Dennis Stone, Heathrow's longest serving resident photographer, opens up about the airport's transformation and his images of celebs across the years. An exclusive e-mail interview. MURALI N. KRISHNASWAMY
H e's taken some of the outstanding pictures of the original stars of Hollywood: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, the Beatles …
His portfolio moves on to the modern era with Goldie Hawn, Princess Diana, Robbie Williams, Kate Winslet and Michael Jackson. And then the offbeat: the Queen's famous Corgis getting off an aircraft.
We are talking about London Heathrow Airport's longest serving resident photographer, Dennis Stone, who was recently honoured for his 64-year tenure. The airport published a book with a unique collection of his images. (It has also handed over to him a key to the airport, giving him freedom of the terminals.)
Titled A Life at the Airport: A Heathrow Photographer, it is a documentation of his journey with the stars he has met. Excerpts from an exclusive e-mail interview:
The airport's literary experiment continues! First Alain De Botton. Now your book. Did the first give rise to this one?
No … A Heathrow Photographer is about championing my career at the airport and preserving and sharing the unique stories and moments I have captured along the way.
You have had “an astounding 64-year career”. High points?
I secured the ‘vacant' postboy position at 14 at the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), which eventually merged with British European Airways in 1974 and became British Airways.
Every now and again, armed with my Box Brownie, I would take pictures of aircraft or passengers running to get their flights. It wasn't until I was 20 — after I had finished National Service — that I began to focus on taking pictures around the airport. In 1953 I was made a junior photographer for the press department.
My most memorable photo was taken on an inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight from Las Vegas. I asked a stewardess who always looks after Eve Branson, Richard's mum, whether she had a spare uniform. Eve used to be a stewardess on British South American Airlines. I said, ‘Eve, why don't you put on a red uniform and become a stewardess on your son's aeroplane?'
So she got ready and went downstairs. Richard was seated in economy as he often does, nattering to one of his managers. Eve came down to wait on him and said, ‘Excuse me sir, would you like a drink?' He went, ‘Oh!' He laughed and said, ‘Thank you, Dennis. That was rather nice'.
He has a copy of the picture, of course, and so does Eve.
Many of them you know very well ... almost considered family …
I have got to know many celebrities over the years. Joan Collins is a good friend. I think she likes the fact that I am one of the few people older than her! I used to play squash with Tommy Steele and often shared the odd drink with the likes of Peter O'Toole, Oliver Reed and Richard Branson.
Liz Taylor is just wonderful too. I've photographed her so many times that I promised to take her out for her favourite meal of sausage and mash, then take her on an open-top bus round London because she'd never done that. It's our joke.
What about members of the Royal family?
The royal family are frequent flyers and I have had the privilege of photographing them through the years, including the corgis. They especially tend not to stop and pose, making my window of opportunity to get a good shot shorter than usual!
I used to see Sarah (the Duchess of York) a lot though and I got to know her quite well over the years. She even asked for me once. I felt almost embarrassed.
Other interesting moments?
I have been lucky enough to see Heathrow grow from a small airport into the world's busiest international hub. In the old days there were Argonauts, Stratocruisers and Super G Constellations; most with piston engines that I could identify by ear. And there was just a handful of airlines and planes rarely carried more than 60 passengers.
Transatlantic flights departed once a day and took 12 hours; that is, if they arrived in New York at all and didn't have to turn back! People wandered freely to the plane and welcomed incoming flights from the side of the tarmac, which made my job relatively easy. One of the first I captured was Cliff Richard in the late 1950s, as he boarded his first flight to New York with his then manager Tito Burns.
The BBC's “Airport” was a hit TV series. Your insights and your contributions?
I was in the first series and the early programmes were actually written around my activities as the ‘grandfather' of celebrity photography. It was good fun but, to be honest, I much prefer being behind the camera, not in front of it.
What have the 64 years been like?
Nothing short of a complete privilege. Of course there have been moments when I have had the odd rude remark from a sleep-deprived celebrity but everyone's allowed an off day!