J O H N S I N C L A I R
P I N E W O O D M E M O R I E S
…And then Superman flew over my head!
1976 and 1977: Memories of a wide-eyed student’s visits to the Fortress of Solitude -and a few side trips to the Moon… Oh, and boarding a few stolen nuclear submarines in the company of the world’s greatest secret agent….!
‘Just wait here while I rush this helmet over to the Russian’s dressing room.’
‘Er…ok,’ I said, and we watched him hurry away, moon dust coming off our guide’s boots catching the thousands of gleaming stars.
The United Nations lunar vehicle looked coldly down at Jimmy and I as we stood there, not sure what to do.
‘Look at that,’ my pal Jim suddenly declared, holding up an incongruous coffee up from behind a ghostly grey boulder.
‘Look at that!’ I replied.
Directly across from the landing site was another giant rock, a giant one, and a shadow was moving across it.
This darkness suddenly stood up and resolved itself into bright colours.
Familiar, deeply loved, colours.
Red, Blue, Yellow…
The shape stood there for a moment…
My breath caught in my throat….
My heart started to pound…
And Superman jumped up into the black sky and launched towards us!
His cape caught the non-existent breeze and billowed out as he flew towards – no, over my head!
For those few short moments I was ten years old again – Superman was here and alive and flying!
He rocketed towards the globe suspended above the moon…
I thought I was going to faint…
And then he reached the end of the track, swung out, swung forward and back, then tilted forward, head down, feet in the air and his stunt cape draped itself over his head….
A clanging ring of bells and all the lights on the huge soundstage came on.
‘We’ll keep that one, everyone. Help Chris down from there.’
And that was the first time I ever saw Christopher Reeve –and it actually was him, in full costume and flying rig. I still tingle all these years later at the memory of that astonishing moment.
I was at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, on the Moon set from Superman I and II, as a guest of the legendary production designer John Barry, and I was half-convinced that I was dreaming all of this…
Let me start at the beginning.
In 1977 I was a second year student, studying graphic design and illustration at Cardiff Art College. Always wanting to work in either comics or movies, I had been subtly steered aside by a lecturer who reckoned he knew what was best for me.
Take it from me; he didn’t.
Anyhow, the previous year I had to decide what I was going to write my college thesis on. I had fudged around on a few ideas, but nothing had inspired me; Grand Guignol theatre, the work of the great Universal Pictures set designers, the classic Saturday Morning serials, maybe something to do with Disney animation, perhaps the work of televisions’ Supermarionation Maestro Gerry Anderson? … and then a new lecturer started.
Dave Pearse was his name, and he had a strange idea for educators in those now far off days: he wanted what was best for the student.
He had an idea for me. He said; why didn’t I do a thesis I actually enjoyed, might have an interest in, and might actually be of use to me in my career?
He saw I loved Science Fiction and Comics and that, and what was that I was saying about Gerry Anderson? Well, did I know that Anderson’s company was making a new Space show in Pinewood Studios at the moment? Why didn’t I give them a bell and see if I could wrangle a little fact-finding expedition?
The idea electrified me. You must remember that, even though I was training towards some sort of media career I had never really been to a proper film or TV studios – apart from a few short days at the local BBC Wales or HTV Wales franchises, so the idea of actually going to a major international set up was so far above my reach that it was almost like, I don’t know, science fiction?
Anyhow, Dave Pearse knew Pinewood well – he was an actor as well as an ad man. He rang Pinewood’s front office and got the details of ‘Space: 1999’ for me.
My best hope, Dave told me, was the show’s production designer, Keith Wilson; ‘Here, I’ll ring him for you….’
He got straight through to the right person, explained who he was and who I was and immediately handed the phone to me!
Somehow I managed to make coherent sense; the veteran TV art man was very open to what I was trying to do and invited me up on the spot!
I should mention here that my long time best friend Jimmy was also taking a film course, so I managed to get him along with me as well.
Mr Wilson, (who I didn’t know at the time had also designed Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO, The New Avengers and much much more) was a wonderful host, and thanks to him we were given the golden key to the Century 21 offices and stages and the studios themselves!
Thanks to him, we met and had a fantastic meet with the 2nd Doctor Who himself, Patrick Troughton, the guest star on that episode of 1999, then wandered around the corridors and exteriors of Moonbase Alpha, (where I accidentally collided with that weeks’ monster – stuntman and later director Alf Joint in a now-famous costume), chatted with the beautiful Catherine Schell, the resident alien ‘Maya’ on the show, were taken through the famous portrait-lined halls of Heatherden Hall where among many other Carry On films, the Indian Residence from ‘Carry On Up The Khyber’ was built –along with many James Bond films were made before the biggest stage in Europe, the fabled 007 stage was built, of which much more later. And speaking of which,we were latterly introduced to Roger Moore at the equally famous commissary where my pal managed to back into Cubby Broccoli…. Oops!
But despite that we were still invited onto the set of ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’
Suffice it to say that it was bigger and better than you could imagine and Roger was a delight; ‘you chaps are Welsh? I was married to a welsh woman once – insane she was, did I mention she tried to kill me? Once or twice?’
That first day was incredible, but when Mr Wilson invited us up again a week or two later I managed to say no to something I am still kicking myself over 42 years later…
We were walking down a lane at Shepperton Studios on this second visit when we were told to go around as they were filming down there. Some strange looking people in science fictiony outfits were climbing in and out of a massive skip while waving ray guns and trying not to drown in the process.
Now what was that called? Hmmm…?
Yes, it was what you think it was.
Anyhow, the crew told me how crap it was – nobody but nobody was making sf movies at the moment and the director was only a youngster who only had one hit behind him and couldn’t maintain control on the floor! So don’t bother with all those leftover storyboards and other art the art crew offered me as it was absolutely worthless and not worth dragging back to Cardiff……
So anyhow, when I managed to wrangle an invite to the Pinewood and Shepperton Studios of Superman a year later I was an old hand at this. And knew not to say no to anything just in case…..
Dave Pearse had prodded me again when I had mentioned Superman and had done the dialling and introduction bit so had gotten me through the famous gate and we were in again!
Less than a week later we were in a taxi stopping under the renowned Pinewood clock.
We were escorted over to the design offices, leading off from the very busy and very famous James Bond stage as noted earlier.
Commandeered for Superman, it now featured a massive Neil Adams flying Superman image (as a card carrying anorak I knew the art right away – it had been the centre image of a wraparound cover of a 100 page Super-Spectacular) we were told to wait while Mr Barry was busy.
Thrilled to the very core of my comic heart by the image, it was possibly the first time I had ever seen anything like that back in those long ago pre-convention and pre-specialist comic store days…
This is where we did the first screw-up of the day – not the last! Jimmy was desperate for the toilet but we couldn’t see one anywhere and everywhere was busy and everyone was busy…
The offices were buzzing, as we said, and Jim was increasingly desperate so he took it on himself to walk over to a well-dressed young couple who seemed to be on their own…..
‘Cut!’ Jim and I stopped dead in our tracks, literally seconds away from asking Clark Kent and Lois Lane where the gentleman’s’ toilet was!
What we had taken to be a display of newspapers in a standard production office was part of the Daily Planet set..!
Luckily Mr Barry himself turned up then and we were firmly – very firmly! – moved to the senior design department offices.
‘Sorry,’ he said, when I put my college camera down on his desk, ‘but I’m afraid you can’t take any pictures here – it’s all top secret and not for release yet,’
‘But,’ he saw my crestfallen face, ‘I’ll make sure you get any you need from our files, ok?’ And he was good as his word, as you’ll hear later.
Anyhow, that is why I don’t have any original pictures of the sets, but I did meet Chris again a few times…..
Back to the day.
John Barry was a wonderful man. Charming, humble, gracious, very tall and very patient! And he needed that with us – we deluged him with questions, asked about everything in his offices, fussed over all the amazing artwork and storyboards, and in general, acted like annoying students.
He told us how he had started in the business as a draughtsman ‘third from the left of the back row of drawing boards on ‘Cleopatra’. He said how his big break was ‘Kelly’s Heroes’, but that was a bit of a nightmare as no-one was at all concerned with historical accuracy (it’s true; aside from the hippyish Oddball and his tank crew, check out the ‘French’ peasants in 1960’s clothes and hair, and the ragtag ‘grab any era from the costumiers and see what sticks’ German uniforms, especially towards the end where they basically gave up pretending).
From there he went to exactly the opposite; with the fastidious and demanding Stanley Kubrick on a project that stalled, then onto the classic ‘A Clockwork Orange’. From there it was a major flop, ‘The Lucky Lady’, but which led to the biggest hit of all time, ‘Star Wars’.
And this was where he was at the moment, at the very peak of his career, yet he still took the time out to talk to us and show us around. What a guy!
It was about then he mentioned that he had to get the helmet he was carrying over to base so he hurried us onto that moon set where we were to have our little encounter…!
So, after all that (and Jim and I had recovered) John walked us over to the other side of the James Bond stage – and onto Krypton!
As I recall we walked through the Daily Planet offices again, but to the rear, where we ducked under some curtains and entered a world of drape and darkness and stars.
Mr Barry said to keep our voices down as they were rehearsing and their star hadn’t learned his lines…
‘People of Krypton,’ the oh-so familiar voice began and stopped. ‘I can’t see the bottom line of the board,’ it said.
‘For £$ck sake,’ a cameraman right beside us swore, ‘he’s just read it off there ten bloody times!’
‘No trouble, Marlon,’ somebody standing just ahead of us mollified their petulant star, gesturing at some poor production assistant struggling to hold the awkward and heavy ‘idiot boards’ higher. ‘Is that better?’
Mr Brando just started over; stopping again when he ran out of words.
My eyes had by now adjusted to the weird light in there. I couldn’t work out what it was all supposed to be – there was an eye-catching strobing thing that was rotating swiftly with three people dressed in black standing inside it. The great man himself was wearing a glowing white outfit, with, I was thrilled, if a little surprised to see, a Superman ‘S’ Symbol on the chest. Now of course, all these many years later, we all know exactly what the scene was – the punishment of the three Kryptonian villains. But at the time, we didn’t know, and nobody bothered to tell us.
So we just stood there and watched, quietly.
Jor-El did his scenes over and over, each time with the boards up to read off. I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just learn his lines, but hey? It’s Brando! What do I know?
Finally, he finished his scenes, they took a breather and gratefully moved the camera. Jim and I were told to take a break while Mr Barry scurried off again.
I put my foot in it BIG this time! I had been told to sit there and shut up, so I did, too shy even to go get a drink from the catering table. And then Mr Brando sat down right beside me…!
He looked over at me and half smiled and I just froze. He carried on with what he was doing while I shook with nerves.
I won’t go into how long I waited to answer him when he spoke me to me again, but it was a while and then I said something so stupid that I have never forgiven myself.
I’m not going into all of it for abject humiliation reasons but he said something about not placing my accent and I gabbled that he wouldn’t – I came from a little place called Cardiff, in Wales, Tiger Bay actually, and he would never have heard of it, surely. His face clouded….
Suffice it to say that his first wife – the crazy one – actually CAME from Cardiff, and in fact lived around the corner from me, in that same Tiger Bay…..
Is there a common theme here about crazy spouses?
Somehow we didn’t get thrown off, but were just escorted away from that set, rather quickly…
We were taken around a fantastic set of, er, sets, that we were told was the main Lex Luthor hideout under Grand Central Station, and the connected subway access tunnel that Otis would use and the trailing cop would follow and be pushed under a train…
Incredible, authentic, realistic and on any other day they would have been the highlight of our visit, but the best was yet to come…
Now this is where I have gotten tangled up over the years. I was convinced that we had seen this in Pinewood, but a few of the books had said that the Fortress sequences were all done at Shepperton.
Go figure. Anyhow I picked up a link the other day and it said in there about Hackman’s sequences being done at Pinewood, so I was correct after all.
‘That’s our Superman,’ Mr Barry said, not knowing we had seen him flying not too long earlier… ‘Come say hello.’
To cut a long story short, Chris (I get to call him Chris after our long association…!) was sitting in his chair under the Fortress set watching Gene Hackman talking to a carved head thingy that some off-camera person was supplying the voice for. Now of course I know it was Jor-Els’ crystal head talking to Luthor in a sequence that I would finally get to see nearly forty years later.
Chris was a gentleman, just like John Barry. Quiet, polite and friendly, if slightly reserved: thinking about it now the pressure he must have been under…It turned out he was only a few years older than us, and we got on well. I took the moment to pull out a comic I had brought with me: Superman 2001, a special issue. He took it and happily inscribed it –
‘This is my first ever autograph as Superman,’ he said…
He was called back then, and I realised that the villains I had seen earlier had also arrived, and to my delight I recognised Terence Stamp from so many classic British movies, and Jack O’Halloran from not quite so many, although I had enjoyed him in the 1976 ‘King Kong’ and 1975’s ‘Farewell My Lovely.’
Margot Kidder climbed up the steep ladder to the set – to much ribald humour from Hackman and Sarah Douglas, I noticed – and we were ushered away.
We spent the rest of the day being shown around the various stages and offices.
We got to sit in Mr Barry’s office while he went through the storyboards of the super-villains rampage sequence ‘And this is why we’re building a miniature of Mount Rushmore for when Zod carves it into his own likeness,’ ’And this is when General Zod punches Superman right through the Daily Planet and into Times Square,’ ’and here is when the three villains blow the parked cars around with their super-breath…No, they’re going to be real cars on a full-size set…’
We toured the costume and make-up areas: ‘This is one of Chris’s Clark Kent wigs, this is one of his flying Superman wigs, this is one of his walking wigs, this is one of his walking capes, and another one – this has the straps so it can be seen from behind and he can walk freely….’ That must be the reason why so much costume and hair stuff survives?
And then, all too soon, it was time for us to leave- Mr Barry was going to be much too busy from then on to shepherd us around anymore that day. He took my details and promised to send on some images and press books and that, and if I ever wanted to come back again, he would organise it.
And then he gave us a brilliant parting gift– he organised a driver to take us back to Iver station.
And that was it.
We had a slight fiscally related problem. At the station we were both more than a little embarrassed as we didn’t know if we were supposed to tip the driver, and we were pretty skint anyway, but the man, his name was Mike Lake and he’s a renowned set decorator now – put us at our ease and explained that he’d once been in our shoes, so keep our hands in our pockets.
We went back to Cardiff with a spring in our steps and joy in our hearts – and lots to tell everyone back in college.
As I said earlier, John Barry had said we should get in touch with him if we needed anything….. So?
Being the cheeky students that we were, we rang him a few weeks later, the day after a news programme (Nationwide?) had done a nice piece on the still-in-production film.
He picked up the phone himself and instantly offered another visit. ‘Oh…sorry,’ he said and my heart sunk, ‘We’ve moved base to Shepperton Studios now, would you like to come here? I have a few things here you’ll be interested in…’
A week later we were getting out of the taxi outside Shepperton manor house. A runner from the design unit met us and took us straight to a familiar location….
‘This is our second Fortress of Solitude,’ John Barry smiled at us, ‘And right here is where baby Kal-El took off from Krypton, oh, a few days ago.’
He picked some photos and a storyboard showing Brando laying a baby in the star-shaped spaceship casually propped up right by us; I noticed that the woman with him was the lovely Susanna York.
‘I hadn’t heard anything of her playing Lara, Superman’s mother, in this,’ I said. Mr Barry told me that we were being trusted, as the press would go mad for nuggets of information like this. I humbly said thanks, adding, ‘I didn’t know that the Kryptonian rocket was going to be star-shaped, or that Jor-El was going to be wearing the S shield.’
Mr Barry trusted us with more classified info then. ‘That was actually Marlon’s idea, and we took it and ran with it, giving all Kryptonians their own shield. I had the idea of making the spaceship star-shaped, to carry on the star and crystalline connection.’
We were taken to some more of the incredible sets John had created, like the interiors of the White House that the villains were going to smash up later that day, and a little bathroom for Perry White to be called away from… so glamorous!
With a great smile on his face, John led us and Jimmy into a large, nondescript storage area. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what I was hinting at.’
He opened a large crate that was just haphazardly placed up against a wall. ‘Do you recognise this guy?’ One of the biggest new stars in the world shone up at us.
‘Meet C3P0,’ Mr Barry introduced us…
I had known that John had been the designer of Star Wars, but somehow seeing this amazing android in person, so to speak, brought home just how big he actually was.
You couldn’t really top that, so we were soon on our way again after a nice cuppa and a memorable chat with our host.
‘When you’re getting closer to finishing your course, get in touch with me,’ he said, out of the blue and astonishing me, ‘if I’m doing anything I’ll see if I can sort you something. Maybe a placement.’
I effusively thanked him, I gave him my details, he gave me his, ’Don’t be afraid to call me. Good luck with your career.’
And that was that.
Apart from an envelope that arrived in the post for me a week or two later.
Mr Barry had kept his word and sent me some art department photos – some from Star Wars and a few from Superman, no photos of the cast as the film was still months away, but some lovely art department stuff. There was a very nice couple of him as well.
What a guy.
I wrote my thesis – and got a distinction, and waited with bated breath to see the movie…
It came out the Christmas after I left college and it was better than even I could have expected. If you’re reading this you’re a fan and don’t need to told.
I had gone straight into a job after college, so I didn’t take Mr Barry up on his kind offer right away. That noise you hear is me kicking myself.
And then when I decided to take his offer up, I discovered that he had had a major set-back in his professional life, so I didn’t want to disturb him for a while.
A bit later I heard that he had bounced back and was second unit directing on The Empire Strikes Back, so I decided that I was going to give him a ring that weekend and see what we would see…
I had written the letter to him – I decided I didn’t want to disturb him as his office had said the second team were out in Norway – and had walked down to the local village to post it when I picked up the paper.
And saw the news.
John Barry had died.
I wandered home in a daze, the un-mailed letter in my pocket.
The tears I shed were not for me, and were not for selfish reasons, but for a genuinely lovely guy. A supremely talented artist who had reached the very tops of his profession but was happy – eager even – to help someone starting out at the very bottom.
When you watch Superman next time, look away from the central performances, the actors, the stars, all that. Look to the whole feel of the film, because that all came from the heart and soul of an extraordinary human being.
Production designer, architect, writer, director.
– John Sinclair, May 2018
A postscript –
I mentioned earlier in the piece that I did meet Christopher Reeve again and we renewed our acquaintance – this was at the 1979 World Science Fiction Con in Brighton.
It was good to see him again, and he remembered me!
He kindly signed more unique autographs for me; a Superman II Mad parody, for instance, and a press book for I and II, a press book and softback of ‘Time after Time’, and a whole set of photos taken on the day – including my pride and joy – the only picture of the two of us together…