First Night Nerves

The Road to Sparta: movie poster (first relIt was inevitable there would be a few nerves. After two and a half years of hard work, The Road to Sparta was going in front of an audience for the first time. It was a relatively friendly crowd as we had chosen the Adventure Film Festival in Athens for the premier; these were people who were tuned in to extreme sports but there were nerves nonetheless.

Would this gathering of hardcore extreme sporty types go for a film which holds its shots and breaks into the contemporary narrative of four runners battling to complete the Spartathlon with a series of sonnets?

“Poetry, dammit, in a running film? What’s that about? And don’t get me started on the music…”

So yes. Nerves.


It wasn’t the first First Night that my co-director Roddy Gibson and I had shared. That would have been sometime around December 1982 when we were at university in Dublin. I played the part of Aladdin in a scurrilous pantomime that Roddy had written with his two old schoolfriends Graham Pasley and Stanley Townsend.

Quentin Letts backstage during Declan Hughes’ 1983 production of Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance. He was playing the role of the Mayor (Photo: Barney Spender)
Darragh Kelly backstage during Declan Hughes' production of The Duchess of Malfi, DU Players 1984 (Photo: Barney Spender)
Darragh Kelly backstage during Declan Hughes’ production of The Duchess of Malfi, DU Players 1984 (Photo: Barney Spender)

It featured such luminaries as Pauline McLynn, Darragh Kelly, (future Booker Prize winner) Anne Enright and “Mother Goose” Lynne Parker, all big noises today in the theatre, literary and telly world.  Quentin Letts, now a very respectable parliamentary sketch-writer for the Daily Mail, may have done something interesting with a carrot. As I recall my role largely consisted of vigorously rubbing a silver teapot while singing a smutty version of Down at The Old Bull and Bush.

For the next three years we worked on many productions together in Players. Occasionally we shared a stage – my Cardinal Inquisitor sparred sneeringly with his measured Galileo – but most often it was in the making of the play. Roddy was and still is a Master Carpenter so he was inevitably tasked with building the sets. I tagged along as the Carpenter’s Mate. Or perhaps that should realistically be: carpenter’s mate.

This would involve fetching nails, dropping nails, looking for nails; a lot of my work seemed to involve nails. And paint. And changing the music up in the sound booth.

There was a lot of Tom Waits (Blue Valentine and The Piano has been Drinking) and, when we were feeling very silly at about three in the morning, an album of traditional Danish folk songs. This was the cue for a break from the work and some semi-crazed thigh-slapping Morris-style dancing in the middle of the stage.  And a lot of giggling. Did I mention that a few beers were usually taken during the course of the set-building?

Sometimes stout was called upon to relieve the stress of studenthood. Roddy Gibson (right) and Barney Spender (centre) joined by Donald Clarrke in Maynooth 1985 (Photo: Barney Spender)
Sometimes stout was called upon to relieve the stress of studenthood. Roddy Gibson (right) and Barney Spender (centre) joined by Donald Clarrke in Maynooth 1985 (Photo: Barney Spender)

Sometimes these would be all-nighters. Beyond the beer and the silly dancing there were spells of silence and spells of talk. About Things. Things that 20 year-olds want to talk about but often don’t because they don’t want to look daft.

Going through the night builds a trust and an intimacy; something we rediscovered not just with each other but with other members of our crew when we finally got to shoot The Road to Sparta in September 2014.

The high point of Roddy’s carpentry skills was the construction of the serving hatch for my 1984 Dublin Theatre Festival production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, featuring John O’Brien, another who has since built a career in theatre, and a fellow called David Taylor, nicknamed The Professor. Actually, this wasn’t really a nickname but a title. He was a professor; something clever in science or engineering. He could act too and quaff stout and tell funny stories. He was all right, The Professor.

The dumb waiter was wonderfully concealed behind wallpaper of fading newspapers which had to be replaced after every performance. And it was extra heavy which meant that when it first comes into play and slams down, the audience and the actors actually leapt in surprise.

midnight-court-4 midnight-court-2 Our last collaboration, though, and our last First Night had been in December 1987 when we helped another old university friend Mary McGuckian stage her version of Thomas Merriman’s The Midnight Court in an old biscuit factory in London’s Docklands. Roddy was again in charge of sets. This time it was a whopper and he needed more help and I was delighted that it wasn’t just me groveling around the floor looking for nails.

“Oy Geno! Stop feckin’ dropping nails!” would come the cry.

“Sorry man,” came the reply from a crest-fallen Kevin Rowland who had been roped in to help by Mary, his girlfriend at the time.

Kevin also helped us to strike the set at the end of the run, after which we drank beer together at the cast party. This was not his happiest period musically. He had had great success with Dexy’s but they had split and he was something of a forgotten man. I loved that he was so humble about what he had achieved; as far as he was concerned he was just one of the lads working back stage. And when it was his turn to fetch a beer, he went. I love that he found his muse again and reclaimed his place at the top table.



spartathlon-signAnd so fast forward 29 years. Where did they go? Well, Rod went into film-making and I went into journalism. Now our two paths had come together again to make The Road to Sparta.

This was no coincidence. It was as much a time of life thing as anything else. In 2012, Roddy’s great friend Graham Pasley died of a heart attack at the age of 50. In February 2014, our mutual friend Dessie Kirkpatrick  died suddenly from a cancer which hadn’t even been diagnosed a week earlier.

Dessie’s funeral at Golders Green cemetery in London brought together many of our old friends from Trinity. Amid the mourning, there was also much laughter and remembrance of times and collaborations past; a realisation that in this room were some of our favourite people in the world.

During Dessie’s funeral, I realised two things. One was that we were now at an age where putting stuff off was a risk. Graham and Dessie both died suddenly and way too young. That could happen to any of us so if we wanted to do things it was best to do them now. Or as my wife said: “Barney, either make this film or shut the f*** up about it!”

The second thing I realised was that in order to make The Road to Sparta happen, I had to have Roddy at my side. I knew the story and the overview of what I wanted; Roddy had a camera and, more important, faith.

He was certainly impressed by the core idea.

Rob Pinnington feeling the pain during the Spartathlon (Photo: The Road to Sparta)
Rob Pinnington feeling the pain during the Spartathlon (Photo: The Road to Sparta)

“So what is this Spartathlon?”

“Well, it is an ultra-marathon…246 kilometres.”

“Hold on, 246 kilometres? That’s about 150 miles…”

“Yes, it’s six marathons…back-to-back.”


“Yes, they have to run it in 36 hours…”

“…that’s feckin’ mental.”

He was impressed by the race but still needed some persuading; my ability to sum up The Road to Sparta in a nutshell , known as my “pitch” in the biz, was less than convincing.

“Well, Roddy, it is a film about running but it isn’t a running film. It isn’t a sports film… Well, it is but it isn’t… I don’t want it to be about who wins the race… It is more than that… It is about dreams and history and beauty and trying to achieve the seemingly impossible…I can already hear it.”

I know. You can’t hear a film. Except when you come from a radio background and you already know who is going to be writing the music for the film.

He still wasn’t convinced until about one month before the 2014 Spartathlon. We were with our families at the Green Man Festival, lying back on the grass and taking in some gorgeous Welsh summer sunshine.

The directors at work. Roddy gets to grips with the camera while Barney considers lunch (Photo: Magda Gouma)
The directors at work. Roddy gets to grips with the camera while Barney considers lunch (Photo: Magda Gouma)

“Rod. What is the worst that can happen? We go and make a 20-minute film and have a great week working together in Greece. Beer, sunshine …  It’s not that bad.“

And so Roddy joined me on the road to Sparta.

And he was conquered. From the moment the race started in the arc lights under the Acropolis in Athens,  it stopped being “A Film by Barney Spender” and became “A film by Barney Spender and Roddy Gibson”.

A true collaboration which grew outwards. Roddy brought in one of his ex-students at Middlesex University, Marius Ulevicius, to operate the second camera. Later his Middlesex colleague Béatrice Herraiz joined the team to create the maps which play such an important part in the journey.

The RTS crew in Sparta: Standing Marius, Roddy, Barney. Seated: Tryfon, Andreas, Vasilios (Photo: Marius Ulevicius, 2014)
The RTS crew in Sparta: Standing Marius, Roddy, Barney. Seated: Andreas, Tryfon, Vasilios (Photo: Marius Ulevicius, 2014)

I had already booked in Tryfon and Andreas from Old House Playground to come out for the shoot; their task was to write a score for the film. They responded by bringing a guitar and djembe with them and composing on the road; sometimes literally on the road.

Occasionally they would disappear into a secluded olive grove; most usually they would create in the back of the van. Clive Martin had agreed to produce the music which, given that he twiddled the knobs when David Byrne was putting together his part of the Oscar-winning soundtrack for The Last Emperor, was a massive bonus. Clive knew about music in film.

A year later, in the summer of 2015, Alicia Stallings agreed to come on board as well. Alicia is a poet of distinction, a classicist who understands ancient and modern Greece. We needed a lyrical way of depicting the story of Pheidippides, and she responded with a wonderful series of sonnets. Manos Arvanitis joined us for a dawn shoot at Marathon Bay when Roddy and I went back  to do some pick-ups; another memorable week that led to Roddy’s first encounter with tear gas. Manos is a part of the team as the artist behind the poster.

Ownership of The Road to Sparta had gone way beyond Spender and Gibson.

So, why the First Night nerves?

I suppose it comes down to responsibility. To everyone who has contributed – the runners, the race, the artists, our families, the crowd-funders, the exec producers Jimmy and Tom who had backed the project from the start. Responsibility to Greece as well. We were showing the light and the dark. In some ways it is a love-letter to a very conflicted country.

Nervous also because Rod had sweated buckets in the previous two weeks to complete the colour correction and the audio dub. The film was effectively finished on Thursday, three days before the screening. I had not seen the corrected film; my first viewing was with the audience in Athens.


rts-prem-1Roddy arrived in Athens at 4am Sunday morning, a couple of hours after me. We had about three hours sleep before clambering out and heading off to Athens College. We were met by Christos and his wonderful electric hair. He and Roddy disappeared into the control room to fix the sub-titles while I chilled in the October sun, thinking about how to introduce the film to the audience. If there was an audience.

And then a surge of excitement as I stepped into an empty theatre. The film was running. It looked stunning on the big screen, the music better than before as it boomed from each side of the stage. Nervousness gave way to excitement.

As the morning progressed, people turned up, including two of our runners, Rob Pinnington and Angela Terzi. Sadly, Mark Woolley couldn’t make it over from Spain while Dean Karanazes was tied up back in California.

That word responsibility came back. I hoped we had treated all of our subjects responsibly.

When you run a race of 246 kilometres, you are stripped bare. There is no hiding place. A man with a camera can capture that. And that gives him a power. And a responsibility. You don’t want to hide anything but you don’t want to abuse the trust that these runners place in you.

Another responsibility: we heard that morning of the death of John Foden, the man who had proved that a runner could leave Athens and arrive in Sparta “the next day”, as Herodotus had claimed of Pheippides. Without Foden there would probably not be a Spartathlion. And without Spartathlon there would be no film. We all stand in John Foden’s debt.

All smiles after the screening: L-R: Barney, Manos, Rob (not in training), Angie, Vicki Karpouzi, Roddy, Magda Gouma (Photo: Nick Petalas)
All smiles after the screening: L-R: Barney, Manos, Rob (not in training), Angie, Vicki Karpouzi, Roddy, Magda Gouma (Photo: Nick Petalas)

When the time came, just about everything went according to plan. Roddy and I introduced the film, Kostis Papadimitriou, the president of the International Spartathlon Association, gave a short tribute to John Foden, and then we settled back into our seats.

It is an incredible feeling to watch your own creation appear up there on the big screen. Even more astonishing is the sound of the audience reacting; laughing at the funny moments, audibly whincing at the more unpleasant. And clapping and cheering at the end…what was that about?

Everyone was very kind about the way we had treated the race and Greece and the runners. Especially the runners.  Of all the comments that came our way, none meant more than those from Rob and Angie, two of the four that agreed to be filmed as they went through the seven circles of hell.

“You did it lads,” said Rob, giving us both great bear hugs. “You did it. That is what it is like to run the Spartathlon.”

Angie looked a little shaken by the film.

“It was very emotional,” she explained.

“I had forgotten so much of what went on. It all came back. And I love how you got inside the runners’ heads. The voices, so many voices. That is what it was like.”

A successful first outing which now means a year out on the festival circuit. We hope to get The Road to Sparta to every continent in the next 12 months so if you know a friendly festival…And in the meantime, I have to put my producer’s hat back on and try to sell the bugger to television. Never done that before so it could be interesting. Then there is the question of the soundtrack album. Not to mention tee-shirts, hoodies, hats and so on. And DVDs, of course. So much to do, so little time.

A great collaboration (Photo: Roddy Gibson)
A great collaboration (Photo: Roddy Gibson)

That lies in the future; in the present lay the question of celebrating the First Night. And we did okay there; in good Greek fashion, lunch rolled into evening and a trip to the pub. It was a memorable night. At least I think it was; made more memorable by my alarum waking me in Exarchia on Monday morning at 08.30 … just as my flight to Paris was taxiing up the runway of Athens airport.

No plane. Never mind. It’s Athens.

Better walk.

Or run.

©Barney Spender 2016

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