This is an account of three days in my life at Didcot in connection with the filming of Sherlock Holmes. I will not give any detail of the story line and actions which took place during these three days because that would spoil the effect when you see it on the screen. Additionally, there were strict limitations placed on all of us regarding photography and the like during filming.
This aspect of life on a film set was a first for me. All of my previous involvements in filming at Didcot allowed me freedom to photograph every aspect of activity - the other photographs regarding filming on this website were taken by me. These earlier events, although diverse, were relatively small undertakings and productions. Certainly the transformation of the Railway Centre for these productions was never on such a scale.
It should not be forgotten that many Didcot personnel were actively involved in setting up, for many weeks before the filming, and in dismantling for some time after these three days. Didcot Railway Centre was turned into an armaments works where the baddy was to try to capture the big guns to take over the world and the goodies try to stop him. The transformation started with the arrival of 33 containers on 25 October – not little boxes, but those you would see on a container ship or freight train.
A small band of Society employees and volunteers crewing the 08 and steam and diesel cranes were required to meet the location-build deadline. Amongst other things, this required a backdrop to the site involving the construction of a large green painted wooden structure. This was approximately 150 feet long, and up to 30 feet high. This was supported by six containers and much scaffolding – a total weight nearing 40 tons! In the week before completion Didcot was subjected to extremely high winds – to such an extent that this structure was moved! – by at least 2 feet from the perpendicular. A similar, but smaller, structure in front of the bicycle sheds suffered a similar fate. This could have jeopardised completion by the due date but weekend working recovered the situation.
For the filming, which would take place over the three days, 16, 17 and 18 November, the film crew required the following to be available: three locomotives in steam (3738, 3650, 5322) the 6 Ton steam crane and the 08 diesel. In terms of personnel, they would need 2 steam drivers and firemen, two crane drivers and four extras to be dressed as German workmen. Respectively, these individuals were me and Ian Welsh on 3738, Brian Thompson and Martin Brakespear on 3650, Maurice Williams, Peter Jennings, and Paul Beake, Ian Shugar, Lee Orchard and Dave Hunt. Several weeks before filming commenced came the first sign that this was going to be quite a different event. I was asked for height, chest, waist, inside leg measurements and shoe size.
So to the three momentous days. We all had to report to the commuter car park (the old provender yard) at 06.00. I estimate that at least one quarter of this car park had been requisitioned by the film company with parking spaces reserved for us. The sight was impressive, a multitude of very large trailers serving all sorts of needs. We then went to a marquee where we signed our lives away on a form which made us employees of the film company for the day. We then reported to our personal dresser who dressed us in the theatrical clothing which had been allocated to us according to our respective roles. We then went to make up where the appropriate oil and coal stains were applied – goodness knows why for within a minute of getting on the engine the genuine article would appear! Attention to detail was everything. I wear a signet ring. This was deemed as not appropriate to the period and as I could not remove it was taped over and the tape blacked out with oil make up.
We then proceeded to the catering van – a gross under-statement. This facility offered a full range of hot breakfast items including porridge as well as a good selection of cold items. This could be enjoyed in one of the several converted road-coaches that were available for the purpose. We were then taken by minibus to Didcot Parkway station. As we walked through the station entrance, the looks on the faces of commuters at the sight of us with jackbooted guards in long fur-collared great coats was worth the early start. On walking up the path to the front of the shed – something many of us do often – the sight that met us was awesome. There were familiar objects but the environment had been changed dramatically, enhanced by the fact that the morning was very foggy. The scene that unfolded as the watery light fought to overcome the fog was amazing. Even lots of the film crew said it was a gift for filming. However, the filming today was scheduled to be totally inside the shed! The other interesting fact was that the front of the shed had been sprayed with artificial snow/frost the previous day just in case filming took place outside. In the event the whole of the front of the shed was white with frost because of the sub-zero temperatures overnight, but when the sun broke through around midday on Tuesday the natural frost melted and left the artificial stuff behind!
During the day a nice young lady came round and photographed me: full face, left and right profile. The filming took place according to the schedule, with several rehearsals and runs-through, followed by the takes, and finished at precisely 17.00. That is a first for me; finishing on schedule. I should add that the catering for lunch was excellent. A catering company prepared the food off-site and brought it in to our catering building. Toward the end of the day the stills photographer took two photographs of Holmes and Watson blasting away with their machine guns just below us on 3738. The stills photographer uses a camera which is enclosed in a box padded with sound-absorbent material, allowing him to photograph the action during filming without the intrusive click being heard – a bit over the top, don’t you think? I was particularly intrigued about the attention paid to this photograph as it was rehearsed and taken twice and Guy Ritchie, the Director, examined the result intently. I asked one of the Assistant Directors why so much attention was given to this photograph. The response was that it could be used as a poster to advertise the film; watch this space!
Wednesday was a carbon copy of Tuesday; arrive 06.00, be dressed and made up – the make-up girl had the photos taken the day before to ensure continuity - then minibus to the station. Today a lot of the action took place around 3738 and the steam crane, which were parked next to each other on 1 and 2 Roads, and we therefore had a great view of the action. I was able to believe in the resurrection today; two German guards I had seen killed yesterday were very much alive!
Wednesday saw the end of the main critical filming activities involving Holmes, Watson et al, so the circus left town. The Second Unit – as they are known – would mop up the rest of the filming on Thursday. Although the vast majority of the crew had left, this was by far the most interesting day in terms of the action that was filmed; at least 10 single-shot rifles, two machine guns, two mortars and a Gatling gun. The noise was amazing.
I was very interested in the firearms so I asked one of the chaps who was obviously the armourer if I could have a look at those being used. For any rehearsals the rifles were made of rubber, and I can tell you they looked genuine, until you held them – no weight at all. When a ‘take’ was about to happen, the Director gave the usual instructions but added the phrase, ‘with gunfire’. At that point the armourer issued identical-looking weapons loaded with blank rounds, and other assistants walked round offering ear plugs. After the take, the armourer collected all of the ‘real’ weapons which were then held securely. I was particularly interested in the Gatling gun as it looked really authentic - and it aparently was. The person who set up the company in the 1920s was a weapons collector and he was able to pick up weapons for next to nothing. He was then approached by theatres wishing to use the weapons for their productions, then film companies. The company grew and grew and now owns upwards of 10,000 firearms/weapons in Regulation 1- 5. Regulation 1 embraces weapons which you and I could own; however, Regulation 5 weapons are definitely seriously harmful pieces. You will be pleased to hear that the company is visited regularly by the police and a complete inventory of their arsenal is carried out.
On Wednesday, Zep’s namesake arrived in the shed. For the taking of the still photograph mentioned previously, a huge Zeppelin-type balloon was inflated with helium and brought into the front of the shed. It was half black and half white above and below the length of its horizontal mid point and, secured to the buffer beam of 3738, produced a downward diffused light with a very life-like daylight effect. If they hadn’t cut it adrift before we moved out of the shed I had visions of being the first GWS driver to take a Pannier airborne!
Throughout the filming in the shed, a piece of equipment called the ‘pig’ emitted steam from the many of the dead engines via pipes secreted in the inspection pits. It looked authentic but smelt awful. The irony of the situation was that at one time they wanted steam to come from behind the wheel set of the Pannier, but when the injector steam valve was cracked open to provide the real thing, the film operative said, “No, that’s not right!”