Last week I had one of those moments when something occurred that hurled me back through time and space. The brass wheels and clocks finally stopped whirring at the spring of 1964. I was sixteen, and half way through my lunch one Saturday the printer father of my ex-girlfriend (my first girlfriend as it happens) pulled up outside our house in his new dark blue Humber Hawk. Diving under the stairs I was finally brought out to be asked if I'd like a trip to London. Yes please, and a couple of hours later packages of print were being off loaded from the cavernous boot somewhere in Blackheath. A short while later I was being treated to a meal in a Quality Inn near Piccadilly Circus, and on walking out into the exhaust fumes and haze of the early evening I noticed the queues growing outside the London Pavilion cinema for Tom Jones, a film that had just won four Oscars. We stopped and stared at the huge gaudy blow-ups that adorned the entrance, and my kindly 'driver' said "I've seen that. It's wonderful". I also noticed that it had an 'X' certificate (oh how we were protected!), but a week or so later I crept into the Picture House in Leicester and saw it. It was like a gun going off in my head as doors flung open. My love of buildings, the English countryside, film and photography, and much more, started in this dingy cinema late on a Saturday afternoon. It was cup final day at Wembley, and during the fight scene in the churchyard (location: Nettlecombe in Somerset) they flashed up a sign on the screen to say that West Ham had won against Preston North End, 3-2.
Last week the past collided with me. I was sent an e-mail newsletter from the London Transport Museum, and in order to advertise Sunday's cavalcade of buses down Regent Street yesterday they used a period photograph of Piccadilly Circus. It looked so much like a gaudily printed postcard I went onto ebay and much to my amazement found that it was. I'm holding the postcard in my hand now, and the reason for my excitement (doesn't take much these days) was that the London Pavilion is clearly showing Tom Jones. And on further research I discovered that it was taken by Franz Lazi and printed by the Kardorama company which had just started in Hertfordshire. The year is 1964, it's 11.30, it's a sunny day and who knows, in a couple of hours I might just be watching the speedometer on the walnut dashboard of the Humber edge up to 80 on the M1.
So, farewell then Susannah York. On the day she passed away I was by remarkable coincidence showing Second Eldest Boy Tom Jones, Tony Richardson's seminal 1963 film in which she played Sophie Western: "Mr. Blifil! You can't be in earnest! If you are, I am the most miserable woman alive." I first saw it sitting nervously in Leicester's Picture House cinema (it was an old-fashioned 'X' certificate and I was under age) and remember thinking, as Miss York made her first delectable appearance on the bridge at Stepleton Iwerne in Dorset, "Blimey, who's that?". And today, as I heaved logs into the shed I noticed again one of the big wooden red 'E's from the main sign for the Picture House hanging up on the wall.
Whenever I say to anyone that my favourite film of all time (possibly) is Tom Jones, certain amongst them always start singing 'It's not unusual to be loved by anyone'. But of course those not given to this will remember perhaps that it's the film of the first great English comic novel, by Henry Fielding. I simply couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw it in the Picture House in Leicester. Directed by Tony Richardson in 1963, it was blessed with a script by John Osborne and photography by Walter Lassaly, every frame of which was (and still is) a great joy. It also went on to sweep the board at the Oscars. Most importantly it unlocked the door for me that opened up to reveal the immense possibilities that the English countryside had to offer, and, well, the rest is history I suppose. So this was the house used for the home of Squire Western, played by the irrepressible (and drunk) Hugh Griffiths. One memorable scene, filmed on hand-held cameras, followed the raucousness of a hunt meeting here, positioned as it is facing the end of a cul-de-sac that runs down from a magnificent church. Don't worry about the name of the house, only the village.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012) and Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012)