‘Gamekeeper-turned-Poacher..!’

Well I suppose, just looking at the number of superb documentaries that are regularly appearing on both the traditional terrestrial channels & myriad satellite channels and the vast array of knowledgeable historians & lecturers with deep wells of fascinating knowledge to share, there was always an outside chance I might have something in between my ears that could prove useful to another producer, (then I woke up!)

However though I would certainly not wish to elevate my way up to the ranks of those superb contributors who are regularly seen on TV as serious & enthusiastic expert ‘talking heads’, after 27 years of working in the field of Third Reich Military Music, I must admit it was rather flattering to be asked if I could make a similar small contribution to a new BBC TV documentary series currently being produced by R K Productions in Leeds entitled ‘Len Goodman’s Big Bands’…

I have to nevertheless admit it was a somewhat odd and a slightly disconcerting feeling to once again be moving from behind the camera to very briefly appearing in front of the magic lantern, (though I have presented a couple of Travel TV documentaries before), but this time I really had to look as if I knew what I was talking about rather than just point to the stunning scenery & enthusing for the viewers - so no pressure then!).

But then that is always assuming my small contribution makes it to the final edit and is not last seen being metaphorically swept up on the cutting-room floor, (because of course now everything is hi-tech digital edits, so a similar fate would that of being simply deleted & banished out into the ether!)…oh how cruel the world of television can be..!

Mind you, I’ve been around this industry long enough to know how this all usually unfolds, so I am fairly sanguine about how things turn out, but nevertheless I had a superb day on location with the well known professional Ballroom Dancer and judge on the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ Mr Len Goodman, in this new role of fronting this superb new series by Roger Keech for the new BBC Four Channel.. (I say ‘new’ but it has been around a while now..and showing some very interesting documentaries).

However I digress, (as is my usual habit), for as many collectors & enthusiasts out there who have come to know my company Tomahawk Films and its now specialist Third Reich Military & Civilian Music output these past 27 years, though a former TV Floor and Unit Production Manager thence Producer myself, these days happily my usual involvement with such fascinating work is very much from behind the camera, either to provide music, film & sound-effects or specialist historical background information to television researchers or to occasionally record the voice-over for the documentary soundtrack in question, if I’m lucky..!

However when Mr Keech, the engaging producer of this BBC Four series & I got talking about supplying some of Tomahawk Films’ German music archive to his series, he kindly asked if I would also care to be interviewed on camera by Mr Goodman, thus contributing to a specific section on Glenn Miller & WW-II German music, to which I happily agreed.

But after all these recent years of standing behind the camera or directing other people’s performances, going on camera myself again felt somewhat strange and very much as if I was turning from Gamekeeper-to-Poacher and, if I am honest, despite having lived a good part of my life on TV sets and in live radio studios, I was amazed at how long it took me to relax and actually think about what I needed to say for the cameras.. (by which time the interview was over..dang!!)

Mr Keech & I had been e-mailing each other as we sought to establish what he needed and what I could talk about and then last Friday I found myself at the former RAF Twinwood Night-Bomber Operational Training air-base north of Bedford, the aerodrome from which Glenn Miller made his fateful flight in December 1944. I say ‘found myself’, which is an over simplification, for this former air-field is well hidden and the only way to find it is to drive through a modern housing estate and then skirt behind a clump of trees then up a long stretch of unmade farm track..yes, quite!

Sadly my Sat Nav got confused and directed me to a house right in the middle of the housing estate; however luckily I managed to collar a local who kindly pointed me in the right direction. I finally knew I was close because as I pulled off the main road onto the dusty track as directed, a rather sumptuous & good-looking Jaguar saloon was just ahead of me and a very distinguished gentleman had got out to open the closed farm gate: Mr Len Goodman himself as I live & breathe, and by crikey, is he tall or what?

I am a fairly reasonable 5’8” when I remember to stand upright, but he towered over me as we exchanged greetings, (and laughed and swapped opinions on just how hard this blessed air-field had been to find) and then I offered to close the gate after he had driven through and I would play ‘tail-end Charlie’ and follow in my car behind his to the airfield!

So the pair of us then bounced up this long rutted track, his huge jag nimbly handling the ruts whilst my new Peugeot, with its low-slung, sporty suspension tried hard to break my spine as I aimed.. and failed.. to miss the holes. But eventually the pair of us in convoy drove on to the old perimeter road and, (though the huge, original concrete runway has since been dug up & restored to farming land),up to the former flight control tower & surrounding buildings, sitting just at the top of this old road.

Today they offer a superb mirror reflecting back those halcyon war-time days as, included on-site, is the official UK Glen Miller Museum; this indeed was the reason for the interviews being filmed here on location, for in the afternoon after my mini-performance on camera, a nephew of former USAAF Major Glenn Miller was also to be interviewed… and what better setting than the base at which his late uncle made his final, and sadly, ill-fated flight from the UK..

Mr Goodman and I eventually found our way into the aerodrome compound to be confronted by a green-painted control tower and a number of typical war-time camo-painted buildings with anti-blast white tape criss-crossing over the windows, plus a NAAFI building and various other assorted out-buildings…

Quite a sight that you would never have believed was still here, almost hidden as it was by the slowly advancing thick, dense forest surrounding this former old World War Two air-base…

RAF Twinwood was an Operational Training Unit for Night Bomber crews flying Mosquitos & Beaufighters and the pilots would be trained here for night sorties over a blacked-out Third Reich. Today the control tower is decked out as it would have been in 1944, with several of the crew-rooms having flying jackets draped over crew chairs, so the whole ‘war-time bomber field vibe’ is very much still there, thus offering a superb back-drop for filming WW-II documentary interviews…

Mr Goodman and I spent a happy half-hour chatting on camera in that evocative RAF tower with all its ghosts and war-time history still hanging in the air and with the Glenn Miller connection, stemming from the fact that this bomber airfield was the closest to Bedford, where his famous war-time Orchestra were based as a safer alternative from Blitzed London. Thus RAF Twinwood was a very convenient base for him to fly back & forth to occupied France for his many morale-boosting troop concerts. It was also at RAF Twinwood on August 27th 1944, that Glenn Miller and his Orchestra performed a concert as a ‘thank you’ to all of the hard-working RAF ground-crew that allowed him and his USAAF musicians free access flying in and out on their musical duties.

Sadly it was to be just 4 months later that, on December 15th 1944, and bound for France, Glenn Miller boarded his Army Co-operation Norseman aircraft outside of the RAF Twinwood Control Tower and set off into the night sky… never to be seen again! Since that day myriad theories as to what actually happened to him remain legion.. I was always of the belief that his Norseman ‘plane flying low across the Channel to France, may have been accidentally hit by returning RAF Lancasters, USAAF B.17 Flying Fortresses or B.24 Liberators who, approaching the English coast, jettisoned any remaining bombs from their missions over Germany ahead of landing back at their bases, and Miller’s plane had simply been unlucky and been hit by one of these jettisoned bombs as he headed out to France in the opposite direction…

However in talking to Keith Hill, (below), a superb aviation artist who now has a permanent exhibition of World War Two US & RAF aircraft in one of the Control Tower’s ground-level rooms, (including a superb painting he produced of Glen Miller’s Norseman plane), he mentioned a new documentary that has come out in the US whereby an expert who has been looking into the mystery of Miller’s disappearance on that fateful December day in 1944. The new researcher has uncovered a witness who saw the Norseman flying over Maidenhead on the night of December 15th, (thereby off course at the hands of a somewhat inexperienced Air Force ‘taxi’ pilot).

However more significantly, there had been a problem in some of the larger bombers with engine parts freezing up in the wintry temperatures, (parts which, unfortunately this smaller Norseman shared), and as a direct result pilots were ordered not to fly in low temperature conditions. However Glen Miller’s pilot did take off into the freezing night sky..and this new research suggests that somewhere off-course and over the English Channel, the Norseman’s engine froze solid as warned… and plummeted vertically out of the sky and into the Channel, never to be traced..!

Whatever the true reason behind this tragic loss of a popular war-time band leader, it is a fitting tribute to USAAF Major Glen Miller that RAF Twinwood, the airfield from which he made his last flight, now boasts its own Glenn Miller Museum, which is open to the public at weekends and where, once a year, a full 1940’s tribute concert is performed in his name. So what remains of RAF Twinwood’s Control Tower & its ancillary buildings here on the edge of the forest was a great location for producer Roger Keech to record interviews for his new BBC series, ‘Len Goodman’s Big Bands’ which is due for transmission over Christmas…

It was also a perfect setting to get us both talking about our other great passions, WW-II Vintage bomber & fighter aircraft as it turned out he has been very heavily involved in filming with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, Spitfire & Hurricane (along with the arrival of Canada’s last air-worthy Lancaster to fly alongside our our Lanc), whilst I could swap stories of my time in the US with the Confederate Air Force and Battle of Britain Movie stunt pilot Connie Edwards on his ranch in Texas with his beloved ME109s & Spitfires from the 1969 movie… so hopefully, if the gods are willing, we might be able to share our great aviation passion again before too much longer!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2014

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