by Philip Marriage
It was not the day to be late. After all, how often do you get an invitation to Downing Street? However, as my early-morning train approached Liverpool Street, it juddered to a halt, startling me from my slumbers. The train ahead had broken down!
I was on my way to direct a photo-shoot showing an HMSO van delivering urgent packages to No.10 from early morning to late at night, demonstrating HMSO’s 24-hour service commitment to its most important customer.
It had taken some weeks of negotiation to gain the necessary permissions, and I doubt that anyone other than another government department would have been allowed access. Next came the security clearances for the photographer, Clive Friend, and myself and eventually a date was fixed — Thursday 2 August 1990 — chosen because the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would be out of the country meeting with the American President, George Bush.
That August was one of the hottest on record and I decided to wear my cool lightweight cream suit but, slumped in my seat with no movement from the train for forty-five minutes, I felt beads of perspiration emerging as I imagined the call from No.10 to the Controller’s private office asking the whereabouts of that HMSO chappie who was supposed to be here first thing!
So it was with a huge sense of relief that I felt the train jolt back to life and we crawled our way into Liverpool Street. Maybe if I was quick I might be able to make up some of the lost time — so as the train came to a halt I leapt from the carriage, ran down the platform and threw myself into a taxi gasping ‘10 Downing Street please, as QUICKLY as you can!’ in what was left of my most commanding voice.
The taxi driver glanced over his shoulder, gave my perspiring panting person an overlong once-over, then swiftly thrust his newspaper to one side and burst into action, responding ‘Right-o Guv — just leave it to me’.
The reason for his close scrutiny, and the enthusiasm with which he tackled his task, was not apparent to me at the time, but a glance at his newspaper’s headline would have revealed the answer — overnight Iraq had invaded Kuwait — so his passenger might just be a latter-day James Bond, rushed from the Middle East, still dressed in his desert gear and anxious to report in person to the seat of power — just maybe?
He accelerated out of Liverpool Street but within moments into a traffic snarl-up. Sensing my anxiety, as I leant forward looking over his shoulder, he assured me that this was not going to be a problem as he knew a short-cut, swinging hard right, tyres squealing, straight across the oncoming traffic speeding down a side street — into roadworks. My day was not getting any easier. However a few more nifty moves saw us onto The Embankment and an opportunity for him to put his foot down and I sat back allowing the accelerating G-force to ease my worries.
He delivered me outside the gates to Downing Street still a little late, but deserving of his handsome tip. I presented myself to one of the duty policeman who, complete with flak-jacket and weaponry, rather reassuringly replied ‘Ah yes sir, your photographer has already arrived and is unloading his equipment’.
That said he eased me through the huge gate and I strolled up Downing Street empty other than Clive who quickly briefed me on the Iraq news. We were soon joined by our newly painted HMSO van with its equally gleaming driver and one of the staff from No.10, who seemed thankfully unaware of my expected, and actual, time of arrival.
Did they want us to leave I asked, bearing in mind the international situation? Not at all, with the Prime Minister away they were expecting a quiet day — and much to my surprise that’s how it turned out. We had the whole place to ourselves and our photo-shoot was to provide their entertainment for the day.
Downing Street is actually quite narrow. We’d already worked out that sunlight only illuminates the front of No.10 for an hour or so in the morning and afternoon so we had to work quickly, arranging the best position for the van with the driver handing over a large brown parcel to an official on the step, with the famous door slightly ajar.
It was then that I noticed the mess. Outside No.10 was littered with the outpourings of dozens of ministerial cars, each chauffeur carelessly tipping ashtrays full of cigarette-ends onto the roadway.
I began to clear them but there were simply too many — we needed a broom. I knocked on the door of No.10 and enquired whether they had one? Yes somewhere, and soon a large broom was thrust into my hands and I began a new career as a road-sweeper, much to the merriment of Clive who insisted on taking a photo.
I also used the broom to sweep the cobwebs from the fanlight above the famous door and finally, with the road now in pristine condition, we embarked on the brief, positioning the driver, van and important parcel in every conceivable situation until the sun left the No.10 doorway in shadow.
We took a good selection of photos but this number must pale into insignificance compared to the many taken that day by parties of tourists who zoomed their cameras up Downing Street from the open-tops of their Sightseeing Tour buses, pausing at the gates every few minutes. There must be thousands of Japanese households who believe that a blue HMSO van is a permanent feature outside No.10.
When the sun returned later in the afternoon we reprised the morning’s photo-shoot from slightly different angles, then prepared for the evening shoot with a fresh driver — the first (sensible chap) had his dinner to go home to.
Clive and I reconnoitered the best positions for the next shoot, where the door of No.10 would be featured less, and the frontage more prominently. Looking around, we spotted a window on the first floor of the Foreign Office opposite, more or less directly across the road from No.10. That would make a superb vantage point — looking down on the van and driver at the doorway. But how to gain access?
The Foreign Office was undergoing restoration at the time and much of it closed, encased in scaffolding and blue tarpaulin, but after a word with an official in No.10 we were given a corresponding contact in the Foreign Office to whom we took our request. On this day of grave international tension there seemed hardly any activity, either in Downing Street or the Foreign Office, and our FO escort appeared to enjoy the distraction of whisking us along gloomy corridors and up and down staircases searching for the empty, darkened room with the window overlooking No.10.
An ideal viewpoint, but no power supply and the light was fading as evening approached. It took Clive some time to rig up a separate supply to power his enormous flash batteries by which time it was dark as we stumbled though a maze of corridors to find our exit.
One final shot, showing our van and the whole frontage of No.10 at night. There were only a couple of rooms illuminated, which made it appear rather quiet, and a little empty. Knocking on the door of No.10 once again — would they mind putting on the lights in every room? Not at all, and so, click, it was done.
It was nearly midnight and it had been a long exhausting swelteringly-hot day. (photo) One final task, to ring home and say we were on our way — this was before mobile phones — so we used the telephone in No.10.
Certainly a day to remember.