The story ‘Dream Assignment’ talks about world renowned British documentary maker Gerry Troyna and the would-be blockbuster on Cambodia, Princess Diana and Earl Spencer. Though the documentary was aborted just after a fortnight of location scouting and research in Cambodia, we were all fully paid for an estimated three months work, according to the contract. We were disappointed but no one complained.
There was an attempt to save the documentary with a replacement for Earl Spencer (brother of Princess Diana) who withdrew at the 11th hour. Personal safety and the erroneously held view that the Khmer Rouge were still a threat in the countryside and the negative report of the British ambassador in Phnom Penh, I thought were the reasons for the last minute withdrawal.
Troyna said there was still a chance the documentary could be salvaged with a famous star or well-known personality to replace the Earl. A few names were mentioned: – Vietnam War photographer Tim Page; award-winning journalist Jon Swain of Killing Fields fame; and movie star comedian Mr Bean. Of the three, everybody agreed that it would be great if we could have Mr Bean.
But alas! The Earl proved to be irreplaceable. Without him the shine would be lost; Troyna could not persuade the financial backers to accept a replacement. The American TV made it clear that without Earl Spencer, they would withdraw. BBC was prepared to suffer the loss incurred so far. The project was scrapped.
Most hacks or documentary buffs will tell you the BBC or the British are the best as far as documentaries are concerned. Why not the French, Germans, or Americans? I guess it has something to do with tradition, they really spend a lot of time on research and the support and resources given to the producer/director are enormous. Spending a year or two doing a documentary is not uncommon.
Among the many famous award-winning documentaries by Troyna were – BBC Indian Great Train Journey series, Frontier Series, Doomsday Book, Unforgiven, David Bowie’s Magic Moonlight Tours and many others. See all of them in his website: GerryTroyna.com
In October 1996 I managed to get Troyna to Penang to give free consultation to the State Government about making a documentary to promote the island.
At that time I was told by author Khoo Salma that the state government was engaging an American writer, Sue Gross to write a movie script on Captain Francis Light (the founder of Penang) and his mistress Martina Rozelle with the naive hope that Hollywood would be enticed to make a movie. Thus promoting the state to the whole wide world.
I was shown a contract drawn up by Gross, basically binding the State of Penang to pay her an astronomical amount of money for writing the script, something to the tune of US$70,000. And if it were accepted by Hollywood, she would be paid a further percentage of the movie production cost. Salma would be engaged by her to help her in research.
I sounded the alarm bell to Salma; this is not the way to do it. Salma managed to halt the contract signing and convinced the State Exco member to consult Troyna who happened to be in Bangkok at that time. He agreed to come without any fee, the State Government just had to pay the air ticket and for two days accommodation which came to about £300.
An October day in 1996 Troyna, Salma, and I happily trooped into the Exco’s (she is the Penang state minister for tourism) office at Komtar. She said the Penang state government had made several documentaries to promote the island but they could never get the BBC, American, European or Australian TV channels to broadcast. Thus the idea of trying Hollywood now, the Exco woman said.
Of course no self-respecting TV channel anywhere in the world would broadcast any government propaganda or promotional material, let alone UK and USA who were very strict on such matters, retorted Troyna. As for Hollywood movie, it was out of question – firstly it is too costly, the stars have to be big names (for the movie to work) and they are costly and temperamental.
You would have no editorial control. What is politically correct would be a box office flop and what turns out to be a blockbuster could be politically disastrous for Penang and Malaysia.
Then what was the solution? Troyna said, a docu-drama – which is part documentary and part drama where historical scenes would be reenacted by popular local actors. And it should be a joint production with the BBC with the State footing 49 percent of the production cost and the other borne by the BBC. The BBC would in turn sell part of their shares to the American and Australian TVs. But the BBC will have editorial control and Penang would be assured that the docu-drama would be broadcast in three continents.
The exco woman was ecstatic! It must have been the first time such sound information were heard by her. “WE will do that,” exclaimed the woman. “In the meantime would you draw up a working paper and send us some samples of the documentaries you have done.” These were duly done.
And turning to Salma, the woman said, “Please get the airline and hotel bills and I will reimburse Mr Troyna. It may take about a month.”
Salma and I were very happy at the turnout. We would be in the pre-production and production team. It would mean at least six months of work. For me it would mean working in my hometown for the first time – making a TV documentary with one of the best documentary makers in the world.
I flew back to Bangkok and met up with Troyna a week later. Feeling good I did what I thought was the right thing to do. I reimbursed Troyna the 300 pounds out of my own pocket, thinking that i would get it back from the Penang Government in no time.
Alas! sad to say it was not to be. To cut the story short after a whole year of talking ‘crap and bull’ from the Exco Woman (She even sent a team to meet up with Troyna’s production manager in London), it came to nothing. The incredible and shocking thing is that the Government can pretend to talk to you and acting (play) seriously while nothing is being done. The contract was never signed, the initial US$20,000 (agreed upon) to begin research and preproduction never came.
When I realised this, a year had lapsed and I haven’t been reimbursed the £300 yet. On 29 October 1997 I received this email from Salma: “I’m sorry about your payment. I will try to ask for it. I also haven’t been paid for a job a friend and I did in November. I’ll call the Exco again today.”
Finally after more than 14 months I went up Penang Hill with Salma and met face to face with the Exco Woman at a holiday bungalow. To defuse the embarrassment, she pretended to be surprised that i had not been reimbursed, took out a golden service Citibank VIP cheque and quickly wrote out the payment. On it was written “VIP service, no waiting”. Impressive? Too late, she can run but cannot hide!
The hard lesson I learnt – many politicians are a sly and corrupt lot.