Welcome back dear readers, this is an unexpected pleasure. We are honoured by your presence. It seems no two Star Wars stories are the same but once in a while we have the pleasure of speaking to someone who has a fantastic life story to tell.
Our guest is Alan Flyng who portrayed a Stormtrooper, Hoth Rebel and many more roles in Empire Strikes Back while also appearing as an Imperial Officer in Return of the Jedi. However, there is more to Alan than Star Wars, from his solo performance at Winston Churchill’s funeral to his eventual career in Costume and Wardrobe departments.
Trying to do the whole story justice is difficult but we shall do our best, we talk about said funeral, an incredibly difficult education, the road to losing the bridge deflector shield, getting Dudley Moore’s son out of jail and much more…
Thanks for joining us Alan and I’m really interested to hear your story. How have you been doing recently?
I’ve had a bout of poor health which has lasted me several years, but the last lot has been with me since the start of lockdown. I had cancer several years ago and I’ve had numerous procedures since then. I was working on a BBC period drama in the costume department and managed to get a crowd of 2,500 out at four in the morning including 130 principles; I went for my operation and got back in time to get them all out of their costumes. I have paid for rushing the operation that day ever since.
You are on the mend now right?
I am, I finally have a clean bill of health. One thing after another but I am under an all clear!
Great to hear! Let’s start by taking a look at your career, I’ve read that you sang at Winston Churchill’s funeral is that correct?
Yes, I was sent to Eton just before my tenth birthday. I was admitted on the quality of my voice and that meant that I was away from home for three years and I hated that. Just before I started my first school term a request came in for a soloist, that was my first job at St Paul’s Cathedral, it turned out to be Winston Churchill’s funeral. I’m facing the Queen, Charles De Gaulle and various other European leaders…I was absolutely shit scared, but a prodding finger gave me a push and I was off.
I was bullied at Eton mentally; being under 13 I was forced to wear a uniform, a top hat and all that. I never wore my top hat; they gave up trying to make me after I threw my third one off the bridge in Windsor. I was forced to sit another exam to go up into the adult’s section, I decided I was not going to do that. I wrote my name with a quill pen and then for eight hours I wrote nothing…
How did you move on from that type of education into the film industry?
I studied business at college and then went to work at North Thames Gas in the finance department…what a stupid place to put me ha-ha. I did two years of this horrendous job…but I met the love of my life.
I retrained as a tour guide, I ended up doing three-hour tours of London in multiple languages. When I wasn’t guiding, I was singing. We set up home and we were blissfully happy when a friend of ours at Central Casting said we could do odd days with her. I ended up on one shitty film after another, trying to stay in the background. I quickly learned that if you aren’t seen you have more chances of being recalled.
I had been inspired by an autobiography called “Shake the Stars Down” by Yolanda Donlan, you can get it very easily online. She appeared in Gone with the Wind and all of these amazing films but always as an extra and she learned all these tricks about how to keep herself off camera. Her face finally was on camera as she drove a wagon in a western film. She lost control of the horses and the director thought it was wonderful, John Wayne saved her, and it did wonders for her reputation, but it stopped her future background work. She became a bit of a comedy interview; she went her whole life doing it until she got a role in New York which resulted in her becoming the sort of Judi Dench of America. It all started with extra’s work, it’s a fantastically funny book.
I guess it was the extras work with Central Casting that lead to your work on Star Wars?
I did loads and loads of roles, including speaking parts, but I was uncredited for some and that was because I had more than one agent which I wasn’t supposed to have. I had long hair back then and I was young, good looking, modelling for Pierre Cardin so I had to keep my look because a hair cut would lose me that work. I would take jobs where I could keep my hair!
That’s how I ended up with Empire Strikes Back because I was already in continuity for three other films and I had to return looking the same as when I started. My agent said don’t worry you are going to be something called a Stormtrooper and wear a motorcycle helmet sort of thing. I only had two free days…six weeks later I was still in the damn thing! I went as a Stormtrooper and became a Snowtrooper, Hoth Rebel, Hoth Technician…I was doing all sorts.
In the meantime I was appearing in Annie, that carried on and I decided I wasn’t going anywhere with what I was doing, I really wanted to do something else and my families background was in tailoring. I applied to the union to join the costume branch to get work behind the camera. I got accepted and I did my tailoring exam, took over as chief pattern cutter.
Just getting into that work I got a call from a designer to work on his first major film, I said yes. The day before I was due to start shooting in Wales, I went into the production office at Elstree Studios to sign my contract. On my way out, Dave Tomblin was there smoking like a steam engine at the gates of the studio (during filming of Return of the Jedi), he was the first assistant director. He asked me to do him a favour and I told him I was on my way to Wales, he said it would only take an hour. Being the prime idiot that I am…I agreed.
This is for your role as an Imperial Officer?
Yes, they shoved me into a black jumpsuit which was quite funny as I made 30 of those for the designer. I squeezed into one of these, got the hat on and went out but the director took one look at me and said “No, no, no wrong uniform” so I went back and changed. I thought I was doing a favour at that moment, I got into the grey officer uniform which I recognized as a German motorbike uniform.
They pulled me out again and they just wanted one line, I was shown to the position and I thought this is easy what do they need me for! They re-lit and literally walked me around the set shouting this line, I said is this necessary…I’ve done jobs as a town crier before ha-ha.
I got it out of them that the actor supposed to be doing the line was sitting upstairs waiting for his uniform to be dried down and pressed so he could try again, I was wearing it. He had screwed up multiple times doing the line as he had a stutter! Anyway, I finally said my silly line, “Sir, we’ve lost our bridge deflector shields” and then I had to dive to one side. I did two rehearsals and then they called Ken Colley (Admiral Piett) in and I thought I knew him, and we are looking at each other but had no chance to talk. We did the scene and as soon as I was done, I had to go see George Lucas, sign a contract and say thanks. He gave me an envelope and said don’t open it until you get out on the street… it was an absolute fortune to me and apparently, I jumped in the air!
I got all the way to Wales (for the previously mentioned designer role), the producer there said they had a phone call about me from George Lucas. He wanted me to re-record the line…they said “I was under the impression I was getting a costume designer not a fucking actor!” I told them I did it as a favour. He took some time to settle down, but he said it’s just as well that you are here because I’ve told him to fuck off!
I got a phone call later in the day from the production office and the guy was roaring with laughter because George Lucas had been laughing that he had been told to fuck off because the person on the end of the phone didn’t believe he was George Lucas! Anyway, that was the start of my 47 films in costume department. Ken Colley, I remembered where I knew him from because I walked into the wardrobe on that first day in Wales and my assistant said the first fitting here and in walked Ken Colley. We did five films together after that.
How do you reflect on the Star Wars roles now?
To me it was all something of nothing. I hadn’t seen A New Hope, but I heard about all of the staffing problems. I saw it years later; everybody I knew on the film wasn’t sure if they were going to be able to finish it.
Return of the Jedi was my last time officially on camera, the problem with Star Wars is you say the same things to the same crowd (at conventions). I’ve never cared less, I’m shamelessly indiscreet I’ll tell all ha-ha! I understand it from the fans point of view but not the actors. Most of the actors even in principle parts only did a few days. I appeared in other films where I was there beginning to end.
What part of the acting experience do you look back on most fondly?
I did a Quatermass film running around near Pinewood studios chanting “MMRAH” and waving my arms around with a poncho on and stripes of makeup as one of the ‘Planet people’. It was chronically bad but I remember thinking, I am getting paid £130 a day for this ha-ha, send us off chanting again I couldn’t give a shit… “MMRAH”!
On American Werewolf in London, five in the morning we were on a street corner and two minibuses turned up. The first bus was a press pack, sound recorder, hair, and make-up and in the second we were just photobombing London, film a bit, jump back in. I had nothing to do except be in the main Trafalgar Square scene where he transforms into a wolf. We were supposed to keep our eyes out for the police as we weren’t supposed to be there! I had floppy hair in the rain, a policeman is walking up in character but there were two real policemen coming and I’m trying to alert the crew, but we got stopped and threatened with fines. The camera is rolling all this time and I’m at the back laughing while the wolf is changing, and it stayed in the film ha-ha!
You mentioned that following on from all of your acting roles you started working in costume departments and your family was skilled at that, was that a natural progression?
Yes it was, I wanted a change of career. I’d worked in the film industry for so long at that point and I felt I was ready to do it. You had to be the member of a union and belong to a specific branch and getting into those was incredibly difficult. That’s why I ended up at the National Theatre to do my City and Guilds exam, I had to apprentice myself to a tailor. I ended up with a guy who was head of cutting, I was with him for three weeks until he dropped dead of a heart attack. I immediately had to take over. I stayed long enough to get my ticket and I left to do Giro City with Glenda Jackson and Ken Colley in 1982.
I got to the end of the film and then was doing one after another back to back, I was abroad a lot as I spoke foreign languages. The longer I was in the business the bigger the films got and the bigger the wardrobes became. One of the biggest films I did was Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Ronin with Robert De Niro but I was more known for the period pieces. I got paid a fortune for those too, my bank manager loved it!
Fantastic that you were involved in Santa Claus – The Movie by the way, superb film! My childhood thanks you for that…
Yes! I was called by a guy called Pat, lovely old fella. His sidekick was called Minnie, they said they wanted me to do some bits and pieces. When I started they said, “We’ve got 112 dwarves or short people” and I said, “OK…what do you mean short people?”. They explained the principle actor, Dudley Moore is four foot eight so they are shorter than him, we looked at each other… let’s just say there were some stories about this in Hollywood. There were 112 of them…and they also said that Dudley Moore wanted me to be his personal dresser. How can I do that? Ha-ha! Dudley Moore was absolutely wonderful; we became good friends. I was his personal makeup artist, a witness at his last wedding and I got his son out of jail ha-ha! He and I spent weekends in Paris together, so that he could avoid UK tax! I enjoyed that side of the business immensely.
Quite a story Alan! What’s next for you?
I have nothing on the cards, the last thing I did was make a brass crown for a film. One day, I’ll get around to writing all of this up and I’ll be another Yolanda Donlan to shake the stars down!
With that, we end a thoroughly enjoyable interview! Alan accepts autograph requests for £15 (plus postage) on photographs of him as a Stormtrooper and Imperial Officer, you can check those out by clicking here.
Did you enjoy reading this interview? Check out the Star Wars story of Richard Cunningham who appeared as an Imperial Officer also in Rogue One by clicking here.
Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.