J O E O’ C O N N O R
B A C K T O S C H O O L
First there was an outrageous rumour, then one confirmation after another came through, and – yes – it was definitely going to happen week commencing 29th September 1986. I was fifteen years old and in the Fifth Form (Year 11 to most these days) at Sir Frank Markham School, Milton Keynes. SUPERMAN was coming to visit for a week and for three days of filming…
The prospect seemed every bit as surreal as it was incongruous. THIS Superman, who I had first seen on the big screen as an excitable seven year old, was coming to our pioneering new city. Coming to Milton Keynes because its US-influenced subdivisions, leafy boulevards and an abundance of steel and glass in the retail and business districts made it a potential stand in for Metropolis, if on a smaller budget than most blockbusters were accustomed to…
Like me, most of my classmates had arrived in Milton Keynes in the previous five to ten years, and if we didn’t all arrive via crystal encrusted space basket, most of us certainly landed next to new and spacious social housing, bordered by rough fields anticipating more development. This was both our semi-rural Smallville and an ambitious Metropolis of sorts, rising slowly before our eyes.
The senior staff at Sir Frank Markham did a great job of keeping their secret for quite a while – we weren’t even aware of a Location Scout team as far as I can recall. Pretty soon, one bright September morning on the walk to school, celluloid dreams were suggested by the sudden appearance of a massive tower crane looming over the Seckloe Centre building of the campus. I was ready to believe again that a man (or at least, an exceptional alien passing for one) could fly.
Despite efforts to remain cool or uninterested, the general student population was buzzing. It felt more than a little outrageous that for most of that week we were expected to carry on with our normal lessons and transfers between buildings. We basically had about five minutes’ transit between lessons if we were lucky, and on one fifteen-minute break we did get an eyeful of – is it? Yes it IS! – SUPERMAN – hovering above an American Football game on the sports field – and to watch the set dressers polishing a hastily put-up school monument/sign.
In our daily Registration class briefings, the teachers soon addressed a lot of popular questions, but it was made abundantly clear that we couldn’t meet or request autographs from Mr. Reeve (boo!) but… there was a plan to distribute black and white photocopies of one signed photo at the end of the week. This never materialised – and probably just as well, as you might imagine how disappointing that would have been!
We soon became aware that our school wasn’t the only MK location in play for SUPERMAN IV– such as what is now the Argos HQ and the Winter Gardens (location of the Metropolis Museum scenes) but we had no business turning up at any of them as they were closed sets. There was the added obstacle of being expected to be in our actual lessons during a critical exam year. We also missed word of even the chance to be extras or observers at the “United Nations” scene – at MK Central Railway Station.
Fortunately, on what may have been the last day of filming at the school, my GCE/O-Level Media Studies class were given permission to skip unrelated lessons and spend as much time as we liked on-set on the day of the classroom scene shoot. This felt like a major coup. I resolved to make as much of the experience as possible, but clearly I was just a grinning fanboy trying to pass as a keen and sensible student.
While Mr. Reeve was absolutely off limits, I still felt bold enough to talk to some of the supporting cast and crew I could get a few minutes with in the frequent breaks.
Stunt double Mark Stewart was particularly enthusiastic talking about subbing in the harness for Reeve and rattled off a list of films I might have seen him in. When he said he was in Disney’s TRON, I wondered if he was one of the heavy guards appointed to zap Jeff Bridges with a cattle prod-type thing and it turned out that he was! – he laughed and was flattered to be remembered at all.
I managed to intercept Damian McLawhorn who played young Jeremy, who seemed a bit irritated and bored, as you’d imagine a young kid would be, having to wait around with nothing to do for huge chunks of time. In the moment I thought he was being a bit entitled and bratty, but ever since I’ve looked back on the interaction more kindly.
Early afternoon they concentrated on filming the classroom interiors for a couple of hours, and in between shots Damian would sit outside with his “teacher” Jayne Brook, who was in her first credited film role. It’s impossible for me to watch her as a tough senior officer in Star Trek: Discovery these days without thinking back to that untypical school day and that I was just a little too nervous to approach her. In my defence, I was fifteen and probably as hormonally discombobulated as any of my classmates were by the presence of Hollywood glamour.
We were soon also generously waved in by Property Master Eddie Francis to have a look at how they were able to Americanise a UK school science classroom. Turned out the presence of the stars and stripes on a floor stand and a few choice details made for a pretty decent illusion. While IV is much maligned for falling short of convincing location dressing, the classroom scene at least has to be among the most successful at passing off humble MK as a modern US city.
Inevitably in the late afternoon I started to feel nature’s call and as soon as there was a break between setups I made my way to the Gents’. As soon as I entered the corridor THE ACTUAL MAN OF STEEL emerged from the place I was desperate to get to. I was frozen in my tracks as he strode past me without a word, seeming immense and exceedingly tall, but did offer me a mute glance with something like mild embarrassment. Of course I’d lost the power of speech anyway. Even so, it was exactly how you might imagine HE would have reacted being discovered coming back from the Gents’. I was also struck by how thickly applied the reddish-orange makeup was on his face and hands, though the additional lighting set up to compensate for the intermittent sunshine gave a clue it had something to do with how it would register on film rather than on my Supes-struck retinas.
Soon after this awkward meeting and some safety harness checks, there were maybe three or four runs with the tower crane rig to propel Superman, with Jeremy’s pleading letter still in his hand, coming across to land outside our Science block. Ultimately the shot wasn’t in the theatrical cut, which while it didn’t advance the plot all that significantly, it would have been nice to crystallise the memory into a permanent record.
It seems totally incredible to me now that we were allowed to take photos at every opportunity, even if in my case they were often blurry shots on my motion-sensitive 110-format Kodak Instamatic. No Non-Disclosure Agreements whatsoever. Even so, besides local press images of the event I have yet to see any other photo records of that week. Maybe this account will encourage someone else who attended the school in those days to share their memories.
A little frustrated at not being able to have any kind of interaction with Christopher Reeve on-set, but holding out for an interview commitment at the end of the crew’s time in MK, our Media Studies teacher informed us there would be a press group coming to MK to visit the cast at the Post House Hotel in the city centre (these days: a Holiday Inn). Would we like to join them and ask a few questions ourselves for the school magazine? Most definitely.
For whatever reason, interrogation by schoolkids turned out not to be a high priority on the production’s publicity agenda, so we were never called in. It’s still great to see the brief interviews captured with Reeve and Margot Kidder on YouTube, but also feel the pangs of regret that we never got in the room to fire our own questions at them. Despite the excitement surrounding the shoot and our ridiculously good fortune of having an icon visit us for a week, I couldn’t help but be apprehensive about the finished product. Have you ever felt your heart soar and sink simultaneously? My foreboding must have been nothing compared to the stress Reeve and Sidney J. Furie were under to deliver an end product that could hope to live up to the Warner’s movies, especially the first two.
Fast forward to the following summer of 1987, and the most tense cinema screening I had ever been to…If you can watch it again for fun (it’s possible), you’ll see Reeve brought his maximum game as both Superman and Clark Kent, but the marginalising of Lois Lane once again after S-III – and even this time outside the Salkinds’ uneasy relationship with Margot Kidder – was as unthinkable as keeping Princess Leia away from the adventures of Luke and Han. The lack of that dynamic in itself created a lot of heavy lifting for everything else, in a confusing and hurried plot where it appeared already to be a digest of some larger film, a bit like those Super 8 film highlights reels for home projector viewing in the ‘70s that featured about 20 minutes of Star Wars or Jaws but you sort of got a precis of the story. We didn’t know then that as much of 40 minutes of IV had been torn out after a test screening. The optical composite flying effects, especially in the Metropolis Subway sequence largely shot on the London Underground, were quite…something, and for me at the time the physical sensation of my heart reaching my toes was new and a little short of devastating.
And yet despite my crushing disappointment at the time, like many I’ve warmed towards IV significantly as the scruffy cousin most preferred to forget, in relation to the original two and maybe a slight cringe with the third. It was certainly high stakes for everyone involved. One younger – but technically still Gen X – friend of mine said Superman IV was the first film he ever saw at the cinema, and the novelty of that plus being under ten made him overlook any potential negative points entirely. While accounting reports vary, the highest says the box office total was $36 million on its slashed-to-$17 million budget, so maybe it can’t be entirely declared a flop.
What definitely helped revive people’s affections at least in the UK was film artist Richard DeDomenici’s Superman IV Redux project in July 2016, where a cheeky irreverence and genuine warmth and commitment to shot-by-shot replication of scenes originally shot in MK were a genuine delight. AND we had a great avatar for TMOS in super-fan and convincing lookalike and act-alike Martin Lakin.
Unfortunately one scene that didn’t get the Redux treatment was Damien’s Classroom. The school’s Seckloe Centre buildings were demolished in the 2000s to make way for the newly minted Milton Keynes Academy. Its layout and security fences completely denying access to the would-be Superman pilgrim/fan, never mind a re-enactment cast and crew. Even so, I’m grateful to finally have an opportunity after thirty seven (!) years to share my experience and images with a wider audience, and thanks to Martin Lakin for his exceptional enthusiasm for making this happen. It was a weird and truly wonderful time.
– Joe O’Connor, February 2023
All text & images © Joe O’Connor, 2023 – Page from Frankly school magazine (Top) courtesy Sam O’Brien