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Monday, June 13, 2016

Perry's Picture Post part 16


Towards the end of the 1970s, my old chum Theodore “Will” Wilson – formerly employed as a sales rep by Syndication International, the Daily Mirror's photographic library – gave me a call to ask if I was interested in supplying him with portraits of girls and boys (but mostly girls). If suitable, these portraits would be published alongside readers’ letters in a wide range of teen-magazine “post-bag” pages. There was also the possibility of them being used to liven up various “Dear Auntie Jean” problem pages and to accompany the odd text story. (Please note that none of the above pictures are mine. I did have a scrap-book containing dozens of these little gems, but through typhoons, termites and the odd earthquake etc, sadly it is no more!)

He also asked if I could organise and shoot photo-story strips for a number of Fleetway and D C Thomson teen and pre-teen magazines.

Anyway, I did as requested, but had carried out only a small number before I was forced to take a year-long break, this enforced sabbatical being due to one Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch – better known as Robert Maxwell – rudely encroaching upon my life. In 1980, Maxwell bought up the publishing and printing concern British Printing Corporation (who owned Purnell Books), which he restructured as the  British Printing and Communication Corporation (BPCC).

Maxwell expected his employees to jump when he snapped his fingers, and told the staff of the Purnell Books Sales Force that the annual presentation of the company's list of forthcoming books for 1981 was to be held at his Oxford residence. These “in the field” Sales Reps numbered perhaps a dozen and, as they covered the whole of the UK, this was the one and only time each year when they could get together.   

Headington Hill Hall and 11 acres of land were rented out by Oxford city council to Maxwell's Pergamon Press for an annual sum of £10,0000—Maxwell often boasting that it was the UK’s (if not the world’s) most expensive and luxurious council house.    

The conference began on Saturday with an evening of wining and dining, and continued on the Sunday morning with Mike Gabb and Sue Hook presiding over the presentation of the coming year’s books. Examples were on hand as we often produced covers – some having been bound onto dummy books – well in advance of the books’ inside pages being designed. The reason for this was (a) to show them at these sales presentations and (b), for publicity purposes as in the case of the coming year’s catalogue. I believe the Sales Force also used these ‘dummys’ when pre-selling books to members of the wholesale trade as, in 9 cases out of 10, the latter were only interested in what the cover looked like and rarely had any interest in the books’ content. One member of the sales force gave me a demonstration of how wholesalers viewed books they were being asked to stock: they would look at the cover, then, much like thumbing down the outside edge of a pack of playing cards, would feel the quality of the paper. As for the insides, they really didn’t give a damn.

Prior to the commencement of the evening meal, Maxwell – who was heavily into politics and had great admiration in hearing his own booming, reverberating voice – had started the proceedings off by making a none-too-short speech. Despite the first course of soup having already been served by an entourage of white-jacketed waiters, those in attendance were obliged to stand and listen to what the man had to say for himself.  

After perhaps ten or twelve minutes, we began settling ourselves down . . . only for our host to think of something else he wanted to get off his chest . . . so we were obliged to stand once again. Due to this bobbing up and down, the ends of my tie inadvertently become congealed with fatty particles of lentil, fried onion and curry powder from what had once been piping-hot mulligatawny. Apparently, further up the extraordinarily long table, Martin Lewis from the Production Department had done exactly the same thing.

Maxwell was, of course, flamboyant insofar that he spent a good deal of his spare time on the Lady Ghislaine (named after his daughter) – a 180-foot long (55 metres) motor yacht with a beam of 30-feet (9·2 metres) that he moored in New York’s East River. He also regularly flew by helicopter between Headington Hill Hall and his London office at Maxwell House. A story went around that the caretaker of Maxwell House was late opening up one morning and, by way of an excuse, told Maxwell that he was late because his bus had become stuck in traffic. Maxwell peeled off several hundred pounds from a roll and told the man to buy himself a car . . . and that he should never be late again.

Following his visit to Purnell & Sons' Maidenhead offices and the Purnell Gravure plant at Poulton, near Bristol, Maxwell decided there was ample room available at the latter location for all in one of the complex's vacant buildings. These had become unoccupied when Purnell discontinued the manufacture of printing ink and the production of envelopes a number of years earlier; both products were now created more efficiently by manufacturers elsewhere.

Although Purnell & Sons picked up the tab for all costs, there was still a lot of upheaval associated with the move as staff had to look for new homes and organise schools for their offspring; at least the move had taken place during the long school summer holiday break.

Purnell & Sons were very generous and there was hardly ever any argument when it came to getting one’s expenses paid, although they did baulk a bit over having to foot the bill for moving my 32-foot sailing ketch. And although about half of the Maidenhead staff had opted to take voluntarily redundancy, the remaining half had been offered accommodation in hotels for anything up to six months while they and their families got themselves organised.

However, shortly before all that happened, something else had occurred that was to keep us well and truly on our toes.


As 1980 tipped over into 1981, the big news was the up-and-coming marriage of Charles, the Prince of Wales to Diana Frances Spencer. There had been a lot of speculation in the press, but from the 24th of February, when their engagement was officially announced, there was hardly a publication in the land that didn’t carry one or more pictures every day to illustrate their revealing articles about the charming bachelor prince and his beautiful blushing bride-to-be.

Like so many other publishing houses, Purnell Books was determined to be the first to produce a book covering the event. In our attempt to speed things along, a good month or two beforehand it was decided that the first 32 pages of the 48-page book would concentrate on the earlier aspect of both Charles and Diana’s lives. Purnell Books' Chief-Sub Editor Sue Hook (née Bodger) had commissioned Brenda Ralph-Lewis to write the text.

While Brenda typed merrily away, I’d driven to some desolate spot on the outskirts of Swindon in deepest Wiltshire with the view to visiting the home of Anwar Hussein. At that time, Hussein was one of the accredited Royal photographers who travelled everywhere alongside the Royal Family.   

Of the 67 colour and black & white pictures that filled the first 32 pages of our proposed book, Hussein had supplied many colour transparencies from his extensive private photo collection. The rather more “historic” shots from the couple’s teen and pre-teen years had come from photo libraries such as Rex, Syndication International and Reuters. 

Taking up six pages (three double-page spreads) within the book were two Family Trees – one for Charles and one for Diana, which were used as endpapers – and, to divide the book into two distinct sections (before the wedding ceremony and after), artist Clive Spong did a brilliant job of illustrating the intended processional route between Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral in a light-hearted way.

If you are unaware of this artist’s name or of his work, since 1983 Clive has been illustrating “The Railway Series” – best known for one of its famous characters, Thomas the Tank Engine. Originally written by the Rev. W (Wilbert) Awdry, new stories are still being written by the Reverend's son, Christopher Vere Awdry.

We appeared to have become far more involved in what I call “coffee-table” books. Before leaving Maidenhead, with Wendy Hobson acting as the book’s editor, we’d put together an unusual tome written by Clive Sturman and simply called: Police. As part of the book’s content, Wendy had asked me to drive down to Portland Bill, a narrow promontory on the southernmost point of Dorset as she’d learnt from Clive that on a certain Sunday, a planned “incident” was scheduled to take place.

Every now an again, the UK’s emergency services stage some sort of disaster so that they can rehearse working as a team. In this instance, an aircraft was meant to have crashed, resulting in casualties being spread out over a wide area—not that the authorities had gone so far as to place a plane fuselage anywhere . . . or, if they did, I never saw it. Also unseen, apparently The Flying Squad had checked me out during the days prior to my intended visit, such was the high security of the occasion.

A major part of the exercise is played out by “The Casualties Union”. This is a group of volunteers who were experts at faking injuries both mild and serious, from having chunks of glass embedded in scalps to having an eye-ball swinging down from its socket. Photographically it hadn’t been such a great day out due to the wide spread of the alleged disaster. However, I do recall one casualty having to break his code of silence when he pleaded that I get one of the fire tenders moved. The driver had parked it in such a way that the tender’s exhaust was blowing full onto him and there was a substantial risk that the carbon monoxide was going to turn him into a bona fide casualty.

On 29 July 1981, when Prince Charles and Diana had become man and wife, it was the Government’s wish (or perhaps it was decreed by the Queen), that the UK’s population should celebrate with a day off. For between two and four hours, crowds of an estimated 600,000 people lined the streets along the processional route in the hope of catching a glimpse of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer as they passed by. The wedding ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral had begun at 11:20, and by 1pm, and for the remainder of the day, London’s Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill area had virtually become a ghost town. I had never seen the place quite so deserted . . . it would have been the perfect day to have shot scenes for the film The Day the World Caught Fire!

Although the Purnell Books' publication might not have been the very first on the bookstalls, our 48-page book could be bought from newsagents’ counters just eight days later. In order to complete the final fourteen pages of the book, all I had to do was to choose enough material to fill them and to find a suitable picture to go onto the front cover.

Like everyone else, I’d had the day off (at least, I’d had the first half of the day off). By mid-afternoon, I’d driven up to London and was visiting photographic libraries in order to choose images that had already been developed, processed and filed in readiness for art editors the likes of me – all of whom were doing much the same thing.

Although I had been presented with the originals to choose from, these could not be taken away, so, having chosen a number of pictures, these were sent off to the darkroom so that duplicate copies could be made, which then took another couple of hours to process and dry.

For the majority of the pictures, I’d gone to a place recommended by Anwar Hussein (probably because they also had him on their books as a supplier of Royal photographs). This I found in the basement under a block of apartments just off Southampton Row. It was to say the very least cramped.

Perhaps the word “cramped” is a bit if an understatement, for the ceilings were just six feet from the floor and I'm almost six feet one. When I came to a light fitting, I had to stoop down even further to avoid breaking the 80-watt tungsten bulb in its metal wire cage. The rows and rows of shelving holding thousands upon thousands of manila files were pretty closely aligned too, so much so that physically passing by someone who happened to be searching for a file was almost impossible – one or other had to move temporarily into a sort of purpose-built “lay-by” . . . either that or engage in some pretty sexy manoeuvring. I am quite sure that working there could have resulted in some very interesting happenings.

I was given a desk to work at . . . or, more correctly, half-a-desk as its front section had all but disappeared into the surrounding shelf system. I noted with interest that there was a special alcove within the shelving where one could place a mug of tea or coffee, for, apart from the transparency viewing light box, there was no space on the desk itself for such luxuries.

By around 7pm, I’d parked my car and had found the repro house that was to carry out the colour separations. They had already completed the first two-thirds of the book and were now on hand to make up the final pages ready for Purnell & Sons to print.  

Their offices were in the Elephant & Castle, south of Blackfriars Bridge. It was on the south bank of the River Thames and not much more than a stone’s throw away from where Bill Kidd and I had spent the day with the London Fire Brigade’s Training Centre when putting together “TV Action Meets the Fire-Eaters”.

When I arrived, Chief Sub-Editor Sue Hook was already in situ with author Brenda Ralph-Lewis who was in the throes of writing-up all that she had witnessed that morning. Also there was Mike Gabb, the new Managing Editor of Purnell Books, who was trying to look busy and doing little more than getting in everybody’s way. By about 10:30 or 11:00 that night, I’d done all I could design-wise and, after gathering up the tools of the trade I’d brought with me, I headed off home.  

I had specified that the cover should be printed in five colours as opposed to the normal four process colours of Yellow, Cyan, Magenta and Black (this was something I had previously discussed with David Westcott – Purnell Books Production Department). The fifth colour was to have been in Gold, but in my absence, someone who shall remain nameless had changed my specific instructions – I don’t know who, but I can hazard at an educated guess . . . for I’d already had several clashes where the man had wanted to cut corners  to save money. Without consulting anyone, his executive decision must have affected sales, apart from which, a later edition had to have new separations made and covers printed – all for having spoilt the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar!

Roger Perry
The Philippines

Coming Soon: In Part Seventeen, a photo-story shoot becomes even more bizarre when two of the models used were the same who came to quiz me over my strange activities . . . and I become Robert Maxwell’s “pet designer” in his goal of becoming a KGB.

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