NB This is a thematically chaptered extract - a full transcription is awaited [DS 2021]
The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Lionel Banes was interviewed by Peter Sargent on 28 July 1988.
1. Ealing war films
LB: I was approached by Ealing who were going to start the film for the War Office called Next of Kin and Ernie Palmer was going to be the cameraman and I was asked would I would go to Ealing and come on that. And I operated at first with, it was all on location in Cornwall, working with the first commando troops. They were doing an invasion of France and landed from flat bottom boats, ran across the beach and then were climbing up I should think 300 foot high cliffs there. They asked me if I could try with a Newman Sinclair to shoot some of the stuff of them climbing up, and I remember climbing up and suddenly finding I looked down and my knees were knocking and I couldn't get up or down. [Laughter]
PS: And with the Newman the spring always ran down just at the wrong time.
LB: Yes. So I worked on that film. Then we had to do a very big battle scene on Bodmin Moor. We all went back to the studio to do interiors and it was arranged we would go back to do this big battle and for some reason Ernie couldn't go and he said let Lionel do it so I went back and did the whole of it.
PS: Were they day exteriors or night.
PS: Well you couldn't have lit at night because of the black out.
LB: No you couldn't. Although I did during the war work, I remember being borrowed from Ealing by the Czechs, the Czech airforce. They wanted to do a raid they'd done somewhere, probably Hamburg, they wanted to re-photograph that and somebody from the Czech film Unit, an English person, asked Michael Balcon if I could go and do it and I did. I worked at night on a great big airfield that was near the New Forest then during the war. PS: Herne [?] was it?
LB: Yes, that's right. And they had a terrific mess of a Czech kitchen, American and English. And when I used to go in to get my dinner in the middle of the night the WRAF used to serve the same soup to everyone, and she used to tip me off which was the best meal. And if she wanted to say Czech she'd give me my soup and say 'Czech', or 'American', And I had lights on at light then to do that. The planes of course never went up but I had to simulate as though there were searchlights coming up from the ground and nearly blinding the pilots and that.
PS: But also generators in those days were nothing like the ones today.
LB: They were terribly noisy, they used to smell too.
PS: Because some of the generators on films you and I worked on were First World War searchlight generators.
LB: Well, during the war, in Germany, at the end of the war, I went out to Germany for Ealing and the prisoner of war camps. And I used those searchlights for lighting.
PS: But in those earlier days of night shooting what was the biggest single light source you could have?
B: I think the 150 amp arc.
B: Because the brutes, nothing like that had come in had they?
2. Ealing comedy
LB: The brutes never came in to England until 1948. I was working for Ealing on great location at Pimlico, Passport To Pimlico. I was working on a terrific bombsite there and we had a summer just like this year. I remember wearing an overcoat and they called me back to the studio and said you're very behind schedule because of the bad weather, is there anything you can do to manage to shoot. And I knew that Jack Cardiff, who I had spoken to at a BSC [British Society of Cinematographers] meeting he'd got some brutes over from Hollywood. I phoned him and said is there any possibility of borrowing any. He said I've got four I'll lend you one and one came over. It was marvellous. I could get weak sunlight on the full length figures without the background being black.
PS: At Ealing you also did a lot of model work.
LB: Yes, I was doing model work all the time and was taken off to go onto a film. [...]
Well, I will say Ealing their scripts on the whole were of a particular kind that made very good comedies. They weren't of a childish silly type.
PS: Who wrote them, do you remember?
LB: The best ones I'd say were written by T. E. B. Clarke who we called Tibby. Passport to Pimlico was written by him and quite a number
PS: Lavender Hill Mob?
LB: That was written by him, yes.
PS: And there were some very good operators, do you remember?
LB: Yes, Geoff Seaholme, Gordon Dines, and afterwards Chick Waterson became a very good operator. But the first picture he was my operator on, he had no confidence in himself. At the end of the take and the director would say can we print it poor Chick used to say, well, well. I knew him and I'd been watching him all the while he was operating and saw all his camera movements, and I often used to shout out it's all right Chick you can print it.
PS: Because in those days you were using the Mitchells in the blimps with the outside finder, and all the problems with parallex and everything else which really it was murder wasn't it.
LB: You got used to it.
PS: But you were so dependent on artists holding their positions at the end while you got the blimp off.
LB: Yes, but I must say I preferred using that type of camera with the outside finder than the Debrie on that which I had to work on with Gunther Krampf.
Film processing techniques
PS: Did you ever work on the Schufftan process?
B: Oh yes very often, particularly when I was an operator to Gunther Krampf because he used it whenever he could to aid his Schufftan in Berlin. I remember one day when he was discussing with one of the Schufftan technicians what they'd do on that, I could hear him say we'll take the magazine off and develop the test, and see. And I started taking the magazine off, they were talking in German, and Gunther turned round and said do you know what we're talking about. So I said yes, I do, I can follow you. So from that day he said to me well you'll come over to Gaumont and be my operator.
PS: Were you using Mitchells for the Schufftan?
LB: I think we often did.
PS: Because of steadiness and so on?
PS: It was a very good process but it was limiting wasn't it?
LB: Well, really when I think back, you could do just as well with a glass shot and have done it much quicker.
PS: Did you ever work on the Dunning Process?
LB: Yes, at Gainsborough.
PS: Can you describe it?
LB: I used to hate the thought of going on it, because you used to work for hours and hours, it was slow, because you had two magazines really that you put on the camera. One, there was a plate that had been shot first as a BP plate would be, and that had special processing. In Hollywood they used to process it, I know that they started there in 1927 with it. Two brothers named the Dunning brothers started that, but then Humphreys laboratories in Whitfield St., they got the agency to do it and they could make the correct plate as done in Hollywood.
And it was an amber print so thin that you could hardly see a picture on it. And that was put on the top part of a magazine and threaded through the camera in front of your raw, unexposed film and they went through the camera together. The foreground subject was lit with yellow light, both the set and artist, and there was a big background lit by blue light. And how the process worked, the yellow light came through the yellow amber film as if it wasn't there and exposed itself correctly, and the blue light, it filtered, it just got through the amber and like printed the picture that was on the amber colour film.
PS: Really, it was like having a matte travelling in the camera. Did you have any problem using double thickness of film with the cameras altered?
LB: No, no, and the next morning you saw the rushes and it used to come out very well. Why I say I hated the thought of doing it, as you could only have 400 ft of plate in the camera
PS: Why was that?
LB: Why? Because you had to put on your camera two magazines which had been welded into one. And so if an artist fluffed and they shouted 'Cut', you had to take the magazine back and rewind the plate and reload again with negative, so it used to go on all night.
PS: We've been talking about Dunning and Schufftan, and so on, but the BP screens that were used then, what were they made of?
LB: Well, I don't know if it was celluloise or paper. The earliest time I seemed to take an interest was when they were being manufactured in Boreham Wood in the old film studio near the station, and I think by then they were making them celluloise.
PS: Yes, I believe one of the big problems then too was getting rid of the hot spots from the projector in the centre of the screen.
LB: Yes, that occurred for quite a long while, and we found the best way of doing that was by cutting a piece of filter, usually a yellow one, cutting it in a star shape, and putting that in front of the projection lens, about half a yard in front of the lens and you could cut the hot spot down.
. The start of his career
PS: What did your parents think when you said you were going to give up furs.
LB: My father wasn't very pleased. He seemed to infer that doing anything to do with photography was as though you were just going to knock on people's doors and ask can we take your photograph.
PS: Which you and I did before the war. [laugher]
LB: That's quite true for a period.
PS: They didn't have any connections with the industry did they?
LB: None at all.
PS: So you did have to knock on doors then. How did you get in?
LB: I wrote many letters to different film studios at that time. Most of them simply said they weren't interested but when I wrote round a second time Gainsboroughs did reply and said they would give me an interview at Poole St., Islington, and after the interview they said yes we will
PS: Was that Ted Black.
LB: No, he wasn't there then. Phil Samuels. And he introduced me to the cameraman at that time, an English cameraman, a very good cameraman, but he used to drink too much...
PS: Percy Strong
LB: No, before Percy, another Percy. [Laughter]. I started on the day the film commenced production, The Hound of the Baskervilles.
PS: What were your duties then?
LB: Loading, clappers, for a very short time, because I was able to, because of my knowledge of photography, to pull focus better than the person who was then employed to do that.
PS: What camera were you working on?
LB: They had two or three cameras. They had one standard Mitchell
PS: In a blimp?
LB: Yes, they had a homemade blimp that that went in, and a Bell and Howell, and that had to go in a telephone booth, the Bell and Howell. It used to make a noise like one was playing a kettledrum.
PS: What were you paid?
LB: 30 shillings a week.
PS: That was a fortune.
LB: I was told by the studio manager there, his name was Harold Boxall, he told me I'd be paid 30 shillings a week for three months and that I'd have an increase to 3 pounds. But I remember having to press very hard about the 4th and 5th month, what about the increase?
PS: The thing is that they did have a trainee scheme operating.
LB: Not then. That was later.
PS: But that was a flat 30 shillings a week, you didn't get overtime.
LB: No, I used to work from about 8 in the morning to 2 am the next morning practically every day.
PS: How did you get home?
LB: They used to have taxis. They used to send you home in taxis. And I can remember if ever I finished work before 10 at night it would feel like today finishing about 6 o'clock in the evening. I used to think Oh I'll see my parents, and relations, they won't be in bed.
PS: It was no good having a girl friend in those days, you'd never see them.
B: I can remember I could never date up to go to a dance or do anything because that particular night you'd work late. And all day Saturdays and Sundays, and I've done 8 weeks without any weekend off at all.
2. Courtneidge and Hulbert films
PS: Apart from lunch did you get an evening meal provided?
LB: If you worked after 8 o'clock they used to break for half an hour and give you something like fried egg and chips.
PS: On the set?
LB: No, you went to the canteen.
PS: Working under those conditions it was much hotter.
LB: Particularly in Gainsboroughs, because that had been built by an American company, so I've been told, to prove, because they had to make quota films here from 1927, and they picked on that area because they were told that because there was a canal at the back of the studio, there'd always be a fog and they wanted to prove that they couldn't make films in England. When Sir Michael Balcon, he was not a 'Sir' then, bought the studio, he had some plant put in order to do away with this fog and it was terrific heat, terrible heat.
PS: Because the studio at one time had been a power station, and then Famous Players Lasky. But before that it was Gainsborough-Welch-Pearson for a while wasn't it with George Pearson.
LB: No, he might have taken it over before
PS: This is silent days
LB: before Sir Michael did it but it had been a power station, and the tube from Old Street ran right underneath the power station and then the famous Lasky Players, they came over from the States and they had it built to do the quota pictures.
PS: What other films of that time can you remember. Did you work on any of the Cicely Courtneidge.
LB: I worked on all the Cecily Courtneidge/Jack Hulberts. The Ghost Trainwas the first one. And then there were about 3 others I think were made there, I don't remember the titles. I do remember one in which Jack Hulbert was a sweep
PS: You didn't work on Sunshine Susie did you?
PS: Which was a remake of the German film.
LB: Renate Muller playing the leading role. I don't remember who the male was.
PS: Jack Hulbert was in Sunshine Susie because he sang 'The Flies Crawl Up The Window' [written by Vivian Ellis]
LB: That's correct and he did some terrific dancing.
PS: Did you find that he took a long time to get going?
LB: Always. Jack Hulbert would read his script and he'd never really learn it by heart, he'd suddenly say I think we can improve this, and they'd break for about an hour or more in which he'd try to rewrite it or say that he ought to walk round walk here or jump round there.
PS: I remember an occasion when he came out with a brilliant idea, after about 2 hours of rehearsing, and the director said but that's what you' ve been already doing for two hours!. He didn't seem to remember
PS: By then had things changed at all? Were cameras different, film stock different?
LB: Yes. By then we'd purchased new cameras, they'd bought a camera they'd called the Cinephon from Prague in Czechoslovakia.
PS: Otto Kanturek I believe
LB: Otto Kanturek who was a Czechoslovakian cameraman working in London, he'd been going round every studio and trying to sell these cameras, and Gainsboroughs were the first to buy them. They first of all bought two, but were not really silent but they were somewhat blimped, and after running them for about a week the gears inside completely snapped. And Roy Kellino and I, we took both the cameras, got in a taxi and went to see George Hill, of Newman and Sinclair on Highgate Hill. In front of us he took several sized screwdrivers and undid all the exterior of the camera putting them all in empty film tins, all the bits and pieces, showed us the gear wheels and said I could make new ones out of brass or some other material. We phoned back to the manager, he said yes tell him to go ahead, he did that very quickly and we got the two cameras back working very well.
PS: I remember the motor driver which hung under the tripod.
LB: It hung under the tripod and a flexible shaft as the drive.
PS: And they used to snap.
LB: Yes they could do. And then we bought, they made a more modern camera, the same firm did, that was much better at silence. It was pretty well blimped, and so we bought two of those as well. So Gainsboroughs had then four Cinephons and Gaumont British bought, I think about 4 of those.
PS: Because I remember, and I worked with you as your focus puller at Gaumont British later, we used to have eiderdowns to put over the top. And then they tore and the feathers used to come out all over the place.
LB: That's right.
PS: Was the Cinephon, did you look through the base of the film when you were operating?
LB: Yes you looked right through the film, it was very difficult to see through. Particularly when they brought out the grey back.
PS: And also of course depending on the amount of light, the smaller the aperture, the harder it got.
PS: And you had a black cloth.
LB: Yes, you used to put a black cloth. You'd go under that black cloth before a take started in order to get your eye accustomed to see
PS: If you were on exteriors, you really couldn't come out for a cup of tea because you'd go back under for hours.
LB: No, once you were in the bright light you couldn't see again.
PS: What was production like in those early days compared with much later? Did it change much?
LB: Not so very much. There was still director, assistant director.
PS: And sound seemed to cope quite well.
LB: Sound used to cope very well.
PS: And of course they couldn't play their rushes back like they can today.
LB: No, they used to cope, apart from the boom, they'd often tie a microphone in a hidden thing on a table.
PS: What was the crew then, did you have the grips as the member of the crew?
LB: Yes. Not in my first year or two, but after I'd been there about two years there was always one grip who was on the crew.
PS: Did you work with Alfred Hitchcock at all?
LB: Yes. At Gaumont only. On The 39 Steps. They had Leslie Rowson doing models in a factory on Western Avenue.
PS: I was with you on that.
LB: And I went there and if you can remember he went to sleep when he should have been working and I lit them and shot it, and every day when the rushes arrived Leslie when he shot them had to go to Gaumonts and show them to Hitchcock. But when my day's work came, he said well I never shot them you go with them yourself. So I went there and I remember in the theatre Hitchcock said to me you have to sit on my left. So I sat on his left, we saw the rushes and it was a railway coach with passengers at the tables and a great crash had occurred and all these bodies got thrown up in the ceiling, thrown up, forward, backwards, and I thought I'd made a jolly good job, I'm very pleased.
Lights came up and Hitch looked at me, and his eyes used to sometimes really glare at you I thought what's he going to say. He said you're a very good cameraman, photographically very good, but you're a bad director. So I said director? They're all little wooden figures. So he said, wooden or whatever they are you've directed them very badly, now you go back, you'll do it all again. He said and they wouldn't all leave their seats at the same time, and so many would hit the ceiling and so many would go to the right and so many to the left. They'd all do different things. You direct them this time, and do that.
So I went back, and if you remember the model man was Guido Baldi, the Italian. So he sat down for a bit and contemplated and I said to him could we stick plasticine on the seats and sides and backs of the figures, and that would give a split second. So he said yes, we'll try that. I shot it again and the following day when I went back to Hitch he was quite pleased with me.
PS: That was for a film called Sabotage. And in fact it went out on television about 2 months ago. And what you were doing the model work for was for back projection plate, because they had in the foreground of your shot a life-size train interior.
LB: Oh we also did, apart from that coach, I also did many other model shots of the train coming along a railway line, and even an aeroplane flying above and bombing it. Yes I did a lot for that. I also did models for another of Hitchcock's pictures, I can't remember much about.
PS: Because Hitchcock made Little Friend, Man Who Knew Too Much, Secret Agent, 39 Steps and Sabotage, not in that order.
LB: I think I did something for Secret Agent.
LB: At Gaumont they'd bought 2 Debrie cameras, the French Super Parvo's and I remember operating for Gunther Krampf, also a German cameraman, and he only let me use that Super Parvo.
PS: And they used to go in for a lot of gauzing.
LB: Krampf put diffiusion lenses on which he told me he'd had made in Budapest so I nicknamed them the Hungarian Rapsody. [Laughter]
PS: But also they used Astro lenses a lot.
LB: On the Cinephon cameras that came from Czechoslovakia, they were all Astro lenses, and they were all on the soft side.
PS: Of course as a focus puller, before you operated, it was a far harder job than I think nowadays because one always worked at full aperture.
LB: Well you worked at full open aperture, at F2.
PS: And directors often used fairly long focus lenses.
LB: That's quite right the 3 inch lens very, very often.
PS: Yes, I remember doing a dancing scene with somebody with a 75 mil. Um, did you use cranes, back projection, all that sort of thing much?
LB: Back projection, I'm trying to think, Friday The Thirteenth, a picture made at Gainsboroughs,
PS: Was that a Jessie Matthews?
LB: No, I don't think so.
PS: Was that where he's a bus conductor?
LB: Yes, Sonnie Hale.
PS: That's right. Well, I think she was in Friday The Thirteenth too.
LB: I don't remember her. Well you've jogged my memory. I can remember an American cameraman, Charlie Van Enger, and he, to my amazement lit with flood, did all the filling in on the back projection with floodlights going all over the screen.
PS: Because it was a problem in those days to get enough light onto the screen anyway.
LB: Yes, at that time, because the film wasn't very fast, and the projector didn't have a very powerful arc light.
PS: And then you had the problem of lack of depth of field between your artists and the screen so you had to try and keep as near the screen as possible. And I believe again at Lime Grove Jack Whitehead did a lot of back projection.
LB: At Gaumont Jack Whitehead tried to specialise in shooting the plates and being present when they were being filmed.
PS: They made a great mystery of back projection.
LB: They tried to, yes.