“I’ve got everything to live for”
Meet Bill, one of our sheltered housing residents.
He’s had a singalong in an air-raid shelter, played a giant gorilla on the big screen and been around the world eight times. Now one of our residents Bill is happily settled in a quiet Hammersmith haven with everything he needs (plus a few new grandchildren to keep him busy).
I used to live in a bedsit just around the corner from here in Rylett Avenue. I’d walk past John Betts House every day and think, “That looks like a nice place to live.” I never dreamed I’d live here myself.
I happened to meet a lady who lived at John Betts in my art class, and she told me there were units available. And that was it. I can’t believe I’m living in such a comfortable place in my old age. This is the centre of London, but it’s so peaceful. You can hardly hear a sound.
Where I began
I can remember when London went through the Blitz. I was living in Scotland at the time. We never saw a single plane, but if an air-raid siren went off in London, a siren would go off in Brechin as well. If the Londoners were hurrying into their shelters, then off we’d go too – quick march. We’d have a good singalong, and even lessons if a teacher was in the shelter. And you’d be in trouble if you were caught without your gas mask. It’s a bit like today. Now, I think: if we all pull together like we did back then, we’ll win this war too.
I got my first taste of cinema in those days. Every Saturday afternoon we went, and it was always packed solid. Two pennies to get in. I loved ‘cowboys and indians’ sorts of films like the Lone Ranger. Since then, acting has been my life. I’ve been in about 100 films. I started at 15, and one of my first roles was playing one of Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist. Eventually I made a bit of a name for myself as an arch-villain, I think because I was tall, had black wavy hair and a deep voice. I played Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster on stage. It was fun; everyone likes to be scared, from a safe distance.
My most famous role was Konga, a 1961 sci-fi horror film directed by Herman Cohen. It was about a giant gorilla which ran riot and I had to wear an ape suit for six hours a day, 10 days straight. I did most of the scenes on my own against a blue screen, chasing people, bending over houses, causing mayhem. Jess Conrad was one of the stars of the film. He was terribly good-looking and all the girls were mad about him. I had to kill him, which didn’t make me very popular.
Film-makers find it pretty hard to get 80-year-old actors, so I was still doing about a day a month on films up until last year. The last one I did was Stan and Ollie. But I’ll be 90 soon and I’ve had enough now. I’m quite happy just watching.
There were a few breaks from acting: I was called up for national service and sent to Egypt around the time of Suez Canal troubles. I worked in the Forces broadcasting service. I quite enjoyed it, but all that sunshine and sand! It was like being on a beach for a year. There wasn’t much to do.
I was also an entertainment officer on P&O cruise liners and I travelled around the world eight times. I organised cabarets and dances – and yes, of course I got involved too! I saw Rio, Sydney, New York… But do you know the place that I found most exciting to sail into? Southampton. Coming back home.
A peaceful haven
I never imagined that I’d finish up in such a lovely place. John Betts House has got everything you could want. When I wake up in the morning, the sun comes streaming in through the big windows. There are huge gardens right outside, and you can smell the flowers in my room.
I always say that when you get past 60, you develop a personality – everyone here is really interesting. People are friendly and happy to chat if you want, but they also mind their own business. There are always things to do, if you want to: social activities, coffee mornings, quizzes. I’ve been on trips to Bath and Winchester, and up the canal on a boat. I’ve also taken up painting in the last 10 years and that has kept my artistic juices flowing.
Things are a bit different at the moment. But this feels like one of the safest places in London. We are in an enclosed community, so there is no need to go out if you don’t want to. Occasionally I get up very early and go for short walk, when nobody’s around.
I’ve got three children but up until a few years ago there were no grandchildren. Now I’ve got two, with another one on the way. It’s like waiting for the number 7 bus. But it’s absolutely thrilling – I’ve got everything to live for.
Find out more about our sheltered housing
We provide beautiful and affordable sheltered housing in our almshouses, with award-winning communal gardens.