Spying at the St. Ermin’s – part 2

So, it’s the big day: after arriving the previous evening into my lovely room at the spy hotel of spy hotels – the St. Ermin’s, there is the matter of TV filming to attend to. 

So on a dreich Tuesday morning in mid-June, I’ve got myself up and showered, scrubbed, shaved and all the rest, and am down at the lobby in full war dress: booted, suited, raincoat, gloves, and brolly (poison tip left at home, hehe). And yes, black sunglasses. At 7.30am. Well, if a job’s worth doing…. Although the shades didn’t make an official appearance for about another half hour (standing in the hotel lobby at half seven wearing dark shades? Even I have my limits).

Lobby, the St. Ermin’s Hotel. Suspicious looking gent in raincoat with umbrella, just out of camera shot. Photo: St. Ermin’s Hotel.

Where’s Jim and Mike? Jim’s hiding around the corner using one of the hotel pc’s catching up on emails.  One found, one to go. Mike eventually appears. Not that you can exactly miss him: trademark big red rain jacket – the cameraman’s essential companion. He’s a tall lad as well.  So the unholy trinity are finally assembled. Now all we need is a driver!

The plan is for us to be driven to a few of the locations I’d suggested in a little bit of style. Actually, that’s an understatement. Some SERIOUS style, namely a mouth-watering S-Class Mercedes, courtesy of Tristar Worldwide. Due to the absolutely foul weather dropped on London (and most of the UK) in the past 36hrs, there’s a lot of traffic disruption.  Tristar driver Paul is delayed, and we only have about 1hr 45 left to accomplish everything. Hmm…time for action.

As I’d already suggested locations in the immediate vicinity to the hotel (another reason why St. Ermin’s wins the ‘spook hotel’ accolade), I recommend we do a couple of these on foot whilst waiting for Paul and his beaut of a Mercedes (can you tell that I’m still salivating?) to arrive. Sounds like a plan. The guys grab their gear, attach a mic to Yours Truly, and off we go.

First off is Queen Anne’s Gate, to the former HQ of MI6’s ‘Passport Control Office’ section. This building was also the residence of the second Chief of MI6, Admiral Hugh Sinclair, and successive Chiefs for the next three-four decades. So, Mike and Jim reckon that it will be a great opening shot for Mike and I to walk up the street whilst I briefly introduce what went on before stopping outside. The rain is coming down, so it’s time for the full “Mr. X” effect – gloves on (yes I know, even in June!), big black umbrella opened, and yes…the dark sunglasses! No wonder there’s a bemused young female office worker nearby, trying to fathom out what exactly is going on.

Former home of MI6’s ‘Passport Control Office’, and residence for MI6 Chiefs for many years. Photo: THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

If you’ve been on the tour you’ll already be familiar with some of the other aspects associated with that address, such as Frank Foley, the MI6 Station Head in Berlin during the 1930’s. He was the ‘Passport Control Officer’ responsible for helping thousands of Jews get out of Nazi Germany (to find out more, visit the website of respected intelligence writer Michael Smith). And of course, there’s another ‘hidden’ aspect to that address. But you’ll just have to come on tour for the full details!

So location #1 ticked off. Time to head around the corner to Broadway. Across from the north exit of St. James’s Park tube station lies Broadway Buildings, home of MI6 during the 1920’s to 1960’s. I can’t exactly recall whether I waxed lyrical about Mr. Philby’s occupancy here during the 40’s, and how security was so lax. But I probably did.

So, with more office workers filling the streets, and increased traffic flow getting in the way of the camera work, the job’s done. ‘Best get back to the hotel and see if our lovely car has made it.

And there it/she is….. delicious! Yum. Paul the driver, is inside having a coffee awaiting our return, so quickly introduce myself then Mike and Jim pack their gear into the boot. Let’s roll!

Having directed Paul to head to Paul Mall, and St. James’s Square, we quickly realise the traffic around Westminster is even heavier than I anticipated. Tick tock tick tock…Darn! The guys have got to be back at the hotel for 0930 to film some real honeys (I’m playing with you, but don’t despair, all will be revealed!).

We journey up a very clogged Whitehall. I’m pointing out the Old War Office, current home of the Defence Intelligence Staff, and also associated with a certain Secretary of State for War who had trouble keeping his trousers up with a young girl in the early 1960’s. Any guesses who?

If anyone had any doubts as to the opportunistic nature of TV journalists and cameramen to make the most out of any situation, these are dispelled with, as Mike and Jim hazardously change positions in the back of the Mercedes in the middle of Whitehall to allow Mike some better shots of some of the buildings.  God knows what the passengers in the stationary bus beside us thought if they saw the outlines of two bodies in the back changing position over one another. Thank god for the tinted glass! Of course I can’t resist joking to Mike that he’d be better changing again to his original place so he can film something on this side.  For the avoidance of doubt, and legal and safety reasons, one should at this point highlight that the car was not moving at this time!

So, we arrive in St. James’s Square. There are quite a few notable buildings and their occupants. There’s the Army and Navy Club, Chatham House (home of the Royal Institute for International Affairs). There’s a High Commission or Embassy here and there also, including the former Libyan People’s Bureau (scene of the spring 1984 death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher during an anti-Gadaffi  demo). On the east side of the square, there’s the corporate headquarters of BP, and last but not least Norfolk House.

So we get our filming done there, time for our next location, located nearby.  I recommend to the others that we tread carefully, considering that there are government buildings around. Not to mention a Cabinet Minister’s official residence. There are security cameras, and the spot also gets regular police drive-arounds and a DPG presence too. Thankfully there’s no overt police presence to be seen. In fact it’s all very quiet, so no interruptions likely.

We film from afar, then decide to move position for a close-up of the building being featured.  I decide to open this sequence with a bit of a plug for the ‘Trail (and why not?!) seamlessly leading into a brief description of what went on inside, who were based here, and which treacherous little **** was slipping secrets to the KGB at every opportunity (Obviously there was no such profanity on camera!).

The segments recorded had to be quick, punchy, and to the point. Not much time for context or lengthy explanations; we were well and truly up against the clock. I’d like to think that the key points came out well, whilst still engaging the audience. Jim and Mike seem to be pleased enough with the content, giving encouragement and praise. Even on the occasions when I’d be looking at the camera when meaning to be facing Jim. Oops.

Right: job done. Time to head back to the hotel through the central London traffic with not a moment to lose. The original plan was to return to the St. Ermin’s and film another sequence or two regarding the hotel’s links with the ‘second oldest profession’. But that’s not possible now. Mike and Jim have their rendezvous with the honeys, hehe.  Yes, I mean the hotel’s resident bees, in their hives on the hotel roof. So after saying goodbye to Paul, myself, Jim and Mike arrange to meet up about an hour later to finish filming. Brilliant: that gives me time for….. breakfast!!!

Thankfully, breakfast is served until 1030, so took full advantage. As I wanted to freshen up again before meeting the guys, it was a fairly quick affair: orange juice, tea and some croissants before heading back to my room.

Much as I would love to have actually sat down on the inviting sofa , I didn’t get the time to (besides the fact that it too had quickly become a scene of clutter destruction.)

Sitting area in Executive King room at the St. Ermin’s Hotel. Before cluttered with clothing, toiletries and ironing board nearby! Photo: THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

However, as I had to catch up on one or two things, I took full advantage of the lovely desk located beside the window. It offered a nice view of the entrance and forecourt. And lo and behold, a short while later I see the guys interviewing Paul from Tristar down below. The shots of himself with the lovely Mercedes and the hotel backdrop behind him will all look great on TV I’m sure. It was a real pity that my time with Paul was so short: he’s a lovely chap, and has that air of confidence that sets him apart from others. Very dignified and professional. He recounted some of the VVIPs he’s driven around town. Needless to say I was impressed, and it got me thinking…. Ah that’s another story.

How I wish I’d brought my laptop! Great desk… Photo: THE INTELLIGENCE TRAIL

My hotel room surveillance continues as I also spy another pair of familiar faces appear in the forecourt: Tim and Pippa from Wixhill Communications, the hotel’s PR agency. They’ve driven in for something completely different which I’ve been invited to attend. I could tell you but then I’d have to….ah, that’s what part 3 is for!

Anyway, I catch up with the Jim and Mike in the lobby again, and it’s time to become ‘spy storyteller’ again, both around the corner adjacent to the entrance to the new Caxton Grill, and then in the hotel forecourt. After I thought we’d stopped filming, I continued talking to Jim about the people, organisations, and events involving the hotel and the spy world. Then when I’d finished a minute or two later, Mike informed me that it had been great – he’d carried on filming my more candid words! Maybe I should have adopted this technique for the last few hours…

Job done. The chaps were now scheduled to interview Douglas McHugh, the hotel manager. I quickly bid Jim and Mike farewell and a safe journey back to the States the next day. Then it’s time for another wardrobe change: the day is certainly not over!

So that’s almost it. But I should also end with a customary warning….but not for you Dear Reader, or for myself. No, this warning goes out to idiotic corporate receptionists/security who think they can discourage filming in a public place by shouting that such activity is forbidden. It’s not, you ignorant buffoon. Who knew that this would happen before 9am on a miserable Tuesday morning ?!

It’s funny that I never have this issue when running tours. But there’s nothing like the sudden appearance of a tripod and camera to see said buffoon come out and try his luck.

“You can’t film here, it’s illegal!”

Although not physically looking like him, I can’t help but think his demeanour and ignorance reminds me of a certain TV character from a certain 1970’s British sitcom.   “No it’s not,” replies Jim, as cool as a cucumber, looking at the twerp straight in the eye. “We’re filming in a public place.”

I even try and offer the accurate explanation that we’re interested in the building and the historical connection. We have no interest in who is in the building or walking into it. But the village idiot is having none of it. But he’s also got a modicum of intelligence to realise he’s dealing with three people who are not easily intimidated and have truth and righteousness on their side! Powerful combo.

He skulks off in defeat mumbling “Well, it’s just common courtesy, that’s all…”  Ah, so it’s an issue of courtesy is it, rather than legality? Fancy that! Somebody has changed their tune in the space of about 60 seconds!

Moral of the story: it doesn’t matter whether it’s in the school playground or decades later. You stand up to the bullies, and nine times out of ten, they back down when they know they’re dealing with informed, educated, and determined opponents. For Jim and Mike however, this is probably just another day ‘at the office’!

So by late morning, the filming was over, and the rain had actually stopped too. Hurrah! But the day was still young. After all, there was still some unfinished business to attend to in the St. Ermin’s. A rather unique affair drawing some very interesting individuals from the edges of ‘shadowland’ into the hotel…

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