Many year ago I worked for a while in the film industry. Having just left art school I was at something of a loss as to what I should (or could) do to earn a living.. I knew all about making sculptures, but not much about anything else, so I had a problem, obviously.
However, a mate of mine who had left art school a year earlier than I, had found his metier working as a model maker in a film studio, and he kindly offered to see if he could get me a job in his studio. Obviously the idea appealed to me enormously. Working in films??? Me? Wow, I thought, this will be great! Rubbing shoulders with film stars, famous directors and so on…. Wild!
Well I am here to tell you that it wasn’t great. As far as excitement went, it was much the same as the sweet factory I worked in (see post about that factory here)
The studio I was going to work in was the famous Shepperton Studios, where among other good or lousy films, all the James Bond Films had been made, so as you can imagine, my hopes of having a romantic and exciting time were very high indeed. But it was not to be.
I duly pitched up at the main gates on my first day, and was greeted civilly enough by my new boss, and taken off to what was to be my work place there. A shed at the back of the studio, in which a number of other guys (including my mate) also worked away merrily.
My work was as a Model Maker, which I had imagined meant that I would be making all manner of highly detailed models of cities, space ships or who knows what other amazing objects. Well in fact, what it actually meant was the following…. I had to make extremely accurate short lengths of ceiling mouldings in clay, which were then taken from me, sent to the mould makers shop, where fibre glass moulds were made from my master, and then lengths of the ceiling moulds were produced by the plasterers, sent to the paint shop and painted, and then sent on to the scenery builders, who would fix this ceiling moulding in place at the top of the walls of the set that was being built for a film all about Catherine the Great.
This was merely the first of a whole string of disappointments I suffered about the world of film making, and the following weeks did nothing to dispel my disappointment about it all.
Every day I worked in that shed was much the same, only the things I made changed a bit… So instead of making ceiling moulding, on another day I would be told to make a section of skirting board, or a length of decorated moulding to go on the door of a cupboard.. and so it went.
One of us got to make a very amazing full size imperial eagle, which I was very jealous about, but he was a guy who had been working there since the days of silent films (I felt), and was thus the senior worker among us modelmakers. As was often the case in Britain in those days, length of service was judged to be more important than skill, so whilst this old fellow was competent enough, he was definitely not the best modelmaker there, but because of his length of service, he got any good jobs that might come along.
Obviously as I was both the youngest guy there, and the one with the shortest service, I was very much at the bottom of the heap, and the others made damn sure I knew that as well. Not the most collegial of work places I found.
One of the other odd things about working in the British film industry in those days was how often we went on strike every day. In the corner of our shed, there was a large metal electric bell, which rang at odd intervals every day. I was told that when it rang, it meant that we were on strike, and that we should cease to work and wait for it to ring again, which would inform us that the strike was over, and whatever had caused the strike had been resolved. All very odd, and I never discovered what any of the 10 or more times every day that we were on strike were about. Generally the strike only lasted a few minutes, so we simply put our tools down and sat back and had a smoke as we waited for the bell to ring again to allow us to get back to our exciting work.
On the Sound Stage!!
Then one afternoon just as I was packing up to leave, I was told that I had to come extra early the next morning, as I was to be on the sound stage all day, which meant that I had to be there at about 5:30 am, as the doors would shut at 5:45, after which no one could come in (or out).
As you can imagine,I was now excited, thinking that at last I was going to actually become involved in some real film making.. meet the stars, chat casually with famous actors and all such things…
Well, not quite…………………………..
I duly turned up at the appointed time, went into the sound stage and reported to the guy who I was supposed to be working for that day. I was really excited, gazing around at all that amazing equipment like a kid in a sweet shop… Peering into dark corners in the hope of spotting an actor I might recognise.. Well, nope.
I never discovered why I was supposed to be there, as I did absolutely nothing all day long…. I was told to sit quietly in a dark corner, make no noise and not move. So that is how I passed my first day on a sound stage.. bored out of my mind sitting in the dark in total silence. (I leaned that lesson, so whenever I had to “work” on sound stages thereafter I was always sure to have a couple of good books with me.
Actually, film making for the greater part is a very boring thing to be involved in, except for those few individuals who are actually busy – the actors, the director, the camera man, and that is about it… A few other people have sporadic work to do, but most of the time it is a case of keeping still, keeping quiet, and keeping your head down.
On this, my first time on a sound stage, they were making a film about Catherine The Great of Russian staring Jeanne Moreau (who was playing Catherine). Now this is an actress I have always admired enormously (ah..memories of Jules et Jim!!!), so I was moderately excited at the idea of watching her at work. But once again, hopes dashed. I was kept a long way away from the good lady, and only briefly saw her in fact.
I have one memory of that day, which possibly rather sums the world of film up rather neatly….. They spent hours filming Catherine the Great in bed with one or other of her officers. The screen time this day’s work produced was probably about 30 seconds, but they spent the entire day getting it how they wanted it. Most of what was happening around that bed I couldn’t see owing to the gaggle of camera men, lighting guys, directors and God knows who else who were all clustered around the bed with their equipment. About the only thing that stuck in my mind was seeing how Jeanne Moreau who had on the most amazing night garments, was wearing worn out gymn shoes, one of which was poking out of the bottom of the bed all day long.
Rather spoiled the image I felt.
Jeanne Moreau as Catherine the Great.
I was called to be present on several sound stages in my time at that studio, but to be honest, I have no real recollection of any of them, except for the one where they were filming a dance sequence for the film “Half a Sixpence” (which stared that original British Rocker,Tommy Steele)
Anyhow, this is enough for today, so I shall write further about my time in the Great British Film Industry in a later post… Do drop by to read the continuing saga of my life in the films…..