A Grotesque Fantasy London: Ben Charles Edwards

Rising director on his debut film...

Debutant director Ben Charles Edwards is already drawing positive comparisons with the likes of Terry Gilliam for his forthcoming film Set The Thames On Fire.

Sat poolside at The Standard, Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, Edwards gave Clash the story behind the film in his own words.

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Set The Thames On Fire follows two boys who fall through the clockwork of a grotesque fantasy London town. Endeavouring to escape the water-logged flooded city for the chance of reaching the shores of their imagined ideals of “ancient Egypt”, our two heroes encounter a plethora of dark and perverse characters along their way. It’s a simple story of friendship and how a good companion can see you through some of the darkest times with humour and a sense of adventure.

The journey of our two boys – Art, a down-on-his-luck piano player, and Sal, a cracked pinball machine, have some similar real life parallels with myself and my good friend Al Joshua, who was also the writer and composer of Set The Thames On Fire. We also used to live in a small bedsit in Shoreditch around seven years ago much like the boys from my film. We had very little money at the time and our first winter in the apartment was a long one, the grey dish water skies were relentless. We’d come up for air once the blue moon would appear of an evening and the clouds would part – again, much like in the film.

Al, being a musician, was getting by on the odd gig and piano booking and I was constantly coming up with a series of creative means to get by, for lack of a better word. At night, we used to climb up our fire exit and sit on the roof of our building. Looking back, they seemed to be evenings filled with wine and laughter as we’d survey the city skyline under the giant dinner plate moon which hung above the city. Good memories.

These themes of friendship, support and laughter are clearly identifiable to me in Set the Thames on Fire – even the rooftop features in the film – along with many of the darker supporting characters that may or may not be based on characters we passed along the way.

I met Al when he was the front man in a band called Orphans & Vandals and I was inspired immediately. His song Mysterious Skin painted a distinct image of London:

“It’s raining tonight in New Cross
Coming down from the dirty purple skies
Behind the clocks of King’s Cross
These streets are on wheels
And they turn like the working of clocks
It’s cold in Euston, I wish it was not
I wish I was somewhere that was hot”

The film’s language stems from the wit and content of a lot of his early work. I also used Al’s older melodies to cut the film to, so once Al came to scoring the film we already had several of his pieces in place to work with.

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I’ve seen the film described as a “Dickensian Blade Runner” to a “Victorian dystopia.” I guess in my mind it was always a fairy tale, a dark comic world of a dystopian London. Perhaps it’s set in the future where our modern technologies have failed us and we once again rely on the sturdier elements of the past as the floodwaters rise. To some degree I enjoy imagining the destruction of cities – a reminder that nothing else really matters other than who we have in our lives, not what. I think this is something we can all take comfort from. As a statement on contemporary London, it’s simply saying: “Everything’s going to hell.”

Set The Thames On Fire is eloquently British in its darkly dry comical sensibilities, as reflected in the comparisons which people have made with A Clockwork Orange and Brazil. The bleakness is London, unfortunately. I didn’t invent that. Although like our city, the film’s colours come to life as the evening sets in and the music and wine start pouring.

Noel Fielding was cast in the role of Dickie. I met with him around two months before we started to shoot, and we went through the script and his character together. I recall him saying he was keen to work with [cult performance artist] David Hoyle who plays The Magician in the movie, and that he felt the story was like “Black Jack sweets melting in my heart.”

The whole process with Noel was relaxed and collaborative. We would sit for hours while he improvised with his character and he’d spout the most obscene things to our two leads – a lot of which we built into the script.

When it came to selecting a costume for Dickie, we had a huge selection of pink tuxedos and hot pants on hand. But when Noel spotted a light pink baby-doll outfit from the end of the costume rail, his eyes lit up. He threw it over what he was wearing in the rehearsal room and stood in front of the mirror for a moment. Assessing for a minute or two, he said “It’s missing something!” And so he took a string of pearls from the costume department and an old cod-piece and Noel’s Dickie was complete.

Carl Barât makes a cameo in the film as a drunk. I met Carl years ago when I went to see him perform in a theatre show, coincidently performing with Gerard McDermott (who plays the Impresario in the movie) and one of the film’s producers, Sadie Frost. Carl liked the project and was keen to play a drunken cameo (I can only assume he had something to pull inspiration from?). He had the idea of writing ‘Repent’ backwards on his forehead, which I thought was fun.

If you like the absurd and ridiculous you’ll enjoy Set The Thames On Fire. A truly magical and gripping vision of our capital.

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Set The Thames On Fire will receive its UK theatrical release on September 14th at the PictureHouse Cinema, Picadilly. The premiere will be followed by a Q&A session with Ben Charles Edwards, producer Sadie Frost and members of the cast. More info at www.setthethamesonfire.com.

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SET THE THAMES ON FIRE / Teaser Trailer from Blonde to Black Pictures on Vimeo.


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