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Thread: Bill Chitty

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    Spotted in the Telegraph:



    Bill Chitty died 24 January 2007 aged 82. Gaffer of 20 films. Film lighting equipment innovator. Met his late wife Nina Broe on the set of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Lit Winston Churchill's funeral for TV coverage in St Paul's Cathedral. Awarded the British Society of Cinematographers Technical Award in 1985.

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    Bill Chitty was born in 1924 at 26 Sunbury Lane, and brought up across the road at number 21 and, apart from a spell in the RAF, he lived in Walton all his life. He was a modest, hard working, generous and funny man – my word, he could tell a good story. He tended to gloss over his schooling by telling stories about his out-of-school activities and the local characters of the time. His Saturday job was with the local off licence, delivering to houses miles away on his bicycle but he preferred a story about a local delivery driver with a horse and cart who would drink himself unconscious on his round - but that was okay because the horse knew the round and stopped at all the right places. Bill left school at fourteen or fifteen, around the start of the Second War, and was soon working in a local engineering business for a man called Fuller Tolhurst. This is where he learned how to work with metal; milling and turning and all the things we saw him do that seemed so instinctive. His boss, who was in his late sixties when Bill went to work for him, was a martinet with a spectacular method of quality control. When a machined part was presented to him for inspection, he would run his hands all over it and if he cut himself on a sharp edge he would throw it at the unfortunate who had made it – a lesson quickly learned, I imagine.



    To all intents and purposes, this was Bill’s apprenticeship; the difference being that instead of being taught how to do something, he was told to do it and woe betide him if he had to ask anything. Bill had a lot of stories from this influential period of his life. There was the time Fuller Tolhurst broke his leg and Bill, certain his boss would be having at least one day off, felt some of the urgency go from his cycle ride to work. Unbeknown to Bill, his boss had spent the previous evening at home converting his bicycle to fixed wheel so he could pedal with one foot and mounting a peg on the frame to support his plaster cast. Bill said he sped past calling out, “Come on, young William!?



    During the war Bill joined the Home Guard. One evening he and his father volunteered to retrieve incendiary bombs that they had seen hitting a department store in Walton but were prevented from entering by the Police who feared looting. Inevitably it burned down. Later, when he was old enough, he volunteered to be a wireless operator air gunner in the RAF despite the short life expectancy of bomber crews. The end of the war came before he finished flying training and he converted to being a ground engineer.



    At RAF Lasham a Polish pilot complained there must be a fault on his Mosquito because the two engines ran at different oil pressures. When Bill told him that everything was in order, the pilot said if he was so sure, he could come with him. So Bill’s introduction to flying actually came in a very fast and manoeuvrable fighter bomber being thrown all over the sky by an excitable pilot trying to prove there was something wrong with it. He was never a good passenger after that.



    After the war, at Shepperton Studios, where he spent most of his working life, he worked on many famous films with well known actors, actresses and directors. For example, he worked on The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, both in Africa and at Shepperton. (Bill played cricket with Humphrey Bogart on the lot at Shepperton!) He was Best Boy on three films then made Gaffer and gaffered twenty films between 1964 and 1974. After the filming of Zee and Co, Elizabeth Taylor held a party for the crew and towards the end Bill, as Gaffer, felt he should thank her. Mid way through his speech, Richard Burton burst in and demanded to know what Bill was doing with his wife. There can’t be many people who can claim to have had a stand up row with Richard Burton about Elizabeth Taylor.



    Bill’s stories always started with, “I expect I’ve told you this.? Another Burton and Taylor story was on The Taming of the Shrew. Richard Burton insisted on lunch at a fixed time irrespective of the film schedule. To save time he had lunch in costume. On one occasion he came back after a good lunch on to a set empty apart from a few riggers and electricians in the gantries over head. Richard Burton, in costume and possibly in character, had somehow mislaid Elizabeth Taylor and started shouting, “Where’s my wife? Where’s my wife?? A voice from above called down, “What’s she look like, mate??



    Bill loved working in the films and working at the studio - the work itself, the people and the humour.



    On the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman he met and fell in love with Nina Broe, who sadly died in 1993. Bill and Nina – or Girly as she was known to the Broe family - married and he built a bungalow by the Thames, Nina furnished it, and they named it Pandora. (The Broe family have long been connected with film and theatre; Nina was a hairdresser and her brother Bert Broe a make up artist with several books to his name. Before that, I believe the family were theatrical wig makers.)



    After his spell as Gaffer, he worked as Engineering Manager for Lee Lighting who bought part of the studio complex when Shepperton was broken up. He not only made and maintained lighting equipment but also developed new equipment. Famously, he developed the “Wendy Light? for Director David Watkin as a single powerful light source to represent moonlight or lightning without a lot of crossing shadows. For this aspect of his work he was put forward for The British Society of Cinematographers Bert Easey Technical Award by cameraman Bill Williams and received the award in 1985.



    Some of the equipment he worked with was big and heavy and so a lot of his work was physical and in his spare time he gardened and maintained his house and at one time he had a dog and did a lot of walking, so in his prime he was a big, strong, fit man. His friend Richard Williamson described him as square, which would have made him 5’ 10? across the shoulders. The dog, a boxer called Butch, was also big– he weighed nine stone - and strong and, as they both had opinions, Bill would keep him on a short lead. They were often seen striding the tow path at night. One of Butch’s opinions was that he didn’t like getting his paws wet. So, if you mix a dark night, an unlit tow path and Butch side stepping a puddle together with the element of surprise, you just know they were both in the river. Bill told this story. As much as anything, he was a man who could at stand a laugh at his own expense.



    Bill loved his mum and dad. His father, Frank Chitty, who worked at the studios as a carpenter and – as a measure of his loyalty and modesty - Bill said his father was a much better man than he would ever be which, from a man of Bill’s calibre, was quite a compliment. Bill told a story recently about his uncle Bob Chitty - who also worked at the studio, often as stand-by carpenter - and who bred and raced greyhounds, promoted boxing matches and was a fine shot. Bill said that, as a lad, he could stand sideways on to Bob, with a match between his teeth and Bob could shoot it alight with an air rifle from the other side of the yard. He then lowered his voice and said that his parents never knew about this and you just knew you wouldn’t be able to discuss it with them even now, years after they had died.



    He was generous not only monetarily with parties and presents but also with his time and his expertise and the resources of his incredibly well-equipped workshop. He had a running gag with his brother in law about whichever one of them died first the other one would have to clear his workshop. Many people were helped by him in one way or another over the years and it wasn’t just family and friends. Nina’s brother, Bert Broe, introduced Bill to a young man whose ambition was to be a film lighting man. Bill took him on as tea boy and showed him the ropes. He is now a well known film industry lighting man in his own right.



    Bill didn’t smoke, he drank moderately, but he did support Walton and Hersham Football Club... The night before he died his brother in law was able to tell him Walton won a match. He even left the club some money.



    Whether he kept the details of his illness from his family or was genuinely unaware of its severity we don’t know, but he spoke of all the things he planned to do when he was better. It was a very optimistic assessment of his prospects and absolutely the best way to face his treatment. He was strong enough to weather the treatment but by that time he was just too ill. Up to the week before he went into hospital he would use a stick infrequently and reluctantly and he still drove his car. He just wouldn’t give in. Two days before he went in, he had to start using a Zimmer Frame. Then he went into hospital and died a fortnight later.



    He left a library of books, videos and DVDs about motorbikes, aeroplanes and the film industry and a collection of model aeroplanes and commemorative plates and all sorts of things he was interested in. He had just taken up bird watching. He was a contented man.



    At Christmas, Bill told his sister that he had enjoyed his life. You can’t say fairer than that. When men speak well of another man, they have one simple but unsurpassable accolade, “He was a good bloke.?



    Bill Chitty was a good bloke.

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