If a doodle-bug had cut out two seconds earlier, perhaps Robert Taylor’s trousers would never have become covered in distemper when he was filming ‘A Yank at Oxford’.
The man who put the distemper on the trousers was in a train the doodle-bug would have hit. He is Bill Bolton, a scenic painter at Wembley, and those two events are just two episodes from a pretty varied life in show business.
Bill is a Londoner, born in Marylebone at the turn of the century. He did a four year apprenticeship before taking up the tools of a house decorator. ‘I was a member of a working man’s club at St James’,’ says Bill Bolton, ‘and we used to meet a lot of people there who made a bit more money by working at a theatre in the evening. I liked the idea of show business, so I did it too – and I have been connected with it ever since’.
‘Doing shows’ meant working behind the scenes as prop man, stage hand or flier man, depending on which was needed. The rates were 3s 9d a show, going up to 4s. ‘I worked in all the West End theatres except His Majesty’s, the Haymarket and the Opera House,’ recalls Bill with a grin. ‘I never could make them’.
One of the shows he remembers best is ‘Jill Darling’ with Francis Day and Arthur Riscoe starring and John Mills as the second lead dancer.
‘Francis Day liked jokes. Many’s the time we sat around telling her stories and sometimes she’d give us five bob for the best one of the evening. But things have changed a lot since then’. “Then’, he said waving an admonishing finger, ‘we weren’t so used to young ladies being scantily dressed. In “Jill Darling”, Miss Day had to make a couple of very swift changes, and used to brush past us on the way back to the stage very scantily clad – I was most embarrassed,’ then musingly, ‘wonder if I would be now?’
Early in the 30’s, Bill Bolton moved to films when he heard that they needed painters. ‘It was very different then from today. We’d do our day’s work, which was sometimes only a few hours, and leave. Next morning we’d queue for more work. There were days when I was so broke that I’d walk back from Elstree to Tottenham Court Road, where I lived. But I liked the atmosphere – it was varied. I preferred it to the theatre’.
Bill Bolton then worked on about 50 pictures, including several with Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox. ‘He was superstitious. He’d start his pictures on the Friday nearest the 13th of the month. He said it’d bring good luck! Bill smiled. ‘Before each film, he’d come round, find out who everyone was behind the scenes and shake them by the hand. And at the end of the film there was an extra little envelope waiting for us. He and Miss Neagle are two of the finest show business people’.
Errol Flynn was another of Bill’s favourites. He worked with Herbert Wilcox and Anna Neagle on ‘Waltz Time’, a lot of which was filmed in Barcelona. ‘Errol Flynn loved publicity of any kind, but I think half the stories printed about him weren’t true. He was a considerate man, full of jokes and fun – a great loss to the film industry’.
The unit spent the first 10 days of their 12 weeks in Barcelona without work permits, and on limited cash. ‘We had £5 a week – that’s all we were allowed to take out of England. We were very broke, and the director and stars were in the same boat.
“The Spanish people who were working with us had a different life – they had lunch of bread and fish and wine while sitting on the pavement. Meanwhile the unit went off and ate in good restaurants. I found it most embarrassing,’ frowned Bill. ‘So we requested the same facilities for them as we had – and got them too. It was tragic – some of them had never seen butter before, and wrapped it up carefully to take home to their children’.
During the war, Bill Bolton worked at Denham Studios. He was not called up because the work at the studios was considered to be of national importance. He was, however, accepted as a rear-gunner with the RAF until the studios got him exempted. Among the films he worked on was ‘In Which We Serve’. This meant building a full-scale model of the destroyer HMS Kelly. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came down to see the set, together with Lord Mountbatten. ‘It was a wonderful set and they were most impressed. The bows had to be built in another studio, she was so big,’ recalls Bill Bolton. “The difference between film and television sets is that the film ones were built to last. They might have had to stand for several months on end, whereas the television ones have shorter lives. Also the pace wasn’t so fast in films – we had more time to devote to each set’.
It was around this time that the incident of the doodle-bug took place. Every morning, the men used to go down by train to Denham for the day’s work. One day, near Sudbury, a flying bomb dropped right in front of the train. ‘We heard it come over and cut out, and we thought we’d had it,’ says Bill. ‘We jumped down on the floor and there was a proper commotion when it went off just in front of us. The line was completely blocked and houses all around were flattened.’
After the war, Bill Bolton continued working at Denham. Robert Taylor stands out among his memories of the late 40’s. ‘He was a great gambler who liked backing horses and playing dice,’ is how Bill describes him. While working on ‘A Yank at Oxford’, on Mondays, Bill used to be sent out with £60-£70 to back the ponies that used to race at Northolt Park. ‘And occasionally I used to collect winnings too!’ Taylor also liked to dice with the boys in slack moments. ‘I used to play occasion- ally sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. He used to take all our money off us from time to time then return it later.’
One of the scenes in ‘A Yank at Oxford’ required Robert Taylor to be ‘debagged’. ‘We had built a complete replica of an Oxford “quad” at Denham, recalls Bill Bolton. Then the complications set in. There was a mix-up with wardrobe and the second matching pair of trousers needed did not arrive. ‘As the stand-by painter, I was asked if I could quickly make another pair look like the original ones, so I set to work dirtying an old pair down with an air gun and distemper, then I put them under an arc lamp to dry quickly. I couldn’t guarantee exact similarity, but I’d done my best,’ says Bill. The 1,000 student extras set about the debagging and triumphantly the mocked-up trousers were thrown into the air. ‘But’ says Bill, ‘down came a shower of loose distemper – it went all over the place. It ruined Robert Taylor’s suit and the clothes of several of the students. I had visions of my cards being handed to me. But the director humorously accepted that accidents could happen and my job was safe’.
After Denham, Bill Bolton spent 18 months at Rank’s Charm School, where short films were made to give budding stars – including Diana Dors, Jimmy Edwards and Michael Pertwee – an insight into the world of cinema. When it closed in 1950, Bill went on to the Associated British Picture Corporation at Boreham Wood for five years.
“When commercial television started, I thought I’d like to try it, as I’d been in both the theatre and films. I found I did like it. It’s not the same as films, mark you. There aren’t the same personalities, though it is a similar set-up. Television’s a growing industry and when colour television does come, the sets are going to have to be produced very differently – those cameras will pick up the slightest defects and flaws’.
Bill Bolton is married and has a son called William. In what spare time he has, he is a sports fan – but I’m too old now to play’. Since 1911, he has been a firm Chelsea supporter.
‘I’ve enjoyed every minute of my work in show business. It’s a great industry,’ he sums up.