Fred Keil

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Interview Date(s): 
16 Nov 2001
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[From Fred Keil’s typescript]

In 1936 I came to England from Czechoslovakia. After leaving school, I had attended a commercial Academy in Liberec with a view to studying Law. After 3 semesters my Professor advised me to drop the idea and study instead advertising. The only college I could find was in Berlin, where I eventually enrolled. This college specialised in the creation of visual images and propaganda, i.e. the Three dimensions which I later discovered were the Cinderellas of the British advertising scene.      It provided access to practical use of the media, such as the UFA studios and the part—time teachers who were successful in private practice. When I realised from reading the advertising trade papers in London that the medium of exhibitions and window-display advertising was sadly neglected, decided that there was an opportunity for me to break new ground by introducing more exciting ideas for product presentation through Exhibitions in Olympia and Earl’s Court, where, for decades the old-fashioned formula of presentation had prevailed. There appeared to be no attempt to introduce upmarket design. Furthermore, all exhibition stands seemed to have been produced on a low budget. By luck and persuasion my arguments fell on fertile ground because the advertising manager of the GEC, Arthur Clarkson who conceded the point that the sale of products produced by the General Electric Companies could be improved by using advanced and visually exciting ways.

The GEC stand at the Radio Exhibition in Olympia in 1937 built on a budget many times higher than previous presentations and opened the door for me to sell my ideas to other future exhibitors. What happened after that is history.

During the war, The Ministries of Supply, Aircraft Production, Food and Government Recruiting Agencies recognised the impact that could be created with three-dimensional presentations of their needs and policies, such as placing machines and people in areas where potential recruits would receive information about the places and pay available through the various ministries. This developed to the extent that my company needed mores space to build this material and for this purpose the Ministry of Food requisitioned the Great Hall of the Alexandra Palace from 1941-1951.

The BBC Television Unit had been set up at the Alexandra Palace in 1936 for experimental transmissions. My company, CDO (City Display Organisation) supplied them from time to time with backgrounds and simple scenery requirements. When the BBC moved to Wood Lane, the demand grew and my company, having acquired the lease on the vast White City overhead buildings (almost a mile long and built in 1908 for the Franco-British exhibition) and continued to supply their scenery. With the advent of the Festival of Britain in 1951 we became very much involved in the South Bank exhibition, The Land Traveller and the Science Exhibition which involved our production facilities both at Alexandra Palace and White City.

The production of scenery for television had gradually gathered momentum. The architect Dick Levin became Head of Design at the BBC and by 1953 the capacity of one of our Halls was taken up by BBC TV requirements. By the time commercial television began in 1955 we had developed facilities and expertise specifically for use in television. For Rediffusion Television, another of the aircraft hangar-like halls was taken over the year before. This continued on a 24 hour almost conveyor-like basis, with a string of lorries delivering scenery to the BBC and Rediffusion studios. This went on for several years until Rediffusion lost its franchise.

Sadly, for several years, the unions had targeted White City and this culminated in black-outs on random days, which caused a great deal of problems affecting the timely delivery of scenery. Eventually matters came to a head, and as there was a threat of temporary or permanent shut-down of both halls, used exclusively for the production of scenery, the remaining space in the other halls which was engaged in exhibition and display as well as the Special Effects Department for the films Moby Dick, James Bond etc., was also affected. At that stage I had no option but to advise the Head of the Unions that I would close our White City facility in six month's time. Consequently, on December 31st, 1970 I shut down White City and closed the factory after 33 years of successfully producing British Exhibitions in most capital cities of Europe, as well as special commercial productions in Australia, India, Russia and China and British Pavilions in three World Fairs, in addition to all the annual exhibitions at Olympia and Earl's Court.


Roy Fowler, the interviewer, added the following note: Fred Keil is an interesting man, very well organised still, who in his youth must have been extraordinarily effective with people. Witness the age at which he came here and his early determination and success. I suspect he was like Alex Korda, enormous charm and schmooze as only the central Europeans have.

His company, City Display, built scenery, miniatures, props etc., for both BBC and Rediffusion but he had no contact with the process or art directors. In his twenties he seems to have had considerable influence on the war effort and I have suggested to his daughter Stephanie that she offer him up to the Imperial War Museum.

He lives on a farm in Portugal but maintains a very classy pad in Bayswater. Nice man I liked him. [END].