As a boy growing up in the little village of Elstree in Hertfordshire all I ever wanted to do was paint. I left school in 1963 at the age of 15. My father was a scenic painter in the film industry and helped me get a job as an apprentice scenic painter at Elstree Studios, the British Hollywood. It was a five-year apprenticeship during which I was taught the art of set painting for film and television. Elstree Studios was a magical place to work. To be among so many artistically talented people was an incredible privilege. I worked alongside artists, sculptors, metal workers, lighting cameramen, famous directors, actresses, actors and special effects people. This photo shows me as a teenager in the scenic department at the retirement send off of one of the older painters. I’m standing with my arms crossed left of centre, the photographer positioned me deliberately to highlight the generations.
Elstree: The British Hollywood
The first productions I started working on were TV series like The Avengers, The Saint, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and The Champions. Then down the line I worked on Hammer films like One Million Years B.C., The Devil Rides Out, The Masque of the Red Death, Frankenstein and Dracula. Later in the 1980s I would work on the first and second of the Indiana Jones films, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Return to Oz, Willow and Highlander. I saw the great stars, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Bette Davis, Yul Brynner, Sophia Loren, Harrison Ford, the list goes on. Here’s a photograph of me with the crew of Robin Hood (1991).
My favourite sets
Some of my favourite sets to work on include the Peruvian temple from Raiders of the Lost Ark, The temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Victorian streets in Young Sherlock Holmes, the cave set from Never say Never Again, the ruined tower in Highlander, the emperor’s throne room in Return of the Jedi, Gotham City in Batman Begins, Tangiers in the Bourne Ultimatum and so many more. Here’s a photo from MacGyver: Lost Treasure of Atlantis (1994) with MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) and Atticus (Brian Blessed) walking onto the cave set I painted.
Light and dark
Before colour telly the sets were painted in monochrome, in various shades of light, mid and dark grey. Pure woodwork was off white. White was never used because the intense brightness of the arc lamps caused reflections on camera.
The stage sets were often lit with huge 10K arc lamps so when you see TV series such as The Saint and The Avengers you can see every fine detail of the set. But for films where there were only one or two smaller arc lamps this created a much more dramatic light and dark effect and sometimes the finer detail of a set could be lost. This is a fireplace I marbled on the set of Return to Oz (1985), once the scene was dressed and lit the fireplace was hardly noticeable. There’s me next to the fireplace wearing my Jedi crew fleece.
How my career inspired my art
My paintings are inspired by the many productions I have worked on in the scenic department, the locations I have visited and lived in, often for months at a time, the characters I have met along the way. My paintings are at times sensual, evocative, dramatic and inspired by fantasy. Here I am working on a miniature for the TV mini series of Gulliver’s Travels (1996).
My career has led me to work in many varied locations around the world in the medina in Tunisia, and the Sahara Desert for Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Greek Island of Kefalonia for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, France for a Bond film, Germany when I worked on Aeon Flux and more recently Tangiers in Morocco for The Bourne Ultimatum and many more.
Here’s a still showing my bronze effect work and stone work in the same picture. This was all part of the set built in Sami, Kefalonia for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001).
This is the Nazi submarine pen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the location was La Rochelle, on the west coast of France. I painted the main submarine among other things.
I have painted caves and cathedrals, spaceships and submarines, death stars and cupboards under the stairs – a lifetime’s work.
For a list of my credits visit IMDB.