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Book review: I’m Just The Guy Who Says Action by Alvin Rakoff

By: Brian Smith
Alvin Rakoff I’m Just The Guy Who Says Action
In an incredible career spanning five decades, Canadian-born Alvin Rakoff has left an indelible mark on British film and television. Among his many achievements he has written, produced and directed more than 100 stage, television and film productions. These include an episode in The Saint’s final series as well as Roger Moore’s first post-Saint feature film, Crossplot. He directed Peter Sellers in Hoffman and an episode of Z Cars written by Thunderball (1965) screenwriter John Hopkins.

This wonderful memoir centres mainly on Requiem For A Heavyweight (1956), the live television drama that gave Sean Connery his first big break while inadvertently giving Michael Caine an early role as well. Alvin Rakoff takes us through the casting, rehearsals and broadcast of the play which went out as part of the BBC Sunday-Night Theatre in 1957. The story is juxtaposed with his personal relationship with the actress Jacqueline Hill whom he had been living, as Rakoff put it, ‘unmarried for three years. Not an easy thing to do in the Fifties.’

Requiem For A Heavyweight was written by Rod Serling, later famous for The Twilight Zone and the original Planet Of The Apes movie. It was unusual during America’s Golden Age of Television to have a play written specifically for the medium. Most television dramas were adaptations of books or existing radio and stage plays. Requiem For A Heavyweight was broadcast live as the second episode of Playhouse 90, an anthology series which, much like its CBS stablemate Climax! (later Climax Mystery Theatre), was made at Television City in West Hollywood, the very same studio where James Bond made his screen debut in 1954’s Casino Royale.

The play starred Jack Palance as Harlan ‘Mountain’ McClintock, a boxer at the end of his career having been brutally defeated by a much younger man. Maish, his manager, is beholden to the mafia which complicates Harlan’s post-boxing career. It is only when he meets Grace Carney, an employment worker, that he begins his transition away from the ring.

Palance had agreed to come to England to star in the BBC production but called off three days before rehearsals were due to begin. Jacqueline was already cast as Grace and it was she – rather like Cubby Broccoli’s wife Dana four years later - who recognised the appeal of the young Sean Connery, up until then an untested bit player, and convinced Rakoff that Connery was his man.

Even Connery later acknowledged in his book Being A Scot that ‘Rakoff went out on a limb to cast me in the leading role of Mountain McClintock.’ During the rehearsal phase, a member of the cast reported their concerns about Connery to the BBC’s Head of Drama, Michael Barry. Rakoff stood by his man, but it’s a shocking revelation worthy of a drama itself when he reveals who betrayed him. In fact, reading this book, one can’t help thinking I’m Just The Guy Who Says Action would make a great piece of television itself.

Rakoff paints a fascinating picture of his time working under Michael Barry, who had succeeded Val Geilgud in 1952 until another Canadian, Sydney Newman, took over and revitalised BBC drama in the Sixties, including greenlighting a show called Doctor Who, also starring Jacqueline Hill.

Later, Rakoff recounts how the success of Requiem led him to working for Michael Balcon and his return to the BBC where he launched the British career of Canadian actor Cec Linder. Linder went on to play James Bond’s CIA counterpart Felix Leiter in Goldfinger (1964).

Rakoff offers an insider’s view of life at the British Broadcasting Corporation in the late 1950s. The descriptions of camera work and the technical aspects of making the show could have been staid and complicated for the reader. However, he explains the process with clarity and, with his experience, knows how to convey these aspects to move his story forward.

He writes with humour but always with an eye for the drama. His evocative descriptions of 1950s London – the sights and smells, pubs and cafes – further bring the story to life. It is a credit to Rakoff that what could have been a by-the-numbers memoir is a layered story and a joy to read.

I’m Just The Guy Who Says Action by Alvin Rakoff
Review written by Brian James Smith. Copyright © 2021 From Sweden with Love. All rights reserved.

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