If you’ve never watched one of these DVDs before, and if you like ships, the sea and nostalgia, then you really are missing a treat, for they are the only DVDs like this in the whole world for several reasons; one that the films are so rare and exclusive to us here at Snowbow, and the other is that I, (Des) am in the unique position of having been a seafarer so have first-hand experience of ships and the sea, and after leaving the sea I went into show business where amongst other things I learnt how to produce both Films and TV programmes, which when you put these experiences together enables me to be able to make these TV documentaries, but unlike other ship programmes you might see on TV, to do so with a unique knowledge of knowing how sea life works, its ups and downs and the reasons why seafarers and passengers got to love their ships and being at sea, especially in the Golden Age of Ocean Travel.
The price of these DVDs are still the same as they were when we produced the very first one on VHS video twenty-three years ago, when I (Des) set out to make just one video to show how life at sea was back in those halcyon days and also so my own kids would one day be able to see just what life was like for their dad. At the moment if I ever dared to come out with something like. “Well when I was at sea, we all…” before I even started they’d… just like Del boy and Rodney in that classic TV comedy, ‘Fools and Horses’ leap up on their feet and disappear in a flash…Kids!
To make just one ship video documentary didn’t seem like too much of a challenge at the time, even if it did mean doing it virtually all on my own. “Yeah.” I told myself… “Let’s make a video documentary to show the world just what it was like to have gone away to sea in those Golden Maritime Days, but unfortunately it turned out to be anything but simple. In fact it turned out to be one of my greatest challenges I’ve faced in the whole of life. To start with, despite going to the usual places like film libraries, there was precious little film that even showed a ship and what there was, was 95% Pathe news clips that lasted for a few second and for which the libraries wanted ridiculous amounts of money, so I was left to search in the hope of finding my own.
I decided that as at that time as P&O were by far the largest shipping company in the world, if I was going to make a film about ships and shipping companies then I had to try to make it with and about them. So I started to make approaches to them but unfortunately every P&O office door I knocked on to ask if they had film was just closed quickly in my face, with angry voices shouting out things like… “We haven’t got any film… it was all destroyed years ago, so go away and don’t come back!” But one thing all seafarers were taught when at sea was that no matter how bad the situation or how hard the task, you never ever give up, so I continued knocking on those P&O doors.
I also trod the streets of London as I did my research, searching for any clues that might lead me to any film anywhere with P&O ships on. Then one day my research lead me to an underground cellar situated deep below one of London’s old cobbled streets, but unfortunately everything entrance to it was locked, leaving no way to get inside, so once again I had to knock on those doors, this time to seek permission to investigate, but again, every time I was told to go away and not to bother them ever again, so finally, in a moment of desperation, I plucked up courage and called the office of their chairman, Lord Sterling.
My hands were shaking as I picked up the phone and dialed the number, for in all honesty I didn’t expect to get past the first ring before I was cut off, but somehow I managed to get through to Lord Sterling’s personal PA, Brenda, to whom I explained that I wanted to make a TV documentary about the great liners of P&O, and believed that after searching for over a year, I might just have located a long lost cellar where some of the film of those great ships had been stored, probably to protect them from WW2 air-raids and so on, and having worn my shoes out walking the streets and knocking on just about every door of P&O many offices and been thrown out of them all, this was my last chance to succeed so I needed to ask Lord Sterling himself for permission to enter the lost cellar I had found.
Brenda was so nice and helpful and said she would mention it to Lord Sterling when she could, but that he was a very busy man and so that might take quite some time to do. I thanked her and replaced the phone in the belief I would never hear back from them, but then just two hours later she called to say she had Lord Sterling on the phone for me.
He told me that he had always been angry that such a great company had so few historical artifacts, as most had just been thrown away and destroyed over the years, but if I wanted to look at where I thought some might be, then I had his permission to do so, but only on the strict condition that if by some remote chance I actually manage to find some, I had to agree to him having personal content control of any documentary film might I might make that used it, and if he didn’t like what he saw, he would refuse permission for me to use it. He also pointed out therefore that what I was doing was very risky, because and even if I found film I could easily end up with nothing, but I was in no position to refuse his terms, and so he gave me his permission…
The old wooden doors to the cellar creaked with age and tiredness as I opened them for what was probably the first time since WW2, and as they opened so the smell of olden days and damp came to greet me. Thankfully I had a dual torch with both low light and a powerful light, but I had been warned that the powerful light would only work for a few minutes before it used all its battery power up, so I entered the old doorway guided by just the low light, and inside found my way to steep concreted steps that led down into years of forgotten darkness. As I started to slowly descend the concreted steps so the ancient stench of dark, damp emptiness rose to defend its solitude, and then finally I reached the secretive basement where the darkness was almost touchable. I lifted the torch and in this eerie world let its beam reach out to light the old cellars secrets for the first time and as I did, so its brightness fell upon a grubby old pile of what appeared to be rubbish that had been covered in a blanked that was now heaped with dust and rat droppings.
I moved carefully forward and when I reached the rugged pile I took hold of the dirty, ragged old blanket and as it lifted in my hands so it revealed its secrets, for there, caught in the silent beam of my torch was a huge stack of old film cans all stacked up just as they had been left all those years ago. I had to be quick before the torch light went, but what I saw made all my searching worthwhile for these weren’t just any only domestic film cans but professional 16mm and 35mm film cans as well as what looked to be dangerous Cellulose nitrate film that could catch fire and explode the moment you touched it, but I wasn’t troubled for all that mattered to me was that I had found film that, if I was lucky, could possibly be film of ships… Great big P&O passenger ships.
You can imagine the huge amount of happiness that swept over me as I ran the first of those films on an old film projector and as it’s old images flickered through the projectors gate, there on the screen came pictures of actual moving, steaming ships of old… The images were faded and tired as time hadn’t be overly kind to them, but what I saw brought tears to my eyes as great ships such as The Viceroy of India, the four famous Strath-boats and other famous old P&O liners going way back before the war, suddenly came into my life as they sailed across my cine screen. I was staggered for what I had found a Maritime history goldmine.
I could easily write so much more, but time isn’t my friend at the moment, so I have to move on but will finish by saying that after carefully restoring all the film, some of which was in a terrible state, especially the highly dangerous cellulose nitrate film, and then researching it all before moving on to try to put it all together into a video documentary took forever and indeed, had we the finance then I would have employed experts to do most of it, but we hadn’t, in fact we were well and truly skint, so on we had to go, with me in this still early computerised days having to go to libraries and plough through endless reference books before I was able to write the scripts and music. Back in those days if the BBC or ITV made a film like this then they would have at least 30 people working on it with a budget of close to a £100,000, but we had nothing, and still there was so much more to do including dealing with the sound, for although the film I had found was now looking really good, it was either filmed without sound or the sound tracks had been lost, which meant that somehow I had to try to recreate authentic sounding sounds, and to make sure they were to broadcast standards, which would have been a difficult task performed by experts at the BBC or ITV, whereas I had only myself to rely on. There were sound archives but they only had basic everyday sounds and were extremely expensive to deal with and so once again I had to search. Here my days as a seafarer really helped for at least I knew and could remember exactly just what all the sounds in a busy port were and how they would fit together, and also I knew the sound of the ship’s whistles, from the tugs and coasters right up to the biggest ocean going passenger liners.
After long, long searches I somehow managed to find them, often going to places where there were docks and ships with my little tape recorder and recording them and if that didn’t work, the recreating them physically, but in the end when these sounds were added to the films the end results were staggering, in fact it made the whole port and dockyard scenes and being on the ships at sea, all seem so real that for a moment it felt as if I had stepped back in time for real, especially when the ships featured even sounded their very own personal whistles. How did I manage to find the sounds of their whistles, well that’s another very long and interesting story that will have to wait for another day, or whilst on one of our cruises. Next it was time to do the artwork and design for the video sleeves and boxes, which once again I had to do myself, but all in all, after two and half years work we had manage to achieve the almost impossible, for now, there all neatly boxed, was our video, The Great Liners of P&O and the Orient Line. (I had also found film of the magnificent Orient Liners in their original Orient Line colours and as they were now owned by P&O, I took the opportunity to widen the programmes interest and appeal by including them as well).
So all was done, especially me, but there was now perhaps the most important moment of all, for now was the time when I had no choice but to show it as agreed to Lord Sterling for his final approval or refusal.
Ring, ring, ring… “Hello Mr Cox, it’s Brenda here from P&O, Lord Sterling’s PA…” My little heart missed several important beats as I breathed in deeply, as she then continued. “He’s seen the film and he absolutely loves it, so he told me to tell you to go ahead and furthermore, he will write to all the top people in P&O top management to tell them that they must offer you any assistance that you might need in the future and, would you mind if he kept the copy you so kindly gave him?”
Looking back today to that time and at the reasons why I was silly enough to have taken on that enormous task of making that first programme, I realised that although we could boast of having the biggest Merchant Navy in the world, there was hardly any record of that and if you stopped anyone in the street and asked them it they knew that, hardly any would have known for other than in the main shipping magazines, there was almost nothing in the line of books, let along videos about this great part of our Maritime History. This really came home to me when I called into Foyles Charing Cross Road book store in search of books that might be able to help me when writing the script, but to my amazement, even in what then was the largest book store in the country, they only had one book about ships, titled The Last Blue Water Liners by American author, William H. Millar… They only had one copy also, which I quickly grabbed, but oh how I wished I could have found a video of those wonderful maritime days and the great ships we once had, so this was another major factor in my decision to try to make such a programme if at all possible… so there would be at least be some kind if ‘moving image record’ of those great maritime days.
This then is the basic story behind that very first programme and when it was released I discovered that thankfully there were thousands of people like me, all over the world, all longing to read and see those ships and ports, and anything to do with shipping of the past, and so it became popular all over the world. Since that first episode, when I vowed to myself that I would never ever make another, I have somehow managed to create a staggering 47 episodes, all made to the highest broadcast standards and from the rarest of film that had I not searched for and found and restored, would have been lost forever and then no one other than those who were part of it, would know that we ever had the biggest shipping industry in the world… so you can see just why these unique programmes are so very special.
Each one takes about a year to make, although productions do overlap at times, which means we can, if we work for long and hard enough and if all goes to plan, can release two DVDs in a year. Each episode has its own theme and relative stories, as well as having its own rare film, film that only in the most exceptional circumstances do we ever show short extracts from on another DVD. Sound is also special for each episode, has specially composed and recorded incidental and background music, music which people enjoy so much they even ask for recorded copies and as for the sound effects, well many of our customers tell us that they often just pour a little drink, sit back and listen to the soundtrack, letting their minds drift back in time to the relevant age, so all in all, you can see why the work is so difficult and takes so long. I just want to add that one of the reasons it is so difficult is because one programme might be put together using 100’s of short pieces of old 8mm film, all of which had to be restored, cleaned, and enhanced before going through them all and trying to put them together in a way that would make a complete picture, rather as you would put a jigsaw together, but a 100 times more difficult as these jigsaw pieces were moving ones and so that much harder to fit together.
The films came and to this day, still come from all over the world, but anyone who was at sea back then either as a crew member or a passenger, will know that few people had a cine camera in those days. Unlike today’s iPhone or video cameras with which you can shoot forever and ever, those old 8mm or 9.5mm cine cameras could only take short reels of film that ran for about four minutes so they had to be conservative with its use, especially as film then cost a small fortune to buy and even more to process. This resulted in the few people with cameras being extremely careful to make their films last, which they did by only filming in short bursts, so a typical 8mm film would consist of perhaps a wedding, christening, a day at the Zoo and even a funeral, plus if we’re lucky, a shot of a funnel or a lifeboat and if very lucky, somewhere say like Port Said, and then most of it would be out of focus and done with speedy pans they made everything a blur, but in the end, with almost endless tenacity, somehow those pictures and stories were made, and it’s wonderful when you watch these programmes that gone are all the weddings and zoos and if their place are whole programmes that instead of looking like hundreds of small pieces, instead look as if we had gone out with the vest best equipment available and shot the whole thing from end to end… We’ve even won awards!
You know, as I’m writing this I am shaking my head as I remind myself of all the work involved… How the hell did we manage to do all that, but we did, and although we never make a profit and still continue to work without pay, we still get great rewards in the form of thankyou phone calls and emails from people who have bought and watched the programmes and want to say how much happiness they have got from watching them… Those calls come from people of every race and background and from all over the world… Calls from ex-Cabin Boys or ex-Commodores, Ship owners and ex-passengers, dockside workers, shipbuilders. heads of industry and politicians and even… wait for it… wait for it… even from the Queen Mum who wrote a personal thankyou letter to express the pleasure she got from watching the programmes, especially the Maiden Voyage of the old Queen Mary, which had brought a tear to her eye.
I was only going to write a couple of sentences about this, but there’s no stopping me once I’m underway. I just wanted to add that from time to time as we became more and more well-known, large companies did help, not with funding but by sending us old film that they had found in their offices, and they included; Tate and Lyle, (Sugar boats) Unilever (Palm Line) Port of London Authority, (London Docks) Harland and Wolff (Ship building) Cunard, Blue Funnel, Port Line, New Zealand and Federal Steamship Co, Union-Castle, British India, Donald Campbell (Collection including the United States) Royal Mail, Shaw Savill, Ellerman Lines, P&O Ferries, Isle of Man Ferries, Union Steamship Co, Ben Line, who gave us the most amazing film of their whole operation, and so it went on, BP, Esso, even rare film of our Sea Training Schools… the list is almost endless and we (Ulla and I) have had to restore the lot of it, but what was so helpful about getting film from them was that instead of always having to juggle hundreds of small pieces of film to come together, we now, from time to time had the wonderful luxury of being able to use whole reels of film, and furthermore, because it was shot professionally was all in focus, which made life so much easier, although we still had to restore it and research and …
The end result is that today we have the biggest maritime film and sound archive in the world, which includes almost every type of ship ever built, dating right back to the turn of the 20th century with ships such as White Star Lines Olympic, Cunard’s Mauretania, Lusitania and Aquitania and all the Cunard fleet, as with P&O and the Orient Line, Union-Castle, Clan Line, Blue Funnel, Port Line, NZSCo, Shaw Savill and so on, so after the long ago descent into that damp and dark old London basement, today we have this unrivalled archive of rare maritime film, film that if you name the ship or the port you want to see, it’s almost certain that it will be there somewhere… and that even includes coasters, tugs and of course are once great Royal Navy
So why then, I think I hear you ask, do you do all this work without profit. Well it is a costly business, especially studio costs when putting it all together, which have to be paid for in full. We have made desperate approaches to the various heritage bodies, but would you believe, despite the fact that we could once boast of having the biggest and best Merchant Navy in the world, not one of them would fund us, turning our pleas away with words such as. ‘No one is interested in our maritime past.’ How shocking is that… So, we have to totally rely on the sale of these DVDs to fund the work we do, and when the funds run out so then we have to stop until we manage to sell more and can pay the outstanding bills which then allows us to get on with the next production and that’s important because we firmly believe that we must keep going for as long as we possibly can in making this amazing ‘moving image record’ of our maritime heyday, so both people of today and for generations to come can enjoy and see what a great shipping industry and navy we once had. If we don’t do this work then no one else will, and then all this amazing film that we have found and save would have been lost forever and then no one would ever have been able to see it.
Now, thanks to this unique ‘moving image’ record, instead of the history and knowledge of our maritime history fading as we go, it will now live on forever, so not only can it be enjoyed by people of today, people in say five hundred years’ time will actually be able to watch these programmes in whatever amazing format is doing the rounds and see for themselves just what it was like to have been alive and part of those amazing maritime days. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if someone back in the age of Columbus, Cook and Drake etc., had owned a camera and filmed their amazing adventures, so we could see them today… wouldn’t that be something, well now those future generations will be able to experience exactly what it was like to have sailed the globe in the 20th century.
I mustn’t go on writing this otherwise I’ll be here for days or even weeks, just telling you about the productions, and often we get so tired that I suddenly have a mini fit and declare. ‘No more programmes.’ For not only do we do all this work without pay, it can be so, so tiring, but the end result is something so special, so please, do get some and watch them for yourself and see just how brilliant they are… Oh here’s some great news, because even young children are watching them now, so it’s not just the oldies, and those young children love them and write to say: “We wish we were alive in those days and could have gone away to sea like you did, for you seem to have had so much freedom and fun and it all seemed so much nicer than today.
Actually, believe it or not, we do these DVDs and cruises because we really care about you, especially at times such as now, with that dreaded Corona Virus hell bent on trying to kill us all, but we can deal with that and always remember, when you are really feeling down and fed-up, the darkest hour is just before dawn, and although we can’t offer much to help bring a glow of happiness to your dawn, we can at least offer these special cruises, and the DVDs that together have brought us all together as one.
Thank you for being you, and let’s all come together in the not too distant future and if you want further information on the cruises or a free DVD catalogue, or want to know if we have a specific ship on one of the DVDs, then give us a call (00 44 (0) 1273 585391.584470 and in the meantime, look after yourselves.