‘The Pink Panther Strikes Again’
I have been running my old school website for 16 years now. In my bio, I mention how I got into photography through an invitation to the Pink Panther set at Shepperton Studios by Julie Andrews’ husband, film director Blake Edwards. Yesterday I was asked by a commenter how this had come about. Here is my reply:
I have been ‘self-employed’ most of my working life, however, since leaving the RAF in 1971 I worked for just one company for a little over a year. BMW Concessionaires in Park Lane took on myself and one other as an experiment to see if they could recruit and nurture potential export ‘sales executives’ from outside of the motor trade. My colleague, Jules Wildman, earned a position after working a few years with Rank Xerox and myself having had no previous sales experience managed to persuade the selection board by having established and sold a special effects lighting company in Beckenham and a successful bistro restaurant in Norbury, South London.
BMW in Park Lane, next door to the Dorchester Hotel, had its fair share of celebrity visitors due to its premier location and I was always delighted to meet many such figures amongst them David Niven, Bob Marley, and George Harrison. Our showroom was at street level but the offices where the salesmen and managers lived was in the basement where we were kept like mushrooms with no natural daylight, so it was always a pleasure to be called up to the sales floor to attend a potential customer and once more see the light of day. As an ‘export’ salesman it was my job to sell tax-free cars to those who qualified i.e. people who were domiciled abroad and who were each allowed one tax-free vehicle per year. This tax saving advantage applied to almost all foreigners, with the exception of those from the USA, who famously could buy a BMW quite a bit cheaper in the US than they could in the UK Tax-Free. Therefore, it always a complete waste of time when it was my turn to surface above ground only to be greeted by an American accent, whereupon I announce to myself “No sale here then” before politely going through the motions.
‘Never judge a book by its cover’ was a lesson I was soon to learn in early Spring 1976 after I had been with BMW for almost a year. It was my turn to respond to the next call to the showroom and after climbing the big spiral staircase from the basement I was greeted in the reception area by a chirpy young man with a strong American accent and wearing a plain white tee-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. This set the usual alarm bells ringing – with knobs on! (In 1976 most of my customers at least wore a shirt and tie). Offering the usual BMW hospitality I invited the guy to sit down with a cup of coffee in a comfy chair to discuss his requirements. He introduced himself as Tony Adams and was looking for an American specification BMW 2002 Tii automatic, in silver blue. He didn’t ask me for the price but just wanted to know if we had one in stock which he could get quickly. In the days before computers, we had a large manual Cardex system which kept a printed record for each export car we had in stock and held in our bonded compound in Calais. Knowing full well that the price would be too high I dutifully went downstairs to ‘check our stock’. already knowing there were six models in Calais which exactly met his specification. I returned to him with the loaded sales line “I cannot believe this Mr Adams but we have the exact car actually in stock” to which he then enquired after the price. The man didn’t even blink, but just stared at me. After a long pause, he said “OK, I am also looking for a (top of the range) American specification BMW 3.3Lia as well – in dark blue metallic with leather seats” to which I replied, “I am afraid our customs rules only allow for one vehicle per person per year Sir”. He quickly brushed this information aside and immediately arousing my suspicions. I thought ‘Here we go, another joker like the guy last week claiming his name was Jesus Christ’. I then repeated the earlier exercise, this time returning from the depths with the revelation that we did indeed have the exact dark metallic blue model he was looking for, in stock, in Calais and for $9,000 he could have it delivered in just four days!
The non-blinking stare and long pause were again repeated. This time Mr Adams eventually said “Well Colin, what are you waiting for? Are you gonna write the order for the two automobiles?”. To say I was dumbstruck was an understatement but of course I had to repeat the one car, one person, per year rule to which he replied: “Oh, by the way, neither car is for me”. Then, following his instructions, I wrote the order. The BMW 2002 was for Julie Andrews and the BMW 3.3 Lia was for her husband the film director and producer Blake Edwards, the man largely responsible for all the Pink Panther films.
Once the orders were written he announced that they were all staying on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea and that he would have a dollar cheque in full payment delivered by hand later that day. Now feeling very pleased with my double sale and not a little star-struck by proxy, I further learned that Tony Adams was, in fact, the Associate Producer of ‘The Pink Panther Strikes Again’ which they had just started filming at Shepperton Studios. I was then very quick to mention that I’d always wanted to visit a live film set and what would be the chances? He said he’d have to have a word with his ‘boss’ but couldn’t see a problem. Less than two hours later I had a personal hand-written invitation from Blake Edwards to visit the studios the very next day which was delivered along with a cheque for $14,000.
On asking my own manager if I could have the following day off to visit the studios he said it would be absolutely OK, provided he could come too. One phone call later to Tony Adams and the invitation was extended to my manager Stan Beesley and we both travelled down the next morning to Shepperton in an open top 633 Csia. We were met by the film’s publicist Quinn Donaghue and after a cup of coffee, we were walked over to the soundstage and quietly ushered onto the set where dozens of technicians were adjusting the lighting for the next scene. I was in heaven, surrounded by all the scenery and equipment and buzz of a full-on production. I was most intrigued by the job of the stills photographer David Farrell who seemed to be clicking away at anything or anybody. Following a lengthy chat with him during which I expressed my great interest in photography, David invited us both to lunch. This was taken in the rather rough and ready restaurant cum canteen where we were eating alongside many of the cast and crew which included Peter Sellers, Herbert Lom and, of course, the director Blake Edwards. David and I got on very well and he generously took me under his wing and taught me how it all worked. I was soon learning more about photography in a few hours under his tuition than I had gained in all my years of interest to date. To my absolute delight, this visit was not to be my last – I returned to the studios three times during the following weeks.
We had already gathered from the script that a few scenes called for the character Jarvis to ride a powerful motorbike which he was to ride to the nightclub where he performed as a drag artiste. On our return to Park Lane, we hatched a PR plan to present the film’s production team with a specially commissioned ‘pink’ BMW motorbike. It was prepared by the technical department at Brentford in just a few days and we delivered it to Shepperton less than a week from our first visit. The team absolutely loved the bike but ultimately thought the colour maybe a bit too ‘obvious’, however, they did accept a replacement, standard-liveried bike in its place which was ultimately used in the film and can, of course, be seen to this day by watching the film. One of the admirers of the ‘pink’ BMW was the actress and top model Maud Adams (who was later sacked from the film and replaced by Lesley-Anne Down). Maud fell in love with the shiny new machine and was given a pillion ride around the studio grounds by our then Head of Motorcycles, Jeremy Fraser. On their return, David asked Maud if she would give up the last few minutes of her lunch break to pose for me on the bike. What a delightful lady as she immediately agreed and I (rather nervously), did the shoot right there outside the production office with its larger than life Pink Panther display next to the door. What a pro? She just did not need any direction at all for the two rolls I shot of her. When she heard the click of the camera she just morphed into the next pose and all I needed to do was release the shutter and change position for the next shot – I was smitten!
In those days I was also very impetuous (still am) and I decided then and there that I would quickly hand in my notice with BMW and become a photographer. The next day I went to a camera shop beneath Capital Radio on the Euston Road and using my overdraft facility bought a brand new Nikon F2S Photomic and a Hasselblad 500c. Armed with that level of equipment I reasoned that if the photographs I would now be taking were of poor quality it would at least be down to the operator and not the gear! Within a few weeks of all this and having left the employ of BMW I was drinking wine with the supermodel Cathee Dahman and her husband, actor Leonard Whiting. But that, of course, is another story.