A Bed of Nails

You might think that a life making props was just a bowl of cherries, and sometimes it was.

A bowl of cherries by Tim Dolby who painted many things for us including a Vermeer in four days for 'Lovejoy'.

A bowl of cherries by Tim Dolby who painted many things for us including a Vermeer in four days for ‘Lovejoy’.

A lot of the time it could be a bed of nails, but there is a trick to making yourself relatively comfortable, even on a bed of nails.

  • Blunt every nail slightly, taking off the fine point.
  • Equally space all the nails, not too far apart.
  • Make sure all the points are in the same plane, to create a flat surface.
  • Ease yourself gently onto the bed, keeping contact with as many nails as you can. The more nails you lie on the better, as it will spread the load. Lying on one 6” nail would be madness. Even lying on twenty would be slightly eccentric, make that seven hundred and twenty-six and it will be bearable. The weight on each nail would be just a little more than a bag of sugar. Even so this is not to be tried at home, or anywhere else.

    Relaxing on a bed of nails

    Relaxing on a bed of nails

What has all this got to do with prop making? This next bit should come with a tortuous metaphor alert. Most of the time making props is like lying on a relatively comfortable bed of nails. There are so many small problems that you get used to the constant pressure. Everyone works together to smooth things out, to make sure everything is either done on time, or that materials are in the workshop for others to work on.

Our diary ruled everything.

Our diary showing pages for July 1983 with Benny Hill  props and others.

Our diary showing pages for 19th July 1983 with Benny Hill props and others.

If it wasn’t in there, it didn’t get done. But with so many small problems, often one or two would become big ones. Like a nail sticking up much higher than its neighbours, a slight change could throw things off balance, cause a lot more pain than might be imagined. Here are a few things that could put us under pressure.

  • Bringing forward the date when something was needed.

We could not deliver a prop a day late or even an hour late when everyone was waiting at a studio costing hundreds of pounds a day, not to mention the cost of actors or presenters. Live shows were even worse.

  • Increasing the number required when we were well into the job.
  • Changing the specification – ‘Oh could you just make that a foot bigger?’
  • ‘Didn’t we tell you it needed to be fire retardant?’
  • ‘Can you just come in with the prop? Just in case it needs changing.’ And when you arrived at the Studio, ‘let’s just show this to the director.’ That could really put you under the cosh.
  • ‘The lorry has broken down. When did it need to be there?’
  • ‘I’m not feeling well. I can’t get in today.’
  • ‘When will you be reducing your overdraft?’
  • ‘I’m from the Health and Safety Executive.’
  • ‘Oh we stopped selling those a year ago.’
  • ‘I’m just going to work on a film.’ (Usually for more per hour than we could charge for their work) To ‘Flash Gordon’ we lost eight people on one day.

‘Enough of this whinging’. So I’ll just get on with it, as we had to do at the time. The work came in and we just had to deal with it. Often, it came in far too fast and there was far too much.   We were used to it, and what we always knew, was that come the next day, the following week, a month later, it would all be a distant memory; there would be another set of problems to deal with. Of course it could often be terrifying. A look in the diary could give you palpitations, make you want to run away, give up, find something normal and boring to do. But we never did. We had done it for so long that we knew if we pushed hard enough, often late into the night, that things would work out.

For years we worked on Noel’s House Party. Every week there was something new, and not just the ‘Crinkley Bottom Observer’. There were gnomes to be made,

Gnomes for Noel's House Party.  Later they would be portait ones to look like Noe.

Gnomes for the BBC’s Noel’s House Party. Later they would be portait ones to look like Noel.

‘Gotchas’ to be mounted, furniture to be constructed;

The front and back of a very large peice of funiture - we only had a few days to complete it and it was almost too heavy to transport to the Studios.  Thank goodness the prop boys didn't complain too much

The front and back of a very large peice of funiture for the BBC’s Noel’s House Party – we only had a few days to complete it and it was almost too heavy to transport to the Studios. Luckily the prop boys didn’t complain too much.

a million and one things, all needing to be finished by the end of each week. The following Monday it all started again, relentless, like an out of control juggernaut on a steep hill. When, at the end of the series, everything stopped, we felt relief but also bereft. Like a junkie, we were always looking for one more fix. Happily, there was usually another series to put us back into that heady mix of panic and pleasure.

The furniture on the set of Noel's House Party

The furniture on the set of Noel’s House Party.

An ornate organ finished in a few days for Noel's House Party.

An ornate organ finished in a few days for Noel’s House Party with an ornate desk for the same show just visible behind the organ.

As with lying on a bed of nails, you had to try and control the pressure. We worked for ‘The Benny Hill Show’ for about thirteen years, and I intend to write more about that, and him, but there was one incident that did involve a lot of pressure. Man made pressure in the form of a pressure cooker. Benny had to be seen with steam coming out of his ears. I think it was Dick who suggested we use a pressure cooker, and for good measure we added dry ice to the mix to give it a lot more oomph. A single tube went from the pan and then split into two behind the head finishing just behind each ear. Shot from the front it looked spectacular, as though the brain was literally boiling. It did take a few minutes to set up and could not really be prepared in advance.

I have to pause here and explain what working at Thames Television Studios was like in the 1980’s and 1990’s. ‘The Benny Hill Show’ was shot there, and was one of the most popular shows in the world at the time. Visitors to Thames Television were really only interested in seeing where the show was made. It didn’t matter where they came from. It was like a pilgrimage and the one thing they had to see. Frank Sinatra was quoted as saying, ‘I only want to do two things: I want to sing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and I want to go to a Benny Hill rehearsal.’

Jane and Lorraine holding a giant tissue box made for The Benny Hill Show

Jane and Lorraine holding a giant tissue box made for The Benny Hill Show

I only wish everyone else working in the studios at the time had felt the same way. It did seem that some were only there to make things difficult for the Production team. There was a severe demarcation of every trade, and we were often in trouble from the prop boys as to who did what. The day’s filming always finished at 5:30pm. If it went a minute past that time, overtime had to be paid on the next few hours, so it never happened. As a consequence everything came to an abrupt halt at 5:30pm. It was as though a guillotine had fallen.   We often sat through the whole day doing nothing, having been ‘called’ early in the morning to operate a particular prop or effect. Sitting at the side of the studio, mostly in the dark, energy levels dropped and boredom set in. By 5pm we had lost all will to live and expected to be called again the next day. Often, as in this case, we were the last shot of the day. It was about 5:20pm and we knew the power would be pulled in ten minutes. We hurried setting it up, as Dennis Kirkland, the director, became increasing agitated. The minutes ticked by as I fastened the tubes to Benny’s head. Just before 5:30pm we had steam pouring out of his ears. I was oblivious to everything else.

On the way home, Dick told me that during the time I was setting things up, Dennis had proclaimed – ‘I asked for special effects and all I got was a prick with a pressure cooker’ – it was good to be appreciated.


6 thoughts on “A Bed of Nails

  1. I used to think all deckchairs were virtually ‘unputupable’ but ‘sod’s law’ being what it is, we just had to make sure it was actually impossible. You are right about all the variety – even in one day – it makes the witches brew in Macbeth seem a rather simple recipe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a friend of Sue Upton’s, and webmaster of her official website, I’d love to know how the walking TV set that followed her upstairs in the “1994” sketch (www.sueupton.net/1994new.html) was made! Many thanks in advance.


    • I remember Sue well. She was very popular and I sure all the other girls were happy to have her there, knowing she would always help them, as she was the one who had been in the show longest. I found working on The Benny Hill Show was always fun, although not without its problems. Sue was one of the ones who made it fun. So thank you.
      I remember the televisions very well. They did walk after a fashion. The mechanism and legs were made by the special effects firm ‘Centmoor’ and relied on the momentum of the television to fall forward onto the second leg once the first leg had moved. They were never made to climb up stairs and from what I can remember they were manhandled up the treads, and with the use of very tricky camera angles, and some muscle it was made to look as though they were climbing. Sorry to disappoint.
      When you see Sue again, do say hello. I still have very fond memories of our days at Thames Television, Thorpe Park, Fan Court School, and the many rehearsal rooms in pubs and rugby clubs that we spent time in.


      • No disappointment at all. Given how difficult it is, even today, to make a machine walk on a flat surface, I’ve always thought there must have been some camera trickery involved in getting that TV up those stairs. (Among Sue’s collection of showbiz memorabilia, she still has the very tight trousers she wore in that sketch!)

        During my very first meeting with Sue, she told me a funny story regarding the intersection of props, costumes, and special effects, which had a somewhat painful result for her. I won’t spoil it here, but if you’re interested, I recount it here: http://www.sueupton.net/lunch6.html – were you involved in the construction of the relevant piece of clothing?

        I hope to see Sue again, sometime this autumn. I’ll certainly say hello to her on your behalf. Till then, I’ve forwarded your message, above, on to her – I’m sure she’ll enjoy reading it.

        Erik Larsen


      • Luckily we were never involved in pyrotechnics. We left that to those involved in special effects. On this occasion it does seem that someone had not thought the whole thing through. Thank you for forwarding the message to her.


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