A Flash of Blessed

With a loud 'Halloo!' coming from the far end of the Portakabin, you knew when Brian Blessed was in.   This was during the summer of 1979, when I was sewing for Flash Gordon at Shepperton Studios.   Burnt out after working night and day making tutus and sylphides (sylph-eeds) for Jean Lamprell in Covent Garden, I had left and almost - almost - taken a 9 to 5 job in Accounts for the Rotary Society.  

The cliff-edge to ordinariness had not been reached by a narrow margine.  It was only on my way out after a successful interview that I had seen the girls I would actually work with in Accounts, where an accusing look had been thrown in my direction which said: 'Who do you think you are?'   "A theatrical costumier..." my mind gulped back, and so I had backed out of it.  

And somehow, here I was, Working In Films, working for Dino de Laurentis.  This turned out to be the exact opposite of working for Jean Lamprell.  For a start, there was nothing to do.  Four machinists (myself among them) marked time by sewing together three metre-square pieces of heavy-duty backing scrim.  Day after day.  Soulless activity, but at twice the money I had been getting before, I did not mind so much.  I was sorry the Italians in charge of the department could not speak English, so I could not tell them I was used to making six historical costumes all at the same time, nor, due to the lack of work, could I prove my worth.

Every so often a short stubby man would appear at the near end of the Portacabin for a discussion with those Italians in charge; ribbons of Italian would flow across the room, accompanied by wild gesticulations.  Then short stubby would storm out.  It turned out short stubby was the main designer;  the Italians in charge were asking him for costume designs - which he had no intention of doing yet as he was designing the sets. 

This, the Italian, method of making films was to allow it to evolve.  Not, as you might think, to plan well in advance. During our lunch breaks, freed from the druggery of sewing scrim, there were pleasures to be had as we wandered about the studios and saw the sets being built.  In the special effects studios we saw the immaculate details of the model landscape - a train-set enthusiast's dream - which was to be used for the crash scene at the beginning. 

The staff canteen was interesting: extras from another film came in wearing full Victorian costume to line up for sausage and chips.  They were the snootiest people on the lot.  I was told that extras always are - something to do with still needing to prove themselves. 

The voice of experience said that that nicest people were those at the top: "Margot Fonteyn? an absolute sweetie darling, you'd never meet anyone nicer".   I don't know if this is always true; but having seen a few actors arrive for fittings - hmmm...  Back at Jean Lamprell'swe knew Christopher Lee was a sweetie, but... where is Oliver Tobias now?  He co-starred with Lee in 'Arabian Adventure' (1979), but had inconsiderately turned up for a fitting not wearing any underwear.  He could have asked the limo driver to stop off at M&S to buy some.  He was not a sweetie.

 Brian Blessed though, he was a sweetie, a really lovely man who had a huge generosity of spirit.  He turned up to be fitted for not very much.  A week or so after I had started at Shepperton a slight man had arrived at the opposite end of the portacabin from the Italians in Charge.  There he had proceeded to set up his gadgets and go about his business without any fuss whatsoever,  using hissing steam to shape felt into all sorts of headwear, and make leather into all sorts of other necessary, yet flimsy items. 

I mean, they seemed to be made of nothing much, yet Brian needed fittings in order to wear them.  To compound my incredulity that this artistry was happening, seemingly all by itself, the hatter - for so he must have been - told me he left his home to come out to Shepperton every morning at 5 am.   Leaving home at this jaw-droppingly early hour he did not mind at all.  

And Brian did look good in the creations made for him.  It seemed as if London had a lot of talent in making costumes.

Slowly costumes designs arrived,  and with them arrived more people to sew them.  I still had very little to do! Sue, an underwear expert arrived.  She was blond and tubby, the proud owner of a Ford Capri.  In the end her expertise was much needed, as there was a lot of 'underwear' to be made.  In the happy-go-lucky way of Italian film making, they made underwear for one Dale (Flash Gordon's girl), then changed their minds and brought in another.  I'm not even sure that they didn't change Flash himself.  

There certainly were a lot of changes.  Instead of a 'U' certificate, the film was to be an 'X' certificate.   This required the underwear to be more revealing.   But that was not a good idea for audience sales was it?  Realising their mistake, the Italians changed their mind yet again: it would be a 'PG'.  So new underwear had to be made yet again.

I am not sure what I did sew in the end.  It seemed to be an interminable wait for instructions.  As the months went on I came to be known as the little earth mother, as I was expecting my first baby.   Somehow in honour of this we used some scraps of red fur from the giant costumes to make teddy bears.  I remember the actors moaning about the heat and the weight of the giant costumes, which we could not do much about.

One afternoon I thought it would be interesting to watch some the filming, to see some of the action.  But it wasn't. Interesting.  A small army of people stood around with plenty of equipment seemingly doing nothing, waiting for something to happen.  This went on for some time. 

So now you know what it is like to do filming, let me take you from Shepperton Studios in 1979 to Elstree in 1981 or so; from Flash Gordon to Star Wars via Brian Blessed, who remembers Sebastian Shaw with much fondness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5x-ZQVOEeXM