Douglas Luke: 10th January 1929 – 3rd January 2015
Doug Luke was a stills photographer in Film & Television, who shot many iconic images for Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson.
Doug Luke was born in Sunbury-on-Thames on the 10th of January 1929. He was one of eight children. Doug’s father was a tailor and his mother was a housewife. As a child, it was his older sister who introduced Doug to the world of photography with an old box camera, although making a living as a photographer was far from his mind back then.
Doug left school at 14 and worked at an engineering factory towards the end of World War Two, filing at a bench and working a lathe. After the war, Doug did labour work at various building sites for three months until deciding it was not for him.
Seeking employment elsewhere, a neighbour suggested Shepperton Studios. It was there where Doug managed to get his foot in the door as a post boy, which led him to becoming a photographer’s assistant to George Cannons on the film London Town (1946). Doug learned how to load 10×8 film plates in the dark room until he could do it with his eyes shut. He was also given a Leica to use and learned more about photography as he went along.
When Doug turned 18, he was called up for the Air Force and went to Singapore as a flight mechanic. When he applied to be an air force photographer, Doug was told that he would have to sign up for 10 years, which he refused to do. So Doug persisted through the service in Malaya, eventually returning to the UK and back into the film industry as the head printer in the darkroom at Denham Studios. It was during this period that Doug met his wife Jean and they got married in 1954. Doug then left Denham after a few years to become a freelance stills photographer at Twickenham Studios. Soon, Doug found himself working at various other film/television studios, as well as advertising houses located in London Soho.
Having skills of a photographer is one thing, but Doug also had the wit and banter to get along with those he worked with. He had the chirpy personality to chat with directors and artistes, which opened up further work for him. One such person was Richard Lester, the director of the Beatles film Help! (1965). Doug had originally worked with Richard on a couple of television commercials, so when it came to work on Help!, Richard hired Doug to be the stills photographer.
As Doug recalled from an interview in 2013 – “The Beatles were a bit nervous of me at first. They looked and pointed at me playfully, saying, ‘Look, he’s got a camera, hide!’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I am the unit photographer’ whilst stroking my tie in a meek fashion. Once they got to know me, they were alright. I just worked on Help! (1965), taking photos on set, location shoots and anything in-between. I remember when Dick (Richard Lester) was trying to get a scene done and he went out to the toilet. I said to the boys, ‘quick, whilst he’s gone, lets get a few stills’ and when he came back, he shouted, ‘I caught you!’ He did like me, but you wouldn’t think so the way he used to thank me in his mocking way (laughs). It was good fun”.
Doug’s charm really paid off when it came to work for Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds in 1965. It was another photographer, Laurie Turner that introduced Doug to Gerry. “It’s the old saying – It’s not what you know, but who you know” said Doug. “For some unknown reason, they liked my face and started to ask me back for more shoots. Gerry then asked if would like to work for him on a regular basis for all the publicity material and comics that was needed. I said ok, thinking the job would only last a few weeks, and it lasted for a few years.”
From Thunderbirds (1965) to UFO (1970), Doug was hired on a freelance basis to shoot hundreds of photos for Century 21 Merchandising, for use in comics, annuals, toys, games and general publicity. Most of which are still being used today. The most valued of which, are the behind the scenes images that Doug captured whilst at the studios. It is through Doug’s photos that we can see the true magic of Century 21. ‘Magic’ consisting of steel G Clamps holding puppets in position, special effects technicians balancing on top of ladders and the aftermath remains of exploding puppets and buildings.
Doug recalled, “Some miniature models were a bit fiddly, Derek Meddings and his team would set it all up and I would go in and take the shot. Most of those shots were inanimate subjects like cars and planes. But it would take time to wire up a plane with a few wires, one would snap and the model would tip forward. The explosions would require perfect timing when taking shots of those. They were loud. There were a lot of flames too, as they used to put petrol or something in the mix. I used to listen out for the click to activate the explosion and usually I’d time it just about right. I didn’t always get it, but 90 percent of the time I managed it. It was always best to use a tripod during explosions, due to the camera shake. With water effects, when a plane would crash dive into the water, it would be tricky to catch the impact before the splash. So they would do it a couple of times for me to catch it. I also used to get a bit wet. They shot the effects in high speed and had four guys on the camera, a lighting cameraman, operator, focus puller and clapper boy. I would accidentally get in the way and they would shout, ‘You’re in shot Doug!’ Because to get the same angle, I had to get in almost the same line and height of the lens, otherwise I’d get the edge of the set in”.
Doug was also given his own studio space at Century 21, where he could create portraits of the puppets/vehicles and any scenes needed for the TV21 and Lady Penelope comics. Doug remembered, “I used to use Rolleiflexes which were 2.25 square, I then went over to Nikon 35mm. With the Rolli, there was not much depth of field to it. With the Nikon, you could start with a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm which were quite wide, you had plenty depth of field on those. If I took a head and shoulders shot, I’d use an 85mm or 105mm lens. The Nikon was my favourite camera”.
Attack of the Alligators is one of the most memorable Thunderbirds episodes. Doug had his work cut out for him when it came photographing a live alligator and Lady Penelope together. “They were little ones, but with big teeth!” recalled Doug. “We had to be careful. I remember one escaped and they had to run across the floor to catch it. We had a big tank, 20 to 30ft across which was about 2ft deep. They threw them in there, and we didn’t know where they were. When they bit stuff, the handler had to shake them off. Anyway, we had Penelope and wanted a shot with her beside an alligator. The alligator was sitting there with its mouth shut. When we put Penelope beside it, the alligator went SNAP! and took her leg off! They were quite strong for their small size. The handler had to catch the alligator and get it back out again (laughs)”.
As well as working on the main TV series Thunderbirds (1965), Captain Scarlet (1967), Joe 90 (1968), Secret Service (1969) and UFO (1970), Doug was also the photographer on the Candy (1967) comic, a concept devised by Gerry Anderson. This featured two puppet children called Candy & Andy who lived with Mr and Mrs Bearanda – a pair of adult Panda Bears. The comic was aimed at young readers and is now humorously considered the stuff that nightmares are made of due to its surreal imagery. In 1994 the Barbican Art Gallery held an exhibition ‘Who’s Looking at the Family’ which devoted a section on Candy and Doug’s photos. Limited edition postcards of Doug’s photos were also issued for the exhibition.
When the Century 21 studios closed, Doug carried on working as a stills photographer throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, working on various commercials and films such as Superman (1978), The Tempest (1979) and Santa Claus the Movie (1985). Doug photographed many actors and personalities over the years such as Orson Welles, John Cleese, Peter Cushing, Denham Elliott and Ian McKellen to name but a few. Doug would even return to work with Gerry Anderson one more time, on Terrahawks (1983) to shoot the press and publicity photos needed for the new puppet series.
Doug Luke retired in the early 1990’s and disappeared from all contact after the 1994 Barbican event, until being located once again in 2013 in Wiltshire. He was interviewed for the documentary feature Filmed in Supermarionation (2014). Being quite sprightly in his eighties, Doug revealed that he was enjoying retirement and played bowls once a week. Sadly, his wife Jean passed away a few years previously and Doug had recently been suffering with dementia, which sadly led to his death on January 3rd, just a few days before his 86th birthday.
10th January 1929 – 3rd January 2015
Author: James Fielding