'They Transformed the Quad into Piccadilly Circus' — Janice Savage, interviewed for the Oral History Project
Janice Savage; Interviewed 11 May 2012 by Max Saunders
Janice is currently Assistant Site Services Manager (soon to be Assistant Facilities Manager) for the Strand Campus for about 15 years. Started at KCL 23 years ago (i.e. c. 1989) as temporary assistant residence manager at Manresa Road in Chelsea, Lightfoot Hall; then 552 King’s Road in the same capacity; back to Manresa Road to run the Post Room; and later the switchboard. Then there was a chance to redeploy to the Strand, as site services assistant. Gradually worked her way up since.
Before she came to work for King’s on the Strand site, Janice only knew the area from frequenting the Lyceum tavern on Friday nights ‘in my dancing days’. Her earliest memory of one of these visits was of a winter evening, possibly a New Year’s Eve:
‘I’d come up with some friends for an evening out, and it was at the stage in fashion when it was quite usual to wear . . . white tights, and it had been snowing, and I always remember just before got to the steps to get into the Lyceum, I actually fell over in the snow and ended up with big black patches down the fronts my legs which obviously wasn’t very good for the rest of the evening! And I always remember the bouncer looking around at people saying “She’s not with me”! That always sticks in my head about the Strand.’
When she started work at the Strand she was struck by the size and complexity of the site, and the greater number of staff and students:
‘I came at a time when the Strand was very, very social, with staff. And I think it was around the summer time, and it was when there was . . . that ethos, there was always parties going on, departmental parties, so the first week I arrived I think I went to about four so I thought I’m in for a great time at King’s here! And that was one of the things that struck me; it was a very friendly place. There seemed to be a lot of . . . is it camaraderie? People looked out for each other. And that sort of struck me. Because at the other sites because there’s smaller populations of people there wasn’t that interaction. And I suppose a couple of the jobs as well I was sort of tucked away; I would speak to people on phones and things but never really had that face to face contact with them, whereas at the Strand it was more face to face when I initially started.’
Though her job-titles might suggest College property, Janice’s work is mainly concerned with services for people, and she’s clearly a ‘people person’ who thrives on the sociable nature of the work. What she likes most about the area is how the Strand is ‘a hive of activity’:
‘There’s never a dull moment I don’t think along the Strand, what with marches and all the sorts of things we have. One of the things I’ve noticed over the last . . . 6 or 7 years is the increase of homeless people on the Strand, walking to and fro from Charing Cross Station each day. I think that’s one of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the years [. . .] and Big Issue sellers, and charity people wanting to talk to you. And the other thing is people wanting to talk to you about your hair, that’s becoming quite common along the Strand as well. You’ve got these different hairdressing salons in competition, and there’s always somebody who wants to talk to you about your hair’.
When she talks about the street-scape she talks about the buildings in human terms too. ‘It’s got a lot of character, the Strand’; and it matters to her that it has managed to maintain its integrity: ‘if you look at the old pictures from the postcards, there’s not really a great amount that’s changed, and that’s nice to see because in areas now they’re trying to modernize everything [. . .] So that it’s nice to see it retains its character.’ She picks out St Mary-le-Strand as a favourite landmark:
‘I love the church in the middle, I think that’s a real focal point. And we also have based on site a gentleman who looks after the church and the charity associated with it. . . They actually utilize one of our rooms on the ground floor of the Strand. . . He’s been here for a few years now. . . And also . . . learning things about things like access with the tunnels. Under the Strand; actually out into the Strand. And I think there is actually a link that goes from here through to the church’.
Janice’s fondest memory of the Strand involves her good friend, the former Head Porter Joe May, who was also interviewed for StrandLives:
‘he’d been here for a great number of years, and we share a great love of old films and old music and he’s my dance partner; and when we’ve had departmental parties we’re always off dancing to something. I remember I was tasked with organising Joe May’s retirement. And it was a bit of a tough call really. But . . . a couple of the things that assisted were knowing Joe as a work colleague but also knowing Joe as a personal friend we also shared the same birthday, which was very strange . . . and . . . he knew he was having a leaving do but I don’t think he was quite aware of the extent, and the College, which was very very kind of them, and the Assistant Director of our department at the time. I’d always made a statement that if and when Joe went, there was nothing I’d love better than for him to go out to a swing band. And so I discussed it as I say with my Assistant Director and he asked me to look at how much it would cost. . . and . . .they gave me the funds to fund it. But what I did was I utilised the swing band from the orchestras associated with King’s music students. And . . .it was all very hush hush; he didn’t know what was being planned. And in the afternoon I took him off out, and he came back to a Great Hall full of new colleagues, old colleagues, people he hadn’t seen for years, to a jazz quartet. And . . . he was so busy going around talking to people that he didn’t actually sort of take on what was going on when suddenly all of these chairs started to appear at the stage end of the Hall and music stands coming out, and I remember him saying to me. He said “I got to one point and I thought, What the Hell is going on?” And then Jenny Briggs who was our director at the time . . . announcing this swing band, and the look on his face . . . it was just priceless. And we had an absolutely great evening till the very very early hours of the morning! . . But that’s one story that sticks in my mind. And again it was nice having that mix of new colleagues, old colleagues, being there. Just that sense of togetherness of people. [. . .] And we actually had the first dance, on our own, in front of hundreds of people. He retired at the end of March . . . Four years ago now. . . It’s amazing where the time’s gone!’
Not because there’s a settled routine – far from it:
‘I don’t really have a typical day, and with the best will in the world, when I try to structure my day it never goes to plan because of the kind of services I and my team try to provide, sometimes we have to be very reactive. So what my job does do is allows me to sort of facilitate and meet people . . . quite regularly. When I did the other jobs I was always providing a service of some kind, but they were quite static, things you would expect to be provided. But one thing I love about my job at King’s College – I actually love working at King’s; I have my moans and groans like everybody else does, yes, obviously things have changed over the years, but the thing I love about what I do is that I feel as a team we do make a difference, and we can always improve … to make a bigger difference to people, to the site users, and the students. I get a lot out of it. I get a lot of satisfaction out of what I do. Some of my previous jobs – a bit mundane. I didn’t have to use my brain. My job challenges me, which I like. . . I have senior management. I can bring my ideas to the table. I’m dealing with projects. . . . I don’t get the time to get bored.’
It’s in the nature of Janice’s work that her department gets called in whenever anything unexpected or bizarre happens, or any unusual problems arise. She spoke about Rag Week incursions from students at the nearby LSE ‘running throughout the College setting all the fire extinguishers off’, but said they had stopped now because ‘the last time it happened it got quite out of control, to the point of where we had site users that were absolutely petrified. And they did a lot of damage’. One Strand image she said stuck in her mind was of a Rag Week streaker being apprehended:
‘I always remember this one guy running in one year absolutely stark naked, through the Strand Reception and at the time we had a security guard whose name was Andy; but he was like an Amazon; he was about seven foot tall. . . I walked into the Reception and obviously saw this young man, and he just went to run down the stairs to the First Basement and suddenly you just saw this big hand reach over and go onto this young guy’s shoulders, and he turned round and looked at the security guard and thought better of it, and just exited the same way that he’d come in. That’s the kind of thing we have to deal with. Fortunately enough not naked people on a daily basis [. . .] Obviously because we are a bit open we do get some odd people [. . .] I remember we had one lady who used to come in and have a shower in the first basement. And you always knew she was there because she used to sing Abba songs while she was in there.’
At the tea before our interviews I’d caught just one word of an uproarious conversation between Janice and Dot Pearce (another StrandLives interviewee): ‘MICE!’. I felt I had to ask. . .
JS: ‘Mice love this building for some unapparent reason. Again I think a lot of that is down to the age of the building, the fact that we’re built on a series of tunnels. . . we do frequently have mice, but it seems they’ll start here, then move to Drury Lane, then they’ll come back again. . .’
MS: ‘As long as it’s a King’s building!’
JS: ‘Yes, as long as it’s King’s. . . It’s one of those things that we can never prevent, but we try to manage it in the best way possible.’
‘We had a rat in a filing cabinet drawer. And I remember the department called; it was down in Physics. And they said about this rat in the filing cabinet. They had this habit of leaving the fire exit door open, and obviously because that leads down to the Embankment and you’ve got the water, and they called me to tell me they had a rat in the bottom of the filing cabinet. And I said I’d call pest control, because it’s an outsourced service. . . I always need to sort of explain to people, it’s not something we can solve straightaway because we have to call people in. And then it must have been about an hour later I got a phone call from the department saying they’d had to send the office user to the hospital to get a tetanus injection, and I said ‘Why?’ and they said ‘Well, the rat bit him’. And I said ‘Well, How did rat bite him?’ And they said ‘Well, he opened the drawer and tried to hit it with a scaffold pole’. And I said ‘Well, to be honest I think I’d bite you if you tried to hit me with a scaffold pole!’ But fortunately enough they were OK; not too much damage done. [. . .] ‘The other thing that really gets me when people always have mice: the amount of times it’s been said to me ‘oh, you’re not going to kill them are you?’, and I’m ‘Well, what would you like me to do with them’. ‘I’ve got a little room ‘ – and I’ve actually said it to people obviously that I’ve known a number of years: ‘I’ve actually got a little room out the back with a sofa for them to chill out on, you know, until they need to go somewhere else.’ As I said, like anything, you can only try. And we do do our best. . . Whenever people have got issues, we try our best to solve them. And if we can’t solve them, we’ll usually find somebody who can.’
Q: ‘King’s obviously has a lot of famous people coming in and out. Do you have to deal with any of those?’
‘Oh yes. [. . .] Tony Blair, when he was still Prime Minister, when we had the entrance hall suddenly looking like Gatwick Airport, because they brought in the walk-through scanners, and they brought in bag search machines, I should think I must have had three quarters of the Met Police here, the Anti-Terrorist Squad with their guns, that was an interesting evening. It’s quite funny, because that was the one night when I realised that Tony Blair wasn’t as tall as I thought he was. And he also looked very orange after his make up session.’
We returned to the challenges she faces at work, and Janice said that it was great the College had people who wanted to come and hold their events here, but sometimes it felt like the site isn’t actually built for the events booked in it. ‘We do a lot of “firefighting” in our department’, she said, recalling when the BBC descended to film Michael Morpurgo giving the Dimbleby Lecture in the Great Hall in 2011, and how exacting they’d been about lighting, and needing help when some of their equipment didn’t work. A fonder memory of a media incursion into the College was her description of the filming of The Importance of Being Earnest (2002):
‘I actually stood next to Colin Firth because I came in for the filming. And they actually transformed – and I would say that that’s the one film company that I’d definitely work with again, because they were absolutely amazing – they transformed the quad into Picadilly Circus; and … to see [it] was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. To look at it how it is now, and then to look at it through the eye of someone . . . from a different century was absolutely amazing. We had the horsedrawn buggies going up and down, and they actually put a backdrop at the gate end of the terrace. . .’
But even the magic of computer-generated back projection wasn’t enough to dislodge Janice’s practical knowledge of the location:
‘The only thing that threw me at the time was that they’d done a backdrop but I didn’t think you could actually see this area from Piccadilly Circus.’