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

Guernsey’s Victorian Fortifications…

It is a little remiss of me when writing about Fortress Guernsey and all of the terrific work undertaken by this historical initiative in the late ’90s under the leadership of my good friend and former boss at the Guernsey Tourist Board, Deputy Director Major Evan Ozanne, not to have ever touched on the earlier Victorian Fortifications of the 7 islands making up the Bailiwick of Guernsey…

For almost as important in the engrossing history of these sun-soaked islands as the German Occupation is the story of the earlier fortification building programme that took place in the late 1700s to combat the ever-present threat of an earlier invasion, this time by the French, (our on-off friend & enemy down the years), as these attractive of Anglo-French islands were literally right in the firing line between our two countries.

Though a greater part of my responsibility as Media Consultant to Fortress Guernsey, (often working alongside leading Alderney-based fortifications expert Colin Partridge), was to write, report & broadcast on the German Occupation side of the story and indeed to bring over as many documentary-film makers, fellow broadcasters and travel journalists as possible to show off this unique aspect of Guernsey’s formidable & fascinating history, so too the incredible Victorian Fortifications were a major part of our combined endeavours when promoting the military historical background of Fortress Guernsey to an intrigued outside world.

For almost 2,000 years in fact Guernsey and its 6 satellite islands of the Bailiwick  possessed considerable strategic importance in the defence of Britain and by virtue of its special relationship to mainland Britain as a Crown Dependent territory, Guernsey was to eventually find itself covered with myriad fascinating earthworks, forts, Martello towers, gun-batteries, arsenals & watch-houses, all built principally to resist the threat of invasion… and obviously long before the rise of the Third Reich and Hitler’s lustful eyes on these stunning islands, (though interestingly enough all those years later many of the subsequent German fortifications were actually built upon, or added to, these previously early constructed and very sturdy Victorian fortifications.)

The catalyst for the earlier defensive positions can be traced back to the American War of Independence in 1775 as 3 years later in 1778, France declared its support for the American colonists in their struggle against the British Crown..and the Channel Islands, despite the presence of a powerful Royal Navy, lay very close to an increasingly aggressive France.Indeed in May 1778 the Governor of the neighbouring island of Jersey wrote to the British Secretary of State in London recommending that a programme of  coastal defence building should begin in the two larger Channel Islands (i.e. Jersey & Guernsey).

So it was that in August 1778, approval was given for the construction of 15 fortified towers and with the importation of a large force of labour, (later echoed in the 1940s when the Germans brought in slave labour for their building programme), by March 1779 all 15 were complete and ready for action. The French had actually drawn up plans for the full invasion of the Channel Islands, though mercifully this did not materialise, nevertheless it was decreed that Guernsey’s defences be further strengthened. So it was that from 1803 onwards three large Martello Towers were built at Rocquaine Castle, Fort Sausmarez and at Houmet Point, all of which were to have additional German fortifications added to, (or on and indeed over), during the 1940-45 Occupation of the Bailiwick.

However, of the original 15 Victorian Loophole Towers built in 1778-79, just 12 now remain in Guernsey, one of the most important of these being Rousse Tower in the north of the island overlooking Grand Havre. Designed primarily to prevent the landing of enemy troops on nearby beaches and, on stretches of coastline where more than one tower was erected, Rousse and the other towers were positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire from their light 1-pounder cannons.

Musket-fire could also be directed down on invading forces through the loop holes whilst from a position on the roof the later addition of a 12-pound cannonade could fire grapeshot. Heavier guns on these batteries were subsequently added and this allowed the towers to actually engage enemy ships up to a range of some 3000 yards.

Rousse was actually constructed in 1804 on the site of a former small battery already sited on this ‘achingly beautiful’ headland and by 1816 it boasted three 24- pounder cannons and two smaller 9-pounder cannons and, on a base of Portland stone imported over from Dorset, the larger guns were mounted on inclined platforms to help with the force of the cannon’s recoil, whilst the smaller cannons were sited on the flat so they could be easily manoeuvred to fire on the advancing enemy through the embrasure openings on the rear wall if required.

Although the British Government maintained a permanent military garrison in the islands, there were actually insufficient troops to guard all of Guernsey’s wide-open sandy beaches, so this task was delegated to the Guernsey Militia. Recruited at the age of 16 and transferred into the Reserve at 45, they remained on standby by for call-up right up to the age of 60, and though there were weekly drills & parades, they were not paid… and even had to provide their own Militia uniforms until the British Government began furnishing them from 1782 onwards.

With a force of some 2,500 to 3,000 men in the Militia, Rousse Tower was manned by a Sergeant and 20 men under the command of a Captain, who was also responsible for 3 other identical batteries sited across the headland

Men allocated to this duty also had to continue their normal day-job as farmer, fisherman or quarryman, however they were allowed to appoint ‘substitutes’ for when the day job was more pressing and at these times it was not unusual for the soldier’s wives or their children to stand in. But eventually this led to abuse and many derelictions of duty when men supposedly on duty… but were anything but!

As a part of Fortress Guernsey’s remit, Rousse Tower was given a superb make-over and in addition to the construction of life-size models then placed inside the tower to illustrate life within in the late 1700s/early 1800s, after a great deal of effort a number of original cannons were sourced and, after proofing in Chatham Docks in England, were sited on accurately reproduced carriages. Now these are proudly on display at this beautifully restored Victorian site.

On my recent trip back over to Guernsey I was delighted to once again pop up to Rousse and happily note that the Tower, (seemingly falling yet again into a state of some disrepair on a previous visit, despite all the work that Fortress Guernsey had originally invested on it), was now looking really ‘ship-shape & Bristol fashion’.. a real sight for sore eyes in fact!

It was a real delight to spend some time here once again, this time with my dad, taking in the magnificence of this Loophole Tower, now some 230 years old, fully restored to its former glory as it is a truly wonderful testament to the Victorian art of military fortification; and something that the German military designers & engineers either consciously or subconsciously copied some 160 years later when it was their turn to further fortify the Bailiwick from 1941 onwards, (after their invasion the previous year), and the island’s unique German gunnery range-finding towers began to rise at their coastal locations…

Now following Major Ozanne’s earlier lead & persistence in the late 1990s, Rousse Tower is deservedly back on Guernsey’s list of States-maintained historical sites and with further island investment and continued work on the site in 2006, this important landmark attraction can rightly said to be of the finest restored Loophole Towers anywhere in the Channel Islands. So to all involved…well done and bravo!

Finally, whilst just finishing off this latest Blog, a number of readers kindly contacted me to say that they had been enjoying my piece entitled ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ concerning ‘Douglas’ Small’s final resting place in my local village churchyard and my musings as to whether the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had learned of my periodic maintenance of his grave and added it to their official cleaning list as a result?

Well I am delighted to say that a fellow villager, Reg, came forward to say that he and his wife had seen a van in the churchyard when out on one of their regular rambles that bore the legend ‘Commonwealth War Graves Commission’ on the outside and when they approached the team, they were told that the CWGC now comes to our churchyard every two years to give the soldier’s headstones a make-over…

Back then Reg was unaware of my tie to Douglas’ grave so wouldn’t have been able to ask the cleaners if it was indeed them that had given his headstone a thorough make-over, but as his is now a clear white marble, (as opposed to the ‘grey concrete’ when I started to clean it in 1999), I feel I can conclude that the CWGC have indeed added ‘Douglas’ to their list. A very happy outcome for me as we approach this Sunday’s November 11th Remembrance ceremonies and then, next year, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the subsequent opening of the Hazeley Down Army Pre-Embarkation Camp here in my beautiful village of Twyford on the River Itchen.

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013