Last week, many of our members chose to experience a special event for admirers of the MG marque with the showing of the first film of the two-part documentary “Inside the Octagon” at the Alamo Drafthouse cinema. The Houston MG Car Club was heavily, if peripherally, involved in the production. As those who attended are already aware, the films were produced by Gary Watson, a past president of the HMGCC, and the interviewer was Dave Renner, another past president. We contacted them to get some insights into the production and thought many of you would enjoy their memories of these unique films.
…from Dave Renner, Interviewer:
Now, about Inside the Octagon: the main thing that stuck in my mind about my involvement in making this documentary was how prepared and carefully researched Gary Watson was. Remember, this was in the 1990s before the internet was the source of so much information (and misinformation) as it is today. He told me that he spent months writing letters and making overseas calls, which of course were very early in the morning or late at night for him to accommodate the people he was interviewing. And almost all of them were extremely gracious to spend time with someone who was clearly genuinely interested in the MG story, but unknown to them at the time.
As for my impressions when we got to England, I was excited to be part of something that interested me so much. I had been a journalist in the Coast Guard, so I had some training to do interviews and research stories. Meeting such significant MG people as John Thornley, Don Hayter, Wilkie Wilkinson (my personal favorite character), Jean Kimber Cook, Sid Beer, Jim Simpson, David Bishop and others was a thrill for me. All of them were gracious and seemed genuinely pleased that we cared enough to come to England to make a movie about what had been their lives. And seeing Oxford and Abingdon-On-Thames where MGs originated really impressed a history buff like me.
What a wonderful time it was. Gary did almost all the driving, wrestling a van loaded with three Americans – Gary Watson, Tim Himes and myself. It was crammed full of camera gear and lighting and sound equipment. And driving on the wrong side of the street to boot. Gary did ask me to give it a go once, whereupon I promptly nearly ran up on the sidewalk and terrified a lady pushing a pram. I can assure you I was easily as frightened as she was. He never suggested I take the wheel again.
Later in Oxford, Gary showed his great skill as he drove the van through an increasingly narrowing series of lanes until we finally came to a dead stop at an ancient stone wall. Our map indicated that our destination was just over the wall, but Gary had to reverse that cumbersome van back through the maze of lanes to go around to our destination. All the time he was sitting on the wrong side of the beast. Well done, Gary!
Not much more to add. It was a wonderful time and made me feel just a tiny part of keeping the MG legacy alive.
… from Gary Watson, Producer:
The first bit of trivia is that I was inspired to do the films after producing a special edition of the ROARS in 1990 that commemorated the 10th anniversary of the closing of the MG factory. I read all the MG history books that I could put my hands on and put together a 36-page history for the club.
I was working as a cinematographer for other producers at the time. I was looking for a project to produce on my own and the MG story resonated with me. I knew making a film about the MG story would be expensive and complicated, so I spent a great deal of time thinking about it. Finally I wrote letters to John Thornley and Jean Kimber Cook in care of the MG Car Club in England to see if they would participate in such a production. If either of them said no, I would drop the idea. If they both said yes, it would be a go. In very short order I received letters in the affirmative from both of them.
Using personal seed money, I booked flights for Dave Renner, sound man Tim Himes, and myself to England in January 1992. I was able to get the flights cheap because 1.) it was January, and 2.) it was just after the first Gulf War and overseas flights were in low demand. I don’t think Dave and I slept at all on the trip over and we talked MGs and MG people for the whole flight.
Everyone we met in England was delightful and hospitable. While we were filming John Thornley’s interview (which took all day) his wife was preparing a delicious rack of lamb which we all shared that evening. Mr. Thornley read a short story to us after dinner. I have forgotten the title, but it was a humorous story about (as I remember it) an English film crew trying to film an African scene in the English countryside. Of course everything went wrong during the filming.
Wilkie Wilkinson was the first person we interviewed. He lived in a small village in Lincolnshire and after filming his part we walked in the freezing cold to the nearby pub where we dined and drank in front of a roaring fire. At that moment I thought that this is what a retirement life should be like.
Jean Cook prepared dinner for us and when we sat at the table there was a plate of cheese. We all three began snacking on the cheese thinking it was hors d’oeuvres. When Jean came back with the main course she was distressed. “Oh, boys, the cheese was for afters!” Ugly Americans one and all.
Throughout the trip I had fed Dave and Tim with pub food to save money. On the last night before we flew back to Houston, we took the Gatwick express from our B&B near the airport to London for a quick tour and dinner. I couldn’t find the restaurant I was looking for, but Tim and Dave found a Mexican restaurant. After a week of pub food the guys were dying for Tex-Mex. But I was skeptical. Mexican food in London? Sounds dangerous. But the boys insisted and we went in. Turns out the place was owned by a guy from Bellaire, Texas and the food was a pretty good version of Tex-Mex.
My original intent was to make just one film. As I began editing the interview footage it became clear that I either was going to make a three-hour movie or I was going to have to split the story into two films. I chose to do the latter with the split at WWII.
Tim Himes was so taken by his visit to England that, when he married shortly thereafter, he took his new wife there on their honeymoon.
I just want to say that making In The Octagon was the experience of a lifetime. I was so glad to have Dave Renner along with me to share the experience. The Houston MG Car Club was always supportive and helpful throughout the process, and I am so grateful to all who helped make these films become reality.