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Rodney Holt, Designer & Set Builder

October 19, 2021
by the gentle author

It was my great delight to meet Rodney Holt of Mojo Productions, the creative mastermind responsible for London’s most famous window displays, at Fortnum & Mason for the past thirty years. This bright-eyed genius with a shock of white hair flits around his workshop in Brentwood, Essex, grinning excitedly as he oversees his extravagant creations and encourages his minions just like Father Christmas in that other fabled workshop at the North Pole.

Rod and his team of specialists were putting the finishing touches to the Christmas window displays before they were transported to Piccadilly. The walls were lined with huge wooden frames, the same size as the shop windows, and each one was filled with a sequence of exotic animated confections, rotating lobsters, flying puddings, champagne fountains, exploding crackers and a train set circling eternally. All around lay fragments of former displays, including golden carriages, giant nutcracker dolls and the man in the moon.

Wandering around this bizarre interior was like exploring the unconscious imagination of Santa himself – the workshop where dreams and fantasies are manufactured. Yet Rod’s crew of painters and model makers worked placidly at their tasks despite the phantasmagoric contents of their workplace. Readers will be relieved to learn that everything is under control for Christmas.

Rod & I retreated to his office, where a row of miniature shop windows contained the working models for this year’s displays. Here Rod told me his story and I was fascinated to learn how this overflowing of flamboyant creativity has its origins in the craft traditions of old East End.

“I was born in Bethnal Green but my family moved out to Essex after the war, when I was still a baby. There were jobs in Essex and my dad went to work at Ford’s in Dagenham and was there for forty years. Mum had ten children, so she was quite busy too. Her full name was Amy Rosina Goldring, so we think she might be Jewish. She came from an interesting family – one of her brothers was in the film industry in the early days, one did back-to-front sign writing with gold leaf, another had an accordion band in West End, The Accordionnaires, and her mother was a court dressmaker.

Dad was one of ten brothers and most of them worked in Spitalfields Market, some were traders but others used to make carts and barrows in the Hackney Rd. My dad was a French Polisher who kept a horse in Gibraltar Walk and used to make furniture deliveries on a flatbed cart. I remember him telling me that he used to deliver as far as Hampstead.

I left school and went to Hartley Green College, doing a course in Display & Exhibition Design. My career officer told me I should be a council tiler, that was the nearest they could get to an artistic career. So I said, ‘That’s no good,’ and I think it was my art teacher at school who suggested I do this. To be honest, I wanted to be a sculptor or a potter, but there were not many options then. If you wanted to be a potter, you worked on an assembly line in a pottery. I was at college for a couple of years and I did not learn a lot but I sorted out what I wanted to do. They did a day release scheme and I got sent to Selfridges in Oxford St. I got on well with everybody there and they said, ‘You’ve got a job here after you’ve taken your diploma.’ But I went to Paris instead of taking my diploma. I stole a mate’s bike out of an alleyway while he was away at university in Manchester and cycled off to France. When I came back, I went straight to Selfridges.

At Selfridges, I told them I knew nothing about fashion, so I could not be fashion dresser. I said, ‘I’d like to do all the toy windows and all the gardening windows,’ because those were the things I thought I could be more creative with. I was nineteen years old and they let me loose. I did one display where I had all the teddy bears marching out of the window which everybody liked. My idea was they were fed up and walking out. I got on alright there but I thought I do not really like this much. I wanted to join the team in the big studio up in the roof. I used to get on very well with all the guys there. After eighteen months, a couple of Australians who worked there and had come over land said, ‘We’re all fed up now, we think we should go off somewhere on a trip.’ I said, ‘That sounds good to me,’ and we went off to India. Mr Millard, the Managing Director, asked me, ‘Are you sure? Because the others have gone, you could move up the ladder.’ But I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go up the ladder, I’d rather go to India.’ He wished me all the luck in the world.

I only had a hundred quid but I made it to Kashmir by hitch-hiking, where my sister sent me another thirty quid to get home. It cost me six quid to get from Istanbul to London and I sold my blood to do it. When I got back, it all fell into place. Selfridges welcomed me back to work on the Christmas windows. I was lucky because it was the first time they were trying a different type of window. They did a set of windows that had no stock in them but told a story instead. The designer Peter Howitt had just finished the film of Alice in Wonderland and he was able to buy the sets. They gave us an old factory in Kensington where we sorted the scheme out. Pete asked for me, he said, ‘I’d like Rod because he doesn’t want to do window dressing really.’

Working freelance, I did all sorts – shops in the Kings Rd and themed pubs, clubs and bars. I worked for Peter on the original London Dungeon too. They gave me a mini with ‘London Dungeon’ on the side and an iron coffin on the roof! I had to be careful how I drove that about. I had quite a few contacts at Pinewood and Shepperton so I was able to purchase some great old props. We used to work overnight in the Dungeon and the stuff that happened was unbelievable.”

Rodney Holt, Designer, Set Builder & Model Maker

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. jan royal permalink
    October 19, 2021

    This does bring a smile to your face, happy times – brilliant!!

  2. October 19, 2021

    So, now Christmas can come!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  3. October 19, 2021

    What a wonderfully rich history of this creative man. I applaud him, and remember that gold coloured lobster, because I took a photo of it in situ myself. So good that big names took you on trust ‘back in the day’

  4. October 19, 2021

    I’ve always loved the Christmas window displays at Fortnum and Mason, now I can put a face to those amazing creations.
    What an interesting and inspiring story.

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 19, 2021

    I used to do a lot of work for Rod back in the day when the Fortnums Christmas windows were much more ‘zhushy’ (i.e. with more decorative girlie stuff like brocade fabrics and braid).

    He is lovely to work for, and I’m always impressed with the attention to detail and care he puts into all the window displays whatever their style.

    Also fascinating to read about his colourful East End family background, and good to know that his creative genes have been passed onto his daughter Amy (the blond one in the photographs).

  6. October 19, 2021

    The joy this bloke gives is unforgettable.

    Thank you Rod and Gentle Author.
    Andy

  7. Lizebeth permalink
    October 19, 2021

    In this age of darkness and drab restricted life; in this age of Google and Amazon, it’s always such a TREAT to look at Fortnum’s windows, then to go inside and purchase even a few little extraordinary treats. Thank you for this glimpse of one of those who make it possible to brighten our holidays. And thanks to him, and his wonderful crew. And to Fortnum’s!

  8. October 26, 2021

    Rod and I used to work together in Selfridges and we and the whole of the display department set off on ‘THE TRIP’ – we went as far as Greece with Rod before he left for India. Haven’t seen him in over 32 years and it’s been a delight to know that he has done so well…..Bill Gleave 07802349585

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