Frenzy and the Necktie Strangler
In the summer of 1971, I worked in Covent Garden market as a porter. It was a good way to earn money during my summer break from university and it offered me the chance to observe Alfred Hitchcock direct Frenzy.
One morning, as I was pulling a barrow down Bow Street, I noticed an Evening Standard billboard outside the Globe pub, proclaiming: ‘Necktie Strangler Strikes Again‘.
Again? News to me, I thought.
Then I looked across the road and caught sight of a man stood in a doorway on the corner of Russell Street. It was unmistakably Alfred Hitchcock.
The son of a greengrocer, and hence familiar with the workings of the market, Hitchcock spent many weeks filming Frenzy during that summer. Consequently I would often spend my breakfast break watching him work. He 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 screeched to a halt, doors opened and police rushed out. More than a few porters panicked, thinking the Old Bill were about to nick everyone in sight. However I thought there was something odd, since most of the cops had excellent suntans. Sure enough, as I looked around, there was Hitchcock, once more stood in a nearby doorway, this time grinning from ear to ear; and there was no second take.
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 the 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 — known to his colleagues as Burglar Bill — who worked with my father, was immediately sacked. However he was eventually tried in court and acquitted. Nonetheless his employer refused to reinstate him. The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) demanded the man’s reinstatement but the employers refused to budge, and so the union called for a strike.
It proved to be a bitter dispute. My Dad claimed that everyone in the market knew that the man 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 retired 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.