Local MD of Newman Props, one of the world's largest prop houses, recalls how her family found a home for millions of props.
How long have you worked in the area?
I've been in the area all my life.
Downton Abbey, all the Bonds, Game of Thrones, you name it...
What do you like about it?
To anyone who doesn't know it, it's a dive, but I absolutely love it. It's home. I grew up here. All my family are here. This building (on The Vale, Uxbridge Rd) has been part of my life forever.
How did you get into the prop business?
It's my bloodline. My grandfather Aubrey Newman set up Newman Prop Hire in 1964. We celebrated out fiftieth two years ago. Before that he had a shop and stalls in Shepherd's Market. He started off selling luggage and mirrors and then there was a lighting shop and it just grew and grew. It became so big he ended up having to get railway arches in MacFarlane Road (parallel to Shepherd's Market).
How did selling luggage and mirrors become prop hire?
The story goes that the buyer from Z Cars (BBC police drama) came into the shop and asked how much it would be to hire an umbrella. It got damaged so he came back a week later and hired another and this went on for weeks and weeks and my grandfather thought, there's something in this.
Was he a bit of a Del Boy?
He was a bit of a legend. All the old school set designers and buyers knew Aubrey Newman. He was a very special man. You wouldn't forget him. He was an honest man, a lovely man. He'd help anybody. Anybody who knew him would say wonderful things about him.
How many props do you have?
Could be ten million. Everyone calls it Aladdin's Cave. We have 36,000 square feet of storage over three floors. We're doing a stock check at the moment and I know we have two hundred of one style of vase. People come to us for our lighting, but we do other props – furniture, pub sets et cetera – but we're known for lighting. We do all light sources – candle, oil, electric – and all periods from medieval candelabras to Regency chandeliers to Victorian and Art Deco table lamps and wall sconces. We can prop a set from 3000 BC to the 25th century and beyond.
In which well-known films or TV shows have your props appeared?
All the Bond films, from the first Dr No to the last one, all the Harry Potters, all the original Superman films, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, all the original Poirots, Marple, you name it.
What's your weirdest prop?
Our old manager Terry Poole found a dead frog in the spout of his watering can at home and brought it in and put it under a Victorian glass display jar as a joke. A set decorator spotted it and used it in Sherlock Holmes. They lost the frog and made a plastic replacement. That frog still goes out.
What does it cost to hire props?
For the first week, 7.5% of whatever the prop's worth, its risk value, and then 5% for the second week and 2.5% for the third. The rate goes down the longer you hire it because no one wants to spend more hiring it than it costs to buy.
What's your most valuable prop?
We bought a lamp and discovered it was by (legendary Spanish art nouveau architect Antonio) Gaudi and had it valued at £25,000. We couldn't let that go out because sometimes things get broken. People are careful because if you break it, you pay the full price... So we sold it.
Is your home full of amazing lights?
It's not all priceless. A twenty-pound light can look amazing in the right place. For my wedding our workshop made all these chandeliers out of bits and pieces. It looked amazing.
Has virtual reality reduced the demand for real props?
It did ten years ago when everything was green screen but not in the last five, when every year has been better than the last. Television has been remaking a lot of the period classics like War & Peace so we've been busy.
What's your favourite film or TV show?
I love Harry Potter but I must admit I find it difficult to watch films because I'm always looking for our props.
How would you advise someone trying to become a set designer?
It is hard unless you know someone in the art department. Set decorators are always too busy but you could try their assistant. Or send your CV to the production buyer. And maybe send your CV to the studios because they might need assistants. I look at people's CVs too. We don't just buy and hire here. We do everything from making to restoring. When I started I was sweeping the floor.
If you didn't work in props, what would be your dream job?
When I was younger I wanted to be a pilot, but I wasn't clever enough and I think you had to be a certain weight and a certain height and I wasn't either back then so it didn't happen. I travelled a lot before I joined the family firm and I still love flying, even long haul.
Did you feel obliged to fly the family flag?
I wasn't put under any pressure. Most of my family are in the film business. My dad's a buyer and my brother directs pop promos. After school I went travelling and when my aunt died – she'd taken over from my grandfather and was running it with Mum – Mum asked me if I wanted to have a go and I thought, why not?
What's the best life lesson you've been given?
Never have your hands in your pockets or whistle while you work because if your hands are in our pockets you're not working and if you're whistling you're not concentrating. When I first started here I had my ankles kicked a few times, not badly, but I learnt that lesson pretty quick.
What life lesson would you share?
I know how lucky I am to have the team I have so the lesson I'm trying to learn is: make sure the people around you know how grateful you are for everything they do. You can't do it on your own.
Do you want your kids to follow you into the family business?
If they absolutely wanted to then yes, but like Mum did with all of us, I would let them shape their own careers.
Thank you, Raven. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds June 2016