated by a noxiously chimneyed protein-rendering plant and a massive chicken farm resembling a military prison, while a brown, polluted river winds along the edge of the campus – completely failing to attract the advertised wildlife, picnickers and teams of rowers. In the raw November morning, with a light rain darkening the stonework, the place looked even less appealing than usual.

As the vice-chancellor approached the leather-jacketed lead producer with an extended hand, he was greeted by a hard look and an accusatory finger. “You and I”, said the producer in ominous tones, “need to have a conversation. Now.”

As arguments go, agreed the registrar later, the protagonists were well matched. The vice-chancellor had the bullish and intransigent qualities honed over decades of committee work, while the producer had the street smarts of a Brooklyn kid who had fought her way to the top. It was touch and go for a few minutes, with claim and counter-claim passing like a well-choreographed knife fight. In the end, compromise was perhaps inevitable.

“Look,” said the producer, “I guess we both screwed up – but we still need to make a movie here. There is way too much tied up in this production to trash it now, and we both need a result. Am I right?”

The vice-chancellor nodded slowly. “Indeed, we need a film – but surely not this one?” He indicated the screenplay with distaste. “It is just too bland and sugary. I thought I felt diabetes coming on just reading the damned thing. It’s all bloody pastel shades and gingerbread – not like a real university story at all. Academia isn’t served by this toxic candyfloss. We deserve better, dammit!”

Over her glasses, the producer studied his histrionics with professional detachment. Thoughts of method acting and cinéma vérité floated across her mind and began to coalesce into a way forward. Sure, it was a risk – but they were in such deep shit already, what did it matter? She picked up her phone and stabbed it a couple of times.

“Gerry? It’s me. See if you can find the writer, we are going to need some major surgery on the script. What? I dunno, try the bookstores first – that usually works.”

The fact that the town supports only a single bookshop probably helped matters, and a few minutes later there was a knock at the door.

“Enter!” intoned the vice-chancellor, and an elegant woman with greying hair eased around the door and paused, looking across at him.

“Hello, Peter.”

The registrar, despite having known the vice-chancellor for two decades, had never before seen him lost for words. Time passed, while the producer looked on in bewilderment, before Peter recovered himself.

“Elizabeth.”

“It’s Beth now…But it’s good to see you again.”

The registrar, accurately assessing what had just happened, quietly guided the producer from the room and closed the door behind them.

“It’s been a long time, Peter.”

“6 June 1982, not that I’ve been counting.”

“Still, I’ve never really understood why you did it.”

“Did what?”

“Stood me up in that awful way – I was heartbroken.”

“Me? It was you that stood me up. I waited there all bloody night!”

“Where? You certainly weren’t in the White Horse – the only blokes there were bikers who kept trying to pick me up. One had a leg missing.”

“The White Horse? That dive? I wouldn’t be seen dead in there – the beer was piss! I was in the White Hart, as we agreed.”

“Oh God…I assumed you were being deliberately cruel about me leaving for Berkeley – so I left and wrote you off as a bad job. Are you saying that wasn’t the idea?”

“Rather the reverse. I was going to ask you to marry me.”

“Oh God…I had no idea.” She glanced at his left hand, “Did you ever marry?”

“No. There didn’t seem any point…You?”

“Only briefly, but I’m Beth Barleyman now. I kept his name, he took everything else…”

Numbed and uncertain, the pair decided to park the discussion for a better moment – turning to the film script was almost a relief.

“I was asked to pitch it as a vehicle for Ted and Alice – even you’ve heard of them, right? I agree with you, though, it’s way too tacky even for their devoted fans. They need a foil of some kind, a hint of darkness...” Beth laughed uncertainly. “Ted and Alice remind me of us when we were playing Claudio and Hero in Much Ado…Remember that? That was a good time...”

Peter chuckled. “Yes, indeed – I’d give anything to be back there. And now here we find ourselves as Beatrice and Benedick – gnarled old sparring partners.”

A moment of silence, then Beth said “I think you’ve just given me an idea.”

 

The idea was a triumph, of course. The producer pounced on Beth’s new direction and quickly refocused the whole basis of the production. “I was looking for gleaming spires as a backdrop for my romance,” she said, “but I guess I’ll go with post-apocalyptic. The heart-warming love story of Ted and Alice thrown into relief by the bleakly angst-ridden history of Peter and Beth – parted lovers reunited to create the film. You two should totally nail the book rights for that, by the way. A play-within-a-play – I love it!”

Beth retired to her hotel and burned through a couple of nights to reforge the script, assisted – if that is the right word – by the suddenly solicitous vice-chancellor. Then the producer took the university by the throat and started to shake it into the required form.

Hordes of bit-part players were recruited, slightly scruffy minor academics squeezed into the roles of slightly scruffy minor academics. Teams of silent operatives with hand-held camera rigs closely followed the two couples around campus, trying to avoid the most unseemly parts of the decayed infrastructure. “We can fix it in post” came the cry whenever the scenery became too scabby even for the new screenplay. Media studies quickly latched on to the idea, with a student-led project to record the developing production turning the environment into a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. The student crew, perhaps inevitably, was itself pursued by smartly dressed folk from marketing recording their exploits on phones – resulting in a play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play. Alone in his office, the director of finance began to practise cartwheels of delight.

 

The action continued through the dark days of December as the Christmas lights began to emerge around the town and campus. In the cold air, a warm glow seemed to emanate from the increasingly tender relationship between Ted and Alice. The producer approved: “It’s the real thing, you can’t fake that – and God knows I’ve tried!” The registrar also noted a gradual defrosting of the vice-chancellor – who had radically reformed his vocabulary since Beth’s arrival, and hadn’t broken his phone in anger for some weeks.

Finally, amid relief tinged with regret, the filming was edging to a close. Even the producer was seen to smile, as she crossed off yet another scene. Only one major set-piece remained, and it was the biggest: the Grand Christmas Ball in the great hall of the university. In recent years, this event had sunk to a desultory level – a sound system playing distorted Christmas classics way too loud, while food vans in the quad dished out festive kebabs and pizza and an alleged comedian contrived to insult everyone equally. This time it was different, with skilled technicians installing professional lights and decorations. A famous band that even the registrar admired was doing a sound check running through their new Christmas album and the catering was Falstaffian, but in a good way. With a wave from the first assistant, the invited crowd began to filter in.

Beth and Peter, arrayed in their finest evening wear, stood arm in arm behind Ted and Alice in the entrance of the hall, waiting to be called forward.

“What happens now?” whispered the vice-chancellor.

Beth smiled. “Well, this is the bit where Ted and Alice dance under the glitter ball and she asks him if he will give up his job here and follow her to California. He agrees, they kiss, everyone applauds, rising waves of string orchestra, then the camera pulls back revealing us in the crowd beyond them. Cue titles...”

Peter moved his feet uncertainly. “It all sounds so simple, when you put it like that…”

Beth looked at him, enjoying seeing him momentarily off balance. “It is, if you want it to be. All you have to do is admit you’ve run out of excuses.”

He blinked a couple of times. “You mean?”

She smiled, and turned to face him – almost unaware of the camera poised discreetly nearby. “Yes, I think we’ve wasted too much time already. I’ll be heading back to San Francisco in a couple of days. Come with me, stay for Christmas and New Year at least. We can go up to Tahoe and ski – or spend some time in Yosemite...”

“But what then?” asked Peter in a voice she hadn’t heard for 40 years.

Beth smiled again. “Who knows, but let’s find out together...”

Peter nodded slowly, then moved to embrace her.

A figure in a headset tapped him on the shoulder. “We’re ready for you…10 seconds...”

Beth and Peter turned towards the doorway, the music swelled and they walked together across the threshold of the great hall – and into movie history.

John Gilbey is a hopeless romantic. He teaches in the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University and tweets as @John_Gilbey

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Reader's comments (2)

new
Lovely story. I really enjoyed it. Happy Christmas
new
Good story! Thanks! Happy New Year!

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