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Southend Airport is reel star again
HAPPY days are here again for Southend Airport, but perhaps the emphasis should be on the word again.
After more than 30 years of doldrums, it is easy to forget the airport was once one of the major success stories of British aviation.
For a number of years following the Second World War, it was actually Britain’s second busiest civil airport, yielding only to Heathrow.
The development of Gatwick as London’s alternative airport in the late Fifties put an end to that position, but Southend remained a star performer.
As late as the mid-Sixties, councillors could still boast it was the country’s “third biggest municipal airport”.
Southend in its glory days was also known for another technology apart from flying.
Documentary film-makers flocked there, recording the passage of planes and people.
The legacy of all this activity was a forest of film cans. After initial screenings, much of this celluloid was soon gathering dust.
While Southend Airport slid downhill, the neglected film stock also deteriorated. Now, as boom times return to the Southend skies, veteran local film-maker Chris Taylor has dusted down and restored the pick of these old airport films.
Many have not seen their way on to a screen for 30 years or more.
Chris, who has also put together a popular DVD documentary about Southend Pier, has compiled the best material into a compilation DVD, recording the golden era of Southend Airport between the Fifties and Seventies.
It adds up to a record of a leisurely age of flight that now seems almost as distant as the age of sailing ships.
The core of this film fly-past is a collection of documentaries compiled by staff at Ekco. The TV and radio factory in Prittlewell Chase was Southend’s biggest employer across two generations.
Ekco worked closely with the airport, supplying much of the then state-of-the-art electronic equipment which made Southend a technical leader among British airports.
It proudly supported its own executive plane, a tarted up ex-RAF Anson, which figures in a number of shots. Ekco also had its own film-making team, and Chris became their heir.
He says: “I worked as an engineer at Ekco. When the electronics division was broken up, I was given many of the company’s films.”
Other material includes an award-winning 1981 film, Take the Blue Plane, made by the members of the Westcliff Film Club. Chris was an active member and officer of the amateur group for many years.
He stresses his compilation film is not a nerd-fest.
He says: “It isn’t aimed at plane spotters, the sort of people who will know the difference between a mark 1 and a mark 2B of any given aircraft.
“It’s intended to be a nostalgic look at the days when Southend Airport had a lot of character, but not much of the sophistication it has now acquired.”
Southend Airport in its heyday was a hotbed of aeronautical skills. Technical skills of a different sort were needed to bring it back to life via the moving image.
For instance, time had not been kind to the 42-year-old Corridor to the Sky.
Back in 1969, Chris worked on this narrow-gauge 8mm film, which depicts a day in the life of Southend Airport and the people who worked there.
“When the time came to dust off the can, I found the film was in a bad state,” says Chris. “As an original it had more than 200 splices joining each shot to the next.
“These had shrunk over the years and caused the film to buckle and become unstable.”
Chris spent very many hours at the computer using a special program to stabilise the shots again, in readiness for transfer to DVD.
He says: “The soundtrack too was in a bad state and had become almost inaudible in places. It took many more hours to restore it to acceptable level.”
Throughout this arduous project, Chris had the benefit of one of the best possible historical consultants available.
Back in the Sixties, Maureen Turp, widely known as Mo, was a familiar face at the airport.
She worked there for 20 years as a member of the Channel Airways team, checking in thousands of passengers en route to the Channel islands. Maureen Turp was to become Mrs Chris Taylor.
She recalls: “The airport was like a little village community then. There was a lovely atmosphere. It was huge fun and we had none of the hefty rules and regulations they have these days.”
Those were the days when Southend Airport really could be thought of as a village.
The special atmosphere of that era is caught for all time on Chris Taylor’s film stock, which, like the airport itself, has been given the kiss of life.
l Southend Airport – the Past on Screen, can be bought at the Southend Pier shop, for £10, or at Southend Airport terminal.