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
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