Interview: Tony Klinger

The son of the producer of the classic British gangster movie owns up to his big mistake about its leading man.


Caine in  a scene from Get Carter shot on a bridge over the River Tyne.

Caine in a scene from Get Carter shot on a bridge over the River Tyne.

Many children of illustrious fathers hesitate before following their parent's career footsteps, but for Tony Klinger, son of film producer Michael Klinger, it happened the other way around.

Klinger decided at the age of nine that he wanted to be a film-maker and was furious that his father, who came from an engineering background, changed career in middle-age to become a cinema-owner and, later, a film-maker himself.

However, Klinger eventually made up with his father and participated with him in the making of one the seminal films of the '70s - Get Carter, starring Michael Caine as a gangster who heads north to Newcastle to settle scores.

Klinger says: "My dad was an inventor. He came up with a machine to test bombs without blowing them up, which was a vital breakthrough in the war. But because he was a government employee, he didn't make any money out of it - he got a six shilling pay increase."

Klinger with the star

Klinger with the star

Klinger the elder was desperate to make money. He worked for a while in East End markets until one day he was offered the chance to invest in a Soho cinema. He took it but soon realised that the major film distributors had a stranglehold over distribution. So he began to make movies he could show in his growing cinema chain - at first naturist romps, but later serious feature films including, in 1971, Get Carter.

Which is where son Tony comes in. Equally as ambitious as his father, he was already making films - in fact a feature called Extremes won a prize at the 1971 London Film Festival. But he was curious enough to become involved in Get Carter, notably in scouting locations. He found the flat used to film Carter's meeting with London gangsters. It did not, he recalls, take a great leap of the imagination. "That wasn't a set, it was an actual flat belonging to a real Jewish gangster. I didn't know anything about him but I was dating his niece and we spent some time there together. I said to her one day that I could imagine this being the flat of a real gangster. She said: 'Have you met Uncle Tony?'"

Klinger also helped scout some of the iconic Newcastle locations. He says: "I made suggestions. There were locations that anyone would have spotted, like the rows of back-to-back houses which led down to the River Tyne where we filmed a scene."

So why was the film such a huge hit? "It sums up an era and a place, a change of thinking, politics and culture. Some of it was good judgement but of course a lot of it was the luck to be making the right film at the right time."

Klinger feels that Caine's role as Carter was one of the greatest of his career. However, he recalls with a giggle that he was not so sure at the time. "I thought Caine was totally wrong for the part. As it turns out it was me who was totally wrong - he was wonderful. And the reason he was wonderful was because he was exactly how those guys are."

Klinger made his own reputation during the 1970s. He made pop promo films, the forerunners of pop videos. He was invited to make longer films with Deep Purple and The Who, with whom he made The Kids Are Alright, which was a huge hit in the United States. He recalls: "Imagine you're a rock fan and you've got probably the best live rock band in the world in the studio, and they are saying to you: 'What shall we play next?' It was so exciting." Notwithstanding the excitement, the experience also had a nightmarish element. "There were huge egos involved. We had terrible fights. I think I resigned about 12 times but I kept coming back because I was under contract."

Klinger has decided to revisit these films. He has filmed a documentary about the making of Get Carter, featuring interviews with Michael Caine, due for release later this year. And he has written a book about the making of The Kids are Alright called Twilight of the Gods.

He has also spent a decade making a documentary called Full Circle about a near-forgotten tragedy, the sinking of the Israeli submarine, INS Dakar.

Klinger was only dimly aware of the story until meeting his daughter's fiancé, Arnon, whose father Dan was on the doomed sub which set sail from Portsmouth in 1968 but never reached its destination of Haifa. The sinking remained a mystery for many years, but Klinger accompanied his son-in-law on the mission which eventually recovered the sub from the Mediterranean. "I became passionate about the project. Arnon never knew his dad and I wanted to find out what happened to him."

It is not the only shipping mystery he has been involved with recently. In a story which illustrates the fanaticism of Get Carter devotees, Klinger recalls being approached at a book signing.

"He said to me: 'Do you know what happened to the ship?' I said: 'What ship'? It turned out he was talking about the ship in the background when Carter was shot at the end of the film. He and his friends tracked it around the world and discovered that it was de-commissioned in 1995 or something. They're completely mad."

    Last updated: 9:52am, July 14 2011