Saturday, 23 September 2017

SHOESTRING: An interview with film editor GRAHAM WALKER

"Private Ear" Eddie Shoestring (Trevor Eve) with Radio West boss Don Satchley (Michael Medwin) in SHOESTRING, the much loved detective series which ran for two series on BBC1, 1979-80.

In 2002, my friend Nick Stewart and I put together a website devoted to one of our favourite TV shows, SHOESTRING.  Many of the cast and crew very kindly responded to our correspondence and we hope it remains a worthy tribute (even if it does now look more dated than the show itself).


In celebration of Shoestring: The Complete Series finally arriving on DVD from Network, we present the first in a series of exclusive interviews on the programme.  These were originally intended to be added to the site as part of a revamp, but we never got around to it.


GRAHAM WALKER has credits as a film editor with the BBC stretching back to the early 1970s. More recently he has worked with the director Joe Ahearne on Doctor Who, The Secret of Crickley Hall and this year's thriller serial The Replacement (which was watched by 8m viewers).



Patrick Mower as Detective Superintendent Steve Hackett of the Regional Crime Squad in TARGET (BBC1 1977-78), another series long overdue on DVD.

In the 1970s, Graham Walker worked on both Shoestring and its predecessor Target, the police drama starring Patrick Mower.  In this 2009 interview, he generously shared his memories of this period in his career with Nick and I.



How did the job of film editor on SHOESTRING arise? Possibly through TARGET, which you had worked on?

In 1975 The Sweeney burst onto British TV screens.  Probably the first truly modern drama series. Action-packed and shot entirely on location with lightweight 16mm film cameras, it looked and felt very different from everything that had gone before. It was a huge success.

The BBC soon realised they had nothing in their schedules to counter this and so in 1977 they commissioned their first all film cop series - Target. The brief was to make a hard-hitting series that would outdo The Sweeney and they actively sought out ex-Sweeney directors such as David Wickes and Douglas Camfield for the first series.

I was the dubbing editor for all the episodes in series 1 and by 1978 and Series 2 I had been promoted to Film Editor and edited 2 episodes*.

[*"Fringe Banking" directed by Terry Green tx 13 Oct 1978 and "Promises" directed by Gordon Flemyng, 20 Oct 1978]

My memory of working on both series is that despite being asked to make a punchy drama the BBC executives were constantly asking for it to be toned down! We want it hard hitting but not that hard hitting!

Target was fairly successful but the constant drip drip effect of complaints about violence, language etc forced the BBC not to go for a 3rd series.

They still very much wanted another all film drama series but less action and perhaps more thoughtful - enter Bob Banks Stewart and Shoestring.


How long did you get to edit an episode of Target or Shoestring?

For the picture editing I had 5 weeks for each episode.  The final cut was then passed onto the dubbing editor who had a further 2 weeks to prepare the sound tracks for dubbing.  These were  typical schedules for any 50 minute film drama in those days. 

Each episode took 3 weeks to shoot and that period was part of my 5 week schedule.  So I was on board from day 1 of the shoot and would edit each day's shooting as the "rushes" came in.  Rushes, for those who don't know, are the first picture and sound prints of a day's shooting - made quickly (i.e. rushed) overnight by the labs and available for editing first thing in the morning of the day after each shooting day.

By the time the shoot ended I had to have a full first cut of the episode ready for viewing because we then only had 2 weeks left for fine cutting and the screenings and changes from the producer and BBC executives.
  
Graham Walker's screen credit for the series 1 episode "Stamp Duty", directed by Martin Friend.

Was there room to do your own thing, i.e. do something in the edit which maybe wasn't the original plan?

Yes, very much so.  Because of the time constrictions my first cut, prepared while the director was away shooting, had to be as close to a fine cut as it could be.  Obviously I would follow the script while editing but there is a deal of difference between the written word and how it visualises on a screen.  Scenes as scripted would often not quite work and it was up to me at that stage to make them work.

Of course the director would always have the final say during our 2 week fine cutting period but I reckon about 70% of each episode stayed exactly as I edited it in my first cut.  Most of the fine cutting period was always spent dealing with 2 or 3 problem scenes which for some reason or other were pigs to get working!

This was not only the way with Shoestring - every TV drama and feature film I have worked on has been much like that. 


Did any problems ever ensue, i.e. did people ever reshoot back then? 

Yes of course!  All movies have their problems and Shoestring was no different and no worse than any other in that respect.  I seem to remember that on one of my episodes Bob Banks Stewart wrote and re-shot a complete new end sequence after seeing the director's cut.

Although the director had final say in the edit of the director's cut, after this was completed it was shown to the producer and then to the BBC executive in charge.  Changes and modifications would always result from these viewings - sometimes minor and sometimes major involving re-shooting additional material.

The biggest problem one always has with drama productions is not the shot to shot editing of each scene but the overall structure of the whole piece.  How each scene moves and develops the narrative with the next scene.  For some reason the scene order of written scripts rarely works when visualised on a screen.  So a lot of the editing time is spent in restructuring the scene order.  I can't emphasise enough how important structure is - if the structure is wrong, no matter how brilliant the individual scenes are, the audience will quickly lose interest.

Trevor Eve on the Radio West set at Ealing Studios


The BBC at that time wouldn't have been that used to all-film series -- did this have any bearing on your work?

Yes that's right, Shoestring was only the second all film series the BBC had made.  The main difference to the way we were used to working at the BBC was because of the sheer scale and complexity of producing 10 x 50 minute drama films in one season, the whole post production process had to be very carefully planned and run on an almost factory like process.

I must give the BBC credit here, instead of trying to develop their own methods of working (which they were prone to do) they listened to advice and followed the standard film industry (i.e not television industry) practices which were well established for the production of multiple drama films - after all the Americans had been doing it for years.

So, on Target and Shoestring for the first time ever we had a Supervising Editor to oversee the scheduling of all the episodes and the day to day running of all the various cutting rooms plus a dubbing editor for each episode (the usual BBC practice was for the film editor to do the dubbing editing after the cut had been finalised).

It was also fascinating to see during this period feature film industry terms such as Director's Cut, Picture Lock, Final Mix etc gradually creeping into the BBC's language.  For me, and others like me who were more rooted in film than television, it was wonderful to see Ealing Studios turning once more into a proper film studio.



I would always discuss with John any sound issues that might have been difficult or problematic on the episodes I was working on but mainly it was just being at the dub with him.  Although, I always said John was the only dubbing mixer I would have been happy to just send the tracks to and not even go to the dub - I just knew he would always produce a superb job with or without my input.

John is not only a brilliant technician - he really understands the drama of sound.  In earlier times John had worked with Alan Dykes who dubbed the first series of Target.  Alan was not only the best dubbing mixer at the BBC he was probably the best dubbing mixer in the country.  So John's credentials are impeccable. 


Did you edit every episode or was there a rotation?

It was impossible for one editor to edit all the episodes because of the way the scheduling had to work.  All the episodes were shot back to back without stopping - so that's 30 weeks of non stop work for the film crews!

So by the time Ep 1 has stopped shooting, the rushes for Ep 2 are starting to come in. But Ep 1 is still in the fine cutting stage so another editor has to work on Ep 2. By the time Ep 1 editor has finished, the shooting would be at least up to Ep 3 or 4.

So in practice the editing was split between 4 or 5 editors who would do 2 or at most 3 episodes each. I edited 2 from both series: "HIGHER GROUND", "STAMP DUTY", "THE MAYFLY DANCE" and "UTMOST GOOD FAITH".


Trevor Eve with guest star Lance Percival as Radio West DJ Jake Rivere in "The Mayfly Dance".

What did you all think of the series at the time, i.e. were you aware it was a winner?

Yes, we were all aware this was a very different and rather special series.  Trevor Eve of course is a fantastically charismatic actor and the whole idea of setting a private detective in a radio station was a stroke of genius from Bob Banks Stewart.

There were a few worries in the beginning that perhaps it might be a bit too different to catch on  - audiences are funny things - but once again Bob had got it just right.

We were all very upset when Trevor Eve decided not to do a third series and I remember very well discussing with Bob in the cutting room one day what could possibly replace something as original as Shoestring.  Bob said  "Well, I've got this idea about a detective series series set in Jersey - what do you think?" ..............we all know where that one went!  Like I said, a genius.


Many thanks to Graham Walker for his memories of a fascinating time for BBC drama.

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