The International Writers Magazine: Tommy

David Francis

"You can’t be knocked into the middle of next week! That’s 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.
"What fire?"
"Piers don’t catch fire!"
"They do sometimes. Don’t forget that recent fire on Southend Pier."
"Yes, that’s 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 Wilson’s 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 Russell’s 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 wouldn’t 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, - that’s 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 don’t 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. I’m 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 couldn’t 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, he’d see I got there all right. Again, I thought in my grogginess I hadn’t 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…"
"There’s no railway station there!"
"But there was in 1904."
"Why 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. It’s 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 I’ll 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 can’t 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

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