A Policeman’s Lot 29….Lights, Camera, Action!

Act One.

The police services in Britain have always provided popular material for the makers of fiction and documentaries on the big and small screen……Over the years The Metropolitan Police have often allowed access to documentary makers but when approached by the makers of fictional films and programmes they tended to adopt a somewhat “Sniffy” demeanor and would usually decline the opportunity to be involved with comments like “We are here to prevent crime…NOT to entertain your viewers.”

Thames Division (as it used to be called) and the modern Marine Policing Unit of the Metropolitan Police have received many such requests….But all were rejected by New Scotland Yard….Even a request to become involved in the opening sequence of ‘The World is not Enough’ the James Bond thriller which is, (I believe) the longest opening sequence of any modern film was rejected for the same reason.

This proved to be very good news for private businesses on and around the river Thames who eagerly bought up every second hand police launch that came up for sale and used them to rent out to film companies who decked them out once again in Met Police livery and blue lamps to make them once again look the part for a whole host of police themed programmes.

Then of course came the recession which was quickly followed by the infamous period of financial austerity for public services….With Government reluctance to fund policing, the various forces around the country were advised to seek other methods of funding themselves and whole new media departments were set up to manage the marketing of brand “Metropolitan Police Service”……It was around this time that that the MPS was approached by the makers of the TV series ‘Prime Suspect’ which had then reached series six with Helen Mirren playing the lead role of Jane Tennison, a senior detective involved in solving complex and serious crimes.

In this series Helen Mirren’s character was herself suspended and under investigation but the plot line required her to meet secretly with her junior officers in order to discuss an ongoing investigation…..For some unknown reason (best known only to the script writers) it was decided that this secret meeting should take place on a police launch on the River Thames.

The modern MPS was now more than happy to rent out one of its launches to the production company along with a couple of serving police officers to facilitate the filming….Myself and a colleague (called Carl) were told to report for duty at Wapping and put ourselves at the disposal of the film crew….First the technicians arrived and began erecting scaffolding around the cabin on which were fitted various cameras….This work being completed, the film crew began arriving to get themselves set up and ready to begin filming….Then the cast began to arrive….There would be three actors involved, two men who were the junior officers and last (but by NO means least) Helen Mirren herself!

Now the two co-stars both had to travel from some distance away to get to Wapping….But both arrived early….Helen Mirren had to walk all of 400 metres from her London house to get to Wapping Police Station…..and of course, she was the last to arrive….positively oozing charm and apologies for her late arrival.

Carl and I had both discussed the filming in advance and we both agreed that the day would either be a great deal of fun…..Or a terrible day in the company of a bunch of TV “Luvvies”……Fortunately it was the first option….The production crew were all unfailingly polite and grateful for our assistance….The director explained everything in great detail and thanked us in advance for our helping then out and the actors turned out to be amusing and engaging people…..I suppose that like most men of ‘a certain age’ I had a bit of a crush on Helen Mirren and it was delighted to find out that she was as friendly and easy going off camera as she always appeared to be in the various ‘Talk Shows’ on which she so regularly appeared

A police launch is not a very spacious filming environment and things were rather cramped….I think that Carl was even more nervous about how the day might turn out and asked if he could drive the launch, which would leave me to do most of the liaising with the film crew and actors…..Once we had established an initial rapport this worked out fine……Filming is not a swift process and continuity turned out to be an ongoing problem…..Each scene would need to be shot several times over and we had to go back to the original geographical starting point each time….It’s no good filming a short conversation between two actors if any given sentence begins at Wapping outside the old London Docks and ends at Westminster with the Palace of Westminster in view….Apparently viewers complain about such errors!

The cameraman had brought with him many canisters of fresh film and I became very adept at taking rolls of film out of the sealed canisters and handing it to the cameraman….And then putting the exposed film into its original canister and attaching the “Used” sticker onto the canister…. The day passed slowly but it was hugely interesting to be part of …I even got to operate the little checkered ‘clapperboard’ when the director called for “Action!”…..And what film fan has not longed to do that?

At lunchtime we were invited to join the crew for lunch at a rather smart local restaurant and after lunch we were asked if we would object to being “Extras” and actually take part in the filming….We both agreed and our “Parts” involved meeting the two junior officers at a door and leading them down a gangway to the pontoon while helping them fasten their life jackets…..In the final TV programme this scene lasted maybe 20 seconds….But it took about 45 minutes to satisfy the director, the cameraman AND the sound engineer that all was good.

Filming took the whole day but it was hugely enjoyable and we ended the day with a couple of pints in a local pub….Unfortunately Helen Mirren was unable to join us but she did say that one day she would very much like to come back to the police station to have a look around the little museum (which I looked after)…..But I didn’t really expect or imagine that she really find the time to do so……..But I was wrong!

Act 2

About three months later I was contacted by an officer from the Tower Hamlets Local Community Team….They had a local resident (Jack) who was something of a local celebrity. He had been born in the East End of London and embarked on a hugely successful career as something of a wheeler dealer in London during which time he amassed a large fortune, Over the years Jack had been involved in many pieces of philanthropy within the East End of London including instigating a charitable trust designed to aid the neediest children within the community….The local police wanted to thank him for his efforts which included supporting several initiatives backed by the local police…..but what do you give a millionaire?…..So they asked him if there was anything that HE wanted to do that they might be able to arrange for him….It seems that he lived in Wapping and had heard about our small River Police Museum at Wapping and wondered if he might be able to arrange a visit for himself and perhaps a few of his friends….Of course, I readily agreed to arrange the visit and on the appointed afternoon I waited in the front office at Wapping with the local officers and about ten Marine Police officers for the guests to arrive.

Jack arrived with five or six of his friends….I shook his hand and asked if he was ready to start the tour?

”We are just about ready but we are just waiting for one other guest and she will be here very shortly!”…..Just as he finished speaking those words the front office door was opened and in came Helen Mirren.

“I’m SO sorry for being late….I DO hope that I’ve not kept you all waiting too long!”

Jack gave her a friendly hug. “It’s OK Helen….We’ve only just arrived ourselves….This is Rob and he will be our host this afternoon.”

Helen glanced across to where I was standing and said “Ohhh But Rob and I are very old friends….We’ve only recently been working together!” So saying she strode across the room and planted a kiss on each cheek…..You can only imagine the look on the faces of the assembled police officers in the room….As we made our way to the museum I looked at the sergeant who was mouthing “How the Hell did he manage that?”

In the Museum I gave my presentation on the history of policing the River Thames since 1798 complete with the usual tales of shipwrecks and ‘murder most foul’.

I then invited my guests to look around at the exhibits and to ask any questions that might occur to them….During this time Helen came up and said “I hope I didn’t embarrass you when I came in….But it was fun to see the look on the faces of your colleagues!”

“You must be joking…I will dine out on that story for years….And I probably won’t wash my face for the rest of the week!”

“You really are very sweet….And thanks very much for letting Jack come and see your museum….The local history here is really amazing and I knew he would be fascinated by it… He is so proud of his East End heritage!”

“It really is my pleasure….And congratulations are in order for the awards you received for ‘Calendar Girls’ and of course for you being made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.”

“Oh, yes….It really is so exciting….When I was received the letter I was bursting with pride….But I wasn’t allowed to tell ANYONE until the awards were publicly announced….I haven’t been given a date to receive the award yet….But I AM allowed to use the title before my investiture…..And trust me….I HAVE!”

“That’s fantastic….And it can’t be bad for your career either, can it?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, if your theatre, television and film work ever dries up….You will always get a job as a ‘Dame’ in pantomime, won’t you?”

She feigned a serious face…..and then it broke into a huge grin….”I am going to treat that awful joke with the contempt it TRULY deserves!”

As I made my way home that day I was left thinking about the number of times that you might meet someone whom you have always admired….But when you actually meet them face to face….The reality is that they don’t really live up to your hopes and expectations….But I am absolutely delighted to confirm that Dame Helen Mirren is EVERY bit as delightful to meet in person as she always appears to be on the screen!

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