Medwin picked up his role as producer more or less by ear. Having appeared as an
actor in more than 20 films, he found that when he had to recruit his first team of
technicians he knew nearly all of them from the front of the camera. What he enjoys
most is the creative discussions before the project takes to the floor - and he's certainly
surrounded himself with an imaginative bunch, like director Lindsay Anderson and
writer Peter Nichols. 'But I stay out of the way when shooting begins,' he says. 'Then it's
the director's responsibility. It's like a juggernaut with its own unstoppable momentum. If
it takes the wrong turning, there's nothing I can do to stop it.'
Shoestring fits nicely into his schedule. He wheels and deals at night for real,
and does it for fun during the day. Personal stardom has never been a lure for Medwin.
When The Army Game was adapted for stage and played Blackpool, he says, 'we
were treated like the Beatles. All very pleasing, I suppose. But I never missed it. Albert
Finney said, when we became partners, that I could give production a whirl and then go
back to acting if it failed. He said I'd mature like wine in the wood. The trouble is you
might turn out as velvety as claret, or as sour as vinegar. At least, acting a little
convinces me that I haven't gone off altogether.'
He has cropped up occasionally and casually in some films and plays. He
claims to have been cast as the nephew to Albert Finney's 'Scrooge' before Finney
himself was picked. And four years ago he achieved the heights of an invitation to
appear in two plays at the National Theatre.
It was during this interlude, when he was relaxing in the Turf Club before
repairing to the South Bank to make up, that the aforesaid agent appeared and invited
him for a drink. 'Not before the theatre,' said Michael. 'Oh,' mused the agent, 'what are
you going to see?'
So there's not, admits Medwin, a great pounding campaign to turn him into a
superstar, even should he hanker after the status. And he has not been tempted himself
to put actors on contract - even though it was Lindsay Anderson's If… that first brought
acclaim to Malcolm McDowell. 'I think we're too small to guide people's careers in that
way,' he says. 'We did have a director on our books at one time, but the experience
It was If… that established the fortunes of Memorial - and it might have ruined
Medwin before it was made. Just 48 hours before filming was to begin, the financial
backers got cold feet and withdrew.
Medwin was in New York, where Albert Finney was due to open on the stage in
Joe Egg. 'In desperation,' he recalls, 'I asked to see Charlie Bluhdorn, the boss of
Paramount Pictures. We had contracted all the actors and the entire crew, and booked
studio space. Disaster and bankruptcy loomed. And I didn't want to worry Albert before
his first night.'
Medwin wasn't known to Bluhdorn - and then, Anderson was an unknown
quantity. And there were no stars on the film, set in an English public school somewhat
alien to the American way of life. It was by mentioning Finney's name that Medwin
aroused some interest. 'I don't think he read the script,' he says, 'but I went to see
Albert, explained the position, and said I badly needed him. We went together to
Paramount - and that saved our bacon. We got the money.' The film went on to gross
five million dollars.
On the stocks at the moment is a film of the Spaghetti House siege - 'being
filmed in Italy because it is cheaper' - and he has his fingers crossed about a Doris
Lessing novel and a tantalising project called Report from A Sex Factory - 'I'll be pretty
blue myself if I can't raise the funds for that one!'
He's finding the two sides of his life a perfect fit: 'When you're playing in
Shoestring, you can't worry about your other life, or it will show. So it's an enforced
relaxation. Making films is something like going to war. You have to think of an entire
army. When you're acting, you are responsible mainly for your own performance, and
nothing else. It's the producer who has the headaches for us all. Mind you, I may have
an extra bit of sympathy for him when things go wrong - and go wrong they always,
sometimes, inevitably do.'
Certainly, he's finding film production a more arduous business than when he
first undertook it in 1965. 'They want bankable stars,' he says, 'and those are thin on the
ground. Even Clint Eastwood can lose money these days. But we're sticking to our
policy of putting the story first. My chief regret is that a few of our projects didn't take off.
One was Dr Jekyll and Mrs Hyde, with a script by Peter Cook.' And, after a pause: 'I
wonder if we could ask Dudley Moore to put some money up.'
Michael Medwin, the actor, was first put under contract by no less flamboyant a
man than Alexander Korda. He saw the heyday of British films, when the circuits would
book practically anything and you could home a film for under £100,000.
One reason for his successful survival is that he doesn't look back in regret,
anger or nostalgia. He has said, many times, that he doesn't want to be a television
personality, and he refuses to be a celebrity.
And so, in his Kensington flat, he was arranging a dinner at the White City dog-
track. It was to be dinner for eight. He was instructing his assistant: 'There'll be Sean
Connery, plus one. There'll be Donald Sutherland, plus one. There'll be Albert, plus
Diana. And I'll be there, plus one. Make sure you mention their names. Then we'll get a
good table and good service. No, don't refer to me. They wouldn't know me from
Shoestring, Sunday 9.05 BBC1
Eddie Shoestring, the private detective with
his own local radio phone-in programme,
returns in a new ten-part drama series
starting in Sunday. Don Satchley, boss of
Radio West, the fictional station serving an
area not a million miles from Bristol, is
played by Michael Medwin, who talks to our
Highlights Editor Robert Ottaway.
Although it's more than 20 years since Michael Medwin played frisky Corporal
Springer in The Army Game series, he's still recognised for it. 'They look very
closely, sometimes, and give a little pinch to make sure I'm not dead, and hope I'm
still in work somewhere,' he says.
That, of course, was before the first episodes of Shoestring , which ironically
cast him as the boss of a local radio station. Ironically, because he backed out of the
limelight 15 years ago to become a movie boss. He thinks they must have chosen
him because he's learnt to talk on two telephones at once, and revolve in a swivel
'There was no formal retirement as an actor,' he declares. 'No final curtain.
No farewell speech. When Albert Finney asked me to be his partner in a production
company, I just started going to an office instead of a studio. And the phone stopped
But a few years back an agent asked if he could represent him, and Medwin
thought it might be nice to get in a bit of thespian practice, if anything turned up.
'After all, I did it for 20 years full time - and that teaches you at least to go through a
door without knocking the scenery down.'
However, he didn't take the Shoestring prospect all that seriously at first. 'I
hadn't heard from the BBC since the old King died. Indeed, I thought they must have
confused me with Leslie Crowther. My agent - a very honest man - said the offer was
a mystery to him, too.'
He confesses that he is not an actor manque. 'I've never really missed the
smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. But when you've acquired a skill,
it seems a pity to let it rust completely. It's also very therapeutic for a producer who's
in a position to hire actors to experience the tensions of their job. It saves me from
being a cynic.'
It would be hard to fit the customary image of a cigar-chewing, loud-bawling
tycoon with the affable Mr Medwin, who may be in his late 50s but retains the
naughty charm of a schoolboy caught raiding the larder after lights out. It's
encouraging to think that niceness without tantrums can pay off - for Memorial
Enterprises (telegraphic address: Mickwin, London) has certainly demonstrated that
quality can make a profit, with films like If… and O Lucky Man and stage plays like A
Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Spring and Port Wine.
'When I first went to an office as a producer, I didn't know what to do. So I
sharpened a few pencils, drummed my fingers on the table, and groped for an idea.
To give my secretary something to do, I made my first decision. "Get me Kurt
Vonnegut Junior on the phone," I said firmly. I'd been impressed with his novels - in
fact, one of them, Slaughterhouse Five, was filmed much later, but not too
successfully. It was probably lucky that I couldn't find him. He's a very literary writer,
and doesn't translate easily to the screen.'
Then a script from Shelagh Delaney turned up - and it was Charley Bubbles,
which was directed by Finney, gave Liza Minnelli her first film part, was universally
praised but not Universally distributed. 'We were elated about everything except the
profits,' says Medwin. 'It was probably just ahead of its time. Jack Nicholson's Five
Easy Pieces came later and packed them in.'
Trevor Eve and Michael Medwin on the Radio West set at Ealing Studios,
photograph originally published alongside this Radio Times interview.
[Text in italics accompanied photographs] It's more than 20 years since Michael Medwin played
the frisky Corporal Springer in 'The Army Game'. But people still recognise the face, remember
the role, and hope that he's still in work. Even earlier he had appeared in the 1952 film 'Miss
Robin Hood'. But, some 15 years ago, he backed out of the acting limelight and joined Albert
Finney in the production business: Memorial Enterprises. Their first film was 'Charley Bubbles',
directed by Finney. It hasn't been an unprofitable career, but 'it's also very therapeutic for a
producer who's in a position to hire actors to experience the tensions of their job'.
Don swaps golfing metaphors
with Eddie in "I'm a Believer"
The following interview with Michael Medwin originally appeared in the Radio Times
edition dated 4 - 10 October 1980. It is © Radio Times 1980 and is reproduced here
with kind permission by the publishers.
Dene Kernohan and Nick Stewart: What
prompted you to become an actor?
Michael Medwin: It was always in my bones.
DK/NS: Were there any specific actors who you
could describe as "influences"?
MM: Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson
DK/NS: What was the approach taken to the
character of Don Satchley?
MM: The producer wanted a yesterday's man with
DK/NS: Did you have any difficulties finding the
character, was this an easy thing to do?
MM: Easy, I was behind the desk as CEO of
Memorial [Enterprises] for 22 years.
DK/NS: Can you sketch out your "take" on the
MM: Fond, but with an eye on his expense
DK/NS: Is there any way in which you can
describe the development of your character
over the course of the two series?
DK/NS: And was the role of Don Sachley an
MM: It was an enjoyable job for a pro.
DK/NS: Had a third series of "Shoestring"
entered production, would you have been
content to reprise the role of Don Satchley once
DK/NS: Mr Medwin, thank you.
Michael Medwin kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions,
which we have reproduced below.
A couple of welcome
appearances by Michael Medwin
on British tv early in 2002 were
(top) a guest role as concerned
heart patient 'Will Sanderson' in
the 12 February Holby City
episode "Secrets & Lies", BBC
One, and (next) recalling acting
alongside the late, great SID
JAMES in the 1947 picture
Black Memory (below) for
Channel Four's HEROES OF
COMEDY tribute to the comic
actor shown just four days later.