of London. Cameras were set up all around the area. One was on top of the Swan and Edgar department store (now the site of Tower Records) located between Regent Street and Piccadilly. It gave an aerial view of the traffic as it wound its way around Eros. Other cameras were arranged at street level to get shots of the flower seller and newspaper vendor and the hundreds of people who promenaded up and down one of London's busiest tourist areas.
From a roof garden on top of Swan and Edgar's store, the presenter reminded viewers that normally a pre-recorded film of Piccadilly Circus would open the programme but today they are actually there. Amongst the crowd somewhere is Mystery Man David Berglas and he has promised something rather unusual. The camera at the top of Swan and Edgar's swung around, looked down at Piccadilly Circus and picked David out of the crowd. He stood near the Pavilion Theatre in front of Eros, the famous statue, amidst the noise of the traffic. He acknowledged the camera then turned to look at the activity around him; the cars, the people, the lights. Then he stretched out both arms, in a grand magical gesture, and called out "Stop." All the traffic stopped. The cameras at street level caught the moment. The newspaper vendor and flower seller were silent, frozen in action. The neon advertising signs had stopped flickering. The traffic had come to an abrupt halt. A cyclist was frozen in space, his wheels apparently glued to the road as he sat there motionless, supported by nothing. Pedestrians too had stopped. The cameras spotted a dog on a leash, as immobile as the lady who walked it. And from above, the camera looked down on an eerily silent Piccadilly where all life had come to a standstill. It was an astonishing sight.
Only David Berglas moved. He made another magical gesture and said, "Carry on London," a phrase that usually concluded each broadcast. Bit by bit Piccadilly Circus came to life. The dog continued its walk. The newspaper man gave his familiar call, then the flower seller added to the growing cacophony with her cry. Neon lights flickered, the cyclist rode on and little by little the sound of traffic grew and vehicles and pedestrians were once again on the move. And the television show began.
Revelations: The method behind this madness stemmed from David's work in Variety. He toured the halls for several years working with many different types of acts and two in particular sowed the seeds of inspiration. One he made friends with when he toured the halls with Dickie Valentine in 1954 and 1955. It was a bicycle act called The Three Helios. They were from Austria and performed wonderful routines incorporating balance and trick cycling. A feature of the act was an unusual stunt in which a member of the team cycled across the stage and when he reached the centre he and his bicycle suddenly froze. He came to a halt on the spot and remained there, refusing to topple over while the cyclist appeared not to move a muscle. It was a moment of supreme skill. It was a moment David never forgot.
Another type of act that served as the basis for the Piccadilly stunt was the dog acts that appeared on the Variety circuit. David had watched all kinds of dog acts and they all fascinated him. One act, Reg Russell and Susie, encouraged him to train his own dog Tricky in later years. There were a number of such acts working. (One dog even froze while cocking its leg!) but for the Piccadilly stunt it was another dog act that provided inspiration, Mandy and Sandy. Sandy was a dog that came to a halt on command and wouldn't move a hair until the trainer gave it permission. David thought that if the bicycle and dog acts were put together they could form the kernel of a stunt in which time appeared to stand still. When he was booked for In Town Tonight David called the acts and recruited them to a team that would help bring central London to a halt.
He also recruited a small regiment of friends, car owners, taxi drivers and pedestrians all of whom were prepared to be at Piccadilly Circus on the appointed day. The friendly flower seller and the newspaper vendor also agreed to participate in the stunt. The neon signs in Piccadilly Circus were a different problem. They were either on and moving or switched off entirely. Switching them off seemed the best option but as they were all owned by different companies it was difficult to achieve. However, David knew the owner of one of the signs and he agreed to switch it off for a few moments whenever David gave the signal. One light was enough.
David had done as much as he could in ensuring that nothing moved in Piccadilly but for the stunt to be effective he also needed the co-operation of the television crew. As the producers had as much invested in the success of the stunt as David they readily agreed to his simple requirements. David told them his plan without telling them exactly what he was up to. All they needed to do was remember to keep a camera on that neon sign, watch out for a cyclist, remember to focus on the taxis, newspaper and flower seller and so on. Basically he made sure that the cameras were focussed on the areas he had most control over and guaranteed the producers that if they did that they would have the most effective shots for the programme.
When the big day came David's friends circled Piccadilly Circus in their cars and taxis until they saw him give them their cue. Suddenly they brought their vehicles to a halt and the traffic behind them, which included some of London's famous double-decker buses, was forced to stop, effectively creating gridlock in the city centre. The cameras found the taxis and the taxi drivers obligingly grimaced, mouth agape, as if frozen at the wheel.
The trick cyclist, balanced on his wheels made another good picture. He stayed like that, without wobbling or toppling, suspended in space. The dog provided another great camera opportunity, apparently straining at its leash but going nowhere and looking more like a piece of taxidermy than a real live hound. The one neon sign that the camera pointed to suddenly went dead. More of David's friends took part in the stunt, stopped walking and took up stiff mannequin poses. Real pedestrians stopped too, wondering what had happened. As they gazed at the traffic and looked at the frozen figures among them they unwittingly added to the scene of an inanimate London. From the top of Swan and Edgar's department store, Piccadilly Circus had come to an eerie standstill.
It remained motionless for about half a minute and then David gave the signal to move. But here again there was an extra touch. Rather than move all at once David thought it much more effective if they came to life one by one. It gave the viewers another opportunity to appreciate the various magical moments and ensured that the cameras would remain in their place until the entire effect was over. First the dog snapped out of its trance and continued its evening walk, then the newspaper man woke up to sell more papers, a taxi driver unfroze and a neon light flickered to life. Gradually Piccadilly Circus came alive. Only the statue of Eros remained unmoved.
The stunt was incredibly ambitious and a huge success as far as the production team was concerned. Everyone was very pleased that it all went to plan and envisaged that it would make a remarkable opening for the show. But in the world of television plans change constantly and In Town Tonight never used the footage they had taken so much trouble to produce. As far as David knows it still languishes in the studio archives, a lost illusion. The consolation for David was that he had accomplished what he set out to do and at the time that was enough. The next idea was already on the horizon.
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