We start with a close-up of the phone. The screen of the phone.
No, before that, black and just the sound Ping! That’s the phone, then fade up and we see it in her hand.
OK. It’ good that we see a bit of detail about her age, y’know, and that her hand is veiny. Liver spots and stuff. Like we immediately start to see the character from her hand.
But she’s not like old old. I mean she’s still fit and kinda slim. A bit whippy if you know what I mean.
A bit whippy. OK, noted.
She withdrew the phone from one of the many pockets of her brown overalls. Overalls the right shade for shovelling horseshit. Her thick gold bangle clunked against the phone. She noticed the liver spots on her hands, the bashed around nails which once would have been manicured every week. She read the message:
Im getting the old
gang Togther for
one last job.
Call me Pronto.
Kent bloody Warfield. Just when you think you may never hear from him again, there he is, speaking in Cowboy clichés, or Gangster clichés or whatever. And what time was it over in LA anyway? Ah, OK, eleven at night or maybe twelve. That was nothing. Not like in the days of his pomp when he’d telephone at four of the a.m., “Hi Mads, not disturbing you am I babe? I just have a problem with a line Johnny says to the guy. You know, the bad guy, Rufus. Like Johnny says, ‘OK’ but does that mean like ‘OK, affirmative’ or is it sort of that he’s saying it as a threat? Like ‘OK, now I’m going to kill you?’ What do you reckon?”
She would drag herself into wakefulness, moving from the bedroom so as not to disturb HRH, and slump into her study, there to spend an hour going through all the nuances of what ‘OK’ could possibly mean, with the celebrated Director. And the reason she allowed Kent to torture her like that, to own her life for year after year after year? Because his manic sense of detail paid off. When Kent Warfield got his teeth into some fine point, it would be wrestled to the ground until he was master of it. He drove costume makers crazy, set designers to distraction, actors to hysteria. People swore they would never step onto a soundstage with him ever again, but then they did, and gladly. Kent Warfield had delivered a brilliant movie into the world at a rate of one every five years, starting in the 80s. He inspired loyalty, and rewarded it, coming back again and again to the same team of producers, craftspeople, stars, and his favoured screenwriter, Madeline P. Moore.
Then Kent got older and slower, and the whole Weinstein shebang pulled him down too. He was an unreformed throwback who refused to speak against his dear friend Harvey. A tainted fool. Brilliant once upon a time, but now unfashionably old-school, and no more than an artisan who piggybacked on younger talents. The Film School at Harvard had dropped him from his Honorary Lectureship. His last great work was still waiting for a distributor, and for the movie houses to ride out Covid-19.
Im getting the old
gang Togther for
one last job.
Call me Pronto.
Madeline looks at the screen again and tuts. She’s not going to respond immediately. She no longer has to jump just because Kent bloody Warfield says jump. She has a lifetime of achievement to thank him for, but frankly, it’s over. And that’s fine, that’s OK. Whatever ‘OK’ means in this context, but she sure doesn’t have to sit up half the night debating it. Now she has horseshit to shovel and her beautiful boys to feed and water, curry-combing them in the stable yard, loving the heat and smell that billows off them on this perfect Saturday morning.
Perfect because there are a lot fewer planes tearing the sky apart as they come and go from nearby Heathrow. Perfect because her boys are all de-wormed and healthy, and because despite the grey skies and morning rain in Egham, she is queen of her stable yard. Perfect because HRH supped too well last night and will sleep until lunchtime, giving Madeline ample time to drink coffee, smoke, breakfast, and do The Times crossword. Perfect because she is now a grandmother, which has given her licence to no longer maintain her once blonde hair. And then Kent Warfield sends out some urgent call to arms. Like pronto.
It’s a bit later, and the room she’s in now is kinda Ye Olde English if you know what I mean.
Sorta a barn or something?
Exactly sorta a barn, but not big like a barn, of course.
A little barn.
Exactly. It’s got those black wood timber crosspiece things and white plaster walls, but it’s full of tech gear. Apple gear – maybe we get some product placement? And there are all her awards and trophies on shelves, and pictures of her with Kent Warfield and De Niro and Halle Berry and Tone Fentick and what have you. So we pan across all this memorabilia stuff, and there’s smoke from her cigarette catching the light coming in…
It’s kinda moody in the little barn right?
Exactly. A bit Rembrandt. The painter, not the Friends music guys.
“Hi Kenny, Madeline calling you right back, as ordered.”
“Mads you old bag! And I requested. Still gorgeous?”
“More so than ever. You?”
“Me too. Well, not really…”
They were on voice-only. She preferred it that way – didn’t want him making any comments about her fading looks and spoiling their reunion. She could almost see him anyway, he was so etched into her life. Grey permastubble, artfully mussed up white hair, and a stocky and combative body. If you asked central casting to get you a London cabbie, or a gangland boss, they’d turn up a picture of Kent Warfield and you’d say, Just right!
“Not so good? Do you want me to put on my coo-y psychiatrist voice Kenny? Just lie back and tell me what’s troubling you.”
“Mads, you’d need all day. But it’s like this – I’m not going to live forever.”
“No. Sick of heart with all the crap going on in the world. And I’m really not going to live forever if the truth be told. I don’t want it all to end with a whimper y’know. And my last movie is still stuck in purgatory.”
“I know. It was my last movie too Kenny. And when I say last…” But can you ever say never again?
Im getting the old
gang Togther for
one last job.
Call me Pronto.
Did she even want to do another big one? What could possibly be said to persuade her? The madness, the weeks away from home, apart from her boys. Sitting for days on a soundstage listening for the fatal flaw in the dialogue. Or charging into horrendously rushed re-writes as megastar Antony Fentick decided that the lines didn’t reflect his ‘brand values’. How many years had the movie business knocked off her life with these constant adrenaline demands?
And of course, she loved it all like the drug it was. Writing for movies and seeing your creativity come alive on the set and screen was like no other kick. Well, apart from her late arrival to the world of competitive amateur show jumping.
“Listen babe, this next one will deffo be my last movie. I promised my Doc, I promised Zsuzsa…”
“You know, my Central European Wife. Hungarian, beautiful. Clever too actually.”
“I thought Katerina is your Eastern European Wife.”
“Kenny, you don’t have to marry them every time you want to get your arthritic old leg over.”
“Zsuzsa is different. For a start she’s not in awe of me. It’s refreshing. You’ll like her when you meet.”
“Which will be when and where exactly?”
“Wednesday, my place.”
Madeline vocalised squishing, crackling sounds, “Oh dear me Ken, seems like the line has suddenly gone bad. For a moment I thought I was being told to get my saggy old arse over to Los Angeles by Wednesday.”
“Mads, I refuse to believe that your gorge derriere will ever sag, but that aside, yes, I do need all of you gathered round the campfire and toasting marshmallows, let’s say by Wednesday evening.”
She considered momentarily whether campfires and marshmallows were an actual plan, or some kind of Warfieldian metaphor. Probably the latter. He was calling in all the old crew. They had Oscars and BAFTAs and Golden Globes and whole careers to thank Kent Warfield for, and who could say No to him? Madeline P. Moore sighed and breathed out a large cloud of blue smoke, which hung in the Rembrandt-lit air. “Can’t,” she announced.
“That word does not exist.”
“Oh, but it does. Maybe the news has passed you by, but there’s this teensyweensy pandemic thing tearing around the globe. It’s especially bad in your chosen homeland. Turn on the TV sometime.”
“Mads, Mads, Mads. Yes, I know. But you and the team are film royalty, of course they’ll let you fly in to LAX, especially if I put the word around. Just call me back in a while when you have your tickets. Any probs, I’ll sort them.”
It was always like this with Warfield. You could tell him every rational fact in the book, and he’d just stare into space and say, ‘Well that’s the way I want it.’ Which is how Napoleon’s unfilmable retreat from Moscow in real minus-thirty degrees centigrade snow got filmed. Which is how the largest-ever set was built inside and outside Pinewood Studios for the Mercantile Cruiser in Redukton Attack, because that’s the way Kent Warfield wanted it.
“Can’t. Won’t. Shan’t,” she was running through a litany of refusals, but Kent was gone, already answering the next call. Probably another of the old gang. Getting together for one last job. Right.
HRH raised his mug of Earl Grey to ward off the disconcerting glare of his wife. “Darls, why the hell didn’t you tell me to stop drinking last night?”
“Um, because you’re supposed to be a grown up? Because they’re your friends and they were every bit as tanked as you. Because telling you to moderate your drinking is a pointless exercise, especially when you’re drinking. And because I’m not your nanny.”
HRH showed her his palm, held at arm’s length. “Desist wife. You are sounding harpy-like.” She desisted, for there was little point in arguing.
When they’d first got together, in ten million years BC, they were such a golden couple. She, cute and button bright American with a blossoming screenwriting career. He, posh southern English, something rising in the city. A few years her senior, and someone who really did have a nanny, growing up. He knew people, had been to the right school – whatever that meant – and had contacts simply everywhere Darls. After their rushed romance, although Madeline continued to jet around the film sets of the world, she loved returning to the UK and the slightly crackpot life of teas on the lawn, and exaggeratedly silly drinking sessions with the ‘important clients’ that HRH cultivated.
His name was Henry. Henry Armstrong-Brooks. It may have been Kent who had dubbed the lofty toff ‘His Royal Highness’, and it stuck. Even their daughter referred to him as HRH, rather than Daddy. Kent had never thought much of HRH, and they were definitely from opposite poles of English society. Ken – he had added the ‘t’ for effect – was a true Cockerney geezer, who’d brawled his way into the mainstream of the movie business. HRH seemed refined, and at the time of their blossoming love, a whole foreign country to a young American, visiting Britain on one of her first productions. Henry could speak French, knew Latin, and effortlessly navigated the intimidating London restaurants he took Madeline to when wooing her. His education and height meant that he could naturally look down on others, which he did often.
Then eventually HRH was no longer so aristocratic, just her often drunk other half, and father of her child. He had discovered casual sportswear far too late and usually looked like a gauche schoolboy around the house, albeit a bald one with a hangover.
And there it was, a whole marriage packaged into that was then, this is now. She didn’t not love him, but they plodded on in easy and companionable boredom. He still manufactured money out of money, and she still received film royalties. They were more than comfortable, thank you very much.
They were comfortable even though now all hell was let loose in her adopted country, which had been lied into committing economic suicide by voting to leave its largest market, and destroy opportunities for the next few generations. That included her three year old grandson, so now it was personal. Not that her mother country was doing any better under Trump. The whole crock of shit was profoundly bad news, but Madeline at least had her boys. And her cigarettes and coffee.
“Ken called me this morning. While you were snoring it off.”
“Ken? Ken?” HRH struggled with the name. Only his wife’s most important-ever creative and professional colleague. Perhaps he was attempting to put a name to the stable lad who helped out with the nags, or their gardener. “Ken?”
“Ken Warfield. Kent Warfield.” Her husband pulled a face as if he’d just found something unpleasant in his tea. “The maniac Director chappie?”
“Who else? He wants me to go to LA to discuss some project.”
“Which is what exactement?”
“I didn’t even ask. Oh, and he’s gotten married again.”
There was a pause while HRH considered various options. She could almost see the thoughts sluggishly crossing his mind. Say something waspish? Express admiration that anyone so often married could still face another? Probe more about the new project? HRH liked that his wife was a sort of famous person who had worked with very definitely famous people. She had been a great asset in earlier years, telling scurrilous tales to guests at the dinner table: ‘So Robert says to me…’ ‘…and Julia stuffed it straight back in the bag!’ Howls of laughter, the success-by-osmosis that helped HRH hang onto investment clients, even through the downturns.
“Hmm,” he opted to say. “So will you?”
“Will I what?”
“Go to Hell-A?” HRH awarded himself a chuckle, deciding that no-one had ever thought of this witticism before.
“Nope. Too far. Too Covid-y. No flights. Too jetlaggy even if there were flights. I don’t think they’re even letting people in. And who would look after my boys – you? Etcetera etcetera etcetera times ten. I’m a granny now, I don’t do movies anymore. I do buying too many toys and going Wowfantastic about fingerpaintings that I stick on the fridge.”
“And you do grandmothering supremely well Darls, but what if your friend actually has something worth getting involved in? I mean he’s done some quite reasonable work in his time, has he not?”
“Are you trying to shunt me off H? Do you have some sweetiepie ready to move in the moment my back’s turned?”
“Good Lord, perish the proverbial, Darls! No of course not. But think before saying an absolute No to the fellow. Tell the mountain to come to Muhammad instead why don’t you?”
We see Madeline Moore working on a crossword.
You mean like a puzzle?
Yep, a crossword puzzle. Something difficult and cryptic – it shows she’s smart, right? It’s in the daily newspaper. I mean an actual newspaper, made of, uh, paper. Delivered to her door every day.
Strange. And she’s in her small-barn-stroke-office place?
She’s working on the crossword but she’s also parallel thinking. About the message from Kent Warfield. ‘Getting the old gang together for one last job.’ She smiles, “We’ll steal a nuclear bomb and hold the world to ransom. We’ll break into Fort Knox and nick all the gold. Nah, that’s too simple for Mr Warfield.” Then she gets the answer to a clue and darts her pen towards the page. “Hah! Returning from Acre, talked afterwards, five letters.” She scribbles in the word and looks pleased with herself. The crossword is always her first call. And somehow today’s lead article Royal breakdown: the mistrust behind Harry and Meghan’s departure hasn’t quite grabbed her.
She lays aside the newspaper. It’s three in the morning now in LA, an excellent time to disturb Kent. Just because she can. She lights a cigarette, already breaking through her self-promised limit of five a day max, but hell, it’s not so often that you make a return call to Kent Warfield. It justifies the extra cigarette.
To her disappointment he sounds wide awake, “Yo Queen Mads, how hangs it?”
“I was rather hoping I’d wake you up, just for old time’s sake.”
“Nope, the Kentster doesn’t need sleep. I am doing some very nice drugs with some very nice young friends, and we are discussing the shitstorm that my own dear America is caught up in. We are doing this discussion in a very civilised way and hardly saying FuckFuckFuck at all.”
“You’re not even American.”
“And you’re not even British. So what? You live there, I live here. We have to deal with the realpolitik.”
“You’re getting politicised?”
“Too right. Zsuzsa – the current Mrs Warfield – is a political scientist or something…”
‘Analyst!’ came back slightly testily from somewhere in the room. Madeline had been imagining Zsuzsa as a leggy gold digger, but perhaps Kent was maturing and now gravitating towards women with minds.
“Mads, you can’t live in this world and not be political. You know – the plastic, the melting icecaps, Black Lives Matter, Covid, the coming economic collapse of life as we know it. Satan grinning from the White House.”
“Yeh they elected his baby bro over here.”
“I know it kid, I know it. That’s what this new project is about, kind of. We have to smash through all the crap. I mean, I’m not so young any more…”
“You don’t say.”
“But I see youngsters like that Greta Thunberg, and you gotta know she’s right. And I don’t want to be the one dumping on her and everyone else y’know. I’d like them to inherit something that isn’t completely broken. I want my kids to have a future.”
“What, all of them? That’s a lot of futures.”
“You’re a cynical old hag, didja know that Mads? This is my Fukushima moment. And no hilarious writerly wordplay on the Fuku part, OK?”
“Just unpack that kitbag for me soldier.”
“The nuclear powerplant meltdown thing in Japan. Tsunami, sploosh, crack, bang, boom, fishes with two heads sort of thing.”
“Aware of, but not following.”
“So afterwards they needed people to go in there to the power station and like turn off the lights or whatever, but the people would probably die horribly. So then all these old folks – like our age – started volunteering to go into the ruins and you know, do stuff. They were ashamed for Japan, and they said they’d had good long lives already, so it was OK if they died.”
“Right. And this connects to what exactly? I’m calling you back to find out more about your new project. Something concrete would be useful.”
“I’m willing to be a Fukushima senior. All of us in the old gang should be.”
She has doodled violent explosive creatures around the newspaper crossword. Corona viruses perhaps. Kent wants to what? Take them on a suicide mission to save the planet? Make a movie of it? They’re going to gobble up Corona viruses until there’s not a single one left, then get in a spaceship and blast off to the ends of the universe? Anything was possible from the consciousness of Kent Warfield, especially if he was back tooting on the white powder.
True we’re all aging, we’ve had a good run of it, and maybe it’s time to hand the baton to Gretchen’s generation, and young Stefan. Was that Kent’s idea? Mads glances at the framed photographs on her desk. Daughter Gretchen, then Stefan, crazycute as a baby, crazycute as a toddler, crazycute as a playschool kid. Yes, she might well walk into a nuclear reactor if it could guarantee her grandson a future. She cautiously re-engages with Kent Warfield, who is free-forming on the woes of the world, “…And all these moronic politicos and their moronic half-assed right-wing TV cheerleaders. I mean, don’t get me started.” But he has started, and Madeline is returned to the hours and hours of him on a roll, back in the day. An endless tumbling dice of clattering ideas, disconnected, fragmented. And then in the grey light of a new morning you’d suddenly realise that he’d thrown a triple six.
“Kenny, you’re not getting me into a nuclear reactor with you.”
“Babes, this will be much more dangerous than that. Fukushima would be a picnic compared to what we’re going to pull off.”
“Don’t denigrate those thoroughly brave people.”
“Jeez, you sound like a bloody British toff these days Mizz Moore. You’re not still married to that upper clarse arsehole are you?”
“Thanks for asking, yes Henry is well.”
“You should have married me. We would have been good together.”
“You’d have fitted me in between number 2 and number 3?”
“No, you woulda been the keeper.”
“So what exactly did happen to Katerina?”
“She went all menopausal on me.”
“Yeh, that’s the trouble with us babes, we do that. I would have gone all menopausal on you too, as will Zsazsa…”
“Zsuzsa. No, she’s different. This is the real thing. Oh and f-y-i, she’s already been there, done that, so it’s out of the way. And I’m a new man these days.”
“So not massively egotistical, misogynistic, mad, bad, selfish, driven, and drug addled?”
“Babe, why list all my best qualities? Of course I’m still those things. You’re talking to Kent Warfield. The Kent Warfield.”
Madeline felt a rising urge to scream, “Please. What. Is. This. A. Bout? You’ve optioned a book? You’re remaking a classic? Whatever. Mystery and Fukushima not required.”
“We are going to overthrow the most evil…” But he stopped speaking, either from the enormity of the plan, or because his ploy was to hook her deeper. His tone changed to guarded, “I can’t tell you any more Mads. If I told you, I’d have to kill me.”
“I’d almost forgotten how utterly bloody annoying you are.”
“Ah, there you go, trying to flatter me again.”
A different demographic
And so it goes. Two old colleagues, bantering away, but you get the idea that they like and respect each other.
We could fade there right?
Sure, no point in dragging it out.
But we need a gear change. I mean, two ancient well-off people chatting is not really entertainment is it?
Exactly. We have to get out and about…
Within the restrictions of shooting in a pandemic.
Exactly. But this can work: Cue some kinda Arabic music, like they sing from those majorette tower things. It’s dawn, we see this figure sitting on a rock high above a small town. She’s in rugged mountain country. Maybe it’s Charlize Theron, or whoever. Make a note of that: Charlize Theron.
She’s in like combat fatigues, military.
Yep yep. With a gun?
She is bristling with brutal hardware. Her phone pings and she pulls it out, looks at it. The phone is a super-ruggedised mobile. Maybe Huawei or somebody makes one that they’d like to get into the shoot, yeh?
Noted. I never can say that name.
It’s like wah-wah crossed with whey-hey, or wah-way, or something. Anyway this is not the point. The point is that this lone warrior woman looks at her who-hah phone and sees a message:
Im getting the old
gang Togther for
one last job.
Call me Pronto.
Then she smiles. It’s an ironic smile right?
Ironic smile. Noted.
But she doesn’t say anything. She starts tapping in an answer. On her phone. We just hear more of that echoey singing. And fade to black.
Like the end of the episode?
Exactly like that.
Chapter 02 will be published Monday 3rd August
You are welcome to comment on Chapter 01,
and contribute to Chapter 02 up to 1st August