Pirates of the Caribbean Cortés Gold

When people find out what we did for a living, we usually get asked – ‘What is your favourite film prop?’

Medallion

Medallion

It is a difficult question to answer since we made such a wide variety of things over a forty-one year period. It is not always easy to pick one, but what always comes to mind are the Holy Grail and the Grail diary made for ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in 1989. A close second is the Aztec Medallion from the first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ in 2002.

Along with Jack Sparrow’s compass for the same film, it was one of the most iconic props we made. At the beginning, however, we were not aware the film was a Disney production, let alone that it was to be the start of a very successful franchise.

The Aztec finial to be the basis of the coin.

The Aztec finial to be the basis of the coin.

It wasn’t all ‘plain sailing’ working with such a talented team of Production Designer, Brian Morris and Art Director, Richard Earl. Brian, who we had worked with many times before, came to our workshop late one afternoon with a pile of books annotated with countless illustrations that he wanted copying – ships, pirates, compasses, and among other things a picture of a golden Aztec finial

which was to form the basis of an Aztec gold coin – part of the Treasure of Cortés – one of the most important props in the first film.

The first drawing of the coin.

The first drawing of the coin.

Later, we received a drawing of the proposed coin.

It was to be made in two sizes, 1½” (38mm)  and 2⅛” (54mm) diameter, the larger coin  to be used for close up.   As there was no instruction as to how to make it. Louise decided that the best way to approach constructing the coin was to draw out the various elements separately.

Artwork for the etcher.

Artwork for the etcher. Notice that the symbols around the central circle have been changed to a second version.

The artwork was done by Thea in our Graphics department and then sent to Mercury Engraving in London to be acid etched in copper.   The  front and back were etched separately. When assembled these would form a good base for the coin.

The raised ‘wire’ and ball details were made of silver and applied to the front of the coin by Andrew at jewellers Gordon Marks in Cobham. It was then returned to our workshop for further work to be done by Nick.

In the original version the skull was contained within the central circle.

The second version with the skull still contained within the circle.

The third version with the skull still contained within the circle.

Brian and others in the production decided that in this version the skull was too small, and we were sent another drawing of an enlarged skull, still within the central circle.

Front and back of the .monkey' version

Pattern for the front and back of the monkey’ version.

After remaking the coin, the comment from the production was  that it now looked more like a ‘monkey’s’ skull.  So that design was abandoned and a fourth version was then made with a larger skull that broke through the central circle at the bottom.

Enlarge skull drawn by Brian at our workshop.

Fourth version with enlarged skull drawn by Brian at our workshop.

Thea's artwork from Brian's drawing.

Thea’s artwork from Brian’s drawing.

 

Finally, a fifth drawing arrived that required the look of the jawbone to be altered and ‘bones’ added under the skull.

Final artwork for the medallion

Final artwork for the medallion showing both sizes.

Thea's details for the new nose, teeth and bones to be engraved in brass.

Thea’s details for the new nose, teeth and bones to be engraved in brass.

This time Nick used resin putty to shape it to the new design.  He also removed the original copper symbols and replace them with the new brass symbols, as well as new nostrils and teeth all engraved by Adams Engraving in Woking.

The final pattern showing the new brass inserts and jaw alteration in resin putty.

The final pattern showing the new brass inserts and jaw alteration in resin putty.

This final version of the coin was approved by Brian and went to Starcast Alloys in Devon to be cast in wax in silicone moulds, then in gilding brass using the ‘lost wax’ method.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost-wax_casting

The back of the coin, which isn’t seen in the film, also went through two versions.

For those interested here are the patterns for the back of both sizes of coins.

For those interested here are the patterns for the back of both sizes of coins.

On their return the coins were polished with jewellers rouge on a rag polishing wheel and then sent to Manny Gold at City Plating to be plated in a beautiful mellow gold, the tone matching a sample supplied by Charles Stewart the prop master.

All these alterations took a long time to achieve and Charles Stuart was beginning to get worried that he would not have his props on time for a ‘show and tell’ that had been arranged with the Director Gore Verbinski.

They did get completed on time and we made about a hundred  medallions in all  – some with chains – and five in the large size.

Large and small finished medallions with rings for chain.

Large and small finished medallions with rings for chain.

We also had made for the film 1000’s of  silver Pieces of Eight,  Gold 2 Escudos and Gold 8 Escudos, cast by Westair in Birmingham from original coins  sourced by Richard Varnham at Vale Stamps and Antiques in Blackheath.

There is a scene towards the end of the film where the last remaining coin is thrown into a chest filled with the rest of the treasure. In the same scene Barbossa raises an Aztec dagger with a knapped flint blade.

Aztec dagger handle.

Aztec dagger handle.

We were asked to make two of these with a handle to be copied from an original dagger.

Richard's drawing for the dagger.

Richard’s drawing for the dagger.

It had a very intricate mosaic finish and because we had to produce two identical daggers, we decided to sculpt the handle and use small pieces of eggshell, cut into precise shapes to make the mosaic. Emma who made the handle then fixed these to the surface and a silicone mould was taken. After being cast in resin the mosaic pattern was painted to match the reference and Len at A. E. Ward in London also supplied mother of pearl, cut to specific sizes, to be glued to the handle.

Two completed daggers.

Two completed daggers.

The dagger is seen in close up but Barbossa’s hand obscures the handle.  Luckily the blade has a more starring role. Getting a ‘napped flint’ look isn’t easy so we asked a friend, Robert Leighton, if he had such a blade in his collection of Stone Age axes, blades and arrowheads – now in the British Museum. He explained that blades were never that long, so he loaned us two, from which  Alastair took moulds and incorporated them into one longer blade. Again a mould was taken and he cast the final two blades in a translucent light brown resin.

We also made Jack Sparrows compass, a dress box, flags, parasols, fans, a sextant, glass rum bottles, bed pans, and more, but they will have to wait for another blog.

The compass used in the first film before being distressed. We made another version for the second and third films

The compass used in the first film before being distressed. We made another version for the second and third films

 

 

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In Gear with Matt LeBlanc

I have said before that I never had stars in my eyes but you can take it too far. In 1997  ‘Lost in Space’ was being shot at Shepperton Studios and I was asked to go over to the sound stage to meet Norman Garwood the Production Designer to discuss some work.

They were filming somewhere on the stage when I got there but I could not find Norman.  I was in what seemed like the corridor of a space ship. I waited for some time before striking up a conversation with an extra who was in costume and seemed, like me, to be waiting for something to happen.

Me and 'Matt Le Blanc'

Me and ‘Matt Le Blanc’

‘Boring, isn’t it?’ I said to him.  There was not much else to say. He agreed and we chatted about nothing in particular for some minutes, before Dean arrived on the stage with his then girlfriend and we all carried on chatting.

Finally Norman arrived and took me off to the prop room to discuss what was needed. I arrived back at the workshop maybe an hour later.

‘You were having a nice chat to Matt LeBlanc,’  Dean said.

‘Was I ?   Who is Matt LeBlanc ?’   I knew the name vaguely but never having watched ‘Friends’, I didn’t have a clue what he looked like.

‘Well you were standing chatting to him when I came in with my girlfriend.’

‘Oh I thought he was an extra who was having to hang around like me.’   Dean tilted his head to one side, and shaking it slowly, rolled his eyes heavenward, giving me one of those looks.’

‘What are you like ?’  He said exasperated.

I have seen Matt LeBlanc many times since in the BBC’s  ‘Episodes’ and on the ‘Graham Norton Show’ and was reminded of him recently when it was announced that he would be fronting the new BBC ‘Top Gear’ with Chris Evans.

If I had known who he was,  I probably would not have spoken to him.  After I had chatted to him on the stage,  I rang a friend and asked if she knew who Matt LeBlanc was.  I was left in no doubt by her reaction.   Later, in the prop-room of the film, I noticed a full size figure of him in costume.   I asked the Prop Master to take a Polaroid photograph of me next to the model, so I  could send it to the friend.   He took two and I still have one of them.

Maybe there are stars in my eyes after all, even if distant ones.

KENNY EVERETT AND THE GUNGE TUBE – Covering others in glory

I am pretty sure that those who pelted miscreants in the stocks didn’t waste good food. It was too precious even when past its ‘sell by date’. It doesn’t take much imagination to think what might be thrown or poured over the unfortunate victim who had been clamped in place by the judiciary.

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Barry lassoed by an elephant’s trunk made for the Kenny Everett Show

Working on the Kenny Everett Show it would sometimes feel as though you were about to get something unpleasant coming your way, but most of the time it was exhilarating and you really felt part of the whole show. We often had to go and operate the props we had made and as there was no audience, the cast and crew were the ones whose laughter is heard on the soundtrack. Occasionally we were also dragged into the action. The one time I remember was on the 1980 ‘New Years Eve’ show, when, donning party hats, Alastair and I were in the general melee that constituted a party.

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Lenny Bennett seconds after being gunged.

The one time we really felt that the proverbial might hit the fan was the first time we had to make and operate the ‘gunge tube’. This was a clear Perspex tube filled with green slime that had to empty its contents onto the unfortunate ‘celebrity’, who, sitting manacled into the chair below had to answer three questions in the Star Quiz. As there were only 30 points available from the three questions, and 31 points were needed to avoid the inevitable humiliation, both they and we knew the gunge tube would always be emptying its contents.

It was about the size of a large dustbin, filled with a mixture of non-toxic wallpaper paste and vermiculite, finished to a vicious green with food colouring. The two problems we encountered were finding a good seal for the base and a reliable release mechanism. The latter was solved easily by using a quick release latch, always known as bomb releases, as those used in the early days were ex military. The seal was more problematic. The contents of the tube weighed a lot. Try picking up a dustbin full of water and you will see what I mean. The weight bowed the base of our prototype and we had to strengthen it. We lined the inside of the base with plastazote, a closed cell foam that worked reasonably well as long as it was replaced regularly.

Setting off to Thames Television with a pig under my arm.

Off to work with trepidation.

It was in the early 1980’s and Ian and I set off with some trepidation to Thames Television at Teddington Lock. We were about to deposit huge quantities of slime onto the head of Lennie Bennett. No one had asked us how we might do it, or what we might use for the gunge. The perils of risk assessment were some years away. We were trusted not to put others in danger, never mind our reputation. Of course we had insurance, but were always very aware of what we were doing, and in 41 years we never had a problem. The nearest we came to damaging anyone was dropping a 20 foot (6 metre) mast on Benny Hill’s head in front of an audience at the end of a dance routine, but that is another story.

We set up the tube filled with gunge. It did have an almost imperceptible leak but everything held. The prop men, who were never keen on us operating anything in the studio, preferring to do everything themselves, decided it wasn’t their job, and allowed us to do the release.

We both stood to one side as Lennie, ‘manacled’ into the chair was asked the three questions. He inevitably failed and we pulled the pin. The gunge landed beautifully on his head. Relief all round, apart from Lennie.

Once the prop men knew it worked well they decided it was their job after all, although we still had to go to the studio and set it up. We just lost the fun part – the final act of releasing the pin.

A hairy leg with flashing knee made for the show

A hairy leg with flashing knee made for the show

Terry Wogan was not even given the opportunity to answer the three questions. Kenny had appeared on Terry’s show Blankety Blank previously and had bent Terry’s famous long microphone at right angles. (It was a symbol of the show along with the award – a Blankety Blank chequebook and pen – both of which we had to make many times for various comedy shows) When Kenny, carrying an oversize version of the microphone, approached Terry strapped into the chair, Terry returned the compliment and bent it. ‘Screw the game, hit him with the gunge’ was Kenny’s response. You can see it all in this YouTube clip.

It is 40 minutes and 34 seconds into the clip.

Bernard Manning was the one ‘celebrity’ we gunged on the show who seemed to come from a different world. He was very popular but he was often pilloried for his racial stereotyping and misogynist jokes. Both Kenny Everett and Bernard Manning were masters of bad taste. It could never be claimed that Kenny did not use racial stereotyping in his act, but maybe it is more acceptable to lampoon the French as he did with his character Marcel Wave, and certainly neither were averse to using sex to spice up their act. ‘Hot Gossip’, a dance troupe choreographed by Arlene Phillips, certainly helped to keep the nation’s libido at a high level, despite vain attempts by Mary Whitehouse to throw buckets of cold water over the gyrating, scantily clad dancers. I imagine being so ‘hot’ the water just made everything more steamy.  You can see Kenny playing Mary Whitehouse and the lady herself in this YouTube version of the show ‘Heroes of Comedy –  33minutes and 13 seconds in.

 

The Kenny Everett zip off to auction.

The Kenny Everett zip off to auction.

It also includes a giant zip we made for him.  He wore it and I always thought that the gag was that he had got caught in his own zip.  After seeing this clip I realised it was nothing like that – It is 41minutes 44 seconds into the clip.   Years later we saw the same prop being taken to a BBC auction.  It was in a national newspaper and we asked for a copy of the picture.

One of the most surreal moments of my life was standing next to Bernard Manning as we both watched Kenny performing. After several minutes he turned to me and asked, ‘Is he professional?’ He seemed genuinely puzzled as their two comedy worlds collided. I had no answer.

Later, after we had clamped him into the chair, he asked the same question of Kenny. He had edited it to make it more pointed.

‘Do you get the same money as a professional,’ you can hear him asking on the YouTube clip.

‘You may have the gags but we have the gunge,’ Kenny replied with a vicious glint in his eye. I imagine it gave him greater pleasure than usual to announce, ‘He loses’ as the gunge was released. My last memory of that day was seeing Bernard Manning driven from the studio on a forklift truck shouting obscenities at the crowd of ‘amateurs’ he had been working with.  See him getting gunged in this clip. At the end of the clip there is a very quick glimpse of me with my shaggy beard wearing a party hat,  joining in the festivities.

Whether Kenny Everett was an inspired amateur or not, he did become a national favourite, with his many characters entering the nations psyche. I have been told by Faith Worth, a great friend and choreologist, that when working with Rudolf Nureyev on The Tempest in 1982, he would sit and fling his legs in the air, crossing and uncrossing them, ‘all in the best possible taste’, as Kenny’s blond bombshell Cupid Stunt would say as she revealed everything to the camera.

See her on the Michael Parkinson Show in this clip.

The Kenny Everett Show was a joy to watch and to work on. Nothing was ever in the best possible taste. It was anarchic, sexy and silly – poor old Mary Whitehouse must have run out of buckets of cold water by the time it went off air. Luckily we can all still enjoy watching  it.

STRICTLY BETWEEN US – The birth of The Glitter Ball Trophy

SCAN0036Louise writes – During our many years of making props we often made trophies for various shows, but the most iconic one, although we did not know it at the time, turned out to be one of the most difficult to make. One afternoon in Spring 2004, I received a video from Bob Warans, the Production Buyer, of the opening titles for a new BBC show. We played the cassette on our old video player and the most amazing vision appeared – sparkling reflections of a spinning mirrored ball with swirling colours and the words Strictly Come Dancing appeared to encompass the ball, moving across its surface. It was a wonderfully exciting start to a show that gripped so many viewers of all ages from its early beginnings.

SCAN0332But how to make a three dimensional version? I watched the tape several times until the images were embedded in my mind. The first thing that was needed was a mirror ball.  I went to DZD, a retail display company and bought 10 inch (250mm) diameter balls for the main trophies and  6 inch (150mm) diameter balls for the smaller versions to be presented to the winners of the dancing competition. Subsequently we also had to make two full size trophies for the travelling stage show.

SCAN0333The first trophy we made had to revolve, so a motor was inserted into the square base, in addition there was another non-revolving trophy. The mirror ball was mounted onto a clear Perspex rod so it appeared to float. Once we had drawn out the lettering full size I got Eric in graphics to design a shape, rather cloud like, that the cut out brass letters could be mounted on. These were initially pink but have been painted various colours over the years. The letters were cut out by Adams Engraving Ltd (who also engraved the winners names for the trophy) and were mounted on the clear 3mm Perspex ‘cloud’ that went round the mirrored ball. The shape was cut out and formed and polished on the edges by White Ellerton Products Ltd  who also made the black perspex bases for the awards.   Nick had the unenviable task of assembling all the various parts of the trophy – attaching the perspex shape to the ball with thin rods was a particularly  horrible job, since none of the mirror pieces that were stuck onto the  polystyrene ball  were precisely aligned. It was enough to try the patience of a Saint! But Nick is nothing if not patient. This was his annual task for years to come. It remains the trophy to this day, with the show now in its thirteenth series.SCAN0334

Keir and I enjoy watching ‘Strictly’ but we are always very nervous when the large trophy is presented to the winners at the end of the series and they start waving it around in their excitement. So far everything has remained safe and secure, let’s hope it does this year. Despite designing the 3D award we have never seen the show live in the studio. In the 41 years we ran our business we only went to two recordings – Absolutely Fabulous and the Victoria Wood show. We were always too busy working in the evenings meeting deadlines.

BENNY HILL – ‘A cherub sent by the Devil’. Michael Caine

Maybe rose coloured specs would have been better.

Maybe rose coloured specs would have been better.

What happened to Benny Hill wasn’t funny. His life ended like many of his sketches, in tragedy. In 1990 his show was being shown in 97 countries, although no longer in the UK. It could be argued that at the time, along with Mohammed Ali, he was one of the most famous names and faces on the planet.   Twenty-four years after his death, his show is still seen in many places around the world, but in the UK he seems to be most remembered for Yakety Sax, the music that ended his show, with him being chased by an assortment of girls and other characters that he had upset in various ways. He was often the loser, the fall guy, the one chased.

For some he was never chaste, he was the epitome of sleaze, the archetypal dirty old man, who encouraged the view that women were just mere sex objects. It seems to me that this is very unfair. He no more corrupted the nation than McGill’s postcards did, although both were pilloried, McGill was even found guilty of breaking the Obscene Publications Act in 1954, and by definition, officially corrupting the nation’s morals. At least Benny didn’t end his days in an unmarked grave. If you want to risk being corrupted do visit http://saucyseasidepostcards.com/ and have a good giggle as you head down to hades.

It must have been a huge disappointment for Benny Hill, when, after returning from the Cannes Television Festival in June 1989, where he had been feted; he was arbitrarily dismissed from Thames Television.

Maybe what was waiting for him on his return from the Cannes television festival?

Maybe what was waiting for him on his return from the Cannes television festival?

Much of his humour was based on disappointment. The short sketches and longer story lines often ended in disillusion if not outright tragedy. I remember one long story of a loser – a man, who everything he tried or touched, resulted in failure – that did end in the ultimate heartbreak. He was finally seen standing at the side of a lake with a rope around his neck, a large rock tied to the other end. As the rock slipped from his grip and into the water, a balloon was seen to rise from the lake, and on the end of its string, a large fish was seen hanging. As surreal an image as you would want to find anywhere. As the fish rose into the waterless air, Benny was dragged down to the bottom of the lake, passing a treasure chest that lay open, its contents of precious stones and jewellery spilling out in a final mockery.

As prop makers, our problem was how you make the balloon rise through the surface of the lake. A real one would instantly have collapsed if pushed down in the water, so we made one in fibreglass. Peppered with holes so it filled up, it was difficult just to get it under the surface. In the end a diver had to operate it from the bottom of the lake, a fish-line pulling it up into the air once it had cleared the surface. Salvador Dali eat your heart out.

Chistmas pudding on a chain.

Plum pudding on a chain.  Maybe with a file inside?

We worked for Benny Hill for over thirteen years, and I met him many times, usually in the various rehearsal rooms that were used. Large rooms over pubs, the bar area of a rugby club, other clubs that made a little extra income letting out their halls in the daytime.

We were given the work by the designer or the prop buyer, or – very rarely – in a production meeting at Thames Television. Sometimes the reference was verbal, backed up with a page from the script, at other times we were given an embryonic drawing by Benny himself. There was always a deadline, but we knew that before the date of the studio arrived we would have to present the props for approval. If Benny didn’t like it, it would have to be remade. He must have liked what we did otherwise we would not have been allowed to continue making things. You did not presume to understand more than he did about how effective something might be – he wanted what he wanted and that was that. Maybe we had to figure out a way to achieve what was required, but I had understood from the start that ‘why don’t we change this to …’ or ‘wouldn’t it be funnier if…’, were not options. Of course there were times when a prop could be made and finished. If we had been asked for an 8-inch high tuba, then we knew where we were, it either looked like one or it didn’t.  One prop that never got finished was a snake that was to be mistaken for a rope.  We tried it several times, without success.

I can't remember if this was a snake or rope version. Not that it mattered.

I can’t remember if this was a snake or rope version. Not that it mattered.

‘Looks too much like a rope!’  ‘Now it looks too much like a snake!’  I am sure you can guess what happened next.

I used to arrive at the rehearsal room with a vanload of props for Benny to look at. It was always politic to not quite complete things, leaving maybe the final colour or some other finish to his discretion.

‘Would you prefer this or that?’ or ‘we can do it another way if you prefer’ was always better than ‘this is what you are having’. That would have been met with a blank refusal to even consider what was on offer. We usually got our own way.

Benny liked to have his lunch on his own, sitting in the corner of the rehearsal room as everyone else trooped off to the pub. He always brought his lunch and a soft fizzy drink in a plastic carrier bag. Over the years he was presented with many upmarket briefcases and other leather bags for birthday presents but like the eponymous bag lady he stayed faithful to the carrier bag. Not that he ever looked like a bag lady, rather a humble civil servant on holiday in the 1950’s. Grey flannel trousers, sports jacket, open necked shirt with the collar overlapping the collar of the jacket; just a hint of casual rebellion from the rather more formal work wear. Sometimes a cravat would be added to the sartorial elegance.

In all the years I knew him, he was always polite, even-tempered and supportive of what we did for him, even when he really didn’t want me around. I had arrived at the rehearsal room in the Rugby Club off the Twickenham Road in Richmond. It was lunchtime and everyone was leaving or had left for the pub. After unloading my little pile of props in the corner, there was nothing to do but wait. Benny was sitting at the far side of the room about to start his lunch. He glanced up at me, then turned away. I sat quietly trying to be as invisible as possible. He glanced up several times more before sighing loudly.

‘Alright, lets have a look at what you have brought,’ he said. The ‘I want to have my lunch in peace’ was left unsaid, and I quickly showed him, got his approval, and left. I imagine there was an even bigger sigh of pleasure as he finally had the room to himself.

A reply to the critics.

A reply to the critics.

So lets shed tears of laughter and sorrow for both McGill and Hill. They both put sauce on the plate, only to have it thrown in their faces like a custard tart by the prurient arbiters of taste.

Below is a link to a Thames Television Benny Hill  Show that has a good selection of props.

Ostrich prop with separate head.

Ostrich prop with separate head.

The first sketch had several darts sticking out of Jackie Wright’s head.  The second sketch the ostrich featured here.

17.54 minutes in –  several bows and arrows in the cupid sketch.

26.20-minutes in – the bath turning into a sofa.

 Bath into sofa prop.

Bath into sofa prop.

30.28 minutes in – Several versions of the globe for the dance routine based on Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’.

43.40 minutes in – Ice cream cone for the ice cream van.

Prop cone for ice cream van.

Prop cone for ice cream van.

51.25 minutes in – Beach tents filmed at Thorpe Park as was the chase at the end of the show.

Alastair and I spent many a happy hour at Thorpe Park and other locations.  It was often stressful but like a rich man complaining of the problems created by his wealth, no one would be listen if we tried to grumble about spending time at a Theme Park with Benny Hill and a  coach load of pretty young women.  Those were the days.

Blooming Props

Keir writes – Most of the things we made started out life as manufactured items, whether by hand or machine. Some were much more difficult to make than others, but all had the hand of man in their making. Flowers on the other hand, are not products of a workshop or factory, or even a cave, if you count the many stone age items we had to produce over the years. Flowers are made by the hand of God, or at least nature if you prefer. They are built up from the molecular rather than the other way round. Formed from sunlight and water rather than being re-formed from wood, metal, fabric or other materials that had already been manufactured; plants and flowers have their own particular set of problems.

SCAN0036Louise writes – I haven’t written my blog for more than three months because we have been so busy in our garden which we open for charity, for the National Garden Scheme. Spending hours deadheading, staking, potting up and watering endless pots, I become increasing aware of the delicacy of flower petals and it reminded me of how many flowers and plants we had to make over many years of prop making.

On one occasion, a Production Buyer came to your workshop at Shepperton Studios with a plastic bag containing a shrivelled bunch of flowers and grasses.

Poleriod reference of the bunch of wild flowers

Poleriod reference of the bunch of wild flowers

The Production naively thought, that after filming the actor picking wild flowers in a meadow, the bunch would survive until the studio recording almost two months later! Fortunately someone took a Polaroid photograph of the bunch of flowers and this is what we used for our reference. Field poppy petals are most delicate and we used Habutai silk from Pongees, dyed the fabric to the correct shade of vermillion red and spent hours making six poppies, three scabious, two honeysuckle, mixed with real wild oats and grasses. The finished bunch looked pretty close to the original.

Prop version of the bunch of wild flowers

Prop version of the bunch of wild flowers

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Large Orchid made for an ‘Avengers’ film.

Rare Orchid for 'Midsommer Murders'.

Rare Orchid for ‘Midsommer Murders’.

We also made a flowering campion plant for a shampoo commercial, a large orchid for an Avengers film and Christabel made a very rare yellow orchid for ‘Midsommer Murders’, its destruction causing the death of its owner.

Orchid for 'Midsommer Murders

Orchid for ‘Midsommer Murders”.

In 1991 I received a phone call asking whether we could make some orchid plants for a film, ‘The Orchid House’, set on the island of Dominica where orchids naturally grow. The plants are protected, so the film company could not use the real plants. I was to be supplied with photographs as references. When they finally arrived, a bundle about three centimetres in height, I was puzzled. I am no expert on the subject of orchids, especially of those of the 1930’s, which is when the film is set, but I knew that some of the photographs did not even show orchids but other tropical plants. I telephoned the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley and spoke to the keeper of the Orchid House, arranged a date and time to meet and showed him the photographs. He was very helpful and went through the pile reducing it to about one centimetre in height. Most of the photographs supplied were not orchids, or hybrids or not even around in the 1930’s.  I was then asked how we were going to make the plants, especially the fleshy leaves that were so distinctive of each variety. To my amazement the leaves were cut off ‘behind the scene’ plants in the glass house and handed to me in a polythene bag. ‘These should help you’, and they did. 

Prop orchids

Prop orchids

Alistair made moulds in silicone and cast them in resin, we then vacuumed formed the leaves. All that remained was to make the flowers using various petals from mass produced roses etc from Novelty Imports. We gave the flowers several coats of exterior PVA wood glue to give them the correct thickness and texture. The background colour was sprayed on in diluted Indian ink which is waterproof when dry and all the fine detail was painted in ink by hand. When the plants were put into aged terracotta pots and fitted with period labels they looked convincing.

Wreath for the cottage door for 'The Holiday'.

Wreath for the cottage door for ‘The Holiday’.

For the film ‘The Holiday, in 2006, we were asked to make Christmas garlands and wreaths for the locations in Shere and Godalming. Great fun, as I love Christmas and all that goes with it. Anna Pinnock, the set decorator, asked me to wrap some real Poinsettias in cellophane. These would have wilted so quickly in the cold temperatures of the various shops. So I bought about three different styles of artificial flowers and ‘planted’ them in pots filled with plaster and topped up with compost, when wrapped up they looked very convincing and lasted the six weeks of filming with no problem. The main location was in Shere, up a footpath beside the church, where we had decorated the lych-gate. The path led to one of the most convincing of sets. A pretty cottage surrounded by a garden that was so well dressed it looked as though it had been there for many years. On the front door was a spray, made up of artichokes, hypericum, blue pine, proteus flowers and several other typical florist items around at that time of year. Needless to say, I received a phone call;  the Director did not like the decoration that had been made by a florist in London and could we make another one? Slightly different with the ‘same ingredients’? We duly did so but the spray went brown within two days. Another was made, then a third, fourth, finally I decided to make a completely

Another wreath for the film 'The Holiday'.

Another wreath for the film ‘The Holiday’.

artificial one.  Alistair took a mould of the artichockes and cast them in resin, June made the hypericum berries and flowers, sixty four separate items in the two stems alone. I managed to source some wonderful plastic blue pine sprays and Georgina assembled them all as she had done the real ones. By the time we had made the other items for the door decoration, it looked so convincing that Anna did not realise it was a fake until she touched it. It lasted for the rest of the filming and even went to The States for the remaining interior shots where it could be seen when the cottage door was opened.

Decorations made for the film 'The Holiday'.

Decorations made for the film ‘The Holiday’.

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A real Queen of the Night flower blooming at 5am at home

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Prop Queen of the NIght plant, flower and two buds.

A memory of my Father was when he sat up all night to see the ‘Queen of the Night’ (Epiphyllum Oxypetalum) blooming on the windowsill in his study. I had given him the reference plant we had been supplied with from a botanic garden when we had to make an artificial flower in full bloom for a television programme. When my Father died on Midsummer’s day I rescued the forlorn plant that had been neglected for many a month, took it home, fed and watered it and the following year, after much nurtureing, the resulting flower bloomed during the night and was beginning to close when we woke at five in the morning.  We nearly missed it.  If you don’t want to miss it try this link –   

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXxFdpT7CZA

An eight foot logo made in artificial flowers for Winbledon

An eight foot logo made in artificial flowers for Winbledon

Thistle for the film 'Braveheart'.

Thistle for the film ‘Braveheart’.

Thistle for the film 'Braveheart'.

Thistle for the film ‘Braveheart’.

 

We made vegetables as well.

We made vegetables as well.

Artificial flowers for Evita's funeral.

Artificial flowers for Evita’s funeral.

King Ralph’s Crown

Louise writes – ‘Would you be able to make a replica of the Imperial State Crown for the film ‘King Ralph’ in six weeks?’SCAN0036 The request was daunting since it was the first time we had been asked to make such an iconic object, one that is so familiar to so many people. I set about the task and started by dividing the crown into four parts and sent four people to the Tower of London to see the real thing.

The Imperial State Crown finished in six weeks

The Imperial State Crown finished in six weeks.

Eric was to concentrate on the decorative bottom band, which forms a background to the Cullinan Diamond at the front, supplied to us by the production, and the Stuart Sapphire at the back. Bruce had to look at the alternating fleur-des-lis and crosses, mounted with diamonds and the Black Prince’s ruby at the front. Shirley was to observe the crossing bands of stylised oak leaf decoration that supported the diamond-studded ball surmounted by a cross at the top. Finally, John, a jeweller, who was mounting all the stones had to study all the mounts for the jewels. He also made the ball and cross at the top of the crown, plus the Black Prince’s ruby and the Stuart Sapphire in resin, since no replicas were available. All other jewels came from A E Ward. (Now in Hatton Garden) All four returned from the Tower complaining that they had only been allowed to go around the display twice and that the crown was so sparkly it was difficult to see much of the detail. ‘Good, because if you couldn’t see it clearly, no one else will know if we get something slightly wrong,’ was my reply. We tried to estimate the cost involved and quoted £10,000 plus Vat. This was accepted by the production and the next stage was to find out the head measurement of John Goodman, the actor playing ‘King Ralph’.

John Goodman with the Crown and flag we made for the film.  As he had been a piano playing on Las Vegas, a keyboard was designed into the flag.  Photo supplied to us by the production.

John Goodman with the Crown and flag we made for the film. As he had been a piano player in Las Vegas, a keyboard was designed into the flag. Photo supplied to us by the production.

I asked on three different occasions and each time the measurement was different, so there was no choice but to ask if we could take a mould of John Goodman’s head.

'King Ralph' taking tea.  Photo supplied by the production.

‘King Ralph’ taking tea. Photo supplied to us by the production.

He duly arrived at our Shepperton Studio workshop, straight from Heathrow Airport, extremely jet-lagged. We sat him on a stool at Alastair’s end of the workshop, put a rubber cap on his head and Alastair took a mould in Alginate, a dental mould making material. After that a coating of plaster had to stabilise the flexible mould while still on his head. John Goodman could not have been more accommodating and charming. I showed him the gilding brass and stones we had purchased and warned him that the finished crown would be rather heavy; his answer was ‘I will just have to do neck exercises’. The next process was to draw the various sections of the crown so that they could be cut out of gilding brass to form the base of the crown. We worked from a poster and various post cards, but the fact that Eric, Bruce and Shirley had seen the real object meant it was easier to decipher the images. Dean bent the brass to form the basic crown; it then went to Manny Green at City Plating to be nickel-plated. We sent the basic crown to John the jeweller for the stone setting. After three weeks John rang to say he wanted twice the amount of money he had quoted to do his share of the crown. ‘Should I stop work?’ He asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘we have to deliver the finished article in two weeks time, so please continue.’ ‘But you won’t cover your costs.’ ‘I know, that’s a problem I will have to solve, we cannot stop production at this stage, we never let any of our clients down – no matter what the circumstances,’ and I wasn’t about to on this occasion. We had the mould of John Goodman’s head and vacuum formed six plastic head shapes with a ‘gutter’ around the rim. The outer head shape was covered in a dark red velvet and the outside edge of the ‘gutter’ with white mink dotted with pieces of ermine tail. When he wore the crown in the bath it fell into the water.

'King Ralph' in his bath.  Photo suppled by the production

‘King Ralph’ in his bath. Photo suppled to us by the production

Obviously filming could not stop while the velvet and fur dried, so the extra linings could be replaced quickly as the metal part of the crown fitted into the ‘gutter’. Having his exact head shape also meant that the crown fitted perfectly when held in place by a leather chinstrap when ‘King Ralph’ played bowls in the palace.

'King Ralph' playing bowls.  Photo supplied to us by the production.

‘King Ralph’ playing bowls. Photo supplied to us by the production.

In the end we did not make any money but because the production gave us a little extra from their budget we did just cover our costs. They were pleased with the finished result, achieved in just six weeks – and so were we.

The Sceptre made for 'Johnny Enlgish'.

The Sceptre made for ‘Johnny Enlgish’.

We made other Royal Regalia a few times over the years, including an Orb and Sceptre for ‘Johnny English’ starring Rowan Atkinson and John Malkovich in 2003 plus many other props for the film. But more of that later.

The Orb made for the film 'Johnny English'.

The Orb made for the film ‘Johnny English’.