Michael Orrom

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3 Mar 1992
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[NB Interview described as having ‘pregnant’ pauses.]

Born Wolverhampton, 1920. Moved to Bristol; Grammar school; 1938 Trinity College, Cambridge. Physics. Bought a MIDAS 9.5mm camera/projector to make films; backtracking, one of his teachers gave him for a series of lectures at Bristol University. John Grierson, Stuart Legg, Basil Wright and one other. When the ‘Munich crisis’ came he became politically aware and along with many of his fellow students joined the C.P. [Communist Party]. He talks about the Mayday demo in London which he filmed and was later shown after the outbreak of war in late 1939. He came down from Cambridge with a not particularly good degree, but he had met Bernard Miles who suggested that he should go and talk with Paul Rotha, which he did and he describes his meeting, and eventually goes to see him in his office at 26 d’Arblay Street, and is taken on at £3 a week to investigate and research ‘science and war’. He talks about Donald Alexander who took him under his wing and housed him with some food for £1 a week. His father did not approve of his film connections and wrote to the Central Register for Scientists, asking that he be placed, which he was with EMI on their radar division. He finally got out of that in 1945 and met Rotha again.


Was taken on to do research and investigation by John Trevelyan. Soil Management at £7 a week – the film was not made. Now on Rotha’s staff where he worked as an assistant on A City Speaks, then on to a film, Britain’s War Effort. 1946/7 worked on a compilation film, Total War in Britain on a script by Richard Calder. Then he talks about a series of films for the COI [Central Office of Information] (three, but only one gets made); He then talks about the work he did with a college friend, Raymond Williams on developing a ‘theoretical movement on film making’, and they wrote a manifesto, ‘Preface to Film’ (1954) which they published. They were both involved with a project from the COI, The Agricultural Labourer in Britain, but it didn’t get made as planned. He then made a film for the NLFI, Night Launch. Rotha’s company went bust, so he was now out of work. Donald Alexander of DATA films asked him to make Report on Steel, then various items for Mining Review, then he worked for Richard Massingham.. [Handkerchief Drill] He then talks about a film Rotha was to make for Ealing but it didn’t come off.


He then talks about another Rotha film he was involved with, No Resting Place, and his ‘break with Rotha’. He talks about his dearly loved project on Strindberg’s Peter’s Travels. Then he works for [British] Transport Films Dodging the Column. Then he and Raymond Williams start working on a Welsh fairy story, but the BFI [British Film Institute] didn’t like it so they couldn’t get the finance for it. Then they started working on a Joseph Conrad story, The Secret Sharer but for some unknown reason, Williams dropped out. In 1954/5 he got involved in Seven Years in Tibet. He also got involved with BBC TV’s The World is Ours.


Norman Swallow’s series The World is Ours: scripted Refugees and then realised the power of television; also worked on Special Enquiry, with Rex Moorfoot, and scripted Living with Danger for the BBC. Then moved to Shell Film Unit to scripts and direct The Two Stroke Engine. He talks about working in the USA and meeting the Hollywood ex-patriots. He then started his connection with Cable & Wireless, which was to last twenty years, as well as making various other films outside that connection such as Portrait of Queenie [Queenie Watts, singer] Automation, Secret Pony, then an Omnibus Special, [Why] Culture with Richard Hoggart. He also made a series for AMARCO on sickle cell disease, one a medical film, the other for local use in Saudi Arabia.


He goes on to talk about his connection with C & W and then his efforts to get Lucky Peter’s Travels off the ground with contacts in Romania and Hungary.


1980, he started work on updating the film he shot while he was at Cambridge in 1939. He had the 9.5mm blown up to 16mm, but it is still at 16 frames [a second] and he shows it to BBC2 who want to put a ‘bright young director’ on it, to ‘brighten it up’. He removes the film and it is eventually shown on Channel 4 A Fragment of Memory. He also talks about a film he made for C & W in Botswana, which was to be premiered at BAFTA but a new chairman takes over C & W and cancels it all and the film is never shown. He finishes up the interview talking about the difficulties he has experienced, and the problems of being an independent producer looking for work under the new regime of television. [END]


With a degree in physics and a burning ambition to "wangle it into documentary", Michael Orrom graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1941. He was fortunate enough to gain an audience with Paul Rotha, who, impressed by his science credentials, offered Orrom a job at his production company, Films of Fact, as researcher/scriptwriter on Science and War(1941), a two-reeler illustrating how science was being deployed for the war effort. In the event, the project had to be abandoned, but the ill-fated commission marked the beginning of a substantial career that spanned five decades.

Apart from a three-year stint at the BBC in the mid-1950s, where he worked on The World is Ours (1954-56) and Special Enquiry (1952-59) series, and the two university-themed programmes he made for Channel 4at the end of his career - A Fragment of Memory (1984), and Not Just Another University (1987) - Orrom's career unfolded largely in the sphere of the sponsored documentary. He made films for four of its biggest commissioners - the COINational Coal Board and Shell film units and British Transport Films - as well for less prolific sponsors such as Cable & Wireless, for whom he worked for more than 20 years. 

His career varied in terms of genre, subject matter and the locations to which he was dispatched by the disparate bodies for which he worked. It might have been even more wide-ranging had his numerous experimental art films got further than the pre-production stage; alongside his sponsored commissions Orrom persistently tried to raise funding for personal projects. He belonged to that category of postwar documentarists who saw sponsored work as a potential stepping-stone to other genres of filmmaking. What followed was a career of that appears fragmentary (though not unusually so for the postwar period) but Orrom's divergent interests in science, politics, adventure and formal experimentation are discernable.

After the liquidation of Films of Fact, which marked the end of Orrom's illustrious apprenticeship, he was rescued from unemployment by Donald Alexander, who offered him work at DATA, and his first directing role: Report on Steel (1948), a pro-nationalisation account of the processes of steel manufacturing for the Ministry of Supply. Orrom then turned his talents to shorter forms of public information through a six-month diversion into the eccentric world of Richard Massingham's Public Relationship Filmsand a handful of commissions for British Transport Films. In the mid-1950s an unexpected reunion with Rotha led to scripting and editing work on two feature projects. The first, based on Leo Walmsley's novel The Phantom Lobster, sadly got no further than the development stage, but the second, No Resting Place (1951), concerning the plight of itinerant workmen in Ireland, enjoyed a small theatrical release and competed at the Edinburghand Venice film festivals. 

He spent most of the later part of his career on the payroll of Cable & Wireless,a position that presented him with unanticipated cinematic challenges in some of the furthermost corners of the globe. He travelled from Hong Kong, for East West Island (1966), to Ascension Island, a bleak outpost in the South Atlantic, for Apollo in Ascension (1967), and to the Middle East, to make Arabia the Fortunate (1974). By this point, he was increasingly seen as a scientific filmmaker. Whatever genre he was assigned to, he sought to apply his longstanding view that documentary should relate its subject to a wider social milieu. As he put it (discussing his Cable & Wireless work): "I have tried in the films to bring out something of the social implications of communications to the setting in which they belong."

One significant diversion from the vagaries of telecommunications came in the form of Portrait of Queenie (1964), a musical documentary featuring Queenie Watts, the notorious East End jazz-blues singer and publican. Independently produced by Eyeline Films and generously backed by British Lion, the project allowed Orrom scope for the creative expression and experimentation he had been hankering after. After this brief excursion he returned to the area of science and industrial films, remaining with Cable & Wireless until the late 1970s, producing as well as directing many of them though his own company, Film Drama.

Following in the footsteps of John GriersonPaul Rotha and other pioneers, Orrom engaged with intellectual film discourse throughout his career. In this respect, he was unusual among his postwar documentary peers, many of whom preferred making films to writing about them. Whether by fluke, fate or practical necessity, his vision was largely applied within the field of sponsored documentary, which was considerably better off for his contributions.

Katy McGahan