Adrian Benge on organising a birthday party for The Queen and making flying harnesses for Superman, as told to Helen Triggs
It was Harvey Smith who inspired me to try saddlery making. I was a member of the Royal Corps of Transport Band at Aldershot and we played at Horse of the Year Show and the Royal International. One year I was asked to look after the foreign riders’ room (although it was mainly British riders in there). I watched Harvey Smith stitching a bridle and it sparked my interest.
I went to the King’s Troop barracks in London and I spent time in their workshop. After that I asked if I could learn. The army bands used to finish work at 12pm so I would leave Aldershot and drive to St John’s Wood and I learned my skills there.
I love the saddlery work as no two jobs are ever the same and I like to do things with my hands. My wife Sheila and I set up Buttons Saddlery in Surrey in 1973 while I was still in the army and built up our saddlery business. We had stands at the major horse shows and it could be a bit hairy if the band was opening the show. I’d then work a stint on the stand before rushing off to beat the retreat.
I have been a Queen’s Warrant holder for more than 20 years. Terry Pendry, The Queen’s stud groom and manager, had moved to Windsor and asked me to help out with repairs and supplying new items. After nine years, the Crown Equerry asked why I’d never applied to be a Warrant holder but I didn’t know it was something you applied for.
The application deadline was looming and the office didn’t know if there would be time, but happily it was approved.
I go to Windsor on Monday mornings and often The Queen will be in the yard and she always chats. She doesn’t forget anything. If you say you’re going to do something and you don’t, she remembers.
As president of the Windsor, Eton and District Royal Warrant Holders Association, I organised an 80th birthday party for The Queen. She was supposed to stay for 30 minutes and stayed for two-and-a-half hours. I was with her introducing people, so I wouldn’t have an alcoholic drink. When The Queen left she made sure her page brought me over a large glass of whisky.
A chance repair of a flying harness for use in a children’s commercial led to many jobs at Pinewood Studios. I was asked if I would be interested in working on the Superman movie and was invited to lunch at Pinewood. I was shocked to find I was lunching with the producer, the director and Christopher Reeve.
I had my own workshop on site for Superman and Superman II, and I worked on Indiana Jones and the first three Star Wars films. It also led to work in the theatre and my safety harnesses have been used in Cats, Phantom of the Opera, We Will Rock You and Lion King.
This year I made some harnesses in February and then the production was halted. Some of the harnesses will have to be refitted if the actors have put on weight in lockdown!
Eight years ago I had a heart attack caused by overwork. We closed the shop nearly three years ago and I now concentrate on my saddlery work for The Queen and the film/theatrical work.
I’ve also returned to my musical roots and now play with five bands, some as principal flute. I’ve also done 12 jobs with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. My old army band was disbanded 25 years ago. We reformed 12 years ago and give a concert every two years, and have raised £12,000 for military charities.
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 November 2020
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