International Writers Magazine: Tommy
cant be knocked into the middle of next week! Thats
only a saying".
"Well, believe this or not as you like, but the fire on South
Parade Pier knocked me back - seventy years".
Several of us had
gathered to toss around ideas for ghostly stories. Although we were
a creative writing group, we had solemnly promised that our tales would
be truthful. It was surprising how many had had strange experiences.
One or two had brought illustrative artefacts.
"Piers dont catch fire!"
"They do sometimes. Dont forget that recent fire on Southend
"Yes, thats true. Sorry, Bill, carry on with your story."
"It was June the eleventh 1974. A group called the Rubettes had
been top of the charts for five weeks with their number "Sugar
Baby Love", and Harold Wilsons Labour Party had the largest
number of seats in a hung parliament. At the time, I had aspirations
on an acting career. My first big break came when I was offered a small
part in Ken Russells film Tommy. It was a particular
thrill for me that my scenes were to be filmed here in my home town,
and I was determined - to the point of obsession - to make the most
of this opportunity. We were called that afternoon June the 11th
- to South Parade Pier, - a regular haunt of my childhood, incidentally
- but at the appointed time were told that we wouldnt be needed
for an hour or so. I decided to go for a walk along the sea front and
round Southsea Castle."
"Was the area much the same then as it is now?"
"Pretty much. Clubs, pubs, a dance hall and so on all a
bit tacky; buses terminating by the Canoe Lake in those days
red ones of Portsmouth Corporation and green ones of Southdown.
" Anyway, as I rounded the Castle on my way back, I saw that the
big middle bit of the pier was pouring flames and smoke
"Where the slot machines and things are?"
"Further along. The superstructure included a fine Edwardian theatre,
- thats where we were going to shoot my scenes. It was all much
bigger than the rebuilt centre section is today.
"So there it
was the old familiar landmark suddenly on fire, falling apart
before my eyes. I rushed back, devastated that my one big moment would
be lost in a welter of fire and smoke. I ran into one of the assistant
directors who was in a bit of a panic. He thrust a costume of sorts
into my hand, told me just to put it on over the top of whatever I was
wearing, and along with three others hurry on to the beach, as near
to the pier as we safely could. They were going to make use of the fire
as a background for some additional material for Tommy.
Excitement that I was going to get a chance to show the great Ken Russell
himself what I could do extempore was mingled with panic that the pier
would be destroyed before the scene had been set up. My head was reeling.
"I dont know exactly what happened next. The fire seemed
to increase its hold suddenly. There was a lot of noise of burning wood
crackling and falling, and shouts and cries of various sorts. Im
sure I saw a child fall or jump off the pier into the water and not
resurface. Then I lost consciousness for a little while."
"I came to feeling pretty groggy and assumed I had been overcome
by smoke, or hit by a piece of falling timber. Someone suggested I should
go home for a rest. I was lodging in one of those little roads to the
south of Fratton station, so my bus left from the stop beside the Canoe
Lake. But a policeman who had helped pick me up told me that I couldnt
get there as the road was blocked by fire-fighting vehicles. In any
case, neither the red nor the green trams were coming anywhere near
because of the fire".
"Trams?" One of our group queried.
"I was sure he had said trams. I put it down to my
groggy state. Then someone else said that the trains were still running,
and as he was going to Fratton, hed see I got there all right.
Again, I thought in my grogginess I hadnt made it clear that I
lived near Fratton Station. Perhaps he thought I wanted to catch a train
from there. But I went with him, and we walked down Clarendon Road and
turned the corner at the Strand into Granada Road. Opposite, I was greatly
surprised to see what was obviously a railway terminus
"Theres no railway station there!"
"But there was in 1904."
"Let him carry on!"
Bill continued: "It looked unkempt and neglected. Beside it was
a small wooden shack with a platform canopy. At the platform, what looked
like a railway carriage with a steam engine built into one end was waiting.
I was ushered aboard. The guard came for the fare. My new friend asked
my address. I told him. Well, said the guard, you
could go through to Fratton, or you could get out at the new halt at
Jessie Road. Its been open a couple of weeks now. The other
chap paid my fare. With profuse thanks, I got off at Jessie Road and
found my way home. After a relaxing snooze of an hour or so, I felt
much better, and decided to go back to the pier and see what was happening.
I walked, thinking that would do me good.
When I got near the pier, I was sure I heard a policeman telling someone
about what the red buses and green buses were doing, but the first person
I met to talk to was the assistant director. We had to shoot those
scenes without you two hours ago and Ill have the costume
back, please! Where have you been?"
Where had I been?
Anyway, it was the end of my career with Ken Russell! If you ever get
a chance to see Tommy, look carefully at the scene of the
burning pier. Two girls and one fella are standing dangerously close,
on the beach. I was to have played the other fella but for those
couple of hours, I had been in - not the middle of next week - but in
the nineteenth of July 1904."
"Why the nineteenth of July 1904?"
"Because that was the day the original South Parade Pier burned
down. Somehow, the enormity of the event, to me, at least, - familiar
childhood landmark being destroyed, career hopes being dashed or whatever
- had knocked me back to a similar happening seventy years before."
"You could have made all that up".
- "I could, but remember we all undertook to tell the truth. I
cant prove any of it, but this might help" - and from his
wallet he produced a cellophane packet which contained a battered railway
ticket from East Southsea to Jessie Road, dated 19 JUL 04.
© David Francis December 2006
David a retired local historian is studying for his Masters in Creative
Writing at the University of Portsmouth
stories in Dreamscapes
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