THE MAKING OF: The Siege of Sidney Street

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A spatter of shots whacked savagely in a dismal street on Dublin’s North Side. A policeman topples into the gutter in a pool of colour –corrected panchromatic blood, and an old woman in a shawl says nostalgically: “Isn’t it like the oul times!”

The Director, Robert s. Baker, said: “Alright. Take Ten”. Whereupon a hundred Scots Guards, detectives and extras in Cockney costumes of 1911 vintage stampede into Bob Norman’s corner pub.

The second Siege of Sidney street was rolling on schedule. A few years ago, Mr Sean McBride – an otherwise estimable politician declares optimistically, “We have taken the gun out of Irish politics!”

In January of 1960, the Irish film industry was competing with less constitutional industries to put it back again. Each of the three films made during the previous year or so at the new Ardmore studios outside Dublin had been overwhelmingly ballistic in content. When the producer of this particular picture said, “We’re shooting this afternoon,” he meant just that!

In fact, the siege of Sidney Street ran up the most impressive ammunition bill of any British film ever made!

Robert S. Baker and his then partner, the legendary Monty Berman who met, aptly enough, in a battle in the western Desert, had had a fair string of successes in the horror-film field. They decided to make ‘Siege’ in Dublin because of the back streets on the Liffy still had the old East End atmosphere which had vanished with The Blitz.

Accordingly, men with hammers arrived one morning in Wellington Street on the edge of Sean O’Casey’s tenement territory, and took down its proud green and Gaelic nameplates.

The inhabitants phlegmatically imagining it was going to be renamed after some saint or forgotten patriot, blinked when they saw instead a new plate without a syllable of Irish on it, saying Sidney Street E1.

The word went around that Churchill himself was coming over to act as technical adviser, and expectant crowds of men with sticks and dogs – Dublin was full of men with sticks and dogs in 1960 – turned up to await him. Sir Winston was not the City’s favourite pin-up. Various holes in the elegant Georgian fabric were directly attributed to the 18-pound field guns he sent to one lot of Irishmen in 1922 with explicit instructions to fire them at the other lot.

Nevertheless, Dubliners mostly accorded him the respect they had always given a tough old scrapper, and when 32-year-old screenplay writer, Jimmy Sangster appeared in a top hat, astrakhan-collared coat and cane, a cheer went up.

Sangster took on the role after being told he looked like the young Churchill. Though he had never acted before, the part was not too demanding. He had no lines to speak.

On his first day on the film he was being posed for photographs when it was discovered that a vital prop was lacking. This led to a unit assistant rushing into Norman’s pub with a startling request: “Havey’e ’er cigar for Churchill?”

Down on location the flavour of the “oul times” was asserting itself in another way. The street had been blocked off at one end with a real police officer on guard at the other.

Several feet away out of sight of the cameras, PETER,, Donald Sinden and French actress, Nicole Berger were sitting in a heated caravan playing a New Statesman-ish quiz game with Dame Sybil Thorndike’s son, Christopher Carson, and a small collection of Irish actors.

“I begin with a ‘D’, and I’m early 19 century,” declared PETER. “Who am I?”

Peter-Wyngarde-meets-Donald-Sinden

This was all far too much for one journalist from the News Chronicle, who asked PETER if he liked playing an anarchist: “Sure. Weren’t they the surgeons of politics?! They were the first people in England in this century to do anything active against the system.”

He was interested to learn that the IRA, which later adopted this principle on a more ambitious scale, cherished the memory of his character – the anarchist prototype, ‘Peter the Painter’, in a chilling way. The Sidney street gunman held off his police besiegers with high-powered Mauser pistols, which were known in Ireland to that day as ‘Peter the Painters’.

A small child puts her head around the door of the caravan and asked PETER for his autograph and a penny for the African missions. He obliged on both counts. An announcement then went up that Brendan Behan was coming down to take a look at the morning’s shooting, and the publicity girl went off to meet him in a local pub called The Tree. Four hours later she came back and reported that the rendezvous, like so many things in Dublin, had been completely imaginary; a figment.

A spatter of shots whacked savagely in a dismal street on Dublin’s North Side. A policeman topples into the gutter in a pool of colour –corrected panchromatic blood, and an old woman in a shawl says nostalgically: “Isn’t it like the oul times!”

The Director, Robert s. Baker, said: “Alright. Take Ten”. Whereupon a hundred Scots Guards, detectives and extras in Cockney costumes of 1911 vintage stampede into Bob Norman’s corner pub.

The second Siege of Sidney street was rolling on schedule. A few years ago, Mr Sean McBride – an otherwise estimable politician declares optimistically, “We have taken the gun out of Irish politics!”

In January of 1960, the Irish film industry was competing with less constitutional industries to put it back again. Each of the three films made during the previous year or so at the new Ardmore studios outside Dublin had been overwhelmingly ballistic in content. When the producer of this particular picture said, “We’re shooting this afternoon,” he meant just that!

In fact, the siege of Sidney Street ran up the most impressive ammunition bill of any British film ever made!

Robert S. Baker and his then partner, the legendary Monty Berman who met, aptly enough, in a battle in the western Desert, had had a fair string of successes in the horror-film field. They decided to make ‘Siege’ in Dublin because of the back streets on the Liffy still had the old East End atmosphere which had vanished with The Blitz.

Accordingly, men with hammers arrived one morning in Wellington Street on the edge of Sean O’Casey’s tenement territory, and took down its proud green and Gaelic nameplates.

The inhabitants phlegmatically imagining it was going to be renamed after some saint or forgotten patriot, blinked when they saw instead a new plate without a syllable of Irish on it, saying SIDNEY STREET E1.

The word went around that Churchill himself was coming over to act as technical adviser, and expectant crowds of men with sticks and dogs – Dublin was full of men with sticks and dogs in 1960 – turned up to await him. Sir Winston was not the City’s favourite pin-up. Various holes in the elegant Georgian fabric were directly attributed to the 18-pound field guns he sent to one lot of Irishmen in 1922 with explicit instructions to fire them at the other lot.

Nevertheless, Dubliners mostly accorded him the respect they had always given a tough old scrapper, and when 32-year-old screenplay writer, Jimmy Sangster appeared in a top hat, astrakhan-collared coat and cane, a cheer went up.

Sangster took on the role after being told he looked like the young Churchill. Though he had never acted before, the part was not too demanding. He had no lines to speak.

On his first day on the film he was being posed for photographs when it was discovered that a vital prop was lacking. This led to a unit assistant rushing into Norman’s pub with a startling request: “Havey’e ’er cigar for Churchill?”

Nicole-Berger-kisses-Peter-Wyngarde

Down on location the flavour of the “oul times” was asserting itself in another way. The street had been blocked off at one end with a real police officer on guard at the other.

Several feet away out of sight of the cameras, PETER,, Donald Sinden and French actress, Nicole Berger were sitting in a heated caravan playing a New Statesman-ish quiz game with Dame Sybil Thorndike’s son, Christopher Carson, and a small collection of Irish actors.

I begin with a ‘D’, and I’m early 19 century,” declared PETER. “Who am I?”

This was all far too much for one journalist from the News Chronicle, who asked PETER if he liked playing an anarchist: “Sure. Weren’t they the surgeons of politics?! They were the first people in England in this century to do anything active against the system.”

He was interested to learn that the IRA, which later adopted this principle on a more ambitious scale, cherished the memory of his character – the anarchist prototype, ‘Peter the Painter’, in a chilling way. The Sidney street gunman held off his police besiegers with high-powered Mauser pistols, which were known in Ireland to that day as ‘Peter the Painters’.

A small child puts her head around the door of the caravan and asked PETER for his autograph and a penny for the African missions. He obliged on both counts. An announcement then went up that Brendan Behan was coming down to take a look at the morning’s shooting, and the publicity girl went off to meet him in a local pub called The Tree. Four hours later she came back and reported that the rendezvous, like so many things in Dublin, had been completely imaginary; a figment.

While she was thawing out in the caravan a man (with a stick and a dog!) put his head around the door, and roared: “The blessin’s of God on yiz all. I hear yiz have Churchill here!”

Jimmy Sangster buttoned up his astrakhan collar and reluctantly obliged with a brief personal appearances: “I’m beginning to regret getting myself into this!”, he was heard to mutter.

Outside, Robert S. Baker was setting up the next shot. The Scots Guards put down their pints and fall in. A Make-Up Assistant combs PETER’s hair and powdered Nicole Berger’s nose as the sound truck moved up.

Even in Dublin, anarchy needed careful organisation!

The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

 

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