Out of Town with Jack Hargreaves..

Well, I am seemingly getting the hang of this Facebook ‘thing’.. apart from the heinous transgression of having the temerity of contacting like-minded people interested either in World War Two Military History… and I am still sitting on The Naughty Step for another 11 hours..apparently..before I can purge my sins and rejoin the Facebook community and starting befriending folk once more…

However one of the exciting things for me is that whilst looking around FB to see what other folk get up to, I noticed a Jack Hargreaves Page…a wonderful surprise and a trip down memory lane for me for, as a young 22 year old just starting out in the TV business in the early 80s, (and as a real country-boy myself having had Jack as my childhood hero), I am genuinely thrilled to say that my very first job in broadcast TV was as the Unit Production Manager on 60 episodes of Jack’s famous show commissioned by the new Channel 4, (which Jack undertook as a favour to his old pal and fellow Picture Post journalist, Jeremy Isaacs who was, at that time starting up this new and potentially ground-breaking television channel).

Having just turned 56, it is now quite amazing to realise that it was some 36 years ago that, working through Lacewing Productions in based down in the old crypt of the church in St Peters Street in Winchester, (chosen by Jack as his former Southern TV editor & good friend Dave Knowles was a partner in this new Winchester-based film company), our enthusiastic young team were awarded, (and trusted with), such an important television contract for Channel Four. I had only been with Lacewing for a few months as a trainee studio manager when I was asked by Dave if I’d like to be the Production Manager on this new series for Jack…delighted to be asked, I in turn, asked what does a Production Manager do? To get the swift answer ‘there’s a desk, there’s a phone..learn’!

..and learn I certainly did... and within a short space of time we had located Jack’s ‘Out of Town Shed’, (and myriad props) sitting in a hanger in Southampton and so organising a pick-up truck I collected the flats and took this very famous & much-loved piece of Southern Television history over to Meonstoke Village Hall, (the village where TV director Steve Wade lived) in Hampshire where we set about faithfully re-building Jack’s set as per the old days..

Short of an old military stove and a roll-top desk I went up to a props company in London and located just the two items we needed to complete the scene, (and wandering around that company was a story in itself as I recognised props from Dr Who and several other famous shows) and having collected them and completed the recreation of Jacks’ shed, we then proceeded to shoot studio-links effectively as an Outside Broadcast..ie cameras inside and an OB truck parked outside the hall containing director, sound engineer, vision mixer, P.A. & racks engineer), playing in new 16mm film footage (shot by local film cameraman Steve Wagstaff of Jack out & about in the countryside) that had already been be edited in Winchester ready to be played in.

The first 20 episodes went down a storm with the new Channel Four audience and we were ecstatic when another two series were commissioned & awarded to Dave Knowles’ new film company The Production Unit and a further happy 2 years shooting the studio sequences in the lovely village of Meonstoke ensued!

For reasons I can’t remember today, (probably legal!), we could not name this new series Out of Town as previously, so a  new name was needed. I had, in passing, suggested to Jack the title ‘The Old Country’..and that indeed was what those following glorious 60 episodes on Channel 4 went out as and they were such a joy to work on. Oh, that reminds me, we could also not use the original Out of Town song by Max Bygraves for some reason or other so Jack, being a most canny operator, got a television technician of his acquaintance who played guitar to record a very relaxing and extremely fitting instrumental track which then became The Old Country’s official new theme-tune..

Jack was the most fabulous raconteur & joke-teller you could ever imagine and his fund of stories were just fabulous, a number stemming from his days as a tank commander during the Second World War. Not surprising then that during  our lunch breaks taken at the pub in Meonstoke, Jack with pint of real ale to hand, would hold court and the youngsters on the crew (or usually just me!) would find ourselves either hanging on every word, spell-bound, or laughing fit to bust..In fact I recall that on more than one occasion I had to ask Jack to ‘politely’ shut up as my sides were aching from so much laughter…

He once told a story dating from his war-time tanker days where he was standing on a parade ground watching a tank, engine idling, sitting with just one crew member aboard. Said crew member suddenly remembered he had left something in his billet and jumped out, but as he did his foot caught the upper hatch and it slammed shut..and locked! This would have been bad enough but as the squaddie jumped out of the hatch, his heavy boot clipped the gear-lever and the tank was somehow knocked into drive and moved off slowly at a very regal and sedate 2mph… and with not a soul inside to stop it…what a hoot!

Cue much hysterical laughter as Jack vividly explained how this tank then slowly wandered off across the parade-ground, flattening various, huts, including the NAAFI and other sundry buildings, with more squaddies all over the show trying in vain to stop it..!.The way that Jack also brought this story to life was just pure joy and the cue for yet more pains in the side and our crew gasping for breath..!

I also recall on set one day, just as the cameras were about to turn over, he cracked a gag (one of the funniest & dirtiest I have ever heard up until that tender age of 22) and back then we had an much older, rather po-faced, floor-manager who didn’t laugh much as a rule, but as Jack delivered the punch-line with real verve, this FM broke into such gales of hysterical, uncontrolled laughter that we all thought he was either going to have coronary on the studio floor..or wet himself.. or quite possibly both!

But then Jack always knew what he was doing..: his timing was superb and his memory & powers of recall quite unbelievable, allied to which he knew how to deliver both a gag and a story brilliantly. I think it was his old mate & sparring partner Fred Dineage (of ‘How’ & World of Sport fame and now Meriden’s mainstay news presenter in Southampton), who once opined, if I’ve got it right, that if you gave Jack a ping-pong ball and asked him to talk about it, he would hold forth for half an hour without faltering once on the merits of the inside of said ball..amazing!

In fact in all of my long-ish TV & Broadcasting career to date, I have never ever met another man such as Jack that did not use a script or autocue in his day-to-day work! In fact it used to irk me more than a little when folk talking to me about working with Jack would state with much certainty that’ “you could see him looking off camera at a script”..which was complete rubbish and I used to get quite offended as towards the end I actually came to look on Jack as a surrogate grandfather and was, (like all of our crew), very protective of him & the programmes we were producing!

What Jack was doing was, in fact, talking directly to us, his crew, standing behind or just off the camera. We were very much a small family unit, (as Jack liked it to be), and we all used to sit on set watching him and he would simply keep looking off camera at us as he talked…almost drove poor old Steve the director nuts as he wanted Jack looking straight to camera and not at us… Happy Days indeed!

After 60 episodes of the Old Country Jack then ‘retired again’ and we thought that was that.. until he was later asked by former production colleagues up in London, if he would come out of retirement again to produce another 28 episodes for world distribution. So it was that the former ‘The Old Country’ television director Steve Wade, his son Phil, again on sound, and myself (excited to be asked to reprise my former role as Unit Production Manage)r, all very happily teamed up once again. This time however we used Jack’s real shed, (full of his beloved props), over at his home in Shillingstone in Dorset, went into production mode once more, this time using his favourite old film sequences from his days at Southern TV..

We shot the links in his shed and then moved inside his house where, sitting in his arm-chair, he’d voice-over the film-clips into a Nagra recorder as Phil & I sat at his feet having our own personal performance of Out of Town, whilst marvelling at the truly wonderful presenter that Jack was, narrating without a script in sight!

And a further laugh for me was that during filming the 60 episodes of The Old Country over at Meonstoke folk would say to me ”ah I can see he is in a  real shed” to which I would reply it was a set, then when the 28 episodes shot in his shed at Shillingstone aired on regional TV, those self-same folk would say “ah yes, I can see that is a TV set” to which I would have to say, wrong again, this time it is his real shed..! In fact I think the header photo of him on the ‘Jack Hargreaves Facebook Page’ is indeed a publicity shot from his shed when we were filming those last 28 episodes from his home in beautiful, deepest Dorset!

In recent months I have noticed that several companies are now offering boxed versions of ‘Out of Town’, (one set listed as the ‘Lost Tapes’ or some such), on DVD and wonder if it is actually these last 28 episodes that we shot in Jack’s ‘real shed’?

But all-in-all, I am extremely proud of the 88 episodes I worked on with Jack, (in my long-lost freelance days before I formed Tomahawk Films and became a voice-over artiste), and count myself very fortunate (and ever grateful to Dave Knowles) to have had such an opportunity of working so closely with that boyhood hero of mine…  I also know that he was not just a hero to me for wherever I still go today and talk about my TV & broadcasting career, when Jack’s name crops up, I am simply staggered by the amount of folk that, like me, also grew up with him and love to talk to me about working with him as I did..!

It’s funny to remember back when my school mates rushed home to watch the footie on TV, whilst I’d rush home to watch Out of Town.. never knowing that years later it would be my first production job in broadcast television. I consider myself both lucky & honoured to have been so closely involved with this great broadcaster and ‘man of the countryside’…..

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

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