Haldane Duncan Part 11: The Cologne Diaries 

1 March 2007 tbs.pm/2312

Haldane Duncan takes on the unenviable task of working on German versions of two well-known series.

Being in the wrong place at the wrong time might have had something to do with it, but on 14th March 1994 I found myself in a restaurant in Upper James Street being interviewed by Achim Lenz, a producer with JE Entertainment, Köln, Germany.

JE had bought the rights of The Bill and Casualty and was making them in Germany, in German, for a German audience and wanted directors who had done the originals to go over and make them for them.

Die Wache - titles

Opening title of “Die Wache” – aka “The Bill”

“I can’t speak a word of German, Achim,” says I.

“No need to worry about that, everyone speaks English and you will get a copy of the script in English. What we want from you is your experience.”

What he didn’t tell me was that although I was offered twice my normal fee, German directors thought the money laughable and wouldn’t do it for such a paltry figure.

Achim was a very friendly chap and my promised bribe, a bottle of the finest golden nectar from the Vaults in Leith, made me feel secure that the job was mine.

It took twelve weeks of shilly-shallying to get a contract sorted out as Achim was always somewhere other than the end of a phone. It soon transpired that JE Entertainment had been sold to Endemol and Achim had been replaced by one of their development men, Reinhard Casper.

Reinhard had been very vague about my start date, and when I arrived I found out why. They had no script, or “Buch” as they called it, for me. Buch 34 and 35 were not at a final draft stage as Achim, as producer, had hired himself as a writer, and having been sacked was nowhere to be found. With nothing better to do, Reinhard took me to a location just round the corner from my hotel for a ‘meet and greet’ with the unit that was filming Buch 32 & 33. Andrew Higgs, the director, was having to solve the problem with his main actor, Michael Zittel, who was in desperate need of medical assistance – the poor man couldn’t move. They decided that he could play the scene seated in the car, and I left as they used their much-vaunted German efficiency to actually get him into the vehicle.

Having ploughed through a first draft of the script, I thought a meeting with the script editor might be fruitful. Patrick Tappe had a fair conceit of himself and insisted on being called Head Writer. After this was established he then turned his attention to the matter on hand, the World Cup football game between Germany and Austria on TV.

First thing that struck me about the script was the stilted, archaic style of the translation and I suggested we got a translator who had a better grasp of English. For instance, a boy’s football strip was called a ‘game uniform’. As they don’t mess about with niceties in Germany, I was sent to the translator to face him myself. The guy was furious, not least because he was in fact English. He interrupted my diplomatic tiptoeing round the problem with, “I am not a writer, I am a translator. My job is to present an accurate translation of the script.”

“But it’s crap,” I said.

“Of course it’s crap, that’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

Oh! Oh!

One of the Police Station scenes featured four of the regulars, one of whom played a bit of an oddball. I hadn’t realised that the actors had to use a formal version of German which apparently made them sound like, “Anyone for tennis,” ‘Nigel’ actors. The oddball insisted on using a working class, regional accent much to the irritation of the others. They didn’t like him saying, ‘Willy-warmer,’ for example: they thought it was in bad taste. I suggested that they used this animosity in the playing of the scene, but they still objected. I reckon they thought he was stealing the scene from under their noses.

The original ‘Bill’ scripts were an hour long, but after about twelve episodes, Thames though it would work better in a half-hour format. In Germany they wanted the show to be an hour, so the first batch of scripts were a fairly simple translation. The problems started when they tried to merge two unrelated half hours into one.

Additionally, as the broadcaster of Die Wache was RTL, they had to keep up their reputation of supplying a bit of nudity to each episode. This didn’t go down too well with one of the regulars, Martina Mank, who thought that as she played a policewoman, she would be immune. However Achim had come up with a silly story which involved her topless photograph being published in a newspaper.

Martina Mank - title

Martina Mank’s image in the opening titles

A compromise was agreed where a body-double would be used for the topless part while Martina’s face would be her own. Faced with the reality, Martina went off her head and refused to do it. Reinhard told her it was only her face and she must do it, so she went into floods of tears and came to plead with me. When she got nowhere, she got her agent on the case, but as she had nothing in her contract, she had to do as she was told or go. Finally, she, the double and the photographer set off to a deserted and secret location to take the pictures. I was told that as the session was coming to a close Martina suddenly took her top off and asked to be photographed. Some of us cynics wouldn’t be blamed if we thought that she didn’t want everyone to think that she had wee tits like the double.

Normally I enjoy casting sessions, but the German version was madness. When I arrived, the office was full of people, phones going, Katya (casting assistant) playing about with a VHS, general bedlam. I refused to conduct a casting session in such chaos and was immediately given another room, only to be followed by everyone from the main office.

Casting session? For each part I was handed three pictures of actors and asked to put them in order of preference. I said I wasn’t accustomed to casting this way and wanted to meet the actors. I was told this was impossible, but with a bit of pressure I discovered that open auditions were held periodically and VHS copies were available. When I eventually got to see them, all the actors were dressed in white coats. They turned out to be auditions for Casualty. Having got this far, I was shown a VHS of, I was told, a very good actress. Only problem was that the recording was of an obscure fringe theatre production and she was playing the part of a spaceman in a particularly realistic costume.

Danna, the casting director, brought out another VHS to show me a young lad she liked. The boy was OK, but I was more interested in the older guy who would be ideal for a doctor who had yet to be cast. “No, you can’t use him,” snorted Danna, “He is a theatre actor.”

“So much the better,” I replied.

She went on to explain that, in Germany, actors either worked in theatre or film and TV, but not both.

“Then why did you audition him?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s going through a divorce and needs the money.”

“Book him,” I said.

He only had three or four scenes, and we had scheduled him in the afternoon. After lunch he was just hanging about and I suggested he should get down to make-up and wardrobe.

“Of course, I must talk to them about whether I should grow a small moustache.”

I put on my quizzical face. “Grow? I need you on set in an hour, made up and in your cozzie.”

“We shoot today?” he stammered.

It was a bit like in the film, My Favourite Year, when Peter O’Toole discovers that the TV show he is about to appear in is going out live. I think he thought he had arrived for a week’s rehearsal. Being a theatre actor he simply couldn’t adapt. From being well ahead we finished off with an over-run. The guy turned in a very fine performance, but it drained everybody.

For my next casting session, Danna tried to humour me and set up a few interviews. She brought a girl in, who was a possible for Buch 34, and having sat her down started zooming in and out on her cam-recorder, while the poor girl tried to act with Patrick, who would do anything other than work on the script. The girl was OK, a possible. I was about to announce the time honoured, “We’ll let you know,” when the bold Donna turned to me and asked, “Do you want her?” The lassie took my “I’ll decide on Tuesday” to mean that I wasn’t interested. What I resented most was that this woman spoiled for me one of the most pleasurable and creative parts of my job. “First choice? Second choice?” She should get a job running a spot the ball competition.

I started my first day of shooting at the beginning of the fourth week, without an English translation of one of my scripts. Some locations had yet to be finalised, and the vile casting sessions were still in progress. I know it was getting to be a habit, but the latest bit of news was that Reinhard was out as producer and his replacement couldn’t start because he was directing a sit-com. So we were in free fall.

Up bright and early to start shooting the next day, and down to Dellbruck where the police station set was. By God, these actors were a childish lot. Martina moaning about what another character said about her when she wasn’t in the scene, and wanting to change her hairstyle. Forget continuity. Daniel going into a frenzy because he doesn’t have the rewrites, Gernot getting into a panic because he has to swear and Axel being a general nuisance.

What am I doing here? The money, you dummy!

They seemed to have full moon every second day in Cologne. It was difficult to tell how one was progressing as Petra, the production manager, always over-scheduled, so you appeared never to finish. The feeling did not improve with having to fit in recces, while shooting, for new locations that cropped up in the rewrites.

One evening we went to look at a football pitch that we were to shoot in a few days later and it turned into a farce. I couldn’t shoot the touchline advertising or see any product names in a kiosk that featured in the story. In other words, the location was perfect, but they wouldn’t allow me to see any of it.

We then found that we appeared to be under-running, which meant that we had to suffer a right old dose of the first thing that entered Patrick’s head.

When I went to look for him, he had pissed off to Berlin to watch the world cup. As a last resort I found my new producer, who luckily had just finished his sit-com, but told me he could do nothing as he was going off to the Caribbean the next day on holiday.

Left to my own devices, I remembered a day filming in the Police Station set, when the temperature was up to 35 degrees C. As they entered the office I told the guys to take off their jackets and hang them up as it would be a very uncomfortable day if they didn’t. This created a moment of serendipity for me, as when their jackets came off I was transported into the world of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. They all were sporting a gun on a shoulder holster. Without a producer, script editor or writer, the actors and myself came up with an exciting scene with plenty of screaming tyres and copious use of ‘shooters.’

At the end of the day, I have to say I wouldn’t have missed it for anything – and either treat this as good or otherwise, but it sure set me up for Planet Brookside. Beware those who want to play with Redmond’s train set!

Haldane Duncan directed two episodes of “Die Wache”, which were broadcast in 1995.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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