Friday, 25 September 2009

Dracula and the Sweet Transvestite!

There's obviously something wrong with me y'know... During our 'days out' over the last two and a bit weeks, we took in a visit to Windsor. It's undoubtedly a very picturesque place, but a bit heavy on the tourist trappings for my liking (is there ANY shop in Windsor whose name doesn't start with "Ye Olde..." and end with ".. Shoppe"??!). It's a nice place to visit, but if I'm honest it left me a little uninspired. Even the castle only got a casual glance from me as we walked past (and I'm buggered if I'm paying £15.50 a head to have a look inside). But the building I WAS brimming with excitement about was a hotel in Water Oakley, Bray - a short 10 minute drive out of town. A fascinating building which became an unlikely film star back in the 50's 60's and 70's.

Oakley Court is a very posh (and very nice) hotel these days, but it wasn't always the case.... This wonderful neo-Gothic mansion was built in 1859 for Sir Richard Hall Say, in the style of a French Chateau (the story goes that it was to comfort his homesick French wife). It changed hands a number of times during the late 1800's and early 1900's, until in 1919, Ernest Olivier bought it for £27,000. It remained with Olivier for almost half a century. But an interesting twist still awaited Oakley Court as it approached its 100th birthday...

In 1951 Hammer Film Productions were looking for a new location to base their organisation. They eventually purchased the derelict Down Place, in Water Oakley, Bray (next door to Oakley Court). This was a dream location for Hammer, and the exquisite architecture of the building enabled them to avoid building many costly film sets. By 1952, Hammer had started work on enlarging Down Place, and turned it into Bray Studios, which is still there today (although Hammer sold it in 1970). However, once Hammer were located in Bray, they couldn't help but notice the beauty of their next door neighbour, the Victorian Oakley Court, and Olivier even allowed them to use it for some of their films on occasions.

In 1965, Earnest Olivier died, leaving Oakley Court uninhabited. Hammer had already used just about every possible angle of Down Place in their films over the last 14 years, so from 1965 they took the opportunity to start using the now empty mansion. Incredibly, Oakley Court was the setting for over 200 films (particularly Hammers lucrative 'horror' series).... here's just a few titles that feature the building....

The Curse of Frankenstein starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (1957)
The Lady Craved Excitement starring Sid James (1959)
The Old Dark House starring Robert Morley, Joyce Grenfell and Fenella Fielding (1966)
The Reptile starring Noel Willman and John Laurie (1966)
The Plague of the Zombies starring Andre Morell (1966)
Half a Sixpence starring Tommy Steele (1967)
Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly starring Vasnessa Howard (1970)
The House In Nightmare Park starring Ray Milland and Frankie Howard (1973)
Vampyres starring Marianne Morris (1974)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show starring Tim Curry and Richard O'Brien (1975)
Murder by Death starring Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, David Niven and Peter Faulk (1976)

It was also the setting for the 9 Hammer Dracula films:

Dracula starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (1958)
The Brides of Dracula starring Christopher Lee (1960)
Dracula: Prince of Darkness starring Christopher Lee (1966)
Dracula Has Risen from the Grave starring Christopher Lee (1968)
Taste the Blood of Dracula starring Christopher Lee (1969)
Scars of Dracula starring Christopher Lee and Dennis Waterman (1970)
Dracula AD 1972 starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (1972)
The Satanic Rites of Dracula starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (1973)
The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires starring Peter Cushing (1974)

(screenshot from The Brides of Dracula)

When these Dracula films were made at Oakley Court, the directors used to obtain an extra creepy effect by using only candles to light the entire building.

(screenshot from The House in Nightmare Park)

Despite being a very successful film star, nobody was looking after the upkeep of the building and by the time the time the Rocky Horror Picture Show was being filmed, Oakley Court was derelict. Cast and crew were constantly working around strategically placed buckets catching the rain that was pouring through many holes in the roof (apparently just about everyone involved in the film caught a cold whilst there!). The floors too were rotten and dangerous.

In 1979 renovation work commenced at Oakley Court, and in November 1981, it opened its doors as the hotel it is today... back to its former splendour!

I'm quite a fan of the Hammer Horror films... in the late 70's (maybe it was the early 80's) BBC2 used to show a double feature of them every Saturday night.... and it always insured I went to bed feeling very uneasy! However it's the Rocky Horror Picture Show that really does it for me on this one. I used to be crazy about that film in the mid to late 80's. No idea how many times I watched the thing, but it could well be into three figures! For a few years a local cinema used to run it every few weeks as a late night special on a Friday night, and I'd always try to make it. Then when I finally got hold of my own copy on VHS video it was never out of the machine! So discovering that Oakley Court was none other than the lair of Frank-N-Furter was something of a revelation!

(screenshots from the Rocky Horror Picture Show)

All of the exterior shots in the film (including the scene at the front door) are Oakley Court (although there is an odd mish-mash of front and back shots, all pretending to be the front!), but some of the interior ones are too... All the scenes that take place in the hallway are Oakley Court (and the exact same stairs and banister remain to this day). And the scene where they all sit down to dinner (which turns out to be the remains of Eddie!) was filmed in a room off of the hallway. Oh and it could be a coincidence (I like to think of it as a nice touch) but there is now a grandfather clock in the hallway in exactly the same position as the one in the film!

It's well worth a visit, the staff are very friendly, and don't have a problem with you taking a few photos.... so set your Sat Navs to the following if you are ever that way (£15.50 cheaper than Windsor Castle too!):

The Oakley Court
Windsor Road, Water Oakley
Windsor, SL4 5UR


Friday, 18 September 2009

The Book Lover...

I've been on 'holibobs' for the last two weeks. No going away as such, just days out, and some jobs around the house. Yesterday though I did something that made me really sad....

Some of you may know that I have eye problems... but I'm new to this game, take me back 18 months and I had some pretty good peepers all considering, and only a very light prescription for reading. I'd known I had a cataract in my left eye for a few years, it was causing me more and more frequent headaches and migraines but the vision in it was still good. But in 2007 my optician recommended (in hindsight, very poorly) I should get it done. I had a referral to the hospital, a couple of appointments, and then the op. Since then I've never really been able to see properly out of my left eye. If you don't know (and it's worth remembering in case you ever need to), when you have a cataract done, they take away your lens and replace it with a plastic one. The plastic lens is set at a 'FIXED' focus. The snazzy 'zoom' feature, that you always took for granted (and didn't know was there anyway) is no longer.... you know the one, the thing that means you can focus on that mountain way over there, the river just ahead of you, and the book in your hand, all at the same time. With a plastic lens, just ONE of those will be in focus.... well, if you're lucky. I wasn't and all 3 are now out of focus in my left eye. Long vision is the least bad, but it's still 'out'... close up and reading there is nothing there at all... hold a magazine or book up to me, and all I'll see in my left eye will be a white squarish blur (no lines, let alone words). The vision in my two eyes is now wildly different, and the two eyes do not operate as a team any more... in fact, it gives a very disorienting 'combined' picture.

I've spent pretty much the last 18 months desperately trying to improve it, I've been to countless specialists (including Moorfields Eye Hospital), but, to put it bluntly, I'm fucked. I was very badly advised. Old people have this op done every day, and are up and running again within 24 hours. But by the time you are 60+ the muscles in your eye are pretty much dead, and the replacement of the lens causes minimal discomfort, and usually an improvement in sight. My eye muscles were strong, and as such I was in excruciating pain for over a month after the op, and because the eye behind my lens was so strong and healthy (there was nothing at all wrong with my eye itself, just the lens), my sight went, in one day, from that of a 40 year old to that of an average 80 year old. It has since been explained to me like this.... If you had a million pound camera, and put a lens on it that you bought from the pound shop, your pictures will still be shit. Sure, the cataract would have got me in the end, but maybe I could have got another 5, 10, maybe 15 years out of it before it really needed doing (and my eye and eye muscles would have deteriorated accordingly too).... I'm sure I would have been able to enjoy my sons early life more too (he was 3 months old when I had it done). Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, and none of these little pearls of wisdom and caution were given to me BEFORE the op.... just wise words after.

I now own SIX different pairs of glasses, and during a day will wear them all at some point. I also wear contacts every other day, but still have to use at least another two pairs of glasses on top of the contacts during the day. What's more annoying is that my right eye is still so good, it doesn't even NEED correction... but because of the way glasses work, and the unwanted 'magnification' they give off, I have to subject my good eye to the same prescriptions regardless to match the picture. My vision gets worse in the evenings and also in the winter, when there is no natural lighting... in fact, sometimes in the evening none of my 6 pairs of glasses even work. In short, this 15 minute operation has taken much of the fun out of life, and things you never even used to think about have become a chore, whilst other things are now so much effort, that all 'enjoyment' is gone.

I have been a book lover since I was a small child. I've always been fascinated with them, and can think of little else to top the joy of sitting with a good book and a cup of tea next to the open fire (yes, we do have one!)... but the op changed all this... I can't read for very long now, much beyond 30 minutes will have my eyes aching, and the vision starts to deteriorate further. Books with small print in I can't read at all, as even with glasses on it'll set off eyestrain and pain within minutes. Computers are copeable, as I can change the screen resolution, but regrettably you can't do the same with the printed word.

But becoming bad-sighted overnight does not immediately change how you think. I've always been a bugger in a bookshop, and can come out with 4 or 5 titles in a visit. And I'm still programmed to do it, I can't stop myself, I genuinely love books "ohh that looks interesting, I bet that's fascinating etc etc". It take a few minutes to buy 5 books, but how long to read em these days??

My book cupboards and book shelves have been overflowing with books I've bought and not read. Some were bought before the op, many more were after. I've never quite come to terms with the fact that things will never be the same (and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I ever will). It broke my heart to see at all those wonderful tomes that I'll now almost certainly never get round to reading... I mean how many books are left in me now anyway?? It takes me literally months to get through a decent sized paperback. Regrettably, book reading is a hobby that I have now been forced out of.

So earlier in the week I went through them all, and bagged a good 50-60% of em up, and yesterday I distributed them across just about every charity shop in the area (there was way to many to put in one shop, and everyone got at least 3 bags worth!). I've kept a few that I'm determined to get through one day, but I must now try and keep away from bookshops or else another mass of unreads will be acquired.

Hmmm, I appreciate this isn't one of my usual 'jolly' posts, but I guess I'm just not feeling quite as jolly as usual... I'll try harder to be less moany next time I promise!


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Laurel and Hardy's Southend

A few weeks back I did a post on the now defunct Odeon cinema in Southend, and it generated some great comments and discussions. Y'know, it never fails to amaze me the fantastic stories people have locked away in the 'ol brain box. Even more amazing is how you can know someone for so long without some of these gems rising to the surface.... it just needs the right thing to trigger it off. Following on from the Odeon piece, good friend Andy (brother of E. F Rice) came out with a corker of a related story when we were down the pub the other evening, but more on that later....

As a lifelong fan of Laurel and Hardy, I thought it was about time I tried to find out a bit more about their visit to my home town. I've always know they came here, but no more detail than that. I've been researching and writing this for a few weeks, and much like the Odeon piece, it's grown into a bit of an animal! Apologies for the length of this post, but below is everything I have been able to find out about their time spent here, where they stayed and the places they went, all topped off with that great personalised story at the end.

The duo made their first UK theatre tour in July and August 1932, when they were at the height of their film career. Just three months earlier they had filmed and released 'The Music Box'... the one Laurel and Hardy film pretty much everyone remembers, no matter if they are a fan or not (a whole film devoted to the boys trying to deliver a piano up a ridiculously large flight of steps). By the time Stan and Ollie returned to these shores in 1947 they were in their twilight years. They were still making films... just, but they were by no means classics and the glory days were certainly way behind them. They spent pretty much the whole of 47 in the UK (Feb through to Nov), playing to packed houses up and down the country. This included a 6 week run at the London Palladium, which, incredibly was followed by another 4 weeks at the Coliseum in London!

Having made and released what was to be their final film - the unwatchable Atoll K (AKA Utopia) - the pair, now both in their sixties, returned once again in 1952. Again, the best part of a year was spent in the British Isles (Feb to Sept). Stan and Ida Laurel and Ollie and Lucille Hardy travelled by train from London to Southend Victoria Station on Sunday 3rd August, and on Monday 4th August they began a week long residency at the Odeon cinema in Southend.

Here is a picture of the duo backstage at the Odeon on the 4th August, presenting usherette Eileen Winfield with a 'Courtesy and Service' star!

There were two performances a day at the Odeon (6.30pm and 8.40pm), with an extra matinee (2.30pm) thrown in on the opening day and also on Saturday 9th. Tickets were 5', 3'6 and 2' (25p, 17½p and 10p!). It was very much a variety show, with 7 acts going on before the main event. They were, in order:

The Lonsdale Sisters ('modern' rhythmic dancers)
Lorraine (the singling cartoonist!!)
The Aerial Kenways (highwire\trapeze act)
Archie Elray & Co (ventriloquist act)
The Great Cingalee (silent man of mystery in wonders of the East!)
Jimmy Elliot (animal mimic)
MacKenzie Reid & Dorothy (Scottish accordionists)

So judging by that lot I'd imagine it was a blessed relief when the stars of the show finally appeared on stage!! For their slot, Laurel and Hardy performed a newly written sketch entitled 'A Spot of Trouble'. In the sketch, Stan and Ollie meet at a railway station. They have missed their train, so decide to 'bed down' for the night on a bench (under a sign stating 'no loitering'). A policeman arrives, and threatens to arrest them, unless they are prepared to carry out a staged robbery at the police chiefs house, to enable the policeman to get in his good books.... a predictably chaotic routine ensues!

Here's their entry in the programme:

Not taken in Southend (as far as I know), but here are some photos of Stan and Ollie performing 'A Spot of Trouble' in the UK in 1952:

As with every town they visited, the boys were mobbed everywhere they went, but they were more than happy to spend time with their fans. One girl wrote to Stan whilst they were in Southend to tell him that her surname was the same as his (Jefferson). She got a reply, and an invite to meet the duo! During their week in Southend, a rival theatre (The Regal in Tyler’s Avenue) were running a show featuring 'Burton Lester’s Midgets', and the stars of both theatres met up for a photograph:
Whilst performing in Southend, Laurel and Hardy stayed at the Palace Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in the area - in fact it was the only 5 star hotel on the South East coast at that time. It was a grand Edwardian building directly overlooking the Thames Estuary and Southend Pier, and inside the foyer was a very striking sweeping staircase leading to the upper rooms.

Here are Stan and Ollie standing on the balcony at the Palace Hotel (with what looks to be Southend pier directly behind them):

These two pictures were taken inside the Palace Hotel on Friday 8th August 1952, when a luncheon was laid on in their honour by the Essex Odeon cinema managers:

During the luncheon, Stan and Ollie were asked to present lapel badges to each of the managers:

Whilst staying at The Palace Hotel, Laurel and Hardy visited fortune teller Madame Renee in her booth just below the hotel on Pier Hill. Soon after a signed picture appeared on the wall of her booth which read "To Madame Renee, Many thanks for the excellent reading. Next time we will wash our hands". Stan also managed to meet up with a very old friend whilst stationed on Southend seafront. Stan had worked with Ted Desmond in the theatres before he went to America. It turned out that Ted was now running one of the amusement arcades!

Here's a little background on the place that Stan and Ollie called 'home' for that week in 1953.

The Palace opened in 1904 on the site of the Pier Hill fun-fair, and was originally called the Metropole Hotel. Here it is shortly after opening in 1905 (photo taken from the pier):

Here's a couple of postcards featuring the hotel taken in the early 1900's:

During World War I the hotel temporarily became the Queen Mary Royal Naval Hospital. Here's a couple of pictures taken during that period (1914 - 1918):

The Palace was 'the' hotel during the 20's, 30, 40's and 50's, and was always the favourite choice for any visiting celebrities performing in the town. It still continued to be one of the most popular hotels in the area in the 60's and 70's, although it would appear that the quality of the place was in steady decline by this point. By the mid to late 80's it was being used as a Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS) hostel.

Here it is in the late 1980's:
For most of the '2000s' its been empty, but around 2006/07 scaffolding went up (and has been up ever since!) and restoration work started. Here is the last picture I have of the Palace before the scaffolding took over (taken in 2006):

And here it is in 2007:

2008, and still no visible sign of any progress!!:

Despite working a 10 minute walk from it, I don't go down to the seafront that often. However I did wander down last week (for the purposes of this post) only to discover that much of scaffolding is now finally off! I took the photos below, and have to say it's looking very nice indeed... although I was disappointed to see that the words 'The Palace' have now been removed from the frontage.

The whole time the restoration has been going on, it has been unclear what the future holds for the building once complete. One story was that the University of Essex (the ones for whom the Odeon was finally knocked down) want it for halls of residence and a conference centre. another said the developer was 'going it alone' and will reopen it as a high class hotel. The new banner draped over the front of the building last week would seem to confirm the latter, with the news that the opening of the Park Inn Hotel, Restaurant and Conference Centre will be announced soon. A real shame to change the name though after almost 100 years.

Anyway, back to Andy's story (you thought I'd forgotten didn't you??!)... Andy and E.F Rice's grandfather, William Barton (aka Sam), was a professional musician and played double bass in a number of bands from the 40's right through to the 70's. He worked in the music halls, in orchestra's and in cabaret bands, as well as touring with the comedian Arthur Lucan's "Old Mother Reilly" show. In the early 1950's William Barton settled in Southend, as that was where a number of his wife's family had relocated to from London. He carried on as a part time musician, mainly in pubs and clubs around the seafront and at some time in the early fifties began working with keyboard player Sid Uren and drummer Harry Day. For the next twenty odd years they played together as the Sid Uren Trio. They stopped performing as a band in the seventies, but remained the best of friends until William Barton passed away in 1979. Harry remained in contact with the family, and even attended Mrs Barton's funeral in 2005. And it was at this funeral where Andy came to hear Harry's brilliant tale....

Harry Day and William Barton were regular musicians at the Palace Hotel in Southend, and were playing there whilst Laurel and Hardy were performing at the Odeon. After the performance one night, Stan Laurel was relaxing in the Palace Hotel bar listening to the band. Inevitably they got chatting, and during the course of the conversation, Harry Day happens to mention that he and his wife have just had a baby. Stan is genuinely thrilled, and incredibly says that he'd like to meet Harry's wife Rose to congratulate her, and toast the baby's health! Harry says OK, but wonders when they could possibly do it? "how about now" says the enthusiastic Mr Laurel! So without further ado the pair set off for Harry's home in Fairfax Drive, Wescliff. It's getting late by this time, and the sound of the key in the door followed by voices initially brings a luke-warm response from Rose.... "Harry, you brought someone home with you?" she warns.... "erm, yes" comes the rather sheepish reply... "it's Stan Laurel". Rose changed her tune pretty sharpish after that and offered them both a cup of tea, to which Harry replied "we're not here to drink tea". A full bottle of whisky was found and the three of them sat up until the early hours of the morning chatting and drinking! Around 4 or 5 in the morning, Stan said that he should be going and Harry drove Stan back to the Palace hotel (I don't suppose drink driving had been invented back then!!).

This story does odd things to my brain! In my mind there are Laurel and Hardy... and there is also the dowdy back streets of my home town - two completely separate things, and it shouldn't be possible to relate them! I drive to work every single day down Fairfax Drive, where one of my greatest heroes once drove too! Amazing! I must say that since learning of this story, I now think of Stan every morning as I drive to work!

Harry Day died in September 2006, and right up to the end he was still living in the same house in Fairfax Drive than Stan Laurel visited more that 50 years previously.



Laurel and Hardy are kept alive and well in the area thanks to the Southend branch of the official fan club - The Sons of the Desert. The Southend branch is called Saps at Sea. Amongst other things they hold regular meetings (showing films, memorabilia etc) on the 2nd Sunday of every month at the Naval & Military Club, Royal Terrace, between 5.30pm-8.30pm. I'm sure they will be delighted to see you, and will no doubt offer you a 'hardy' welcome... (sorry!). Also check out their website to find out how to become a member, and fine out even more about that legendary visit of the boys to Southend - Saps at Sea.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Podrophenia - Show 3!

Last Thursday evening, Planet Mondo and I got together again to record our third Podrophenia podcast. We decided it was about time to drop in a funky edition, but this one has a twist.... so why not have a listen to 'Surprisingly Funky'! 10 super-cool funky tunes from 10 artists you perhaps wouldn't be expecting.

In case you fancy playing along at home, we don't mention who the artists are until after we've played each song. So why not have a go at trying to spot who some of them are! Let us know how many you got right (and no cheatin'!).
Amongst the acts serving up a portion of quality grooves for you this time round are an artist who started their singing career in 1934, two genuine all time rock greats, a talent show winner, a 70's rock outfit, a bona-fide goddess, some kings of the syrupy ballad and a Kermit the frog look-a-likey! On top of all this is another load of unscripted bumbling waffle from Mondo and me!

This podcast is now only available as an iTunes download. You can grab this and every other Podrophenia show for free here:  Podrophenia on iTunes



Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Giles Ahoy!

Last winter, I paid a couple of visits to the Cartoon Museum in London to see their fabulous exhibition of Carl Giles artwork (see my original review here). I don't mind telling you that I was quite sad when it finished... I quite liked the idea of it just 'being there', where I could pop in for a top-up whenever I needed. As a result, I now find myself keeping a watchful eye on the The British Cartoon Archive's website (for 'tis they who now look after the entire collection of Giles' original art), just in case another exhibition is announced. Well it paid off when I recently spotted the launch of 'Giles Ahoy' in Herne Bay, Kent (1st August - 26th September 2009), and last Friday we got the opportunity to visit it.

The British Cartoon Archive have now completed their mammoth task of digitising and cataloguing every piece of Giles artwork in their trust (almost 8500 cartoons and sketches). Pop along to their website and you can now view just about everything the great man ever drew, all in chronological order. And it's even better than that... you can use their search facility to find Giles cartoons relating to any particular story, person or theme you fancy... Want to see every one of his 'football' related cartoons? (there's 159 of 'em!), all 121 cricket related drawings perhaps? or how about the 69 that relate to aircraft??!! Just type in what you are looking for and their archive does the rest. And that's exactly what the Herne Bay Museum and Gallery did to create their exhibition which, as the name suggests, is a collection of all things nautical. They found a total of 93 related cartoons, and put the selection to the local community to vote on. What's on display are the winners, the original artwork for around 15-20 pieces. You might think that with a relatively small number of items on display, you'd be in and out in 10 minutes... not so! As with the London event, we found ourselves pouring over each piece for ages. Giles used to cram such an amazing amount of detail into his cartoons, that you can spend an age picking out all the hidden gems. Seeing the original art (in much magnified size in comparison to the printed version) enables you to really enjoy his work to its full potential. Add to all this a collection of personal photos of Giles on board his own boat and you've got a really interesting display.

I was also delighted to see the carved statues of the Giles 'family' once again. I was really taken with these when I saw them at the London event. As I recall, the carved 'Baby George' was placed on top of Giles' coffin at his funeral.

The icing on the cake (and the reason for choosing this particular day to visit the museum) was a thoroughly interesting talk by Nick Hiley from The British Cartoon Archive. He gave a wonderful overview of Giles' life and oozed warmth and affection for the man throughout. Nick wrote an excellent book about Giles, 'One of the Family' to coinside with the London exhibition, and it is a great read (and packed with rarities that I've never seen published anywhere else). I was delighted to get a chance to chat with Nick after his talk too.

All in all a very successful trip!


If you happen to find yourself that way between now and 26th September, I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the Herne Bay Museum and Gallery (it's even free entry!).

Find out all about the great work that The British Cartoon Archive is doing with the Giles collection over at their website.


Have a go at their Giles cartoon search engine here!


view the original 93 'nautical' cartoons that this exhibition was chosen from here!

Buy Nick Hiley's fabulous 'One of the Family' book here! (Note: very small print run, get it while you can!)