1 Garrick Road NW9 6AA
Wednesday 14 September 2016
It's just possible that purists may suggest that this should not count as a museum. So, without referring to the Rules Committee, I'll begin by saying that it's open to the public (by booked guided tour only) and is completely fascinating. Oh, and it makes the great museums of Albertopolis look quite new, since it has recently celebrated its 175 anniversary.
We were there thanks to the excellent outings programme of the Friends of the British Library, not to mention the ease of travel via Thameslink to Hendon. No photography inside, so we have just a couple of photos of the unprepossessing exterior of this house of wonders.
A little history to start with: Morris Angel came from Germany in 1813. Am I the only person who wonders how that was possible, in war-torn Europe, with the British naval blockade effectively strangling Bonaparte's Empire? But anyway, he arrived and found a job as a cemetery keeper, guarding against the 'resurrection men' who supplied the medical schools with illegal dissection material. He began to purchase the clothing and furnishings of the dead from the bereaved families. Scrooge, as I'm sure you recall, in his visit from the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, watches ghoulish figures arguing over his possessions. Soon actors and actresses, who were expected to supply their own costumes, came to him, and from 1840, the business has run without a break.
Our guide was called Mark, and he combined humour with information in an amazing way. We found it hard to believe, at the end, that we had been standing, walking, looking and listening for two whole hours. He warned us that what goes on here must be kept confidential till the film, TV show or play has been staged, but with 175 years to call on, we did not feel frustrated by not knowing the very latest things. For example, Angels provided the costumes for the opening and closing displays of a major London event in 2012, which was codenamed 'Chariots'.... with no-one allowed to talk about it till twelve months after the closing ceremony.
Mark explained that costume designers are free lancers, and come to Angels for whatever their vision dictates. They may want hand crafted period costumes, or they may want something much cheaper: Angels dressed all the Indian peasants who flooded Attenborough's screen for Gandhi's funeral, for example. We saw the three making rooms, where skilled workers were tailoring clothes, relying on the actors' measurements in the highly secret measurements book. Mostly the costumes are hired out, but for a very long run, they may be sold. There is a large alterations department: clothing is turned up rather than being cut for shorter actors, to make it re-usable.
All the way round, Mark fed us stories and examples: Marilyn Monroe was here for 'The Prince and the Showgirl'; Charles Dickens hired costumes for his dramatic performances. Perhaps the most extraordinary story was that Crippen's wife's clothes had been sold to Angels, and Scotland Yard had demanded them as evidence when the murderer came to trial; Angels has the letter that Mr Angel wrote demanding them back after the trial, since they were his lawfully acquired property. More recently, 'Absolutely Fabulous: the Movie' has been dressed by Angels.
We paused by a glass case containing 'pure filth' and 'a tablespoonful of blood' (actually high in sugar)' and other essentials if actors are to do their jobs convincingly without germs and unsuitable facial expressions.
And then we went into the warehouse, with its 8.5 miles of racks, all crowded with clothes, and with side rooms for badges, medals, jewellery, hats and so on. 'More Cardinals than there are Cardinals,' said Mark, as we walked past rack upon rack on monks, popes, presbyterian ministers, tibetan lamas and so on; huge armies of - well - armies, and navies and airforces. Mark pointed out that though, for most of us, a badge is a badge and a stripe a stripe, there will always be someone watching from that Regiment, or that Order, who knows what's right and what isn't.
We passed racks of Santas, including Ted Heath's Blue costume (he refused to wear Socialist red, even to hand out presents) Mark told us he himself had been Elf 197 in Santa Claus The Movie, though I have not been able to spot him in the throng in this clip.
Angels owns feathers which are now irreplaceable, since it is illegal to take osprey and egret feathers. The fur room was also interesting, cold to keep out the moths; we had a little lesson on how to deal with the pesky creatures.
We passed the locked door of the 'embargo room' where items are kept till they are sent out and used. While we saw a current 'Poldark' costume, Mark was not willing to say whether Angels would be dressing the second series. But we guessed...
Some of the warehouse is devoted to fancy dress, an increasingly important part of the business, with Book Week and Halloween engaging school pupils and their parents more and more. But the largest space is occupied by items which may well be important in 30 years time: current clothing.
A display board listed the 36 Oscars (so far) that have been won for costumes, the earliest being the 1948 'Hamlet', but also Gigi, Cleopatra, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic..... Television is also important, from 'Heartbeat' to 'Games of Thrones', not to mention 'Downton Abbey'.
Finally we say the armoury, and had a chance to see how impossibly heavy real mail and plate armour are, and what substitutes are used to enable actors to do their stuff without collapsing.
All in all, this is a wonderful place, for anyone who has ever watched TV, a film, or a show. We will all be looking closely at the detail from now on. And thanks, Mark!