As part of a recent primary school project, a relative selected as her chosen assignment, the career of my late father (Michael Nugent) who worked for almost 40 years in the film industry - “the last of the travelling circuses”.
This school project prompted an oft repeated request received since my father passed away for details or an insight into his interesting career.
Before further particulars or experiences are entirely lost to the passage of time, the pen it is said is mightier than the sword which has prompted me to outline what some may find intriguing and others not so.
Personally, I look back on my father’s career with pride yet it was a career largely observed from afar when methods of communication with home (especially during the ‘70s and ‘80s) were generally through the medium of either letters from overseas or phone calls to the now almost ancient landline.
My father was born in August 1931 to Patrick and Margaret Nugent (née Perdue) and raised in Springfield, Ballyclerihan. Both parents were very active participants in the War of Independence and the fight for Irish freedom against Crown Forces.
My grandfather too was a carpenter and being the eldest and most likely influenced by his parents, my father also chose carpentry as his chosen profession.
Like so many of his fellow citizens in 1950s Ireland, my father followed the well-worn path of emigration and London was to be his life’s journey beginning. Obtaining work on the construction and fit-out of a terminal building at Heathrow Airport, it was by chance he came upon an advertisement in the London Evening Standard seeking carpenters to work in a film studio. Little did he know that this successful job application was to begin a life and career spanning almost 40 years travelling the world and providing him opportunities to witness, meet and work with some of the world’s greatest film producers, directors and screen legends.
Whilst the titles of some film productions my father worked on since the late 1950s cannot be recalled, the list detailed below outlines in chronological order just some of those films he worked on either as a carpenter, supervising carpenter or assistant construction manager.
One of those films where I feel his proudest work was accomplished was on the production of Ryan’s Daughter, the third film he worked on with David Lean (director), following Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 and Dr Zhivago in 1965. The winter of 1967 saw my father supervise a crew of almost 200 mainly Irish workers constructing the fictional village of “Kirrary” consisting of approximately 40 full-scale structures including houses, shops, schoolhouse, church and pub on top of Mount Eagle above Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula.
All buildings on the movie set (with the exception of the church which was constructed entirely of fibreglass) were constructed of solid stone having complete interiors, lights and some plumbing complete with slate and thatched roofs.
Following completion of filming in 1969, a disagreement arose amongst landowners who previously possessed commonage rights on Mount Eagle and as no settlement could be achieved, the film director (David Lean) ordered the entire movie set to be demolished thus eliminating what could have been a lucrative and permanent tourist attraction.
The only surviving structure to this day, although it has fallen into a state of disrepair, is the schoolhouse which was constructed close to the Atlantic ocean just a short distance away from the main village set.
Whilst Ryan’s Daughter didn’t gain much praise from film critics, it did go on to have a transformative effect on the lives of many people residing on the Dingle Peninsula.
As my late father’s friend and local famous resident TP O’Connor (who also worked on the film) once said of the Ryan’s Daughter legacy – “before Ryan’s Daughter, we used to eat inside and go to the toilet outside, after Ryan’s Daughter, we ate out and went to the toilet inside” a jibe to the prosperity enjoyed by many locals from the big wages earned from the film production company, wages that supported many to embark upon much needed home improvements such as the installation of internal bathrooms and house extensions.
Following Ryan’s Daughter, film production opportunities were plentiful for my father which enabled our family to travel abroad on location to various countries.
Those included Holland for A Bridge Too Far plus Malta for Force 10 of Navarone.
From working in the Middle East in the 1960s (Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago) to behind the Iron Curtain during the 1970s, to India in 1984 (Far Pavilions) and the Dominican Republic in 1988 (Havana), being on location provided my father opportunities to visit and experience many countries.
Whilst abroad on location (often for months at a time), we looked forward either to receiving letters or postcards from the various countries where he worked or the phone calls home.
Whenever filming concluded, my father would return home, entertaining both friends and acquaintances with stories and insights into the various film locations and the film stars he encountered and observed almost daily like Omar Shariff, Peter O’Toole, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Gregory Peck, etc.
From the mid-1980s, my father’s work was primarily based in the film studios on the outskirts of London such as Pinewood, Shepperton and Elstree.
My younger brother and I were fortunate to visit these studios whilst filming was underway.
Memories include standing next to Christopher Reeve dressed as Superman having water sprayed on him before entering into battle with an arch enemy on the surface of a distant planet.
Other memories include visiting the set of the Stephen Spielberg directed film Willow and also visiting Pinewood Studios to the set of Batman, walking around a life-like reconstruction of Gotham City with the Batmobile parked outside Gotham City Hall and its streets cluttered with fake Gotham City dollar bills.
In 1992, my parents relocated back to Clonmel and films including Circle of Friends, Braveheart and his final film Michael Collins followed.
Unfortunately, for a strong fit person whom I never saw sick during my lifetime, a diagnosis of terminal cancer whilst working on Michael Collins in September 1994 was devastating news and my father passed away in July 1995 aged just 64.
Personally, I look back on my father’s out of the ordinary career with pride, a sense of admiration and awe. From a small townland in Ballyclerihan, he seized hold of a chance which granted him insights and first-hand experiences not only of film production but of its primary participants, the actors, directors and producers – people whose names or faces most ordinary individuals only see on their TV screens but whom my father got to meet and work with for almost 40 years.
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