Jonathan Balcon Side 1
Roy Fowler 0:00
The day is the 1st August 2001. Um I should add the copyright of the following recording is vested with the BECTU History Project, if that's agreeable to you Jonathan, and the subject we're about to embark I suspect on a marathon discussion is with Jonathan Balcon, who is the son of Michael Balcon. Jonathan now, we're going to range over vast areas of territory so where do we start in this? I think maybe the Balcon family itself, the origins and ...
Jonathan Balcon 0:35
Yes Roy I think probably you are right. But can I just say that to start as it were in the middle, as I think you know, he was knighted in 1947 for services to the British film industry during the war. He was also a Knight First Class of the Order of St. Olaf, Norway, which he and Charlie Frend acquired I think because of the "Return of the Vikings", I'm not sure about that. He was also a Chevallier Des Arts et Des Lettres, France and curiously enough, my sister was in Paris the day he died, buying the Insignia because in fact the French are too mean to give it to you. But there we are. He was a Fellow of the British Film Institute; he was a Fellow of the Royal College of Art; he was an Honorary D Lit Sussex University and he was chairman of the various companies later in life that we'll come to. But let us go back to the beginning. He was born in Birmingham in 1896. Now 1896 is always taken to be the year that the British film industry was discovered as it were and came into being. So it is rather nice to think that in 1996, was the centenary of the British film industry and in fact in 1996, if my mathematics are correct, Mick would have been 105. He had he was the, with his sister Nettie, he was the youngest of five he had two other brothers and an older sister. His two older brothers, Chan, of course, who was a regular soldier to all intents and purposes and had been to university and fought with some distinction in the First World War worked for Mick at Ealing and indeed before then at Gaumont. And it's quite amusing that there was I understand at the old Gaumont Studios, a long corridor, which was known as the Polish Corridor because the Balcons were at the end of it! Anyway, he, the family was a middle-class Birmingham family, my grandfather, who I knew quite well, Louis, was an extraordinary man who never really did a stroke of work all through his life. My grandmother I never knew, Mick's mother, I'm always given to understand that she couldn't speak very good English. And when in late 1890s, early 1900s, Louis said he was just going out to take the dog for a walk in fact he was going to South Africa to try and earn his fortune. It took us some weeks to realise that a) he never went for a walk anywhere and b) they hadn't got a dog. But that is an apocryphal family story, but quite an amusing one.
Roy Fowler 3:53
Where had the family originally come from in Europe?
Jonathan Balcon 3:56
Well now this is an interesting point. The Ukraine covered a large amount of territory. On the other hand, at times parts of the Ukraine belonged to Poland. So they came from somewhere around a town, which is now in Poland, called Konin, K O N I N and a book has been written called Konin by Theodore Richmond, I think his name is, which describes this town in detail - it was totally destroyed by the Germans in the last war. But my cousin Dorothy, who was the daughter of one of Mick's brothers, has done a lot of research on the family and has come up with the fact that some of our antecedents did come from this particular part of the world - whether Louis did or not I don't know. The other distinguished member of the family who also came from that part of the world and his grandfather was Louis' brother, was my distant cousin Sir John Balcombe, B A L C O M B E, who was a Lord of Appeal and a very distinguished judge, who died last year and had the most marvellous ecumenical service in the Great Hall at Lincoln's Inn. I did query with him why the name was spelt differently, he said when they first came over to this country it was in fact spelt B A L C O N and his father changed it when his father started working here, but I don't know how true that is. The other story that goes around of course is that depending on what port of entry an immigrant came in, the immigration officer wrote down the name of the person as he thought it was spelt phonetically. This is as maybe but to side track for a moment in 1944, when I was with Mick down in Mevagissey when they were making "Johnny Frenchmen", the Breton fishing fleet was in Mevagissey, waiting to go back to Brittany, which was about to be liberated and it was in charge of a captain whose name was Michel Balcon. So whether or not the name originated in France I just don't know but as you as you realise the French word balcon call means balcony. Numerous friends over my last 69 years have sent me postcards of the Hotel du Balcon from various parts of France. Anyway, he had a conventional grammar School education Mick, quite a good rugby player. He had a congenital defect in his left eye, in which he wasn't quite blind, but it did prevent him, his eyesight, from being called up in the First World War when all his brothers went off to fight and Chan indeed ended up the war a Half Colonel. But Mick went off to Dunlops, where he met Sir Charles Tennyson, as he subsequently was, and of course out of that bloomed the relationship and the subsequent employment of Pen, which we'll come to in a minute. I have at home here his quote 'Certificate of Protection' unquote. Evidently the ladies of Birmingham in the days when the war was on in 1915 if they saw a young man on the streets who they thought was worthy of military service they would go up and present him with a white feather but if you waived your 'Certificate of Protection' at them they used to take their white feathers back. Mick always used to say, tell quite an amusing story because one of our neighbours later in Sussex in fact, was Bill Slim, the famous Field Marshal and he and Bill in fact did go along to join up in a "Pals Battalion" a Birmingham Pals Battalion on the same day, and Mick always says the only difference between the two of them really was that Bill Slim ended up as C.I.G.S., and Mick ended up as a Lieutenant in The Home Guard. But that was the sum total of his military service and I have in fact also got his home guard identity card. He served in Dunlops, as I said, from about 1915 onwards, he literally started on the shop floor fitting solid rubber tyres onto lorry wheels. He then in fact, was taken out of that and given a job in the accounts department, I think bookkeeping, and he always had a very good financial and mathematical brain. Although later in life he spent his time thinking he was going bankrupt. Anyway when the war was over, and thanks to the good offices of various people, not least of all um CJ Wolf ...
Roy Fowler 3:56
Jonathan Balcon 9:43
CM Wolf sorry, CM Wolf yes, I do get names wrong. He formed with Victor Saville a production company making advertising films. This was in 1919 and it was not unnaturally called The Victory Motion Picture Company. And Victor Saville himself was also a Birmingham boy and they'd obviously known each other and in what I imagined in Birmingham in those days was a comparatively close Jewish community.
Jonathan Balcon 10:13
They weren't related ...
Jonathan Balcon 10:15
They weren't related,
Roy Fowler 10:16
I'd heard they were cousins.
Jonathan Balcon 10:17
No, no, no. They did have a big fallout later on in life. But as a result of their success making advertising films they teamed up again in 1923, and raised sufficient money through what was then the National Provinicial Bank and CM Wolf, to make a film called "Woman to Woman"
Roy Fowler 10:47
Jonathan Balcon 10:49
And apart from being a good film, and a film that made a lot of money, it was famous because they actually employed an American actress called Constance Smith?
Roy Fowler 11:03
I wouldn't be sure.
Jonathan Balcon 11:05
I would have to look that up.
Roy Fowler 11:06
Yes, yes. But it would be a matter of records.
Jonathan Balcon 11:08
Yup, at a 1000 pounds a week. So even if you needed a fortnight's work in those days for 2000 pounds that was a great deal of money.
Roy Fowler 11:17
Well that was a Hollywood rate I would have thought ...
Jonathan Balcon 11:20
I would have thought
Roy Fowler 11:20
It would have been $5,000 a week.
Jonathan Balcon 11:21
Roy Fowler 11:23
Tell me, tell me Jon did he ever given an indication what attracted him to the film industry in the first place?
Jonathan Balcon 11:30
I think as a boy he used to go to the what, weren't they Penny Arcades or whatever?
Roy Fowler 11:38
Yes I suppose they were yes. Where they had the crank machines. Yes.
Jonathan Balcon 11:43
Yes that's right. And I think this fascinated him. And I think goodness knows where he got it from there was a vague sort of creative urge inside him and I think he felt it was a medium that he would like to be involved in, it was new, it was exciting.
Roy Fowler 11:59
Right. Was he adventurous do you think as a young man, in that sense that he would latch on to a new idea and pursue it?
Jonathan Balcon 12:08
I think yes he was. I think yes he was, I think he wanted to get out really of the rather sort of closed Birmingham, middle-class rut that he felt he was in. And I think he felt that this was, I think it was greatly helped by CM. I don't quite know how CM came on the scene originally, except, of course, in later life we were always friendly with John and Victor Saville, of course, was John's son-in law.
Roy Fowler 12:37
I did ask John once, that's to say John Wolf, how his father got into the business and he said he wanted to start a family business. Just after the war with his father, with his brother-in-law, I believe.
Jonathan Balcon 12:52
Yeah, yes, and this sounds absolutely fine.
Roy Fowler 12:57
And by the time your father came along he was quite a figure in the distribution business was he not?
Jonathan Balcon 13:03
Roy Fowler 13:04
Jonathan Balcon 13:05
Roy Fowler 13:05
Because it was W & F Films I think.
Jonathan Balcon 13:08
Yeah, that's right.
Roy Fowler 13:10
So that explains your father presumably went to him to say, look we want to make this film will you back us?
Jonathan Balcon 13:17
Yup. I think that in those early days I'm sure that's what happened. But then of course we jump ahead very slightly. and we get I think it's to 1923, '24 and he and Victor Saville and various other people including ... Oh, goodness, it'll come to me in a minute. He was the father of quite a well known actress of the day, founded Gainsborough pictures.
Roy Fowler 13:54
I'm not at all sure, can't help.
Jonathan Balcon 13:57
Yeah. I'll have to look him up. Cutts, Patricia Cutts, Jack Cutts.
Roy Fowler 14:05
Jonathan Balcon 14:06
Sorry I'm getting like you, I don't always remember names. Anyway they acquired Islington Studios. Now Islington Studios had been owned by Famous Players-Lasky I believe, and Famous Players-Lasky had not made any money in their British production ventures and we're only too pleased to sell the studios to Mick for £14,000. And in fact, if you go there, even today although the site is being developed, on the big wrought-iron gates into the yard it quite clearly says Gainsborough Pictures, or Gainsborough Productions. And I believe the gates have got a preservation order slapped on them.
Roy Fowler 14:58
Yes I would think so. Right. So they are the original, the first Gainsborough company gates are they?
Jonathan Balcon 15:04
Yup. By acquiring Islington, of course he acquired Hitchcock. Because Hitchcock, at that time had been writing, I don't know what you call them captions for silent films, he'd also been in the art department and he was desperate to direct pictures. And I believe that they had given him the opportunity to direct in a minor way one or two smaller pictures. But he in fact was given his first major opportunity by Mick which was "The Lodger" with Ivor Novello in them in the main part. I think people forget that Ivor Novello, the great romantic figure of the '30s and '40s was in fact alive in the First World War, very much so, and wrote that famous song "Keep the Home Fires Burning".
Roy Fowler 16:03
Jonathan Balcon 16:07
My mother always had a thing about Ivor I mean, we all know what his leanings were, but she she thought he was the most lovely person. And I remember when he did eventually die, she was totally devastated. But there we are, she was inclined to be over emotional at times, like others in my family.
Roy Fowler 16:25
I guess Ivor was the archetypal luvvie was he not?
Jonathan Balcon 16:28
I suppose this was it, and one used to see him. I mean, I remember seeing him during the war sitting at lunch in the Ivy, you know with with with various women swooning all round him [LAUGHTER] But the Hitchcock era really started. And then of course, Islington went on to make films with various people, including in Germany, he went to Ufa for a time and of course Adrian Brunel worked for him. Christopher, as you all know, and will remember, was a leading light in the ACTT when it was when it was going, and his mother in fact, and I didn't know this until she died, had been quite a well-known silent film actress. I can't remember what her name was but Babs, in fact married Adrian, and I don't know how many people know this but Adrian was also the spitting image of Claude Rains. And in that ghastly Gabby Pascal film "Caesar and Cleopatra" many of the scenes it was in fact Adrian they shot and not Claude Rains. He he did a stand in for them, I think at that time he was fairly short of funds and they lived in a modest way in Gerrards Cross and I think he was only too glad to be called back to Denham studios to do this small ...
Jonathan Balcon 16:28
Well that's fascinating because there were great problems between Rains and Pascal and also for tax purposes ...
Jonathan Balcon 18:09
Oh I'm not surprised.
Roy Fowler 18:09
... great problems yeah.
Jonathan Balcon 18:13
About this time, of course, the Ostrers were developing Gaumont British at Shepherds Bush. And in that great year 1931, which was the year I was born, he was invited Mick to become production head at the new Gaumont Studios in Shepherds Bush. And a great era of British filmmaking started really and then, as you know it. I may be wrong in my assessment of this but I always think in that period the British film industry constant, concentrated rather too much on British middle-class habits almost exclusively and embarrassingly and all the men changed into white tie and tails for cocktail parties and dinner parties and ...
Roy Fowler 19:10
And the rest of the British population was represented by Kathleen Harrison as ...
Jonathan Balcon 19:16
The eastenders were rather a joke and the police force of course was even more of a joke. But there we are, it's it's curious even in the comedies with Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge they were always on very much middle-class subjects. My recollection, I didn't really start my film going until much later in life but I've I've caught up a great deal on the older films, and until the great Hitchcock era, but even there when you look at films like "The Man Who Knew Too Much", and "The 39 Steps" and "The Lady Vanishes" of Hitchcock they were all again on middle-class subjects really. Now, there's an interesting story about "The Man Who Knew Too Much" Roy which you may know and that is Hitch, who was establishing himself by this time, with Mick running both Islington and Gaumont British Studios at Shepherds Bush, Hitch came to him in 1935 I think it was, and had with him the synopsis for "The Man Who Knew Too Much". And Mick liked the synopsis and said to Hitch, "What do they want for it?', '£500' said Hitch. 'Right' said Mick, 'Give it to them.' What Hitch didn't tell Mick was he'd bought it for £100. As a result of which, of course, his Catholic conscience pricked him and he commissioned a sculptor called Epstein to do a very nice bronze bust of Mick, which is now reposing in the National Portrait Gallery. And if anybody could be bothered to go up to the first floor into the whatever it is the contemporary or not contemporary but well-known figures of the last century, he's behind a pillar in the sun and very happy.
Roy Fowler 21:17
Was that a donation to the nation or did that stay in the family?
Jonathan Balcon 21:21
It was, I in fact, when I heard that Puttnam was anxious to acquire it for BAFTA, I offered it to the National Portrait Gallery, which I thought was a better venue. And the family did receive money for it. Not a lot, but I mean, market, market value I would have thought. We had it at the Grey House in Seal for some time and it used to wear a fur hat in winter and a straw hat in the summer. And it really ought to be exhibited because it's a very, very good likeness. 1931 of course, he had, the year I was born he had a nervous breakdown whether or not it was enhanced by my arrival or not I don't know.
Roy Fowler 22:11
Your sister preceded you by how long?
Jonathan Balcon 22:13
Seven years, seven years and has never forgotten it [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 22:19
Maybe it was she who occasioned the break down who knows.
Jonathan Balcon 22:22
Could have been, could have been.
Roy Fowler 22:24
But do you have any idea why possibly he was getting a little unstrung? It was, do you think it was the Ostrers ...
Jonathan Balcon 22:28
I think he was doing too much.
Roy Fowler 22:30
Jonathan Balcon 22:30
And of course even in those days although he had a permanent contract, or seemed to have a permanent contract with Gaumont British ... their lifestyle even in 1931 was pretty good and I think you know, expenses always rained fairly, fairly heavily in the family and he spent most of his life always thinking as I said that he was going to go broke. Luckily he never did. But the period with the Ostrer's of course, was again a curious one. But he met some marvellously interesting, or he had some marvellously interesting people who passed through his hands, most of whom became the great filmmakers of ...
Roy Fowler 23:19
Jonathan Balcon 23:20
... the last century. One of the more interesting ones who I was very fond of was Ivor Montagu, son of a peer, member of the Communist Party, a man of the dirtiest fingernails I've ever seen in my life [LAUGHTER]
Jonathan Balcon 23:20
A member of a great banking family.
Roy Fowler 23:38
A member of a great banking family but an absolutely super chap. And I remember there was an occasion, I can't remember what the occasion actually was, but Ivor was going to, I think it was probably a first night, possibly even of 'The 39 Steps" on which Ivor worked but, Mick made Ivor go out and hire a dinner jacket which he'd never had. Because he'd paid the higher fee Mick said he arrived at the studio in the morning wearing this bloody thing and remained in it for the rest of the day [LAUGHTER].
Roy Fowler 24:12
Roy Fowler 24:13
It was during, Roy, his period at Gaumont that they made "Jew Süss"
Roy Fowler 24:19
Right before we get onto that just a short step backwards: how well did he get on with the Ostrers at the beginning? Any idea?
Jonathan Balcon 24:30
My recollection is that at the beginning fine but there was a sort of armed neutrality between them. I don't think they interfered too deeply.
Roy Fowler 24:42
They were a mixed bunch anyway.
Jonathan Balcon 24:44
Oh very odd lot. The one I knew best was, was it Isadore?
Roy Fowler 24:49
Isador was the money man.
Jonathan Balcon 24:51
Who wrote about Geld.
Roy Fowler 24:52
He was the brilliant one, yes.
Jonathan Balcon 24:54
I met him at Upper Parrick and I thought he was er sort of intellectually way above have us all and talked in terms that seemed absolutely marvellous. The boys, the boys were, one of the boys was my was my contemporary at school. The older boy I can't remember, one of them married, it was older boy I think, married a cinema usherette which didn't go down frightfully well with the Ostrer family. But I think, I don't quite know latterly what went wrong and why he left Gaumont or why his contract was terminated. But it was certainly I think they had a disagreement about the type of films that Gaumont we're making which were costing too much money and not making enough.
Roy Fowler 25:47
So Mick really wanted to conquer the, the international market, which has always been the Holy Grail, hasn't it?
Jonathan Balcon 25:53
I think so, yes I think so but of course was a total reversal afterwards. Well we'll come to that.
Roy Fowler 26:00
Jonathan Balcon 26:01
We'll come to that.
Roy Fowler 26:02
You mentioned "Jew Süss", which was indeed one of the more expensive pictures and failed in the States.
Jonathan Balcon 26:07
Yup, during the making of "Jew Süss", of course, which I think was '36?
Jonathan Balcon 26:14
Around, there yes.
Jonathan Balcon 26:16
Hitler had been in power in Germany for some time, three or four years and the German Embassy sent a delegation down to the studios to ask for the film to be dropped. They of course got their marching orders. The film was not dropped, it wasn't as you said, an enormous success. And the interesting thing, of course is that the Nazi Party remade it in 1939 in Germany but with a totally different ending. So it was obviously even in those days a very controversial subject. This Jewish thing in the family is very odd because it was something Mick never told us, any of us about. He never had any religious teaching himself and it's something that certainly Jill and myself were never conscious of as children. Although K???'s there's a marvellous photograph, of which I have a copy of going back to Mick's father when he was in Johannesburg, he was made an elder of the first synagogue that had been built in Johannesburg. And this was roundabout the time of the Jameson Raid and all that, but they thought it would be only polite to invite Oom Paul down from Pretoria to open it. And the Presidential train duly arrived, and Oom Paul descended in his stovepipe hat and he was taken to the doors of this synagogue. And he stood in the doorway and he removed his stovepipe hat and he said, 'In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I declare this synagogue open'. [LAUGHTER] And I have this photograph of the elders, one of whom was my grandfather, looking absolutely shattered as though a thunder bolt had struck them [LAUGHTER].
Roy Fowler 28:24
Because of that phrase?
Jonathan Balcon 28:26
Because of that phrase. With Oom Paul sitting in the middle looking quite unconcerned.
Roy Fowler 28:30
Jonathan Balcon 28:31
But that's another nice little piece of family history you know, that ...
Roy Fowler 28:37
Does that mean there's any sense of Jewish identity or total thorough assimilation?
Jonathan Balcon 28:42
Roy Fowler 28:43
And Mick was what first generation in effect was he?
Jonathan Balcon 28:48
First generation English.
Roy Fowler 28:50
Yes, born in this country.
Jonathan Balcon 28:51
Yes. Although Philip Kemp has discovered a birth certificate of Louis' saying he was born in Aberdeen, and I said, it must be a forgery [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 29:01
Jonathan Balcon 29:01
It was much more likely he came over on an onion boat and landed in Aberdeen. Oh, no, no, there was no doubt about it, there was no sense of that at all. Except, of course, he was obviously extremely worried by the news coming out of Germany. He was instrumental, he in fact he employed Renata Muller in a film. He was responsible indirectly for getting a number of Jewish German actors and actresses out of Germany by offering them contracts.
Jonathan Balcon 29:35
Technicians too I believe.
Jonathan Balcon 29:37
Technicians, I believe. Now we were always, we always rather thought that he was on the Nazi death list for as and when they landed over here. In fact, I've got a copy of the death list and he's not on it, but the Ostrers are. [LAUGHTER]
Jonathan Balcon 30:32
Probably not because they were Jewish though [LAUGHTER]
Jonathan Balcon 29:58
But there's no doubt about it I mean that we would have been gonners as well. We'll come to that in a minute. The Gaumont British episode I think, I know that he was paid I think his salary in 1931 was certainly £2,000 a year which was again a lot of money. And it was at that time while still owning Tufton Street where the Westminster City Council in their wisdom put up the green plaque and where you and I first met.
Jonathan Balcon 30:36
I started there that wasn't Westminster.
Jonathan Balcon 30:38
Well you started, yes, of course you did. And as a result of which now English Heritage have got on to the ballgame, but as well as owning tufton Street, which incidentally after the war he sold for £5,000 [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 30:56
Oh well the heart bleeds.
Jonathan Balcon 30:57
He hired or rented a house not very far from here at Ide Hill called Henden Manor, most beautiful house, I've got photographs of it. Where I was brought up as a child and curiously enough there was a kindergarten in the, in the village - sorry he's barking at the dustman - there was a kindergarten in the village run by a dear lady called Mrs McDonald where Sally and I first met, because she lived on the other side of Ide Hill and I lived this side of Ide hill, we did lose touch after that. But Henden Manor was the most lovely house and he very much wanted to buy it, but he also very much wanted to have, as Jill I think once said in a television programme about Ealing, he wanted a little bit of England. And the house was owned by Hudson who was then the Minister of Agriculture, and an MP obviously, and it had a farm attached to it but Hudson would have sold him the house but not the farm and um as a result of which we moved literally just across the border into Sussex. But this was all happening at about the time that he left Gaumont British in 1937 and went and joined Metro Goldwyn as production head of MGM UK.
Roy Fowler 32:26
Had he put himself on the market or did they come to him do you think?
Jonathan Balcon 32:31
I rather had a feeling they came to him, I'd have to check in his book about that. I've got a copy, I've got the original somewhere of the most ecstatic, nauseating Western Union cablegram from Louis B Mayer welcoming them both to Hollywood. My mother hated every moment of it and in fact started writing a diary which I have the first 15, 20 pages of, which is almost unpublishable.
Roy Fowler 33:12
Written when she was when she was in Los Angeles at Metro?
Jonathan Balcon 33:17
At Metro. Father tells some quite amusing stories about Metro, not least of all the one, Louis B Mayer, being again of Jewish extraction, and having been a poor boy on the streets of New York, the one thing that he'd always wanted when he was poor, was chicken noodle soup - Jewish penicillin. And every meal served in the restaurant in Hollywood there was always chicken noodle soup on the menu. And whenever there was a celebration for Louis' birthday, whatever anniversary it was, always the first course was chicken noodle soup. And on this particular occasion, I think it was his birthday party, and it was obviously quite an important birthday party because there was an enormous tent erected on the lot, and there was flunkies in white wigs and white gloves who leaned over you with their golden cords dangling in your chicken noodle soup and said, 'Can I get you guys anything?' Anyway, whether it was an excess of chicken noodle soup, or whether it was a foretaste of things to come, suddenly in the middle of this Louis B Mayer collapsed and it was wind round the heart or something but one of the flunkies dashed out to get an ambulance and as he dashed out the MGM Symphony Orchestra which was waiting outside thought this was the scene [LAUGHTER] for them to strike up for 'He's a Jolly Good Fellow' [LAUGHTER] And this macarbre scene took place with Louis B Mayer being taken out almost as it were on a door, or on a stretcher, and the MGM Symphony Orchestra playing away 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow' followed by I think 'Happy Birthday to You' [LAUGHTER]. And it was one of the scenes that always remained in Mick's mind. He made, as you know, one major film for them which was successful, which was "A Yank at Oxford", um Vivien Lee, Robert Taylor. And even in those days he said the teenyboppers used to stand outside the windows of Robert, Robert Taylor's. [DOG BARKING IN BACKGROUND] Is that going to worry you?
Roy Fowler 36:00
Well, no, it's okay it's way off in the background. Like I'm not even sure I can hear it on the cans.
Jonathan Balcon 36:07
Oh that's alright. They used to stand under the window of Robert Taylor's room at the Ritz and catch his dogends as he threw them out of the window [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 36:17
Tell me, have you ever read Graham Greene's piece called 'Film Lunch'?
Roy Fowler 36:22
Roy Fowler 36:23
Ah, there was a glorious luncheon given by LB at the Savoy to launch the production of "A Yank at Oxford", your father must have been there, and apparently he made a speech, everyone was going to be restricted to 15 minutes, but he droned on for a couple of hours [LAUGHTER]. I have it now I'll make you a copy it's fascinating. It beautifully written needless to say.
Roy Fowler 36:46
I'd love to.
Roy Fowler 36:48
Right. I'll give it, we are meeting next week so I'll bring a copy.
Roy Fowler 36:53
Roy Fowler 36:53
It was in Night and Day, if you remember Night and Day, the the English answer to, the British answer to the New Yorker, which failed. Anyway.
Jonathan Balcon 37:03
Well, then, of course, "A Yank", I don't know whether it was successful at the box office, I think it must of ...
Roy Fowler 37:12
Immensley so, a great hit.
Jonathan Balcon 37:14
He then also set about setting up or arranging the preliminaries on "Goodbye, Mr Chips." when something went seriously wrong, I don't quite know what it was whether he had a row with Irving Thalberg or whether he had a row with somebody. But he went out to Hollywood and I understand that in front of an open window and a crowd of several thousand extras Louis shouted at the top of his voice, 'If it takes a million dollars Balcon I'll break you' to which Mick quite rightly replied, 'Oh I can assure you it won't take as much as that' and walked out.
Roy Fowler 37:52
It's documented is it?
Jonathan Balcon 37:54
That's documented, yup.
Roy Fowler 37:55
That's lovely, that's great.
Jonathan Balcon 37:57
And he had of course, we must go back a bit now let's go back to "39 Steps" at Gaumont. One of the assistant directors at "39 Steps", on "39 Steps" was Pen Tennyson, now Pen I suppose was the nearest thing I had to a brother in as much as my father, in the healthiest possible way, absolutely adored him. I think Pen represented everything Mick would like to have been, and in fact everything he hoped that I might become. Pen was good looking; he came from an established English family; he was artistically bent and I mean the word in the leaning sense; he was mad about films and he had two delightful parents in Charles and Ivy who were his mother and father. Ayway, and this is a perfectly true story and I'm sure the film industry know it ... what was the name of the female lead in "39 Steps" wasn't Merle Oberon it was ...
Roy Fowler 38:36
No Madeline Carroll.
Roy Fowler 39:26
Madeline Carroll in one of the scenes where she had to totter across a Scottish bog in high-heeled shoes, refused to do it. So without any more ado Hitch made her take-off the suit she was wearing, acquired a blonde wig, put Pen into the suit, put the wig on Pen and made Pen do the shot in long-shot. And in fact when you see this figure running across the bog in Scotland, it's Penrose Tennyson and not Madeline Carroll.
Roy Fowler 40:03
A nice little sidelight.
Jonathan Balcon 40:05
It is a nice little sidelight. But Pen became as it were part of my father's team and when he finally left MGM as you probably know, Basil Dean had been making a series of pretty awful films at Ealing and had put various stars under contract, I think probably the best of the bunch that he made was the one with Gracie Fields, which again rather mocked the working class, but it it "Sing As We Go". Is that the one?
Roy Fowler 40:49
Well that was a Gracie Fields film. I think there were several Fields that were made at Ealing at that time.
Jonathan Balcon 40:54
And Stephen Courthauld who was was the majority shareholder at Associated Talking Pictures, which was the holding company at Ealing, had said to Reg Baker, who was the managing director, 'Reg, you know, I've got to get rid of Dean and this crowd making, losing money hand over fist at Ealing. Can you find me somebody who can make films?' And it is alleged Reg Baker, said, 'Well, Steven, the only person I know who's available at the moment, if he's available, is Mick Balcon' and this is alluded to in fact in Steven Courthauld's, or the Eltham Palace booklet that you get when you go around the palace there's a little bit about this and about Mick in that. Anyway, Mick said to Reg Baker, 'Look, I have no intention of tying myself down under contract to any production organisation. But what I am quite prepared to do is to come in with my team' and I think his team consisted of people like Walter Ford, Pen Tennyson, Mick, I'd have to get the list of films that, those early Ealing films that he was responsible for to give you the full list, I've got it upstairs. But it was, he said, 'I will come in with my team and we will be an independent company within your organisation but we won't be tied down.' Anyway Mick always alleged when he got there on the first day there in the parking bay was a large measure saying Michael Balcon Esquire, and he said he knew he was lost then. And we know the subsequent story from there, but they did initially, they made a number of films: "There Ain't No Justice", "The Ware Case", Jimmy Handley was in one or two of them.
Jonathan Balcon 41:47
As a child presumably?
Jonathan Balcon 43:04
No in "There Ain't No Justice", Jimmy was a teenager, he was a boxer. And I think he became a drunk later in life you know, whether it was when he was first married to Diana or not I didn't know. But I always thought Jimmy was a lovely actor and I thought, again I'm rushing ahead a bit, but his performance in "The Blue Lamp" was absolutely superb. But um I've also there is a nice little, upstairs, which you'll see ...
Roy Fowler 43:37
Before you go on though let me change the tape.
End of Side 1
Roy Fowler 0:01
School's out since.
Jonathan Balcon 0:02
Roy Fowler 0:04
Right sir, you were about to say?
Jonathan Balcon 0:06
Yes, what was I about to say?
Roy Fowler 0:07
Er, ah ...
Jonathan Balcon 0:13
Upstairs which you will see in the computer room as I call it, I've got framed a pound note and a ten shilling note in a glass frame with 'Walter always pays' written as a sort of caption on it. And evidently, Walter Ford at some stage must have borrowed thirty bob off Mick for something and it must have worried Mick [LAUGHTER]. So Walter instead of paying him back actually had the thing framed and given to Mick, but I don't know quite what the origin of that. His association with Edgar Wallace was obviously quite a happy one. I've got a marvellous cigarette holder upstairs about that long, which says a 'Happy New Year from Edgar Wallace'.
Roy Fowler 1:01
Right, this is an audio tape so that long is what about a foot something like that?
Jonathan Balcon 1:05
No a bit bit shorter than that about eight inches. And those early films I think we're reasonably successful. I know that one of the contracts he had to take on when he eventually became production head at Ealing. And I think he acquired with Reg Baker, quite a number of Associated Talking Picture shares from Steven Courthauld. One of the contracts he had taken on was George Formby, of course, well now, whereas we all know that George Formby was a talented player of the ukulele, his wife I understand was the most formidable and unpleasant person who had to be dealt with and kept a very, very close eye on what George got up to particularly where the ladies were concerned. We now come actually to the point where I saw my first film, and I saw it in the Granada as it was then in Sevenoaks, and it was George Formby in "It's in the Air" which I think was directed by Anthony Kimmins. Anthony Kimmins famous as you probably know for the commentary during the war on the Malta convoy even more famous for a pl, very bad play right call "While Parents Sleep" and I think ...
Jonathan Balcon 1:21
And a very bad film he made for Korda called "Bonnie Prince Charlie".
Roy Fowler 2:21
I was going to say and various other reasonably [LAUGHTER], bad films but an interesting character and I never really knew Tony I met him. But then you see Jill and I were, to a certain extent we led a very protected life particularly at Henden Manor going back for a fraction. And it was a, of Mick's thought a conventional English way of bringing up children, we had nanny, a housekeeper, a man servant who drank, a parlour maid and two people in the garden and Jill and nanny and I stayed in the house all the time. And were brought down on a Sunday to Sunday lunch, particularly if there were guests obviously, where Mick and Aileen having arrived home on a Friday night, I and my Daniel Neil shirts and shorts with little Cromwellian shoes. And the moment lunch was over we were dispatched back to the nursery where we stayed for the rest of the week. But I mean, in a way it was a very happy childhood, I don't remember being terribly unhappy as a child. My own ...
Roy Fowler 3:51
How did you regard your father with awe or as a remote figure?
Jonathan Balcon 3:57
A rather remake figure. You see he used to, around that period he used to disappear off to Hollywood and Hollywood was something one had heard about but didn't really know what it was. One's life really revolved around nanny, the garden, ones toys and of course the occasions when we were taken up to London to a pantomime. Because in addition, this was the other extraordinary thing, in addition to Henden Manor and subsequently Upper Parrick, he not only had Tufton Street, which he let, he had a flat in Lansdowne House in Berkeley Square. And it was really I think as a result of owning all this bricks and mortar that he finally decided that he ought to sell Tufton Street. It was during the war completely destroyed by enemy action. It was um I'm just gonna have a cough clear rebuilt as my mother would have liked it by the war damage commission and I have very little recollection of being there, I do remember being a pageboy at my cousin's wedding and that was about all. My, all my recollections, childhood recollections are Henden Manor and at Upper Parrick. But enough of that, he he yes he was a I suppose a remote figure. I remember some very curious things he he never drove a motor car. It's always alleged he was involved in an accident in the Edgware Road very early on and swore he'd never drive. So he always had a chauffeur. He always had, we only had in in my lifetime, we had two chauffeurs both from the same family, father and son. They were both called Shackleton. And I remember well, it must have been about Munich time, we came down on a Monday morning for my, to say goodbye to them to go back to London and they're in the drive was a black Vauxhall motor car, in addition to Mick's car and he said to Shackleton, 'Whats that?' and he said, 'Oh, that's Mrs Balcon's new car.' 'What?' said Mick and Aileen turned round and he said 'What is that?'. She said, 'I bought that for myself.' 'You won't be driving it' he said, 'you haven't got a driving licence'. She said , ' Yes I have, I learned to drive in South Africa.' And indeed, she drove. Likewise, in 1939, not long afterwards, when she joined the Red Cross, as part of the war effort, he tried to put his foot down on that. But of course, she had a very successful war war career and ended up as a very senior officer of the Red Cross and acquired an MBE for so doing.
Jonathan Balcon 4:40
Jon we haven't said anything at all really about your mother until this point, is this now the stage at which to do it or another time?
Jonathan Balcon 7:21
Oh yes my Mama. My Mama was the most lovely person. She she was, she used to get furious if anybody said she was South African. She wasn't South African. She was brought up in South Africa. She was born over here, she went out to South Africa and then she was brought back by my grandmother, who along with her sister my great-aunt were two very naughty women. And she was hawked round Europe as a possible, what do you call somebody who plays the piano very well? Not a diva, but I mean ...
Roy Fowler 8:02
A child prodigy.
Jonathan Balcon 8:03
A child prodigy. And poor Aileen was hawked round Europe while this was going on, and didn't really enjoy it very much, although she played the piano quite beautifully. One of the curious things about her she always led, alledged she married Mick when she was 18, in fact we discovered she was 20 [LAUGHTER] because I've got her marriage lines upstairs and her birth certificate. And I don't know why she kept this myth up but she did. She was um, I've also got which is quite extraordinary, I've got about a half a dozen letters that Mick wrote to her when they were 'courting', quote, unquote. And I can't honestly say there is a sign of affection in any of the letters at all but he was obviously absolutely entranced by her. I think I can safely say he never looked at another woman all through his life, nor would she have let him. Her mother, we were always brought up, both Jill and me, to think of our grandfather, Harry, as our proper grandfather and that Aileen's name was Leatherman and his name was Harry Leatherman. In fact it turned out that Leatherman wasn't her name at all, Bea, my grandmother, had divorced her first husband who was called Jacobs. And Aileen was in fact Aileen Jacobs and her brother Gerald was also Gerald Jacobs. But they both adored Harry so much that they changed their names to his. Um Bea and Harry were over here in 1939 when war was declared and were due to sail back to South Africa on the Athlone Castle ten days into the war. And they did in fact sail back I think it was the Athlone Castle it may have been one of the other castles, Union Castle boats. And they successfully got back to South Africa and safely although I believe they were chased by U-boats at one time. But that, she was er, my great-aunt Florence, Beatrice's sister, my grandmother's sister, was an extraordinary woman she was still entertaining American Colonels in a negligee in a flat in Grosvenor Square at the end of the war.
Roy Fowler 10:43
Good for her.
Jonathan Balcon 10:43
She married a chap called Aubrey Heimann who was a pathetic little man really who was obviously very rich and kept her in the the style to which she may or may not have been accustomed. But their brothers were called Spencer Freeman and they were bookmakers and they were highly successful bookmakers. And they founded the Irish sweepstake, which was a fix anyway I understand in later life. And they used to wander around with suitcases full of money. And they also found er I don't know if you remember if you're not a racing man you may not, there was a very well known bookmakers called Douglas Stewart.
Jonathan Balcon 10:43
I've heard the name.
Jonathan Balcon 11:31
Well they founded Douglas Stewart and for years my Mama had an account with Douglas Steward and I always remember her picking up the telephone and saying 'Ah,' she said, 'Mrs Balcon here nom de plume Blessing.' [LAUGHING] 'Shut up, Basil go away.' They ended up in fact, funnily enough, living in the South of France and it is alledged, although we looked for it we couldn't find it, but in Cannes there is an avenue Spencer Freeman but the French change the names of roads from time to time, and I didn't think and I don't think it probably exists anymore. But they, they're rather interesting because they had a daughter, my cousin Jacquie, who got through a series of husbands that at one stage she was living with the head of Cosa Nostra in France and my other cousin, Toni, Antoinette, used to say when she went to see her in the bushes on one side of the gate would be the gendarmerie watching the mafia on the other side of the gate [LAUGHING] But I've lost touch with that side of the family really, my cousin Toni who lives in Switzerland now is the only close member that I keep in touch with and she in fact, is a very close friend of Virginia McKenna's because they were both at the Central School together. But Aileen's family, Mick was very funny not only about Aileen's family but about his own in a way because he always said because Louis had no idea about birth control there were 101 cousins in South Africa when he was out there that Mick had never met. And also one of his great cries, although it's slightly different now was 'I keep them all why should I have to see them?' And I suppose it's perfectly true, he did certainly on his side of the family to a large extent, look after them.
Roy Fowler 12:54
Jonathan Balcon 13:37
I keep very closely in touch with his one remaining niece who's still alive my cousin Barbara, who's an absolutely delightful person, she lives just down the road at Lewes, Jill keeps in touch with her too. I keep in touch with my cousin Dorothy, Dorothy, she's Dorothy Moncrief. She gave a lunch party for relations recently, when I say recently in about the last three years, and there were 33 relations there, including a large block of people from Manchester. Now they are rather an odd lot, I'd met them before and I don't know if you knew but there is in fact a big firm of loss adjusters up in that part of world called Sydney Balcombe, B A L C O M B E and they recently made an enormous fortune adjusting the losses after the Manchester bomb and the Birmingham bomb. Anyway, when I first started working in the city father sent me a copy of a letter from Sydney Balcombe saying, 'Dear Mr. Balcon, I think we're cousins. I run a loss adjusting firm in Manchester. I would love to meet you one day etc etc.' Mick sent this letter on to me and said, 'Look if he's a Loss Adjuster, he may be able to do you some good in your business' being an insurance broker. It subsequently transpired that Sydney Balcombe and Co had been involved with Leopold Harris. Does that mean anything to you?
Roy Fowler 15:36
Jonathan Balcon 15:37
Leopold Harris um there was a famous case, Leopold Harris' firm were known as the fire raisers and they burned down any business for you to get the insurance money. And they had everybody in their pocket: fire chiefs, police chiefs, and the whole thing was bust open by William Charles Crocker?
Roy Fowler 16:01
Jonathan Balcon 16:01
William Charles, Sir William Charles Crocker was a very famous solicitor, Crocker's, and his daughter Phyllis was Mick's casting director subsequently at Ealing. And anyway, I duly met the B A L C O M B E's in a restaurant in the city, um didn't like them at all and about a fortnight later, in those days I was a Manchester Guardian reader as it was in those days, there was a tiny little paragraph on page three in the Manchester Guardian, which said the firm of Sydney Balcombe & Co were today fined 1000 pounds in Manchester Sheriff's Court or whatever they call it for ambulance chasing. So I cut this out and I sent it to Mick my dear I had him on the phone 'have nothing more to do with it, absolutely nothing, I'm sorry, I'm terribly sorry I should never have got you involved'. I said to Mick, 'For God's sake Mick forget it. I said, you know, it ain't the biggest crime in the world and I said, but people do take a fairly poor view of people who listen in to ambulance/police via radio. Funnily enough old Sydney who was still alive was at this lunch that Dorothy gave two or three years ago. I didn't bring the subject up again but I recognised him instantly. And there's no doubt about it they are cousins. Likewise, there is a cousin in in Los Angeles at the moment who spells his name B A L K A N who's in the documentary film business, Ed and he certainly is a cousin he looks like a Balcon there's no doubt about that. Aileen's family I've told you about um ...
Roy Fowler 17:55
Are there any other any other film or showbiz connections at all or ...
Jonathan Balcon 18:00
Not, apart from Jill not really. And once you get onto Jill of course you get on to Daniel and Tamazin, Jill's children Daniel, of course, as you know, a highly successful actor.
Roy Fowler 18:13
Do you think we could do something about the barking I'm sorry but it will be um ...
Jonathan Balcon 18:25
Right where we?
Roy Fowler 18:27
Other possible connections ...
Jonathan Balcon 18:30
Daniel, as you know, I've said to Silver Apples that of course I would raise no objection if Channel 4 want Daniel to do the commentary on this programme they are going to make, from a commercial point of view it seems obvious an obvious thing to have him do and wont involved me in any way. Tamasin writes for The Daily Telegraph, a cookery programme which I find rather recherche as all her suggested recipes are far too expensive. She was married and is in fact still married to number three he was at one time in the BBC called John Shearer. He was known as 'Vulcan the Exterminator' because he was responsible for cleaning everybody out making them redundant. And Jill wrote to me, in the days we were speaking, a slightly emotional letter saying poor John has been made redundant and I wrote back and I said. 'Jill, it's a sad fact of life these days of those who make others redundant are themselves made redundant in due course.'
Roy Fowler 18:34
Sooner or later, right.
Jonathan Balcon 19:00
Which again, didn't get done very well. But no, there's no other connection really at all. The extraordinary thing is that I think you'll know that Sally's sister married Basil Dean's son, Joe, who's a retired judge, a lot older than Jenefer. And I've said to Silver Apples that I think it's incumbent upon them to interview him about his father because I said, if you're doing a programme on Ealing, you've got to mention Basil. And if he doesn't do it, then one or other of his brothers must do it and I think Joe has agreed to do it because I had a word with him on the telephone the other day. He has of course two very talented children: his daughter Tacita was runner up in the Turner Prize three years ago. She recently had three, five rooms at the old Tate Gallery, Tate Great Britain.
Roy Fowler 21:13
Jonathan Balcon 20:48
She works almost entirely in film. I'm afraid Sally and I and her mother and father think it's School of Rubbish but she is very highly thought of, she exhibits all over the world. Even the night the exhibition at the Tate opened, they gave a dinner party for her at the Tate which Serota made a most tremendous speech. Um I understand she's just been out in Washington and ...
Roy Fowler 21:31
We better hold it for a moment [LAUGHING] We do have a lot of sound effects on this tape, do we not? There we go. That's fine.
Jonathan Balcon 21:38
It's Gatwick, you see.
Roy Fowler 21:40
Ah, is that it right.
Jonathan Balcon 21:45
She was in Washington recently and Mrs Bush in fact, was entranced by her. I haven't heard any more than that. Joe's son Ptolemy, it is unfortunate enough to have three children and call him Antigone, Ptolemy and Tacita.
Roy Fowler 22:05
The judge clearly had a classical bent.
Jonathan Balcon 22:09
Oh yes. I also said to him, Joe were they all conceived on Greek beaches? Anyway, um, Ptolemy is a very successful young architect; he's an authority on Sir John Soane; he is honorary advisor for the Soane Museum; the partner in the firm for which he worked at the time fell off the roof of something he was doing and Ptolemy had to take over his work on Southwark Cathedral. I don't know if you've been in Southwark Cathedral recently, but they've got a new refectory and all that, which Ptolemy has done; he has got, various other, he's got two banks in America he's doing at the moment and he's just been appointed to totally restore Westminster School. And quite apart from being a very charming young man, I'll show you some of him drawings, which are dotted around this house because he's a very talented artist as well. So that really is that side of the family. There's a very apocryphal story again that when Basil and Michael Powell were both alive they met one day, and they didn't like each other very much let's be honest about it, they met one day on the steps of the Garrick Club, on the stairs of the Garrick Club halfway up the stairs Basil put his hand under Mick's elbow and said, 'Mick my dear I think our boys have done quite well for themselves' at which Mick gave a stifled hiccup, fell all the way down the stairs, broke his ankle and swore that Basil had pushed him. [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 23:57
Jonathan Balcon 23:58
I can't confirm that story. He, Mick and Victor Saville as you know, had a big fallout, I think partly because Victor, didn't Victor disappear to America during the war?
Roy Fowler 24:07
No, I I think principally because he took over from your father at Metro.
Jonathan Balcon 24:15
Ah, is that it.
Roy Fowler 24:16
I think so.
Jonathan Balcon 24:17
I thought Sam Eckman took over.
Roy Fowler 24:19
Well no Sam Eckman was managing director of MGM British generally, largely on the distribution side.
Jonathan Balcon 24:26
Roy Fowler 24:27
Production I think, was inherited by Saville, Victor Saville.
Jonathan Balcon 24:31
Well anyway. Yah.
Roy Fowler 24:32
Which took him to America subsequently, but ...
Jonathan Balcon 24:34
They had a great, they had a great reconciliation because for Mick's 80th birthday, Victor gave a party a lunch party up at the Garrick and he'd done his research well because he had everything on the menu that Mick adored asparagus, smoked salmon, gulls eggs. I'll never forget because I was there and it was a super party and some very nice claret. The other thing of course was I mean, I can't remember the exact details of this Roy but you may know more about it than I do: Mick wrote a very scathing article in Picture Girl or or one of those magazines just before the war, verbally crucifying those members of the British film industry in particular those of Jewish background who had fled to Americans.
Roy Fowler 25:14
Yes I've heard of it.
Jonathan Balcon 25:14
I've got a copy of it somewhere because as I, as you know part of the archive is in the garage and part at the moment is still down in Dover and the BFI gonna take it off me very shortly the rest of it.
Jonathan Balcon 24:41
'Gone With the Wind Up' it was called.
Roy Fowler 25:44
Something like that.
Roy Fowler 25:45
Ah not necessarily your father's article. That was the general thing at the time, wasn't it?
Jonathan Balcon 25:50
But as a result, you see Hitch took offence of this article, but of course it wasn't directed at Hitch because after all Hitch had already had an American contract. All through the war years Hitch wouldn't speak to Mick at all. But they had a great rapprochement again after the war was over, which was when Sally met him again. And subsequently, every Christmas would arrive from California a case of the most delicious claret, which Mick was very fond of, and a case of pink grapefruit because Hitch had a grapefruit farm somewhere. So there was a great rapprochement there. But you see, he did feel, Mick, very strongly you know, I suppose a total xenophobic, chauvinist way about this country.
Roy Fowler 26:53
And why is that? Do you think? Did you ever ask him all about it?
Jonathan Balcon 26:57
No, but let's let's just look at some of the films. Practically every film for which he was responsible, not all, seem to centre around a small section of a tightly knit community, be it a family, or a village, or a military selection, section or a ship or a group of people they came to a city but it was, they were all united in one thing, and a lot of them were united in fighting bureaucracy. Tilting at windmills was a great thing in Mick's life and I mean, he's left me with this legacy, I tilt at windmills practically daily in a quixotic way. But it's always a number of things I will never forget: two really important occasions on about June 10 1940 he called us all into the dining room at Upper Parrick, now Upper Parrick wasn't a very big house, but he called in Jill, me, Nanny, Rhoda our dear housekeeper - a remarkable women she came as a temporary to Aileen six months before I was born, and was still with us when I got married [LAUGHING]
Roy Fowler 27:33
Jonathan Balcon 27:40
... I mean probably one of the best plain cooks in this country, she was fabulous, she was a, an unforgettable character. Thomas Atkins, the butler, who taught me how to tie my shoelaces and tie my tie because war having been declared I was being sent off to prep school. I had been sent off at the age of 7 to board and I could look up the hill and see the house and couldn't get there and cried for a year before I went to my proper school in Oxford. He called us in and I can't quote him verbatim but it went something like this: as you know, we are a Jewish family - I hadn't got the vaguest idea what he was really talking - he said things aren't looking very good at the moment. Johnny and Jill I have had many requests from various people to send you to America, I don't intend doing so. If things get bad we will all go down together and there will be no hope. But I believe in this country and I don't believe things will get that bad and we're going to stay and see it through together. And that was it. And he felt very strongly about this, very strongly. Apart from the fact that he hated Nazism, fascism, whatever it was, totalitarianism, he hated anybody, that's why he hated Louis B Mayer, because Louis B Mayer was a dictator let's face it. It was an extraordinary feeling of patriotism he instilled in one ...
Roy Fowler 30:36
Jonathan Balcon 30:36
... all right it was jingoistic, but then don't forget, in many ways, he was a late Victorian.
Roy Fowler 30:43
It raises some interesting questions because somehow it relates to Charles Barrs fascinating book about Ealing Studios, which he presents as a microcosm of of Britain.
Jonathan Balcon 30:55
Roy Fowler 30:56
And you can say well that's a little far fetched, but now maybe less farfetched than one might imagine. It raises the question of the extent to which every film made at Ealing was, um your your father was directly responsible for presumably ...
Jonathan Balcon 31:12
Initially, latterly he wasn't.
Roy Fowler 31:15
Jonathan Balcon 31:16
I mean latterly it was a Michael Balcon production produced by Monya Danishevsky or Leslie Norman ...
Roy Fowler 31:22
It was never produced by associate producer
Jonathan Balcon 31:24
Roy Fowler 31:25
Are you sure. Ahah ok right.
Jonathan Balcon 31:26
'Cruelty' produced by Leslie Norman
Roy Fowler 31:28
Jonathan Balcon 31:29
I've got it here so we can check on that.
Roy Fowler 31:31
Jonathan Balcon 31:32
I think I'm right there.
Roy Fowler 31:33
So maybe Charles has a point that your father's personal predilections somehow shaped this image of the studio.
Jonathan Balcon 31:46
Roy, just cast your mind back most of the wartime films behind the logo is the Union Jack.
Roy Fowler 31:55
Jonathan Balcon 31:56
And at the end it says a British film produced at.
Roy Fowler 32:00
And a degree of paranoia too because they all have to do with fifth columns or spies.
Jonathan Balcon 32:04
My dear a total degree of paranoia. I couldn't agree with you more. Oh, absolutely. Look at 'Went the day Well' you see.
Roy Fowler 32:12
Yes, indeed right. So you think this stems from your father?
Jonathan Balcon 32:15
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean he instilled in me then, he instilled two things in me, which Sally says is extraordinary because she thinks that I'm in many ways very German in my outlook, it instilled in me a hatred of things German. A reasonable hatred of things Japanese but that was only because of the dreadful things they did in China. And I remember an edition of Picture Post showing the Japanese atrocities which really as a child had a great effect on me.
Roy Fowler 32:49
Jonathan Balcon 32:50
I thought this was unbelievable. But there was another instance too, I was staying with them, this was a very curious month in fact, I think it was it must have been the Easter holidays, yes it was the Easter holidays in 1941 and Pen I think was killed in 1941.
Roy Fowler 33:15
Jonathan Balcon 33:17
About sometime before he was killed, it may have been months, few weeks, I was sleeping in the flat in Lansdowne House in a camp bed at the end of my parents bed in their bedroom and every time the siren went we went down in Lansdowne House to the cellars to the basement where allegedly there was an air raid shelter, what people didn't realise ... I don't know if you know that part of the world, do you know Lansdowne Row?
Roy Fowler 33:44
Jonathan Balcon 33:45
Which runs between Berkeley Street and Square. Well, in those days, Lansdowne Row was a row of shops and there was a well behind it, literally and of course, the basement of Lansdowne House was at the bottom of this well, so there was no protection at all. Anyway, it must have been in April 1941 I woke up, no let's go back to Pen for a moment. Pen came into my room and he took off his watch and he said, 'Jonny, I want you to have this.' And I've got it upstairs, it's falling to pieces and it just says to Jonathan from Pen 1941. Something like that it was a very cheap watch, but it was a nice gesture. He said, 'I've also got a 12 bore shotgun which when you're old enough I would like you to have. It's at the moment reposing in a gunsmith's near Charing Cross, but when you are old enough to have, to learn to shoot' he said, 'it's yours.' And within what three months he was dead, most extraordinary. That moved me considerably as a child. In April 1941, I woke up in the middle of a blitz in the most terrible agony in the stomach and it was appendicitis, but acute appendicitis, and none of the teaching hospitals would take me because the air raid casualties they were full of. And I remember being carted in a hearse converted into an ambulance, privately, from Lansdowne House to the London Clinic and all Mick would say to me was 'Do you realise this is costing me 20 guineas a week' [LAUGHING]. It's now 20 guineas a minute, I think.
Roy Fowler 33:45
Yes. at the very least. Yes, indeed. Yes.
Jonathan Balcon 35:53
And he said 'The surgeon fee you know was 100 pounds, 100 guineas 100 guineas' he said, 'very expensive.' I said, 'Oh I'm frightfully sorry.' 'That's alright dear boy, that's alright'.
Roy Fowler 36:05
It does, sorry ...
Jonathan Balcon 36:05
I was in the London Clinic for three weeks. It was an interesting time because every night we were wheeled in our beds into the lift, down again into the shelter and there we sat. The shelter was in fact right alongside the Baker Street tube line, Bakerloo line, and it was very difficult to tell the difference between the trains going past and the bombs falling. And I do remember that it was a pretty nasty period. Anyway, I came out of the London clinic on the morning of May the 10th 1941. I was taken by Mama to Hamleys and bought some soldiers and an anti-aircraft gun and some sandbags and I was going to convalesce for three weeks from the following day down at Upper Parrick. May 10th 1941 you may not remember but it was the night of the largest blitz on the west end. We went down to the shelter early. Now my camp bed in the shelter was alongside this well wall and the first thing I knew was I been thrown out of bed by a stick of something bursting outside. And we were turned out of the shelter and we had to go and sit in the corridor and there was a steel door which led through to the Air Ministry's air raid shelter, the Air Ministry was in that big building on the opposite side of Berkeley Square at that time and we always knew when there was going to be a raid because the flags on the roof used to change colour. Anyway, we asked if we could use the facilities of their shelter and they refused to open the door. So we sat in this corridor and literally every time a bomb fell another bit of plaster would come down and the dust would go up. And Mick said, 'I'm not usually a pessimist' he said, 'but somehow I don't feel we're gonna survive tonight.' This was about three o'clock in the morning, well, by that time it tailed off.
Roy Fowler 38:17
It's been so cheerful as keeps me going
Jonathan Balcon 38:19
Absolutely. And with much relief we went back upstairs, every single window in the flat was out, the beds were all full of broken glass, my soldiers my anti-aircraft gun, which I'd laid out on what was his dressing-room windowsill, were all smashed. Within 24 hours they'd received notice to quit because the building had stood up to whatever it had stood up to and the Ministry of Economic Warfare took it over. I was dispatched back to Summerfields which was my prep school when I should have been convalescing. And they went off to live with Aileen's brother at Stanmore because, my uncle Jerry, I haven't talked about him uncle Jerry was a fascinating character. He died only recently. Apart from marrying his first cousin, his first wife, he was a very eminent dentist, but a very eminent dentist and in the latter part of his life he should have been knighted, but nobody, he had nobody to recommend him. He was Chairman of the International Dental Federation and he was the man entirely responsible for what you and I these days know as dental hygiene. He got, he joined the Air Force at the beginning of the war and he was so appalled at the state of the airmen's teeth. that he personally trained 2000 WAFs to be a dental hygienists and out of that grew all the scraping and things that we go through today. But he was a lovely man Jerry. He was a great racing man, again bookmaker in the blood you see. And I know very well that famous day when Frankie Dettori won every race of Ascot. He was leaning over from wherever he is up there because in the morning I said to Sally, 'Do you now I've got a sneaking feeling Frankie's going to go through the card today' and I didn't have a bet, I've regretted it ever since. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, there we are, they went off to live with Jerry until they got established. And they then ...
Roy Fowler 40:46
People were slung out at that shorter notice they ...
Jonathan Balcon 40:49
I think it was actually 36 hours.
Jonathan Balcon 40:51
Jonathan Balcon 40:53
It not only became the Ministry of Economic Warfare, it then subsequently became the Ministry of Defence. And this is the funniest thing now, Roy I must, is this awfully boring?
Jonathan Balcon 41:03
No, no, no. It's fascinating.
Jonathan Balcon 41:04
I must tell you this, because two things happened in the flat, which I shall never forget. But anyway, subsequently, it must have been let me think, ooh, about 15 years ago, 20 years ago, the telephone rang in the office and a voice said, 'Jonathan' and I said, 'Yes' he said 'It's Mike Matthews here.' Now Mike Matthews when I was a sergeant in the Roughriders Mike Matthews was a regular soldier who was our adjutant and he tried desperately to get a commission for me, but there's a long story attached to that, which we, if you're interested I'll tell you later. Anyway, Mike said, 'Jonny, your father used to have a flat in Lansdowne House.' So I said, 'Yes, Mike.' He said, 'Number 61 on the fourth floor.' I said 'Yes, that's right, Mike.' He said, 'Well come and have lunch with me tomorrow' He said 'it's my office.'
Roy Fowler 42:01
How extraordinary. It's a small world as they say, we're at the end of this tape.
Roy Fowler 42:07
End of Side 2
Roy Fowler 0:01
This is Jonathan Balcon tape two
Jonathan Balcon 0:06
Right, the other extraordinary thing that happened in 61 Lansdowne House going back a bit, I'm sure you will recall just before Dunkirk there was the abortive Norwegian Campaign. Well now in those halcyon days - oh incidentally also another thing I'll never forget is in 1938 I was up in the flat and Aileen had two Austrian maids in those days and they both at the time of the Anschluss put on swastika armbands and disappeared to Victoria station [LAUGHTER] ...
Roy Fowler 0:49
Oh dear, oh dear.
Jonathan Balcon 0:49
... which always caused Mick much amusement in view of certain things we've talked about. No but anyway just before Dunkirk in the Norwegian campaign Aileen had a charming parlour maid, I think they were called that in those days, called Helen. Now Helen had been put the previous winter, or the previous year in the family way by a Scots Guardsman and my Mama being my Mama in that dreadful winter in 1939 marched them up to Colemans Hatch Church and got the vicar to marry them. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, Peter being in the Scots Guards arrived at 61 Lansdowne House not on embarkation leave but in full kit, what they call field service marching order, to say goodbye to Helen because he was being dispatched to Norway. So anyway, Aileen very discreetly left them together in the kitchen, and I remember this vividly, there was suddenly the most shattering explosion came from the kitchen and Peter had decided to shoot himself through the foot.
Roy Fowler 2:04
Jonathan Balcon 2:04
What a call I believe a blighty one. Believe it or not, he got away with it. But while this kerfuffle was going on, while the ambulance was being sent for, while Aileen was trying to calm Helen who was having hysterics, I quietly said to somebody, I can't remember who, 'I wonder what happened to the bullet?' It had gone through a compound floor and had lodged itself in the kitchen table of a couple beneath who were having breakfast and they hadn't even noticed, because that's where the police found it [LAUGHTER] Anyway, that was the other amazing incident in Lansdowne House. But from staying with Jerry, the point I'm getting around to is this from staying with Jerry, Uncle Jerry, they eventually moved into um I suppose you would call it a Red Cross Hostel but it was in fact a hotel in Gerrards Cross called the Charlton Park Hotel. Which again was quite interesting because there was quite a lot of film people around, it was near Denham Studios and it was near Ealing Studios, living in the hotel, but not only was my uncle Cham, Mick's brother staying at The Bull at Gerard's Cross, in Bulstrode Park, because he was commanding at that time an anti-aircraft battery, which was somewhere around in that area. But he was invalided out shortly afterwards, because he was a fairly great age by then for being an active soldier. Anyway, staying in the Charlton Park Hotel there were a number of very interesting people: there was a chap called Todd, who was head of, is it John Brown's Shipyard in Glasgow; there was Willie Cormack, the most lovely, delightful Scotsman who was head of Heinz; there was Sir Philip Chetwood, who was head of the Red Cross and Lady Chetwood, the old Field Marshal and he was a lovely man and there were various other people like that, it was quite a substantial hotel. And I remember Tony Havelock, Alan and Valerie coming to see us there and I remember Bill O'Brien and Liz Allen coming to see us there and in fact we had quite a pleasant time there until the doodlebugs came. But in 1944 I'm not really jumping the gun here I don't think, Mick said to Aileen he said, 'What are we going to do with Jonathan in the summer holidays? What are you going to do with him?' and Aileen said, 'I'm afraid Mick I'm not going to do anything.' He said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'Well I can't tell you at the moment but I have a rather important assignment.' 'What do you mean you've got an important assignment? Tell me about it.' She said, 'I can't tell you just at the moment.' This was about April or May. Anyway, just before the end of May, beginning of June it transpired that she was in charge of a railhead at Tibenham with her girls, and what was happening was the wounded from D-Day were being flown back to this American airbase and she and her girls were unloading them off the aeroplanes, putting them on to hospital trains and sending them all over England. And it was really rather remarkable because she got people like Willie Cormack and Todd Brown and various other notables to make up or subscribe to little packets so that when these lads, who literally had nothing, when they were just lying on stretchers they were given a sort of box in which there was a bar of chocolate, cigarettes, writing paper, a pen or pencil, a towel, soap, just something to make them feel you know that they weren't completely destitute. I've got some marvellous pictures, there's a picture in the sitting room you can see of her actually doing this job. And this was her other work she got the MBE for as I said. But anyway, she did eventually tell Mick and Mick said 'What am I supposed to do?' 'Oh,' she said, 'It's quite simple. You take him with you if you're going to Mevagissey because the "Johnny Frenchmen" location is going down there', she said, 'Charlie and Sonya Frend are going, Cham's wife Aunt Adele is going.' She said, 'he'll be perfectly well looked after.' And he said, 'Where's he going to sleep?' 'He can share a room with you.' 'Oh, I'm not sure I'd like that.' Anyway that's exactly what happened and subsequently I was put in the charge of Tibby Clark. Dear Tibby, with whom until almost the day he died I used to go racing. Tibby said he always used to lie on the beach looking after me, watching me paddling and swimming in the sea and wonder if Johnny drowns what do I go back and tell Mick. [LAUGHTER] But that was an extraordinary location Roy because I don't know, there was Patricia Rock, there was Ralph Michael, there was Ralph Michael's wife, that lovely actress it'll come to me in a minute ...
Roy Fowler 2:04
No I don't know.
Jonathan Balcon 2:58
There was Tom Walls, there was Tom Walls' valet; there were a whole lot of Ealing people; there was Cham; there was Adele; there was Dougie Sutherland, who was the art director, and he had a wife called Queenie who was a musical star. I mean it was a hilarious time. And if you ever want to know what the White Hart at St Austell, where we were all staying, looks like you watch "Next of Kin" because a great deal of it is shot ...
Roy Fowler 8:09
Jonathan Balcon 8:09
... in the beginning of of "Next of Kin." Oh, lovely actress who played Desdemona to Jack Hawkins' Othello. Oh, famous actress, it'll come to me.
Roy Fowler 8:26
It'll come, right. Francoise Rosay.
Jonathan Balcon 8:29
Francoise Rosay of course was there.
Roy Fowler 8:32
What are your memories of her because she's rather forgotten now I suppose, at least in this country.
Jonathan Balcon 8:35
She was a lovely person, I loved Francoise, she was always delightful to be with. And she'd been in a number of Ealing films as you know. But the interesting thing was, there was an enormous love affair going on at the time between Roy Kellino and Pamela Mason. I think I'm right there.
Roy Fowler 9:00
Well, I'm not sure um he had been married to her I think ...
Jonathan Balcon 9:03
Then he was having an affair with Patricia Rock.
Roy Fowler 9:06
Ah, that's more like it because I think Mason was on the scene and married.
Jonathan Balcon 9:11
I probably got it wrong.
Roy Fowler 9:12
Jonathan Balcon 9:13
Wasn't she Pamela Ostrer?
Roy Fowler 9:15
She was. Yes.
Jonathan Balcon 9:16
Roy Fowler 9:16
She's in ...
Jonathan Balcon 9:17
Don't forget I was only 12 and a half or 13.
Roy Fowler 9:21
She's the young Jewess in "Jew Süss".
Jonathan Balcon 9:25
Oh is she?
Roy Fowler 9:25
She plays that yes.
Jonathan Balcon 9:27
You see I've never seen "Jew Süss" so I would'nt have known but ...
Roy Fowler 9:30
Rebecca, I think or some such name.
Jonathan Balcon 9:32
But it was a fun summer holiday and it was my, I had broken up from Summerfields, finished with Summerfields, and it was before I went to Eton. So I had a sort of tremendous summer holiday.
Roy Fowler 9:46
A couple of questions then. The kind of relationship you had with with your father ...
Roy Fowler 9:52
Roy Fowler 9:53
... what, how would you describe that?
Jonathan Balcon 9:55
It began to get much closer, he very much left the children to Aileen, particularly after the war. He was always very good about coming to take me out or he always came down, certainly to eat and for things like the fourth of June. There was a tremendous time when he was asked by the headmaster if he'd bring a copy of "Scott of the Antarctic" down to Eton and show it to the school. And there was a most lovely character who a lot of people remember at Ealing, the chief projectionist called Bert Minnell.
Roy Fowler 10:34
No I didn't know him.
Jonathan Balcon 10:35
Well Bert was the most lovely cockney. I can tell you a few Minellisms later. And Bert took one look at the two projectors in the school hall and he said, 'Governor I don't believe this' he said, 'I didn't think these sort of things were still around. [LAUGHING] Anyway he got through a showing of the film without any disaster. But I gather the arcs were ancient, you know, everything about them was ancient.
Roy Fowler 10:35
Jonathan Balcon 10:58
He was so funny about it. No Mick was um ...
Roy Fowler 11:12
He was happy to have children was he?
Jonathan Balcon 11:13
He was happy to have children. He was determined that his children should have the best of everything educationally. Jill he sent to Roedean, myself he sent to Eton. He was going to send me to Stowe, was it Stowe, who's the famous headmaster?
Roy Fowler 11:35
Oh I don't know at that time.
Jonathan Balcon 11:37
I can't remember now.
Roy Fowler 11:40
There seems an element of snobbism in that. Can one say that Eton was the best education or was it just the most famous school?
Jonathan Balcon 11:47
I think it's certainly the best education now because I've been back there several times recently. In my day, I think it was, it gave me an exceptional grounding.
Roy Fowler 11:59
Jonathan Balcon 12:00
An exceptional grounding. Sadly I never took to science very much so when I got up to Cambridge they wouldn't let me read er Agriculture, which I wanted to do because I said I had no scientific subjects. What they didn't tell me was I could have taken an Estate Management course. Instead I tried to read Modern Languages my first year and hated it and I read English my second year and hated it and came down after two years, but I had two of the best years of my life. I don't think it was, I was down for a number of public schools including Westminster because he thought he was going to go back and live at Tufton Street. And my house tutor actually rang up when I was 12 and a half and said, 'Look, if Jonathan can come next half, I've got a place for him.' So I actually went there before I was 13. And it's a very str, it was a very strange because in many ways one was terribly free, but in other ways one was terribly restricted. But I was very happy there, the awful thing was, once I became a specialist, which you became after you've taken school certificate, I really didn't work terribly hard. And I remember, I took school certificate, I've missed out a bit Roy, we'll come to in a minute, I had a quite a serious accident which changed the whole of my life the year I was taking school certificate. And I'll never forget I took eight subjects. And that summer holiday I got a card from my house tutor, a postcard addressed to my father, and it said, 'Surprise, surprise. Jonathan has seven credits in his school certificate and one failure. I never thought he'd make it.' And the one failure was the New Testament in Greek, which I thought I knew backwards and of course I didn't. But as a result of that I got into Cambridge, you see, that was in the days when you matriculated.
Roy Fowler 14:12
Jonathan Balcon 14:13
And Eton had its own 'A' levels as they weren't in those day, it was known as the July examination, and I passed that and I was into, into Caius without any problem. Um, thanks in many ways to Oliver John Hunkin, whose father was a fellow at Caius and Oliver John, I think you know, worked at Ealing for a time. He'd been a beak at Eton and he then took Holy Orders and became Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC and is now retired. But I did speak to him on the telephone the other day. He's still alive, well into his 80s.
Roy Fowler 14:53
There was another question which rather surprised me that your father went down on the location on "Johnny Frenchman." I mean, he's now a very considerable figure in the in the British film industry and right, he's the executive producer I would have thought rather than a hands-on producer.
Jonathan Balcon 15:09
Yes, I, I, I've never sort of thought about that.
Roy Fowler 15:16
What did he do?
Jonathan Balcon 15:17
Well, you might say, as far as I know, he didn't do anything during the day he disappeared to the production office you know.
Roy Fowler 15:23
He didn't roll his trousers up and sit on the beach.
Jonathan Balcon 15:26
Oh, yes ...
Roy Fowler 15:26
Jonathan Balcon 15:27
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. All of that. I'll tell you something else too. Because don't forget he did the same thing when they were shooting Dunkirk at Camber he went down to the location, there's a marvellous picture of his trousers rolled up in the sea with Johnnie Mills. But it's one of the few pictures in existence of Mick and Chan together, there are very few but they're in, I've got it somewhere here I don't know where it is. They're in a fishing boat in Mevagissey talking to each other.
Roy Fowler 15:59
Were they close or ...
Jonathan Balcon 16:00
I think they were closer than the other two brothers. Yes.
Roy Fowler 16:05
Because I somehow get the impression rightly or wrongly that the Balcons do have perhaps problems with personal relationships?
Jonathan Balcon 16:14
Yes, yes, yes. Not my generation, but he certainly had problems with his family. I mean, after he died in fact Sally and I took on looking after Aunt Nettie, his youngest sister. And we used to pay her electricity bill and her gas bill and things like that, because she really was living on a very, very small pension you know. But we felt duty bound. As I think I said to you earlier what his great cry was, 'I keep them all why do I have to see them?' Which was a little unkind.
Roy Fowler 16:50
Yes, yes, yes.
Jonathan Balcon 16:51
But the other thing that impressed me I came across a letter some years ago now from David Niven and he had obviously written to David because whilst we were down in Mevagissey and St Austell "The Way Ahead" came, came out and Mick sent for a copy and we all trooped into the Odeon in St Austell, after it had closed at 10.15 one evening, and watched "The Way Ahead". Which again as a film impressed me enormously and Mick must have written to David and said, 'You know how, what a marvellous film and how much he enjoyed it' because David just said Mick your your kind words you know mean more than anything I could say. I've kept this letter. I always thought David was the most marvellous actor anyway. And curious enough at the Charlton Park Hotel where we were living at the time, his sister was living there as well. David's sister married to a delightful man called Mellor, who was in operations room at Uxbridge in the RAF. So that was you know I got closer to the film industry I suppose then it was only time, I was always rather miffed that they were looking to cast a cabin boy in "Johnny Frenchman" and I was rather hoping that they would cast me but they never did but it was an interesting summer holiday, was a very interesting holiday.
Jonathan Balcon 18:01
When did you begin to go to the studio?
Jonathan Balcon 18:36
From, rarely from the time I suppose halfway through my prep school. It was always a treat but the last day of the holidays I would spend at the studio and um it was always the same routine I'd see Mick, I'd see Miss Slater and Miss Taylor - don't forget Miss Slater ruled our lives. I used to ring up Miss Slater and say what's my report like and she'd say bloody awful. So I used to see a film, have lunch with Mick in the round or not or not the round table but in the sort of little director's annexe in the in the commissariat area of Ealing and then go back with him with Shackleton in the evening.
Roy Fowler 19:30
So you were treated as the young master by the sound of it?
Jonathan Balcon 19:34
Not really. No, not really. I mean, I always go and see Hal because Hal, there was a truly remarkable man, Hal Mason. I don't know what Mick would have done without Hal I really don't. I suppose the people who governed his life more than anybody, apart from Aileen, were Miss Slater and Hal. Um, he had a curious fixation about Miss Slater it was a sort of love/hate relationship because she was an extremely good secretary, extremely efficient, very rarely made any mistakes but the moment she retired, it says there's a sort of psychotic thing here, he took her cushions out into the garden [LAUGHTER] behind his office and set fire to them [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 20:29
Well not many people know that! Where had she come from, had she been at the studio, or did he take her there with him?
Jonathan Balcon 20:38
You know I don't know where. I think she'd been with him at Gaumont.
Roy Fowler 20:42
Yes. So she was probably indispensable and knew where all the bodies were buried.
Jonathan Balcon 20:48
She was totally indispensible. Oh, I mean, she really did rule our lives.
Roy Fowler 20:58
Was she a formidable character?
Jonathan Balcon 21:00
No she was very mild. Also she used to drive my mother mad, she had one of those handshakes, which as you put your hand out she slid hers away from it ...
Roy Fowler 21:09
Jonathan Balcon 21:09
... it was always like a wet fish. And I think she bullied Miss Taylor around, because latterly he had the two of them. She bullied Miss Taylor unmercifiully. But she was another great character. Until she died I kept in fairly close touch with her. And she and Steve Dolby who was a sound man at Ealing used to come and see us you know at the Grey House and have lunch and things like that. Then Miss Taylor latter in life had a great friend whom she brought to lunch you know.
Roy Fowler 21:44
Were you fascinated by the filmmaking process at this stage?
Jonathan Balcon 21:47
Oh yes, I, this was the sad thing I very much wanted to act and didn't really quite know how to go about it. I staged, I did act at school quite a lot and I stage managed a number of productions at Cambridge. But you see, I wanted desperately to farm and we had this farm in Sussex. Mick sat me down literally when I came down from Cambridge and it was like the old Latin question which required the answer 'Nonne or nay'. He said to me, you don't want to come into the film industry do you? And the way he put the question I knew I had to say no.
Jonathan Balcon 21:49
Was nepotism a word not in his book?
Jonathan Balcon 22:35
Nepotism was a word that played a very important part in his life. He said, in fact, he said to me, he said, 'I'm glad you said that' because he said, 'I never want to be accused of nepotism.' He said, 'I'm absolutely certain in my own mind that if I went to the ACTT and asked for a union ticket for you,' he said, 'they'd give me one.' But he said, 'I cannot possibly be put into the position where they turn around to me and say on any industrial dispute and say they could say we did this for you what you're going to do for us?'
Roy Fowler 23:12
That's an interesting sideline.
Jonathan Balcon 23:14
Yeah. And those were his very words. And that was how we left it. And he's, he's sort of put his hands together, he said, 'All right, he said, you're not over enthusiastic about work.' But he said, 'I do suggest you go off and see a friend of mine in the city, who runs an insurance brokers at Lloyds. He's called Victor Gentry and the insurance brokers are called Hobbs Saville and they look after our business.' So I went off to see Victor, very pompous man, who said, 'Where were you at school?' and I told him, he said, 'Were you at university?' and I said,' Yes.' And I told him and he said, 'Well, you can forget all that if you come here.' And he offered me a job at £250 a year, which to me sounded like riches untold. And I took it.
Roy Fowler 24:10
What year would this have been?
Jonathan Balcon 24:12
That was in 1950.
Roy Fowler 24:14
Jonathan Balcon 24:15
Roy Fowler 24:17
I'm surprised in the city they forgot about Eton or Cambridge. That wasn't usual.
Jonathan Balcon 24:24
Well I didn't go to the right broking firm. It took me in fact some time to discover that they did a lot of film business and I ended up running their film account for them.
Roy Fowler 24:38
Is that really how your future course was determined? Your dad said go see ...
Jonathan Balcon 25:17
Roy Fowler 25:41
Jonathan Balcon 24:47
Well you see, in those days, Lloyd's, I'd never heard of Lloyds and I didn't know what it was all about, I didn't know what insurance broker was all about, I soon learnt. I soon learnt to hate the city. I just hated this whole feeling of making money rather than learning you know, which was always Mick's great cry too you don't make money you earn money. Yes, I suppose you see what happened in those days firms like Hobbs Saville would take on the sons of clients, they would pay them nothing, virtually. They would say we are prepared to pay you commission on business introduced and they would expect you to become working names at Lloyds on the syndicates which they control. And Mick always said, 'If you stick it out,' he said, 'I will make you a name at Lloyds.' Which in those days for a working name meant you had to show assets of 10,000 quid this was in the '50s.
Roy Fowler 26:01
So that's a factor of what 100, probably.
Jonathan Balcon 26:05
Roy Fowler 26:05
Yeah. Oh, now God, no, no.
Roy Fowler 26:07
I mean, in other words what would 10 grand be worth now? Oh,
Jonathan Balcon 26:10
Oh I don't know. I suppose 100, yes.
Roy Fowler 26:12
Jonathan Balcon 26:13
More, yes. But I mean, he said, 'Whatever I do for you, I have got to do for Jill as well' and I said, 'Fair enough.' I mean, on the basis of the fact that if you produce business you got commission at one stage, I was told that because of my commission account, I was earning more than most of the directors of the firm which didn't go down very well. And then, by the time I started getting underwriting profits from the syndicates I was on, one was getting paid, say 1000 a year. Well, another two and a half thousand a year on top of that and one was extremely comfortably off. And I was I mean, none of my children went, well one of them went to private schools, they were all state educated, but I mean one was able to live very comfortably and do the things from wanted to do and have foreign holiday and things like that. The only thing I think Mick resented was the fact that he thought we got married far too young. Now a very extraordinary thing about, both Aileen and Mick, because as I, to hark back to what I said before we had no religious instruction whatsoever. Jill and I were left entirely to our own devices. We were brought up as good conventional Church of England children through our schools. I was married in the church in Seal to Sally, as were two of my daughters; Deborah was christened at Hartfield, by the rector of Hartfield; Claire and Henrietta, we're christened at Seal. And all totally accepted, after Deborah's christening Aileen gave a small party for a few people at Upper Parrock After I'd announced Henrietta's christening in the paper, I rang Aileen up, I used to ring them up at least twice, three times a week. And I got what we all knew as a still small voice and I said, 'Come on what's wrong?' 'Mick and I have many Jewish friends you know' and I said, 'For Christ's sake Aileen what are you talking about?' 'There was no need to put Henrietta's christening in the Times and the Telegraph.' I said, 'Well you never raised this subject before?' 'Oh well your father and I are beginning to feel very seriously about it.' 'So I said now come off it.' And in fact that subject was soon dropped. But then when Deborah was confirmed, Deborah is now what 44, 44 she was given by her godmother a crucifix. And I suppose rather tactlessly she wore it round her neck at lunch one day at Upper Parrock. And this again seemed to upset Mick latterly.
Jonathan Balcon 29:27
Roots are strange things are they not.
Jonathan Balcon 29:29
And he actually got hold of Sally and he said, 'I do think if Deborah is coming to lunch with us, she perhaps oughtn't to wear it' and yet nothing had been said again.
Roy Fowler 29:40
You were never Bar Mitzvah'd or not that he's thought of it presumably.
Jonathan Balcon 29:46
Roy, I remember my first half at Eton Aunt Florence came across, I don't know where the hell she got her petrol from and took Aileen and me out to lunch at the Old House at Windsor, the Old House Hotel and we were sitting on the banks of the Thames afterwards in our large motor car and she said, 'When is Jonathan's Bar Mitzvah?' 'What the hell are you talking about?' said Aileen. And the other marvellous instance and this is jumping the gun slightly, the day Mick died I was in my office and the telephone rang and it was Aileen to say, 'Johnny, I can't wake your father up.' And I knew exactly what had happened. She said, 'He got up in the middle of night and sat in his chair in his dressing room.' And erm I've just seen what the time is we must have some lunch.
Roy Fowler 30:45
Jonathan Balcon 32:41
In a minute. 'And he was still there this morning and I couldn't wake him up.' So I said, 'Don't do anything.' And I rang Sally and I said, told her what happened. I said, 'I'm coming down on the train. We'll drive straight over to Upper Parrock.' We drove straight over to Upper Parrock and Steven Watts was staying with them that weekend, who ghosted the book.
Roy Fowler 32:07
Jonathan Balcon 32:53
And Steven greeted me on the doorstep and went like this, you see, and I knew exactly what happened. So anyway, I hadn't got the vaguest idea what to do. And Aileen was in a frightful state obviously. So Sally quite rightly said, ring Aunt Gert, Mick's sister. So I ran Aunt Gert. 'Oh, Johnny' she said, 'I'm so sorry.' But she said, 'I'll tell you exactly what to do.' They both subscribed for years to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue at St. John's Wood, you ring 4059611 ask to speak to Mr Levy or whatever it is. Tell them what's happened and they will do everything. Did this after about my fifth brandy. And sure enough about half-past mid-day a long low Peugeot arrived out of which was produced something that looked like a portable wardrobe and these two chaps in skull caps and briefcases went upstairs and removed Mick, put him in the back of the car and came back with their briefcases still with their skull caps on and said, 'Right Lady Balcon now we must discuss arrangements.' So I said, 'Well, I think the arrangements are going to be quite simple.' I said, 'if Rabbi Rainer is available, it will be Tunbridge Wells crematorium in about a week's time. If I, I will let you know how to book it.' 'That's fine' they said, 'that couldn't be better. Now Lady Balcon what about a memorial service?' 'Oh' said Aileen, 'that's dead simple St. Martin's in the Field.' 'Oh,' they said removing their skull caps' 'I don't think we will be involved in that.' [LAUGHTER]
Roy Fowler 33:03
Jonathan Balcon 33:03
And indeed, we had a very nice memorial service at St Martin's in the Field organised by Jill, myself and Austin Williams, who was a great friend of both our families. It was almost totally ecumenical not quite because I read the lesson from Revelations the usual one you know, 'I saw a new heaven and a new earth.' The Jewish cousins were a little dubious about it, but perfectly happy. Kenny Moore and that lovely lady who was a, Dilys Powell, gave short addresses. And I gave a small luncheon party afterwards. Kenny wouldn't come because he said, 'We have a great tradition at the Garrick we go away and we toast the deceased in champagne in the bar.' And he said, 'that's where I'm going to go.' I had invited him to lunch. And it went off perfectly. But again, Aileen you see didn't mind a bit. The extraordinary thing ... Roy, I hope this isn't boring.
Roy Fowler 34:04
Jonathan Balcon 33:04
When we got to Tunbridge Wells crematorium, I can never stop laughing about it, in the dust shadow on the wall [LAUGHTER] by this awful machine, you know, the lift that goes up you can see the outline of the cross that they had taken down. And Rabbi Rainer did it extremely well. And as we he was leaving, I said, 'Rabbi Rainer we're having a totally ecumenical memorial service at St Martin's in the Field I do hope you feel you could attend.' 'In no way' he said and walked away. And I was rather put out by that because of course things have subsequently changed. I mean, had it been Jonathan Sacks or any of the present ones they would probably have jumped at it you know.
Roy Fowler 34:24
As one who regards all organised religion as total rubbish it baffles me how people ... but it's a great need, isn't it?
Jonathan Balcon 35:05
Well, this is it Roy? I mean, I wouldn't go as far as to say it was rubbish I feel you, people have got to have something to latch onto, something. And I'd rather ...
Roy Fowler 35:15
Most people do indeed yes.
Jonathan Balcon 35:17
I would rather they latched onto something that was how would you say non-physical than something that was physical like a political party in a way.
Roy Fowler 35:27
Yes indeedn, reasonably civilised and urbane. Yes, yes.
Jonathan Balcon 35:32
But I mean that's my personal opinion. I'm not beyond saying the odd prayer or two, I must say, at time. Whether or not the power of prayer, I sometimes wonder how strong the power of prayer is, you know. I've been to so many funerals, and so many memorial services and written so many obituaries recently that I really am rather fed up with it. I've got to sit down and write my own fairly shortly [LAUGHTER].
Roy Fowler 36:02
It's the best way.
Jonathan Balcon 36:03
Oh, yes. And I've also got to, I've also got to make a, I would like a nice send off, I know exactly what I want in the way of a service.
Roy Fowler 36:16
Send offs, there's nothing wrong with that it's fine. I'm rather baffled by this need.
Jonathan Balcon 36:24
Roy Fowler 36:24
It's just erm the ...
Jonathan Balcon 36:26
I mean, I much enjoy, enjoy is the wrong word. I get very emotional at things like Remembrance Day Services, I get very emotional watching the Cenotaph Service.
Roy Fowler 36:37
But that's a different matter ...
Jonathan Balcon 36:38
Which is a different matter entirely.
Roy Fowler 36:39
... it's remembering something that happened and people who've gone.
Jonathan Balcon 36:43
And I keep saying to myself, if it hadn't been for what they did I wouldn't be here today. You know, I do feel strongly about that.
Roy Fowler 36:51
Oh, yes. Well, that's gratitude and ...
Jonathan Balcon 36:55
The ex-servicemen in me. I mean, Sally will tell you I only have to hear a military band and the tears stream down my face.
Roy Fowler 37:02
No, my point is that the great questions of where do I come from? Who am I? Where do I go? Are unanswerable in effect and especially where am I going?
Jonathan Balcon 37:14
Roy Fowler 37:17
I would like to know I would enjoy knowing but I don't believe I can ever know.
Jonathan Balcon 37:21
Wasn't there a play, a film, a book called "I know where I'm going".
Roy Fowler 37:27
Well yes. Mickey Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Jonathan Balcon 37:31
They made a film, was it?
Roy Fowler 37:33
Yes, but it isn't really about that. It's about it's about it's about a class thing. Do you remember it was erm I just got the DVD from the States. It was Wendy Hiller and ...
Jonathan Balcon 37:46
No I don't remember it.
Roy Fowler 37:48
They made it about 1945 or so.
Jonathan Balcon 37:50
Yeah let's have a break.
Roy Fowler 37:54
Because you've done an awful lot of talking.
Jonathan Balcon 37:56
I know, I hope to goodness, you don't half encourage me.
Roy Fowler 38:01
These are all the things that don't end up in the books anyway. I'll tell you what we will do we will unplug this because those things.
Roy Fowler 38:08
So John post lunch, which was very gratifying. We'll resume not necessarily chronologically but going back to Ealing what in the late '30s, early '40s, when when you were visiting there as a schoolboy. People you knew, what was going on there? What your father was doing?
Jonathan Balcon 38:32
Well now the extraordinary thing is in his protective capacity Mick very rarely invited people home for the weekend. But on the other hand he did have people of whom he was immensely fond and they were invited down I suppose rather like going into the headmaster study in a way. And they used to come and stay for a weekend and then there was Danischewsky and Brenda, and there was Charlie and Sonya Frend, who always kept one in stitches. Sonya was Norwegian, but with the most delightful English sense of humour, the most attractive personality. And of course, the actress I was trying to think of earlier who was married to Ralph Michael was Faye Compton.
Roy Fowler 39:15
Jonathan Balcon 39:18
Which has just come to me.
Roy Fowler 39:19
Good Lord. I never knew that, she was so much older than he.
Jonathan Balcon 39:21
Oh indeed, indeed. And of course he was wildly attractive to women. And, of course, Bob Hamer used to come and stay and one of the great homosexual friends of Mick's, not in a homosexual capacity but because he was such an amusing chap, was Robin Maugham, who subsequently became Lord Maugham and wrote various things including that marvellous subject for Dirk Bogarde, 'The Servant', which of course the film put a slightly different connotation on the Servant than the book did, but it was an extremely good film. And I remember these people terribly well. I mean, Maggie Vonner, who worked at Ealing who was married to Leo Genn. There was a famous incident when Maggie, in the dining room at Upper Parrock there was a large multi-wave band wireless set lying on the floor and the telephone lay on the top of it and all the rest of it. And Maggie bent down to switch on a programme and then I couldn't resist it I stuck a corkscrew into her backside [LAUGHTER] And she never let me forget it for the rest of her life. She was another very attractive person who came to stay, Grizelda Harvey, the great BBC actress used to come with her husband, Diana Morgan and Bobby used to come and stay and of course, Penn Tennyson and Nova honeymooned at Upper Parrock when they were first married.
Roy Fowler 40:58
Jonathan Balcon 40:58
And as I've said to you earlier Penn was the nearest thing I had to a brother because Mick really thought he was a marvellous. And I don't know whether you knew this, but later on in the war Charles Tennyson also lost Penn's brother Julian, who was killed in Burma.
Roy Fowler 41:16
No, I didn't know that.
Jonathan Balcon 41:16
So Charles lost two boys in the war. And the third boy Hallam, who ended up at the BBC, in fact, during the war was a Quaker and became a member of Friends Ambulance, and served with some distinction as a as a stretcher bearer. But that's the Tennyson family, but we were actually, Julian's widow was staying with us at Upper Parrock when the news came through that he'd been killed. And it was absolutely devastating. But these people used to come for the weekend to Upper Parrock. Bob Hamer I remember well as being the most tortured person, Bob could never really make up his mind what he was, he had a very tough girlfriend, although I think he had strong homosexual undertones to himself, but he was a brilliant director. To this day, I mean, "Kind Hearts" to me is a complete masterpiece.
Roy Fowler 42:17
Unbelievable, I think he was the best of the lot, was he not?
Jonathan Balcon 42:21
Although Cavalcanti, again another homosexual, lived with mum, his mum I hasten to add, Cav was a highly emotional person and would get terribly worked up if Mick did something that Cav disapproved on and would sit there and in a Latin American way, throwing his arms in the air and weeping, but a lovely person.
Roy Fowler 42:48
What was your father's reaction to that kind of temperament, to that kind of overt behaviour?
Jonathan Balcon 42:52
He took it all in his stride. He took it all in his stride. There was the famous story I'm sure you must have heard this and other people at Ealing will confirm this.
Roy Fowler 43:01
We're coming to the end of the side, so why don't I flip over ...
Jonathan Balcon 43:05
End of Side 3