Monday, 6 August 2012

Words from The Unknown Soldier - Alan Flyng Interview

This post begins a series of interviews with the people behind the movie. I'll feature cast, crew, fans and everyone else inbetween. This inaugaral interview is with the ubiquitous Alan Flyng, Actor, Costumer and Raconteur Extraordinaire.

Alan Flyng in Return of the Jedi

Always frank, always entertaining Alan is one of those very rare people who will tell you what is really happening, not what you want to hear. Grab a cup of tea and settle down for an interview that it is informative, insightful and maybe a little inflammatory. This is Alan in fine form...

1. Aside from your work on two of the Star Wars movies (that we'll get to in a while) you have had a lengthy and varied career in the film and TV industry in the Costume and Wardrobe side of things and worked with many legends in your time. Do you have a particular favourite memory that comes to mind about any of the projects? Any particularly difficult project?

 I have indeed worked on some great films and quite a few humdingers of 'cheapo rubbish' - it's the nature of the game. 

On my first full picture behind the camera, I worked with Glenda Jackson and Jon Finch on a film for the nascent Channel 4, called Giro City. Filmed mainly in South Wales, I ended up giving Glenda piggy-back rides up and down slag heaps to keep her clean for filming at the top; I fitted my first mirkin on her too, amidst hysterical laughter and a lot of experimentation and I stood by in a bed scene with hypodermics ready to jab Jon Finch's bum should he go into a fit, as he is epileptic! 

The stories are legion and my memories will one day hit the printed page when I am no longer a target for being sued! (Alan Laughs). 

Difficult films have included action features like Submerged with a very corpulent Steven Seagal, filmed in Bulgaria, where I was held a gunpoint by his idiot local mafia 'bodyguards' as I tried to fit him for the film in the Hilton. Another was the Frankenheimer film Ronin with a frankly difficult Robert de Niro, who made the film twice as hard as it needed to be on a daily basis. 

I believe I am credited since Return of the Jedi with 45 further films behind camera, but there have been scores of others which haven't reached distribution. This too is common. After all, IMDB only lists films which make the cut and get a theatrical release.

But I think my favourite memories are reserved for a slightly obscure TV mini-series for American TV called Ellis Island. It concerned the immigration to the US of a disparate group of characters from all over the world, following them through from 1908 to the mid-thirties. I had a really hard job looking after a horde of principal men on that one on my own. 

In those days of unionised filming, men did not dress women, nor visa versa, as today. I looked after and cherished my daily duties looking after Richard Burton, Stubby Kaye, Peter Riegert, Ben Vereen, Milo O'Shea, a very young Liam Neeson, a young Chris Muncke (Capt. Khurgee from A New Hope), Shane Rimmer....and even a self-important extra called Derek Lyons (Medal Bearer from A New Hope), just one of thousands used on the film.

2. Your first brush with the worldwide phenomenon that is the Star Wars Saga came, if I'm not mistaken in 1979 when you donned the stark white armour of the Stormtrooper to appear in Empire Strikes Back. How did this job come about and which scenes were you called to appear in?

I was called by Central Casting to attend an interview and fitting at Elstree for the part of a stormtrooper, to appear in the carbonite chamber in close company with the main cast. There were hundreds of people in and out of that film all the time, but this was a reasopnably long contract and meant good money under direction, instead of being in the background. 

I have never been worried by the distinction of extra, supporting cast or actor - I save that for those who seem to hardly ever work and who stand on their dignity as 'real' actors. After all, it was work and I was under no delusions that it was anything else! The scene dragged on as the set was a high scaffold rostrum and access was difficult. Also, for their own reasons, the powers that be decided to vent real steam underfoot throughout, which dissipated rapidly unless the stage doors were kept closed, making the entire situation extremely hot and uncomfortable.

 As the days wore on and the logistics of moving the camera in a confined space with steam all around
 (which is no good for cinematographers!) giving us all sweat rashes, we were often relaxed from the set, at which times we were told to go back to wardrobe and change costume. They used us whenever possible to do filler cuts in other scenes and sets - frequently not explaining what for - so I ended up as a Hoth rebel in the vast hanger set carrying a big box with straps with Richard Bonehill, in the ice tunnels as a snowtrooper (and I still cannot tell you where I appear, as one tunnel after another was used from every angle and direction and they were cut into the film wherever such a shot was needed) But the main reason for being there was for the carbon chamber and I was mighty glad when it came to an end.

3. It was however in Return of the Jedi that you get some 'face-time' in the final battle scene. Not only 'face-time' but also an actual featured line. Again, what were the cicumstances that lead to this? I understand that you also again pulled the white armour back on for a couple of scenes, namely, the massive Death Star Hangar Bay and the handing over of Luke Skywalker. Is this correct?

       It was an accident that I appeared in Jedi, I was not cast for the part, but asked to take over from another actor, whose nerves got the better of him making him stammer and stutter with a lisp. A whole morning had been wasted trying to get this one line out of him clean enough to use as a guide track for re-voicing. 

I was asked to do the film a favour and got it in one. That's it. One and a bit hours from start to finish.
The next day I was in Wales with Ken Colley, strangely enough, as the scene at Elstree was between him and me - or at least my line was delivered to him - when they phoned my new film and asked me to come back as they had a 'hair in the gate' - in this case that meant soft focus. Unfotunately, I was already in Wales and working for another nine weeks, so I had to decline. That is why all images of me are in soft focus. 

4. Can you share the details of the filming of the scene on the Executor? Were you directed by Richard Marquand or David Tomblin?

The favour I was doing appearing in that role was a personal favour to David Tomblin (2nd Unit Director on Jedi) and he marched me all around the outside of the set having me shout out the line in rapid staccato fashion with variations on the line, including, 'Sir, we've lost our forward bridge deflector shields'  'Sir, we've lost our forward deflector shields' and 'Sir, we've lost our bridge deflector shields'  amongst others. 

I think it was meant to re-assure Richard (Marquand) that he would get his line clean and then I went into wardrobe, dressed first in a Death Star black one-piece, went onto set and was sent back to change into drab olive Imperial Officer uniform three sizes too small for me, and we got it done!  

Polaroid from Alan's Private Collection (Thanks to Alan for allowing usage)

5. Are you still aware that your character remains un-named and more importantly, un-action figured despite seemingly every background character and their droid being named and immortalised in plastic? For a character that is majorly featured doesn't this seem odd to you?

Hahaha! Yes, I am. 

Star War fans constantly ask when I am going to get a name - a question I even jokingly put to Steve Sansweet in Dallas at Fan Days last year - and I tell them I haven't a clue! I suppose, as I didn't emerge onto the convention circuit until 2009 and I was already listed on Wookieepedia as the 'Unknown Imperial Officer', that is how I have stayed. 

Also, for the process to scan a face for modelling, they want a good, clear image to work from, and mine is still a bit of a blur. If I get a name, fine, but if not, I will still be known as the Imperial Officer - Executor. It is not that important.

6. Could you have imagined at the time on that cold day in February 1982 that over 30 years later you would still be talking about this appearance?

 Absolutely not! It was a brief appearance, well paid and a last hurrah before camera before I started my career in Costume, in earnest. It had been unexpected and a nice little bonus! I remember it was February 6th, 1982 and my contract on Giro City began on the 7th... 

7. Having worked on two Star wars films did you notice any distinct shift in the 'management position' between the two films taking into account the differing directors. It's a held belief that Jedi despite it's expansive look was done a little 'on the cheap side' was this something that you would agree with?

I honestly cannot venture an opinion on that, as I was there but briefly. My friends in the crew told me of the strictures of budget that made it difficult knowing what was going on a lot of the time, but it had no effect on me personally. 

8. Over the last few years you have become a very well received regular on the Convention Circuit travelling all over the Country and the World to meet Star wars fans of all ages. Presumably this is a very enjoyable experience? Do you have any particular stories to share?

I know it sounds a cliché, but I am blessed to have been dragged out of relative obscurity again to do this. I love meeting real fans of film, as I am, how could I have been in the business so long without being one too? 

I have made a myriad of real friends all over, whom I value as true friends. I am not rich, far from it, but I have my own house and life and a memory-packed past which I enjoy people asking about. I am sometimes indiscreet talking of situations that have arisen in my film career, but otherwise I would be still acting in my interactions with others. That's me. (Alan laughs).

There have been a few minor horror stories along the was with conventions, as you know Mark,Swansea was one (The now Infamous Starmania Show - where a scant couple of the guests were paid and the 'promoter' disappearing), the hotel with the sign demanding visitors take off their work boots before entering the bar was one and the reception desk behind one inch closely set bars spring readily to mind. The hotel room with a vast bathroom with pipes unattached to taps! Other rooms in which I have slept on the floor, as the beds were narrower than my shoulders... and yet, I have enjoyed all of it as an ongoing adventure and a constant reminder to never stop laughing!!!

Alan poses with costumers and Alan Harris (Bossk/Bespin Guard) at a show in October 2010

9. For the people that don't know, you are an active supporter of the worldwide groups of costumers who 'troop' at the various shows and for various causes. Why do you think that more Star Wars guests don't embrace it as much?

To me, it a a natural thing to interest myself in the costuming side of it all, as that has been my life the last thirty years, but I am also a serious admirer of well constructed and cut costumes, which not only compare favourably to the screen costumes, but also often stand up better than the originals to close examination! 

To a few, making such costumes if a joy, but to others a steep and sometimes fraught learning curve. That is why I identify with everyone who assumes a role and dresses accordingly - they all combine both sides of my career in their fantastic work! And then there is the charity aspect - very dear to my heart!!!

10.  As one of the founders of the Sci-Fi Signers Co-operative (  enabling show and signing organisers all over the world to arrange an appearance from any of the actors on the roster can you explain briefly how this works and why you felt that it was necesary?

 It is a very simple idea I had when I encountered a handful of real  rip-off merchants, exploiting not only the minor signers out there, but also the public! I have had agents in my life who have been my best friends and others I would gladly have pushed out of a skyscraper window! Sadly, this handful belonged to the latter type! The fact they called themselves agents was a travesty! So, I cast my eye around and looked at how this had come to pass. The co-operative website grew out of that.

It enables signers to have their own web-page outlining their career in brief, with the addition of photo-galleries personal to each and the possibility of having their own individual autograph page featuring photos available. By putting an email contact form on each page, it makes it possible for the public and convention/signings organisers to contact the signers direct into their private email inboxes. 

Their private addresses are not there for sale to subscribers, their emails are not listed on the web for troublesome contacts from difficult people to exploit and they are in full charge of their exposure at all stages. It has cost me virtually nothing to set up but time and commitment. It works and works well. 

I asked Rick Stanley, husband of the lovely Stephanie English, if he would like to help me as co-administrator of the site, when he came to England following their marriage in Florida. Rick had successfully run the web forum Takers Prop Lair for some time and was happy to agree, for which I am very grateful!

Alan as a Stormtrooper in the Carbon Chamber in The Empire Strikes Back

I'd like to thank Alan for taking the time out of his schedule to answer some questions for the blog. To keep up to date with Alan's Convention Schedule or to obtain his autograph  you can visit Alan's website at or

Alan's confirmation of Tomblin's involvement with the scene and also of the date tells us that already, within two weeks of the shoot beginning the Second Unit were having to cover shots at the weekend (something quite unheard of in 1982) to stay on schedule which confirms some information that I had heard.

I hope to cover this in detail with producer Robert Watts shortly.

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