Norman Spencer

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22 Jun 1999
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A Summary of the NORMAN SPENCER Interview. File 453.


Born 1914 in Stockwell, near Brixton: the family moving shortly afterwards to the outskirts of Billericay in Essex, and eventually right into the town.

At the age of nine he was taken to see his first movie at a cinema in Leigh-on-Sea where the family had now moved to - it was a great thrill and he was hooked from that moment  onwards. It cost three old pence to gain admission in those days and he describes the metal token which was used in place of a paper ticket.

He became a regular cinema-goer and describes some of the cartoons, the various subjects and famous stars of the silent era.

It was not long before he pressed his parents into buying a toy projector, two of which were unsatisfactory because they either lacked a shutter, or possessed only a single-bladed one. Anything to do with films had now become a hobby.

When he left school, he bought a Pathescope 9.5 mm. projector, looked up the company's address in the 'phone book and applied for a job, but it came to nothing because he lacked experience.

He left school at 14 and was apprenticed to a firm of commercial artists in Fenchurch Street but realised eventually that he was not cut out to be a commercial artist.

He obtained an unofficial job, painting murals on the walls of a dance studio in Great Portland Street, and was informed by the people that danced there that they often obtained jobs as film extras and that this was a good way of getting into film studios.

Eventually, the day came, When, as an extra, he found himself at Pinewood appearing in the film SPLINTERS IN THE AIR (l937).         He took the opportunity to wander around the sets, watch the filming, and soak up the atmosphere, it was the most exciting experience of his life.

He remained an extra for several years on one guinea a day [£1.05] - the standard rate for the job. Working conditions, and several of the films he worked on, are discussed.

He reminisces about his visit to Denham to work as an extra on KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, 1937. He was impressed when Korda directed the picture for a week while the designated director, Jacques Feyder was off sick. How a producer could leave the office and take hold of the reins at such short notice, was a revelation to Norman.

He kept trying to obtain a job on the floor, making use of the opportunities as an extra to look for an opening.

Eventually he got a job as a clapper-boy on a film called MIDNIGHT at MADAME TUSSAUDS in 1936, director George Pearson, shot at Highbury Studios in two weeks.

He talks about the old hand-cranked projectors in the preview theatre used for viewing rushes.

All the studios he worked in, and there were many in those days, are mentioned. He reminisces about a Crazy Gang film he worked on as an extra at Islington.

As a stand-in for George Formby on one production, he earned about five pounds a week. This led to another job as a stand-in, this time for Leslie Howard. The film was PIMPERNEL SMITH, l94l, director Leslie Howard, and he learnt more about production values working with such a prestige crew at Denham.

His first real break came when he was appointed a 3rd assistant director on UNPUBLISHED STORY, 1942, director Harold French, at Denham. It was on this production that he was encouraged to join ACT, ticket number 3565. Another production was THEY FLEW ALONE, l941, directed by Herbert Wilcox.

He then became a 2nd assistant on THE DEMI-PARADISE, 1943,

 director AnthonY A squith. The leading lady was Penelope Dudley Ward who eventually married Carol Reed.

This was during the 'Tanks for Russia' period when the Germans invaded Russia and people like Valerie Hobson were going about with collecting boxes to aid the cause.

Industrial action was only averted when Anatole de Grunwald pleaded with technicians not to take action over their belief that Russia was being denigrated.

It was during this period that Norman first met David Lean, and they, and their respective wives became firm friends. Norman secured the job, purely on reputation, of 2nd assistant on IN WHICH WE SERVE, 1942, directors Noel Coward, David Lean, at a salary of eight pounds, ten shillings a week. [£8-50].

He talks about the production. Kay Walsh, it seemed, persuaded David Lean to press Coward for the job of

 co-director - David needed a lot of persuasion to assert himself. There is a detailed description of the premature explosion on the set which killed the Chief Electrician. (this accident is also chronicled in the Peter Manley interview, BEHP No 448 ed.)


Continues with IN WHICH WE SERVE. As a result of the success of IN WHICH WE SERVE, Coward suggested that Lean, [Ronald] Neame and [Anthony] Havelock-Allan should form a triumvirate to make the Coward plays, the first one to be THIS HAPPY BREED.            Meanwhile Norman, with the aforementioned triumvirate, formed a Company called CINEGUILD, to make the pictures, the first one to be THIS HAPPY BREED, 1944, director: David Lean, with Norman as 1st.assistant.

With planning almost completed, Norman suddenly received his call-up papers for military service, and nothing could be done about it. Sadly, his first magnificent job was therefore snatched away by the Army!

Although invalided out of the Service on medical grounds shortly afterwards, he found that the production was underway, and his job was gone. But Havelock-Allan offered him the Production Manager’s job on BLITHE SPIRIT,1945, directed by David Lean: Production details.

The following is a list of the features which Norman was involved in, as detailed in the remainder of side two: THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, 1945, director Sidney Gilliat for Gilliat and Launder, with Norman as production manager. GREAT EXPECTATIONS, 1946, a David Lean. This was David Lean’s first film away from Noel Coward.

Norman forgot to mention that he was a 2nd Unit Production Manager during the war on THE WAY AHEAD, 1944, directed by Carol Reed, and provides some fascinating details. OLIVER TWIST, 1948 director David Lean with [Ronald] Neame as Producer. BLANCHE FURY, 1948, director Marc Allegret, with [Anthony] Havelock Allen as Producer. There was a nasty accident on the very first shot - take one - when the huge Technicolor camera following Valerie Hobson was dislodged by a part of the set, fell to the floor, and seriously injured the cameraman on the crane. Needless to say, the camera was smashed and would have killed anyone had they been underneath.



PASSIONATE FRIENDS, 1948, director David Lean, with Neame as producer and Norman as production manager in his permanent job.

This picture started out with Ronnie Neame as its director but he was soon in difficulties with the cast and Lean had to take over and continue with the picture, the start of which was delayed by three weeks. It re-started with a huge set representing the Chelsea Arts Ball and that was the beginning of the affair, and subsequent marriage between David Lean and Ann Todd. Mention is also made of Trevor Howard's accident which resulted in a serious loss of blood.


Returning to OLIVER TWIST, Norman recalls that the idea for the opening sequence was credited to Kay Walsh because Lean was in a quandary on how to start the narrative.




Continues with OLIVER TWIST.

 (Having seen the film, who can forget Kay Walsh's evocative contribution - the prickly thorns rubbing together to simulate the birth pains as Oliver was born to the pauper in the workhouse? Ed.)   There is an interesting account of how a real baby, only 3 days old, was chosen for the delivery scene, and the medical tie-up with BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI!

Returning to PASSIONATE FRIENDS, Norman talks in detail about the locations he planned and the frightening episode on the cable car when the power failed, leaving Lean and the camera crew swinging like a pendulum midway between two mountain peaks!


A whole new chapter opened in the life of David Lean with his marriage to Ann Todd, and Norman describes the personal aspect and life style of the couple leading up to the decision to make MADELEINE, 1949, director David Lean.

The real life-story of Madeleine Smith leading up to the making of the film, is outlined.

We hear about John Davis' ideas on saving money by closing down the studios and sending everyone away on their summer holidays together.

It caused disruption and didn’t really save anything. The system reverted to normal after two years.


During the shooting of MADELEINE, differences of opinion between Ann Todd and David Lean over the way scenes should be played became evident, and resulted in recriminations and delays - the marriage was going wrong.


David became disenchanted with Rank after MADELEINE and he always had difficulty with arriving at decisions about what film to make next. With his contract with Rank coming to an end, he decided to join Alexander Korda. Korda gave him an idea and sent him to India to pursue the subject, but nothing came of it.


As Associate Producer, Norman would often have coffee with Lean at his home, and chew over all sorts of ideas, and one day they read a report in a newspaper that a famous test pilot had been killed due to a phenomenon known as the 'sound barrier’. Korda became interested when approached and suggested Terence Rattigan as the possible story writer.

But it was the brilliance of Korda, himself, who made it work. The details are fascinating and it was agreed to make THE SOUND BARRIER,1952, director David Lean.

Some filming was done at 18 thousand feet in a propeller driven aircraft large enough to house the camera.

Many different types of aircraft were used including the Comet which was not yet in service.


Korda then suggested that HOBSON'S CHOICE would make a good subject.   This was a Lancashire comedy and was being performed on the stage. So, David and Ann went to see it because Korda had said it had the sort of love story that David had always wanted to do.            Norman was not impressed!

Eventually though, Norman and David, together, wrote the screenplaY  with Wynyard Browne.        The film was shot at Shepperton.         HOBS0N'S CHOICE, 1953, director David Lean. There are some interesting details on how Laughton came to be cast.




Continues with HOBSON'S CHOICE production details.

After HOBS0N'S CHOICE, Korda suggested a film based on a New York play - THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO, by Arthur Laurents. Lean didn’t like the Laurents script but was keen on the play, so Norman and David went to Venice to soak up the atmosphere, where they, and H.E.Bates wrote the script, much to Arthur Laurent’s disgust!

Production details:- [retitled] SUMMER MADNESS (SUMMERTIME), 1965, director David Lean. Katherine Hepburn was cast in the lead:  Ilya Lopert was the producer, but his artistic contribution

was minimal.

Before the picture was finished, David Lean received a book from an American producer (Sam Spiegel) which he was too busy to read, and asked Norman to look at it. It was THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, translated from the French. Eventually, SUMMER MADNESS was finished and Korda was pleased.


Sam Spiegel, learning that Norman and David had returned to the UK, invited them to his apartment in Grosvenor square, where David agreed in principle to direct the picture, providing he liked Carl Foreman's script.        But when, in New York, he read the script, he was horrified, and arranged for Norman to join him as soon as possible.

They opened the book at page one and rewrote the treatment. Even at that stage, David was thinking about how to use the Colonel Bogey March without the 'bollocks and the same to you' lyric. Norman suggested that it could be whistled by the marching POW's.

The script was true to the book and was completed in around five or six weeks. For political reasons, Spiegel wanted Carl Foreman to do some work on the script, and eventually David agreed. (This was during the infamous US blacklisting period - Reds in the cupboard and all that.)




Continues with BRIDGE on the RIVER KWAI, 1957, director David Lean. The War Office refused to give any advice or assistance with the military work, stating that a British Officer would have behaved differently from the Colonel in the script! They tried to get the picture stopped!!

Other military people who had served in Singapore, also tried to stop it. The entire picture was shot in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka]. Production details, including the logistics of filming, and the blowing up of the bridge.


Another picture was SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, 1959, director Joseph L.Mankiewicz, with Norman as Assistant Producer, shot at Shepperton: He talks about the production; There was a problem with Montgomery Clift, about which Norman was consulted.


LAWRENCE of ARABIA, 1962, director David Lean.  Lean wanted Albert Finney to play the lead but FinneY turned it down because he preferred the stage and didn’t want to sign up for a long contract: He was considered to be perfect for the part. Marlon Brando was then approached, agreed, but was not employed, for reasons best known to Sam Spiegel.

It was suggested that Lean should look at a new, young actor called Peter O'Toole who was appearing on the stage. Lean loved him and gave him the part.

The picture started shooting in Jordan. The authorities would not allow Jewish people to enter the country and Sam Spiegel was only allowed in after consultation with the White House! All members of the crew had to carry a pass signed by a Minister of Religion stating that they were not Jews. David Lean carried one signed by the Curate of St Martins in The Fields.

The picture was also shot in Spain and Morocco, and because Norman could speak French, Spiegel asked him to look after the Moroccan bit. There were considerable distances between bases which involved long journeys by road, sometimes through the desert.       With so many locations, dealing with the authorities had to be handled with great diplomacy.


The logistical problems were enormous - 800 camels and riders, for instance! These were huge operations. David Lean drove around in his Rolls!

One of many problems was that Jordanians ride camels in a different way than Moroccans: One thousand special saddles had to be manufactured to accommodate the continuity problem which would have arisen.




Continues with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. An interesting fact came to light when they discovered the wrecks of trains and locomotives that the real Lawrence had blown up in Jordan.

After 'Lawrence’, Norman describes the high life on board Spiegel's yacht to which he had been invited to discuss a future production which he could choose to make. He’d read the book DANGEROUS SILENCE and suggested it to Spiegel. But Spiegel went through all the motions but never intended to do it!


In 1963, he was asked to become the Executive Assistant to Elmo Williams who was the head of 2Oth Century Fox in London. He was based in offices at Soho Square for three years, where theY made THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, THE BLUE MAX, MODESTY BLAISE and THE THIRD SECRET.

He learnt a lot from doing that, and then took a break.


He next joined a small production company called Cupid Productions who bad made just one picture before Norman joined them. It was about the Rolling Stones, called ONE PLUS ONE and was shot in 9-minute takes - a dreadful film [This was the writer’s opinion]. There was a showdown when the director, Jean-Luc Godard, came over from France to complain about some unauthorised music on the final shot. It all resulted in a very public display of anger at the NFT, South Bank!


While he was with Cupid, a young man, who  he describes as a 'hippy’, presented him with an idea for a film called PICK A CARD, ANY CARD! “It’s going to make a lot of money and I want to make a lot of money out of it”, the man said. The idea was written down on just one and a half pages.

Two paragraphs outlined the story of a racing driver who takes a car across America, and despite its crudity, Norman could see some merit in it.

The man was persuaded to sell the rights to Cupid for k2oO and 4 per cent of the profits if it should ever be made.

So, Norman contacted an ex-Cuban, Guillermo Cain, living in exile in London - a Spanish language man of letters, who was a writer. He was shown the brief outline and said he could write a film script. That was how VANISHING POINT was born. Guillermo was paid £5OOO for the screen play and a share of the profits, but they never thought the film would ever be made - it was a long shot. However, the finished script was quite interesting.

It was an American story, so he personally approached 2Oth Century Fox in Hollywood.


The assistant head of the story department reckoned it was marvellous. The script was read by various Fox executives and Norman continued to receive glowing reports from the States.            The idea on a scrappy piece of paper was bearing fruit, it seemed: Norman was invited to Hollywood to talk about the film that Fox had now agreed to make - the deal was on. They agreed that Cupid would retain artistic control over the production.

Norman remained in Hollywood for a year, raised the money, and produced it.

It was shot on location, and Norman outlines the story of VANISHING POINT, 197l, director Richard Sarafian.

It grossed 11 million dollars, and every year, 75,000 dollar cheques keep rolling in!


In 1980, he met a man called Donald Woods who had escaped from South Africa disguised as a priest during the Apartheid regime.

Woods had written a book, wanted to make a film, and wondered if Dickie Attenborough would be interested. Attenborough was interested and arranged a meeting.

The upshot of all that was that the Spencer/Woods script was bought, and Norman would co-produce. He also suggested the title. CRY FREEDOM.

The film was made on the condition that it was to be a Richard Attenborough Film, produced by Richard Attenborough and directed by Richard Attenborough. Norman, it seems, was none too happy with the billing, feeling that he had not received due credit.

Production details - CRY FREEDOM, l987.


(NB: There is an embargo on all references to Dickie Attenborough.)


Norman closes the interview with three postscripts: The first one concerning an item in SOUND BARRIER, which he forgot to mention.

The second one concerning an item in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which he also forgot to mention, and finally an item in A YANK AT OXFORD, when he appeared as a very athletic extra!


C0MMENT:  Norman's career fairly took off when he met David Lean in 1943. Their personal friendship and expertise enabled them to work as a team to create some of the most remarkable pictures ever produced in the UK.

When asked about which picture gave him the most satisfaction, he replied, VANISHING POINT. This was because it was 'his' picture from beginning to end; From a scrappy piece of paper, to raising the finance, to production, to providing the artistic input, right through to release.

A rare commercial success it turned out to be, too.


DAVID MATHER ROBSON recorded it and wrote the Summary.

[I make the usual disclaimer about the correct spelling of some names, which may need to be verified.]