A talented designer with dementia who created costumes for Hollywood hits like the Mummy series and Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves with her husband during their 40-year career is now showcasing their work at a prestigious new exhibition.
Ann Bloomfield, 83, and John Bloomfield, 80, from Dorking in east Surrey, designed outfits for stars like Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Their career took them around the globe – from America to China, Europe, Australia and Africa – and the duo worked in perfect harmony together, with John saying: “She’s left-handed and I’m right-handed, so we would lob drawings back and forth between us.”
He added: “Even when she became a housewife to care for our kids, Ann was still always involved.
“We were working together but were also a family together.”
Ann was diagnosed with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in 2017 then lung cancer in 2020 but was able to “hold court” and reminisce about her career in September 2022, at the opening party of a three-month British Film Institute exhibition showing the work she and John did collaboratively.
And their career was certainly glamorous – though John said working with big celebrities was no different than dealing with any other person.
He recalled: “They are basically normal people. I remember once, I was sitting in a bar with Kevin Costner in the Rocky Mountains.
“We were both exhausted after a long work day and Kevin said, ‘You know John, I really envy the way you will be able to do this job and nobody will ever come up to you. Your life is much easier than mine’.”
Attracting attention from people as he drove around with the movie star, he came to see what Costner meant, he added: “We were in Los Angeles, driving through traffic, and I had to take the roof up on the convertible.”
Now both Ann’s and John’s lives have been changed after she was diagnosed with dementia and cancer.
Describing how he first became aware that something was amiss, John said: “I noticed her forgetting things and she could not remember where to put cutlery or crockery when taking it out of the dishwasher.
“I was finding spoons across the house!”
And Ann – with whom he shares two children, Sarah Bloomfield, 57, and Daniel Bloomfield, 51, as well as three grandchildren – struggles to remember even dramatic events now.
“She watched the recent coverage of the Queen’s death but forgot who had died only 10 minutes after turning off the TV,” John said.
“Dementia is dreadful but our exhibition shows people affected by the disease have lives worth remembering and can still enjoy life even after a diagnosis.
“Ann has been in high spirits recently because of the upcoming event.”
The close couple – who met in 1961 at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, where Ann was an assistant stage designer and John was working part-time as a stagehand carpenter while also studying law at Birmingham University -managed to laugh together in the face of Ann’s dementia.
But her lung cancer diagnosis in February 2020 and the realisation that her tumour could not be treated because of its position, was a cruel second blow.
John said: “We could always make a joke about her forgetfulness and we were coping perfectly well, but the lung cancer – it’s so unfair.”
Ann’s left lung collapsed in late July this year, leaving her breathless, and John said: “The fluid in her lungs is causing her pain and she’s coughing up blood.
“It’s not fun, not fun at all. She also has little energy and has lost a lot of weight, although that makes it easier to carry her around.”
And he added lovingly: “Ann’s always been so vibrant, bright and gorgeous looking. While she still got all these features, she’s just shrunk a little.”
He added: “It’s very very distressing seeing her like this, but we always say how lucky we are because we’re still together.”
Remembering the moment they first met in the theatre 61 years ago, he said: “I was working downstairs in the workshop building scenery and she was working upstairs painting the scenery and helping the designer.
“I was obviously not blind and was very aware this beautiful lady from London was there.”
He added: “We actually met on a classic iron spiral staircase going from the workshop up to the paint shop.
“She was wearing a green leather jacket, a fur hat and pointed shoes. This was in the 60s, this was really revolutionary stuff. And then there was me, this sloppy student coming up.
“We got talking and the rest is history.”
Moving around England and Wales, working on various theatre and television design projects, they married in March 1964, settled down in south London and welcomed daughter Sarah that October.
As was customary in those days, Ann became a stay-at-home mum while John worked – but behind the scenes, she was always completely involved in his designs, he said.
“We collaborated on everything.”
And remembering how they would work together at home, he said: “We were sitting in front of our little TV with a little baby in the corner, fast asleep.”
And their work took off, with John landing his first big job in 1968 to become a BBC costume designer.
He said: “By 1969, I was doing The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, which was a huge success on television.”
He added: “We had a small budget so everything was done in quite a quirky way, like sticking bits of glue onto fabric and putting sequins on and trying to make them look like jewellery.”
John was awarded a BAFTA by Princess Anne at the Royal Albert Hall for designing the King’s costume, and he – with Ann in the background – went on to work on the original Poldark in 1975 and Doctor Who in 1976, where they designed costumes for three stories for Tom Baker’s Doctor Who.
“It was quite fun and we were quite lucky to get some interesting episodes to work on,” John remembered.
And in 1980 John landed a job designing costumes for the movie Conan The Barbarian, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“There was a very strange costume we did, for James Earl Jones’ character, who was the baddie in the movie,” John reminisced.
“He turns into a snake on screen and we created a coloured silk robe with blues, greens, silvers and browns in it that made it look like snakeskin writhed around his body.”
He added: “That’s how we got ourselves set up in the big movie world.”
From there, the couple travelled all around the globe.
He said: “Our career took us across Europe, China where I worked on Tai-Pan, north Africa, where we worked on The Mummy, The Americas and Australasia where we worked on The Bounty.”
“I spent nine months living on a 16-mile-long island and Ann was there for three of them in the Pacific Ocean doing The Bounty with Mel Gibson,” he said.
Ann was also taking on her own projects, he said: “She was at home with the children but also doing projects for Wimbledon School of Arts as well as some freelance projects for the BBC.”
For 25 years, from 1976, Ann shared her craft with students at Wimbledon School of Arts – now part of the University of London.
Some of her former students, who still keep in contact with her, came to the opening of the British Film Institute exhibition that is running until January 15 2023.
John said proudly: “There were eight of them there. People who now have renowned careers, big designers, sitting around and talking to Ann.
“She was holding court, beaming away. It’s really special seeing that people felt that she had been such an inspiration in their lives.”
But John thinks he was her number one student.
“She has been teaching me for 60 years, so if I hadn’t taken anything on board, I would be stupid – that’s why I’m her best student,” he smiled.
And putting on the exhibition has been special for the couple, he said: “Although Ann’s short-term memory is impacted by Alzheimer’s, her long-term memory is mostly intact so it has been wonderful reminiscing together recently about our work.”
The free exhibition, in the Mezzanine Gallery of the British Film Institute, London, runs through to January 15 2023.
If you are worried about or affected by dementia, Alzheimer’s Society is here for you. Call their support line and speak to a Dementia Adviser on 0333 150 3456 or visit alzheimers.org.uk