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'I just miss him so much.' Fresh family tributes to 'very loving' Rex Garrod

PUBLISHED: 16:22 13 April 2019

Rex Garrod with robots Cassius, right, and Kaos, plus scores of admiring children who flocked to see the stars of the TV show Robot Wars visit The Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket   Picture: KEITH MINDHAM

Rex Garrod with robots Cassius, right, and Kaos, plus scores of admiring children who flocked to see the stars of the TV show Robot Wars visit The Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket Picture: KEITH MINDHAM

Doctor Who, An American Werewolf in London, Roland Rat's car... So many TV shows and films benefited from this larger than life inventor's creative spark

Rex Garrod and Martin Smith, from the BBC's Robot Wars, at Norwich Inspire Science Week in 2001   Picture: Natasha LysterRex Garrod and Martin Smith, from the BBC's Robot Wars, at Norwich Inspire Science Week in 2001 Picture: Natasha Lyster

Doctor Who, An American Werewolf in London, Roland Rat’s car... So many TV shows and films benefited from this larger than life inventor’s creative vision and engineering skills

Rex Garrod, left, riding at Foxhall in a 1971 match betwwen Ipswich Witches and Long Eaton  Picture: DAVID KINDREDRex Garrod, left, riding at Foxhall in a 1971 match betwwen Ipswich Witches and Long Eaton Picture: DAVID KINDRED

The label “larger than life” doesn’t seem adequate for Rex Garrod, who died this week at 75. A comment he made to us 20 years ago proves the point. “One day I was making armour and I was going up the street on a unicycle with a 12ft-long lance and not one single person even glanced at me.

Rex Garrod among some of the spare parts in his 'conservatory'   Picture: Clifford HicksRex Garrod among some of the spare parts in his 'conservatory' Picture: Clifford Hicks

“Then, just as I was passing the allotments, someone called out ‘Morning, Rex’. I took my helmet off and said ‘How did you know it was me?’ and he replied ‘No-one else does things like that’.”

Not in Mickfield, the village near the A140 that seemed a bit on the small side to contain his fizzing personality. Rex built his own house – shared with second wife Sally, whom he’d married in 1992. The dining table was made from a Concorde wing and there was a couple of artillery shells in the fireplace.

Bad jokes

It's 2001 and Rex Garrod is explaining how to build a robot  Picture: DAVID KINDREDIt's 2001 and Rex Garrod is explaining how to build a robot Picture: DAVID KINDRED

“We certainly had a very interesting childhood,” says daughter Kay. “He was always making weird and wonderful objects. Once, he made a hanging rig for Tales of the Unexpected and it fitted me. It was like a harness. So I was ‘hung’!” It was featured on local TV news. “So that was my television appearance: hanging from a tree!”

Her dad was infamous for his “millions of bad jokes. I think the speech he did at my wedding was mainly bad jokes. I’ve been reading comments from friends on Facebook and he told one of my friend’s daughters ‘If you can’t sleep, lie on the end of the bed and you’ll just drop off…’

“Even when he was ill, and couldn’t really talk, he still tried to tell jokes. I’m sure he did.”

Sister Kim says: “He didn’t work regular hours. If he was creating something, he would be doing it whatever time of day or night, really. I’m quite creative myself and I used to spend a lot of time in the workshop just watching him – learning and helping. I don’t mind putting up a shelf or having a go at anything, really, and I think I got that from him.”

Rex had a good rapport with children. Here he is at a family fun day at Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, Flixton, in 2010. He's entertaining Gail Cardy and her sons Lewis (then five) and Jon (two)    Picture: Andy DarnellRex had a good rapport with children. Here he is at a family fun day at Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum, Flixton, in 2010. He's entertaining Gail Cardy and her sons Lewis (then five) and Jon (two) Picture: Andy Darnell

Rods from a nuclear power reactor

Like Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin – the geniuses behind the Clangers, Bagpuss and more – Rex created magic in outbuildings. In his case, the ever-growing workshop he’d expand to contain all the stuff that might just come in handy. One day.

You probably know his claims to fame. There was lively little car Brum, star of the children’s TV series of the same name – a remote-controlled vehicle whose doors flapped open and shut, whose lights flashed and whose starting handle twirled. The show ran between 1991 and 2002.

An injured Witch in about 1971  Picture: DAVID KINDREDAn injured Witch in about 1971 Picture: DAVID KINDRED

It was BBC design-and-compete show Robot Wars that pushed him into the public spotlight, though. In the late 1990s, it could pull more than 6m viewers.

Rex led Team Cassius, which entered robots early on. One, Recyclopse, was runner-up in the first series. On Facebook, Robot Wars devotees have given Rex legendary status. There was a hint of the reason why in that 1999 interview with him, as a fresh series prepared to air.

New contender Cassius II featured the innovation still talked of in revered tones today: “it will be able to flip both itself and its enemies over”. It wasn’t long before other robot-makers were building-in their own self-righting mechanisms.

Robots were high-profile, and their creators appeared on TV with them, but much of Rex’s influence happened out of the limelight. A bus that spins around Piccadilly Circus in the film An American Werewolf in London is his doing. He also did work for the film Superman II, coming up with a device that propelled stuntmen 30 feet into the air. Rex even made the cooling system for the suits donned by actors playing Teletubbies Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po. Work on the Pink Panther films was also on his CV.

Rex Garrod scrambling at Cockfield in1961   Picture: DAVID KINDREDRex Garrod scrambling at Cockfield in1961 Picture: DAVID KINDRED

In the late 1980s and early ’90s he co-presented Channel 4’s The Secret Life Of Machines with fellow Suffolk inventor Tim Hunkin (the man behind the curious gadgets on Southwold Pier).

The series was written by Tim and looked at how everyday items such as the fridge and TV worked – Rex donning white lab coat and using jargon-free language to demystify the science that leaves many of us baffled. “I am fascinated by how things work and I think the whole future of this country depends on amusing kids,” he said in 1999. The big clock that stood in the seafront gardens in Felixstowe was the product of his imagination. Components included bomb parts, sections of a BBC sound desk, and rods from a nuclear power reactor. Naturally. In 2006, Doctor Who “pet” K9 returned to service after 25 years in kennels – after a makeover by Rex. The inventor had to install the technology to make the robotic dog move smoothly (which the original hadn’t always managed).

“I made its head move and ears waggle using the same technology I do for all of my robots,” he explained. “This K9 will be 100% reliable. The BBC shouldn’t lose a second of filming time through him breaking down.”

(Rex admitted he didn’t think he’d ever seen Doctor Who, and K9 was “just another job for me”.)

It sounds quite glamorous, though. But Sally says her husband was most proud of his work converting a microlight in the mid-90s for a chap called Trevor Jones, left a tetraplegic after breaking his neck while ski-ing. Rex adapted it so the ex-helicopter pilot could control it with his thumb and mouth, and fly solo across the Channel.

In 1999, Rex adapted a yacht Trevor wanted to sail to Australia to watch the 2000 Olympics.

Entertain the crowds

Author and EADT cartoonist Charlie Haylock devoted a chapter of his 2013 book Don’t Hurry Me, I’m Suffolk to this “inspirational educationalist”. It’s a super potted biography of a man he says could easily play Q in James Bond films.

Rex, born and bred in Mickfield, was an apprentice electrician. The book credits electrician Bill Bunn for fanning Rex’s curiosity. “Bill told Rex that you can’t repair anything in practice unless you know how it works in theory.

“This excellent but simple concept, combined with Rex’s natural artistic ability, ensured a career in animatronics, model making and special effects for TV, films and museums.” It began with the making of “weapons” for film Krull. (Before gadgets got a grip, though, Rex had been a semi-professional speedway rider. He rode for Ipswich Witches in 1971 and Scunthorpe between 1972 and 1974. In 1999, he told us he’d ride a unicycle between races, at Ipswich. “I would always do daft things to amuse the crowd, like jumping over the top of cars for a laugh. My attitude was always that you are there to entertain the crowds and winning is secondary.”)

Charlie wrote that Rex was also sidecar passenger for motocross ace Dave Bickers. Rex would work with Dave’s firm Bickers Action, which organised special effects and stunts for films and TV.

The book tells of Rex’s ability to communicate with youngsters. Well-known for Robot Wars, he was recognised by lads on a school trip when he stopped at a motorway café. He had a couple of robots in his van and soon boys and even their schoolmaster were whizzing the remote-controlled robots around the car park.

Rex made Roland Rat’s car, which started a long relationship with Ragdoll Productions. It saw him make models for TV shows Rosie and Jim and Tot’s TV, as well as Brum. “Brum,” Charlie reported, “was a highly sophisticated piece of engineering equipment, using twenty-two radio control channels and two operators. An example of innocent and playful imagery, achieved by using the most advanced technology and Rex’s design skills.”

He had me in stitches

Wife Sally says of Rex: “He was a lovely man. He was eccentric – full of fun. You never knew what he was going to do next. He was such a complex character. He was interested in everything. I go to art classes. I’d come home and he’d always ask what I’d done. He was interested in what I did.”

Rex was a perfectionist. “He could ‘explode’ if something was going wrong, but it never trickled into the house; it was always in the workshop.”

There could, she laughs, be some choice words spoken and tools thrown down in frustration. “I’d hear bangs and think ‘Oh no, something’s gone wrong’.”

She remembers Rex struggling to make a reach-out-and-grab hand, probably for a party political broadcast. After three days of strife he just put it under his guillotine (not the French Revolution kind!) and cut it in half. Then he came up with a new design, that worked, in double-quick time.

“If something wasn’t perfect, he would destroy it and start again. He always said it was a learning curve. He taught children that.

“He was fun to live with – full of bad jokes. The best ones were the ones he made up himself. He always had puns on words – and it was very clever – but he would tell these bad jokes as well. He wanted to make people laugh.”

It was about eight years ago that the first signs of illness appeared, Sally says. Rex had Alzheimer’s and, later, vascular dementia as well.

He was in a home for about the last 18 months “and the staff loved him to bits. He couldn’t talk and his mind was ravaged with dementia, but he would give them a smile.

“He was just a lovely person – a larger than life character. Very affectionate, very loving, and a very funny man. He had me in stitches. I just miss him so much.”

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