In the early 1980s I came across the extraordinary true story of two 18th century female pirates called Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
Anne had been the illegitimate daughter of an Irish attorney and his maidservant, and Mary was a Londoner who had run away to sea disguised as a boy.
It was a hell of a tale ending up with the two of them and Captain “Calico” Jack Rackham being chased around the West Indies by the ruthless pirate hunter Captain Barnet.
They were all eventually captured on the orders of the Governor of Jamaica; Rackham and his men were sentenced to death by hanging but Anne and Mary both “pled their bellies” – in other words claimed to be pregnant - and escaped the gallows. Mary Read died in prison and Anne Bonny disappeared altogether, possibly bought out of prison by her wealthy father.
It was a ripping yarn with all the ingredients of a great swashbuckling adventure. The girls, the pirates, the Caribbean, the gallows - it was all there. I came up with what I thought was a cracking good title, The Strumpet Pirates, and started sending out a six episode breakdown to all the main British TV companies.
Predictably the letters came back faster than a group of thirsty Jack Tars splicing the mainbrace. They all said the same thing - that for a TV show it would cost far too much to make.
Maybe television was the wrong medium and The Strumpet Pirates should be a movie? In which case I would need someone more experienced than me to write it.
My record producer Andy Miller introduced me to Jonathan Wolfman and I told him the story. He liked it straight away. A few weeks later he had written an impressive fifty-page film treatment and my instructions were to forget the UK and go out and pitch it straight to Hollywood.
I was given only one contact, a letter of introduction to Gary Pudney, a Vice President at ABC Television.
A week later I was boarding my 747 flight at Heathrow. I couldn’t believe how fast things were moving. It had only been a short while since I had come across the story of Bonny and Read and here I was about to fly to LA to try and sell it.
We finally approached Los Angeles airport and the Captain tilted the plane’s wings and said over the PA system, “Look to your left ladies and gentlemen and you may see something familiar.” And there was the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign glinting in the early morning sunshine. It was the most beautiful introduction to one of the oddest places on earth.
Odd because just about everyone you meet in Los Angeles is trying to break into movies. Take my taxi driver who drove me in from the airport for instance. He not only looked just like Richard Pryor but he spoke just like him and had all that great comedian’s mannerisms too. As we got into conversation on the highway, it wasn’t long before Richard Pryor’s name came up.
“I’m an actor you know.”
“Do you like Richard Pryor?”
“Yes, I do. Silver Streak is one of my all time favourite films,” I said.
“Well I’m going to be the next Richard Pryor.”
“The next Richard Pryor?”
“That’s right. The way I see it, Pryor’s not going to be round for ever and when that day comes I’ll be ready to take his place.”
You certainly couldn’t fault his logic. So if you ever see a Richard Pryor lookalike on the screen and he’s a former LA cab driver – he once drove me in from LAX.
I booked myself into the ‘Kensington’, a motel situated on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. It was an ideal location in which to base myself for the ‘pitch’.
The next morning I got up early, rammed some coins into a public phone booth and called Gary Pudney at ABC. A secretary told me he was unavailable but after I explained what it was about, she gave me the number for the ‘Colonel’.
For a moment I thought she was linking me up with the Elvis camp but it turned out the ‘Colonel’ was not Parker but Pudney, Gary’s dad. I rang him.
Pudney senior listened to me wittering on about women pirates and Caribbean hi-jinx and then cut to the quick. “Gary’s in Europe right now, setting up some film deals. He won’t be back for two weeks but I’d be happy to meet you if you want.”
He then gave me his address, which as far as I could make out was in the middle of the Santa Monica airfield.
It was then that I committed that unwritten sin of any Englishman in America, I decided to walk the two miles or so from my motel to the airfield. I had to, in those days I couldn’t drive. But as anyone knows who has ever visited the States, Shank’s Pony is just not the desired way of getting around.
Eventually, almost collapsing under the strong mid-day Californian sunshine, I was trailed for a block by two cops in their patrol car. They cruised up beside me and the one who wasn’t driving wound his window down. “What are you doing, sir?” he asked. “I’m afraid I’m walking to Santa Monica airport and I’m lost,” I replied.
The cops smiled, an English accent was still a rarity in Southern California even then. “Why are you going to the airport? You don’t seem to have any luggage.” I explained that I was going to meet someone called Colonel Pudney whereupon immediate recognition spread across their faces. “The Colonel? Sure, jump in we’ll give you a lift.”
I climbed into the back of their patrol car and came back to life in the welcoming blast of their air-conditioning. “Anyone who’s a friend of the Colonel’s is a friend of ours,” said one of the policemen.
At that moment I didn’t consider the Colonel to be a friend of mine but that was soon to change.
The patrol car dropped me off at a single storey office block right on the edge of the airfield under some pine trees and I thanked the policemen.
The Colonel was standing just behind the glass door in the lobby. I had been so late in arriving that he had come out from his office to see if he could spot me. He had been most perplexed to see me arrive in the back of a police car.
“Where have you been? Was there an accident?” he demanded. I tried to explain how I had been walking and got lost but he was having none of it. “No-one ever walks in LA,” he said. “At best you’ll get blisters and sunstroke and at worst you’ll be mugged. Next time you want to go anywhere Miles, you let me know and I’ll drive you. Consider me your personal chauffeur.”
That was typical of the man’s generosity.
The Colonel was an extraordinary man. Short, chubby and always wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, he looked like a cross between Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy but behaved like Mr Magoo.
I don’t know if it was the permanent shades or what but he was always knocking things over. Pens would fall off desks and then when he bent down to retrieve them his head would knock over the stapler and then when he tried to pick up the staples his jacket sleeve would send a full cup of coffee flying across the room.
He was like a vaudeville act but he had a heart of gold. He was probably in his seventies and I believe he may have flown with the USAF in the Second World War but I never really found out because as soon as he started talking about it, something would get knocked over and he would be distracted.
Arlene was his companion, a lovely gentle lady who was most interested in my accent. “You Brits all sound like Prince Charles,” she said. “We love him and that Diana, don’t we Pud?” The Colonel leant back in his leather chair and considered this. “We sure do. Say, have you ever bumped into that Charles guy in one of your pubs?”
The Colonel was continually under the impression that everyone knew everyone in England and we all drank in some boozer just behind Harrods.
They were the most friendly and welcoming couple. They decided in the absence of the Colonel’s son Gary that they would adopt me for the two weeks that I was staying and show that great hospitality that Americans are known for.
And what a ride it became.
Most days would start with the Colonel and Arlene arriving at my motel at about ten in the morning.
For some reason they both seemed to think that if you came from England you were addicted to Gordon’s gin. The Colonel would knock on my bedroom door and stand there like Jeeves clutching a brand new bottle of gin with a fresh bottle of tonic water and a lemon. “Get this down you Miles, I know you English guys love a nip,” he would chuckle as I stared at him bleary-eyed. “See you at my car in ten minutes. Have we got a day planned for you”.
We would then drive all over the place, me rolling around in the back seat half-drunk as the Colonel did his best to show me his Hollywood.
And to be fair half the city seemed to know who he was. We would drive up to the gates of Fox or the Warner Brothers lot and the security men would suddenly jump to attention and open the barrier with a “Good morning Colonel, how you doing?” Whether this was because of the high profile of his son Gary or whether the Colonel himself was something in the film community I never found out. Anyway I wasn’t complaining. Doors were opening left, right and centre as the Colonel introduced me to a variety of film people. Everywhere I went I made sure I had a copy of The Strumpet Pirates in my bag. In the days before email, my local photocopy shop in Santa Monica was earning a fortune out of me.
After ten days of this and with no producer biting my arm off for a film option, the Colonel announced he was going to play his trump card.
He knew the very top literary agent in Hollywood and he was going to ask him to read the film treatment of The Strumpet Pirates. Arlene herself would personally deliver it.
“If this guy bites, you’re made,” was his prediction.
The following day, the phone rang in the Colonel’s car. It was the agent. He had read the treatment just like the Colonel had requested and told him that it was too similar to a movie that Bo Derek was currently involved in called Pirate Annie. Because of this he didn’t think there was much point in pursuing the project.
The Colonel took me to one of his favourite restaurants in Marina del Ray so I could lick my wounds. “Never mind Miles, we’ve had a good time. Have another gin and tonic?” He put his hand up to attract the wine waiter and sent a vase of flowers crashing to the floor.
A few days later I flew back to London and gave Jonathan Wolfman the bad news. It seemed that we had just been beaten to the finishing line by the Bo Derek movie.
But what an introduction to tinsel town. The Colonel, Arlene and a crate of Gordons.