By Mark Silverman
Roger Watkins was the epitome of the Variety mugg. He was street smart, motivated, a thoughtful reader of people, and a good listener, traits which made him both a great reporter and a top salesman. I spent my 24th year (1981-82) as his “understudy” in the old London offices on St. James’s St., just off Piccadilly Circus (pictured below). It was a time now gone by which I still remember fondly, because Roger wasn’t just the best teacher I ever had. He was also my friend.
Despite our difference in ages, after a year under his tutelage, I felt a kinship to him that I had previously reserved for my best college buddies. I still cannot explain it; it’s just one of those things you take at face value. Like those college buddies, there’s a line of communication that’s understood, active or not; you could bump into each other after a 10-year lapse, and the bond would be unbroken, as though you had only been apart a day, and could catch up over a coffee. Such was Roger’s impact on my Variety schooling.
Roger was a self-made man from the Cockney East End of London, but he could “talk the talk” of the biz with any Brit—some erudite, a few pompous—who often wore their Oxford/Cambridge accents like a club tie. He sometimes seemed a bit self-conscious about his “accent,” but to my ear (and most showbiz Yanks who made no judgments along the accent/class divide of Britain) Roger spoke the Queen’s English…but with a Variety patois.
He also imparted to me many nuggets of Cockney wisdom, two of which I still spew at anyone who will listen (#1), and all my freelance writers (#2):
Watt.-icism #1: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”
Watt.-icism #2: “When writing a story, don’t strain for significance; give the reader the facts, and he’ll figure out what’s significant to him.”
Rog introduced me to a lot of worldliness in my young life back then. I met just about everyone of import in showbiz in London, either at an industry soiree or at their offices: Sir Richard Attenborough, David Puttnam, Lew Grade, Jeremy Thomas, Jake Eberts, publicists Dennis Davidson, Theo Cowan, Phil Symes, indie agents Guy East and Michael Ryan, etc. etc. We visited bigwigs like Bill Cotton at the BBC, ITV, the nascent Channel 4 under Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Grade, William Morris Agency, BAFTA, Dodi Fayed, Lord & Lady Rothermere, you name it, if you mattered in the business, Roger knew it, and knew you. He had a beguiling charm, a disarming manner that put almost anyone at ease, from the lowliest receptionist to the most self important mogul. It was hard not to listen when Roger Watkins was in your face – because he would listen back.
Rog, along with John Willis and Jack Pitman, also introduced me to Brit cuisine, such as it were; ex-pat Pit. educated me on British deli (unlike the 46th St. Sunday hangout The Gaiety Deli, corned beef on rye in London was a single slice of meat on two thin squares of bread). Roger and John introduced me to true fish & chips served in newspaper, and skate (more or less a small stingray), which I still seek out to this day in the States. Quite tasty.
Most Fridays at 4:00 or so, if we weren’t on the road, Roger, myself, sometimes John and Jack, would walk to the cozy offices of Arthur Abeles and Ricki Michaud, the co-heads of United Intl. Pictures (UIP), the joint international distribbery of Paramount and Universal. Two nicer guys you never met, and Arthur in particular took a shine to me, and I to him. Arthur and Ricki were in their 60s, perhaps relics of a bygone era, but untouchable in my recollection. My guess is they were too expensive to discard after all those years at UIP, and I was a tangential beneficiary of their wisdom, thanks to Rog.
Arthur and Ricki were great news sources of what was really going on in the international film markets as it related to the majors, and we often did a Friday “Happy Hour” with them in their office, a few times with one or two other industryites, before boarding our trains home. Arthur and Ricki were a virtual repository of tales on who was doing what to whom in the business, and Roger shared some of his secrets with them. It was the ultimate double agent clubhouse, but neither side ever ratted out the other. To me, it was like a First Amendment “Free Trade” zone.
I remember leaving the 3-hour Cannes premiere of “Inchon”, whose international exposure Arthur and Ricki had been charged with, unfortunately. It was a $45-million disaster (at the time HUGE money) backed by Unification Church’s Rev. Moon about the epic Korean War battle, and probably the best example of the most money spent on the worst movie in history. Arthur stopped Rog and me as we politely shuffled out, and he asked us, “Well, what do you think?” Roger paused a beat or two, and replied honestly, “Arthur, it’s a BIG picture.” Roger wasn’t telling all, nor was he about to hurt Arthur’s feelings. Arthur smiled sardonically, knowing that Roger gave him a straight answer to a straight question, which in the long run was more valuable to Arthur than the myriad misleading platitudes sure to follow us out the door. (It went on to gross less than $2-million Stateside.)
Roger knew the marketplace forces and the buy-sell mechanics of film, tv and homevideo as well as anyone on the Variety staff, in my experience. He seemed to know everybody in the business in Europe, and if he didn’t, he would make a point to get to know them at a festival or market, or find out what Variety wasn’t doing that could sway them into its newsprint pages.
He’d go into a producer’s office, get the story they were pitching from their side of the desk, and, more often than not, extract an ad from them before they could end the session. But if they didn’t take an ad, it didn’t change the story Roger had to write. He’d pitch them again next time.
Under Roger’s wing that year, I hit every major international film ?or tv festival and market, from Vidcom to Mifed, Berlin to Cannes, Midem to MIP. We also did a couple of weeklong sales sojourns to Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Munich, Monte Carlo et al. It was a superb business experience for me, and Roger was a patient teacher. I sometimes think he had a curriculum in mind. I just wasn’t privy to it.
At Berlin in 1982, we had a gigantic dinner (German portions) with Ron Holloway, and then went to the Cafe Kaiser where there are banquettes, each with a phone, to allow patrons of one banquette to call another. At 24, before we all had cell phones, I thought it a neat idea. Next night, Rog and I had a drink with “Pink Flamingos” director John Waters after a screening, and afterwards I decided to hit the Kaiser again solo. I got in line to go in, with nothing but ladies in front and behind me, thinking I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Suddenly this 200-pound frau picks me up by the collar, screaming German in my face, and slides me out the door to the street. Ladies Night in Berlin is not like Ladies Night in other places. I’m not sure Roger ever stopped laughing after hearing that one.
On a more practical note, Roger taught me how to compile “boilerplate” on companies for the massive issues we produced for the major film and tv markets, which delineated indie production slates and strategies in between gobs of ads back in the day. I was also amazed at how the foreign bureau chiefs and reporters of Roger’s ilk could crank out so much copy so fast on a dinky portable typewriter, in their cramped rooms at the Hotel Suisse in Cannes, critiquing an afternoon screening or corporate merger in time to make dinner more often than not. Group dinners at the markets and festivals were always a highlight for me, because you really got to know the muggs as people, and not just another byline. That’s another skill I probably learned from Roger by sheer osmosis.
I was invited to half a dozen Sunday suppers at the Watkins’ house on Shooter’s Hill in Kent, southeast of London, and eagerly accepted a chance at Pat’s home cooked vittels. I lived in a single room B&B that year in Hampstead, north of London, and would take the tube south across the Thames, where they’d pick me up by car. Just about every time we passed by Black Heath on the way, one or another Watkins would chime in merrily, “You know Mark, it’s called Black Heath because that’s where they buried all the people who died from The Plague.” To a New Worlder, I didn’t care how many times they mentioned it, because it reminded me how much more history Britain had over the U.S. It was good to be old, I remember thinking.
I felt an affinity with Roger and Pat’s boys, Andrew and Ian, which I can only explain grew out of the family’s genuine warmth towards each other, and their inclusion of me in their weekly family ritual. I felt like an elder son home from school when I went there, totally at ease, because they were.
Although I will miss him dearly, as many will, I will always carry that piece of Roger which he imparted into my “skills set” those many years ago, as a father might pass on the nuances of fishing to a son. We should all be lucky enough to have a Roger at some point in our lives. I know I consider myself very lucky to have had the real McCoy.