RED ASTAIRE will always be cemented in the public imagination as one of history’s most recognisable dancers, a fleet-footed vision, elegantly attired in top hat and tails with cane in hand. People are less likely to remember him in his role as an Irish doctor, who wears a soft tweed cap and roams the countryside in a purple taxi.
Astaire was 77 years old when he arrived in the Cork village of Eyeries to make Un Taxi Mauve (The Purple Taxi). He was no stranger to Ireland, having been a frequent visitor to Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford, where his sister Adele took up residence following her marriage to Charles Cavendish; they also had a house in Schull, Co. Cork.
The Purple Taxi was based on a bestselling book by French novelist Michel Deon shortly after he moved to Ireland in the 1970s. In the film, directed by Yves Boisset, Astaire plays the unlikely role of Dr Seamus Scully, a retired doctor who dispenses philosophical advice to his patients.
The film was shot at the then recently opened Irish Film Studios at Ardmore near Bray and on location in Kerry and West Cork, as well as Cork Airport. It also starred the famous French actor Phillippe Noiret, Peter Ustinov and Charlotte Rampling. The film is being given a rare airing as part of the Beara Arts Festival, taking place this week. Artistic director of the festival and Eyeries native Marc O’Sullivan spent months looking for a decent version of the film.
“There are several in existence, but only the original cut features the crowd scene outside the church in which you can recognise our neighbours, the late Una Batt O’Neill and Veronica Steele [the renowned cheesemaker who died earlier this year], both dressed as nuns, and Kathleen Batt. I finally got a copy of this version from Australia,” says O’Sullivan.
The Purple Taxi only had a short run in Irish cinemas, and it wasn’t particularly well received. However, the film was a big success in France and it was reported that the Irish tourist office in Paris was inundated with inquiries after its screening.
“Its inclusion of some suggestive language, a few incidents of nudity and any number of philosophical exchanges seems to have guaranteed its success in France,” says O’Sullivan.
“Audiences there were bewitched by its vision of Ireland as a rugged country blessed by rainbows and populated by hard-drinking men and devastatingly beautiful women.”
According to O’Sullivan, the making of the film caused great excitement in Eyeries. “These days, it’s no longer surprising to see celebrities like Colin Farrell out and about in Beara. Neil Jordan has a home in Beara and filmed Ondine in the area, and the television series Falling for a Dancer was also shot around Eyeries — but back then, it would have been an event to have anyone of their stature turn up in Dublin, let alone in such a remote corner of the country. The crew did considerable work on the village to make it seem even more quintessentially Irish, thatching roofs and building banks of turf and painting houses; ours wound up being two different colours —white on top and green below.”
Many locals were employed as extras, and there were several incidents of people wandering into shot or failing to ignore the cameras when they should have.
Joe Harrington, a former resident of Eyeries, was in the village when the film was being shot.
“I watched them shoot a scene outside Mary Hanley’s shop and what amazed me was the amount of time it took to shoot one simple scene. When they called action, the village would go completely quiet but there was a dog somewhere in the village that started making this ologóning sound. This happened about three or four times and the village erupted into laughter. Eventually, they had to go get the dog.
“They came back and went to do a take, then the horse and cart started moving and everyone started laughing again. They went to do another take, and the postman decided to walk into the middle of the scene to see what was going on. Village life went on. They had great fun.”
The film had a huge budget for the time — $4 million — but Harrington said locals who worked as extras didn’t see much of it.
“They got damn little of it, they were only paid buttons. But there was loads of food, you could have tea and sandwiches all day long inside in Jackie Lynch’s pub, they made a fortune out of it. The only people who got any reasonable money out of it were the sheep herders, I think they got about £150 a day but they also had to provide a flock of sheep. They would have had to walk them in about three miles.”
According to Harrington, Rampling for one didn’t take too well to her ovine co-stars.
“Another scene was filmed by a cowshed, and they had Charlotte Rampling outside, taking lots of still photographs of the sheep around her. Every time the sheep moved, she practically screamed, she thought they were going to bite her.”
There wasn’t much interaction between the stars and locals beyond the shooting of scenes, says Harrington. Astaire spent much of the time between takes in Bella Connell’s pub, while Edward Albert mingled more with locals.
“Edward Albert was very popular. He was the son of Eddie Albert, who was famous for starring in the show Green Acres in the 1960s. He would go into the bar with his driver, have a drink and play pool. I spent an evening playing pool with him, I still have his autograph.”
NO BIG DEAL
Harrington says while the people of Eyeries may have been starstruck however, they did the typically Irish thing of leaving them alone.
“People would just say hello and keep going. I don’t remember crowds of people looking for autographs. I think it would be the same today — they don’t make anything great of it.”
And what did Harrington make of the final product? “I thought it was awful. Typically French, very philosophical, that kind of moody thing doesn’t go down well with the Irish. But the French seemed to like it. There’s a new DVD out and they were using words like ‘forgotten masterpiece’ which surprised me.”
O’Sullivan says it is hard to believe the film has never been publicly shown in Beara, let alone in Eyeries. Given that the film was released 40 years ago, most of the stars of the film are now dead.
However, Rampling is still working, garnering her first Oscar nomination last year for her role in 45 years.
“I contacted Charlotte Rampling’s agent in the hope she might introduce the screening in Eyeries, but was assured she is otherwise engaged. It’s not entirely surprising; I doubt she remembers the film as her finest hour,” says O’Sullivan.
Admission to the two screenings of the film is free but people are being asked to make a small donation to Cancer Connect, a community group that organises free transport to hospitals in Cork for those receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“We could hardly have chosen a more appropriate beneficiary; in the film, Fred Astaire is the local doctor who drives the purple taxi of the title but is never observed to charge a fare,” says O’Sullivan.