Nora Lee (nee Blackburne)

Family name: 
Lee (nee Blackburne)
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
29 Sep 1994
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

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Interview notes


NORA LEE Synopsis. File 335. Side 1.

Born 1914 in a suburb of Buenos Aires. Father was English, a Banker by profession. He married a lady of Spanish extraction and they had three children, Nora being the middle one. She remained in Argentina until she was 6 years old and was unable to speak English when she first came to England to settle in Hampstead. She tells of an amusing incident at Nursery School. Later she was educated at South Hampstead High School for Girls, a day school, and one of the best in Britain it would seem. Most of the teaching staff were Oxford or Cambridge graduates. She remained there tor eight years. She regretted not going on to higher education, but girls were supposed to stay at home in those days!

From sixteen onwards she tried all sorts of jobs and eventually found herself in commercial radio working for Radio Luxembourg and other French stations in the mid 1930's. She was based at No. lO A Soho Square. She talks about Christopher Stone and how he became famous. Sponsored programmes were recorded on disc - some early. regulatory problems are discussed and how the programmes were made and recorded at a separate recording studio nearby. It all came to an end on the outbreak of war. She had now become a programme maker. She talks about her first job at the age of seventeen at Gamages [a London Department Store] working for a silhouette cutter. Her next job was in Bond Street at Carat's helping to sell garments on the 'never never'. There was great camaraderie amongst the girls.

After the Radio Luxembourg job finished at the beginning of the war, Nora was at a loose end. She explains how she met her husband-to-be, Adam Dawson, at a local hop [dance] in Chalfont St. Giles where her parents now lived; Adam was the film librarian for London Films. She talks about people's attitudes to life at the beginning of  the war. Adam suggested that she should take over his job at Denham whilst he was waiting to be called up, which she did. Henry Miller helped her over any difficulties. She mentions a few of the famous editors she met. She also mentions the arrival of some 'very strange people' - the GPO Film Unit from Blackheath. Ian Dalrymple, who was in charge of production, wae not accepted by the GPO boys because of the many differences between feature production and documentary work. A fascinating insight into the differences and personalities involved is revealed in the discussion.

Harry Watt asked Nora to become their film librarian in the new set-up, which had become the Crown Film Unit. She talks about the difficult working arrangements. Eventually, Dalrymple, who thought of Nora as a disruptive influence, arranged for her to work with Humphrey Jennings, She describes what it was like to work with an intellectual like Jennings. Apparently, the extra responsibility was the making of her, though. The production of "FIRES WERE STARTED" is discussed in detail. More comment about Jennings' peculiarities.

Side 2. Continues with a more detailed description of "FIRES WERE STARTED". Jennings - a genius, but could fly into rages. Details on the crew and their distaste for Jennings - a sort of love, hate relationship. Film stock was rationed and Commercial shooting was necessary because of budget restraints. Wages were £15 per week.

"LETTER FROM ULSTER" d. Brian Desmond Hurst is discussed. It was produced for distribution in America. Another film of the period made for American audiences was "LONDON CAN TAKE IT" d. Harry Watt. These pictures were made to nullify American criticism in some quarters and to gain sympathy for the cause - that was the job of the MoI

Nora recalls her first introduction to John Mortimer - 'a person just down from Oxford who showed promising signs of being able to write something'. He did, in fact, write the treatment for "FOR ABSENT FRIENDS" d. Nora Lee - mostly studio shots. "THE TRUE STORY OF LILLI MARLEEN" d. Humphrey Jennings  was the next picture she worked on With Jennings, apart from creating the many other drama documentaries of the period. Humphrey is compared with the other famous directors of the day. There was great competition, but some could not see where his magic lay. He has been likened to a poet rather than a story teller. Production details.

Ian Dalrymple formed Wessex Films, bought the book of "THE WOODEN HORSE" and put his own money into it! It was directed by Jack Lee, 1950, Nora's second husband. Dalrymple's career is discussed. Nora's career in film making came to an end in 1947 when she settled down to raise a family. Her last work was as Unit Manager on "WOMAN IN THE HALL" d. Jack Lee, 1947, the first film that Wessex made. She talks about all the other Services that made up Crown.

Side 3. Nora talks about Crowri after Dalrymple moved on and Jack Holmes came in. Basil Wright also produced there. One such film was "CHILDREN ON TRIAL" which Nora worked on as Unit Manager. Production details.

Tina Peters - previously interviewed by John Legard in May, 1992 {interview No 252] - is also the subject of discussion and we hear a different slant! Nora goes on to talk about her various jobs outside the industry which she took on when her babies had grown up. They included the Coal Board, Public Relations at the Connaught Rooms; she also worked for a dress designer, started an Art Gallery, and worked with Pat Jackson at Penny farthing. She also worked with one of the Debenhams in a shop of good taste.

More reminiscences about Jennings' career and Crown ends the interview. [END]

COMMENT: - Although Nora's career in film making was a comparatively short one, it spanned a period where the British drama documentary movement was at its prolific best, largely influenced by the conduct of the War. By all accounts, it was ah exciting and artistically rewarding time for the film maker.

Cast in order of appearance:-

NORA LEE was interviewed by John Legard. DAVID MATHER ROBSON recorded it and wrote the synopsis.



Nora Lee was born as Nora Francisca Blackburne in Buenos Aires, Argentina daughter of a banker John Devereaux Blackburne and Francisca Nazaria López. She was educated at South Hampstead High School and then RADA (class of 1935). As a striking young woman amongst a very exciting and creative and mostly male crew at the minister of information's Crown film unit its leader Ian Dalrympal saw she needed a challenge and made her the assistant to the pioneering documentary film-maker Humphrey Jennings. She met her future husband Jack Lee there. He was the elder brother of Laurie Lee, and became a film director post war. Her two sons survive her. Later she had a series of jobs including working at the National Coal Board's staff college.