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

A Soldier’s Grave…

I first stumbled across it by chance..!   It was tucked away in the corner of the churchyard surrounding Twyford’s beautiful Parish church and, being off the main pathway, it had long given up the struggle against ivy and long grass. I think it was the shape that caught my eye as I wandered absent-mindedly through that tall grass and I stopped, picked away at some of undergrowth that had attached itself to the headstone and, underneath years of neglect, there appeared some metal lettering affixed to the concrete face…

It read:  ‘Private John Douglas Small of the London Regiment ‘Kensingtons’. Son of Albert and Emmie Small of Elfords, Hastings. Died at Hazeley Down Camp, Twyford September 29th 1916 aged 18’.

The words said everything, yet told me nothing. Who was this young soldier who had been stationed at the big First World War pre-embarkation camp in the village? That, in the third year of that terrible conflict, this soldier, not long out of basic training, had died at such a young age was obvious… but how and why?

Had he made it to the Western Front and returned to die of his wounds? Had he been taken ill awaiting the move to the trenches of Flanders?… or was there a more sinister story behind this innocent headstone? More intriguingly, why did this soldier’s grave have a private headstone whilst other soldiers who’d died at the camp, and were also buried here in Twyford’s churchyard, have the instantly recognised white official military headstone with Regimental badge?  So many questions, but where to begin to find the answers?

Having lain undetected for so long, the answers were not to be eventually found locally, however a letter to a local newspaper in the Hastings area appealing for information brought a breakthrough for me. Several Hastings residents remembered the family of John Douglas Small, then came the big tip-off: ‘Douglas’, as he was apparently affectionately known, had a younger sister who was actually still alive and living in a nursing home in Battle and, armed with this information, I made my way to Sussex to meet Constance ‘Connie’ Small.  A former school teacher and now in her nineties, this lovely old lady was as bright as a button and, obviously touched that I had taken over the tending her late brother’s grave, she talked to me about his tragically short life.

Douglas was her favourite older brother and on leaving school at 16, he took a job in his father’s motor-vehicle garage. Called up at 18, he enlisted in Chichester as 6120 Private Small in the 13th Battalion, the London Regiment,  a Territorial unit known colloquially as the ‘Saturday Night Soldiers’. Following basic training, his Regiment was despatched to Hazeley Down, Twyford, in preparation for its transfer across the Channel to France and the Western Front.

But on the morning of the 26th September 1916, as the lads were called to muster at 7am ready for the ‘off’, Douglas could not be roused from his bed; the camp doctor was called and he was transferred to the military hospital at Haslar in Gosport down on the South Coast, where meningitis was diagnosed. Tragically he died three days later and his body was returned to Twyford and the Hazeley Down camp.

By his untimely death, Douglas Small  was spared the horrors of the Western Front, but I asked Connie how her brother came to be buried in Twyford: “My father made that decision. In those days getting around the country was not easy and as Douglas loved Twyford and was a popular figure around the village, my family thought it would be fitting for him to be buried there and a private headstone was bought”.

The ‘War Casualties’ listing in the Hastings & St Leonards Observer on 7th November 1916 confirmed her brother’s popularity: “Private John D Small was buried with full military honours in the Twyford Village churchyard. There was a very large attendance at the graveside: about a thousand military and civilians being present, including the Officers, NCO’s and men of the Regiment and the Regimental Band”.

Sadly, today very little remains of the 105 acres of this enormous camp other than a distinct echo of military boots, barked orders, and the long shadows of thousands of young men on their way to an horrific war from which they would never return. A scene belying its previous frantic activity, lines of impressive trees now mark where the camp’s roads once ran, whilst the odd First World War-constructed hut still lines the grassed valley of our very historic village.

The Ministry for War first commandeered this rich farming land, owned by the Best family, in 1915. Work immediately began to build a massive wooden military complex to house the young ‘Pals Regiments’ on their way to the docks at Southampton to join the vast Allied armies at war with the Kaiser’s army in France. To this day some elderly villagers still remember the vast khaki columns as they marched from Hazeley Down into Twyford, either to pick up the troop trains at close-by Shawford railway station or to continue through the village on a full route-march down into the Port of Southampton.

In addition to Douglas’ London Regiment, (known fully as Princess Louise’s Kensingtons), Hazeley Down Camp was also home to the 14th Battalion (London Scottish),  15th Battalion (Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles), 16th Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles), 17th Battalion (Poplar & Stepney Rifles), 20th Battalion, (Queen’s Royal West Kent), the Royal Garrison Artillery, The Tank Corps and, representing the British Commonwealth, Canada’s Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Finally the Great War came to an end on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 and Twyford’s Hazeley Down, the scene of much hectic war-time activity, became a holding base, garrisoned by a few ‘old salts’ of the regular army until 1921. Then the entire camp and its contents were sold off by auction on the orders of the Ministry of Munitions in that year and the land reverted back to its peaceful and most beautiful of pre-war farming days.

Hazeley Down briefly hit the headlines again in the Second World War when a Luftwaffe Junkers 88 engaged in bombing Southampton docks, overshot and was attacked by a marauding Spitfire on August 15th 1940, at the very height of the Battle of Britain. Struggling to stay in the air, the pilot, (who, incredibly, studied at nearby Winchester College before the war, so knew exactly where he was!), eventually jettisoned his entire bomb-load across fields around the site of the former camp and crash-landed in the valley, the crew being rounded up by Twyford’s local Home Guard detachment and escorted away as Prisoners of War… their war over!

Having located these impressive bomb-holes in my youth, some years later I was given a large piece of the original perspex from the JU-88’s cockpit canopy; thence a few years on, a former crew member’s summer Luftwaffe flying suit was located in the shed of a former Home Guard member and this was also gifted to me.

Other souvenirs were spirited away at the time, for the Canadian fighter pilot who despatched this German bomber, circled the crash site before carefully landing his Spitfire on the grass-strip alongside where the stricken bomber made its wheels-up landing. Then in front of the astonished Twyford Home Guard members, the fighter pilot jumped down out of his Spit’s cockpit, ran over to the JU-88, leaned inside its now canopy-less cockpit and, with a practiced twist of his wrist & a flick of his fingers, unscrewed the bomber’s dash-board clock, stuck it in his flying jacket pocket, ran back to his idling fighter and took off, never to be seen again..!

In addition, I had long heard that the pilot’s Luger pistol was still lurking somewhere in the village, having been surrendered to the Home Guard; but despite my regularly pumping the elderly locals for gen, ( at least once a week), in our former local, The Dolphin Hill, despite many winks & ‘knowing-nudges’ of each other, I never got a straight answer as to its whereabouts. So one lightly-used Luftwaffe-issue Luger is still sitting hidden somewhere here in my village of Twyford and that, sadly, is how it will probably stay… unless I get lucky and someone weakens under my ceaseless interrogation!

Meanwhile back to Hazeley Camp, where today an imposing cross, erected by the Best family as a memorial to the tens of thousands of young men who passed this way, can be seen, set back from the Hazeley Road amidst the few remaining wooden barracks from the First World War that still dot the hillside…

As for the grave of her brother that Connie never got to see, it is now lovingly cared for in Twyford’s little Parish church, by myself and latterly the War Graves Commission, its sad history now finally known!

Connie died shortly after I visited with my photos of her beloved brother’s grave and I take comfort knowing I was able to show her where ‘Douglas’ was laid to rest and assure her his grave was now looked after and that each November a British Legion Red Poppy is placed upon it…

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013