Harold French

Harold French
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Interview Date(s): 
18 Jan 1991
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Born c 1900, his parents came from Ireland; they had no connections with the theatre – his father etched the scales for clinical thermometers. Lived at Wimbledon. In 1912 saw an advert in The Referee, Italia Conti [stage school DS] looking for a boy who spoke good English. With his 12 pennies he journeyed to Golders Green. Italia Conti were sufficiently impressed, and they went up to the Savoy Theatre. Here he went through the same routine, only this time to Granville Barker; was taken on as understudy for Florizel at £1 10 shillings [£1.50] a week. His father – with overtime – only earned a maximum of £1. 13 shillings a week [£1.65p]. Went into Where the Rainbow Ends. Later into the Royal Air Force as a cadet, discharged because of bronchial trouble, then became a ‘star’ in Basil Dean’s Blue Lagoon. Worked with Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge in the Little Review at the Little Theatre (John Adams Street), various other stage shows, but he says he was going downhill – he hated acting and wanted to write and direct. Took over the Croydon repertory theatre as director, dropping from £100 a week to £10 a week. Went to the Westminster Theatre and directed Youth at the Helm, Alastair Sim’s first comedy part, was transferred to The Globe. Then luck came his way: he went to direct the dialogue on a Marcel Hellman film, starring Douglas Fairbanks jnr, credited director Thornton Freeland; he talks about Cavalier of the Streets which he directed – his first real film credit – then about Major Barbara. (This is a very enlightening section of the interview); Dear Octopus, with Celia Johnson. He also directed the screen version of English without Tears, credited to Terence Rattigan (but not written by him “except for two lines”). He says it was a mishmash. He produced the theatre version of French Without Tears and was asked to direct the film version but declined as the production company wanted to use American actors. He next directed Mr Emmanuel with Felix Aylmer. He emphasised the importance of the writer “with a good script you are home”. He then talks of the difference in directing for theatre and film. He then talks about the three Somerset Maugham films made under the titles Quartet; Trio etc. Then about Dancing Years with Ivor Novello, which he said wasn’t good – he was a lazy man.


Continues with Dancing Years on location in Austria, also various films. Then about Rob Roy with Richard Todd and a Royal Command, and then later meeting the Royals. Various other films and the Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, a story written by Georges Simenon, which was stopped in the end through lack of money. He then talks about the last film he made The Man Who Loved Redheads, taken from a play written by Terence Rattigan, (Who is Sylvia?) and working with Alexander Korda, who, he said had passed his peak and just kept interfering on the set. He then talks a little about the film made during the war years, by the Denham Joint Works Committee, Our Film. Then some general thoughts.



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Harold French Side 2

Right, again, you were saying you need not to sign to you that you like the holidays because people often think that films you're not in the business think they're going on location is a holiday. But of course, it never is. Oh, no specced. So Austria on the dancing is wasn't a holiday, even if you're not ready. Well, I guess. But I loved Austria. It was just after the war and Austria was still being occupied

And I was very interested in that, you know, the Russian and the French thing going about it. And I was desperately sad. We were in Vienna. I went to Vienna, but I met a man in a place where he said, Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. Was that because that was a percentage point of your honor. And it was lovely scenery, but it didn't suit itself. I wrote about it to shoot himself to films to start with, and I was the wrong person to do it as well.

So yes, because the playwright got a musical playwright that needs rethinking for us. Totally. Oh, yes. And dear old, we are at war to them. We are still there is a dead man and I liked him in all of us. And I think I was a silly word and much abused word. I was too loyal to him that I had sort of stuck with him when I should have said no. And that sounds silly. And I find myself and I read it was a bit of a lullaby to him.

He persuaded me to do that. I knew I should do it. Really deep down. I did. Who else was it who was in the film? Was it the Dennis Price is the only one I can remember Dennis Price? Oh, yes. Yeah, he played the developer. Well, he wasn't I mean, it wasn't for him. It wasn't. But, you know, it was a flimsy it wasn't real. Wasn't anything. No, it was a very peculiar, very pretty music that attracted me.

I love music and like music. I'm not I'm afraid of not a great classical man. And I did like the music, I must say. And what do I got? Isn't that wonderful? That's another loyalty to what I enjoyed making that. What was that? That wasn't a musical. That was a straight player. Play is written by Nakama, but he was a script writer. Nowadays, I'd met him when he was writing scripts for a quick as you know and I UNbased.

I've forgotten his name and it seemed to me a good idea at the time, but it wasn't turned out that was in the 50s. It was before that there was a film called The R of 13, which I don't I never heard of. Yes, that was for MGM. I had anybody that I can remember who was in that I was an Englishman who had been who lived in America for a long time and I can't remember his name. And I never have remembered those, not just had it because was just as well.

Was he a star in America or sort of a minor? Yes, Minister. You remember the the group of Sinatra. Oh, that. And he was in that lot, are you.

But I know he was very much asked a lot. Give me give me Rathman. No, I wouldn't have been. No, no, no. It's an older generation, no doubt. Yes. No, no, no. I will know. I know who you mean, but I can't. Yeah, but they used to go out in a gang together in the 40s and 50s and then a historical film, which I think was probably your first venture into that kind of costume thing.

Rob Roy. Oh, yes.

That was yes. I enjoyed making that. Did you do that up in Scotland? Yes. All the extras up in Scotland. Yeah, very cold. Very windy, but enjoyed making it. Who was in that decadent Richard Todd. Oh, yes. And Venus Jones. Oh, yeah. Bernice Johnson, very good to see you. I it's nice. Nice ladies. Yes. Go out with her. Yes. She was on in a number of films that evening.

Yeah. Cos she would be great sense of humor. Yeah. Wonderful. And, and as I said, Ouattara everybody was chosen for a royal command performance. Was it. Yeah. And so you met when that was that was when Elizabeth was on the you fifty three. So you got to meet the royals. Good. Oh yes. Oh that's got to be the royals. Very much sir. Well I said very much so that's boasting I, I saw them.

Yes. And I was well presented or whatever it's called. Just relatives letters. Yes. But it is a few years later I was the queen used to give them informal lunch parties and I was invited to one of those ones. I don't know why, but I went that would be informal.

How informal was it in terms of numbers? I mean, there were quite a number of. But twelve of us really. Yeah. So you it really was informal. So you really had a chance to talk to Longshots the shop. Very, very amiable woman to Dr Verrett. But I've also coming to the end of this forbidden cargo. Yeah, got it. Patrick Nagendra, can you hear us? That's a very good actor. He was a very good actor.

Yeah, fine actor with a great sense of who's very good playing at sort of the with an edge to them. That's right. Over the next year or so. Right. Absolutely. And great again was there is. Oh my God. Again. I still see her. Do you. She's a great friend of my wife's.

She's she's become rather like Lockwood. She's a loner as she is. And she's got plenty a lot of money though. And she sits alone and that won't go out. Was imagining she's ill. She isn't that is that I think she was the lady friend of a producer called Lou Jackson.

Oh yes. I think she have quite a few people. Yes. Because I remember the occasion when I was working. Lou Jackson was a British national. Yeah. And I worked for British National. I remember on one occasion we're having lunch with Lou Jackson. Great again was there and we had my bracelet that she had, you see, and she said, yes, it is nice, isn't it? But, you know, Louis told me that if I leave him, I have to give it back to him.

And so we said, oh, Lou, how could how mean could you be. I mean, really, that's not like you. And so he said, no, it's all right. All right. Great. You can keep it.

I didn't say anything. I shouldn't be telling my stories. Anything more about forbidden cargo that I know. I think I think it was rather in the B picture class, I imagine.

But it was a very it was very good. I went to the home. What was it about smuggling or something that that's spending? You know, I thought it must be that title here. But this is. I got to know a lot of people in customs which interested me very much. Oh, yes, that was big. And I learned from meeting them and they were all very nice. And I was amazed how much they know and how I mean, we think that that had anything to declare, but their work is much bigger than that.

Very, very interesting. It is one of the interesting aspects you must have found throughout your career that in making directing plays or directing films, you learn an awful lot about all sorts of strange. I wonder just because I'm with you. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Rather you learn about smuggling sheep shearing no matter what you.

Yes, I do. Yes, we did it even when we made a Sheila Smith story called during a Garden that was all set in Sheep Country down in the marsh. And so the director and to some extent myself, learn something about sheep shearing and raising sheep, none of which has the slightest you on afterwards, of course.

And then what's the man who loved redheads are the Conrads?

Oh, no, no, no, no, no. The trains go by.

I thought you were to say, no, I didn't. I would not want to watch the trains go by. That was was. Bell rings. Oh, well, yeah. That was a seaman. Oh yeah. Yeah I remember that. Yeah that was good. But it's not on the list. You see these doesn't reference books or not know Washington a bit, but that was interesting. Did you, did you meet Seaman. Oh yes, I met him, yes.

He seemed to be a very strange character from accounts. Yeah. But he was about I met him a script, I'm not sure, but at Browns Hotel. And I liked him very much. But I've got a marvellous. Yes, wonderfully, very here.

And we made that in Paris and then they marched yards and a lot of it and Paris. And unfortunately, it was it should have been a little better. But at this time, for once, it wasn't my fault.

We ran out of money and I wanted to shoot. The last sequence was should have been, what do you know? Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. Train's coming up. Break's going on. Spox coming out at all that thing. And I've forgotten the name Ros something. It was the producer came to me and said, I'm sorry, we've got to stop. That's what I mean. I want another thirty or forty shots. At least he said I can't, but no more money.

So we packed up. I should have been just that in the end. But I was a bit piece together then at the end. Yes, yes. But I was far too long and man didn't build up to what I wanted to show. I want to show. So that was, that was a very great film. Yeah. I suppose it must have been a pick up when it was the last one that you had down here was the one I just mentioned.

That's that's the last one I tried. That was at the very last that's the last picture I made that I was an unhappy one for my. Is that a court order? I didn't get on with Eric, but I knew him before and he. Want to start with add to finish was the story was bad and it was terrible, tragic story because it had been a play called is about oh yes, I remember that time was read, but only because it was very cheap to run in those days, run up there and put money into it to keep it.

Good ad, but. Essentially, it had no story to not read, it was meant to be the story of his father, who was always running after girls with red hair, and he he had written this, but it wasn't it hadn't got the guts to it as a story. And I told us to call. So that's us. But I wanted to work with Calder and my agent, then Burbach that said, oh, you must first quarter.

This is the top job. So I thought it would be too. But I'm not I think I'm right in saying that he had he was past his peak then and he'd become. Old fashioned city website set ideas in the wrong way. And so he was always interfering on the set and we didn't get on terribly well on the set. And the producers, some producers in Hollywood have made. That's right. They have your producer. Yes. Style.

But you don't look at it with a director's shoulder. And, oh, he was restless. And that's maddening for other directors. And even so, it wouldn't have been a good story, wasn't there?

No wonder about it. Yeah, could be because I have to. One thing I wanted to ask you about that, it was the film, little film that you and I were associated with because we haven't recorded this, have we? Never called our film yet. A movie made that I bought, Daryn. And if you tell me your memories of that, you know, we were talking about it and we were talking about it so. Well, first of all, we you know, we didn't know we knew what we wanted to do.

And I think our ambition was absolutely correct. And I think he was right to a war effort as best we could do, and that the management went sometimes up to scratch. Whether we were right or wrong about that, I don't know. But then that's what we wrote about, wasn't it? Yes, more or less. Yes. A little more urgency into the management as well as I guess in general the feeling that everybody could do more and place as a studio, that that's what the denim could devote a stage to doing something.

Yes. Did the shop some of the shops. Now, that's Wallwork. That's right. I'm not craftsmen and technicians and actors do something as far as making a film. And we made a film on that. That's right up to a point. It was a success, wasn't it? Oh, I did very well. It did very well, I think. I don't know who released it. I don't know how it was done through rank because that was it.

He was very good about that, wasn't he? Oh, yes. He he he said you can have the studio in the studio, you know, which after all.

But he shot the whole thing in a week. How long do we take it. Just a week was a week. Was it. Got any around 13 minutes. Did it. I thought it was longer than that. No, it's 13. And I know you're right. I missed it recently and it ran 30 minutes. Yeah. Oh, I edited it. I know you did. It actually was a very easy editing job because you shot it in such a way, you know, quite economically.

I mean, I don't mean well, we had a bearing, but you shot it. So it really went to gas. Very nice. Got it on the floor something. And that's the thing. As an editor, I always appreciated, you know, I didn't know. That's interesting. Well, if we have time for a second thing, I thought an editor didn't like the director.

Well, I don't mean I don't mean on the floor. No, I don't mean it's exactly now. No, but shot in such a way that even if you were going to do some things slightly differently from what the director attended, the possibilities were there. In other words. Oh, God. Material. The shots went together. Yes. You know. Yeah. And as an editor, I've had experience as a director, but for go oh well, that's fine.

Writing something that he directed, you know, that that's sort of what used to be called a montage sequence. Yeah. When I showed it to him, he said, oh, that's not what I intended. And I said, well, I'm sorry. He said, no, no, let's run it again. And we discussed it and kept it more or less the way I'd cut it. And if it was not but the material, the director has to have done it in such a way that it works.

I'm glad.

I know I've done that on that on our film, which many of you about my enjoy.

I remember I enjoyed making it because. But that enthusiasm we all had. Yeah. Yeah. And we all I mean time didn't matter. Tiebreaks didn't matter. Lunch breaks didn't matter.

We just went Oh yes. And we knew we had to do it but it afterward I didn't, I thought it was a bit long but as it was up to thirteen run to thirty minutes. Well we took a week. Well that's fair enough. Yeah. That was about the standard. And the great thing was we all felt we were contributing something to the. That's right. And we all thought we were in us anyway. We did. And interesting things about that was the apparently we had wanted to play in it, but we didn't think that he was would be very appropriate as a shop steward.

So I didn't know he wasn't. Yeah, that was never. You didn't show to me. No, I don't think it was mentioned to you. And we had Johnny Slater. John Slater was much more much more correct in cost.

Oh yes. Very good. He was too. I remember that. To have a big film star playing. Yeah. A steward shot down to. Well, yes, it worked terribly well, certainly to such a good actor that he might have convinced to say, oh, I suppose he might have done that. I up working for that. He was a great man. But I think the I think his personality would have come through not. Yeah, true.

That's right. And that's rather like going back to my original thing about trying to get a job and yourself. Hell, yes. Yeah. The moment he walked on that, it was it was that. And that's what you said early on. You know nothing about getting to about editing and so on. On the films I did with with Leslie. He insisted that I was on the floor all the time. I was just in, but he didn't know.

So that if there's anything any comment I want to make. He could all shot, I would like to have he would do it immediately instead of having to wait until he saw the thing put together, which is like you said, you know, you went. That's right. Somebody should have learned from you. You know, it was terrible if he didn't like that. So you said you were lazy, but I don't find that easy to to believe.

But looking back over your whole career, would you have wanted to do anything? Oh, no. Oh, now, one of the main from that. I mean, I had I didn't know for a long time that I didn't like acting, you know. Yeah. It dawned on me what a silly thing it was to do. I mean, that was my fault. But on the other hand, did it not help later on when you came to direct actor?

Yes, of course it did tremendously.

I mean, I was always I think I was called an actor's director and I wish I knew more as David was doing more about a camera than I will ever know when I first met him in more about a camera than I ever did.

And he had this wonderful capacity. You know, he went from a long shot to go smack into a Close-Up, which was exciting. Yes.

But I think Carol Reed was always called a an actor's director. Yes, I suppose he was. I mean, because, again, like you. Yes, exactly. And being on the stage, he'd been on the stage. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But the Wicked Witch of the Witch is the period of your life gave you the most enjoyment. I think between for making films, really making films that really did. I loved it and whether it was a sense of grandeur or whatever, it was my dream.

And don't forget Penner's, don't forget that I always consider them quite important. And luckily, when I was as little as we were saying, one doesn't get a percentage. Now, perhaps I might have been a rich man, but I never it never went to my stupid head to spend a lot of money so that we've always I mean, my first wife, as you know, was killed in the Blitz and during Major Bárbara. And then I was lucky enough to marry a woman I married to NOPEC.

And even when I was earning what in those days was big money, we live very simply and enjoyed ourselves. And so touchwood, I am quite happy here.

I'm not broke and I don't want to bother anybody. Right.

You know, we're doing this on behalf of were you know, I can't remember what you remember. No, no. We were a member of equity though.

No, I was never I've never a member of anything. I really enjoyed Joiner Longinus.

Yes. I don't think I know I am a non effort to be a member of equity. When you were in fact. No, no. In those days they didn't have a close, you know, didn't have a close shop and they didn't have ACTU. But I was I asked, you know, something else I set to you that I didn't have to be there and I didn't want to be. I don't know why I like walking by myself.

The cat walk so so is probably fell over on the way over. It doesn't matter.

So you're not going to write another book about it. No, no. Definitely know. Since you retired. No, no. Definitely not. Because that's it. Yeah. OK, well I think I haven't got anything. No I think it still be surprised. I hope I've been I know a lot of nonsense but I hope I've been of some help.

No, no, it's it's very interesting because although, of course, you know, you've written those two books which everybody researching got into into the history of British films. But now you've got a baby. Not know what is important. I think you get an idea of personality. Yeah. From listening to an actual tape. Yeah, that's the person. But you can't get from from book control, etc.. And I think you've got everything. Well I think if it's great.

Well it's lovely to have met you again. Oh lovely. And so thank you very much. Not a very thank you for coming. A lot pleasant and entertaining interview. Thank you.


The interviewer recommends Harold French's two volume autobiography  I swore I never Would (1970) and I Never Thought I Could (1973).