Doug Luke (1929–2015)

Doug Luke was born in Sunbury-on-Thames on the 10th January 1929. One of eight children, Doug’s father was a tailor and his mother a housewife. As a child, it was his older sister who introduced Doug to photography with an old box camera, although making a living as a photographer was far from his mind.

Leaving school at 14, Doug worked at an engineering factory towards the end of World War Two, filing at a bench and working a lathe. After the war, he worked as a labourer at various building sites for three months until deciding it was not for him.

Seeking employment elsewhere, a neighbour suggested Shepperton Studios. It was there that Doug managed to get his foot in the door as a post boy, which led him to becoming a photographer’s assistant to George Cannons on the film London Town(1946). Doug learned how to load 10×8 film plates in the dark room until he could do it with his eyes shut, learning more about photography as he went along.

When Doug turned 18, he was called up for the Air Force and went to Singapore as a flight mechanic. He applied to be an air force photographer but was told that he would have to sign up for 10 years, which he refused to do. So he persisted through the service in Malaya, eventually returning to the UK and back into the film industry as the head printer in the darkroom at Denham Studios. It was during this period that Doug met his wife Jean and they were married in 1954. He left Denham after a few years to become a freelance stills photographer at Twickenham Studios, soon finding himself working at various other film/television studios, as well as advertising houses located in London’s Soho.

Having the skills of a photographer is one thing, but Doug also had the wit and banter to get along with those he worked with. He had the chirpy personality to chat with directors and artistes, which opened up further work for him. One such person was Richard Lester, the director of the Beatles film Help! (1965). Doug had originally worked with him on a couple of television commercials, so when it came to work on Help!, Richard hired Doug to be the stills photographer. As Doug recalled when interviewed in 2013 – “The Beatles were a bit nervous of me at first. They looked and pointed at me playfully, saying, ‘Look, he’s got a camera, hide!’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I am the unit photographer’ whilst stroking my tie in a meek fashion. Once they got to know me, they were alright. I just worked on Help! (1965), taking photos on set, location shoots and anything in-between. I remember when Dick (Richard Lester) was trying to get a scene done and he went out to the toilet. I said to the boys, ‘quick, whilst he’s gone, let’s get a few stills’ and when he came back, he shouted, ‘I caught you!’ He did like me, but you wouldn’t think so the way he used to thank me in his mocking way (laughs). It was good fun”.

Doug’s charm paid off when he came to work for Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds in 1965. It was another photographer, Laurie Turner that introduced him to Gerry. “It’s the old saying – It’s not what you know, but who you know” he said. “For some unknown reason, they liked my face and started to ask me back for more shoots. Gerry then asked if I would like to work for him on a regular basis for all the publicity material and comics that was needed. I said OK, thinking the job would only last a few weeks, and it lasted for a few years.”

From Thunderbirds (1965) to UFO (1970), Doug was hired on a freelance basis to shoot hundreds of photos for Century 21 Merchandising, for use in comics, annuals, toys, games and general publicity, many of which are still being used today. The most valued are the behind the scenes images that Doug captured whilst at the studios. It is through his photos that we can see the true magic of Century 21. ‘Magic’ consisting of steel G-clamps holding puppets in position, special effects technicians balancing on top of ladders and the aftermath of exploding puppets and buildings.

Doug recalled, “Some miniature models were a bit fiddly, Derek Meddings and his team would set it all up and I would go in and take the shot. Most of those shots were inanimate subjects like cars and planes. But it would take time to wire up a plane, one would snap and the model would tip forward. The explosions would require perfect timing when taking shots of those. They were loud. There were a lot of flames too, as they used to put petrol or something in the mix. I used to listen out for the click to activate the explosion and usually I’d time it just about right. I didn’t always get it, but 90 percent of the time I did. It was always best to use a tripod during explosions, due to the camera shake. With water effects, when a plane would crash dive into the water, it would be tricky to catch the impact before the splash. So they would do it a couple of times for me to catch it. I also used to get a bit wet. They shot the effects in high speed and had four guys on the camera, a lighting cameraman, operator, focus puller and clapper boy. I would accidentally get in the way and they would shout, ‘You’re in shot Doug!’ Because to get the same angle, I had to get in almost the same line and height of the lens, otherwise I’d get the edge of the set in”.

Doug was also given his own studio space at Century 21, where he could create portraits of the puppets/vehicles and any scenes needed for the TV21 and Lady Penelope comics. He remembered, “I used to use Rolleiflexes which were 2.25 square, I then went over to Nikon 35mm. With the Rollei, there was not much depth of field to it, whereas with the Nikon you could start with a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm which were quite wide, you had plenty depth of field on those. If I took a head and shoulders shot, I’d use an 85mm or 105mm lens. The Nikon was my favourite camera”.

Attack Of The Alligators! is one of the most memorable Thunderbirds episodes. Doug had his work cut out for him when it came photographing a live alligator and Lady Penelope together. “They were little ones, but with big teeth!” he recalled. “We had to be careful. I remember one escaped and they had to run across the floor to catch it. We had a big tank, 20 to 30ft across which was about 2ft deep. They threw them in there, and we didn’t know where they were. When they bit stuff, the handler had to shake them off. Anyway, we had Penelope and wanted a shot with her beside an alligator. The alligator was sitting there with its mouth shut. When we put Penelope beside it, the alligator went SNAP! and took her leg off! They were quite strong for their small size. The handler had to catch the alligator and get it back out again (laughs)”.

As well as working on the television series Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, The Secret Service and UFO, Doug also worked as photographer on the Candy comic, a concept devised by Gerry Anderson. This featured two puppet children called Candy and Andy who lived with Mr and Mrs Bearanda – a pair of adult Pandas. The comic was aimed at young readers and is now humorously considered the stuff that nightmares are made of due to its surreal imagery. In 1994 the Barbican held an exhibition ‘Who’s Looking at the Family’ which devoted a section on Candy and Doug’s photos. Limited edition postcards of Doug’s photos were also issued for the exhibition.

When the Century 21 studios closed, Doug carried on working as a stills photographer throughout the 1970s and 1980s, working on various commercials and films such as Superman (1978), The Tempest (1979) and Santa Claus The Movie(1985). He photographed many actors and personalities over the years such as Orson Welles, John Cleese, Peter Cushing, Denham Elliott and Ian McKellen to name but a few. Doug would even return to work with Gerry Anderson one more time, on Terrahawks to shoot the press and publicity photos needed for the new puppet series.

Doug Luke retired in the early 90s and disappeared from all contact after the 1994 Barbican event, until being located once again in 2013 in Wiltshire. He was interviewed for Filmed in Supermarionation (2014). Being quite sprightly in his eighties, Doug revealed that he was enjoying retirement and played bowls once a week. His wife Jean passed away a few years previously and Doug had recently been suffering with dementia, which sadly led to his death on 3rd January, just a few days before his 86th birthday.

Originally published in FAB 80.