RED’s Senior Partner, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, Designer’s Notebook. In this first installment, Railton explores his early childhood, and the lifelong passion for drawing that grew out of that time. From his earliest scribbles while still in his crib, to a childhood spent immersing himself in the natural world and characters around him, the seeds were planted that led to an international career that has encompassed theatre, film, television, live shows, concerts, Olympic productions, themed attractions, innovative retail and more.
Designer’s Notebook shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.
When I reflect on the many unexpected turns and incredible opportunities that have come my way over a life in art and design, I can trace so many of the themes, influences, and inspirations to my “unlikely beginnings” growing up in Zimbabwe, forty miles from the Victoria falls and the great Zambesi River. I am the last in a line of British colonials. In 1891, aged 18, my grandfather was Lord Randolph Churchill’s assistant on an exploratory trip to a place in Central Africa called Monomotapa.
The reigning king, Lobengula, was the son of the great warrior King Mzilikazi who had fled South Africa and founded the Matabele nation. Mzilikazi had conquered and enslaved the local Shona indigenous peoples, but his son, Lobengula, had been educated by missionaries and was kindly disposed to white people, so it was not difficult for the colonials to out-maneuver the mild son of the warrior King and raise the Rhodesian flag. As the kid in the group, my Grandad was the designated messenger to Lobengula and spoke of him fondly. When Queen Victoria sent a black wheel chair to the King as a gift, it was my grandad’s job to repaint it red because black was not considered an appropriate color for the king.
After a few years, my grandfather left to seek his fortune but came back in the thirties, bringing my 21-year-old father and my grandmother with him. We have a family story of Grandad causing a ruckus when a “pimply-faced youth” (a customs officer!), dared to ask him for his passport at the Limpopo River crossing—the very spot where thirty years earlier he had set up a dinner table, replete with a white table cloth, silverware, and river-cooled Champagne for Lord Randolph.
In the intervening four decades, the country evolved from Iron Age technology to having golf courses and country clubs! My grandparents had originally come to grow tobacco but by an amazing coincidence my father found a gold nugget as big as a match box and staked a claim that he called the Nugget Mine. It was alluvial gold and for the first year the mining was done by women sitting under umbrellas, picking through the sand of a dry stream bed and filling up jam tins. This story was told to me in the seventies by an old timer who had been to the famous mine. He asked if I was traveling around the world on my father’s money. If only!
A Movie Star Comes Calling
My first awareness of show business came from the family retelling of an incident that happened before I was born. In 1935, a British motion picture company came to shoot ‘Rhodes in Africa’, the story of Cecil Rhodes’ adventures in founding England’s African colonies. The film starred Walter Houston and a young Peggy Ashcroft. Our family mine was selected as one of the important locations because it was next to Rhodes’ Ndaba Tree that allegedly Cecil Rhodes had sat under with King Lobengula when he negotiated the gold rights for Queen Victoria.
During the filming, my newlywed Mum and Dad invited the stars and director to a lunch. According to Mum, Peggy Ashcroft was a “glam young thing” at the time, with a leopard skin coat draped over her shoulders. Dad was over-flirtatious with the gorgeous starlet, much to my Mum’s annoyance. Dad had two pet monkeys that caused great excitement for the film crew. He called the monkeys down from a tree and sat one on each of Peggy Ashcroft’s leopard skin-draped shoulders. We think it was something to do with the leopard skin that triggered the monkeys to let fly at the same time with a disgusting squittery poo down the back of the Leopard skin coat before they jumped back in the tree. Mum would tell this story with triumphant glee!
A Victorian Upbringing
When World War II began, my Dad volunteered for the Rhodesian Air force, serving for five years in Persia and North Africa. My sister was born in 1936 just before he left and I was born the year he returned. I also have a younger brother 14 years my junior. In his isolation from any modern vernacular, Dad adopted all of his parents’ Victorian attitudes and colonial colloquialisms, using words Like ‘pukka’ (the real thing) and ‘walla’ (a man). ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ was one of his sayings that irritated us kids, although what was most irritating was my sister, myself, and my brother being introduced as ‘Pre-war’, ‘Post-war’ and ‘After thought.’ Despite growing up in the late forties and fifties, there was a distinct Victorian coloring to my childhood. My Dad and his parents always referred to England as ‘home’ even though they had lived in the colonies all of their lives.
While Dad was fighting the war, my grandfather was supposed to renew the claim for the Nugget Mine but he was traveling at the time and the claim was snapped up. This was our family’s hard luck story because the mine was really rich and is still being worked!
When Dad returned from the war he had no means of support, but because of his service he was given a couple of government gold claims. The first one had no gold and after the second one flooded in a storm, the family moved to a farm “in the middle of nowhere” in North-west Rhodesia. It was in a district called Nyamandhlouvu, which translated means ‘Elephants meat.’ Buda “C” Farm, as it was called, was on the Great Northern Railway line that stretched from Cape Town to Cairo, Africa’s answer to the Orient Express.
My earliest memories are from growing up on that farm and even as a child I was aware that I lived in Paradise—not so much, however, for my Mum, Dad, and sister. Having been born in Rhodesia, I didn’t feel English or European—I was more in tune with the African culture. I loved the bush, the animals, and our mud-daubed pole house with a thatched roof, a hand-drawn well, no electricity, and a party line phone that we shared with five others. When the phone rang it was a huge event. Everyone within hearing distance had to count the rings: three longs and two shorts and the cry would go up for the sprint to pick up the phone. In the rainy season, some of the house wall poles would sprout and tree limbs would grow from the living room walls. Once during a storm, my Mum was taking a bath and the entire water laden bathroom wall fell on to her. Little wonder that she yearned for hot and cold running water and a pull chain toilet.
At first, the bath was a zinc tub that was brought in and filled with water that had been boiled on a wood burning fire in the kitchen out house. Later we had an enamel tub with running hot and cold water—as long as the staff had been alerted to fill the 44-gallon gasoline barrels and start a fire to heat the water. The toilet was an outhouse built just past the wood pile so on the journey back we were trained to bring an armful of wood to the main house. Mum would always carry a cat on the way out so that if an animal such as a leopard attacked, the theory was that she could throw the cat at the leopard and while it was distracted, duck into the outhouse and blow the whistle that hung inside the door. We never found out if the plan would work, but the tough African farm cats loved the extra cuddles.
The farm was in Ndebele territory so I grew up speaking a pidgin version of Ndebele. In the tribal culture, little boys had to herd the goats from about the age of four till puberty. After puberty they had to herd the cattle. However, I do remember Alexander, a little eight-year-old kid wearing only a WWII flight jacket that hung off his shoulders and came to his knees. He made a huge, white long-horned ox cower in fear as he shouted orders at it and beat it across its nose with a blade of grass.
From about the age of five, I was turned over to the kids in the goat herding crew, while Mum and Dad were pioneering the raw land to turn it into a farm and a livelihood. I was ‘the little weird white kid’ who all of the Ndebele felt sorry for. They thought that the way I looked was like a plucked chicken and it took them a long time to realize that I could see out of my blue eyes that were not blue because of cataracts!
The Ndebele kids I grew up with were never cruel to each other but always kind and loving. In my gang, the two oldest boys were thirteen and twelve and they had to go through the African bush herding the goats and looking after a group of kids ranging from four to their age. Every morning after breakfast, my Mum would say “Look before you leap and don’t put your hand in any holes,” and I would head out to find my gang. I had a pair of dirty ragged shorts that I kept at my friend m’Funyani’s parent’s hut and I would take off my ‘white peoples clothes’, fold them up, put on my shorts and join the gang. It was a raggedy group of all sizes and shapes wearing a mixture of tribal Umabechu which was basically a loin cloth, rejected WWII bits of uniform and flight jackets, ripped undershirts and animal skin vests. We would walk for miles in wild bush and nothing bad ever happened, no animals attacked, no snakes ever bit and no bones were broken. To me the bush was a safe and nurturing place. After a day of crawling through rock and caves, sliding in mud holes and rolling in the dust, I could return home with crisp clean clothes and not get into trouble. My plan was perfect and my parents never caught on.
I slept on a screened-in verandah. One morning when I was about nine, Anna, our cook brought me morning tea, and as she stepped onto the porch, I opened my eyes just in time to see a Caracal, an indigenous wild cat, that somehow had got into the verandah and was sleeping in a chair. It exploded with a hiss and ran around the verandah twice before the screen gave way and it shot into the bush. Anna got such a fright that she threw the tea tray in the air and it crashed to the ground as the Caracal burst through the mosquito screen.
Another time we had guests and I was sleeping on the sofa in the living room. I woke up to a swishing sound, then a thud. When I opened my eyes, all I saw was the back of five cats about two feet from me. They were facing a cobra that was alternately rising up and striking at the cats, but because of the slippery floor, the cobra would fall flat—that was the ‘thump’. I yelled and my dad came running in with my BB gun that could not even shoot a pellet through a geranium leaf. He dispatched the cobra with a quick golf swing, holding on to the muzzle and smashing the cobra with the BB gun’s wooden stock.
When I was ten, I was climbing up a hill on the corner of our property and as I lifted myself up over a rock I looked right into the face of a leopard. We stared at each other for a long scary moment before the leopard turned, snarled and bounded up the hill while I squealed and flew down the hill, my feet hardly touching the ground for a mile!
Every evening the whole family would go for an evening stroll, walking single file along a sandy foot path with my dad in front, followed by Mum, me, my sister Anna, Jane who worked in the house, three Great Danes, and four house cats. It was a family gathering that everyone looked forward to.
One evening, as we returned along the same path, Anna shrieked and pointed to our outgoing footprints that were obliterated by the imprint of a lion’s paw. The lion had casually followed us for a while and then obviously got distracted. All of us cats, dogs and humans were totally unaware of the ‘close encounter.’
Because we lived in a very remote region in the fifties, some of the local kids had never seen any white people. One day I was with my group of friends herding goats in the hay lands near the homestead. A kid came running out of the bush yelling “a car is coming! a car is coming!” Big news for us! As we ran back to the farm yard, we saw a giant dust cloud coming our way. Through the dust, a huge pale-blue car emerged, bouncing down the road like a boat. It pulled up in the yard as we all hid in the bushes and watched, wide-eyed, to see what would happen next! Out of the front of the car stepped two white men the likes of which I had never seen. They both had white hair cut in fifties flat-top style, yellow shirts, white pants and white shoes. They moved to the back doors to let “something” out of the back seat. At first I saw long, shiny purple claws sticking out the window and as the two men opened the doors, a strange being emerged and I realized it was a woman. Her blonde hair looked to me like white cotton wool balanced on her head. She had no real eyebrows, but they had been drawn on to give her a slightly surprised look. The eyes were surrounded by blue, purple and black paint. On the cheeks were two pink circles and the mouth was bright pink with little pink lines radiating outward. The closet thing I had ever seen that looked like this were some New Guinea tribesmen in an old National Geographic magazine.
My friends started giggling and pointing at me. I asked them why they were laughing and the answer came back, “That is your kind… you are going to have to have sex with girls like her when you grow up!” By this time my Dad had been called and he went out to greet them. We heard a strong Texas Accent say “We were just passing by and we want to hunt!”
My Dad agreed to take them hunting and I remember that they had guns with “binoculars” attached. I stayed home but on the hunt my Dad said that they could not even see the animals in the field, even as everyone was pointing them out. My Dad shot a Kudu bull which is the meat that we ate on the farm. He was amused because they never even saw the animal fall.
My next contact with Americans was horrifying to me. We went to the Victoria Falls for a short vacation. At sunset we took a Zambesi evening river cruise where we were served tea and scones on the pontoon. As the server was offering the woman next to me a plate of scones, she reached over to grab one and as she did, she turned to her husband and in a loud voice proclaimed “Say George, these Negros are a lot darker than the ones we have down south.” In horror, I turned to my Mum and whispered, “Don’t they know that the staff can hear her?” My Mum said, “It’s so sad… they don’t think black people are humans so they don’t care if they hear them or not.” So my first taste of real blatant racism was an American.
My Early Education
I was supposed to be home-schooled by my Mum with a correspondence course. We even built a desk together out of wood from the mill, but I hardly learned anything—I couldn’t read or write and I spoke a kind of pidgin Ndebele. Mum’s challenge was to try to show me which words were English and which were Ndebele. However, my greatest strength was that I could draw and copy any image.
Mum and Dad split up responsibilities on the farm. He was always out in the fields on the tractor–clearing land, plowing or harvesting. Mum raised the chickens, ran the trading store, the dairy, and generally dealt with all of the crises that seemed to happen at school time. I learned my Times Tables by winding the centrifuge that separated the cream from the milk or churning the butter to the rhythm of “One ‘one’ is ‘one.’ Two ‘ones’ are ‘two’…”
There were many distractions that would interrupt my schooling: a calf was being born; jackals had surrounded the hen house, breaking through the wire and killing a lot of birds; a Kudu had jumped into the cattle dip; or our local celebrity, Mama gogo Mani, had arrived at the store to do her shopping, which would require that my Mum serve her. Mama gogo Mani was very old, with only a few teeth left and dressed in rags. Her husband had been part of King Lobengula’s army.
She would come to the store with a golden sovereign and hand it to Mum who would give her the worth of the sovereign in change. For each transaction, Mum would hand her the item—a bar or soap or a cup—Mama would push all the money over to her, Mum would take out the cost and then push the remaining coins back to Mama.
I once asked her why she wore rags if she was so rich. She confided in me that if she wore her good clothes, my Mum would charge her more. At the end of the shopping day, the store tailor was summoned to sew her change into her rags. I really loved her! She would give me hugs and stroke my head with her tough, wrinkled old hands as if I were a pet monkey. She felt sorry for me with my blond hair and blue eyes, but my questions amused her and she loved telling me stories. Her old husband never left the village but would emerge from their hut in the morning and sit in the sun to warm his old bones. When the day heated up, he would move to the shade and follow it as the sun went down. We calculated that he must have been 100.
Anna was responsible for ringing the lunch bell, which was a steel pipe and bit of railway line hanging by a piece of wire. One day it stopped in mid-ring and we heard Anna yelling and then crying. We ran out and saw that she had hit one of the new farm workers, from a different tribe from Malawi, on the side of his head with the pipe. He was out cold and bleeding and she was crying because he had put a bad Mtagati, a magic spell, on her. We loved Anna as a family member so it was so sad that we had to report the incident. The police arrived three hours later, but unfortunately the worker had died and they took Anna away to the magistrate. Two days later, the police brought her back to our jubilation. She had been exonerated because, according to the magistrate, the spell could have killed her and the man had it coming to him! (It might have also helped Anna that he was a foreigner and already looked down on because he liked to eat rats!)
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy
When I was nine months old, my parents bought me crayons and put them next to my cot where I could reach them. I drew all over the walls next to my cot and basically never stopped. When I was older, my drawings were apparently so advanced for my age that the teacher who graded my homework wrote to my mother to stop helping me draw! Paper was at a premium because I could never leave anything blank and was always looking for paper to draw on. By the time I was eight, I had figured out that I wanted to be a farmer and an artist when I grew up.
Although we had a wonderful life, we were basically one cut above subsistent farmers. I had heard Mum and Dad always worrying about money, so I was alert to ways I could earn a living. Thanks to my parents’ adventurous spirit, what could have been the worst Christmases turned out to be the best. This particular year was a drought year and we had had a terrible fire. Somehow, my parents figured out early on that we would not be able to have a lavish Christmas. They presented it to me and my sister as their idea for making a particularly special Christmas by not spending any money on cards, decorations, presents, or the Christmas dinner. We would make everything from our property. Even the salt on the table came from local saltpan. The Christmas tree was an acacia thorn tree. I added glitter to a yule log from mica I found in the earth. Thus, with no money, creativity and ingenuity turned what could have been a sad and negative experience into a positive one. It was from this early lesson that I learned to bring a positive and resourceful spirit to designing projects with tight budgets.
The Art of Play (Homo Ludens)
After the war, toys were at a premium in central Africa so my Dad made some molds of toy animals from a few pre-war toys. He would cast them, paint them, and sell them—and I was the beneficiary of the leftovers. When I was six, I was given a wind-up train set. The table that my Dad built for it was only 4-feet by 8-feet, but in my mind it was huge. Dad set up the model train tracks on the board and left me to play so he could get on with trying to make a living from the farm. I was immediately engaged and began building a complete environment to scale, making the hills, tunnels, trees, houses, grass, roads, and road signs from scratch. I added the toy animals that my Dad had cast as well as some wild animals that I made out of local clay. Every detail was locally inspired as I had no other reference to draw from: the donkeys had corn bags on their backs and the hills were modeled after Kopjes, ancient rocky protrusions that dotted the grassy terrain. When I started to get compliments on my work, I became obsessed, discovering an ability to visualize and think things through by imagining myself “in” the experience: the donkeys had to get to the mill and then be tied up in the shade with enough water till the corn had been milled.
In recent years, as I’ve become more involved in Theme Park design and master planning, I find I have an easy affinity for understanding adjacencies, service corridors, view sights, habitats and organic contours—an instinct that I attribute to the hundreds of hours of play and fascination with that first scale model that opened the door for a certain intuitive understanding of what people need to have a good experience.
In 1952, my life in paradise came to an abrupt end. It was illegal not to attend school after 8 years of age. I was to be extracted from the bush and sent to an English-model boarding school and integrated into the ‘civilized world.’
I had been to Bulawayo, our nearest town, a few times before, but the trip to buy my school uniform was memorable. The discomfort of lace-up shoes, flannel trousers, and wool blazers went by in a haze. I saw a shop window in one of the two department stores with a display of mismatched dummies holding bolts of fabrics, and I remember thinking I could do a better arrangement. So I added window dressing to farming and painting as a possible way to earn a living.
During this trip, my parents left me off at the Bulawayo Museum for a couple of hours. I was in heaven and that love of museums has never left me. A few years earlier, I was walking past a small acacia bush with white thorns when I noticed a broken bird’s nest woven out of bright yellow grass. Inside were five eggs, one of which had been pierced by a thorn and all of the contents had leaked out. My artistic eye was immediately attracted to this sparkling white little egg of a Blue Waxbill. I realized that I could intentionally pierce the remaining eggs, empty out their contents, and begin a collection that would one day make me rich.
In the middle of the museum’s Bird Hall was a huge bank of drawers. I pulled one open and to my horror and joy, it was full of the most incredible collection of eggs. I realized that I was not the first to invent blowing out birds’ eggs and my plan to make myself rich with my invention came crashing down. On my next visit to the museum, I found the museum’s Director of Ornithology and he explained the importance of keeping records. I became a member of the Ornithological Society and started turning in egg records and bird check lists, which by the way, I still have, and although my dream of riches was shattered, it started my lifelong interest in ornithology.
Later, I turned my attention to art as my path to riches. In the Bulawayo newspaper there were notices for drawing competitions and during my junior year I entered every competition. I started to make good money, winning a shilling here and there and every now and then a ten shilling Bonanza.
My first year at boarding school was a painful nightmare of integration into English culture. The only thing that saved me was that I could draw better than anyone at my school, even at that young age, so art became my way to popularity and respect. Sports took me longer to understand. I had never played any sports on the farm and thought that it would be a good idea to practice running and swimming because that could help me out run or out swim any animals that might attack me, while chasing and hitting balls seemed like a waste of time.
At my first sports day, I ran in a general race and my parents were so proud of me when I took off my shoes at the beginning of the race and sped ahead of the pack. Looking back, I saw my friend, Bramford, struggling at the rear, so I stopped, waited for him to catch up and ran next to him, egging him on. My parents pride turned to embarrassment as all the other parents started to notice, saying things like ‘How sweet!’ Not exactly what Dad wanted to hear?
Despite being dragged into the white world of competition, bullying, and discipline, in the end, I had a very good, comprehensive education.
I look back at those strange beginnings on a farm near the Victoria Falls in Central Africa and I am amazed at how I ended up in show business and Hollywood!Designer's NotebookJeremy Railton