Sunday, 19 September 2021

The councillor with many other hats

DAVID EGGLETON has many talents.

DAVID EGGLETON has many talents. Not only is he a Henley town councillor, but he co-founded the residents’ association on the Gainsborough estate, where he has lived for most of his life, and he actively supports Henley in Bloom and other community initiatives.

He has also been a shopkeeper and currently has a house clearance business.

Not bad for a man who left school at 16 with no qualifications.

But what most people don’t know is that the father-of-eight also spent years as an actor, appearing on TV and the cinema screen with names such as Robert Downey Jr, Lenny Henry, Catherine Tate, Jennifer Saunders, Vinnie Jones and Robert Powell.

“I often look back and wonder how I crammed so many things into such a short time,” he says.

Mr Eggleton was born 58 years ago at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading and grew up in Reading Road, Henley, with his mother Ann and maternal grandmother Lilian Leigh, who ran a café in Station Road. His father Chris was on National Service in Cyprus until David was two.

When he was eight, the family moved to a house in Gainsborough Crescent, where his parents still live while he lives around the corner in Gainsborough Road with his wife Nicola and three of their children, Lily, 11, and twins Daisy and Poppy, eight.

He attended Henley Infants School in Greys Road, where Goodall Close now stands, Trinity Primary School in Vicarage Road and then Gillotts School, where he struggled academically.

After leaving school, he worked at Stuart Turner in Greys Road, where he was a pump builder, and as a bargee for engineers Aubrey Watson, whose offices were in Reading Road.

He also joined the Henley Air Cadets and when he was 17 enrolled in the Territorial Army, where he was attached to the B Company of the Wessex Regiment’s 2nd Battalion.

Training would take place every Thursday night and on alternate weekends at Brock Barracks in Reading.

“I really enjoyed it,” says Mr Eggleton. “You develop a much stronger bond with your regiment than you would with ordinary work colleagues. They’re not just your friends, they’re watching out for you and you’d have to rely on each other in an emergency.

“ We were very close-knit and that was the hardest thing about leaving.”

He quit the TA after serving the compulsory minimum period of three years and could have joined the Royal Marine Reserves or military police but wanted more time to start his own business.

In 1979 he opened Barnyard Bric-a-Brac, a second-hand goods store in Reading Road where Charlotte Mews now stands.

By the mid-Eighties he was making enough money to employ staff, which allowed him to try his hand at acting and he joined the Rising Sun Players in Reading.

However, he soon set his heart on becoming a film stuntman and spent at least two hours a week learning kung-fu, boxing and sword-fighting.

Mr Eggleton recalls: “I can’t remember what standard I reached but I must have been all right because eventually I was helping to teach the rest of the class.

“The best thing I got out of all that was a boost in fitness and confidence. I’d recommend martial arts to anyone because it’s great for your health and releasing your negative feelings.

“Some of the kids hanging around outside thought we were ballerinas because we did lots of drills about balance and being light on your feet.

“I still keep my fitness up today but the kung-fu exercises were pretty demanding. I doubt I’d be able to do them now.”

Unfortunately, even though his skills improved, stunt work increasingly involved horse riding, which he couldn’t afford to learn.

He says: “My training was already expensive. I didn’t have much money and had to change my plans because I was getting nowhere fast.”

He took on an agent and was offered background parts in television shows, including several as an armed policeman in The Bill.

His first major role was as a police officer in the 1992 science fiction film Split Second, starring Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor who had made his name in Blade Runner 10 years before.

Mr Eggleton was on set for two weeks and appeared in several scenes, including one in which he broke up a fight involving Hauer’s character.

He says: “Rutger was a really nice guy. Everyone knew him from the Guinness adverts he was doing at the time but he was very down-to-earth and approachable.

“I sat down next to him one day and he gave me a cigar, which I’ve still got at home somewhere.

“Being on a film set is a different experience, especially the first time. It’s like stepping into a different reality and the longer you’re shooting, the more you forget the real world.

“It’s very immersive as you spend a lot of time pretending to be someone else so there’s an adjustment period when it’s all over.”

The same year he appeared in a scene from Chaplin, a biography of the comic starring Downey Jr directed by Richard Attenborough.

He was part of a group of cowboys whom Chaplin saw watching an early motion picture, which inspired his move from stage to screen.

Downey Jr, who at the time was notorious for his prolific drug- taking and drinking, promised to take the extras out drinking but filming fell behind schedule so he wasn’t able to keep his promise,

Mr Eggleton says: “I had a little chat with him. I always liked to talk to people because that’s how you learn and improve.

“He wished me all the best for my future and said I should keep pushing ahead with my dreams, which was encouraging advice from such a well-known actor.

“Some famous people don’t want to be approached and get very grumpy about it but I found most of the big names were actually very happy to talk.”

After this, he had a string of television roles mainly as policemen, paramedics or members of the armed forces.

These included an episode of The Lenny Henry Show in which he and a colleague handcuffed the star between scenes as a joke and then realised they didn’t have the key.

It took about 20 minutes for the key to be found in the props department and Henry to be freed but, luckily, he saw the funny side.

Mr Eggleton was sometimes mistaken for the real thing when playing a policeman. He says: “People often stop in the street to watch and sometimes they don’t realise you’re filming.

“Once I was chasing a ‘suspect’ into a shop but didn’t know a fight was kicking off at the pub next door. The troublemakers fled when they saw me coming.

“Then the landlord came out to say thanks. I had to explain that I wasn’t a real policeman.

“My TA background helped with a lot of those jobs because I was comfortable handling weapons and knew all the procedures.”

He played a security guard in an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which he ejected Jennifer Saunders’s character Edina from a private party.

He said: “She’d drunkenly ‘gatecrashed’ it and was causing trouble so we had to physically chuck her out.

“You get trained in how to restrain people and throw them around in a way that looks nasty but doesn’t actually hurt them. Most actors are fine with it and some even say, ‘don’t worry, you can be as rough as you like’.”

In 2003 he appeared in a Panorama documentary playing Robert “Sally” Dyer, who conducted an anonymous letter bomb campaign against Tesco three years earlier.

Mr Eggleton said: “It was done very realistically. When it went out, my father-in-law caught the end of it and phoned my wife to ask why I was on the television in prison.”

He also made several appearances on the BBC’s Crimewatch, including one episode in 1994 in which he played an IRA terrorist escaping from Whitemoor prison in Cambridgeshire.

In the mid-Nineties he started working as a model for photographer Roy Green, from Woodley, who has since passed away.

He would dress in various costumes with props provided by Mr Green and they would shoot at locations in the Henley area.

The pictures would be sold to magazines, news agencies and stock image archives or entered into competitions.

Mr Eggleton says: “The modelling work was much better paid, though I played quite a few dodgy and dangerous criminals. I’m not sure I’d have been elected as a councillor if they’d got out!”

In September 2003 he faced a major setback when his shop burned down in a suspected arson attack in the middle of the night. Several neighbouring premises were also destroyed.

The blaze was one of several suspicious fires in Henley around that time. The Henley Sports shop in Duke Street had been targeted three weeks beforehand and there was a big fire at the Hobbs of Henley boatyard in Station Road the following summer. No one was ever caught.

Mr Eggleton survived on the proceeds from his house clearance business, which he had set up in the early Nineties. He would sell some of the items he had collected and recycle others or give them to charity. In 2010 he took over a unit at the amb Arcade in Wallingford, a shopping centre dedicated to second-hand goods and antiques, which he still runs today.

He said: “The fire was a bit of a shock. It was like getting sacked from a job because I’d lost my main income overnight. It was hard but I went back into doing market trading, antique fairs and things like that, which I’d done before opening the shop.

“I tried to set up somewhere new but it was hard. I couldn’t start again in Henley town centre because there wasn’t a similar unit available. It just wasn’t an option.”

In 2012, he and his neighbour Paula Isaac founded the Gainsborough Residents’ Association, which has carried out numerous community projects.

Members planted two flower beds at the entrance to the estate in 2013 and last year the association sponsored an accompanying plaque about Henley minister Humphrey Gainsborough, after whom the area is named.

The pair have also organised litter-picks and they liaise with police and the councils on issues such as roads and recreation. A keen gardener for much of his life, Mr Eggleton has also helped Henley in Bloom and its Gardening Buddies with many planting schemes.

Before Bloom judges inspect the town each summer, he clears weeds and rubbish from his estate and ensures his own front and back gardens are immaculate.

In 2012 he won a Henley in Bloom gold award for his flower display celebrating the Queen’s diamond jubilee and a silver gilt award for his front garden.

The following year, his house was featured on the Front Garden Stars section of BBC 1’s The One Show.

Mr Eggleton ran for election to the town council in May last year at the suggestion of friends and was invited to stand by both the Conservatives and Henley Residents’ Group.

He recalls: “I listened to both parties but ultimately decided that HRG could bring out the best in me. It’s like interviewing people for a job — you go with whoever feels right.”

He says being a councillor is “very stressful”.

“It’s demanding for a newcomer because you’ve got no idea what to expect,” he says. “You have to research all the issues so you know what you’re talking about. There’s lots to get to grips with, whether it’s town centre traffic, the redevelopment of Townlands Hospital or the planning process.

“It’s hard work but it’s rewarding and I know I’ve made a difference.

“It’s annoying when people say they haven’t got time to help in their area. You can always find a reason why you’re too busy but then you’ll never do anything.

“Anyone can find time to achieve things if there’s something they’re really passionate about.

“It doesn’t have to be a huge commitment. It can be something as simple as checking on a neighbour or making someone a cup of tea — the little gestures that make other people’s lives easier.”

Mr Eggleton says he would still consider acting opportunities but he is not actively seeking them.

He says: “It’s hard now because I’m so busy with other stuff, although I wouldn’t turn down something really special.

“Some people think acting is glamorous but to me it’s just another job. It’s a fun experience but I’ve never felt the need to watch anything I’m in afterwards.”

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