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I was working in Covent Garden as a porter during the summer of 1971. It was a good way to make money during my summer break from university.
One morning, as I was pulling a barrow down Bow Street, I noticed an Evening Standard bill outside the Globe pub. 'Necktie Strangler Strikes Again'. Again? News to me, I thought. I looked across the road and caught sight of a man standing in a doorway on the corner of Russell Street. It was unmistakeably Alfred Hitchcock.
He spent many weeks filming Frenzy during that summer. I would often spend my breakfast break watching him work. Hitchcock was meticulous and extremely demanding of his actors and I recall him shooting countless takes of each scene, with one notable exception.
It was around noon and I was unloading a lorry in the centre of the market, close to St. Paul's church. Without warning, a number of police squad cars appeared. The cars braked, police rushed out and porters started panicking. Many of them, going about their usual 'activities', thought that the police were about to 'nick' everyone in sight. I thought that something was odd, as most of the police had excellent suntans. Sure enough, as I looked around I saw Hitchcock, standing in a nearby doorway, smiling.
The director had gambled on a one-take shot and he was lucky. Several of the unsuspecting porters would not have been adverse to giving both him and his cast a 'right-hander'. You crossed these guys at your peril, as film actor Richard Harris was to learn during that summer.
Several years later, after market moved to Nine Elms in Vauxhall, the police carried out one of these raids for real. Wide-scale theft of goods had increasingly become an economic threat to the existence of many firms. I had witnessed hijacking of lorries during daylight hours, some directly outside Bow Street police station, but far greater theft was taking place at night in Nine Elms. Consequently, this particular raid took place during the night-shift and the police made a number of arrests. Fortunately my Dad, who was there at the time, was not among them.
One of main suspects, who worked with my father (Dad called him "Burglar Bill"), was immediately sacked. He was eventually tried in court and acquitted. However, his employer refused to reinstate him. The Transport and General Workers Union demanded reinstatement and a strike was called. It proved to be a bitter dispute. My Dad claimed that everyone in the market knew that "Burglar Bill" was guilty. Some porters, who spoke up against the TGWU position, were threatened with violence by other strikers. The dispute was eventually resolved, but some firms went out of business and a number of men lost their jobs.
My Dad never cared for Nine Elms in the same way that he did for the old market, but it still held some attraction. Like his father before him, he spent over fifty years working in the market. He finally stopped in his mid seventies when ill health took its toll.
Although 'Frenzy' is far from being one of Hitchcock's best, the film is a good reminder of the market in its heyday. It was a wonderful place, populated by some extraordinary characters and greatly missed by those who knew it.