Queen Productions: Simon Lupton Interview
How did you first get involved with the Queen set up?
Well, about 10 years ago I was a producer working for the Comedy department at the BBC. I’d met a writer called Rhys Thomas and we discovered we had quite a bit in common – we both think Harrison Ford is a legend, and we both love Queen. We were making a sitcom together called “Fun at The Funeral Parlour” for BBC3 (in which we managed to squeeze in a fair few Queen references) and when we were making the second series we decided to ask if Brian would record the theme tune for us. Anita Dobson had guest starred in the show, and I think she must have put in a good word for us because amazingly, and to be honest to our complete surprise, he said yes. The evening we spent in his studio, watching him record the tune for our show on the Red Special, was a wonderful experience. At the same time EMI and Queen had decided it was time to start releasing DVD’s, and Rhys and I made some suggestions as to what kind of thing we’d like to see released. Brian seemed to like the ideas and sent us to meet Jim Beach and then Roger. Before we knew it we had been commissioned to work with the Queen Productions team to produce Greatest Video Hits 1 and the rest is history…
Had you always been a fan of the band?
Absolutely. When I was five someone gave me a copy of “Somebody To Love”, it grew from there and the first album I bought with my own money was “Flash”. But it wasn’t until my teens that I really started collecting the albums in earnest. It’s an amazing journey isn’t it when you discover and explore that back catalogue! I was a member of the fan club and one particular memory is going to the convention at Camber Sands and being amongst the first to listen to The Miracle album and see the I Want It All video. Having waited so long after Magic, it felt like the band were back with a massive bang, and that feeling has stayed with me ever since.
As part of the 40th Anniversary you have been working on a new BBC documentary, how long has that taken and what was the process in putting that together?
The actual production of the documentary has only been over the last 6 months or so, but this is a project that’s been about 7 years in the planning. When Rhys and I started working with the band, we were given total access to the film/video archive – which is big! Obviously much of it was well documented, but we were surprised at how many cans of film or tape there were that simply had “Queen” written on them, with no indication what was on it. So Jim Beach gave us the go ahead to start viewing everything - restoring and preserving where necessary. Subsequently, together with Greg, we’ve got the archive into a much more manageable beast. Along the way we uncovered some really remarkable footage, and so I started asking Jim if we could pull together a new documentary about the band – with this footage enabling us to show just how fantastic they were at every stage of their career. To make it really work, we needed Brian and Roger to be heavily involved because we wanted it to be their story, not our interpretation of it. With so much going on (other DVD releases, the Musical and of course the work with Paul Rodgers) we never managed to make the time for it. Then last year, I asked Jim once again and this time it all fell into place. So Rhys and I drew up the storyline, and then we were joined by a top documentary Director called Matt O’Casey. BBC2 commissioned it, and we started filming the interviews, sourcing the footage, and so on. It’s been full on ever since, and as I write with 6 days to go until transmission….it’s still not quite finished yet!
You really dug deep with interviews and footage on documentary, is this the definitive visual document on the Queen story?
That was certainly our ambition, and it is a very comprehensive look at the history of the band. As I mentioned earlier, we wanted it to be the authentic band’s story, told by them or the people who were there. Brian and Roger spoke incredibly intimately and, as you’d expect, very intelligently about what it was like. I honestly don’t think I’ve heard them talk that openly before. I think there are plenty of surprises and revelations in there for the Queen fan, but hopefully even people who aren’t really that into the band will find it fascinating and maybe view them with renewed interest. It’s a two hour piece which is substantial, but even then we had to leave bits out as there wasn’t time, so whether we’ve actually managed to make the definitive documentary or not is, I believe, for others to judge.
Do you give Queen Productions ideas on what to release or do they come to you with the title of the releases?
It’s a bit of both to be honest. In a lot of cases it’s really obvious what needs doing – such as Greatest Video Hits 1 and Live at Wembley 86 being the first releases on DVD. Similarly, an opportunity might present itself in line with an anniversary, or if the band go on tour as they did with Paul Rodgers! Often, though, I’ll sit with Greg and Justin and we’ll talk about what footage we’ve got, what sound masters are available and we’ll suggest possible packages. We have regular meetings with the Queen team where these ideas get discussed. Of course when you work for something as big as Queen, there are lots of factors determining what actually gets produced and when. The great news is, there are plenty of ideas as to what we could do, and a great appetite from the fans for more archive concerts.
With all releases you work on, do you have input from the band all the way through or do you deliver your edits and then take notes on their feedback in one go?
The band are very much there all the way. Clearly they don’t have the time to be on hand every minute of the process, and it’s a wonderful feeling when you know you have their trust to get on with it. Yet, they’ll be there at the key moments, from the initial ideas, throughout production to final sign off. They care very deeply about their product, and you can see that the people that work with them do also. The attention to detail and demand for quality is one of the things that attracted me to Queen in the first place, and that ethos is still very much alive today. Having their input is invaluable, and it’s great that they make the time to engage with everything that’s going on.
What sort of problems might you come up against when working on archive footage releases?
When you’re dealing with material that’s up to 40 years old, there are plenty of challenges in viewing and restoring it. There’s a large portion of the archive that was recorded on 2 inch video tape for example, and there are only a few players left in the world, and even fewer people who know how to operate one! We managed to transfer it all though. Sometimes we’ll come across a piece of footage that we know is Queen – but have no idea where it’s from. That can cause quite a lot of debate as we turn detective and talk to experts to try and identify what it might be. Fortunately, the band changed their look often enough to enable us to narrow it down quite quickly. The biggest frustration is hearing about “lost” footage that you know exists, but can’t quite track down. We came close to a couple of gems for the documentary that eluded us – maybe next time!
What has been your favourite release to have worked on?
This documentary has very much been a dream come true. I think it would be hard to top this in terms of the creative experience. So I’m afraid I’m going to duck this question and refuse to pick a favorite. When you’re dealing with such great music and such powerful performers, it’s impossible to choose one over the other. That said, Wembley 86 was a pretty special gig wasn’t it…
One of the most enjoyable things must be to sit down with Brian and Roger and interview them for each project...
I know I’m very lucky to be able to sit down and interview them. If you’d told that teenager watching I Want It All at Camber Sands all those years ago that he’d be doing so, he wouldn’t have dared believe it. For these documentaries, we got to conduct really in depth interviews about every aspect of their careers, which was an amazing experience. It’s a very difficult thing for them to do I suspect, but they always do so with great wit and intelligence. It does have its downsides though - we also had to talk about some topics that clearly they’d rather not go over again, and it wasn’t much fun taking them through that. To their credit, they didn’t shy away from it and you’ll see in the films that they get very passionate. Fortunately, the laughs far outweigh the lows, and they are both so experienced at being interviewed that they make it very easy to chat to them.
Did you ever see Queen live?
Without doubt, my biggest regret is that I didn’t. I didn’t get an opportunity to see them before 1986, and after my sister and aunt came home from Knebworth raving about it, I promised myself the next time they toured I’d go. So it wasn’t to be. I went to see Brian on both his solo tours, and of course both the Queen + Paul Rodgers tours and they have been amazing experiences which I’ve loved. But everyone tells me how extraordinary the band was with Freddie, and although I’ve seen it many times on film I am really sad I didn’t get to see that for myself. That said, I’ve got plenty of Queen related memories that make up for it.
Is there any footage that you have come across in the archive that you would really like on work and get released?
Oh yes. Plenty. A Live Killers package would be amazing to work on for starters. I’ve been very impressed by the new friends we’re making at Universal, who seem full of energy and enthusiasm, so hopefully we’ll be able to put some of the ideas we’ve got into action soon.
Are there any other artist that you would like to work with in a similar capacity?
Not really. There are other bands I like, but none quite on the scale of Queen. I think to do real justice to a legacy like this you’ve really got to care about it and I don’t feel that level of passion for any other artist. Plus, Rhys and I are also Comedy Producers, and so that alongside Queen is more than enough to keep us occupied.
Apart from Queen, who else are you a fan of?
I’m a bit of a one band person. Genuinely Queen do give me everything I need from music. There are other musicians that I admire, but I tend to just pick out certain songs or particular albums. When I do go to concerts, I prefer to go to ones where there are a number of acts on the bill. I’m content to be a grumpy middle aged man who moans that current music isn’t a patch on the good old days. I’m waiting for my kids to get old enough to introduce me to all the young peoples music - then I’ll get into that and ruin it because their Dad listens to it.
What is your favourite Queen album and why?
Save the toughest question until last why don’t you? It changes regularly, and often depends what sort of mood I’m in. Plus, as soon as you start picking one, you feel bad about leaving out all the other great albums! I’ve always liked Sheer Heart Attack, and Innuendo was a special one personally. Interestingly though, the album I’ve reassessed while making this documentary is A Day At The Races. I’ve always held it in high regard, but when talking to Brian and Roger about it, and learning more about what the band was like at the time they made it, I’ve realised what a joyous, uplifting album it actually is. It’s got everything that make Queen stand out from the rest, and I never tire of listening to songs such as “Somebody To Love”. It’s 35 years old, but still sounds as good as anything around today.
That said, ask me again next month and I’ll probably pick a different one…
Queen: Days Of Our Lives is broadcast in the UK on BBC2 on May 29th and 30th.
Click here for full details.