Meet Alan Matlock, community actor in The Shadow Factory and volunteer for the Out of The Shadows project.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a retired English, French and Drama teacher. I’ve worked in Hampshire for 35 years and in that time I’ve been engulfed a little bit with singing and dancing in school, performances and choir.
When the chance came to audition for The Grapes of Wrath at Nuffield, I began to find that the backstory was as of much interest as the show itself and the same thing held through when I was successful in getting in on The Shadow Factory.
Can you tell us about being part of The Shadow Factory?
Being part of something that was evolving and changing even a couple of nights into the preview was a brilliant experience. I came in the next morning and Howard Brenton had completely rewritten the ending, and people who saw the show the first few nights came again and saw it a second time. The success of it was brilliant, to be in a show where you looked at the booking page on the website and almost every seat was taken every night! But the backstory led me to wanting to know more.
How did Out of The Shadows come about?
Out of The Shadows grew out of my own personal interest in the story of The Shadow Factory both locally and nationally - which is reflected in the Spitfire. A lot of people in Southampton didn’t know about the Spitfire or the strength of its local connection to Southampton City.
The Out of The Shadows project started before the show ended. I’d already done a bit of research on the various families that were in the show, whether they were real or fictitious, or whether the places that were mentioned were real or not.
I’ve got lists of where all the different dispersal sites were, which came to be known as shadow factories, but many of them have no precise addresses. You’ve got Sholing Stores, Botley Road. There isn’t anywhere called Sholing Stores now, so what was it before? I’ve even heard that instead of Botley Road, it might have been Botany Bay Road. There’s parts of historical research where you think, hang on a minute, am I going up a wrong path here? Is it a wild goose chase? Am I hitting the buffers because the information, although its official, is actually wrong? And it’s all part of the fun of looking into it.
I managed to track down a big country house that was owned by Sir James Bird, the owner of the Spitfire company and he built a hut in the grounds for the local ladies of Wickham in East Hampshire. They would come every day, sorting rivets into different sizes and different piles. And the thought that there were these people who were just devoting their hours of every day to, as they saw it, winning the war. They weren’t building spitfires, but sorting rivets so that somebody could use those to build a spitfire, it was all part of the process.
The other thing that really triggered my interest was that I ended up playing the fictional part of Mr. Botley from Botley Stores, a convenience store, selling all sorts.
Alan as Mr. Botley in The Shadow Factory
My mum and dad were living up in the Midlands during the war, running a grocer’s shop. I was kind of reliving family history. It was weird but wonderful at the same time and it kind of connected me with a time before I was born, in my mum and dads life, that perhaps otherwise I would not have been able to emphasise with so closely.
Alan's father and shopworkers
I’ve heard first-hand accounts from people who walked up the High Street the morning after it had been blown apart, and they couldn’t recognise where they were. The High Street was so badly damaged, and like we did in the play, people went out of the city at night into the countryside to escape the danger of being in the city and you can understand why when nearly 700 people were killed by the bombing.
Going into schools with Out of The Shadows, phase one of the project on board the double decker was brilliant as well. There was a visit we did to a school on the edge of Totton, and the kids there were caught unawares by the Nuffield actors who burst into their classrooms blowing whistles and waving truncheons, policemen “saying we’ve come to take over the classroom to build Spitfires!”. They took them out onto the bus and showed them the film, introduced them to all the different characters who were connected with the story and then asked them what they knew about the Spitfire, and so many of them had connections and with the one out at Totton. I told them about an incident where a timber yard was bombed and said that there were anti-aircraft batteries opening up all along the shore, first of all at Calshot, then Hythe, then Marchwood, and Hounsdown, and Hounsdown was the name of their school, so I said “anti-aircraft battery? Hounsdown, does anybody know anything about that?” and I was amazed. Loads of hands went up, “what do you know?”, I asked “it’s in the corner of our school field!” one of them said.
The Toynbee School
It’s a powerful, local story, but I love the way in which it also, as it does in the play, spreads to a national level, with the air command involved - Beaverbrook coming down from London, Churchill on the phone. The high level connections are in there as well as the local level of families, who got really conflicted by their desire to do the right thing and support the war effort, but also protect their family and the conflict between looking after your family and doing your bit for the country, I can understand so much more now. It’s a very powerful aspect of the play.
I am looking forward to coming back. It’s great to have been involved and even better that it’s coming back again!
To book to go on a Spitfire Stories tour click the links below.