Star Wars art director receives University of Hertfordshire honorary degree at St Albans Cathedral

PUBLISHED: 17:10 28 September 2015

Oscar-nominated art director Alan Tomkins and some friends from Star Wars. Photo courtesy of Elstree Screen Heritage

Oscar-nominated art director Alan Tomkins and some friends from Star Wars. Photo courtesy of Elstree Screen Heritage

Elstree Screen Heritage

An Oscar-nominated art director who worked on Steven Spielberg-directed Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers has received an accolade for his movie career at St Albans Cathedral.

Art director Alan Tomkins, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on the Empire Strikes Back movie, has received an honorary degree at the University of Hertfordshire graduation ceremony at St Albans Abbey. Photo courtesy of Terry Richards Photography
Art director Alan Tomkins, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on the Empire Strikes Back movie, has received an honorary degree at the University of Hertfordshire graduation ceremony at St Albans Abbey. Photo courtesy of Terry Richards Photography

Alan Tomkins was given an honorary Doctor of Arts degree by the University of Hertfordshire at a graduation ceremony on Monday, September 14.

The 76 year old received the citation in recognition of his contribution to film production in the county, and to the British film industry as a whole.

His impressive CV features an Oscar nomination for The Empire Strikes Back, and he applied his artistic talent to the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Dr No, JFK, Batman and 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by the late - St Albans based - legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

Many of the films he worked on were shot in Herts, including at Elstree Studios, and it was for this reason the university bestowed the accolade upon him.

The celebrated movie man said he found it amusing that “everyone is interested in me” since retiring after his last film, the 2006 blockbuster Casino Royale, when for years he ‘struggled’ through life as a freelancer.

He added: “You are basically hoping you have done well enough to get the next job. To get an award for earning your living is quite amazing.”

After leaving school as a youngster, Alan went to a local youth employment office and was offered the job of trainee chef aboard a luxury liner, which he turned down.

Fortunately for him, however, the careers adviser had a cousin working at Elstree Studio – which had just fired its art department apprentice.

Alan said that under the wing of some helpful teachers, he honed his skills and eventually drew up entire sets.

Later, upon hearing that the art director at Pinewood was looking for a draughtsman to go on location to Jordan, Alan jumped at the chance - along with the £40 a week salary.

The movie was the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, where Alan mistook the film’s star, Peter O’Toole, for the prop man.

This lead to work on Cleopatra, and then in a role as assistant art director on Dr No.

His services remained in huge demand by the world’s best directors and producers, right up until after his retirement.

In a book, director Oliver Stone, with whom he worked on three films, described Alan as representing the “tradition of British film-making that Hollywood admires.

“He made my films better.”

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