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From ‘clown on a motorbike’ to director of Europe’s biggest prop warehouse, David Jamilly’s success has taken him by surprise. Louise Troy grills him on decapitated superheroes, cheating husbands and the smell of Christmas
Stepping through the brightly coloured gates of the Theme Traders headquarters is like entering another world – how many other offices have a 10ft-tall sculpture of a Greek god and a half-painted horse knocking round the front entrance?
And it only gets stranger inside. This unassuming building on a Cricklewood back street is the hub of the biggest prop hire company in Europe, with more than 100,000sq ft of storage space. If you need 100 candelabras in a hurry – or a suit of armour, or a Marilyn Monroe statue, or a 9ft shark – Theme Traders is the place to go.
Perched sheepishly on an ornate gold throne in the middle of the showroom is co-owner and director David Jamilly – or ‘DJ’ as he’s known to his staff. From humble beginnings as a children’s entertainer, visiting well-heeled families in Hampstead on a motorbike, he and his sister Kim have built up Theme Traders into a business which employs 60 year-round full-time staff and handles more than 100 requests a week. Its fleet of vehicles can deliver anywhere around Europe and the UK, either from the London HQ or a new Edinburgh office. ‘It’s unlikely that a week goes by when you wouldn’t see our stuff on primetime TV or in a glossy magazine,’ says Jamilly. A quick check with his staff reveals that in the few days before Square Meal’s visit, Theme Traders has supplied giant martini glasses to EastEnders, a neon sign to Big Brother, and a chaise longue to Emmerdale, among many others.
The prop hire business is aided by the Theme Traders in-house workshop, where two uniformed staff are busy painting and prepping. In the corner stands a shabby-looking Batman statue awaiting an overhaul. ‘He got trashed at a rave,’ Jamilly says. ‘The others looked worse – they got decapitated.’
Jamilly seems stunned by the company’s growth and confesses that even now, he can’t do business-speak. ‘I was just a clown on a motorbike trying to start a company,’ he shrugs. Nevertheless, Theme Traders has proved an enduring success and celebrates its 20th anniversary on 20 May 2010.
And it’s no longer just a prop warehouse – the company is now a ‘one-stop shop’ for event organisers, taking care of marquee bookings, flowers, food, soundtracks, smells (cinnamon is the most popular for Christmas, Jamilly says) and, of course, venue decoration. So what’s the biggest theme for the festive season this year? ‘It’s 100% ice palace. Not exactly Winter Wonderland, but still white and blue contrasted, with clean lines, softer than before. It’s all a cycle – ten years ago, everyone wanted a Victorian Christmas.’
However, while Theme Traders is one of the most respected set-dressing companies around, there is a limit to its powers. ‘The strangest request we’ve ever had,’ says Jamilly, ‘was a man who had been unfaithful to his wife, and he ordered 10,000 roses, a man in a white tux playing a white piano, and a gourmet meal, all in a marquee in their garden.’
Did it work? ‘No. They shouted at each other all evening. The pianist said he didn’t know which way to look.’
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Autumn 2008.