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What I Learned From Sir Tom

15/04/2016 17:31

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Copyright: BBC/Doug Hartington

It's very scary to be asked by the BBC Music TV department to direct a documentary with Sir Tom Jones. Not about him, you understand. That would be too easy. That's been done before. This was going to be made with him, but be about the 1950s - with Tom as a prism for the decade. So I'm already worrying 'How am I going to stop myself from encouraging Tom to talk mainly about himself and his unparalleled career and get him to talk to the world about him?' And 'How the hell am I going to stop him hi-jacking the camera'? Lenses love legends. They can't stop looking at them. They know a good face when they see it (or rather, see through it). Damn these clever-clogs BBC ideas. Why can't we just make a show about Sir Tom Jones? Not one with him, as our guide through a grey decade.

Before meeting Sir Tom, his son and manager, Mark Woodward, wanted to know - when it came to shooting - if I'd be able to forget that his dad is the legendary Tom Jones? And I'm thinking 'No. Can Tom?' Expectations were building and with them, my anxieties. Would I be able to discover Tommy Woodward, the 50s adolescent with an experience that was both particular to South Wales and yet representative of the decade and the country as a whole?

I've only felt truly threatened twice in my life - once in Downtown LA in 1988 when a stranger shouted at me "Hey Homes! Nice leather jacket." The second was when I walked into a pub in south Wales in 1974 and asked for a lager and lime. What was their greatest export going to think of me?

Luckily, I've had some good training. The first documentary I wrote in 1983 involved me interviewing the actor Patrick McGoohan - part panther, part tortured Irish Roman Catholic, part driven genius. Cigarettes got us through that one and I've given up. Then there was the film with Dirk Bogarde in 1992... Another trial by fire, but this time sweetened with bottle after bottle of chilled frascati, and a steady stream of unrepeatable stories, over a getting-to-know-you period prior to shooting lasting a year.

No such luxury here. We had to film in two weeks' time. We had access to Sir Tom for three or four days. So when the crew eventually gathered for the first day of shooting in the car park of the University of South Wales in Pontypridd, waiting for him to arrive, I really had no idea what might happen.

At the end of Orson Welles' movie Touch of Evil, Marlene Dietrich's Tanya says of the director's now dead Police Chief Quinlan, "What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of a man." That works just fine for me when it comes to Tom Jones. The crew and I laughed a lot over those few days. Tom would literally burst into life when talking about rock 'n' roll, and all the different kinds of music he loves. You can see it in the film. Suddenly he's on fire. He's a kid again, full of genuine wonder and unbridled passion. He can't help himself. And it's not just compelling because it's delivered in that glorious baritone voice; it's also compelling because of the geyser-like emphasis he puts on certain words as he goes. For instance, no one says "Tight" the way Tom does - the way it should always be said - through clenched teeth. It sounds sexier that way.

While filming on the street where Tom's sweetheart Linda lived as a child, and where they slept together as man and wife for the first time, we were spotted - first by a small, group of impossibly large young men (pictured with Tom above), and then by the man now living next door to Linda's family home. The young men wanted to know if Tom could get them a job on The Voice. The old man was clutching a framed photograph of himself and Tom together, taken in 1965 on Laura Street in Ponty. The young men just couldn't comprehend this. Did they even have cameras way back then?

Tom was at ease with all of them, maybe because he could have been any of them - if it hadn't been for that voice. He's absolutely representative, but not at all typical.

What Tom taught me is that it really is possible, if you have a singular talent and a huge amount of confidence, to go out and create the life you've imagined for yourself - even if that life is very different from the one you've been leading - and yet remain the warm, regular guy you were when you set off.

I have been thinking about Tom a lot this week. Our film has ended up going out in the week that he's lost his childhood sweetheart after 59 years of marriage, the woman who grew up where he grew up, who was as much a part of where he's from as Tom himself. That must be so hard. But I know that Tom and his family are very glad that Tom got to go back and explore the decade that made him and the place that he comes from late last year. When we took Tom to South Wales to explore his childhood and adolescence it was back before Christmas. Linda was still alive and there was no sense of loss to cloud how much Tom owes to her and to Ponty and the 50s. That debt is palpable in this film. That's why it was appropriate to dedicate the film to her memory.

Also, as it turned out, I needn't have worried about the 50s thing. Tom was intuitively on point throughout. As a director, he makes you feel like you're at the wheel of a Ferrari with 10 gears: everything is feasible, fun and fast.

Tom Jones' 1950s: The Decade That Made Me, Saturday 16 April, 9pm on BBC TWO. Part of the BBC Music: My Generation season telling the story of pop music through the decades. Full programme details at www.bbc.co.uk/mygeneration

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