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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Working on EastEnders

In 1988 I managed to get on the books of an agent in London called Ivor Kimmel. I'm not sure exactly how I came across him, but I think it may have been as a result of over-hearing a conversation on a bus when I was working on something else. I think I wrote to him to try and get onto his books and he must have written back saying something to the effect that his books were full, but he would bear me in mind if anything came up where they required more people on anything. I never went to his office or met him, but I got quite a few bits and pieces over the next couple of years. One bit of work that springs to mind was when I spent a few days working on EastEnders. When I was called by Ivor Kimmel he asked me whether I'd worked on EastEnders, to which I replied that I hadn't. This was only a few years into this show's run, as it had only begun in February 1985. He said they were looking for people to work on a show called 'Caged' or 'Behind Bars' or something and the location was in a school just outside Borehamwood in Hertfordshire. I went off to the location, not for one minute imagining it was actually EastEnders I was going to be working on.  They'd used the other name for the show they were filming as a sort of 'blind' to put off the tabloid press who are always hot on the heels of stories related to any of the 'soaps.' It was at the time they were filming episodes when Den Watts ('Dirty Den' as he was called, and played by Leslie Grantham.) and the character was about to be written out. He was in prison (don't ask me on what charge.) and the school was being used to film the scenes where he is visited in prison and also some scenes where he is being interviewed. I was to be one of the prison warders in the visiting room scenes and was in the background wandering about. I think I was seen but probably from the waist down as the camera was set up very low as the visitors are sitting at tables. These scenes were directed by Julia Smith who was responsible (with Tony Holland) for devising the format and characters for the show. Quite a formidable person. Being what they called 'rapid turn-round' television drama, there was no time to do endless 'takes' so you were expected to do it more or less in 'one take' so woe betide if you made a mistake. A scene would be shot and then the cameras would be moved around for the next set-up. When I arrived on location I was put into my costume as a prison warder and then I had to wear a long coat over it to hide the costume as there were press photographers around outside the location who would have taken photographs and given away the plot of Den's exit from the show which would have spoilt the whole thing, obviously. I believe the scenes within the prison cells were shot in Dartmoor prison, but I can't be sure. As so many of the 'regular' characters were supposed to visit Den in prison it was easier to set up those scenes elsewhere rather than travel to and from the Dartmoor location, or so I was lead to believe. I did quite a few scenes in the school on one day, but was later called back to be used in scenes where Den was being interviewed in a room elsewhere in the prison and was supposed to be guarding the room outside and let people in and out of the room. It was on the final day of shooting that Leslie Grantham was given a special cake with a prison decorated on it and was presumably his final day working on the show. 

I have done a bit of a Google search because I couldn't remember the name of the school where these scenes were filmed but I'm fairly certain that it was Haberdashers' Aske School in Aldenham, which is just outside Elstree, which is where the outdoor 'lot' for EastEnders is  situated and the show is made.

I never actually got to work on the EastEnders outdoor set or 'lot' at Elstree studios, but I did get a chance to see it when I was working on another drama series, 'House of Cards' (the original four-part BBC series and not the American version that has been remade.) For that particular series I did quite a lot of work in and around various London locations. I was with a group of other walk-on's or supporting artistes and we were supposed to be journalists. It was usually when the central character of Francis Urquart, played by Ian Richardson, was involved, usually when he appeared outside Downing Street. They had built a mock-up of Downing Street, as obviously they couldn't use the real one, and it was built alongside the EastEnders set. Ian Richardson came along in a car and got out and we were supposed to photograph him. It was an extremely hot and sunny day and it was supposed to be winter so we had thick coats on over suits and we got very hot. They had to put up special screens to block out the sun, which is strange as usually they use very large arc lamps to make a scene seem sunny when it it overcast. We did another scene somewhere in central London, I think it was supposed to be near Conservative central office, and we were expected to run across the road towards the front door of this large building, I think it was in a St Jame's Square.  On the cue for 'action' we had to time it precisely as there was real traffic and there was a real danger of getting run over. I seem to remember the unit was set up near where WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot outside the Libyan Embassy as there was a memorial set up at the site of where she was shot in 1984.
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