The industry of escapism sets a real-world test for this Citroën Dispatch
Lights. Camera. Action. Three words that have become synonymous with one of the coolest industries the planet has ever known. Be honest, when you’re not working, eating or sleeping, you’re probably zoning out in front of the latest HD blockbuster. I know I am. Car crashes, explosions, sub-zero heroes like James Bond and Batman — the fantasy dished out by cinematographers helps keep us sane.
Thing is though, I’ve always wanted to know what happens behind the scenes. To hang out with all those endless names in the end credits and get a taste for what goes into crafting the ultimate in escapism.
Well recently I got my chance. Not as an actor or stunt driver but as a humble runner on a TV series called Strike Back 3, produced by Left Bank Pictures for Sky1 and Cinemax. I was told to meet up at Q-Studios, Joburg, early one Monday morning with a suitably large panel van.
Soon after arriving, however, I learn that I won’t be mixing it up with any highly paid thespians. Nope, they’ve long jetted out of here: flown back to their mansions and supermodel girlfriends in some secret tax haven.
Yep, today is the start of the big teardown, the laborious process of pulling down sets and returning props to their rightful owners. And the person in charge of overseeing this whole process is an experienced set decorator who looks a bit like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. Be this as it may, Henri du Rand is a man you would be foolish not to take seriously.
“You think this thing is big enough to take all of those?” he asks, pointing to a stack of wooden missile crates.
Without faltering I nod and swing open the double rear doors of the machine I’ve chosen for the job — a white Citroën Dispatch.
I’ve gone with this little-known load-hauler because it is a handsome bit of apparatus. A lot of commercial vehicles look like breeze bricks on wheels but this Citroën comes imbued with shape and personality. It has a sleek snout and a pair of raked headlights that could be at home on a hot hatchback. In fact I rather fancy it.
Unfortunately, after many crab-like manoeuvres across the hall floor, I discover that this Citroën doesn’t have a long enough load bay for stowing cumbersome bits of army surplus. Unable to close the doors, I now have to explain my embarrassing predicament to Du Rand.
“Well that’s just bloody useless,” he exclaims. “Okay, unload all those crates while I go and find Henrietta. Maybe you can be of use to her.” No glamour. No actors. One rookie error. So far my running debut isn’t going to plan.
Fortunately it seems that Henrietta Moutinho can indeed use my services for a few cross-town deliveries. None of the stuff I need to cram inside the Dispatch is here, so she asks me to follow her to a place in Bezuidenhout Valley called Marcia’s Studios.
Sounds dodge. Looks it too. But behind the crumbling facade of an old industrial-sized laundry lurks a creative playground responsible for shaping some of local cinema’s coolest backdrops. Ever see Neill Blomkamp’s District 9? Well, all the mad sets were built right here under the supervision of Marcia Vermaak.
After loading the Citroën with a weird assortment of props, Vermaak takes me on a quick tour of her facility, which is lined with drums of catalyst and the scrapings of polycarbonate foam. She ’s been a set builder for 20 years. Besides District 9, some of her more recent creations include a prosthetic leg used in Leon Schuster’s new film and an obscene statue that Die Antwoord commissioned.
Satisfied that I’ve seen enough, I head to my first port of call. Apparently Propstars, hidden somewhere in New Doornfontein, is notoriously difficult to find without a GPS. And the Dispatch doesn’t have one. So I spend almost an hour trawling through the filthy mean streets of downtown Johannesburg.
Yep, this shipping sans a satellite navigation system is something of a fail — especially for us runners operating on a tight schedule. Fortunately this unplanned detour does highlight some of the Dispatch’s better qualities.
And the first is the way it drives. Some vans can be intimidating but this Frenchy feels like a hatchback on stilts. Blessed with light steering, it also has a great turning circle.
After dropping off a portion of my curious cargo at Propstars — a hospital bed and two sets of medical-green sheets — I get onto the highway and drive towards a place called Behind The Scenes in Chamdor, Krugersdorp.
It’s a long hustle so I decide to stop and pick up a coffee on the way there. Nice idea on paper but I discover that the Dispatch doesn’t have a cup holder in which to stow it. Not good.
There’s also no footrest to park your clutch foot. And this is annoying because out on the open road, what with that torquey diesel engine and cushy ride, this Citroën is a fine cruiser. It’s the little ergonomic details that start counting against the Dispatch.
All morning I’ve been curious as to why my cargo bay is filled with old water drums, broken motorcycle components and ratty old steel-shelving units. Who, other than one of those roaming junk collectors, would be interested in hoarding this scrap? Surely they don’t have a place in the computer-generated mastery of modern cinema?
Well it turns out to be Behind The Scenes’ specialty. Run by one Lori Murphy, this place is dedicated to hoarding what you and I would throw away.
Stacks of faded You magazines. A whole corner dedicated to old office documents. Decrepit computers and TV sets that last flowed with electrical current back in the late 1980s. If it is retro and past its sell-by date, chances are you will find it here.
Murphy says that everything under her roof is hired out to film crews. “Like these beaten up tin mugs you see here — I doubt you will be able to find them anywhere else. That’s why people keep on coming back to us; we’ve got everything you need to achieve that old-school look.”
I cannot believe that all these forgotten oddments are such a valuable commodity. “So how long have you been in this industry?” Murphy asks, walking me back to the Dispatch. I explain that I’m just a motoring hack looking for a different angle, a pretender simply using the explosive world of cinema to put a panel van to the test.
She smiles, likens the idea to something those three aging Brits would do on their TV show. “So, what do you think of this, this … Citroën, is it?”
I tell her the Dispatch drives well, can pack a generous amount of gear into its loading bay and definitely punches hard in the visual department.
But thanks to a mediocre cabin hewn out of some cheap-feeling plastics, I would be inclined to dish out a little more dough and get the Mercedes-Benz Vito panel van.
It feels more premium, better suited to a life lived serving the demands of directors and set decorators. And with that I disappear, beetle on back to Q-Studios for my next backbreaking assignment …
Fast Facts: Citroën Dispatch
Engine: 1997cc turbo-diesel
Power: 88kW @ 4 000rpm
Torque: 300Nm @ 2 000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-100km/h: 13 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 160km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 7.3l/100km (claimed combined)
Price: From R287500
Dapper good looks … for a van
Punchy diesel engine
Nimble and easy to drive
Cheap interior plastics
A Merc Vito doesn’t cost much more