Shepperton Studios

I gave up the Civil Service on the 28th February 1973. Thirty-eight years later on the same date we finally closed our workshop. It was to be pulled down and we sprayed a ten-foot stencil across the front and side of the building. ‘That’s all folks’ in the style of the Loony Tunes cartoon. It seemed fitting. It had been very loony at times, hovering on the edge of the real world, beset with problems created in the imagination of others; often exaggerated to the point of despair. Sometimes the only thing to do was laugh and carry on, as the world slipped into chaos behind you. Like a cartoon is would soon be over. Tomorrow would bring its next set of problems. Yesterday’s panics were all in the skip.

Life was good. Most mornings I would drive to the BBC to drop off whatever we had spent the previous day making. Often we had to work late into the night, but by 7am I was on my way back home, feeling rather smug that I wasn’t heading the other way into London, joining the vast hoards that poured over the Hogarth roundabout and down the Great West Road. I had worried when I had given in my notice that I might not have enough work to keep me busy. I had planned to convert the loft and repair the garage roof, part of which had blown off during the previous winter. Neither got done for some months as the work piled in, sometimes forcing me to work in the one part of the garage that still had a roof; looking up at the moon and stars. Nothing dried in there and anything painted had to be taken into the house, where things were now reaching breaking point.

I did convert the loft to store the growing piles of material, paint, glues, paper and card that seemed to multiply by the day, but it was the stairs that took more than their fair share. Things were either on their way up, or on their way down from the loft; getting up to bed, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, became a tricky manoeuvre worthy of army obstacle course. Things did get tidied away – after a fashion – when we had friends for dinner. Louise loved to entertain, and being one of the fastest cooks on the planet, we always had friends around. The stairs became even more important. Luckily the loo was on the ground floor so no one needed to negotiate the clutter piled up on each tread.

By 1974 we had run out of room, both in our own house and that of our friends. We heard through another friend that Shepperton Studios had closed. Up to that date, everyone who worked there had been employed by the studio and the films that came in would use the labour that was available. After it closed, there had been an auction in the July and it became a ‘facility’ – Shepperton Studio Centre.  Studios could be hired by the day, week or month – everything else had to be brought in – labour, materials, anything that was needed. Consequently many of the buildings were available to rent. The plan had been that these would be leased to companies that had at least a passing interest in the film industry. We went in early December and met Brian Rampling and Elvin Royal, who were then managing the studios under British Lion and agreed to rent a room next to the big house that was 20 feet square with a small room at the side that could house Barry and me and the Emcostar. It would be April the following year before we moved in.

At Christmas we went to visit my parents in Cheshire. We had left the props for the next episode of Churchill’s People all ready to be delivered the day after we got back on the 27th December. It wasn’t a happy Christmas. My father arrived home from The Manchester Business School’s Christmas party very depressed. He was the Administrative Officer and had been given the job of telling those concerned that they were to be made redundant the following year. Neither they nor he took it well. He was a man who loved to be loved. It wasn’t his decision to get rid of them and maybe he shouldn’t have been made to do it, but he hated it. There were one or two of those involved who made it worse, and took out their anger or frustration on him. He arrived home looking defeated and took to his bed upstairs, taking no further part in the festivities. He lay like a black cloud above our heads. He started to call me ‘boy’. I knew that was how his father had refered to him.   It seemed like a betrayal, and I was angry. We left late morning on the 27th after he had apologised to Louise for spoiling Christmas. I just felt that once we were all out of the way he might improve, get out of bed and get on with life.

We called in at Louise’s parents before we went home to wish them Happy Christmas.

‘We have some terrible news,’ they said as we stood on the doorstep. ‘Your father has died.’

‘You bloody fool,’ was my only thought. It took me twenty years to forgive him for giving up his life and abandoning me; making me even more of a fool than he was.  He deserved better from me.  His death certificate read ‘cardiac infarction’ but he had died of a broken heart. He would never see us move into our new workshop, never see that we managed to make it a success, he would never know that his son had finally found something he could do, that kept him from getting bored, that kept his nose to the grindstone, that would have pleased him and his strict Methodist father. I imagine he would have been proud.

There was one final irony. He had spent some years taking a degree with the Open University. He thought it hadn’t gone well in that year; that he had failed. We learnt after his death have he had sailed though with flying colours. He was 59 years old. I knew then that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.  Even if I died in the attempt, I was going to try and live forever. So far so good.

We moved to Shepperton on the 6th April 1975 after visiting my mother in Cheshire at the end of March. The last props we made at home were two canvas bags and a grappling hook on the end of a 60-foot rope for a television programme called ‘Circus’. We would need more than two bags to transfer everything to our new home but the grappling hook might come in handy. It was also appropriate that the first props we delivered from Shepperton were thirty-six flags for ‘Dr Who’. We were going into an unknown future, paying rent for the first time. We felt as though things were moving on.

From our now cluttered workshop we worked on ‘Quiller Memorandum’ more ‘Churchill’s People’, ‘Moll Flanders’, ‘Poldark’, ‘Survivors’ and the ‘Black and White Minstrel Show’. We also worked on an adaption of ’84 Charing Cross Road’. It was made for television and some years later would be made again for the big screen. It is a book written about a transatlantic relationship between an American book collector and the man who ran an antiquarian bookshop at the address of the title. The props were mainly letters and packages sent between the two. The Prop Buyer was Brian Read; someone who we would work for many times in the future, both in television and later – when he became freelance – also in films.

Florence and Suzie posing with a prop friend

Florence and Suzie, our two whippets, posing with a prop friend

We delivered the props to him and after putting our two whippets in kennels went to Russia for a week, on a holiday we had booked some months before. It was the last week of winter break holidays organised by Thompson Holidays. To our surprise it wasn’t at all wintery although Leningrad – as it was then – was wet. Moscow was bathed in sunshine, and we were told we were lucky as we strolled around Red Square watching the thousands of school children and solders rehearsing for the May Day parade. Brezhnev was then in charge and you could feel the lack of freedom everywhere. Everyone was wary of our small group of tourists, although Joe – an American Airman – on holiday with his wife Bonnie – always had a small group of boys surrounding him, exchanging chewing gun for badges and army belts. They had bought a suitcase filled with gum along on the holiday, and by the time we left for home a week later, it had been filled with swapped souvenirs, and the inside of his coat was lined with badges of all shapes and sizes.

By the end of May the second quarterly rent day was approaching fast. We did have a little work but nowhere near enough to pay the £400 pounds agreed. Suddenly we felt very vulnerable. Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to stretch ourselves. Then ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Dr Who’ came to the rescue. In one week we had to make a raft to take Captain Mainwaring and his men across a lake and ‘assorted jungle plants’ for a distant planet for Dr Who.

A few of many jungle plants made for a 1975 Dr. Who

A few of many jungle plants made for a 1975 Dr. Who.

 

It was often the case, that the shorter the description in the diary, the larger the job. ‘1off Raft’ hardly did it justice. We needed to call on everyone we knew to come and help on both jobs, including my two sisters, Karin and Lib; but gallons of paint and latex later, the jungle plants were finished and looked suitably weird and colourful. During the same week Barry had been making the raft; coming in after he had finished his other work to carry on till late. It only just fitted into our workshop and was made to come to pieces, both to get it out of the door and to be able to transport it. After it was finished there was black paint left on opposite walls, as both the bow and the tiller had been too close to avoid getting paint on them. It was made from second hand floor boards that I had found in a salvage yard; transporting them back to the workshop on the flimsy roof rack of our Renault Five, I had stopped off at the printers on the way back to checked my load. The roof rack had buckled under the weight and had settled itself on the top of the car. It seemed stable enough so I drove back to Shepperton. I did need a new roof rack but there were always four deep, tell tale dents that remained as a reminder of the trip and the raft.

The bulk of it was finished by the Friday. All that remained was for it to be painted, before the mast, rigging and sail were made and fitted. It was my birthday and the night before it was due to be collected on the Saturday we had a party at home.

‘There’s not much to do’, I told my brother-in-law Adrian and two other friends, ‘would you mind coming over for an hour to finish things off. I think I was fooling myself as much as them. We left the party at midnight and drove to the workshop. We met Barry at the door.

‘Job and home,’ he said waving his hand towards the large structure that filled the whole room, ‘I’ve had enough.’ Then he was gone. We set about painting the new sections of the raft, putting in the mast and making the sail, decorated with a large skull and cross bones. By the time we had worked out the rigging it was after 3.30am. We piled in my care and drove home.

Dad's Army raft afloat

The Boy Scouts raft in Dad’s Army sill afloat

I was at the workshop early with just enough time to dismantle the raft before the transport arrived. Bob Berk, the designer and still a friend to this day, had worked out how many oil drums he would need to keep it afloat and stable. He was, and still is obsessed with boats. Louise complains that when she rings him for a chat, even now, she invariably ends up talking about bronze propellers or dredgers. His one-track mind meant that the raft sailed beautifully and took all the eleven members of the crew safely across the water of the lake. Any trouble that there seemed to be was scripted and no men were lost overboard. Nearly 30 years later, it can still be seen sailing across our screens in all its glory.

The raft and the exotic jungle plants paid the rent. We were still in business.

One thought on “Shepperton Studios

  1. Pingback: Thinking Digital Newcastle, 2016 - Life Less Literary

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