Memories of the Saving Private Ryan film set

Interview with Kieran Thorpe

By Greg Scott

How did you come to work at the airfield?

Well I didn’t work there as such. I did work there on the Saving Private Ryan film in 1996 or ’97 – my memory escapes me – I think it was ’96. And the way that happened was quite odd, actually. I’d been unemployed for some time and met up with a few of my friends, and someone said, “Why don’t we go down there and have a look and see what they’re doing?” because obviously we could hear construction taking place and the odd round of gunfire. So we went down there, marched up to the security hut, which is now a KFC, I believe, and the guard said they were looking for labourers and if we could leave our details they might contact us. Now I was a skinny sixteen-year-old kid that had barely done any work, and certainly no physical work, and then me and my friends all put our details down and I think it was two days later I got a phone call. My friends didn’t.

Can you describe what the site looked like?

Oh it was fantastic, yeah. So I got up in the morning and put on a denim jacket and jeans and an old pair of trainers. And I walked down there and it was pretty much as it was as an aircraft manufacturing plant. And then we walked through the office and they put us on the back of a milk float and took us down the runway to a huge marquee. I was with various other men that looked like builders and I didn’t. I looked like the little kid because I was only sixteen. And then they took us down a track and it was away from the hangars and the factory site. It was in the fields behind it. And we walked down there and suddenly I’m in the middle of a war-torn French village. The set had already been built and they were just making modifications to it, so it was fantastic. There was a river running through it, a bridge going over the river, blown-up houses, and I remember thinking how fantastic it was. Lots of buildings were flat-front buildings, but some of them were actual buildings that they’d built, and everything had been placed there, down to graffiti. And that site, which is obviously away from the hangars and what remains there now, was just fantastic, it was like being transported in time.

Were the hangars in use for other purposes?

Yeah. Well after we’d finished work, we’d go back on the milk float up the – I was absolutely knackered, I couldn’t really do the work that they gave me to do. And we walked in the hangars and things and we saw German tanks, American tanks, a couple of American fighter planes which are in the film at the end, lots of stuff that wasn’t actually in the film. And you could just clamber all over it and no one seemed to mind too much. But the reason I was employed there was because they had a track leading from this main village to an area where they wanted to build a tower in the film…They couldn’t get their lorry that would carry the scaffolding poles through this track, through this little clearing in a sort of little marshy bit, because it was very muddy. So first they wanted us to dig out the mud (I still don’t understand how that could be possible) so that we reached the harder mud underneath. And when that failed they asked us to carry the scaffolding poles. And the whole time I was just wandering round the set taking in where everything was, and trying to memorise the set.

Was there a sense, whilst you were working there, of it being the de Havilland airfield?

Yeah, you couldn’t get away from the fact that it was an airfield, they knew that. I’m sure they launched their planes to use in filming from the runway there. I think the Americans were amazed. They kept saying it was a fantastic and perfect site and they didn’t realise that there were areas like this in England. Obviously it had all shut down from being a working facility then, but they were very aware of where they were ad it was just, you know, a big change because they all expressed a desire to come back and do more films there, which wasn’t the case. I was absolutely gutted when they knocked the whole thing down. Obviously it was very interesting to all people in Hatfield ’cause we could hear machine-gun fire, planes flying around, always at night. And no one ever complained. It was like you’d see the news reports on Iraq and Afghanistan, all you could hear was machine-gun fire all night every night; no one moaned about it, at least not in my household. And me and my friends decided to go have a look. And obviously the way I was transported to that site was on a milk float going down the runway, going through the offices, but because it spilled out behind the manufacturing site, there’s a town called Smallford in St. Albans, it’s near where Notcutts Garden Centre is, there are public footpaths you can access there, that will take you all the way up to the fields where the set was. And there was no fence around the set or anything like that. So one day me and my friends decided to drive up there and we strolled through there and to our absolute amazement came across a field with lots of tanks just left lying around – obviously for filming purposes – and the set. And this was all next to a public footpath. There was not a security guard or a dog in sight.

We didn’t do anything naughty or anything like that, we just had a look and everyone started taking pictures. And then we walked back and decided to have a good look at one of those tanks that was just left lying around. There was German tanks, British tanks, but clambered into this German truck, quite high up, sat there sort of having a look at the surroundings. It was quite a nice, sort of sunny day, watching life go by, and then one of my friends starts pressing all the buttons on the tank (that definitely was not me!) and I said to him, you know, “What you doing, that’s never going to work, it’s just a museum piece, this is just background, you know, just a prop,” and then he pressed this white button and the whole thing was going [ makes noise of engine ] and started up, everyone starts panicking and a few people started touching my friend on the back of the head saying, “What you doing?” And then he starts pushing all these levers and then the thing starts lurching forward, and at that point we were made aware of quite a lot of sirens and jeeps emanating from the site – the set that we’d just walked on, unchallenged – screaming towards us, and dogs barking, things like that. So we leapt off this half-track, over the sides, and I remember sort of springing over it and landing on my friend’s shoulder, which burst my lip wide open and I was, sort of, half-unconscious on the floor, watching a half-track sort of rolling forward slowly and my friends all dragging me to my feet and we ran off and went home. So that, obviously, that’s a big memory. The only people that would ever believe that story were the people that were there. It did happen.

This page was added on 30/11/2011.

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