Full metal jacket

Hav­ing kit­ted out Sean Con­nery and He­len Mir­ren for bat­tle, Terry English tells Kate Lovell how he plan­ishes alu­minium into suits of per­fectly made ar­mour

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Ar­mourer Terry English re­veals his plan­ish­ing se­crets to Kate Lovell

Widely ac­knowl­edged as the best ar­mourer in the world, Terry english is the crafts­man film di­rec­tors call when they need au­then­tic and pre­cisely made met­al­wear. Way­ward arte­facts sit at in­ter­vals along the ap­proach to Mr english’s house in Corn­wall, so much so that i al­most miss his work­shop, an unas­sum­ing wooden struc­ture half­way up the drive. Be­decked with ar­mour, metal and tools, there’s no high tech­nol­ogy in this space, merely the sim­ple sta­ples of a work­man who trusts the equip­ment he’s al­ways worked with and is ex­pert at what he does.

How­ever, Mr english isn’t in his work­shop—he’s wait­ing at the en­trance to his house. en­ter­ing it is like step­ping into a cor­nu­copia of cu­rios that in­clude model planes, vin­tage film posters, life-sized Amer­i­can diner girls, Art deco fig­urines, pho­to­graphs of the ac­tors he’s worked with and, of course, ar­mour. ‘it’s a bit like a mu­seum,’ he says with a smile, and it is.

The flaw­less breast­plate made for dame He­len Mir­ren’s Mor­gana in Ex­cal­ibur hangs on one wall, close to the colo­nial marine ar­mour from Aliens and a pho­to­graph of Ni­col Wil­liamson wear­ing Mer­lin’s iconic metal skull-cap (also from Ex­cal­ibur) is propped up on the side. Made on set by Mr english in only two hours, the cap, to­gether with Mer­lin’s patch­work robe, fetched £75,000 at auc­tion in 2017.

Think of a film fea­tur­ing ar­mour or met­al­wear and Mr english prob­a­bly made it. He even worked on C-3P0 and darth Vader’s hel­met for Star Wars. ‘i did the orig­i­nal draw­ings, but i never got paid be­cause i dumped it to work on Jab­ber­wocky, which was touted to be a much big­ger film. How wrong that turned out to be!’

Born in Lon­don’s east end, Mr english moved to Rom­ford, es­sex, with his fa­ther, a tai­lor, when he was five. Al­ways artis­tic, Mr english even­tu­ally came across L. & H. Nathan, a the­atri­cal cos­tu­mier in Covent Gar­den in 1962. ‘i asked if they had any work go­ing. John Nathan said “no”, but, as i was leav­ing, he asked if i was any good at met­al­work and, of course, i said yes.’

There, un­der the tute­lage of pro­fes­sion­ally trained sword­maker Arthur West, Mr english be­gan mak­ing metal props for films such as Fahren­heit 451 and Dr Zhivago, but quickly be­came fas­ci­nated by re­pair­ing the Vic­to­rian ar­mour that the agency hired out. ‘That, and the minia­ture ar­mours made by Ge­orge Clifton, taught me how ar­mour worked and moved—i found it ad­dic­tive,’ he re­calls. ‘Ar­mour’s not stiff and un­com­fort­able as ev­ery­one thinks it is. That’s a myth. it’s riv­eted with leather strap­pings, which make the pieces move­able and able to bend with the body.’

Mr english’s skills led to work with var­i­ous Lon­don cos­tume com­pa­nies be­fore he set up english Arms & Ar­mour in 1972, a be­spoke com­pany that cre­ates pieces for pri­vate col­lec­tors, deal­ers and even the Tower of Lon­don. Most of his work comes from the film in­dus­try and this means that he can be away from home for up to six weeks at a time.

‘When­ever i do a film, i pack my work­shop up and trans­fer it to Hol­ly­wood or wher­ever the film is be­ing shot be­cause i need to be on set to dress and re­pair any dents and to help with scene con­ti­nu­ity so that ev­ery­thing ap­pears in se­quence.’

it was af­ter work­ing on two films back to back that Mr english de­cided he needed a break. ‘i went to visit a friend in Corn­wall and saw the house i live in now in an es­tate agent’s win­dow. i bought it al­most in­stantly. The pres­sures of the in­dus­try can be quite stren­u­ous, but i’ve been an ar­mourer for 56 years now and if i didn’t do it as a pro­fes­sion, i’d do it as a hobby.’

How does ar­mour take its shape? ‘it starts off as a flat piece of metal. The knights of old wore steel, but i pre­fer us­ing high-grade alu­minium be­cause it’s quicker to shape.

Ar­mour has to be built and be­come part of the ac­tor. That’s where the magic hap­pens

It’s also lighter to wear, yet still looks heavy, and it doesn’t rust in the rain,’ elab­o­rates Mr English. ‘Not un­like a Sav­ile Row tai­lor, I take mea­sure­ments, then cre­ate the de­sign and pat­tern, but, in­stead of adding darts to ac­com­mo­date the body, I stretch or shrink the metal to make it fit, then hand­beat and plan­ish [smooth] it over var­i­ous shaped stakes.’

One of the great­est com­pli­ments Mr English has re­ceived about his craft came from the ac­tor Sir Pa­trick Ste­wart, for Ex­cal­ibur. ‘He told me my ar­mour had im­proved his per­for­mance be­cause it had made him feel more pow­er­ful and that’s what it’s all about,’ he notes. ‘Ar­mour can’t just be made, it’s an or­ganic process. It has to be built and be­come part of the ac­tor. That’s where the magic hap­pens. It’s some­thing that gets lost through CGI and mak­ing pieces us­ing plas­tic moulds— they have their place, but they’re overused and are killing the magic of film.’

Mr English’s sharp eye means his ar­mours

in­vari­ably fit first time. ‘I never ex­pect peo­ple to re­mem­ber me, so it’s al­ways a sur­prise when they do. Sir Sean Con­nery once picked me up and swung me round when he clocked me at a pro­duc­tion meet and greet. He sat me down and asked if I re­mem­bered when we were nearly shot in his ho­tel bar in Avi­gnon dur­ing the film­ing of Sword

of the Valiant. How could I for­get?’ English Arms & Ar­mour (01736 753444; www.ter­ryenglishar­mourer.co.uk)

Adding the weight of metal to a myth­i­cal epic: Terry English made an imag­i­na­tive range of ar­mour for 1981 film Ex­cal­ibur, for knights, wiz­ards and even horses

Top left: Terry English, ar­mourer to the knights of old—at least the Hol­ly­wood kind. Left: A de­tailed sketch for High Spir­its (1988), with an un­usual em­bel­lish­ment to the feet. Above: A wiz­ard’s spin on ar­mour: Mor­dred (Robert Ad­die) rides into bat­tle in Ex­cal­ibur

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