Thursday, 2 August 2018

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to the Prince of Stage and Screen Sword Fighting Choreography, William Hobbs

It sad to think that Bill, who was so full of the vibrancy of the sword fight, has died at the age of 79 from the effects of dementia. He is unlikely to have remembered the many stage and film fights he had choreographed, including more than a score of 'Hamlets' and that he had thrilled audiences in theatre and cinema in productions over a span of 50 years. 

He would have forgotten that, as a fight choreographer, he had, with acclaim, revolutionised fighting with all manner of swords, but also worked with lances, pistols, maces and even office furniture in 'The Meaning of Life', sticks in 'The Count of Monte Cristo' and an umbrella in 'The Avengers.' By the end of the last century he was held in such esteem, that when approached by Ridley Scott to stage the fights in 'Gladiator', he turned him down because the project subject didn't interest him.

Bill was born 'William Hobbs' in Hampstead, North London in 1939, eight months before the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1939, the son of an actress mother, formerly Joan Ker-Lindsay and Kenneth, a RAF Lancaster bomber pilot, of whom he saw little and barely knew, who was killed in raid over Germany, when Bill was three, in 1942. With his thespian mother, an aunt who was as a dancer in the Windmill Theatre and had won a prize for 'the Second Best Legs in England' and an elder brother who worked in a circus, it is unlikely that Bill could have avoided the lure of the bright lights in some shape or form.

His life changed dramatically in 1948 when he was nine and his Mother and Aunt decided to move the family to Australia and it was here that he started fencing at school in Sydney at the age of 15, posed to the left of Mike O'Brien when he was 16 and narrowly failed to make it into the Australian Olympic Fencing Team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

They returned to London the following year and, at the age of 18, he began his studies at the 'Central School for Speech and Drama.' Among his contemporaries were, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave, who were also learning the trade of stagecraft. When it came to stage fighting he recalled he was was shown four fight positions and was told by the Registrar that fencing was taught for "grace and deportment."

Having graduated, he spent 1959-60 doing weekly repertory theatre and he himself confessed that the experience and the quality of his acting was "awful" and even the great Lawrence Olivier told him : "Give it up baby."  He later recalled : "I started as a competitive fencer, a sports fencer and then I went to theatre school to train as an actor - was a very bad actor. Found I had a way, I think, of making fights a little more real than they had been in the old Hollywood era." 

He had been inspired by scenes in Scaramouche and work followed coaching Peter O'Toole in 'Hamlet' at the Bristol Old Vic and working on the sword fight in Franco Zeffirelli 'Romeo and Juliet' which starred Judi Dench and John Stride at the London Old Vic. To his surprise and delight his duels got rave reviews which was unheard of for theatre notices.

In 1962, at the age of 23, he got his first film commission as 'Fight Arranger' on the British Navy drama, 'Damn the Defiant' starring Alec Guinness, Dirk Bogarde and Anthony Quale. He later said : "I found it very educative because I had not found anyone to teach me. From the beginning I always tried to think my choreographies through the characters who had to fight." 

He now started his 9 year stint as 'Fight Director' at Olivier's 'National Theatre Company, where he built up his bank of experience which formed the bedrock of the expertise which would serve him so well in the stage and screen fights he choreographed with such acclaim from the 1970s to the end of the century.

Bill described sword fights in pre-1960s movies as "two cuts high, two cuts low" and quoted his old friend, stunt coordinator Richard Graydon who said : "In the old days every stunt man was happy as they had in their repertoire three very effective sword moves. Then Bill Hobbs came along, added a fourth, and made it complicated." 

Bill stressed that sword fights should not seek to copy classical fencing parries but had to be wider and newly created attacks that had to be specially conceived so that they would look convincing. As Errol Flynn confessed in My Wicked, Wicked Ways : 'I'm not a fencer. I'm a thespian. But I know how to make it look good.'

In 1965 he acted as 'Fight Arranger' in the film based on the National Theatre Company's staging of Shakespeare's 'Othello', starring Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith and staged the fight between Derek Jacob as Cassio and Edward Hardwicke as Montano.

In 1967 published 'Techniques of the Stage Fight.' He later said that : "Most actors say they are good fencers. That's a lie : they're not" and in his book, he challenged Simon Callow's comment in 'Being an Actor' that : 'There were no classes at the Drama Centre in fencing, dialects or clog dancing. They reckoned that if you needed them, you could peck them up in ten minutes. They were right.'

He continued his role of teacher when he followed his work at the National with 15 years as 'Fencing Master' at the Central School for Speech and Drama and was working there in 1973 when Richard Lester asked him to work as  'Fight Director' in the making of  'The Three Musketeers' , he recalled Richard 'wanted to create that grittier muckier world- we wanted to get the physicality of the period.' 

He devised weapon combinations for sword alone, sword on sword, sword and cloak, sword and lantern and staged the memorable fight to the point of exhaustion between Michael York as D'Artagnan and Christopher Lee as Rochefort and was followed by 'The Four Musketeers' in 1974.

He still played the occasional roles on screen and in 1971 made a personal appearance as Young Seward and was stabbed to death in a sword fight with Jon Finch in Roman Polanski's 'The Tragedy of Macbeth.' In the first musketeer film he made another appearance as the assassin intent on murdering Porthos and in 1974, at the age of 35, he made another in 'Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter' where, as Hagen, he was stabbed in the stomach and had his throat slashed with a crucifix sword at the end a fight with Horst Jansen.

In his mid thirties and with his reputation as the premier 'Fight Director' firmly in the making, Richard called on Bill's services again for 'Royal Flash' in 1975, based on George MacDonald Fraser's second Flashman novel and starring Malcolm McDowell as Captain Harry Flashman and Alan Bates as Rudi Von Sternberg and included Florinda Bolkan as Lola Montez in a duel with Margaret Courtenay as 'Lady.'

In 1975 Gene Wilder was directing 'The Adventure of Shelock Holmes' Smarter Brother' in which he played Sigerson Holmes and asked Bill to work as 'Fight Arranger and Advisor'  and choreograph his fencing scene with Leo McKern as Moriarty. He found that he could utilise Gene's natural talent for swordplay and was, to that date, his most promising actor-pupil, of whom he said : "He could actually fence" and it was no accident that Gene became the Patron of the 'Swash and Buckle Fencing Club' Bill founded in London some 17 years later.

In 1976 Richard Lester asked to take on the role of Fight Arranger in 'Robin and Marian' starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn and he choreographed Sean's fight scene helped by Nicol Williamson's Little John on the castle battlements. 

The following year he was asked by Ridley Scott to orchestrate the fights in 'The Duellists', starring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as the French Napoleonic officer antagonists involved in a long running feud. The five duels made up half the movie and Ridley told him that : "I don't want any old tosh I want it real." Played out with swords and with pistols, on horse back and in the snow, in fight after fight, Bill demonstrated his mastery of period combat and understanding of what does and doesn't work on camera. 

Bill said of the Duellists : "From the beginning I wanted to break away from all the Hollywood stuff I'd seen. What interested me was the story, the drama. I was excited by the people. The pauses we put into the fights in that film were phenomenal, but we wanted to get across the idea that you believe you'll be dead on the floor. In the end the realism is in the fear."

It was the preparation for commissions like this which prompted Bill to say : "Nobody would believe the amount of work and effort that goes into choreographing a duel or a fight sequence."

"A climactic duel will take three weeks to choreograph. It sounds like a lot of time, but it's not a lot of time. But if you think that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers used to take six weeks on a dance sequence, it's not surprising that it takes that amount of time." As he said, he based his method on "the sport, pure fencing" which he "then adapted for safety because, with the sport you're trying to hit somebody for real without being hit yourself. In film and theatre, what you're doing is creating the illusion of reality and keeping the actors as safe as humanly possible."

"You can't go at half speed. It's got to be flat out to make it work. Very few people realise the amount of slow, slow build up, sometimes with actors who've never done it before in their lives, that is necessary to get them to a point they can convince an audience that they really going flat-out, for real."

"I would choreograph, say, a sequence, a day. That's one sequence of let's say eleven moves. The next day you would add the second sequence. Now you're going back over two sequences. The following day a third sequence. Slowly, slowly,slowly, you're building up. At the end of the third week you might begin to have a finished result. It's perhaps where you are making little changes, adjustments. So that finally, you're ready for shooting and hopefully, you peak for the moment the camera turns on. I hope that there's nothing inherent in the choreography that I do that is not simply the normal cinematic sword bashing that you see going around most swashbuckling films."

"Every move is planned and What I endeavour to do is never make two moves the same. If you watch the pattern of blades, if you slow-motion it, there's very little repetition in terms of the movement and this of course makes it extremely difficult for the actor, but I hope the end result is worth the effort. "

"I still get very anxious the day that we're shooting and that it's going to go OK, because ultimately, it's the actors there I stand back I can't do much more except the odd word here and there in there ear to say : "This doesn't look right, quite good enough and you'd look better if you did this or that." But it's time to let them get on with it and stand back."

He was 41 years old in 1980 when director Mike Hodges approached him to act a 'Co-ordinator of Action and Movement' in 'Flash Gordon' which starred Sam J. Jones as Flash, Melody Anderson as Dale Arden and Max von Sydow as The Emperor Ming. In the same year he published 'Stage Combat' which brought his career up to date.

The following year he was employed as 'Fight Arranger' by John Boorman in the making of 'Excalibur' starring Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana and Nicholas Clay as Lancelot and in which he brought forth a repertoire of lance, sword and mace. 

In 1983 he clearly had fun working as Fight Arranger on the Terry Jones / Terry Gilliam 'The Meaning of Life' on the segment entitled 'The Crimson Permanent Assurance', about a group of elderly office clerks working in a small accounting firm who rebel against yuppie corporate masters, transform their office into a pirate ship and raid a large financial district. Two years later Terry Gillam employed him as Fight Arranger on his 'Brazil' with its giant samurai sword sequence. 

1986 saw him working as 'Fight Stager' on Roman Polanski's 'Pirates' , who recalled : 'Bill coming to visit me in London to discuss 'Pirates.' He asked me how many fight scenes would be in the film, I could not resist teasing him. I answered "One, The whole film is one long fight." 
Two years later he worked as Fight Arranger on 'Willow' directed by Ron Howard and based on a story by George Lucas, it  starred Val Kilmer Madmartigan, Joanne Whalley as Sorsha and Warwick Davis as Willow Ufgood.

'Dangerous Liaisons' directed by Stephen Frears in the same year saw him working as 'Duel Co-ordinator' and making swordsmen out of John Malkovich as Vicomte de Valmont and a very game Keanu Reeves as Chevalier Danceny, who Bill remembered being "so physical you couldn't stop him jumping around." Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, said he admire "the really rough stuff" that Bill brought to the films duel : "It's tremendously immediate and not at all elegant."

1990 brought Jean-Paul Rappeneau's 'Cyrano De Begerac' with him working as 'Fight Arranger' with the larger than life Gérard Depardieu in the title role, with subtitles used for the non-French market and the English-language version using Anthony Burgess's translation of the text. In the same year he worked for Franco Zeffirelli as 'Duel Arranger' in his version of 'Hamlet' with Mel Gibson in the title role. It prompted Bill to ask himself : "I do a bit think, What the hell am I going to do this time to make it different? On the other hand, you can't make it different. There's the text, and you've got to follow it truthfully and honestly."

Two years later he was working on the Danish tv film series as 'Fight Director' for Peter Eszterhas on  'Gøngehøvdingen', starring Søren Pilmark as Svend and based on the popular novel by the Danish author Carit Etlar, which told the story of a small Danish resistance group, fighting the Swedish occupation of Denmark in 1658. 

Commisions also continued to come from stage production and in 1995 he directed the fight scene in Verdi's opera, 'Stiffelio', at the Royal Opera House Convent Garden and in the same year worked in the Broadway production of 'Hamlet' at the Belasco Theater, in which Hamlet was played by Ralph Fiennes with Damian Lewis as Laertes. Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, the sword fight 'has an intensity seen more often in a swashbuckler than in a 'Hamlet.' ' Bill commented at the time : "Perhaps my advantage is that having been an actor, I'm trying only to do the move I feel is right for the character. You are not doing pyrotechnics for the sake of being pyrotechnic."

Ralph commented : "Bill gives you that the sense of a real fencing competition; there's a real danger," and wanted the duel to be "as pure as possible, not fancy or balletic" and "A lot of it is about the skill of the swordplay.Bill actually is a competitive fencer, so he is familiar with that sense of people trying to score points. It's choreographed in a very organic way."

1995 also saw the release of Michael Caton-Jones' 'Rob Roy' with Liam Neeson as clan leader and Tim Roth as the foppish villain Cunningham, who had never fenced before. Bill's comment in his 1995 version of 'Fight Direction for Stage and Screen' : 'the actors have to be working mentally on a conscious level of coolness, with complete body relaxation and control, so that their acted aggression can be performed with conviction and at the same time in absolute safety' seems entirely appropriate for the duel between the blades of Liam's claymore and Tim's rapier.

In 1998, Director Randall Wallace asked him to act as Fight Arranger on 'The Man in the Iron Mask' with Leonardo DiCaprio as both King Louis and his brother Phillippe and John Malkovich as the musketeer, Athos.

Ralph Fiennes again worked with Bill, this time as John Steed, on 1998 version of 'The Avengers', where he was given responsibility of 'Sword Fight Arrangements' by Director Jeremiah S. Chechik. He rated Ralph as highly as Gene Wilder as an actor-fencer and Ralph enjoyed it so much that he took extra coaching and joined Bill's Swash and Buckle Club in London. Bill and Ralph worked together again on worked on 'Sunshine' in 1998, where he worked as 'Fight Choreographer' under István Szabó's with Ralph, as Hungarian fencing champion, Adam Sors. 

It was at this time he also worked as Fight Arranger on Tom Stoppard's 'Shakespeare in Love' directed by John Madden and starring Joseph Fiennes as Will Shakespeare and Colin Firth as Lord Wessex.

His work as 'Fight Arranger' on 'The Mists of Avalon', a tv mini series, which starred Angelica Houston and ran for just two episodes in 2001,  was probably best forgotten along with Tim Reeve's 'George and the Dragon' starring James Purefoy, where he also acted as 'Fight Arranger' in 2004.

In 2002 Director Kevin Reynolds asked him to arrange the fight scenes in 'The Count of Monte Cristo' with Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes and Richard Harris as Abbé Faria. Bill commented : "I rather enjoyed a sequence we did in the cell with Richard Harris who had to train Jim our leading actor. They were only working with sticks hidden away in the cell, a metal plate and a cup, a mug. so by utilising these, I was able to make moves very simple for the actors to perform well and I hope added a certain amount of wit to it as well."

Inevitably, the 'Game of Thrones' team had to draw on the experience of Bill and in the 2015. Season 5, Milto's Yerolemou worked extensively with Bill to bring out the unique style and history behind Syrio Forel's 'water dancing style' in sword fighting and they,apparently, discussed the Rob Roy fight in length.

Sadly, this was probably Bill's last commission before his dementia closed in.

In 1995 Roman Polanski wrote :

'Behind the scenes he is a gifted teacher, a psychiatrist and a coach. He instructs with the same finesse he brings to his duelling. He charms,coaxes and cajoles toward steady improvement.'

Bill himself said :

"A fencing phase should have the same feeling as two serpents recovering their balance before resuming their attacks on each other."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you JohnBoy - this piece was well done, indeed. Bill was truly a Master of his Art and I am truly grateful for having known him - and worked with him - for the time that I did. Everyone who earns a 'living by the Sword' in our business will have been influenced by his work in some way; and owes him a debt, which we can only repay by passing such understanding of the dramatic fight onto the next generation. Thank you Bill.