By Jeremy Miles
Never judge a book by its cover. At a glance Ron Howard looks for all the world like just another senior citizen. A dapper 87-year-old quietly enjoying a leisurely retirement in Dorset.
Yet wind the clock back 40 years and Ron was at the centre of what was hot and happening. The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Cream...he met them all. The stars of Swinging London literally came to his door.
And should he invite you into his home on an upmarket estate with neatly-clipped lawns and chintzy curtains you will find an extraordinary archive that reveals his life as a key photographer on BBC Tv’s Top of the Pops.
From 1964 to 1972 Ron photographed hundreds of acts taking pictures not only on set but also in the dressing rooms.Often these would end up as pin-up shots in the classic teen girls magazine Jackie.
“Gordon Small the editor would come down to the BBC once a fortnight to see who we had coming up that he could use in the magazine. I must have shot dozens of those,” says Ron.
Leafing through his extraordinary collection of photographs Ron stopped at a print of The Beatles. Shot in colour - a rare occurrence in the Top of the Pops studios in 1966 - it captures the band mid- performance. Originally there were dressing room pictures too. “I shot three rolls and sent the films straight to Jackie. They paid me £12-a-roll which seemed OK at the time but I can’t imagine how much they would be worth now. I did try getting the negatives back but no one knew where they were.They said they’d been swapped with other magazines. It was just one of those things.”
Ron remembers huge excitement when The Beatles, who only made one live appearance on the show to perform Paperback Writer, arrived at the studio. “They came in with a whole security team, they even had food-tasters.” He says people ask him what the Fab Four were really like. His reply often disappoints. “They were very nice,very pleasant and very professional but I never got a chance to really know them. They were just The Beatles. In all I probably spent about an hour with them.”
Ron has happy memories of his time working on the legendary programme and certainly isn’t into digging the dirt. The Stones he says were “real gentlemen,” The Who who came in with their manager Kit Lambert were “lovely to work with.” The Kinks were “great”. The Beach Boys were “smashing” and Stevie Wonder was “a real laugh”. Ron remembers the blind Motown star breaking the ice by asking if he could borrow his camera to take some pictures of his own.
So no wild men of rock ‘n’ roll, stories then? “There’s plenty dirt, it goes with show business,” replied Ron. “I could tell you stories that would make your hair turn blue, but I’m not going to.” Most of the groups, he insists, behaved impeccably. “Being on Top of the Pops was important to them. They wanted to make a good impression.”
He admits that occasionally performers could be “difficult” and mentions a household name, a star who still enjoys a thriving career. “Absolute nightmare, disliked by everyone!” said Ron. before adding: “That’s absolutely off the record.”
He has some amusing recollections though: He recalls being taken aside before photographing obscure R&B band Jimmy Powell’s Five Dimensions and being discreetly told “Don’t concentrate too much on the singer. He’s got a very rough voice. He’s not going to be with us for long.”
It was a story he retold with some glee half-a-dozen years later when that same singer, Rod Stewart, arrived at Top of the Pops to perform his hit Maggie Mae. “Rod really laughed about that when I told him.”
Ron’s personal favourite was Karen Carpenter. “I really liked her. She gave off a sort of aura of sincerity and thanked you every time the flash went off. She’d say “Thank you for keeping me where I am.”
Ron landed the Top of the Pops job after the programme’s senior photographer Harry Goodwin offered him £7-a-week to hire his darkroom conveniently located just down the road from the TV studios to process the after-show stills. Although entirely self-taught Ron, who had started out as a schoolboy with a one-and-sixpenny camera from Woolworths, had established a thriving career as a photographer and a reputation for taking showbusiness publicity pictures.His clients were often young up and coming actors and musicians including Phil Collins, Jack Wild and Nicholas Lyndhurst.
The deal worked well and it wasn’t long before he was invited to make the famous Top of the Pops end-credit captions. Within weeks he was an integral part of the team working alongside Harry and using his trademark custom-built Albanflex camera. Ron still has this massive Heath Robinson style twin-lens, medium-format monster, a prototype that looks like it might have been knocked up in Steptoe’s Yard but has brilliant optics and a near silent shutter-action. Proudly showing it to me, Ron said: “I had a Hasselblad but the clunk it made when you took a picture was horrendous. I always preferred this.”
Already in his 40s when he started working on Top of the Pops, he admits that many of the young musicians regarded him as something of an authority figure. “They were usually very respectful but occasionally you’d get a group who would be reluctant to respond to a request to be photographed. “It wasn’t a problem. We had these two gorgeous girls that we’d send to knock on the door and say ‘Ron and Harry would like to come and take your picture.’ It worked every time. We used to call them the group pullers.”
After leaving Top of the Pops, Ron went on to regularly photograph guests on the Parkinson show including huge international names like Orson Welles and Mohammad Ali. He also worked for 17 years on the Robert Robinson hosted quiz show Ask The Family.
The only time he recalls being overawed by a subject was when he found himself face to face with one of his all time heroes, Bing Crosby. “I couldn’t believe I was in the same room and talking to him. I was literally shaking.”
The photo-session was far from successful. “I tapped on his door and the moment he saw the camera round my neck he said ‘Well you can put that away’. His head was like an egg. He’d got no hair at all. The hat he wore on stage had a kind of wig attached to it and he just wouldn’t be photographed without it.”
When Ron finally retired he and his wife Joyce - who celebrate their Diamond Wedding on August 16 - set their sights on a house in Dorset. The couple had long enjoyed caravan holidays in Merley near Wimborne and loved the area. Their house in Ferndown proved the perfect choice. But retirement certainly hasn’t meant giving up photography. Ron still has a home studio. and darkroom and is a keen member of Ferndown Camera Club. He’s even been asked to take regular pictures at Mayoral functions, though he tends to use a digital SLR these days rather than his old Albanflex.
He says he originally chose Dorset as a holiday destination because photographers in London had told him that it had the best coastline in the country. He wasn’t disappointed. “Joyce and I love it for both the coast and countryside, it really is unbeatable.”