Ken Gay

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
26 Apr 2000
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

Horizontal tabs

Interview notes



(Former Production Manager National Coal Board Film Unit)

File Number 476

Interviewed bv Rodney Giesler on 26 4 00

Born 18.8.1923 Stratford, London, son of a postman. Description of home, childhood and family. Father’s line had a good flow of words. Books in the house. Started at elementary school at five. Passed the eleven plus into local grammar school. Developed a great love of literature. Social background in West Ham. Political awareness at the rise of fascism. Approach of war. Moved to Forest Gate. The strong Jewish community. Oldest friend Stanley Bloom. Evacuated with the school to Brentwood. Felt liberated at leaving home for the first tune. Tony Simmons a contemporary. School work and an influential teacher. Enjoyed Essex in springtime 1940. Watching the Battle of Britain. The night bombing starts. Memories of a near miss in September 1940. Moved temporarily to Hounslow. (45’3l”)

End of Side 1.

 Mother found a flat in West Ham. Re-evacuated to Helston, Cornwall in October 1940. Watching the panorama of England. Academic progress. Trip home to the bombing. Female company. Exploring the Cornish landscape. Hitch hiking. Another school contemporary was Johnny Clark (aka Bryan Forbes). Stayed until August 1941. Accepted to read economics at the LSE which was in Cambridge during the war. Lectures by R.H. Tawney. Medically unfit for the services. More feelings about the war. Life in Cambridge a culture shock. Meeting Tony Simmons again. Enjoyed rowing. Claus Moser, Susan Strange and Arnold Weinstock contemporaries. Holiday job as a postman. Parents did not understand university life. A Gallup poll. Political makeup of the LSE. Harold Beales, Ginsberg, and Lasky. (46’15")

End of Side 2.

 Impressions of Harold Laski. Hitch-hiking the main way to travel in wartime. Developing writing talents. Stimulation of university life. Graduated in June 1944. Living with the V-1’s and V-2’s. Job offers. Abortive trip to Bournemouth. Settled with a job with "Miners’ Welfare Committee" in Ashtead. Contrasting academic stimulation and routine work. Origins of the Welfare Committee. Organising social events. Absorbed into the National Coal Board in 1948. Memories of Elwyn Jones. Moved to Public Relations Branch as a clerk in 1949. Started 30 years’ of film-making. Married in 1949. Kurt Lewenhak the films officer. The personalities in PR branch. Started writing theatre and documelltary film reviews. Clotting to know the film business. Early days of cinema-going. (45’40")

End of Side 3.

Learning about films. The importance of documentary. London cinemas which are no more. Both the Coal Board and the films it made were a carry-over from the war years. Donald Alexander brought in the Grierson tradition. The gift to teach. Policy foundation. The need to update an industry. Coal the only energy source then. How the NCB Film Unit began. Donald Alexander’s great influence. Relating to the mining engineers. Countering the "Daily Express". Great freedom of action and independence. The creative team; Kitty Marshall, John Shaw Jones, Alun Falconer, John Read, Ron Fry, Jack Fairbank, Charlie Burgess, Lionel Griffiths. A great club. Basic crewing. Premises. Equipment used. Safety constraints. How subjects were chosen. The right technicians and locations for the subject. The distribution of exhibition of the films. Unifying a large fragmented industry. Setting up a film library. A clear way to explain the needs of the industry to its employees. Film had a key role. The NCB a social service to the economy. The mechanisation revolution. (45’54").

End of Side 4.

 Mechanisation covered with films. More on Donald Alexander. A strong practical personality. A large programme of safety films helped reduce accidents. The move to 2. Grosvenor Place from Hobart House. Description of the building. The acceptance of the Unit by the Board, and the increase in demand for films. Getting technicians to work for modest wages. A grapevine of production managers. Taking on trainees. Problems of phoning from home. Persuading freelancers to work down a mine. Donald’s disappearances into the basement studio. Expansion at 2 Grosvenor Place. The strangeness of projectionists. Producing "Mining Review". A unifying newsreel. Watching the unit at work. Styles of working. Donald’s character. Donald was employed as an outside consultant to avoid a clash of seniorities at the Coal Board. Francis Gysin takes over from Donald in 1963. Unit moves to DORSET Square. Working with Gysin much less stressful. (45’15").

End of Side 5.

 Unit expands into marketing films. Oil, gas and nuclear power now competing fuels. Technical films on processes using coal. Jacob Bronowski’s work. Expanding sponsorship. Biggest industrial film unit in Europe. Fifty technicians employed. Stock shot library opened. Contacts with British Transport Films. In 1964 left the unit to join Training Branch at the NCB working with Denis Kensit. The art of writing training manuals. Initiated projects with film unit. The stable state of the Coal Board under Sir Derek Ezra, balanced by Joe Gormley of the NUM. Thatcher triggered the decline of the coal industry. It was now MacGregor vs. Scargill. Loss of union power. Retired March 1st 1984 just before the strike. Geology problems in new pits. North Sea Oil. Environmental constraints. Destroy a mine, you destroy a community. His own career reflects the lifetime of the Coal Board. Film Unit wound up. Prints sent to the archive. (38’15")


End of Side 6.

 Introduced to film journalism through Peter Brinson. Wrote reviews of short films for "Films & Filming". Also "Books & Bookmen" edited by Louis Marks. Main interest in writing. Employers encouraged him. Allowed him a broad view of other industries. Got to know other film makers. Attended BISFA festivals as the Coal Board delegate. A great education. International festivals also covered. Contacts with other film correspondents: Clive Jones, Peter Rigg, Alec Hughes, John Chittock, Ron Brewer, Oliver Farmer, David Fisher, Bernard Happe, John Henson, Ken Myer. Recalls the size of the sponsored documentary industry that grew up after the war, covering all uses. Came to an end with the arrival of the video. Production standards declined, and the lessons of craftsmanship were lost. Continued to write after retirement for "Screen Digest" and "Training Digest". Served on National Panel of Film Festivals. The other members. Now writes on local history. Reviews political attitudes of the thirties. (35’15").


End of Side 7.














Obit from Roger - 23.5.2015:
Ken was production manager of he National Coal Board Film Unit when I joined it 60 years ago. He also wrote extensively on documentary films. He was a good friend, and I spoke to him last only a few weeks ago. I recorded him for the History Project back in April 2000.