Written by Roger Allen
My life in the world of newspaper photography started at a picture agency in Guildford Surrey.
After a short stint on a building site I took a job in the darkroom of Southern News Service, aka Cassidy and Leigh, a news and picture agency serving the national daily and Sunday papers from the home counties.
My job was that of a general dogsbody in the darkroom serving the six photographers – mostly running prints to Fleet Street offices.
After a short while I brought my first camera, a Nikon. When times were busy I sometimes got to take pictures.
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One quiet morning in May I was ripped from the safety of the darkroom to go on a suburban safari.
Peter Cassidy, one of the bosses, bellowed up the stairs, ‘Roger, grab your coat and come with me.’
During the journey, which was taken at breakneck speed in my boss’s Vauxhall Victor estate, I asked Pete what we were going to Woking for. His reply was something of a shock. He said in a very normal, matter-of-fact way that there was a fully-grown male lion on the loose. I looked at him and could see he was not joking. I sat in silence for some time before saying, ‘Don’t expect me to catch the bloody thing.’ Pete made no reply.
In fact, I was there as a messenger boy. Once the story had been photographed, I’d be taking the film to London.
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The drama had started to unfold about thirty minutes earlier when one of the reporters had been doing a round of calls to all the emergency services asking if there was anything horrible, dangerous or funny to report. He was getting the usual ribald comments like, ‘If we did you’d be the last to know’, followed by a few seconds of banter.
That was until he got the Surrey fire brigade on the blower.
‘Hello it’s Southern News Service here. Anything for us this morning?’ asked the bored chap, thinking only of his bacon sarnie going cold by his coffee cup.
‘Yes, yes we have,’ was the hesitant reply.
‘Oh yeah, what is it?’ asked the reporter with a flicker of interest.
‘Well, it seems there’s a lion loose in Woking town centre. Any more details we’ll call you.’ The call ended and the reporter ran down the narrow staircase to tell Don.
Don’s reaction was one of suspicion but he told the reporter to check with the police. The police confirmed that they had a report of a large animal sighted in Woking, but wouldn’t confirm it was a lion.
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As we drove into Woking we saw two policemen running with what looked like guns down one of the streets leading to the main shopping area. Pete swung the car up a one- way street the wrong way to try and catch them. We found nothing. They seemed to have disappeared, which I thought was a very sensible thing to do. A quick drive round yielded no sight of the beast. Pete rang the Guildford office from a phone box and was told to go to an office block on the Chertsey Road.
As we pulled up, there was a small group of about seven people standing at the bottom of the steps leading to the front doors of Brook House, the HQ of an insurance company. They all seemed to be entranced, in a state of shock.
We jumped out of the car, walked up to the group and asked about the lion.
‘Excuse me, was there a lion here earlier? We’d been told about a lion on the loose.’
A man in a grey suit turned to look at us with a very mournful look on his face. It was some time before he replied. When he did, it made no sense at all.
‘The man took him back on the bus. The big blue bus.’ As he stopped talking, somebody came and patted him on the shoulder.
‘It’s OK, Tony, the ambulance is on its way,’ the woman said in a reassuring tone.
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I started to think the poor bloke had had a breakdown, thought he’d seen a lion and rung the police. That was until a policeman came out from the building to announce that Mrs Parker had just woken up and asked for a cup of tea.
‘What the bloody hell is going on? Could someone tell us what happened?’ asked my boss in a very forthright manner.
The policeman looked at him and said in a very calm voice, ‘Well, Mrs Parker was walking along Chertsey Road on her way to work, talking to her friend, Mr Read. He had just said how much he liked her new leopard-skin coat.’
A hush fell over the small group as we craned forward to hear the real version of events.
The copper started to talk again: ‘It was as she approached the steps that the lion jumped on her back’. He paused and looked up; everybody willed him to go on. ‘It would seem that the lion was travelling on a double-decker bus which came to a halt in the traffic queue waiting to go round the roundabout. He spotted Mrs Parker in her new leopard-skin coat, walked to the footplate at the rear of the bus and leapt though the air, landing on her back, pinning her to the ground.’
The policeman stopped again, coughed, looked embarrassed and blurted out, ‘He then started to try and mate with her as she lay on the ground.’
He paused for a second.
‘The owner of the bus ran to Mrs Parker’s rescue, pulled the animal from poor woman’s back, dragged him across the pavement and back on to the bus, and drove off. We have no idea as to the whereabouts of the lion or the bus. Mrs Parker is in a state of some distress, but has now come round from her faint.’
The policeman, realising in the excitement he had said too much, turned and ran back up the steps, slamming the door hard behind him.
The group stood in stunned silence trying to take in what the bobby had just said.
Tony, the man in the grey suit who was in a state of shock, began to laugh nervously and said, ‘The lion tried to shag her. It was actually trying to shag her.’ He was off in a world of his own.
Peter, realising we must get to the woman, ran at the doors of the office block, but his way was barred by a security guard who made it very plain that he was not coming in. He ran back down the steps grabbed me and sprinted to the car.
‘The lion, the bloody lion! We must find it,’ he shouted.
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We sped off to the roundabout heading towards Chertsey. As we crossed a bridge, I looked to the right to see a big blue bus parked in a children’s playground.
‘It’s there! The bus, there in the playground,’ I squawked.
Peter spun the car round in the middle of the road with no regard for oncoming traffic and roared into the playground. We pulled up alongside the bus. It looked as if it had been abandoned.
We got out and looked through the windows. There, right at the front of the bus, was a bloody great big lion.
‘Jesus Christ, he’s a big bugger,’ I muttered.
Peter grabbed the Bolex cine camera from the car as I got my Nikon. The lion took no notice of us at all. He was more interested in getting the fake leopard skin out from between his claws following his failed attempt at mating with Mrs Parker. I took some pictures though the window. The click of the shutter must have caught his attention because the beautiful beast turned to look straight into the lens.
Pete was busy round the other side of the bus, filming though the opposite window. As he walked round the back of the bus he put his hand on the two closed concertina doors and to his surprise, and my horror, they sprung open. The lion, which had returned to the job of claw cleaning, slowly looked up at the now-open doors.
Pete and I looked at each other with that ‘Oh shit!’ expression. But when we looked at the lion again he was back to his cleaning programme.
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Half a minute went by, then all of a sudden Peter said, ‘In you go. He’s all right.’
‘In you go? In you go? You must be bloody joking,’ I protested.
‘Look, stand in the doorway, let your flash off and see what he does. If he makes a move jump off and we’ll slam the doors,’ Peter insisted.
I looked at the lion still sitting there, facing me. He had not moved from the long seat but he now sat in an upright position. He looked even bigger now, but he took no notice of the pair of us.
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I stepped up on to the footplate, held the big grey head of the flashgun above my head, levelled the camera to my eye and pressed the shutter. The flash did its job and let out an explosion of light. I quickly glanced over the top of the camera to see the reaction of the huge feline sitting thirty feet away.
Nothing. He had not moved. He was blinking a bit having looked right at the flashgun, but apart from that he was totally unconcerned.
Peter joined me at the rear of the bus and started to film the lion. At this point the lion leapt down from his perch and started to stretch his long front legs out down the aisle. ‘Jesus Christ, he’s going to attack,’ I thought, but no, he just turned round, hopped back up on to the seat and continued to observe us with fascination.
It soon became apparent that our friend the lion was tame.
He had never seen the great open hunting grounds of the Serengeti, and had never run at full speed, leaping on the back of a fleeing antelope to bring it to ground so he could provide dinner for his pride of cubs. No, this very handsome old chap was the Kenneth Williams of the lion world, more content to sit around performing for school kids and summer fetes. But in a way he had done his job of being king of the jungle because he had terrified the whole of Woking town centre.
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Mrs Parker had, by the end of the day, been photographed holding her fake leopard skin coat. She adorned the front page of every paper in the country and many more around the world.
Shane the lion had also become famous because on all the front pages was a smaller picture of him looking very regal and aloof.
The cops and the RSPCA had eventually managed to coax him from the bus without the use of a tranquilliser dart. He left ‘Leo’s safari bus’ with great dignity. As for the owner of the travelling safari bus, he was charged with endangering the public by transporting a wild and dangerous animal. I would have thought the bus he was driving was more of a danger than the lion he had on board.
After a mad dash round the picture desks time was rolling on, I was starving hungry, I took myself of to the legendary Mikes Café on Fleet Street for a slap up meal of good English fare.