A late-night bar in West London, summer 2013 - The Paradise by way of Kensal Rise. My friend, film director and musician, Roger Pomphrey, is treating the packed room to his trademark soaring blues guitar, a weekly ritual he greatly enjoyed. On this occasion the renowned guitarist has realised that his makeshift band’s vocalist has vacated the stage leaving the microphone free while his fellow musicians swing into a slinky down-tempo groove. Undeterred, Roger takes up the lead vocal slot – not something he was in the habit of – as he preferred to let his guitar do the not-so-gentle weeping. He was to further surprise the enthusiastic throng, most of which were well-accustomed to his musical talents: instead of singing, he treated the audience to a wry and funny improvised rap, which detailed insightfully and succinctly, the social injustices wrought by the current coalition government; his expressive guitar licks creating angry, spiralling spider’s webs to accentuate and underscore each point. Much of the power in this performance arose from the incongruity. Roger didn’t possess a rapper’s vocal authority and timbre – his voice was more English in the mode of Ray Davies than Chuck D – but it was all the more affecting for it. He brought the house down.
This potent mix of music, oppositional politics and caustic humour was a key aspect of his character. This was, after all, a man who had been an integral part of the infamous Warwick Castle Group, a loose agit-prop collective that included Joe Strummer and Keith Allen in its ranks, and named after the Portobello Road pub in which they met, planned and schemed, agitating against, among other things, the gentrification of that famous London street and the corporatisation of an area with a rich and healthy history of cultural, political, and of course, musical dissent.
Indeed, while struggling with the liver cancer that eventually took his life in King’s College Hospital, Roger – or Dodge as he was known to his friends – was required to undertake an interview, a routine procedure for patients in his condition. One of the stock questions on this questionnaire (no doubt designed to assess the patient’s mental, as well as physical, welfare) was, ‘are you confused? ’ He nodded ruefully, all faux solemnity and Bambi-eyed. When asked to qualify his answer by the nurse, her pen poised in readiness, he responded in typical Dodge fashion with a twinkle in his eye: ‘Yeah, I’m confused... How come one per cent of people have all the wealth and the rest of us – the 99 - are left scrambling around in the dirt trying to make a living?’ And swapping politics for the surreal, he added … ‘And volcanoes, how deep do they go? How close can you get without being incinerated?’ He even managed to convince the nursing staff that a group of close musician friends were going to have a band practice in his room, replete with drum kit and amplifiers, but assured them that ‘we’ll keep the volume down and be sure to finish early’. This good, yet penetrating humour, along with his generosity towards others, stayed with him right up to the end. Exhausted as he undoubtedly was by his illness, Roger made sure each and every one of the many visitors who congregated around his hospital bed had nothing less than his full attention, charm and wit.
Roger was born to Fred and Audrey in Fishponds, Bristol where his father had a heating engineering business. He was the middle of three brothers, Rick and Chris, with an older sister, Elaine. As a teenager he showed exceptional promise as a guitarist and, with his brothers, would experiment with elaborate, highly-improvised sound-systems in the family home and garden, much in the spirit of the sonic explorations of his beloved Jimi Hendrix, and a desire to push what was possible with the instrument.
Indeed, pushing boundaries, taking risks and restless experimentation were to mark his life and his work. He attended Alexandra Park Secondary Modern in the Fishponds area but left school without sitting any exams, determined to pursue artistic, rather than academic avenues; although he was in no sense anti-academic, and was an avid reader (WW2 military history being a particular favourite), had a fond appreciation of good cinema, and possessed of tremendous intellectual energy and curiosity. He quit a job as a lathe operator in his native Bristol and decamped to the US for a period in 1976 which reinforced his love of west coast rock: The Eagles, Santana, but especially Little Feat, whose song ‘Willin’ he performed particularly beautifully.
Roger came to some kind of public prominence as a guitarist with Eurythmics, co-writing two songs on the band’s debut album, 1981’s In the Garden. This underrated record featured Kraftwerk producer, Conny Plank, and members of legendary German band Can - Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit – and Blondie drummer, Clem Burke, and is musically noteworthy for its novel hybrid of English pop and Kraut Rock rhythms (although it performed relatively poorly in commercial terms). The album demonstrates that Roger’s considerable guitar-playing abilities extended beyond the blues paradigm into a more experimental, post-punk realm. But he departed the group before their breakthrough to enter the world of filmmaking, and it is a director that he is most widely known.
He truly did personify the well-worn, if little lived, adage of ‘working your way up’ in the industry. He started out as transport captain on Mike Leigh’s feature film Meantime (1984), where he became firm friends with Tim Roth; to runner; to assistant director on Channel 4’s The Comic Strip Presents (1982- ) - an especially important period, as it was when he began his longstanding friendship with the Allen clan of Kevin, Keith and singer and goddaughter Lily – and on to directing.
Dodge directed the first video for friends, and fellow Bristolians, Massive Attack with 1990’s ‘Just a Matter of Time’ aka ‘Looking for Tricky’. This experimental short film, shot in grainy black and white, is redolent of David Lynch’s distinctive and noirish early work. It was to set an important aesthetic template for the pioneers of trip hop. ‘We are so sad to lose our friend, the great Roger Pomphrey’, Robert Del Naja of the seminal collective has said. ‘He was a lovely man and a brilliant filmmaker. He inspired us to treat each video opportunity as a movie-making experience and paved the way for collaborations with other great directors like Baillie Walsh, Jonathan Glazer and Walter Stern to name but a few. He will be greatly missed’.
Other important works about music followed. Among his triumphs, he directed what many aficionados regard as the finest film about Jimi Hendrix, The Making of Electric Ladyland, for the renowned Classic Albums series (1997). He also directed The Alchemists of Sound (2003) a documentary history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a programme revered for its rich and innovative photographic style; one that conveys the very distinctive, and quirky, world of that cultish collective. Who the Hell is Pete Doherty? (2005), follows the controversial singer at the height of his fame, graphically relaying the chaos surrounding Doherty and his entourage. For Channel 4 he directed a film series set in the US, Beyond the Groove (1990), produced by friend and former band mate, Dave Stewart. This episodic and idiosyncratic six film series featured appearances from Tom Petty; Eurythmics; Dr John; the Neville Brothers; the Womack family and Harry Dean Stanton amongst others.
While films about music formed the core of his work he was, by no means, reducible to this. Away from music, he directed the hugely popular, Three Men Go To Ireland (2009-10) with Dara O’Briain, Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath, and Whine Gums (2003), a series about performance poetry for the BBC which included kinetic routines from new and established figures in that world: from Murray Lachlan Young to Benjamin Zephaniah. Moreover, Roger had a flair for directing comedy – perhaps borne of his own distinctive and avuncular sense of humour – and the fourth session of the Armstrong and Miller series demonstrates his skill in the form. This versatility doesn’t stop here, however, and Roger has directed programmes on a whole variety of topics, from cookery to social injustice, such as ‘On Pain of Death’ (2005) for the Dispatches series.
The award-winning, Life, Death and Damien (2000), about Damien Hirst, is a particularly impressive part of Roger’s oeuvre in its innovative filming of the artist’s work, and is full of long, slow graceful tracking shots and painterly compositions which exemplify how music and rhythm informed his distinctive, and poetic, approach to visual style.
He was also a passionate and talented chef who enjoyed hosting elaborate feasts for friends and loved ones; even cooking each summer at a variety of music festivals (where he was known as ‘the camp chef’) for his close friend, the late Joe Strummer. The Six Nations rugby tournament was a particularly momentous occasion, as Roger, a fanatical rugby fan, would gather together a coterie of close mates around his large kitchen table. The ‘tradition’ on these occasions was to ‘eat the enemy’, and Dodge would cook up wonderful examples of the opposing nations’ cuisine. After food and sport he would DJ, cranking up his vintage Bang and Olufsen sound-system, selecting eclectically from his extensive record collection (all vinyl, of course). Roger especially loved playing guitar and strapping on his battered, yet cherished, Fender Stratocaster. In makeshift line-ups he was lucky enough throughout his life to have played alongside, and on occasion recorded with, some of the biggest names in rock and pop, including Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer, Bono and UB40. Or rather, I should say, they were lucky to have him. One such occasion he really loved, and where he could play with such key figures, was at the annual Gang Show at the Groucho Club in London’s Soho, where in many ways he was the house band.
All in all, Roger leaves behind an impressive body of work: over 400 films, television programmes, music videos and concert films (George Harrison; UB40; U2; Dusty Springfield; Simple Minds; Pet Shop Boys; PiL and many others). He even co-wrote Terence Trent D’Arby’s hit single, ‘Wishing Well’ (although, alas, he remains un-credited). Despite this impressive creative résumé, he was in no sense smug or self-satisfied. Rather, he often felt he’d under-achieved and frequently expressed an ambition to direct feature films for the cinema; and it is such a shame, both for him and for audiences, that he never got to do so. In the same vein, and to return to his improvised rap at the beginning, on departing the stage he came bounding over looking for reassurance concerned he might have made a fool of himself (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary), a sign that self-assurance sat alongside a healthy self-doubt, even self-deprecation. Roger was never an over-confident big ‘I am’.
But perhaps more importantly, he was a respected, hugely loved and widely known figure in his home area of Notting Hill, where every year since the late 1990s, as a local community fixture, he directed the star-studded Notting Hill Pantomime, a charitable event his name became synonymous with. He also freely donated his considerable and energetic directorial skills to Mick Jones’ Rotting Hill TV, a local community project-cum-television series featuring a host of artists from Alabama 3 to Beth Orton, with The Rotting Hill Gang as the house band. He even managed to perform on the series, playing guitar, and arranging, a sublime version of a song, that for obvious reasons if you knew his hair, could have been an ironic anthem for him: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ (well, he did cut his own hair, but it was never anything shorter than about a foot long). It is an arresting interpretation of the famous hippy anthem, and much of its power is down to a wonderful lead vocal from his close friend, Rob Alder. The two good mates were used to playing together regularly and the performance exemplifies how voice and guitar can expressively combine and trade off one another beautifully.
My regular Saturday stroll with him down Portobello Road was an enjoyable, if lengthy affair, as Roger – all cork-screw long greying hair, leather jacket (in various lurid colours), cowboy boots and boundless energy - stopped to swap stories with one and all (in fact, this stroll had a precursor: the young Dodge apparently used to be late home from school as his walk back took ages as he stopped off to visit, and talk to, numerous friends).
He even had a name for everyone: the local fishmonger on Ladbroke Grove was George the Fish; a friend’s over-enthusiastic girlfriend was simply named, Lovesick. Close mate and erstwhile collaborator, the respected cinematographer John de Borman, was dubbed the Guzzler, due to his warm-natured enthusiasm for the good life; Pete Chambers was, for some obscure season, Pete the Watch. In a similar vein, his local pub, The Cow, was rarely referred to by its given name, and was alternatively christened HQ or Repetition Inn (if he felt it was being inhabited too frequently).
Three close friends in the area, he formed into a little association/gang of sorts which he entitled, the Brethren of Numbskullian, even going so far as to have a crest and logo designed. The gang – which he sometimes simply referred to as ‘the boys’ - were drummer Kevin Petillo, who had the dubious honour of being ordained as Grandmaster of the makeshift lodge; Rob Alder was bequeathed the title of Good Doctor; and I, university lecturer and popular music historian, being lucky enough to be one of this ‘brotherhood of idiots’, was known as the Scribe - or less flatteringly, Scribbler. As academic titling played a part here, reciprocally, Roger, as alpha male and the most senior, was automatically, the Professor. How could he have been anything else? A title which we all felt was apt and earned.
The Professor’s last work was directing 2nd unit on the visually arresting feature film, Circus, set in Wales and directed by Kevin Allen: ‘He was a terrific, intuitive filmmaker with a great eye’, Kevin has said. ‘I couldn’t have completed the film without his fantastic contribution and companionship’.
Roger’s electric personality, big-heartedness and good humour were hugely loved and it is an understatement to say that he will be greatly missed. His funeral service, so beautifully and appositely narrated by Kevin Allen, was packed to capacity with people from all aspects of his life and drawn from different places and periods – Massive Attack; Tim Roth; Rhys Ifans; Keith and Lily Allen; and punk ‘aristocracy’, such as Mick Jones, Patti Palladin and Eddie Tenpole Tudor, amongst many others. While Roger loved the company of so-called ‘names’, he was certainly no name-dropper and valued just as much those, as he had put it, ‘fortunate enough not to be famous’. Whichever way, all who attended were united in their grief and love for this wonderful, generous, talented and funny human being. And while he didn’t suffer fools gladly, he always endeavoured to make everyone he befriended feel special.
Roger Peter Pomphrey, director and musician, born Bristol 11 January 1954. Died King’s College Hospital, London, 29 January 2014. Roger is survived by his former wife, Caroline Thomas; and son Tom; mother Audrey; sister Elaine and brothers, Rick and Chris.