‘And I was one of the extras in “Caesar and Cleopatra”…’
When he says this, you suddenly see him clearly; wrapped in a toga, hawk-like and angular, with a laurel wreath over his smoothly silver hair. He tilts back his head, and regards the world across high cheekbones; slightly affronted, you might think, at what he sees.
It makes a good picture – but when he starts to talk, you realize at once that Len Fraser is not in the least like that.
‘When a situation arises, we have to be here to meet it,’ he says, with enough of a Scottish burr to banish any visions of Ancient Rome. ‘And I’m proud to boast, we’ve never let anybody down yet… Oh, we’ve skated over thin ice now and again – I’m not saying we haven’t – but so far Lady Luck has smiled on us.’
You have to take every fantastic crisis in your stride, and meet life with a relentless, down-to-earth logic, when you spend your time in Wonderland. Even Alice had to do the same.
For ‘Wonderland’ is hardly an exaggerated description of Len Fraser’s world. His office is a sort of giant telephone box, from which he gazes out like a goldfish in a bowl, at a vast and surrealist collection of objects.
Sides of papier mâché beef, bouquets of artificial flowers, sideboards and fire-irons, abstract paintings and steel engravings, oriental devil-masks – and even the rear half of a horse… This is the Property Store at Wembley.
Stretching across the desk, Len pushes aside a box marked ‘Gold Sequins’, burrows under a sheaf of prop lists (‘For our production next Monday, in addition to the articles already ordered, we shall require a set of dentist’s tools, a box of exploding cigars and an old-fashioned water-pistol’), finds an ash-tray, and stubs out his cigarette.
Then he lights another, and starts to reminisce.
‘I went into the business when I was sixteen, as a chorus boy. In some of the big Scottish shows; revues, mostly. We usually did four or five months resident in Glasgow, then maybe a tour – Dundee, Aberdeen, Belfast, Dublin – all over. I’d started as an amateur, of course, singing a bit and dancing; in local concert parties and Scout Jamborees — you know the sort of thing.’
‘Oh, no, I wasn’t born in Scotland. I’m a Canadian really; born in Chatham, Ontario. My father was a Scot, and he managed a chain of music stores out there, selling instruments and records. But I resisted the opportunity to learn the piano; I was keener on the mouth-organ! We came back to Scotland in 1922. My father had been told by the doctor that he had three months to live, and he wanted to see his old home again. …I’m happy to say he carried on for another thirty years.’
So Len went into show business, and almost at once he began to discover talents outside his song-and-dance routines. He took up drumming, and in the summer months joined a band, playing for dances and concerts at some of the big seaside hotels.
During the war, he served with the RAF for two-and-a-half years, and then, when he was invalided out, he was sent to a Midlands factory on ‘work of national importance’. But this wasn’t enough for Len and soon the factory had its own band, and the staff were entertained with lunchtime concerts. There were gigs in the neighbourhood (i.e. engagements for dances, to those readers unfamiliar with the Musicians’ Union patois) and every week-end there were variety shows in the big Midland theatres and at the army camps. So Len went on, organizing shows, drumming and dancing, until September 1945, when he tried his luck in London as a film extra.
Lady Luck smiled again and he walked on – and occasionally off – in such films as ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘I See a Dark Stranger’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘London Town’, and of course, ‘Caesar’.
Then back to variety and another series of tours; one notable one was with Ralph Reader’s ‘Gang Show’.
‘You ask Dickie Emery when you see him – he’ll remember those days. And Cardew Robinson, and Reg Dixon – they were all in the “Gang Show”… . After that I toured with Hylda Baker, running the band, doing three dance routines, and working in the sketches too.’ (Len knows, y’know…) ‘And I followed that up with a couple of years as entertainments’ manager at Exmouth, organizing everything from the concert parties to the bathing beauty contests.’
So far Len’s theatrical experience had been on the lighter side, but soon after this he transferred to ‘the legit’, as property-master and stage-manager – first for Linnit and Dunfee, then H. M. Tennant, and also Jack Hylton.
His last job outside television was at the Stoll Theatre, with ‘Kismet’, so when A-R got into its stride, all he had to do was walk next door and get himself a job – 22 August, 1955, as a setting assistant. And on 1 January 1956, he moved into the property department, and has hardly moved out of it since.
‘We don’t make props here, like they do in the theatre,’ he explains, lighting another cigarette. ‘That would be impossible. We’re more of a supply depot, you might say. When we get the prop lists through from the directors, we go through them with the buyers – then, anything we can supply out of stock is marked off; everything else is hired. But of course, if something we hire fails to materialize on the day – it’s up to us.’ He brushes off what appears to be part of an old bicycle, and rests his elbows on the desk. ‘Here, necessity is the mother of invention. I’ve often had to go and knock up the people in the shops over the road, on nights when things haven’t turned up. I remember once, we were short of a lawn-mower, and I borrowed one from a pal of mine. He was actually cutting the grass when I rang up – but we got it all right.’
‘Of course, we can’t just use any old thing. We’ve got to be accurate. You get a Victorian sofa in a Louis drawing-room, and first thing you know, there’ll be a buzz on the ’phone. Somebody will spot it… Like when we do scenes in shops – we have to go round blocking out all the trade-names, on every tin and package and showcard in the set. Can’t go giving them all free plugs, can we?’
Sofas, showcards, soda-syphons… Len’s department is responsible for everything from a to z; from artichokes to – well, a zebra is one of the few objects they haven’t been asked for… Yet!’
‘Oh, we deal with a lot of livestock.’ He thinks back rapidly. ‘Dogs and cats, parrots, lion-cubs, monkeys, goldfish, a fourteen-foot python – and even mice. We’ve got one mouse upstairs who lives here permanently, ever since he escaped from a conjurer in one of the children’s programmes.
‘We had a goat here, too, a little while back; tethered to a bench, on a nice piece of tarpaulin, to keep the place clean and tidy. But he got loose, and ate every blessed thing he could get at – goodness knows how many paper flowers he polished off. He even ate the tarpaulin.’
And there is the studio cat, Boxer; an impressive black-and-white tom who has made sixteen appearances (intentionally) on the screen to date, in every show from ‘Murder Bag’ to ‘The Red Grass’. Len claims that Boxer is the least temperamental of TV stars – even if he does think that ‘Cool for’ was named after him.
‘What do I do in my spare time?… Well, I’m still keen on music. Maybe you saw me let my hair down at the Christmas party, singing a couple of numbers with the band! Jazz is one of my hobbies; I’ve got a collection of jazz records – two hundred and twenty-one of them. And I watch television at week-ends. The Palladium Show’s one of my favourites; I still like variety.’
The ’phone rings; he finds it under the bric-a-brac, and has a brief conversation with Television House.
‘Yes, Frank… A settee you’ve got there, to come to us tonight?… Right – you can put it on with the next lot. The stuff we’ve got coming back now is nothing much – only about eight articles. That mahogany writing-table, a chest of drawers, and the grandfather clock – only odds and ends. No big stuff at all.’
He rings off, and tries to remember what he was saying. ‘Eh? Oh – the Palladium Show… I’m only sorry I’ve never seen a single one of our shows, either on the screen or from the floor. The next one I see will be the first.’
Let us hope that when the great moment finally arrives – if it ever does – Len will enjoy what he sees. As long as he docs not spot an Edwardian whatnot in a Regency boudoir, he probably will.