After the war

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Although the war continued for another five years, the conflict would not directly affect Peter once the Germans turned their attentions away from RAF targets and onto London when, for 76 consecutive nights from 7th September 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the capital and other cities across the UK.  The effect of ‘The Blitz’ was devastating, with over 40,000 civilians killed – more than half of this number in London – and over one million London homes were destroyed or badly damaged.

Young man in a suit mid-late 1940s
Peter Mayhew mid to late 1940s carrying a camera | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

At last, the war in Europe ended on 8th May 1945, less than a week after Peter’s 16th birthday, but, having lived with the Booths at Funtington Lodge since he was 10, he would never return to live with his birth family in Tooting, South London.  Despite the 12-year difference in their ages, he and Zach Booth had become very close although it’s unclear whether their relationship was surrogate father/son or something more complicated.  In April 1947, Zach qualified as a pilot and his Royal Aero Club certificate confirms his occupation as Assistant Film Director with a home address of 32 Peel Street, Kensington, London W8[i] where he had been living for at least a year.[ii]

Peter had been entranced by photography and cinematography since he was a very young boy and Zach, who had travelled to Australia and America as a photographer before the war[iii] [iv], certainly had the experience and contacts to help facilitate Peter’s ambition to pursue a career away from the building trades of his father and others before.  It is likely that Peter was staying at 32 Peel Street too, although, as he was under 21, he was not included on any Electoral Register.

Around 1947, Peter was called up for National Service, a new compulsory peacetime conscription for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 30.  He opted for the RAF where he hoped he would not have to carry a gun and might, at best, learn something useful about engines and machinery.  I believe he spent a miserable eighteen months’ training then serving as an aircraftman second class (AC2) – the lowest rank in the Air Force – and, although he was disappointed not to have the chance to learn to fly, he was very relieved to be excused from guard duty as he suffered from flat feet. 

A bonus of National Service was a regular income and, at a time when unsecured personal loans without security were being widely offered by banks and other lenders, Peter applied for and was surprised to be offered a bank loan which enabled him to buy his first motorcycle, a Royal Enfield.  During the war sales of motor vehicles and spare parts had been strictly limited by the Ministry of War Transport, but since hostilities had ceased permits were no longer required for motorcycles, however petrol would remain rationed until 1950.

Group of RAF personel late 1940s
Peter Mayhew (back row far left) with group of RAF personnel | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

After completing his National Service, he returned to the house in Peel Street, a three bedroomed terraced cottage near Holland Park.  Various census returns confirm Zach Booth’s residency at this address from 1946-1954, usually with two or three other housemates – both male and female – who tended to stay just a year or two.  In the late 1940s, a shared household was extremely unusual, and the occupants would have been considered by many of the older generation not to be leading a moral life according to the constitution of the country, when the overall emphasis was on rebuilding Britain as a society based upon home, family, and traditional values.  However, at the same time, the country’s cultural diversity was increasing as, before and during the war, political and religious refugees, and displaced persons from across Europe, were offered shelter and subsequently settled in Britain.  Peter and Zach’s wide circle of friends included many from a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, who would remain close friends throughout their lives.

Meantime, Peter had succeeded in finding work as a freelance junior editor based at Walton Studios near Shepperton in Surrey.  In those days, there was no established route into the film industry nor apprenticeship scheme, so he started as a second assistant editor, learning his craft by supporting first assistant editors who, in turn, supported the film editor on any project.  Basically, a second assistant editor was a ‘gofer’, running errands and often doing mundane and tedious jobs in the cutting room.  Progression within the industry was a matter of hard work, a good network of contacts and a great deal of luck to learn the skills necessary and keep in regular employment. 

Walton Studios had existed since the end of the 19th century and, like most film studios around London, had been commandeered by the government for the duration of the war.  Initially this was for storage but following a direct hit to their factory at Kingston-upon-Thames only five miles away, the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft company moved here and built two new ‘hangars’[v].  By the time Peter started working there, the studios had three stages, including the two new aircraft hangers[vi]

As a junior, one of Peter’s tasks was operating a film edge-numbering machine which was an essential part of the cutting room.  The film ‘rushes’ came to the editor as two separate reels with the pictures on film and the sound on magnetic sound film and the first task of the editor’s assistant was to synchronise the individual shots on the film with the related sound on the sound film. This was done by aligning the frame showing the moment the clapper hit the clapper board with the frame on the soundtrack where the bang started.  The two films were then clamped in a synchroniser and cut to the same length, then the next shot was synchronised, added to the roll, cut to length and so on, through the roll.  As the clapperboard was cut off in editing, and both film and soundtracks were likely to be cut and reassembled in various ways during the editing process, it was vital to be able to ensure that every shot remained in synchronisation.  Once the rushes were synchronised, each film reel and accompanying sound reel would be put through the numbering machine.  The picture and sound films would be set up to start at exactly the same frame then run through the machine together so that identical but incremental numbers were printed in white ink along the edge at regular intervals on the two rolls. Different sets of numbers were printed for each pair of rolls.[vii]  In this way, the editor could check that sound and picture were always in synchronisation at any stage in the editing process, which could take weeks.

Film editing itself is, basically, the art, technique and practice of assembling shots into a coherent sequence. The job of an editor is not simply to mechanically stick pieces of a film together, cut off unwanted bits of film, or edit dialogue scenes, but to creatively work with the layers of images, story, dialogue, music, pacing, as well as the actors’ performances to effectively “re-imagine” and even rewrite the film to craft a cohesive whole.  Editors usually play a dynamic role in the making of a film[viii].

A fellow junior from the time, Jim Connock, later recalled that whilst working together they also had a lot of fun at the studios.  When Peter used to do the numbering in a room adjoining make-up a young Petula Clark, child star of British films during the war and later a popular singer and composer, asked him who the man that made ‘clicking noises’ was.  She was introduced to Peter, and they became very good friends, often singing duets together[ix].

AA membership card with photo
Peter Mayhew’s AA Membership | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

From the house in Peel Street, Peter and Zach managed to maintain a hectic social life of hosting and attending parties and clubs.  Peter, who played drums using brushes rather than sticks – a technique probably learnt during his time with the Booths – was becoming actively involved in the emerging British jazz scene and he’d also developed a passion for fast cars and motor racing.

Zach and his family were neighbours and contemporaries of the 9th Duke of Richmond, Freddie March, a well-known amateur motor racer of pre-war years, who transformed the disused RAF airfield at Westhampnett, Chichester, into a road racing circuit.  In an interview with the West Sussex Gazette, the Duke said, “You cannot stop young men wanting to go fast on four wheels and at Goodwood we intend to provide an outlet for the natural exuberance of mechanically-minded youth”[x]

Peter was thrilled to be one of the 15,000 spectators who attended the first professionally organised post-war motor racing event in the UK in September 1948.  The Chichester Observer excitedly reported on the event with a front-page article “Motor Racing Thrills Goodwood Crowds” and that “More Goodwood Meetings a Certainty”.  The paper noted that a certain Stirling Moss, who had celebrated his 19th birthday the day before, entered his Cooper in the under 500cc class and won by at least a third of a lap.  In the paddock, after the race, he was seen cutting up a birthday cake on the bonnet of his midget car.[xi] 

Goodwood 18 September 1948 | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

The Duke’s investment certainly paid off and Goodwood Motor Circuit became Britain’s most prestigious circuit for eighteen years from 1948-1966 during which time Peter would attend race meetings as often as he could.

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[i] Ancestry: Great Britain, Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates, 1910-1950 [database online] last accessed 26 Dec 2021

[ii] Ancestry. London, England, Electoral Registers, 1832-1965 [database on-line] last accessed 26 Dec 2021

[iii] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 11

[iv] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at San Francisco, California; NAI Number: 4498993; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Record Group Number: 85

[v] last accessed 27 Dec 2021

[vi] ibid

[vii] last accessed 27 Dec 2021

[viii]  last accessed 28 Dec 2021

[ix] Jim Connock, Chairman ACTT Editorial Section, FTT Oct 1980

[x] West Sussex Gazette 12 Aug 1948

[xi] The Chichester Observer 25 Sep 1948