Timber Theatre & Graham Fletcher Cook - the man from whom I learned so much.
We all have our own memories and stories of people who come into our lives and impact it in ways we could not have foreseen. These are mine of one such individual who was one of the most unique human beings, I have ever met. When I moved back to London in early September of 1997 having spent some years living in Midlands, it was pure chance that the room I found to rent was just off of Archway Road in Highgate, just down the road from the Jackson's Lane Theatre. At the time I was on a mission to put on a play about two families affected by the Hillsborough football disaster, waiting for the news of their loved ones on the day, which I had been inspired to write by Jimmy McGovern's film on the same topic. I also planned on making an indy film, '30', the following year and fortunately Jackson's Lane, was right on my doorstep. I went up to see the Artistic Director, a one John Walmsley whom would become a very good friend of mine and he was willing to give me three nights - Thursday, Friday and Saturday in March of 1998, so with the dates set, I asked him if there were any acting groups that used the centre and he told me there was Timber Theatre Improvisational Acting Workshop on a Monday night.
I, completely wrongly, assumed this would be a local Am/Dram Theatre group of some kind, the type of which I had come across many times before. Normally consisting of several middle class ladies having a punch up over who would get the leading role in their Christmas Panto. Within two minutes of watching the Timber class, I realised those assumptions couldn't have been more wrong. I had never seen such an eclectic mix of personalities, of all ages, races and just the most incredible pool of talent I had ever seen in a single room, in my life. I got to the space early and when I arrived sitting at the far end was a young man around my age, making some notes in a small black book. He has a Russian fur hat on, the type that Soviet tank crews would wear with big flaps hanging down over the ears and cut quite an unassuming figure. I asked if I was in the right place for the Timber Improv class, he told me I was and I introduced myself. I told him I was looking for some actors for a project and asked him if it was okay to watch. He said it was fine, but asked if I wanted to take part. I hadn't done any acting in ages, so I declined on this occasion and he was very cool about it (Although Graham did his utmost to persuade me!!)
That man was the incredibly talented Graham Fletcher Cook.
(Note to reader, this was not the actual hat in question which was khaki, this picture of Graham is more recent)
The Improv group was very large, perhaps 40 people or so, even more. Once Graham had warmed everyone up with some fun games, he put people into groups and gave them a scene with an objective to interpret how they saw fit. In a typical class people would generally get to do between 2 to 3 scenes each and a silly game at the end. I had only watched a couple of scenes when it dawned on me, it was not these people in the room who had to prove themselves to me of their talent, it was I who was going to have to prove that I was someone they should work with. I excused myself and told Graham I would return shortly, and waiting for a sketch to end, I darted out the room and ran all the way home to grab my portfolio of work and then I came back and watched the rest of the class. I was just blown away by the raw talent of so many of the people taking part. I asked Graham if I could make an announcement at the end of the class and nervously stood up and addressed the room. I told everyone I thought the class was amazing and I was looking for some actors for a couple of projects and anyone who was interested should come and speak to me in the bar afterwards. Everyone looked at me with very sceptical eyes and I was to find out later that various people had turned up in the past touting projects around to the group most of which never came to anything. So at that point I was viewed as just another potential time waster. (Graham left, at the Premiere for Wild Bill, apparently eating a large gob stopper, with brother Dexter and partner Jeanette and friends. Graham shot all the behind the scenes footage for the movie)
However, I sat waiting with my portfolio open and soon people came to talk to me and before long I had a big long list of names and I have Graham to thank for that list. I loved watching the group so much that I came back and sat in every week but it wasn't until the following January that I finally got up and did a sketch. I was shitting myself. Graham made it easy. I will mention a few of the people that I met in the class between 1997 and 1998. Zoe Nathanson who is now an agent, and whom I would work with on my second indy feature, '30' was just a phenomenal talent. Directing her was and still is one of the highlights of my rather modest career. Headstrong, with an incredible range, Zoe set a high bench mark of standard for the Improv class every week. Dave Fisher (Now David Dayan Fisher) was another incredible talent, who would go on to have success in Hollywood in huge films and drama television series. Steve Bowyer was a very giving actor whom I was fortunate enough to work with three times (Both productions of my second play 'Sticks and Stones') and would be one of the best actors I ever worked with. We would fall out over something stupid in later years, something I really regret and I really miss our conversations. Alex Norris was a very unassuming actor who had great comedy timing and was someone I just knew would be perfect in '30', I cast him as the second lead. Marc Foster was a very commanding actor and my first to work with outside of the group on 'Waiting for Hillsborough'. Half the cast of my second play, Signing On, also came from Timber. Bernard Pellegrinetti was just an actor who was a pure joy to watch. You never knew quite was he was going to do in a sketch and had a timing that was all his own. Bernard was also in '30'. Then there were the two Peters - Peter Savizon and Peter Karl Burgess both of whom were also cast in '30' and were incredibly talented. I would have put either of them up against the very best RADA had to offer. (Sadly, Peter Burgess passed away at the end of 2018. It is a deep regret I will never have the chance to work with him again.) He was like many in Grahams class, a consistently good performer. There was Tam Solo, a beautiful soul of a person and Mo Nazam who is a phenomenal guitarist, a passion Graham shared. Mo would appear in my three hander play, Making Time along with two more Timber alumni, Louise Morrel and Fiona Murphy, the latter of whom was also in Sticks & Stones. Cressida, Vikki, Liz, Mandy, Fergus, Magnus, Thomas, Mel, Richard, Annie, Denise, David Foster, Damian and many more who would come along in later years. There were so many great people over the years, some of whose names I can sadly no longer commit to memory. I recommended the class to people I knew and many of them in turn became regulars. Some were actors, some weren't. Graham made no distinction. As long as you got up and had a go, you were welcome. He had a great way of giving of feedback that was constructive without being too harsh (And he could be harsh, especially when directing his own productions)
(Poster for 30' 6 actors, trying to make it before their 30th birthdays, or quitting the business. Many of the story lines were based on tales of professional strife related to me from the actors in Grahams class, we must have had nearly 20 people from Timber in this film, again all down to Graham. He also gave the film its premiere at the Highgate Film Festival which Graham organised two years running at Jackson's Lane)
I was a regular of the class for two years and a semi regular of it over the next decade and even ended up teaching at it for a time along with Dickon Tolson and Peter Savizon. We ran the class between us at different times when Graham took a break for a bit. None of us however could ever quite match Grahams style, wit or energy but it was him that gave me the confidence to run such a class, the first time I had ever done such a thing. It was an honour to run classes for Timber and I would over the years train myself to teach larger and larger groups and become better and better at it, which in turn gave me the confidence to run script writing classes and workshops, all thanks to Graham. It was because of Graham that I met Dickon Tolson, now one of my closest friends and most frequent collaborators and it was because of Dickon I met Jason Flemyng, a close friend and an actor whom I now work with on every production, who by coincidence is best friends with Graham's brother Dexter. Charlene Collins, another of my closest friends and a fantastic actress whose main job is that of a teacher, came to me via a Timber class in later years. These and a great many more friendships and professional collaborations can all be traced back to one man: Graham Fletcher Cook.
I learned a huge amount about directing from Graham. He was a people person and dealing with a plethora of complex personalities in one room and knowing how to handle them is a skill required of any director and Graham made it look easy (it is not by any means!) He just had an incredible way with people and his passion and energy and pure love of acting was infectious.
Graham came and supported every play I ever put on at Jackson's Lane as well as other productions elsewhere and more recently he was at the premiere of The Journey, the last film I made. Among the many things Graham and I had in common, was that we were both 'Doers' - We wouldn't wait for things to happen for us, we would get out there and make things happen. I think that was why we got along so well. When he put on his play Brotherhood in 2001 I came in and filmed it for him every night, he didn't even need to ask me to do so. As with anything creative, some projects of his would reach their fruition, others would not, but he always gave them his all. I respected and admired that about him and did my best to emulate that train of thought. As we both worked on our indy films at the same time we would phone each other frequently, to see if one could help the other out with some production problem or other. He was someone I could always call for a second opinion and I respected his advice and to be honest, I just liked talking to him. I wish we had hung out more but time is such a valuable commodity as you get older and there never seems to be enough of it to go around.
(Graham sent me this picture of himself reading my book last year)
We both had a love of board games and we kept saying we would meet up to play one, in fact in our very last conversation which was in February this year, I invited him to come over for one. in late 2018 Graham contacted me asking for help to cast actors for voice over work he was doing for a very cool looking animation project. I was so pleased when I got that call and I went out of my way to help him because I knew he would do the same for me. I'm glad that he knew he could always call me and ask for my help because I would always happily give it to him. I was gutted to miss the premiere of Graham's film noir thriller, Blood and Carpet, as I was overseas at the time but Graham still came to the screening of mine. He gave his support to my creative endeavours, consistently and without condition.
Back in 2014 after both of our films had their screenings and were touring the festival circuit, I asked Graham to come to a meeting in Camden to meet myself, a Producer I was working with, Nicola Gregory and some other indy directors. I had an idea that we could all work together on a little web series and direct an episode each and with our collective followings between all of us, we should be able to stir quite a bit of interest and after that, who knows? As soon as I thought of this idea, I wanted Graham to be involved. I'd always wanted us to do a project together and this seemed like the perfect chance and something where it would be a collaboration but at the same time we would not tread on each others artistic toes. At the meeting Graham was soon talking to everyone there like they were old friends and he thought the project was a great idea and was totally up for it. Everyone added him on Facebook and they all have their own stories about him since. If I have one massive regret with my friendship with Graham it was this - Shortly after that meeting in 2014 a different project I had on the go appeared to get the green light and it was too good an opportunity to miss, so the web series project was put on hold as I had to give this other project my all. Ultimately that project did not come to pass and I so wish I hadn't been so quick to jump on the other opportunity and abandon our web series idea which as it turned out would have been my one chance for Graham and I to work on something together. Had it happened I am sure it would have been a special collaboration. I will regret that decision for the rest of my days.
(Below, Graham and several Timber alumni attend the premiere of The Journey back in 2014)
In this industry its easy to meet a lot of people but its very hard to meet people you know you can rely on and even harder to find real friends who genuinely care about and support your own artistic efforts. It's an industry that lends itself rather unfortunately to a telescoped mentality where people are so wrapped up in their own goals and agendas they forget that the works of stage and film are collaborations and it takes a team of very dedicated people to get anything over the finish line. Graham was someone who understood this more than most and he was always willing to give his assistance and much valued advice to those who needed it. He always had ideas on the boil and so many more strings to his bow than even I realised. I am so glad, despite Timber changing venues and going for long periods where it wasn't running Graham and I always stayed in touch and updated each other on our latest projects. It wasn't really until he passed away at the end of May this year, that I really sat down and thought about all that he had given me and all the incredible connections and friendships I had made in my life, because of him.
(Graham on the left, with director Alan Parker and his brother Dexter, on the right. Both brothers were in Parker's Bugsy Malone. I'm not sure how many different pork pie hats Graham owned but I am guessing it went into double figures.)
Graham knew he was sick around 18 months ago but he kept his battle private and dealt with it in his own way with support from his family and his loving wife Jeanette, who like Graham is also an amazing human being. Jeanette and Graham were one of the coolest couples I ever met. She was always so warm and friendly to everyone and rarely had I met a couple who seemed so naturally in love with one another. The few times I met them together it was a total pleasure to hang out with them both. Graham invited me up to spend time on his canal boat but I sadly never got there, much to my deep regret. Graham was a huge part of the tapestry of my own journey over the last 20 years and was a much valued friend and I will miss him terribly but I will cherish and remember fondly every conversation we ever had and all the times we laughed with each other about the latest thing that had gone wrong with our mutual creative projects. It is hard to process that he will no longer be at the end of the phone but the essence of who he was will be part of me forever and will have played a major part in whatever may lie ahead for me in the future. So I thank you Graham for being a great friend, teacher, mentor, director, actor, writer and fellow lover of board games. You were truly a unique soul and I have no doubt that you will be much talked of, I am sure, for many more years to come. I wish I'd had the chance to say all these things to you while you were here. Some people you meet can influence and change your life in subtle ways that you do not fully appreciate at the time and its not something you really notice until you step back for a moment and realise how much you truly owe them.
One such person in my life who meant all these things to me was Graham Fletcher Cook - 1963 to 2019