Sunday, 27 October 2013

How a handbag shop won Spielberg his first Oscars

In October 1980, the Australian novelist, Thomas Keneally found himself in Beverly Hills having just returned from a film festival in Sorrento in Italy. He had been invited by his American publisher to embark on a book tour in the States, but having stepped off the plane, his priority was to replace his briefcase which had been stuffed to the gills with Italian souvenirs and had now given up the ghost.

Not wanting to spend a small fortune on Rodeo Drive, he found a more modest looking street with ordinary looking shops, and here discovered the Handbag Studio. Its charismatic owner was stocky and appeared to be of Slavic stock and stood in the doorway eyeing up this prospective customer clutching his broken briefcase.

"So it's 105 degrees out here and you don't want to come into my air-conditioned store. Do you think I'll eat you?"

The proprietor was known locally as Leopold Page and was impeccably turned out. Keneally explained that he needed a new briefcase, and followed the owner into the shop.

The two engaged in a conversation. Leopold wanted to know how the case had become broken and what had brought this Australian to Beverly Hills. And in return, Keneally learnt that the proprietor's real name was Leopold Psefferberg, or simply Poldek for short. And once Keneally had revealed that he was an author, the other man became even more animated, introducing Keneally to his shop assistant, his son and finally his wife, Mischa who he clearly adored.
Having found a suitable briefcase and arranged for a $10 discount, Poldek took the author aside.
"Here's what I wanted to point out ... I know a wonderful story. A story of humanity man to man. I tell all the writers I get through here... But it's a story for you, Thomas. It's a story for you, I swear."

These are words that most writers would probably dread. Keneally may well have had visions of listening to the story, nodding politely, feigning interest and disingenuously promising to use it in some way by weaving it seamlessly into his next book.

But the more this engaging shopkeeper spoke, the more the professional storyteller became entranced.

The story was, of course, a gift for anyone in search of the perfect narrative. 
Poldek and his wife were Jews and had been saved during the war by a Nazi by the name of Oskar Schindler - a womanising, drinking and gambling member of the Nazi party who demanded to fill his munitions factory in Krakow with Jews who he then looked after and protected like a guardian angel - knowing full well that their fate would otherwise be certain death. 

Keneally had stumbled by chance on the entire storyline for his next novel, the details of which were meticulously filed in the form of countless press cuttings and photographs that Poldek produced from several filing cabinets. There were heartfelt speeches from Jewish survivors who owed their lives to Schindler; there was a lengthy piece on Schindler written by the Los Angeles Examiner; there were countless carbon copies of letters in German; and there was a notice of Schindler's death in 1974 and the reburial of his body a month later by the Israeli government on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem where a tree was planted in his honour in the Avenue of the Righteous.

All this documentary evidence Poldek collated and then together with Keneally carried across the road to the local bank where, having exchanged words with one of the employees, the entire pile was copied on the bank's photocopier. 

Keneally came away from the handbag shop with his head reeling. In his hand he carried his new briefcase stuffed full with the photocopies from the bank. There was so much material here, and all of it was totally engrossing. Among the numerous speeches was one by Schindler's Jewish accountant, a man named Itzhak Stern whose detailed account of Schindler's single-minded crusade to pluck Jews from the shadow of death, was made from Tel Aviv in 1963. Among countless other testimonies, there were documents and plans relating to Plaszow concentration camp on the northern edge of Krakow; a camp run by an SS sadist by the name of Amon Goeth from whom Schindler secured his labour for his first factory in Krakow.

Then there came the typewritten list of names of workers who were to be transported to Schindler's second factory, Brinnliz in Moravia. The list was hundreds of names long, and among them were the names of Leopold and Mischa Pfefferberg. Mischa was marked down as a metalworker and Lepold, a welder - despite the fact that he had never attempted to use a welding iron in his life. This list would become the focal point of the novel and eventually work itself into the title of both the book and the film to follow.

Also among the material was a faded typewritten translation of a remarkable speech given by Oskar Schindler on the last day of war in which he addressed both his labourers and the SS guards who had been ordered to exterminate the camp. While informing his former labourers that they were about to inherit a shattered world, he implored the guards to depart in honour without blood on their hands. It was a huge gamble, and the atmosphere must have been unbelievably tense. But the gambit, as was so often the case with Herr Schindler, paid off and the guards fled.

Interestingly, Keneally wasn't the only person to discover the story. In the early 1960s, while Oskar Schindler was still alive, the wife of the film producer Marvin Gosch had brought her handbag to the shop to be repaired. Once Poldek had established the identity of his customer, his powers of persuasion were put to good use and within weeks an appointment had been set up for him to see Marvin Gosch at the MGM Studios.

Hearing Poldek's story filled Gosch with such enthusiasm that he got together a team including Howard Koch who had worked on the screenplay for 'Casablanca', and together they began interviewing Schindler survivors. And then over the winter of 1962-63 Gosch, Kock, Poldek and Schindler met along with other Schindler survivors in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. And following this meeting, MGM bought the rights to Schindler's story for $50,000. It was perfect timing for Oskar Schindler since his small cement business had only recently gone into liquidation and he was living on hand-outs from his survivors. According to Poldek, he'd insisted on paying $20,000 of this figure to Oskar's wife, Emilie Schindler. And the remaining $30,000 he took to Oskar.

As with so many film projects in Hollywood, the film never saw the light of day, and the story remained unknown to the wider world.

But while Keneally sat in his hotel room meticulously going through the precious contents of his new briefcase, he was called by Poldek and invited to dinner with himself, Mischa and Schindler's former lawyer, Irving Glovin. Keneally accepted, but initially felt that he wasn't the obvious choice of author for the book. After all, he wasn't Jewish, and didn't feel qualified to tell the story. But the more he talked to his hosts, the more he came to realise that the Holocaust told through the lens of Oskar Schindler would bring the whole unimaginable scale of the Holocaust down to an intimately human and tangible level. In Keneally's own words: "I had stumbled upon it. I had not grasped it. It - and Poldek had grasped me."

In 1982, Keneally's book, 'Schindler's Ark' was published to widespread acclaim, and in the same year went on to win Keneally the Man Booker Prize. And following its success, Poldek set himself his next mission in life: to persuade Stephen Spielberg to shoot the film. According to Poldek, he called Spielberg every week for eleven years. In truth, Spielberg needed little persuasion. He was so moved by the book that Universal Pictures bought the rights to the film, which Spielberg tentatively agreed to shoot on location in Poland in 1993. And Poldek became an advisor on the film, showing Spielberg the sites in Poland.

Spielberg saw the project as his contribution to his family and refused any payment, viewing it as "blood money."  In March 1993 shooting began. Spielberg was insistent that the film had to look real and for this reason chose to shoot in the style of a black and white documentary, disposing with dollies and cranes and opting instead for handheld cameras.

As Spielberg later confided, the experience for him was highly emotional. "I was hit in the face with my personal life. My upbringing. My Jewishness. The stories my grandparents told me about the Shoah. And Jewish life came pouring back into my heart. I cried all the time."

The film went on to win seven Oscars including 'Best Film' and 'Best Director', along with a host of other accolades. Touchingly, Spielberg invited Poldek and his wife to accompany him to the Academy Awards night, and on accepting the awards, made a special mention of "a survivor named Poldek Pfefferberg... I owe him such a debt. He has carried the story of Oskar Schindler to all of us."

At the box office 'Schindler's List' proved far bigger than anyone could have imagined, grossing an astonishing $321.2 million worldwide. And when it received its television premier in the United States on NBC in 1997, it received no fewer than 65 million viewers.

Poldek went on to set up the Oskar Schindler Humanities Foundation, an organisation that recognises humanitarian acts by individuals, regardless of race or nationality, and when asked about his objectives, responded with the following words: "Only when the foundation is a reality will I say I have fulfilled my obligation. Because when I am no longer here, when the Schindler Jews are not here, the foundation will still go on."

Poldek died on 9 March 2001 having fulfilled his obligation many times over.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 26 October 2013

The unsung hero of the Battle of Britain

As a young lad, I used to have a vast squadron of Airfix models hanging from my bedroom ceiling, but it was always the iconic Spitfire that took pride of place. This elegant machine designed by R. J. Mitchell has acquired almost mythical status as the hero and saviour of this green and pleasant land during this island's hour of need. Yes, it was fast, and yes, Germans genuinely feared it, and yes, it was a great deal sexier than anything back then that took to the skies; and of course it had a wonderful name. It was, in short, the big brand of its day. Whenever journalists wanted to know about advances in aeronautic technology, the Ministry of Defence would always talk up the capabilities of the Spitfire. And it became romanticized by films like 'The First of the Few' directed and starring the charismatic Leslie Howard.

There can be little doubt that the Spitfire did play an important role during the Battle of Britain, but to say that it played the most effective and important role is in fact questionable. You only have to look at the facts and figures to see that the most prolific fighter plane during the Battle of Britain in terms of the number of German planes shot down, was actually the Hawker Hurricane. 55% of enemy planes shot down during those critical and eventful days were attributed to this remarkable workhorse of a plane.

Designed by Sydney Camm, it was characterised by its rugged workmanlike construction and utter dependability. The Hurricane may not have had the looks, but it was the fighter plane of choice for most pilots. Indeed, Douglas Bader insisted on flying one for the entire duration of the Battle of Britain. And many of the great aces chose the Hurricane over the Spitfire, including the Czech Joseph Frantisek of 303 Squadron who in 1940 alone shot down at least 17 enemy planes.

So what was it about this lesser known fighter plane that made it so potent?

For a start, its machine guns enjoyed a far more stable platform than the Spitfire, which made it far more accurate and controllable when firing at your enemy. Generally speaking, pilots didn't like the guns on a Spitfire which sprayed bullets everywhere like a scattergun.

Once the Hurricane's engine was upgraded to a more powerful Merlin III, it became a formidable force. It may not have been capable of attaining the speed of a Spitfire when flying in a straight line, but what it could do most effectively was climb at speed and dive down at the enemy from the direction of the sun where it couldn't be seen. And when it came to manoeuvrability it was every bit as agile as a Spitfire.

There was one other big advantage it had over the Spitfire, and that was its remarkable robustness. Though much of its body was constructed from stretched canvas, it could take a great deal more punishment than a Spitfire before being downed. And if it did require repairing, it was far easier and quicker to repair holes in cloth than replace the metal plates on a Spitfire. So it stayed in the air longer than its counterpart.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Britain's greatest eccentric genius

I have long been a keen viewer of 'Dragons’ Den.' It's a reasonably sound formula for watchable television despite the irritating music, studio set-ups and close-up camera angles. But this said, there isn't a single business idea involving a brilliantly inventive creation that I can readily recall this show ever bringing to light. But then, that isn't entirely surprising. Brilliant inventive ideas in the business world are usually confined to the sphere of technology and involve vast teams of technicians and sizable resources.

Ask anyone on the street to name some brilliant inventions created by individuals in the last century and they'll be hard pressed to come up with more than two or three. I can think of two: the wind-up radio by Trevor Baylis and the utterly brilliant Catseye by Percy Shaw.

The Catseye is one of the best examples I can think of that is beautifully simple and profoundly beneficial. And the story behind the man and his idea are worth recounting here.

One of fourteen children, Percy Shaw was born into an impoverished family in 1890. His father, a dyer’s labourer could barely support his large family on his paltry salary of £1 a week. And at the tender age of 13, Percy left school and took a series of odd jobs culminating in running a blacksmith’s forge with his father. He had always been inventive and from a young age had devised several games, and was by this point turning his hand to inventing various items including rubber backed carpet and an ambitious though unsuccessful attempt to design a petrol pump. By the early 1930s, he’d set up a business to repair roads, paths and pavements, and had invented his own means for doing so: a mechanical roller that utilized an old Ford engine and three lorry wheels. And it was during this period that his inventive brain turned to making roads safer for drivers at night. Shaw had already come close to coming off a sharp bend in a country road when returning from the pub in his car one evening, and was only saved from doing so by the reflective eyes of a cat in the middle of the road.

With the motorcar becoming increasingly popular in the 30s, Shaw knew instinctively that motorists desperately needed some way to see country roads in the dark, and it was the cat’s eyes that had given him the idea of inventing road studs that could work in precisely the same way. He spent the next few years developing his idea in some detail. The studs would have to be bright enough to illuminate the road for motorists at night; able to work effectively in all conceivable weather conditions;  robust enough to withstand heavy traffic going over them; and be completely maintenance free. It was a tough design brief, but Shaw’s eventual design fitted the bill perfectly. He came up with four glass beads embedded within a tough but flexible rubber moulding mounted into a cast iron base. The studs would have to be sunk into the road and fixed in position with asphalt. When vehicles rolled over the rubber studs, they’d simply be pressed into their housings and the glass beads would drop safely and temporarily below the level of the road surface. Ingeniously, Shaw designed a housing that would fill with rain water, so every time a vehicle passed over it the rubber housings would wash dirt and grime from the glass beads in much the same way as the human eyelid regularly washes tears across the surface of the eye.

In 1934, Shaw registered the patent for the Catseye, and the following year he set up a company, Reflecting Roadstuds Ltd with £500 of capital to manufacture his invention. And in 1956 he financed his own experiment, installing fifty catseyes on a particularly dangerous stretch of road just outside Bradford.

As a result, the number of accidents on this stretch of road fell sharply. Impressive though these results were, Shaw was going to have to compete for recognition, because in 1937 the Department of Transport, seeing the need for safer night time driving, launched a national competition to find an effective road reflector.

Shaw’s design eventually won hands down; all other designs either broke during the trial or were deemed ineffective. Nevertheless, his success was short-lived as orders for the road stud simply weren’t forthcoming.

The outbreak of war in 1939 though was to change all that. With government imposed blackouts to thwart German bombers, driving anywhere at night had suddenly become even more perilous, and the Department of Transport’s orders for Shaw’s invention suddenly came flooding in.

After the war the business flourished; Shaw’s factory in Boothbury expanded to occupy over 20 acres with a workforce of 130 and export orders for over a million Catseyes a year. In 1947, Jim Callaghan, then Roads Minister, ordered their introduction nationwide. Eventually there would be 400 on every mile of motorway, and more than 20 million across the country. And in 1965, in recognition of his contribution to road safety, Percy Shaw received an OBE. He was by this stage a multimillionaire.

Despite his vast wealth, Percy Shaw lead a frugal life, refusing to move out of the house he had been brought up in since the age of two. His only luxuries in life were his two Rolls Royces and three television sets which remained perpetually on.

Though a Great British eccentric who never married, he was by no means a lonely man. He enjoyed the company of women and his fellow man, and was often in the habit bringing back friends to his house after the pub had closed to enjoy a few more beers and to watch wrestling on the television.

He died in 1976 at the age of 86 in the same house he had lived virtually his entire life.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Who'd pay £1 million for an unplayable violin?

Why is it that artifacts of enormous historic significance and great works of art that were once thought lost to the nation, always show up in suburban attics? 
This was the case when a rather sad piece of history was auctioned last week for the grand sum of £1.1 million (once the buyer's premium had been added). The item in question being a very tatty looking violin that had certainly seen better days, and was almost certainly unplayable.
Its poor owner, one Wallace Hartley had unfortunately been employed by the British shipping company, White Star Line  to play aboard the maiden voyage of its spanking new passenger liner from Southampton to New York. The year was 1912 and the boat was, of course, the ill-fated Titanic. 
The story of Wallace Hartley's band playing the hymn 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' while the great ship went down has passed into Great British folklore and has come to represent that Great British, unflappable spirit in the face of adversity.
Poor Wallace and the other brave members of his ensemble all drowned along with 1,500 other crew members and passengers.
Quite how the violin survived is something of a mystery. It was believed to have been strapped to his chest in a leather bag, but was not officially accounted for in the inventory of items later recovered. It is more than possible that it was initially stolen or went missing and came to light later that year when Wallace Hartley's fiance, a Miss Maria Robinson sent the following telegram to the Provincial Secretary of Nova Scotia: "I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiance's violin."

Touchingly, the violin had in fact been bought by Miss Robinson for her fiance to mark their engagement, and she had gone to the trouble of having it engraved to this effect. What makes this story all the more poignant is the fact that Miss Robinson never did marry, and kept her late fiance's violin in its case until she died in 1939.
It then passed to her sister, Margaret who passed it on to Major Renwick of the Bridlington Salvation Army. Renwick who was fully aware of the instrument's provenance, gave it to one of his members, a violin teacher.
The instrument remained in the Bridlington area until it was finally discovered in the suburban attic seven years ago. A letter with the instrument states: "Major Renwick thought I would be best placed to make use of the violin but I found it virtually unplayable, doubtless due to its eventful life."
It was taken to the government's Forensic Science Service in Chepstow which considered the corrosion deposits "compatible with immersion in sea water." And for the past seven years historians, scientists, forensic experts and Hartley's biographer have all examined it and come to the conclusion that the instrument is authentic "beyond any reasonable doubt." 
The violin was brought to Wallace Hartley's home town of Dewsbury, Yorkshire and auctioned by Andrew Aldridge. Bidding which started at just £50.00 soon became heated and frenetic, and it wasn't long before the price of £350,000 was reached. Thereafter, one could hear a pin drop as the price continued to soar. At £750,000, the battle was between two telephone bidders; the eventual winner being a British collector of Titanic memorabilia.
While it isn't the most expensive violin to be sold at auction (a Stradivarius fetched £8.9 million in 2011), it is undoubtedly the most expensive unplayable violin ever sold, and has set a record price for Titanic memorabilia - the previous record being £220,000 for a 32-foot plan of the Titanic.
Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Hurrah for the Clangers

Those pink knitted, moon dwelling creatures with long snouts - the kind of woollen creations your granny might have knitted when you were a kid - are to grace our television screens after an absence of more than forty years. The BBC has announced that they plan to relaunch 'The Clangers' at a cost of £5 million. But interestingly, in the age of digital technology, the Beeb has stated categorically that the series will be true to the original, which first appeared in 1969. And to this effect, one of its original creators, Peter Firmin, now 84 is to be executive producer, while Daniel Postgate, the son of its original writer, Oliver Postgate, will oversee the scripts. To retain the charm of the original series, stop-frame animation will be employed rather than CGI, and much like their predecessors, these new Clangers will communicate through primitive swanee whistle sound effects. 

It wasn't so long ago that the BBC were investing £15 million in Anne Woods' and speech therapist, Andy Devenport's very peculiar and highly researched 'Teletubbies'. The series was hailed as a huge success (particularly for its creators and the production company 'Ragdoll Productions') having been exported here, there and everywhere. Much was written about Teletubbies at the time; there was a national debate as to whether Tinky Winky was gay; and strangely, the show written originally for two to four-year-olds found a significant audience among university students (who presumably viewed it while smoking marijuana).  

I, for one, am pleased that those adorable whistling pink socks with eyes will be coming back to our television screens. And I don't suppose for one moment that the BBC has any intention of researching the show. 

I wonder if, in forty years from now, someone in the BBC will have the bright idea of reviving Teletubbies? I somehow doubt it, and for the benefit of future generations of kids, I sincerely hope not. 

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds