Doug Luke identified

Alan Dein

In FAB 75 James Fielding paid tribute to the work of Century 21 Unit photographer Doug Luke. Until then, Doug couldn't be found for a more recent interview. However, thanks again to Alan Dein, Doug has finally been tracked down for a brand new interview covering his unique role at the Anderson studios.

Doug Luke and Gerry Anderson flanking a 7 feet model of Thunderbird 3
Doug Luke and Gerry Anderson

Thank you for letting me come to visit you, Doug. Did you know that many people had been asking for your whereabouts for so long?

No, I didn't have a clue. It was a big surprise. I had a look at the tribute article in the issue of FAB you sent me. It's nice to be remembered (smiles).

What have you been up to recently?

Well, I'm in my eighties now, so I don't do any photography anymore. I am fully retired and putting my feet up in front of the telly. After my wife Jean passed away I started to play bowls once a week, and that I enjoy. I get my meals on wheels delivered and have become a man of leisure (laughs).

Tell me about your early years and how you became a unit photographer.

When I was a young man, I lived in Sunbury-on-Thames in Middlesex. I left school when I was 14. You could leave when you were 16, but I hated it and wanted to leave as early as I could. So they came to interview us at school and stuck us in a factory until the end of the war. When the war finished, they closed the factory and I was unemployed. I had a neighbour who worked at Shepperton film studios, so I knocked on the gate to ask for a job. They told me to talk to the production manager for a film called London Town (1946), with Sid Field and Petula Clark. I got the job of an assistant to the stills photographer, carrying the large 10x8 camera around. It was my job to load the 10x8 slides with the film ready to shoot. I remember him looking at my fingers to make sure they weren't too sweaty when handling the film. When the film finished, they moved me go into the dark room, developing and printing the negatives. I stayed there for many years and eventually became the head of department. Then when the Boultings took over, they sacked my governor and gave me. So I stayed there for a while, until one day someone came in looking for a stills photographer for a film. I said I would do it, and that's how I became a unit photographer.

Did you do much television work?

I did a lot of television commercials in which I got to know a director called Richard Lester. He hired me as a unit photographer on Help! (1965) with The Beatles. Personally, I preferred doing commercials as I had work all year. Whereas with film you only work on them for a couple of months, then you're out scrabbling around trying to find another one to work on. So it was easier for me to work on commercials. You had stars doing them, like Orson Welles and John Cleese, so I had some interesting people to photograph. I remember doing a film with Dick Emery too, Ooh... You Are Awful (1972). He took a liking to me and we got on well. A very funny man. It's not what you know, it's who you know in the film game.

It must have been quite an experience working with The Beatles?

Yeah, they were a bit nervous of me at first. They looked and pointed at me playfully, saying, "Look, he's got a camera, hide!" and I'd say, "Yes, I am the unit photographer" whilst stroking my tie in a meek fashion. Once they got to know me, they were alright. They had their own stills photographer as well, which went around with them. I just worked on Help!, taking photos on set, location shoots and anything in-between. I remember when Dick (Richard Lester) was trying to get a scene done and he went out to the toilet. I said to the boys, "Quick, whilst he's gone, lets get a few stills" and when he came back, he shouted, "I caught you!" He did like me, but you wouldn't think so the way he used to thank me in his mocking way (chuckles). It was good fun.

How did you meet Gerry Anderson and get hired by AP Films?

Another photographer, Laurie Turner asked if I could stand in for him as a unit photographer at AP Films. But it would be evening work, after they had finished film ing, taking a few stills. I said alright and went along. For some unknown reason, they liked my face and started to ask me back for more shoots. Gerry then asked if would like to work for him on a regular basis for all the publicity material and comics that was needed. I said ok, thinking the job would only last a few weeks, and it lasted for a few years.

What were the conditions of your contract, how much did you get paid?

I was freelance, so on about £20 a day, two, maybe three days a week. It then went up to £100 a day as time passed. Or they would ring me up and ask if I could work the following day if I was needed. It was easier for me to work for dozens of people and not be stuck in one place all the time. Sometimes I'd be in Soho doing commercials, other times at the film studios. It was better too, working just four days a week freelance, than a full week on a film. I got paid more on a day contract than a week contract. Ninety percent of the day work you'd work until 10pm at night. That was time and a half overtime from 6pm to 10pm. Sometimes the production manager would get you on a deal and you wouldn't get paid for overtime. That's why I found it was financially better for me to duck and dive with jobs. Norman Foster was the Production Manager at AP Films, he was in charge of hiring and firing. I think Norman brought Ken Holt in from ATV to be the studio manager.

What were your hours at Century 21?

I started at 8:30am and finished at 5:30pm. After 5:30pm it was overtime, time and a half until 10pm. Then after 10pm, it was double time. That was a nice bit of extra cash when that happened.

How did the unions feel about that?

They (AP Films/Century 21) didn't like the unions much. The unions would always dictate the hours and the going pay rate for the job. If a person worked as an electrician, the electric union would specify what hours that person would get paid per day/week. That was the same as my union, ACTT (Association of Cinematograph Television and allied Technicians). Production managers used to ring me up, asking what my daily or weekly rate was. If it was a three month shoot, then you did a deal for the whole period.

Did you photograph a lot on the film stages or did you have your own studio space for stills?

I had access to all puppet and model effects stages. I also had my own little studio too. I could do portraits and whatever was needed. I also had a lighting electrician and a puppeteer to assist me. I'd tell the puppeteer to move the head or arm as I looked through the camera lens. It was easier to have an assistant, as it saved me going back and forth to change position of the puppet. They could do it for me as I directed them. We would pinch a puppet and cut the strings off for the photos. I remember I used to annoy the puppeteers, as I'd put gaffer tape around the arms to keep them posed and cut off the head strings for a photo. I had to clamp them down to stand straight or a small one on the back to keep upright. They then went potty having to re-string them up again. It took them ages to do because the strings had to go through the wig, to the eyes and solenoid for the mouth. I did that a few times and they would always groan "Arrghh, he's done it again!" They didn't like it when I messed it up for them.

You did a lot of staged shots for the Lady Penelope comic?

Yes, Gerry said I could have my own Penelope and Parker puppets to myself. So I had a couple of puppets made just for me, for use on stills only. Penelope had different heads, one normal, one smiling, one serious and so on. So I had to have the right head for the right photograph. I used a gauze filter for the female puppets, made out of a pair of black nylons (chuckles). Like a person, every puppet had a good or bad side and I had to choose a good angle for them when doing portraits.

When shooting, did you have a preference between the Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet style of puppets?

The puppet heads for Thunderbirds were a lot larger than the Captain Scarlet ones. The Scarlet puppets were a lot trickier to shoot, as their heads were the size of an egg. I thought it was more difficult to fix those, as any mistake showed up more. It was hard work for the girls to keep the puppets in good condition. Joe 90 must have been a lot harder being such a small head. The movements for those puppets had to be toned down a bit too.

What cameras did you use?

I started off with Rolleiflexes which were 2¼" square, I then went over to Nikon 35mm. With the Rollei, there was not much depth of field to it. With the Nikon, you could start with a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm which were quite wide, you had plenty depth of field on those. If I took a head and shoulders shot, I'd use an 85mm or 105mm lens.

Did Sylvia have much input during the photo shoots?

Oh yes, she was always telling me what to do (chuckles). Sylvia was in charge of all the puppeteers and the dressmaking side of it. She would make suggestions, how the hair would be done and stuff, but I'd sometimes ignore them. I just liked to be left to work in the way I wanted to. I used to give the puppets a little flick if they wouldn't stand properly (laughs). But Sylvia would give me a serious look if I altered the dress, or took the wig off and put it on backwards for a laugh. Sylvia also had some matching outfits to Penelope which I took pictures of.

What about Gerry?

Gerry trusted me and let me get on with it. He liked my photos. Some films I've worked on, the director would be busy saying "Sorry, I have no time for stills" and turn me away. I'd nearly get no pictures at all and it was my job to get them. So I'd have to go back to the producer and say I'm off, I can't do my job. They would then tell the director to allow me to take photos. I had to stand my ground. But with Gerry, he was behind me all the way. Gerry was interested in the actual filming, editing side of things and putting it all together. Eventually the directors became skilled and would go off to edit their own episodes, as the next director would come in to start on theirs. The directors were ex-editors, so knew what they wanted. Like Alan Perry, he was a clapper boy when I first knew him. He soon become a director and editor. Some of them took life too seriously and I used to take the mickey out of them. Gerry was also in London a lot of the time having meetings with Lew Grade. Both Gerry and Sylvia were very nice to me. They weren't like, more like friends really.

What were the challenges of photographing miniature models on the special effects stages?

Some miniature models were a bit fiddly, Derek Meddings and his team would set it all up for me and I would go in and take the shot. Most of those shots were inanimate subjects like cars and planes. But it would take time to wire up a plane with a few wires, one would snap and the model would tip forward. The explosions would require perfect timing when taking shots of those. They were loud. There were a lot of flames too, as they used to put petrol or something in the mix. I used to listen out for the click to activate the explosion and usually I'd time it just about right. I didn't always get it, but 90% of the time I managed it. It was always best to use a tripod during explosions, due to the camera shake. With water effects, when a plane would crash dive into the water, it would be tricky to catch the impact before the splash. So they would do it a couple of times for me to catch it. I also used to get a bit wet. They shot the effects in high speed and had four guys on the camera, a lighting cameraman, operator, focus puller and clapper boy. I would accidentally get in the way and they would shout, "You're in shot Doug!" Because to get the same angle, I had to get in almost the same line and height of the lens, otherwise I'd get the edge of the set in.

What do you remember about Derek Meddings?

Oh, I was blue eyes with Derek. I couldn't do anything wrong. The other directors used to say "Oh Doug's done this and that" and he would say “Ahh don't worry" and stand up for me. So I was lucky really. It's nice when somebody likes you isn't it? Gerry was alright with me too. The so-called underlings used to throw their weight about and say "I'll tell Gerry..." and I'd say please yourself and just laugh. If anyone had anything to say, Gerry would stick up for me, as I had a job to do and he was paying me to do it.

Was it difficult photographing puppets on the sets whilst filming?

With the puppeteers, I would ask if I could take some stills between takes and they would have to stand there holding it, whilst another would powder puff the wires to remove them from shot. The puppeteers would be above on a big gantry, about 6ft high. The puppets had long wires and would be bouncing about the set. When the director shouted "ACTION" you could hear the dialogue on the big speaker. There was a guy in another part of the studio with the dialogue machine and he used to flick the switch to make the puppets talk. The mouths used to make a loud clacking noise. I remember I'd have to stoop down a bit on the camera to get a good depth of field, as the sets were puppet size. So I had to be aware how the background would look so it wouldn't look too flat. I also used to get nagged at by the directors for taking time. Sometimes they'd say they didn't have time for photos. So I used to sneak quick shots when they weren't looking. Time is important during filming, so I had to be quick. The puppeteers didn't mind, they were on my side. The directors couldn't go to Gerry, as he would just laugh at them. Gerry was pleased to see the photographs, he didn't care how I got them.

Attack of the Alligators! is one of the most memorable Thunderbirds episodes. What are your memories of the shoot you did with the alligators?

They were little ones, but with big teeth! We had to be careful. I remember one escaped and they had to run across the floor to catch it! We had a big tank, 20 to 30ft across which was about 2ft deep. They threw them in there, and we didn't know where they were. When they bit stuff, the handler had to shake them off. Anyway, we had Penelope and wanted a shot with her beside the alligator. The alligator was sitting there with its mouth shut. When we put Penelope beside it, the alligator went SNAP! and took her leg off. They were quite strong for their small size. The handler had to catch the alligator and get it back out again.

Do you remember anything about the two Thunderbirds movies made?

I remember the one with the big plane in it (Zero-X). That was awkward, as it was a bit too heavy for the strings. I think one broke damaging the plane and it had to go back and be repaired in the shop quickly. They only had one big version of it too, so there was a lot of cursing on set when that happened. They had bits of the plane for close ups, but only one full version of it. I remember the big press event up in London, with the display of all the puppets. I went along and took pictures for that. That would have been for the premiere of the first Thunderbirds film at the London Pavilion.

Did you photograph Stanley Unwin during filming of The Secret Service?

Yes, he came down to the studio to sit for me, as they had to make the puppet from my photographs. They measured his head and body for the puppet version. He was a nice guy. He then went off to a recording studio in London I think, and did his episodes. I then used to hear his dialogue on the big studio speaker when filming. It made a change from all the American type voices that used to come out of it.

Do you remember any rivalry between the model and puppet stages?

Oh no, none of that. Totally different things — one was puppets, the other was miniatures. The puppeteers did everything, dress the dolls, operating and so on. On the model stage, you had a director and half a dozen blokes building the set. It would take them a day or two to build the set and then shoot it. It was busy all the time. Everybody was very friendly. I didn't have any problems, only with the odd director on the puppet set. They didn't like being stopped filming and got uptight, as they wanted to keep on time with things. I was lucky, I was my own boss. If they complained, I told them to speak to Gerry who would brush them off. They got used to me though.

You mentioned powder puffing wires, which was used on both the stages. Was that a difficult and time-consuming process?

Well it was called powder paint. On the model wires we used a spray called anti-flare, which would be used on any reflective light. We sprayed anti-flare on it and then used dry powder paint which was the same colour as the background. Then the wire would disappear in the background and you wouldn't notice it so much. With the puppets, they were moving about all the time, so that was more difficult. It worked sometimes... sometimes not.

Do you remember anything going wrong during the productions?

The puppet strings used to snap quite often. On the special effects stage, there was quite a big explosion. Some new lad had put in too much gunpowder and destroyed the whole set. The model they were trying to explode really went BOOM into a thousand pieces. It shook everyone up a bit. There was another time when one kid had saved a little bit of gunpowder and made himself a bomb about 2-3 inches across. He planted it in the ground outside, back of the studio and let it off during lunch hour, just to see what would happen. There was a big bang, followed by him being given the sack! There was also an incident with a model of an oil refinery, which they spent 2-3 days making, only to have it accidentally blown up before the cameras started rolling. Some of Derek's crew was quite young, about 18, so were still learning everything. Someone thought they would be clever and try something different which then went wrong. So they got smacked hands for that.

Did you used to go along to any of the studio parties or social gatherings?

Not really. I was just a half a pint drinker. I did sometimes go to the local pub with John Read during lunchtimes for something to eat. I remember taking pictures of the voice artists talking to Gerry for publicity purposes, but that was about it. Barry Gray came down to the studios a couple of times to visit, he was a nice bloke.

What do you remember about UFO, working with live actors instead of puppets?

Well, I was quite used to photographing actors in other films, so it was no different than before. I got on with some of them. Ed Bishop was a nice chap to get on with. George Sewell was a bit miserable. Some people you get on with, some people you don't. Some actors could be bigheaded, and there's no reason for that, they were just actors after all. Bob Bell used to think he was the bees knees. Its funny how some people let the job go to their head. Reg Hill was an awkward devil too. He liked to be the governor keeping an eye on things (chuckles). Actually, I have a photograph of the special effects crew somewhere.

How did it work taking photos during the scenes being shot with sound?

Well, I did get told off a couple of times by the soundman when they heard the click of the camera. So I had a box made up for my Nikon, where I could put the camera in and made it soundproof. I had an electric motor at the bottom of the camera to wind it on, and an electric button to take the picture. I could then take stills during a sound recording and they never heard it. It worked well. But occasionally, I'd get rid of it and take a few shots during the rehearsals.

Did you get to keep any mementos from the series or know where any props went after the studios closed?

No, I didn't come away with anything, apart from a few photos I kept for myself. I have a photo of Gerry and me standing beside Thunderbird 3. He signed that for me in 1983, when I did the Terrahawks shoot. Gerry used to pose a lot in photos with a big cigar like Lew Grade (laughs). All the stills I took, the rolls of film were given to Sylvia who would then send them off to ITC and other places. I think the Candy and Andy dolls went back to the staff of the comic.

It's nice that you have many happy memories of your time at Century 21.

Yes, looking back it was good fun while it lasted. The thing is, if you enjoy your job, that's what makes life worth living isn't it. If you go out being miserable all your life, what's the point in living? So I used to enjoy being a photographer, it was a good life to have.

article originally appeared in FAB magazine issue #76