‘ANYTHING’S BETTER THAN WAGES’ – THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – PART TWO OF OUR STORY
I don’t think either of us planned to spend the rest of our lives producing props. Louise had always loved making things. I had too but there was a difference. For Louise it was always perfection. Nothing else was worth aiming for. If it was worth doing, it was only worth doing if it was the best you could do. Maybe better than it had ever been done. For me it was the doing, even if it was done badly. Not on purpose of course, but at least it got done. Not to do it would only lead to boredom and that was worse. I could always manage a spirited argument with the grim reaper, but if he’d had offered eternal boredom over death it would have been a close run thing.
I had always made things. When I was about seven I modified the sand pit in our garden. After emptying out all the sand, I found a few bricks to pile up round the edge before putting some planks across to form a roof. I may have got into trouble from my mother but I had a good den to hide in until I was made to put the sand back into the pit. Years later in the Jamestown settlement on the east coast of the United States, Louise and I sat in a house that was half dug out of the earth and half built above. Inside an actress played an early settler whose family had come from Lincolnshire where my father’s family came from. I felt vindicated.
In another garden three years later, aged ten, I dug a ‘mine shaft’ and put an old bicycle wheel on top to represent the winding gear. My father was working in the office of a firm that was tunnelling though a hillside and had brought me home a miner’s helmet with a lamp attached. I didn’t need any more encouragement. My poor mother had another hole in her garden. It wasn’t the first time she had suffered at the hands of her energetic and inquisitive son. Years before when I was four she had caught me hammering a plaster bust of Keir Hardie (who I had been named after) into small pieces.
‘And what do you think you’re doing?’ She asked her young vandal.
‘Just seeing if he has red blood in him mummy,’ I replied. It turned out he hadn’t, but it was the first of many things that were broken up, taken apart, deconstructed, to be incorporated into other projects, other items that were made to satisfy our clients, who often did not give us enough time or money to make things entirely from scratch.
Our flat in Surbiton was far too small and a year later we bought our first house in Hersham, a three bedroomed Victorian semi with the bathroom downstairs. We worked on the proverbial kitchen table for some years and when that wasn’t big enough persuaded our friends to let us use their houses and garages to work in. We also got them to help. Shirley and Bruce had a thirty-foot living room; perfect for the long ships banner we made for the Santa Maria in a BBC production of Christopher Columbus. Their kitchen table was also bigger than ours and we would work around it, sometimes till the early hours of the morning.
Shirley worked for us for over twenty-five years and Bruce came back to work for us many years later. Some nights when he was producing period documents –left in their outside loo to be collected in the morning – you could see where he had fallen asleep, the pen leaving a tell tale slide across the page. It was best not to read what was written, they were never to be seen in close up and ranged from the mildly humorous to gobbledegook. If it was to be in Latin, then gobbledegook reigned. I have felt guilty for years at the state their garage was left in after I had sprayed dozens of wooden blinds dark green. Not only had the interior been turned a subtle shade of green, but it was also festooned with wire that had been used to hang up the blinds. I think some of it still remains.
Bruce and Shirley were here for dinner last night and I read what I had written about him. Luckily he laughed. They came with other friends Mary and Terry. They were never involved in prop making but helped in other ways. Coming back home from buying in London we would often call in and were always offered a meal. In the organised chaos that our life had become, their home was always a haven. We left feeling nourished both in body and mind. Terry, in those days a young Underwriter at Lloyd’s, always gave sound advice, reminding us of the need to keep the money flowing as much as the work.
It was about this time that Barry and Audrey came into our lives. The River Mole had flooded and Louise’s parents (her father was a local Labour Councillor for over 30 years) had gone down to the Walton Playhouse to see if they could help. They came home with Barry and Audrey. Their house on a modern estate had been flooded to a depth of two feet or more. Barry had been home when the water had started rising up through the drains. Unlike some of his more optimistic neighbours he had got most of his belongings upstairs, before going on to help them when it became obvious the waters were going to carry on rising. They were finally all forced to leave their homes.
They had two young children, a boy and a girl, who were at school when the river flooded, but were now missing. I first met Barry and Audrey sitting down to something to eat in my in-laws house. They weren’t eating much or speaking. It was long before the days of mobile phones and although we all assumed the two children were safe it was a very worrying time for them. There were only two things that Barry really cared about – his children and his work and the children had gone. He and Audrey look haunted, not knowing what to do, while Paul, Louise’s father, made as many enquiries as he could. It wasn’t until the following day when they revisited the school that they were told where the children had been taken for the night. They were reunited and all was well, although it would be many days before any of them could live at home again. Barry and I went to make sure the house was secure. Along with other residents we were shipped through the estate on the back of a large lorry that just about made it through the floodwaters. Local lads in kayaks patrolled the area both day and night as there had been reports of looting. Finally they moved back in and Barry set about remodelling the house. They didn’t stay there long. One flood was enough and they were soon living a few hundred feet along the road from us in Hersham.
Barry had trained as a Pattern Maker, working in wood. He was fast and enthusiastic and hard work was never a problem to him. He had become self-employed, building anything that was required; tiling, painting and decorating – anything that would make him more money than he had earned employed by others. He started working for my in-laws and when Louise was asked by Blue Peter to repair the glass and mahogany case that had held a stuffed dog, she asked Barry to do it. The dog, without its case, spent many weeks standing on guard in our living room, nearly causing a pregnant Ros, who later worked for us, to produce one of her children early when she walked into the room not knowing it was there in front of the fireplace. Barry finally got the case repaired and it was returned to its rightful place at Waterloo Station where it was used to collect money for the blind.
He had built a double garage at the bottom of his garden to work in. He had a small multipurpose woodworking machine, the Emcostar. It was a star and with the help of Barry I did my apprenticeship on that machine. It was a circular saw, band saw, disc sander, lathe, scroll saw and belt sander, everything you could need. Like all multipurpose machines it had its limitations, especially when we were working together, but we made it work as hard as we did and it was many years before it let us down, eventually failing spectacularly when I was trying to turn a giant earpiece for a period telephone. It had nothing to apologise for.
During this time when we were still working from home, the BBC dramatized Winston Churchill’s ‘A History of the English-Speaking Peoples ‘. ‘Churchill’s People’ kept us in work for well over a year. It didn’t set the world alight but it filled Shirley and Bruce’s house with drapes and gave Barry and me many hours of work. In one episode in September 1974, we had to build a 17th Century loom for one of the characters to weave on. It wasn’t the first we had made for the series. The first, a very primitive upright loom, where the warp was stretched by having stones pulling the thread tight, had been made some months before, but this one was a much more grand affair. As ever we had little time to make it and we worked through several days and evenings. It was due to be picked up by the BBC first thing the next morning and around midnight Barry went to bed and I carried on doing the last finishing touches and weaving a couple of feet of cloth on it. My father, who along with my mother, was staying for a few days, came over and photographed me working on the loom. He seemed proud that at last I had found something I enjoyed doing. My future had always been a worry to him. I had never known what I really wanted to do, being bored or restless by turns, driving him mad with my seeming lack of direction. He wasn’t a practical man, the only shelf he put up fell down, but he had an eye for detail.
‘Do you think that’s going to go through their garden gate?’ He asked. ‘Looks a bit wider to me.’ My heart sank. The two garages had been built at the bottom of the garden with no intention of ever being used for cars. Their garden gate was in a small brick arch next to the house. ‘Hadn’t you better measure it lad?’ We crept down the garden, not wanting to wake up either Barry or his family; their dog barked. The gate was indeed far too small. He left me to carry on and went to bed. ‘Maybe you can take it through the neighbours garden,’ he suggested as he left, ‘it’s only a wooden fence.’ I now had to worry about getting it to the front of the house for 8am as well as getting it finished. I crept home exhausted about 4 am and set my alarm for 7.30. I was on the phone to Barry by 8.
‘The gates to small,’ I told him. ‘Can we take it through the neighbours garden? What do you think?’ I could hear him laughing on the other end of the phone.
‘I’ll ring you back.’ Their house backed onto the local secondary school’s playing field and he managed to get hold of someone at the school who agreed that we could take the loom through the fence, across the field and down the main road back to the front of their house. We finally had it in their front garden on the other side of the gate by 8.45. We wouldn’t make that mistake again. It was a good lesson. The BBC transport didn’t arrive till after 3pm, and I spent the rest of the day praying it wouldn’t rain. Months later when the programme went out, the loom hardly featured. I did catch the corner of it in one shot. It was another good lesson. Don’t expect everything you make to be seen centre stage or even seen at all. It was an ephemeral world.