When the UK’s ITV television decided to shoot the dramatised version of the story of the British plane-spotters who were arrested in Greece in October 2000, the producers came up against a problem – where to film? Greece was, for obvious reasons, not practical. Spain, Israel and South Africa were also considered, but, as Executive Producer Jeff Pope explained, with the sunlight, climate, architecture and the Mediterranean look of the extras, the Sintra-Cascais area was quickly decided upon as the perfect choice.
Pope, and the other crewmembers working on the film, cannot sing the praises of the Cascais-based company, Artists Group of Cascais, owned by Marilyn Alexander and James Dubec, highly enough. The Artists Group was responsible for organising all kinds of elements of the film, including the catering. Jeff commented: “An army marches on its stomach, and the food supplied throughout the whole of the filming was superb.”
Plane-spotting tells the story of a group of harmless British aircraft enthusiasts who are arrested as suspected spies during a plane-spotting trip to Greece. Leslie Sharp stars with Mark Benton, two familiar faces who worked together in the Clocking Off series recently. They play Lesley and Paul Coppin, the newlyweds at the centre of this infamous case.
Caught in a minefield of regional politics, the couple and 12 other spotters find themselves arrested for behaving suspiciously at an air base in a remote part of Greece. Their protests of innocence fall on bemused and then incredulous ears and what starts out as a farce becomes deadly serious when they all end up in a squalid Greek prison. The Coppins, who had organised the honeymoon trip, end up being separated and Lesley is left alone and terrified in a woman’s prison. Diplomatic intervention stirred up Greek national pride and, after three months locked away, the group was sensationally convicted of spying and given three year suspended prison sentences. They all appealed to clear their names and won their case, after Paul Coppin visited a newsagent and spotted a magazine on plane-spotting – something the Greeks did not believe existed.
The Resident’s Bob Hughes spent the day with the cast and crew of Plane-spotting recently.
My first interview was with Leslie Sharp, the star of the film. Leslie is married with two children. Her recent work has included the role of Jean in 1997’s Full Monty and, in 2000, a major part in Clocking Off.
When I asked how she coped with being a mum and an actress, Leslie admitted that it is a juggling act. “When I take on work, it has to be work that I care about, as I’m sacrificing being away from my family to do it,” she explained. “My husband is so supportive of my work.”
One of the reasons Leslie was delighted to work on Plane-spotting was because of the chance to star with Mark Benton again. “He is one of the most talented actors I know – so lovely and charismatic,” she commented. Leslie also explained that she finds Portugal incredibly beautiful. “I would love to come back and explore more of it,” she said. “The downside of filming is that you work such long hours that it leaves very little time to explore the country you are working in.”
My next stop was Andy Edwards, the Wardrobe Manager and one of the important background people among the crew. I asked Andy about the challenges of filming abroad. “There’s not much room for mistakes. All the costumes must be packed and checked because anything forgotten is difficult to replace in a hurry – it’s challenging, but I love my job!”
Plane-spotting writer Neil McKay was also on set. He has written many television dramas, including episodes of The Bill and Casualty, and was delighted when Jeff Pope asked him to write the script. “There is a very serious side to the story, but also a lot of comedy connected with it,” he explained. “We interviewed everyone that was arrested and imprisoned, especially Lesley and Paul Coppin, the main characters in the film.” McKay even attended the group’s second Greek trial.
Stuart Walker is the film’s Production Designer and has worked with the BBC for many years on a wide range of programmes. I watched as his crew went to work on a newsagent shop in Cascais Marina, transforming it into a Greek newsagents, and then moved on to the Cidadela Fort in Cascais, recreating Athens’ central prison.
However, Stuart’s most difficult challenge was transforming military aircrafts at the Air Force base outside Sintra into Greek planes. “All of the Portuguese aircraft had to be covered with Greek insignias,” he explained. He has been delighted with the help he has received from the Artists Group of Cascais, commenting: “Things would not have run so smoothly without their enormous expert assistance.”
Some of the most dramatic scenes in Plane-spotting were filmed inside Caxias prison and, once again, Jeff Pope commented that the prison authorities, the Cascais courthouse and the Portuguese military had been tremendously helpful during filming. “In many countries, access to these kinds of sites would most certainly have been denied,” he explained.
Throughout my day with Plane-spotting’s actors and crew, they all sang the praises of their hosts and the Artists Group of Cascais. After such a positive experience, I expect many more production companies will be looking to film here in Portugal.