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Man of Properties
Anybody want a chicken with acting experience? Or a talking horse? Or a hen that lays eggs on cue? Or a puddle on casters that can be moved quickly off the set? Producers have asked Bill King for all of them.
Bill King presides over a sort of glorified junk store that occupies much of the space at Television Centre, and he bears the title, hallowed by tradition, of Property Master. None of your Assistant-in-charge-Property-Store nonsense. His job is to furnish everything in vision, except the performers and the scenery. (A slight digression here about animals. If they are performers, they are engaged by Bookings. If they are part of the trimmings, like the Borzoi in More Contrary, Bill finds them. So we suppose the thespian chicken should have been referred to Bookings).
Just to give an idea of the daily round in Prop. Store, here are some items from the producer's indent for one of the plays in The Makepeace Story:
|1 Sharp knife
1 Pair iron clogs
1 Live cat (emaciated if possible)
1 Horse-drawn carriage
1 Home-made cosh
1 Victorian hearse, drawn by two black horses
1 Home-made grenade, with practical fuse
1 Box of matches (1857 period)
The Prop. Store distributes something like 6,500 properties a week, from a beerbottle to a bazooka (Quatermass II wanted the latter), accounted for by an average of ten complete programmes a day. A record is kept of where every item goes. Storage falls into three main sections, Furniture, Drapes, and Small Props., and in the case of furniture they keep photographs and exact dimensions of most items for quick reference.
A certain amount of hiring has to be done, of course, (there is no stabling for Black Hearse Horses, for example) but Bill keeps a good selection of everything a producer is likely to want, so that at short notice he can produce either the exact article or something near it. He also acts as adviser on period or unusual furnishings to producers who need his help.
Most of the stuff is bought or made on the premises. One member of his staff spends his time going round the shops and stalls in Shepherd's Bush buying small articles for specific programmes, and he also has standing orders to buy anything that might be useful in the future--within reason, of course. (And we digress again here to say that at the time of going to press (Winter 1955) he is still looking for a gramophone with a horn. Apparently they are remarkably difficult to get, so if you have one, you know where to send it). Viewers sometimes make gifts. Not so long ago, for example, one wrote to ask if the BBC would like a Victorian basket Bath chair. It did, and you will find it on a shelf above the more modern version used by Grandma Grove.
And how, you ask, does a man become a Property Master? In Bill King's case, he was born to it. His father, also Bill King, entered the prop. side of film making in 1919, and for fifteen years was Property Master to various British film companies. (He has retired from the game now and owns a jewellery business). Bill himself had his first experience at the age of six weeks, when his mother took him visiting a film set where his father was working. A baby was needed, so naturally King Senior used his own, and even at that tender age Bill was pleased with life. And that was where he learned the first trick of the trade. A few drops of lemon juice in a teaspoon produced most convincing tears. (In this connection, Bill has a piece of advice for those who are thinking of putting their head in the lion's mouth. Chew tobacco. At the first sign of the lion closing his jaws, a drop of baccy juice will make him change his mind at once).
Anyway, when he was sixteen, Bill started work under his father at--as though you hadn't guessed--Lime Grove, when Gaumont British had the studios. There he learned the whole job, starting by dusting the stores, learning to make props, becoming stand-by on the floor, senior standby, buyer, Assistant Property Master. All that time he was with either Gaumont British at Lime Grove or Gainsborough at Islington.
Shortly before the war he thought of launching out on his own, but for the next few years the Royal Artillery kept him busy on other matters. He returned to Lime Grove on demobilization, and then got the job of Property Master at Elstree and Shepperton. He also spent some months on location in North Africa.
At this stage Bill left films to reorganize his father's business, but he found that he wasn't really happy away from prop. stores and sets, so he answered an advertisement by the BBC, You know the rest.
FOOTNOTE: The sign on the door says W. J. King. His birth certificate expands it to William James. We must ask him sometime if he's ever used that certificate as a prop.
The above article was originally published in the Winter 1955 edition of Ariel, The BBC staff magazine
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