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HISTORY - a work in progress

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The Grips Branch and the position of grip, as we know it today, did not exist in the early days of filmmaking. The studios were unionised under the umbrella of NATKE, (National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees). A grip in those days was nothing more than a nail basher and a labourer, an odd job man employed by the studios. With the closure of the studios in the 70s, such as MGM in Borehamwood, the grips would now have to make their own way by going freelance.

Grips, at this time were still thought of as part of the construction crew, who should return to the strike gang after principal photography was over, pulling out nails and burning wood on the back lot. These outdated views were hard to shift in some quarters, including the union.

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Gripping was taken to new heights of innovation and inventiveness by the early pioneers such as, Jimmy Dawes, Pat Newman and Dennis Fraser. As film makers became more and more ambitious, so did the means to achieve those more ambitious shots and a few of the most experienced grips decided to form their own branch.

How the Grips Branch came to be.

It was in the summer of 1984, (There had been several attempts over the years to break away from the old NATKE general craft branch and form a separate grips department). When a few of the grips got together and issued an ultimatum to the union. All they really wanted was the recognition they deserved, and the ability to set their own rates, terms and conditions.

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The now considerable expertise they had and the contribution to the industry, now needed to be recognised. The first meeting of the new branch was held in the Wellington Pub, not far from the studios in Borehamwood. The founder members at the meeting were as follows. Colin Manning, Tony Rowland, Dennis Fraser, Jimmy Dawes, Brian ‘Ossie’ Osborn and Terry Kelly. Tony Rowland became the first branch secretary as he joked, he was the only one who could do joined up writing. So the decision was made to pull away from the union and the general craft branches and form a dedicated grip branch.

Tony Rowland, Colin Manning, John Flemming, Derek Russell and Paul Brinkworth, met with the Uxbridge general craft branch secretary Sid Thorley. It was a difficult negotiation but ultimately the power was in the hands of the grips. Finally after some persuasion they relented and agreed to recognise the grips in their own right.

From that point the first officially recognised branch meeting was held one Sunday morning early in 1985, at Grip House in Greenford. Leaflets were posted all round the studios to create a buzz and get the word out on the street.

There were only around forty grips working in films at the time, the TV guys were all still staff at this point. They titled themselves rather grandly, ‘The Grips Branch of Motion Picture and TV Commercials Grips’. This was quickly dealt with at the first meeting and changed to ‘The Grips Branch.’

The Chairman for the first meeting was Jimmy Dawes, the Branch Secretary; Tony Rowland, Treasurer; Terry Kelly and the committee as follows. Brian ‘Ossie’ Osborn, Colin Manning, Nick Pearson, Billy Geddes and David Cadwallader.

Grip House

In 1981, Dennis Fraser formed Grip House, a rental company by Grips, for Grips, with partners Tony Cridlin, Kenny Atherfold, David Cadwallader, Jimmy Waters and Chunky Huse. They rented a premises in an old stable block at Mr Lighting around the back of Kings Cross Station in London. Tony Rowland was the first person to be asked to work there. They then moved around the corner to Brewery Road into a disused abattoir. Cobbled stone floors, leaking roofs, no heating or running water. This is where they started to build their own grip equipment. 

After much success, the next year they moved into a proper premises in Greenford, West London. Although Grip House was a rental company, it was responsible for many innovations in grip equipment over the years it was in business. One of the things that transformed the environment for Grips were the fixed arm cranes that were designed and built for Grip House. They were modular cranes and could be built and dismantled pretty quickly on a tricky location, or half built and wheeled into a stage. The Python and The Boomslang were two of note. 

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The Python Arm transformed the way action sequences could he filmed having the ability to mount a remote head on the nose, so the camera could be positioned in what before had been inaccessible places up high or below the fulcrum point. It was also one of the first cranes which could be mounted on its own tracking vehicle. It was designed for the movie 'Champions' and used with a Hothead to track with the racehorses over jumps, mounted on the El Camino. 

The second was the Boomslang, a man ride crane which was mounted on a sturdy base. The Boomslang operated with ease, gave a smooth and stable swing and jib, had a good stop and was also simple to assemble and de-rig.

Both cranes were popular with both grips and camera operators, they were safe and reliable and, gave the grip confidence in the way they were engineered and built.

With all of these innovations, and with equipment getting more and more complex, safety became one of the biggest concerns for the Branch as the years went on. More and more stories of crew being unnecessarily injured, and some fatal accidents, especially where camera cranes were concerned. By this time the studio system had gone and the older grips were retiring and nobody was teaching and passing on their knowledge to younger grips. As there was no continuity of training since the studios had closed, grips were starting to be trained by Grips who had never been trained themselves. 

Denial crept in about safety requirements and no one was really pushing for an improvement in this area of film making. The total lack of industry regulation meant that grips were regularly being pressured into taking unfeasible risks. Experienced Grips would relate to tales about production staff and directors who would flagrantly ignore the advice they were giving, and even their written risk assessment, in pursuit of more and more dangerous shots.

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