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Status Quo with Director John Keeling filming promo for In The Army Now 2010

In 2010 I was privileged to produce a video for Status Quo’s charity single In The Army Now 2010. This is the first part of an edited diary of the production, originally published in From The Makers OfVol. 11 No.1, December 2010:

Question: What’s more dangerous than Rick Parfitt in a tree?

Answer: Rick Parfitt in a tree with a machine gun.

Let’s cut to the chase. I lost sleep worrying about this promo. With such an emotive issue you know that whatever you do will have its critics. We have all seen the news. And we’ve all heard of a place called Wootton Bassett. It is deadly serious stuff. How then, to produce a Status Quo promo in support of the Armed Forces charities that is both true to the band and respectful and supportive of the military? Oh yes, I worried alright.

I have always seen Status Quo as a ‘good time’ band. When they’ve been involved with other charity ventures, they have not preached and pontificated in Bono-like fashion, they’ve just been themselves and got on with the job. So visions of Status Quo sombrely performing in front of the Cenotaph seem wildly inappropriate on every level. Suffice to say I took my cue from the Army and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Pip Williams (track Producer) told me that the reworked lyrics had been approved by the military, and downbeat lines such as ‘nobody knows that you’ve left for good’ have been replaced. In a meeting with the top brass, Lt Colonel Bill Sharpe was quite clear about how he saw the Army’s involvement; an upbeat ‘meeting of two cultures.’ After that, the treatment is relatively straightforward. Status Quo will join the Army.

But before that meeting happens I have to start filming whilst the song is still in production. The Corps of Army Music Choir is due to record vocals for the choruses. This will take place at Vestry Hall in Ealing, London, an annexe of Thames Valley University where one Pip Williams (producer of this parish) lectures in music production. The Uni’ has kindly donated studio time for the recording but of course Pip and engineer Greg Jackman won’t want my crew clomping about on the studio floor during actual takes. So we get some rehearsal shots. Eventually, Rick pops his head round the door and shouts, “Keep the noise down please!”

There’s a tea break before actual recording and the band spend some time chatting, having photographs taken and signing autographs for the Army choir. I hear a lot of “It’s for my Mum.” When the actual recording starts, the band isn’t required so I spend some time getting some interviews about the project.

Francis and Rick express sincere admiration for the armed forces.

Francis: “They’re the guys who go out and do stuff that dicks like me can’t do, or couldn’t do, or are too frightened to.”

Rick: “They’re all incredibly brave. You hear these sad stories once every couple of weeks; ‘another soldier’s died.’ And Wootton Bassett has become a shrine to these people, out there fighting for their country. They’re incredibly brave.

It’s what they wanted to do, that’s the only way you can look at it – that’s the career they wanted. They know the chances they’re taking. It’s great to do something like this, to give something back and let them know that we all care.”

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Status Quo & Corps of Army Music Choir

Pip and Greg are close to having a mix ready for playback and so I assemble the band and choir on the studio floor. There seem to be cameras everywhere: the Army, press, and the University (who also have a video crew present). It is very hot and I’m pouring sweat.

“Come on, John!” cry the band, “Get on with it!”

We do. It’s all very good-natured and there’s a lot of interaction between the band and the choir. But since the tone of this promo hadn’t (at that moment) been decided, I ask for a more neutral take with (how can I put it politely?) less arsing around. I might as well have asked for the moon. Everyone’s having a good time and that’s all there is to it. When we finish with the choir shots, we spend some time filming one of the female soldiers yelling the “Stand up and fight!” line. I genuinely fear she’s going to lose her voice.

Thursday July 15th, Bulford Barracks, Wiltshire

After almost no sleep in a joyless and noisy Holiday Inn, I’m greeted with the makings of a windy, rainy and dismal day. This time last week it was about 30 degrees. Oh, joy. We make our way to the barracks a couple of hours ahead of the band and go through some security procedures. Before I recce’d this location I imagined it would be full of olive-drab nissen huts, sandbagged machine-gun emplacements and camouflaged buildings sprouting aerials and God-knows-what-else. It actually looks like Milton Keynes. There’s also a major renovation programme going on, with many buildings being demolished. And those parts resemble Beirut. Fortunately there’s a cluster of fabulous 1950s-type red brick buildings that form a quadrangle – all very Carry On Sergeant. It’s the perfect place for the band to perform to the troops. And at least it’s a wind break.

With the sterling help of Lt Col Sharpe and Captains Tim Pauncefort and Guy Booth, soldiers are marshalled to assist my crew in dressing the area with flags and jeeps etc. Lloyd Gilbert (Quo’s guitar technician) is assembling the drums and backline at an astonishing speed. You’d think he’d done this before.

I’m introduced to Sgt Major Drake, who will be my single most valuable asset for the shoot. “Please call me Elliot”, he offers. I thank him but I’ll do no such thing. Whilst in front of his troops I always refer to him as Sgt Major. My last introduction is to Griff, the regimental Labrador, who happily helps himself to a cup of tea I’d only just started drinking. He happily helps himself to my second cup as well. I knew he was going to be trouble. And I was right.

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Status Quo filming In The Army Now 2010

With everyone eyeing the ominous-looking sky I go to fetch the band, billeted close to the Armoury. As they arrive in the quadrangle, the Sgt Major barks “Rifles! Please show your appreciation for Status Quo!” They do. And with little ceremony we begin the first playback. It’s loud. I have to laugh when a forest of mobile phones appear! But there’s a certain polite hesitancy on the part of the troops, possibly due to the presence of senior officers. After the first take I assure them that they can let rip and on subsequent takes they do. It’s wonderful to see them rocking on the tops of jeeps and bellowing out the chorus line. But Sgt Major Drake is not satisfied.

“Those on the right-hand side” he hollers, “need to take their example from those on the left-hand side!”

There is much good-natured jeering. It starts pouring down on one take and the band simply leg it! You had to smile. For another set-up, my Director of Photography, Robin Fox, asks me to fill a space up with some ‘bodies’ and I holler the request. Francis smiles ruefully at me, and in a very low voice says ‘Bodies’?

It’s just industry jargon but I feel very foolish in that moment. Not least because an uncomfortable thought has already occurred to me whilst watching the filming. Most of these troops have only recently returned from Afghanistan and will likely return there. I try to push this thought aside but there will be other reminders of what they face in the line of duty. I re-double my efforts to make sure that we get as many soldiers on screen as we can.

When we finish those takes, there are umpteen photo calls and the band spends a good deal of time chatting and signing autographs for the troops. They’re obviously enjoying this as much as their hosts and remain genuinely approachable for the entire day, never tiring of it. And again, the true nature of what this is about comes home to me when a young rifleman cheerfully bears his chest to be signed by Francis – beneath a bullet wound scar.

The band is now changing into uniform. Likely this has raised a few eyebrows in the band but the Army have seen the Jam Side Down video and if Naval flight suits were good enough for the band then, then surely so are combat fatigues. Quartermaster ‘Baz’ is ensuring they look spick and span.

“Would you like to be commissioned, non-commissioned or about to be commissioned?” he asks.

Francis: “Ah, something tremendous.”

Baz: “Alright. ‘About to be’”

Francis: “I have a feeling that’s an ‘also-ran’, innit?”

[LAUGHS]

Baz: ‘That was a could’ve-been-if-I’d-not-wasted-my-life-making-music-for-the-world.”

Francis: “For the Welsh? I didn’t make it for the Welsh!”

After an Army canteen lunch, it’s time to move to the parade ground. This is going to be an important sequence with the soldiers on parade and I really want to do them justice. Sgt Major Drake has already spent some time drilling them and I give the troops a briefing, reminding them that they are representing ALL of the Army, and I want to show how professional they really are. So, no pressure there then!

The tour bus pulls onto the parade ground and the band stroll over to their equipment. [Watching the rushes of this sequence you can hear a soldier saying, “Even I can’t new combat gear! They’ve been here two minutes!”] The band warily eye a number of rifles positioned in lines on the ground. This is an ambush.

People sometimes ask me what it’s been like to direct Status Quo. I haven’t got a clue. Because I don’t think you can direct Status Quo. What I try to do is facilitate scenarios that will naturally bring out their characters. So here they’re going to be really square-bashed. This is not play-acting. Their expressions are a picture. Sgt Major Drake puts them through their paces to present arms. And there are, of course, some fabulous gaffes. The troops in the parade are fighting desperately to keep straight faces, and a bunch of soldiers on the edge of the parade ground are laughing their heads off. That said, I notice that Rick in particular tries really hard to do the right thing and is beginning to shoulder his rifle rather professionally. The soldiers are impressed by this, and it’s a great leveller. In a while they reciprocate in spectacular fashion.

[Watch: (WELL) BEHIND THE FRONT LINE – THE MAKING OF IN THE ARMY NOW 2010]

To be continued…

Special thanks to 4-Rifle, Simon Porter, Status Quo, Pip Williams, Bovington Tank Museum, Rowan Bray (Prime Focus), Peter Fincham (ITV), Help For Heroes and my crew who worked so very hard: Robin Fox, Patrick Smith, Daniel Russel, Paul Ritz, Mark Gardner and Jonathan Dennis. And thanks also to Christie Goodwin and Patrick Cusse for additional photograph.