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“Sprite on top of the world” 1971

In June of 1971 I was off on another job for Caravans International.  This time it was to the Sierra Nevada in the deep south of Spain.  I flew into Malaga Airport with Tony Ellis, the P.R. man.  We hired a car and he drove us to Granada which, at that time, did not have an airport of its own.

At Malaga, we had picked up Bill Greene, the UPITN American cameraman based in Madrid.  In the car, Bill sat in the front as a guide for Tony, Bill knowing the way.

As a result, I was looking at the back of their heads all the way from Malaga to Granada.

There was no A44 in those days, we travelled by country road all the way.  It was quite a drive.

We checked in to the Hotel Melia.  Millionaire Sam Alper was already there. He was the owner of Caravans International and would take part in the film. That evening, we were welcomed by the local head of the Tourism Office, Mr. Martin, and he took us to dinner.  The restaurant was not very attractive.  It looked more like a works canteen with Formica tables and stack-up chairs.

He insisted that we have Gazpacho, the Spanish tomato and raw vegetable cold soup. An Andalusian speciality. Vichyssoise it isn’t.  To me it tasted like salted ice water.  It was such a shock, I cannot remember what we had to follow.  That was the only meal we shared with Sam Alper while we were in Granada.  He chose to go off by himself. Perhaps he thought he might be expected to pay, some millionaires are like that.  What he would have forgotten is that, through C.I., he was paying anyway.

Sam Alper was born in Forest Gate, east London.  When he left school at the age of 14 he went to night school to study electrical engineering. At the outbreak of the second World War he volunteered for the Royal Navy  and served with the  Fleet Air Arm where his night-school training was put to good use servicing Fairey Swordfish biplanes.

After the War, he joined his brother in a company producing caravans.  Eventually, he left to form his own company.  He thought the caravans were too expensive and set about producing a cheaper version that could be towed by the average family car.  He produced the first Sprite Caravans and in one year sold 500 caravans.

By 1963, Alper had founded Caravans International, and started exporting caravans to Europe, South Africa, Canada and the United States. In 1966 Caravans International won the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise and Alper was made OBE for his services to exports.

Little Chef

Image via Wikipedia

In 1958, Sam Alper founded the Little Chef chain when he opened the first in Reading.  He got the idea when he was selling caravans in the United States and saw the roadside restaurants.

In 1972 he planted 18 acres of vineyard and he established a winery making a range of English wines. His wines won numerous awards and Alper, with his skill in publicity would promote the wine by taking part in the Great English Wine Rally, driving samples of the vintage to the George V Hotel in Paris driving his 1930s Phantom II Rolls Royce. Alper was for many years associated with the Rotary Club.  In the 1970’s he organised fifty caravans to be delivered to flood victims in Italy, in 1999 he sent almost 200 caravans to Greece and Turkey after they had been affected by earthquakes.

Sam Alper had a Sprite caravan and small car in the hotel car park.  This is what he intended to use to drive over the top of the 11,500 foot (3,500 metres) Sierra Nevada range and down into Motril by the sea.

It was my job to make a film of the adventure. The purpose of the film was to show the hardy qualities of the caravan.

One of the most embarrassing moments of my life occurred when I went in for breakfast for the first time in Granada.  I entered the dining room and looked round for Bill Greene.  He had dark curly hair and wore glasses.  I saw him sitting by a window and I joined him.  I said ”Good morning, did you sleep well?” .  In a mild American accent, he replied “Fine, and you ?”.  “Oh yes, I said, I slept very well”.

He said “What are you doing here ?”  I said “What do you mean ?

He said ”Are you on holiday or do you have business here ?”.

I said ”You are not Bill Greene are you ?”  “Indeed I am not“, he replied.

I apologised profusely and went off to find Bill Greene.  The problem had occurred because I had not had a good look at Bill Greene.  On the long drive from Malaga, he had sat with his back to me and, I suppose, I had not stared at him at any time. Even the photos only show him from behind.

We drove the forty miles to the Sierra Nevada only to be stopped before we could get to the summit by thick snow which totally blocked the road to down to the sea.  This was the middle of June in the deep south of Spain.  They have considerable ski slopes there.   I was previoously unaware of this.

There were snow ploughs in action and we thought that they might break through by the next day.  They didn’t.  The snow was so thick, the route could only be determined by a row of long poles which marked the edges of the highway.

The Unimog Snowcat

The snow ploughs were called Unimog Snowcats and they scooped up the snow from the road surface and threw it some thirty feet to one side of the road.

On the way down from the high mountains, Tony, Bill and I stopped off at a small restaurant which nestled on the side of the road looking down on to a deep valley.

The Village in the valley

Tony and I got something of a shock when we saw the owner.  Tony said “Look, that’s Ivor Emmanuel”. (The Welsh singer and a well-known television face at that time),

He came to the table and with a strong Welsh accent asked if we would like a drink.  We were still staring at him when he said “I know what you are thinking, but you are wrong”.  Apparently all British visitors thought he was the real Ivor.  He even had matching black wavy hair.  We should have known, this man was a good deal younger than Ivor.

That afternoon, Bill Greene took me off to see the Alhambra Palace, (The Red Castle).  This magnificent set of buildings had been constructed by the Moors seven hundrd years earlier.  We saw the Court of Lions, a fountain surrounded by outward facing beasts.  We wandered through The Generalife,( Garden of The Architect), a magnificent water garden.

The Court of the Main Canal, Generalife Palace...

Image via Wikipedia

In an inner arena, there was an orchestral concert about to start and Bill said “Do you want to see this ?”  I said “How ?, we haven’t got tickets”.  He said “Have you got your United Press Identity Card ?”.  I said” Yes, I have“.  “O.K. then, show it on your way in”.  To my surprise, when we got to the door, we were immediately shown in.  It must be a Spanish thing.

That evening, we three dined at the outdoor restaurant at the Alhambra Palace.  What an experience.  No cold soup there.

Next day it was down to business.  On the way back up the mountain we shot scenes in some of the delightful villages.  We featured Sam driving his car and caravan through the countryside and into the high country.

On the way up

We spent a couple of days shooting in the countryside around Granada.  We were filming the progress of the caravan and I wanted to show the terrain.  We had Sam drive over the same ground, on occasion, to enable us to retire sufficiently to get a wide shot of his progress.  We only had one camera, but it looked like we had several.

Eventually, we were filming him making progress into the snow-bound road.  From there we were able to get to a higher altitude than we had reached the day before but soon, we came to a dead halt.  From the position we reached, we were above the clouds.  It was quite a sight.

Above the clouds

We came to a halt

Getting to the top

We had a short conference about the situation.  We were certainly not going to get through that day.  They was every chance that we would not get through for several days.

Tony suggested that we tell it as it is. After all, it was quite a feat to reach the point that he did.  Sam Alper agreed.  So we filmed the final blockage and then we went back to Granada. The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and drove to the coast the long way round.

We were then able to shoot scenes of the car and caravan driving along the coast road at a point where they would have been had they been able to cross the mountain peak.  However, becusae of the delay, Sam had to return home, so Toy Ellis took over the driving. We followed him to Neerja, a typical Spanish town by the sea where almost every building was painted white.

Looking down on the White Village

The villages in white are known as Los Pueblos Blancos.  The houses were packed close together and went up into the hills giving a magnificent view.

We dined by the waters edge in a restaurant that was just off a little square that served as a promenade.   Sam had left us his driving clothes and we spread them out on the rocks by the sea to show that he had gone off for a swim in the Med. This was followed by a shot of people swimming a hundred yards out.  You could not tell if it was Sam or not among the swimmers..

We drove towards Malaga Airport.  Tony said that, as we had some time on our hands before the flight, we should drive down to Torremalinos to see what the famous resort looked like.  I was not impressed.  There I said farewell to Bill Greene who was still laughing at my embarrassment and to Tony Ellis who said he was going to stay over a few days, to get some driving in.

Sometime later, Bill Greene left Spain and set himself up in Costa Rica, where, once again, he became a stringer for UPITN.

Sam Alper died in 2002 at the age of 78.  He must have been one of the busiest men on the planet.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2012.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about UPITN click here.

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