Will meets Terry Gilliam: Eventually

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Media captionTerry Gilliam: "I really wanted to dive into the darkness of German history, as well as the beauty"

The chorus master was easy to spot - he was attired in orange and pink ("why don't more people dress like this?" he asked me).

Ed Gardener stood out too. The charming and talented music director at English National Opera (ENO) was wearing his trademark black and grey (shirt / hair).

But Terry Gilliam, the septuagenarian ex-Python, who was supposed to be directing proceedings, was nowhere to be seen.

I was attending a rehearsal for ENO's new production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust on behalf of Newsnight.

The editor had commissioned me to make a short film about the production and Terry Gilliam, who had never directed an opera before. And so there I was, in a padded studio with the production in my sights, but not Tel.

Charming man

I quickly identified it was a happy company. A member of the stage crew was dishing out generous portions of bonhomie to the cast and hugging anybody who came within six feet of him.

I recognised the sort from my stage-crewing days: an old-timer for whom everybody has a soft spot. And no doubt still the go-to guy for some proper heavy lifting.

The old-retainer was dressed in a grey sweatshirt, workman's jeans and some chunky shoes. He had closely cropped hair with a rebellious rat's tail running down his neck - all pretty much to type.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Taking on Berlioz's opera is a challenge for anybody

I walked up to my producer and suggested we filmed him, thinking it would add a little atmosphere to our film. "We already are", she told me. "Terrific" I replied, "great minds…and all that."

"It's Terry", she whispered. Blimey she even knows his name, he must be a legend. She saw the insouciant look on my face. "Terry Gilliam", she whispered with purpose. "Oh…" I mouthed back, "yes, of course - keep filming."

Lacking confidence

OK, I know, I should have recognised him. But this man was so understated, so un-flashy, that he couldn't possibly be a big-shot movie director who also created some of the most famous animation sequences in television history. But it was.

Part of my identification problem was based on his manner. He didn't seem particularly confident.

He sat down after another round of jollying along (or directing as it turned out) and slumped over the libretto for The Damnation of Faust - Hector Berlioz's 19th Century chamber piece-cum-opera.

He looked like an earnest schoolboy struggling in a difficult maths lesson.

Then he was up again and back among the cast. He grabbed Faust (Peter Hoare, tenor) by the arm and instructed "Take it away from him! What are you doing!" He then stepped backwards, smiled and nodded: point made. So he wasn't all cuddles then.

Demanding task

His comment was not in fact a criticism of Peter Hoare's acting ability, but a directorial note to the singer suggesting what should be running through his mind when being roughed up by some aggressors.

It was taken as such and on the rehearsal continued: happily, harmoniously. Terry Gilliam might never have directed an opera before but he knows how to create a good atmosphere on a set.

Taking on Berlioz's opera is a challenge for anybody - it's really a series of visions and tableaux according to Ed Gardener, who was conducting the piece.

I asked him what made for a good rookie opera director (they've had quite a few at the ENO). He said it was those who understood that the music could carry some of the action on its own.

His experience was that directors coming from film tended to over-elaborate on the visual, packing every single musical phrase with theatrical detail, when often it was unnecessary and counter-productive. Terry wasn't like that he said.

Visual treat

Actually he was. The first half of the production has more action than a Bond movie. It's stuffed full of visual ideas and stage directions, as skittish as Berlioz's music. But it seemed to work. It certainly wasn't boring. And nor is Terry Gilliam.

He told me that people had been asking him to direct an opera for over 20 years and it was only when he was offered Faust that he cracked.

He also mentioned that getting movies made at the moment is harder than it was. I suspect the two are linked.

He said the experience was very different from making movies. There was less money, less planning and less time to hone the finished product. He was genuinely nervous. And naturally generous.

He was quick to share directorial credit with production colleagues and equally quick to take any blame for foul-ups. He said the music was wonderful and felt that he was "getting in the way".

But he was pleased with his narrative treatment of making Faust take his journey through Germany in the first half of the 20th Century.


There is a scene at the end of the first act that is based around Leni Riefenstahl's famous 1935 film Triumph of Will. It's terrific. You could see in rehearsals the cast we having a ball performing it.

But wasn't it a "bit Mel Brooks?" I asked. "Ha, there is always that problem and there is [sings] Springtime for Hitler and Germany, waiting in the wings to bite us". And off he went; strolling, pointing, laughing.

And it everything turned out all right on the night. The reviews were good. The show is touring and some are already calling for the production to return to the Coliseum.

It couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke.