Solar eclipse watchers, Greenwich Park, 11 August 1999. © David Secombe.
In Hackney, Mare Street was as busy as on any normal weekday. People were shuffling about with plastic carrier bags or talking on their phones, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the sun was about to be eclipsed. We were rushing to get our errands done in time to get to the park for the main event, the kids equipped with arcane little things they could look through that they’d been given at school two weeks before.
The first glimmer of what was coming was a strange, translucent-but-heavy quality to the air, as if it were turning into some kind of gel. It felt suddenly harder to move through it. Then the light began to go a bit greenish. Everything slowed down. When we got into London Fields, the park was thronged with people on the grass, some with picnics, and the weird green heaviness in the air intensified; it was like being in a fishbowl.
At the height of the eclipse, the park and the pub and all the people were as if viewed through a thick glass coffee table. It was very strange. But the utter incongruity of the street scene – lorries and buses seeming to wend their way painfully through unfamiliar, viscous air – was never matched once we were in the park.
© Katy Evans-Bush.
Buckingham Palace, 1991. Photo © David Secombe.
David Secombe writes:
In 1991, the BBC produced a documentary to mark Queen Elizabeth’s 40th anniversary as monarch. It was produced by the doyen of BBC documentary filmmakers, Edward Mirzoeff, famous for his Betjeman films and his editorship of the flagship 1980s documentary series 40 Minutes. I was tasked with doing the stills. The access Eddie and his small team had been given was unique, but the stills photographer had to manage as best he could, ducking out of shot (or not ducking out of shot), not treading on the sound man’s heels, and generally trying not to get fired. This picture was taken on my first day of the project, and shows the Queen having her portrait painted by Andrew Festing. The grainy, lightly impressionist tone of the image is largely a product of the fast Fuji film I used for much of the project: more a product of desperation, looking for stock that would cope with the relentlessly low levels of light, than any conscious creative decision. (‘Braille photography’ was a phrase which got used on more than one occasion.)
Stephen Frears film The Queen, featuring Helen Mirren’s acclaimed turn as Her Majesty, opens with a sequence in which the Queen has her portrait painted. The look of the sequence betrays the research the production team invested in Eddie’s film, and some of the details are lifted from the above picture (when the image first appeared, I remember being asked a lot of questions about the Queen’s silver shoes – this obviously made an impression on Frears’ team). I have heard that Stephen Frears denies ever seeing Eddie’s film. How sweet.
… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2012.
Air raid shelter sign, Jerningham Road, New Cross, SE14. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Today marks the 67th anniversary of the worst single bombing incident of the 2nd World War – when a V2 rocket scored a direct hit on a Woolworths store in New Cross. The V2 hit Woolworths when it was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers: the official death toll was 168, but it was often said that the real figure was much higher – although it seems unlikely that a significantly higher casualty number could have been withheld until now.
The V2 was unlike the earlier ‘Vengeance Weapon’, the V1 (A.K.A. ‘doodlebug’, a cruise missile) in that it was impossible to detect – let alone intercept – before it exploded. The first impact in Chiswick in September 1944 was first thought to have been caused by a gas explosion. Their sudden deployment was a source of grave concern to Churchill, and prompted the construction of deep-level air raid shelters in Bloomsbury, Clapham and Stockwell. South and east London received a disproportionately high number of V-strikes, largely because of a British intelligence coup: the double agent Eddie Chapman managed to convince his Nazi ‘handlers’ that V1s were overshooting the centre of London (they weren’t), hence the rocket launchers recalibrated and bombs began falling on Brockley, Woolwich, Deptford, Catford, Barking, Ilford, etc., and across Kent and Surrey.
The literal impact of these weapons may still be seen in London, where pockets of undeveloped bombsites remain – like the dead spot on Tottenham Court Road opposite Heals, final destination of a V2. South London is peppered with anomalous green spaces or abrupt changes in architectural style on a residential street, characteristic traces of Vengeance weapons. Perhaps the most bizarre legacy of the V2 campaign was the subsequent career of the project’s architect, Werner von Braun. The majestic Saturn V rocket which took Neil Armstrong towards the Moon was von Braun’s creation, the end result of his wartime experiments in rocketry and ballistics. As for Woolworths, they’ve put up a plaque. There is an Iceland store there now.
© John Londei 1998.
John Londei writes:
This photograph features Chelsea Pensioners – or ‘Gentlemen’ to give them their correct title – and was taken in the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1998 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Armistice that, on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, brought the First World War to an end.
Charles II founded the Royal Hospital in 1681. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building. The painting of the Resurrection on the domed ceiling of the Chapel, by the Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci, dates from 1714 and it’s believed to be a donation from Queen Anne. Back then compulsory services were held twice daily in the Chapel.
Seventeen of the Gentlemen in the shot were jokingly called ‘The Spice Boys’ because they always volunteered for such events. Nine days earlier they’d taken part in the Lord Mayor of London’s annual parade appearing on a float depicting The Royal Hospital’s history. But for me the real ‘star’ of this photo was Albert Alexandre, the last veteran of the First World War still resident at the Royal Hospital [the centre row of floor squares point directly to him sitting in the 1st row].
Albert was born in Jersey. Both his parents died when he was six, and he went to live in an orphanage. In 1917 Albert, who looked older than his years, lied about his age (he was 15) and enlisted in the Guernsey Light Infantry. He saw action at Passchendaele, outstanding among the battles of the war not only for its cost in life and limb (almost half a million allied casualties), but also for the weather. In the heaviest rain for 30 years, men, horses and pack mules drowned in the deep shell holes caused by constant bombardment. He witnessed men being blown to pieces all around him, and took part in hand-to-hand fighting. A phrase from one of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems sums it up: ”I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele”.
Albert was discharged in 1919, but re-enlisted into the Royal Garrison Artillery serving in India during World War Two. When Alfred’s wife died in 1992 he moved to the Royal Hospital where he remained until his death in January 2002 aged 100.
A large framed print of this sitting now hangs in the Gentlemen’s Ward at the Royal Hospital. With the passing of time that print, like those old soldiers therein, will just fade away…
© John Londei 2011.
Tony Hancock in a pub near Elstree Studios, 1966. Photo © Harry Secombe/Willinghurst Ltd.
[Tony Hancock committed suicide in Sydney, Australia on June 24th 1968.]
Tony Hancock by Harry Secombe*
Comedy is the business of a comedian and laughter is the prerogative of its audience. It follows, therefore, that whereas a comedian must deliver his comedy, the audience does not have to give up its laughter. He is then, at the beginning of his act, in a state of conflict with his audience.
Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column. But if he is one of the few greats, he leaves behind a legacy of laughter when he is gone, especially – and such is human nature- if there has been an element of tragedy in his life.
Tony Hancock was one of those rare ones who are bedevilled by success. He was never completely happy in a variety theatre; the strain of doing the same performance night after night and trying to invest it with an apparent spontaneity was more than he could bear. That was why he took to television so well; it removed him from the treadmill of the music hall and the twice nightly revue and gave him new situations in which to work his magic.
Of the rampaging, drunken, self-destroying Hancock depicted in so many stories, I knew very little. I have drunk with him and been drunk with him in the days when we were both young and inexperienced comics fresh from the services, but it was all good-natured tippling then. I met him many times later and at one time stood in for him on his radio show. But I will always think of him as he was, pristine and shining with ambition at the threshold of his career. What happened to him subsequently is for others to chronicle and argue about. I found him gentle and self-mocking then. The demands of his profession shaped him, destroyed him and eventually killed him, but he served it well. If anyone paid dearly for his laughs it was the lad himself. May he lie sweetly at rest.
* First published as the preface to Roger Wilmut’s Tony Hancock ‘Artiste’, Methuen, 1978.
© Secombe Estate 2011