Malta Diary, Pop up to Popeye Village – film set for the 1980 musical “Popeye”
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Malta has long been establishing itself as The Bollywood of the Mediterranean with an ever-increasing number of film and television sets choosing the island as the ideal location for their filming. Decisive in their choice are mainly clear blue skies and blue seas, styles of buildings, technologically updated and fully equipped film studios as well a wealth of engineers, technicians, carpenters and costume makers together with a corps of versatile actors ideal for secondary and tertiary roles – and of course excellence in the English language helps.
One of the more memorable productions stretches back to 1980 when Robert Altman decided Malta was the ideal location for him to direct the musical “Popeye”, that loveable spinach-munching cartoon character and his eternal rivalry with the bully Blutto and their intentions to woo the wispy-eyed and elusive Olive Oyl – impressed by strong-arm Blutto but then finally overwhelmed by the stronger sailor Popeye once he crunches his tin of spinach!
The role of Popeye went to the famed actor Robin Williams whose looks and chin very much resembled the cartoon-image sailor with Shelly Duvall taking the part of Olive Oyl, with Paramount Pictures handling US distribution and Buena Vista International dealing with the international distribution.
The film premiered on 6th December 1980 in Los Angeles and received mixed reviews and generally disappointing box office results but proved to be an attractive advertisement for Malta. Sadly too, Robin Williams passed away in 2014.
However, the legacy of the film remains very much alive in Malta. As his film set, Altman chose the charming and sheltered Anchor Bay in the northern part of Malta, a short distance away from the better known Mellieha Bay.
Much work had to be done before the actual filming commenced. An authentic wooden village had to be constructed in a sheltered corner of the bay and the construction lasted for the last seven months of 1979. Tree trunk loads were brought over by road and sea from Holland and the wood shingles for the roof tops had to be brought from Canada.
An international crew of 165 tradesmen made up the construction crew and utilised no less than eight tons of nails and two thousand gallons of paint.
However, even before the 20 wooden huts could be built there were two other necessities. An access road had to be constructed for access to the set and a 250 foot breakwater had to be built at the mouth of the bay to provide a shield from inclement seas.
The actual filming started on 23rd January in 1980.
After all the work and expense that was put in, disappointingly the film had low box office returns and probably resulted in an overall financial loss.
Ultimately, the overall beneficent is Malta because the small wooden village has retained intact and revamped a number of times and proved to be extremely popular with visiting tourists who still flock there daily.
Locally, it is hired out for parties – mainly children’s birthday parties, but it is also a wedding venue and cocktail party venue.
Who knows, maybe Robin Williams’ ghost still ambles through the streets at night and occasionally one may glimpse Popeye munching into his can of spinach and making eyes at his beloved Olive Oyl.
“Better to be hungry than to be in debt”
An expression from the time when being in debt was almost viewed as a sin! No credit cards then … no bank loans … just a shame of being a debtor and ending up in a Debtors’ Prison, Charles Dickens style!