Richard (Dickie) Best

Richard (Dickie)
Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
15 Jul 1987
24 May 1994
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 
Access restrictions: 

Horizontal tabs


DICKIE BEST Tape 1 of 1

15th July 1987.

Interview of Richard Best, editor, interviewer Arthur Graham.

Copyright of this recording is vested in the ACTT History Project.


AG: Richard, where and when were you born.

DB: I was born in Hull in 1916 and brought down to London at an early

age, about 3 or 4, where I've been ever since for which I'm duly

grateful because if I'd been kept up there I would never have entered the

film industry.

AG: What kind of schooling did you receive?

DB: I went to a little private school, a day school in the late 20s and

early 30s, from 7 to 13, 14, I was then sent to St Paul's Hammersmith

where I stayed till I was 18, 1934

AG: Did you receive any specialised training.

DB: In education.

AG: Yes

DB: No, just straight education.

AG: You left when you matriculated.

DB: Yes, I think it was the school certificate.

AG: What made you decide to go into films.

DB: I think it's exactly the same as children today watching television,

they all want to be in television. I was absolutely film mad. I

was taken to films quite a lot when I was young, even silent films, I

seem to remember seeing silent films and later on I took myself off to

sound films and it completely took hold of me and in my head deciding, at

the age of 15 deciding what to do when I left school there were three

choices, films, theatre or the BBC. Not acting, appearing but on the

production side. Films where always favourite. theatre was a lot of night

work which I didn't fancy and the BBC was a third choice if everything

else failed. Fortunately films was the one which came out top.

AG: Did your parents have any connection with the entertainment


DB: None whatsoever.

AG: What was their reaction to your particular interest.

DB: They went along with it. The only people who didn't like it was the

school. When they were interviewing me when I was about 17, they said

you're leaving the school at the end of the year, what are you going to

do, I said films. They said we'll see and six months later they called me

in again and said there's a job going in a shipping office in the City,

we think you ought to go for an interview. So very downheartedly I went

and turned it down of course . The school weren't very pleased but my

parents went along with it .

AG: How did you get into films in the first instance.

DB: That was a terrible struggle.

I left school at 18 and I had even before then contacted lots of people

who I knew, I didn't know personally, but I knew, were in films and two

people who had been at the school before me. One tried to put me off and

said it was a dreadful business and you couldn't call your soul your own

and all this stuff and it didn't make any difference. I wrote to

everybody I could think of, every studio, but nothing came of it. As I

had written elsewhere my mother had always told me the story, it wasn’t a

story it was the truth, she, her family when she was in her teens, or a

little earlier lived next door to Arthur Rank 's family in Hull. Arthur

Rank was a schoolboy and his father was a miller and they had played

together over a period of a few years and then they moved away from that

particular house and never heard of them again and then she got married

at the beginning of the war and so forth. Having tried for six to 7

months after leaving school with no effect whatsoever, I suddenly saw a

tiny paragraph in the paper saying that Arthur Rank was going to make his

first feature film. So I said to my mother you've always said you knew

him as a child, write to him please on my behalf saying I want to get

into films can you suggest anything. I don't know how we found out his

address but we did. We had a nice letter back saying nice to hear from

you again after all these years, yes I can do something, you'll be

hearing from me. Three months went by and nothing came of that so I said

you better write to him again. So she did and to cut a long story short a

letter came saying would I go and see John Corfield at Golden Square, which

was British National headquarters, I think it's now where the Granada

building is. I didn't know, what for so one November day in 1935 I went

up there and was put in front of a very stern gentleman who looked at me

as if I was nothing. You want to go into films, what do you want to do?

I don't know. I just want to be in films. I suppose cameras is the most

interesting. I was expecting to be a clapperboy, I thought that was the

beginning of everything. He said well they need someone in the cutting

room at Elstree. I'd never heard of the cutting room. I'd heard of

editing but I always thought editing was where the director, I'd read a

lot of books by Pudovkin and people and they'd all been sitting there

with film round their neck or in their hand and I thought they just

edited it to the correct length. Obviously I was very delighted and to

jump ahead it was very lucky that they put me into that department

because it was absolutely right for me although I did not know it at the

time. Although I thought of films as a marvellous thing to be, I'd

thought of cameras, and movies and lights, I didn't particularly want

sound I must admit but I'd have taken anything and it completely took me

over after about a month. I didn't want to move into any other


Anyway. the film was Debt of Honour which was directed by Norman Walker,

staring Leslie Banks and the editor, supervising editor was Stephen

Harrison, the assistant who was the very first person I met as I walked

through the gates to the cutting room. Oh I haven't said where it was,

have I, it was at B&D Studios at Elstree, next to the present Canon

Studios, where Bullon's headquarters are, the transport people, I think

they're called something different now. I think is actually there a

brick block building which was the cutting room which is the only thing

left of this studio, it's still there, it was last year. That's where I

started and he took me into the cutting room, then he took me down to the

joining room.

AG: Who was it?

DB: This assistant was Gordon Pilkington. He was the first person I ever

met and he was a very nice man and he put me at my ease. He helped me

get over the trauma of starting something quite different. First of all

he showed me the Bell and Howell for a joiner and gave lots of bits of

film to try and join together and really all I did for the first four

weeks was that, joining. On that particularly film there were other

assistants, there was a man called Carl Heck, I think he was the actual

editor whereas Stephen Harrison was supervising editor. They just gave me

- I think this job was made for me in fact I have a feeling now, I didn't

think that at the time but I have a feeling it may have been made for me.

I didn't hear that anyone left who had been doing this jolnlng, I never

heard of any other name but I may be wrong about that. So that was how I

really got into films.

AG: Did you meet Rank himself.

DB: No I didn't.

AG: It was all done by letter.

DB: Yes. From the time John Corfield sent me for this interview I never

met anyone else again. My career took off from that point in the normal

manner. I didn't have any pushing or anyone talking for me. I did in

fact at the end of the war before I was demobbed from the Army Film Unit,

people were getting released early so I did write to Arthur Rank again

and said I knew they were very busy at Denham, could he get me an early

release and was there anything going at Denham. That did lead to a very

short meeting with him at their offices in Mayfair. But nothing came of

it but I did meet him for about 5 minutes.

AG: When you started work where were you living and how did you get from


DB: It was quite a thing when you think about it today. I was living at

Bedford Park near Chiswick, always hoping I would work at Lime Grove, a

minute down the road on the bus. Instead I finished up at the furthest

point possible which was Elstree, apart from Welling which was about as

far as I could have gone, and that was done entirely on public transport

by the tube into town and I think B[ritish] R[ail] for a while up to Elstree and then

walking. That was the way it was done. Getting home was not so difficult

because I did get lifts into 'town and came home through town. I left

home about 7 o'clock in the morning and it was a two hour trip or more.

But later on after this particular job, the second job I got into night

work but I didn't have to be in till two in the afternoon and stayed till

two in the evening and I was taken home by taxi.

AG: You've described how you started work, doing the joining, what was

your job and how did it develop and what were your duties.

DB: After that particular job, that job finished and somebody suggested

I go up the stairs and see an American called Merrill [G] White who was

editing for Herbert Wilcox. He had a team of editors in fact, he had

Freddy Wilson and he had Elmer Williams who was an American editor who

later became a producer in Hollywood. And there I continued on joining,

doing night work, because Merrill White was a man who wanted to work

nights. He didn't want interference, phone calls and people, he himself

liked working through the evening and early late night. That was

continuing on joining. After that it was suggested that I should apply

to a team David Lean had, he was cutting As You Like It at that time, he

had this assistant Gordon Pilkington, he had an assistant called Vera

Campbell and finally after I joined, again to do “joining”, he had Reggie

Mills, a very famous editor in his own right. He also had Nicky Bruce

who was son of the ballet dancer Karsavina who was married to Bruce

Lockhart [Henry James Bruce?] the famous writer and diplomat. All these

people were on this David Lean film, which was quite a big film. I was again

joining, they were all my duties up to that point. When that finished, it was all in

the same studio and we were all sitting round the bar, at the Red Lion

across the road, with David Lean, of course, in a chair, hunched up

telling his stories with everybody at his feet, as I think they still are

when they work for him. Suddenly somebody said what are you going to do

now and I said I don't know and they said there's a man called Lister

Lawrence starting very shortly to edit Paramount quota films in the

same studio, why don't you go and see him. I saw him and he took me on

as his sole assistant. At that point I knew nothing about film except

joining. I didn't know anything about filing trims or any of the

cutting room routine and he took me on, this was early ‘36 now and I

stayed with him until ‘38 and he trained me as an assistant. He showed me

how to file a trim. He showed me all the cutting room routines which

needed to be done. When I think back and think everything I learnt was on

the job, it's quite amazing.

The thing I haven't mentioned is the fire, the studio fire. I went there

in November, November ‘35 and in early ‘36 in my Sunday paper I read that

the studios had burnt down over night which must have been pretty quick

because I was there on the Saturday and left about 6 o'clock, so it must

have happened pretty quickly. So of course, my father drove me down there

and the sound stages had gone, the front office had gone, the workshops

remained and this cutting block was still there. So we did remain

editing these films through until September, but we couldn't dub there, I

think something had happened to the theatre but I can't remember why. We

did go and dub them at Shepperton and we dubbed them at Teddington which

is now Thames Studios. He also shot 3 of them at Shepperton and finally

moved over to Pinewood when Pinewood opened. We moved to Pinewood on the

very first day which is how I got there on the very first day in fact.

AG: From the way you're describing this you weren't in any kind of

permanent job. How were you employed, picture to picture?

DB: Yes, picture to picture. Totally freelance all the way through. I

haven't mentioned the money. I should mention the money really. The

first job which was the one on Debt of Honour, that was 30 shillings a week and

on that I got myself all the way from Chiswick to Elstree, I bought

myself a lunch, I probably bought the odd drink and I gave a little at

home to help out. When I went to the second one, Merrill White, he said

how much do you want? I said I don't know. He said would £3 do. I said

yes thank you. So I doubled my money in about three months, no less than

that. When I went onto the David Lean one they gave me £5 and that I

stuck at for a long long time. When I went to Lister Laurence. I got £5.

When we went to Pinewood I was still getting £5, and I think eventually

after a couple of years I managed to get £6. And this was a six-day week

with no overtime. We didn't do a lot of overtime ourselves but it was a

six day week.

AG: That brings me to the question what was the working day and what was

the working week.

DB: The working week was six days. The working week as far as I was

concerned was pretty normal. I don't remember much overtime. Shooting

was a different matter. They did go on and on, not all the time, but a

lot of the time if they wanted to go on, they went on, if things were

behind or had trouble. But I did not find I was doing an awful lot of

overtime. But I was so happy and so pleased I don't know what the word

is, exhilarated with this work, that nothing worried me. I wasn't

thinking of money and I wasn't thinking of time. I didn't care if I had

to go in on Sunday. I didn't care if he wanted to stay late. I was so

involved with, exhilarated by this work.

AG: Now you've given us an outline of your work until you got onto the

quota pictures.

Can you give a general rundown of your career and your progress in the

film industry. Just an outline.

DB: I stayed to Lister Laurence until Pinewood closed in ‘38. Then I

went over to Denham where I did a film with Reggie Beck, a famous editor

who was doing a sequel to This Man is News, This Man in Paris. Then I

went back to Lister Laurence on a film called An Englishman's Home. Then

that finished, war came. I was eventually called up to the Royal

Berkshires in Spring of 1940. In my mind I always thought if I get into

the forces I know what will happen, I'll be put into the film division, I

don't know what they called it, and I'd be editing war films in Paris.

This was always in my head when the war started, I thought this is what

is going to happen. So anyway, I went into the Royal Berkshires and did

18 months normal private’s way of life, guarding the beaches at Northumberland

and the countryside at Burford, and marching up and down, 30 mile

route marches, etc.

After 15 months I saw another newspaper article, not a newspaper

articles, a small item of news that David MacDonald who had directed two

of the films I had been on at Pinewood, one at Pinewood, a quota quickie

and the other, This Man is News, at Denham was now a major I think he was

and he was in the army and he was going to form the Army Film Unit. So I

wrote to him at the War Office and said what about it. And he wrote back

and said yes, I'll try and get you into the Army Film Unit but you'll

have to be patient. We haven't got our quota of people yet, we haven't

got it sorted out. So again, a second letter and the next thing I knew,

by this time the whole of my unit had been moved down to Alverfield,[Arborfield?] near

Reading, route marches and rifle practice and god knows what down there

and this was September 1941 by now and I was on a route march and we

halted and jeep rolled up and a sergeant got out and he went to see our

sergeant and the next thing I knew was that our sergeant called me over

and said you have to go back to our camp, get yourself ready and tomorrow

morning you will report to the Chelsea Barracks to report to the Army

Film Unit.

So of course, you can imagine how I thought about that. I went straight

home to my home in Chiswick, reported to Chelsea Barracks next morning

and the first thing I knew I had three stripes instead of one and was

virtually a civilian in uniform. I was told to report to the Northumberland

Hotel in Northumberland Avenue to what was then the Army Film Unit such

as it was. There were two people I think there, there were three people

actually. There were no senior officers, they were abroad, David

MacDonald, he certainly wasn't there. There was Bob Berrill who was a

sergeant in the cutting room and Bob Carrick who was a sergeant who

wasn't in the cutting room and Alice White who was a civilian neg cutter

who stayed with us the whole time, even when we moved to Pinewood which

was the beginning. After that we moved to Curzon St, after that we all

moved to Pinewood to join the RAF and Crown Film Unit. I won't detail

anything about that, I, will go back to it. Then I got demobbed. Before I

got demobbed, we had had Muir Mathieson do a lot of music scores for the

army films and one day he said you'll be getting demobbed soon. I think

there's a job going at Denham when you get demobbed with Alan Jaggs on

Hungry Hill. Alan has to leave the picture for a short time to go to

America or somewhere, I think it was South Africa. They want someone to

continue cutting the film in his absence, to assemble it while he's away

because they're still shooting. So that was my first job back in Civvy St

you might say.

You can see through all of this a recurrent pattern of luck, luck that my

mother knew Arthur Rank as a child, luck I was put in the right

department which suited me down to the ground, having been in films, luck

that they formed an Army Film unit and they got me into that, and luck

that somebody came along and pointed me in the direction of my first job

when I came out of the army. The second with the Boulting was again

luck, because I'd worked with Roy quite a bit in the army. They asked me

to do their first film which was Fame is the Spur as fully-fledged editor

which was pretty good going for somebody who had only been an assistant,

had cut documentaries and had never been a real assistant on a really big

picture and had never cut anything under his own steam, to be given his

first feature was pretty lucky again. I did that for them. Then I went,

I'm not quite sure of the order. I think after that I went to Shepperton

form Denham, that was at Denham, Fame is the Spur, to do a film called

Britannia News which is a story in itself which I'd better not bring in

now because it will never stop. No. From Fame is the Spur I went to do

My Own Executioner at Worton Hall, from there I went back to do The

Guinea Pig for the Boultings, then back to Shepperton to do Britannia

News which we'll talk about later. After that there was a gap of resting

when I found it difficult to get work, ‘49, that time. And I was away on

holiday and I got a call from John Boulting to go to the ABC headquarters

because they needed an editor for a film called These are my Daughters.

When I got there, that film had been cancelled and the producer said go

in the office next door because there's Warwick Ward in next door and

he's going to produce The Dancing Years and he may need an editor, I

don't know. So, I went next door and saw Warwick Ward and got taken on to

do The Dancing Years at Elstree in 1949. Hell, I did a lot of films at

Elstree. I stayed from ‘49 to ‘67 and did 30 odd features, maybe more . I

never had a contract. I never had a letter of engagement for that first

film. If I had I'm sure I'd have a copy. I got sent by Warwick Ward to

be taken on by Lean and I was just taken on by word of mouth. He cut

me down £10 which is typical of ABPC. We'll talk about the money later,

but he cut me down. And I stayed there was 18 years with nothing.

When lTV started in the ‘50s everyone was asked if they'd like to have a

contract because they were frightened of losing staff. I wrote back

and said I didn't want a contract. In any case I would have never changed

to television from films, no worries there. In ‘67 I was finally made

redundant like a lot of other people and we know what happened after

that. Bryan Forbes took over, and then he got took over and so on. Then

I freelanced on several films in different studios from then on, from ‘67

to ‘77. Then a friend of mine from the old Crown days in the war asked me

to do a film for British Transport Films, a friend called John Legard

and I did it in ‘77, went back and did another feature at Shepperton and

then they asked me back in ‘78, and I stayed there freelancing with

British Transport because it was such a lovely unit and I was so happy

there and the films were so good I stayed there off and on till ‘82 when I

cut my last documentary and I cut my last film. For one thing I don't

want to go back to features, the stress and strain, and British Transport

films are so cut back now, they're not dealing with film, they're dealing

with video. So really there isn't a place and I haven't bothered since


AG: What were production techniques like when you first started and how

have they changed.

DB: Are you talking about the cutting room basically.

AG: Your particular field.

DB: Well obviously films were shot in a much simpler manner than they

are today. I don't think any film was ever shot with adlib coverage you

get today, up to 2,000, 3 ,000 takes, in a film like The Mission. They

were much more planned although the director would have plenty or leeway,

they were much more planned, I think they were much more economically

minded. Of course, they didn't make such lavish productions but I think

even if they had, it was a much simpler operation. Obviously, they worked

much harder hours. I think that's all I can really say. The only real

difference is in the lavishness in shooting on the big pictures. Maybe

in Hollywood they did but here I don't think they did do. If you think

of all the big pictures here during the war, the David Lean films, the

Ronnie Neame films, all these films were made during the war, they don 't

look as if they were shot adlib, they look as though there was control

there and a plan, a design. A lot of films today don't look designed at

all. With a famous phrase of Dick Lester's, when all this sort of thing

started, I've forgotten the figure but he said with a million feet of

film there that I've shot, there must be film in it somewhere. And that

is a direct quote which I've read and that is one of the big differences.

From my own point of view, the cutting room has changed immensely.

In fact, you didn't have a dubbing editor before the war. Dubbing was so

simple with the optical track that the editor and the assistant between

them would prepare the tracks after the film was edited and the film

would be finalised, there would be time to prepare the tracks and lay the

tracks, they couldn' t be editing right through to dubbing . That's

another change. They never ever stop editing films today. They edit

right through dubbing. They will stop in the middle of dubbing and go

back and take something out or change something which means how many, 30

or 40 tracks all have to be altered and this sort of thing and people are

working day and night. They're working late in the dubbing theatres.

They're going to have a preview; and then they'll recut and recut and

recut. The Mission is a case in point which I think was over 4 hours or

five hours or something came out at two and half. The cutting room was

much simpler too. On our quota films we didn't record any music, we

didn't record any effects, everything came from library. Now you can

have maybe 8, 9, 10 people finally on a film, mainly in the dubbing

department preparing tracks. There's all post-synching. Many films are

shot with tracks but the tracks are usually unusable and everything is

built up again from scratch. The film is virtually a silent film.· This I

think is one of the big changes.

There are two other things technically. In the old days, the movieola

which we used for editing in order to view the film and hear the track,

had a small lens of an inch and a half by an inch which meant that only

one person could see the film at any given time which was the editor, he

could see perfectly well. The director never came into the cutting room.

He saw what you presented and he gave his notes in the projection

theatre which you followed slavishly but you also added things of your

own and if you had make changes, and you had to make them all the time,

you made them with your own creative style. Today the moviela screen is

almost as big as a piece of foolscap paper, certainly half as big. The

editor can sit there with you, the producer can sit there with you. They

very often on big films have a steenbeck in another cutting room and when

you're doing changes for them, they can go and run other reels and they

can discuss outside the range of your mind. This is very bad, this is

one of the worst changes of all. And beyond that not only are there

directors who will take rushes home on video, will have the rushes

transferred to video which is OK because you can find spare takes quickly

but they will take them home and plan their cutting. They will also take

home the cutting copy transferred on video and run it with their friends

and relatives over the weekend and come back and face you with a fait

accompli. That is like the director walking on the floor and instructing

the gaffer to move the lights which the cameraman has set instead of

going to the cameraman and saying I want this, this is the style I want,

Joe, can you do that and Joe will say of course I can, he will give the

director his style. But taking the cutting copy home and taking the

rushes home and coming back full of notes on Monday morning and the

editor has had no mind contact with the director to me is very, very bad

indeed and I think the pictures show it. Because they do look, some of

them, look a mess. The public don't know this but anyone who knows their

job knows this.

AG: To pick up what I was asking, you've mentioned quota films several

times. What exactly were quota films?

DB: There was a law brought in that British cinemas, American films, of

course, were flooding the market. The First World War had seen to that.

British production and European production had dropped considerably and

they had during the First World War picked up markets all over the world

and created a tremendous market and this was still being reflected

because they'd got to such a standard with such big stars and such

expensive productions that British cinemas were virtually only showing

American films, unless they wanted to show a British film they like. So, a

law was brought in that they must show a certain amount of British


So, in order to accommodate that the American companies, certainly Paramount

did, BP-Paramount that I worked on, the quality was not stipulated, it

was footage, so they had produced extremely cheap films, lasting an hour

or so which cost £6,000, they were six reels, they took two weeks to shoot

and two weeks to edit and dub and they were shown in the cinemas as

footage alongside the American feature films which overcame the quota

law. Some of them were quite good, a lot of them were very good quality,

I think it's wrong to decry them by that name of quota because they were

a very good starting ground for directors, cameramen, everybody. They

were excellent, when you think the ones I worked on were produced by

Anthony Havelock-Allan, one of them was photographed by Ronnie Neame,

one or two were directed by David MacDonald and one even by George

Pearson the old silent film director. They did have a lot going for them.

AG: These were referred to I believe as “pound a footers”.

DB: Yes “pound a footer’s”.


AG: You've mentioned several studios that you worked in. Did you

mention any difference as places of work.

DB: They all had their own character. A very, very distinct character.

Although you always know you're in a studio whether you're in England or

Hollywood or France, you always know you're in a film studio. They're all

the same basically, but they all have their different characters.

Nothing could be more different from Pinewood to Elstree, or Elstree to

Shepperton or Shepperton to Twickenham and the old ones like Lime Grove

or Teddington or Islington or Walton. They all had a complete character

of their own, like people.

Pinewood is they very, very, best to me. It is the most elegant, it's a

lovely studio, it's a compact studio, it's a safe studio, it's a totally

different atmosphere from Elstree which is now very much better but in

those days was a factory. It was rebuilt immediately after the war which

was much too quick to rebuild it. It had to be done to very restrictive

building restrictions which cracked down on it an awful lot. And it did

look and feel like a factory. Shepperton had a great sophistication after

the war because it was Korda's headquarters for a time and a lot of big

stars and big films made there. So they all had their own different

characteristics, their own character. Pinewood is undoubtedly the

finest. I think Pinewood is the finest in the world really.

AG: Have you ever worked on any overseas assignments?

DB: Only once. I had taken two films to Hollywood but that was not really

working. This was a film directed by Victor Saville called 24 Hours in a

Woman's Life in late 1951 which was basically all studio work but shot in

Monte Carlo and around. And six weeks it was there so he needed it being

assembled roughly while he was working, so I was based at Monte Carlo with

the unit and going out on trips from there and I was based at the

Victorine Studios in Nice in the cutting room and I had to work on a very

odd machine called the Moritone which had to be worked with pedals and a

lever like a car gear handle. I had a very good French assistant who

spoke English and I did manage to get something put together but it was

difficult because one a) wanted to sight see and b) wanted to sun bathe and

try and work at the same time. It was also very hot but I did manage to

get something cut. But the best thing about that is having to, we were

right next to Nice airport and got the rushes in every day and we had to

take them by taxi along the Corniche along to Monte Carlo every night to

show, them, to show the unit, it must have been at Monte Carlo radio

station, they had a theatre. So that was quite a thing taking rushes all

the way from Monte Carlo and back again every night. He travelled during

the day so we had all the beauty of the coast in the day, by the time we

showed the rushes it was night so we came back by all the twinkling

lights on the sea coming back.

AG: What year was this.

DB: This 1951, late ‘51, September/October ‘51.



AG: Have you ever worked on any specialised processes?

DB: I can't think of any, when you say, no.

AG: Independent Frame or anything?

DB: No. I have had the usual quota of having to order matte shots and

things like that which was all part of the routine in those days, but

nothing specialised.

AG: Which technician you worked with gave you the most help.

DB: Are we talking as an assistant.

AG: In general.

DB: Obviously Lister Laurence, my first editor the first time I became a

fully fledged assistant, he gave me all the grounding in the cutting room

that I needed for those times which carried me through. Although I

hadn't done many years of editing assisting I did know, the full

background for that. Also, he guided me a little bit in editing because

he guided me a couple of sequences to put together, one was in the film

of a musical which is now a success on Broadway called Me and My Girl

which 50 years ago was a musical The Lambeth Walk which was made into a

film at Pinewood and he gave me a section to edit which he then changed a

bit of course. And then he directed a quota film and he marked up the

continuity sheets for me, where to use each section of each shot. So, he

really, I suppose, gave me the greatest help. I think the rest of it has

come through absorption. The standard of directing, I've never directed

but the standard by which I judge other people's directing that I work

with, one is David Lean with whom I only worked for a short time and he's

the one person outside my ken to be the absolute king of filmmakers and

certainly the king of editors. The ones I worked with are two directors,

one is John Boulting, and of course Roy Boulting, a standard which I

still look to as being perfection and the other J. Lee Thompson for whom

I cut about 6 or 7 films and in his early days was one of the best

directors in the world. He has not in his career picked subjects which

confirmed that but he is a very excellent director and those people have

influenced my thinking.

AG: Did you at any time ever have any in-house training to raise your

technical skills.

DB: No.

AG: And did you take any evening classes of that kind.

DB: It wouldn't have been possible in those days at all.

AG: You've told us how you started in the army and got into the Army

Film Unit, can you elaborate on what you did during the war years.

DB: Yes. when I think it now it gives me cold feet. I was literally

thrown into the deep end. I expected to go into the Army Film Unit

assisting and I was immediately put to editing. He did have assistant

but I was immediately put in as an editor alongside Frank Clark and Bob

Birrell. Bob Carrick was more or less doing the sound editing and we

were given assistants, they were army personnel, they had had connections,

Tiger Anderson, he was also there, he was looking after sound

effects, and we had assistants who were army personnel but had to have

film experience. So, I was literally thrown in at the deep end, again

this enormous pattern of luck which has followed me through my whole

career. One of the first films I was given was a film called Troopship

which was made up in Scotland mostly I believe but it was edited at

Curzon St and I was made editor of this film - I had a lot of assistance

from the director of course. And so it went on. I did two or three

documentaries at Curzon St and then I went to Pinewood and they got

bigger and better including the famous Desert Victory on which Frank

Clark did a certain amount of editing on. In fact, I think he did the

whole of the last reel of that film, which was the whole of the march

along the North African coast after the victory. He did the whole of

that part of it. Then the other Victory, [Burma Victory] again Frank did some of that. A

film called Left of the Line which was the Canadians viewpoint of D Day

and landings in Normandy plus a lot of small films. But I say one was

thrown in at the deep end and one was made to think for oneself which I

think is a much, much better thing than going to a film school.

AG  You've mentioned several of the well-known army films, what is your

own opinion as films.

DB: I think they're excellent, absolutely excellent. I went to see them

all a couple of years ago at the British War Museum, all the ones I

worked on because my wife hadn't seen them. And I went with Kay

Gladstone, he laid them all on for us in his small theatre and I was

astonished at the quality, and the finish and production values, the

intelligence of the commentaries, everything about them. I was amazed at

the quality. They do stand up as marvellous monuments on film depicting

that particular time, the war years.

AG: You were editing on these films, there has been a lot of criticism

in recent years that a lot of the war films were faked, what is your

experience of this, was there a lot of studio work involved?

DB: No this gets about through certain small things which were done

which I can tell you about. Don't forget that there were many, many

cameramen out in the front on the Western Desert and out in Burma and out

in Normandy later on. They were sending back material, hundreds of feet

a day, thousands of feet a day were rolling back, so this wasn't faked.

Some of the stuff they shot, and you could always tell the difference,

were exercises, behind the front in the desert, troops dashing around

with rifles and mock explosions and you found you could never use this

stuff when you came to edit the film, it looked exactly what it was,

training. It looked too clean, it looked too fresh, it didn't have

urgency, although it was very good stuff for what it was intended to be.

So, with all the cameramen sending back this material, there was enough to

make the film without any faking. Now in two films, Burma Victory and

Desert Victory, in order to enhance the effect, Roy Boulting did shoot a

certain amount of material at Pinewood, not fighting material, all the

fighting material was accurate and real stuff. But in order to enhance

the drama and show something which could never be shot we did actually

shoot two sequences. One was prior to the assault at [El] Alamein which

started at night. It started off with a barrage. That was completely

real, all the shots of the barrage were completely real. But the

advancing troops before they were actually fighting, as they were

advancing along the desert were lead by a Scottish piper and this was

true, it actually happened, but it couldn't be shot so we did reconstruct

this in the studio with real soldiers and a real piper and a real set

looking like the desert and he did, in fact, shoot that to enhance the

drama and give a build up to what was to follow. And in Burma Victory he

wanted to give an example of how the troops used to try to scare the

British troops into firing or starting some trouble at the wrong moment,

at night, by calling from the woods in British voices and trying to upset

the troops and he did shoot some of this stuff in Black Park with real

troops again, and shots of trees, etc, and troops in shadow, but only to

give the effect of something which happened. Those are the only two

examples that I can remember, yes there was one more in Desert Victory I

think, yes Desert Victory, crossing of a wadi, he had this wadi dug out

at Pinewood, out of the ground and he employed real troops to crash down

in this wadi as if they were actually in the desert because he wanted to

show something which really happened but couldn't be shot at the time.

Those are the only three illustrations. The general tenure of the films

is authentic material shot at the time at the front.

AG: Have you any idea what the impact of these films were once they'd

been made?

DB: Certainly Desert Victory had an enormous impact, it even won the

Oscar for the best documentary of that year. Burma Victory I think was a

great counter to the feature film which I think Errol Flynn made called

Operation Burma, a great antidote to that film. They did have a great

effect. I think it’s wrong to think of them, what is the word..?

AG: Propaganda.

DB: Propaganda certainly, conscious propaganda. They were not consciously

like the famous German films which were bombastic and showing

them crashing through every city in Europe and banging the drum and

showing the eagle. They were never made like that. I think they did

very fairly depict the spirit of the time, certainly not being at the

front I would not know, but certainly as I felt it at the time. I didn't

feel I was working on anything phoney .

AG: When the war was over did you consider it was difficult for you to

get restarted.

DB: If it hadn't been for the fact that Muir Mathieson suggested me for

this particular job and also for the fact that the Army Film Unit having

someone like Roy Boulting, and John Boulting who was with the RAF Film

Unit, obviously rearing to go to make features and obviously they would

employ someone they knew, those two pieces of luck, without those two

pieces of luck it might have been difficult. But those two pieces

started me off on the right foot.

AG: You did not have any reinstatement, reinstallment right to go back

into the studio?

DB: No.

AG: Now you've told us heading back into the studio and started to work

Again, perhaps you could enlarge on your experiences in the post war

years. You referred to Britannia Mews.

DB: Yes the others were straightforward, the films I've mentioned. Fame

is the Spur that was followed by Mine own Executioner at Worton Hall which

is no longer a studio. It was part of Shepperton. It's not near

Shepperton but it was owned by London Films at the time. That was all

very straightforward and very nice experience. The Guinea Pig was

alright. Then we come to Britannia Mews. Britannia Mews was an American

film made by Twentieth Century Fox, directed by Jean Negulesco. And this

was a very hair raising experience in several ways, psychologically and

physically. It was my first experience of the kind of filmmaking which

exists today. He shot everything with every conceivable angle. Every

set he went into he took a long shot, he moved in and took a medium shot,

if he had two or three people he would take two shots, and he took close

ups. He covered completely the whole thing. If an actor had a close up

and during that time he had to move a few paces left or right for some

reason or walk off, the camera would be held on the empty screen. The

actor would walk out of the screen, say his lines wherever he had to say

them in another position and when he came back to the spot the camera was

still there so he was now in the close up again. That sort of coverage.

I was not that experienced at that time to know how to throwaway film

and I found this a very, very, difficult business. And the director was of

no help whatsoever. The producer who was American was not there. He had

gone back to America when we started shooting. After three weeks, Darryl

Zanuck, who was the ultimate boss, asked the director to go over there

with with some rushes and some cut material. My heart was in my mouth

for a week until he got back and when he got back, when he got back he

said Darryl Zanuck said he thinks we've got a bomb here, he thinks it's

not very good and he's going to have it edited in Hollywood, parallel

with you doing it here and we're now, sending over, we always had been

sending a second print of rushes which I thought was just for the studio

executives to see the rushes. Now I find that they're going to be cut.

So I struggled with cutting and editing, with no help from the director,

no guidance whatsoever, even when he saw my cut stuff he could give me no

help. He just did not know where he was going to use any of this

material. He only knew that he had covered it and that he had enough.

He knew there was a film in there somewhere. So, we finished off with

12,000 feet odd and we cut that down to about 10,000 and a half and then

I took it over to Hollywood and we had a screening with Zanuck in which

we were shown their version which was seven and a half feet thousand feet

finished, not finished dubbed, but finished cut and that was it. And the

director spoke up from the back of the theatre, Zanuck of course was in

the front row with all his aides and a button on his chair to control the

projector and very much like the czar of Russia, the way he was treated,

and the director sort of spoke up and said could we please see our

version some time. Zanuck said OK, we'll come tomorrow night. We'll run

your version. The only story I have to say about that which I only

mention historically not for any boasting, there was a big fight in it

which I cut from a mass of material, close-ups, punches, god knows what.

People falling about I cut this to show the director over here before we

left and he said too brutal, he said you can take out some close-ups

you've made it too brutal. I didn't think I had. I thought it worked

very well but anyway I did what he said. We ran our version of the film

and Zanuck said that's OK boys, by the way, that fight in the mews is not

exciting enough which made me feel rather good. But it made no

difference. I came back with our cutting copy and their cutting copy

and their cutting copy was the final film dubbed and finished. So I did

not put my name on it, because not a single, if it had been recut there

with me I would have kept it, but not a single cut had been made by me in

that film. There may have been a few like mine. So, I didn't take a

credit on that film which was probably a mistake but there you are.

AG: Have you any other memories of any other films, any important things

which took place.

DB: Of that nature?

AG: Of any kind.

DB: I suppose the only other one, traumatic one, was Look Back in Anger

which was, I can’t remember the year of that, ‘58 I think. I was at

Elstree, ABPC as it was then and I finished a film for Lee Thompson and I

told the studio I was going to go onto Look Back in Anger which I didn’t

really relish from what I'd read about the play, I hadn't seen, I hadn't

seen it but I'd read a lot about it. It didn’t appeal to me in the

least. It still doesn't appeal to me. I feel there is something very

vicious. Maybe he wanted to tear down barriers but I feel he did it in a

very sadistic manner and I still believe that because he made the girl a

victim, the aunt Sally, the scapegoat for all the faults that he saw in

England at the time . And she was subjected to such sadistic treatment by

her husband I thought it was a very nasty way of doing what he did. I

didn't want to work on it . Anyway the upshot was that I did work on it

having made one rather foolish remark to Tony Richardson and Harry

Salzman. They said have you read the script and I said yes and they said

what did you think of it and I said that I didn't like it. I think it's

very anti British. Oh they said. And from then on it was touch and go

whether I should be on it but I was on it. Tony Richardson, it was his

first feature, he wanted Carol Reed's crew for his first picture, he

wanted Ossie Morris and Bert Bates who cut for Carol Reed, etc. But he

couldn't get Bert Bates because Bert Bates was in Vienna. And I think

that was really why I better go and I better do it because I was there.

During the whole of the shooting he would hardly see any rough stuff, he

would hardly talk to me at rushes but I cut it right the way through and

I went to the party at the Red Lion, was presented with a bottle of

whisky from Harry and Tony like everybody else and the next morning

Dean the studio manager asked me to go and see him told me they wanted to

put another editor on it, who's that, Bert Bates. I might also say

that I had directed all the post-synching with people like Edith Evans

and Richard Burton and Mary Ure, etc.,etc.. Tony wouldn't come anywhere

near the post-sync tent. That was that. They took it away, took it up

to MGM and Bates, Bert Bates cut it. Now I only wish I had not made that

remark because I gave them a handle to have a change. If they had done

this, and I think they meant to do this anyway as soon as Bert was free,

and good luck to him. But they might have said so. But they wouldn't

have said so and I think this would have happened anyway. This was a

rather traumatic experience.

AG: You've mentioned you did other documentaries other than those in the

Army Film Unit. What was your experience in documentary work.

DB: My only experience after the Army Film Unit was with British

Transport Films from ‘77 onwards which I found a pleasant change. 16mm

was interesting too because that was a whole different style of working.

It came in at the beginning at the end with all features inbetween . There

was one called Elstree Story which was a compilation film and he

collected these packages up and he shot new material to go into it

showing how films were shot, etc., etc. otherwise it was all features.

AG: Did you have a different approach to editing documentaries from

editing features?

DB: I think it was the same approach, you're trying to tell a story

where the feature you do has a feature and a script. You don't have a

story, you only have the story of the script you don't have it in detail

so any sequences telling a certain amount of that story it's up to you to

make the emphasis of different shots where you will, close ups or medium

shots, long shots, whatever, where to use any piece of which is up to

you, trying to make the emphasis of the story right. The documentary is

rather similar. It's trying to put over an idea. It could be for

instance, one of the films was Army Film Unit's was working with

financial and political circles in Scotland, sharing finance for improving

the quality of the railways up there. You're trying to tell a

story, how aII this came about, you're editing to that, each sequence is

telling a point and you're trying to get the point over to the best

advantage by using the best bits of the shots you're given in the right


AG: For what purpose were the transport films made?.

DB: I'm not fully conversant with the history but it was founded by Edgar

Anstey in 1949 I think with the British Rail Commission of the time and

it was a separate unit employed by them to protect the image of the

railways in one sense and also for in-house training, for those two

purposes and sometimes to promote railways for travel, not through

showing trains but places you could get to by train.

AG: Just now you made a reference to the Army Film Unit with the local

authorities, that was a mistake in the name?

DB: Yes it was, it should have been British Transport Films, that was an

example of the kind of film they made. They made some films in

conjunction with the British Tourist Board, pure travelogues in which

you never saw a train, perhaps one shot, but the idea was to encourage

travel by train.

AG: Quite a number of people worked from time to time for British

transport What were your recollections of anyone in particular.

DB: People who were there, when I was there some of the famous people

had left. Edgar Anstey had retired and John [W]  Shepherd was in charge and

they had a very, very good crew at that time. They had two or three

cameramen like Ron Craigen. They had two producers, Lionel Cole and Jim

Ritchie who were both excellent people. And they brought in directors,

they had one or two in-house people like David Lochner and McNicholls and

they brought in documentary directors on a freelance basis, they would

both write and direct the subject in hand, like Dick Tan and Ron

Dugby, Glyn Jones came in as writer and producer, and they had a very

good editor called John Legard and another editor called Bob Debenham.

The whole standard, I was utterly amazed at the high quality of these

films. The whole philosophical approach was beyond reproach and all these

films, which would sound very dull from just reading the titles, what they

were all given for want of a better word is entertainment gloss. Even

the layman could sit through them and be totally absorbed by them. They

have unfortunately through the cutbacks, the unit is now reduced, that is

probably being rather rude. It is purely, more or less, a video unit.

Film hardly comes into it at all, probably only if it's commissioned.

They have just made a film promoting the Channel Tunnel which is by the

Channel Tunnel Consortium and that is made on film. But they're

basically down to video, they don't even possess a cutting room any more.

Their quality is still as high.


AG: Have you ever worked on film or tv commercials?

DB: No, I never have.

DB: Can I just go back, it stems from what you said. Sometime in the

‘50s ABC held a big conference to extol anglo-Italian film relations and

they brought over people like Gina Lollobrigida and Italian directors

and they put on a very good lunch at Elstree and a lot of junketings and

going on, and they had a film night in the West End, a premiere of an

Italian film, I forget the title, but I think it was directed by de Sica.

And they shot on this junketing during the day on 35mm, they shot on the

lunch, sound, they shot the arrival of these people. They shot the lunch

and they shot various things up to just after lunch. I attended the

lunch and I was commissioned to rush down to Pathe in town, I think it

was off Oxford St. then. The rushes being processed literally as they

came out of the camera, they were being shipped down roll by roll and

processed at Humphreys, wherever they were, and delivered roll by roll

printed at Pathe. The junketing took place at one night and the

premiere at another night or I shouldn't have been at it. So I went down

by car after lunch to Pathe. And as these rolls came in I had to edit

them, I’ve forgotten who was supervlslng. There must have been somebody

there supervlslng. I think it was a television man because the whole

point of the exercise was that at 11 o'clock that night this cut reel was

taken to Lime Grove, I took it to Lime Grove with whoever was directing

it and it was transmitted the same night which I think for the ‘50s wasn't

a bad thing.

AG: No, very good.

We come to a different subject now, something quite important but not

immediately involved in the actual process of film making. How did you

first get involved with the ACTT, do you remember?

DB: Nobody actually recruited me. I think it was Roy Boulting, I never

thought of it before the war. Nobody bothered and I never heard of much

about people joining but he said you really should join the ACT, it's

essential we should have a strong union after the war. And I think I

took his advice. I don't know who it was, I think I joined through Ron.

There was a famous shop steward at Denham after the war

AG: Percy Dayton.

DB: Percy Dayton was one, the other had a daughter who worked in the

cutting room. I remember Percy Dayton but it wasn't him. Rather Italian

looking, he was quite a big noise in the union. I think it was him I did

join with. My number is 1495 which shows I was pretty early in the day .

AG : You didn't have anything to do with it in the prewar years.

DB : No I'd never heard of it to be honest. It never entered my ken.

No-one never said why don't you belong to the union, I belong to the

union, it never came into my ken strangely enough.

AG: Have you ever held any position since in the ACTT.

DB: No.

AG: Have you any views of the future of the ACTT in film or television.

DB: My views are very moderate views, not just on the ACTT but on

unions. I think unions are far as the film union is concerned,

I think unions go too far. OK it did some good things. And we have a five-day week,

We have a salary. Whether I would have worried if

we hadn't had these things loving the job as I do, I don't know, I don't

know if things had remained as they were. Certainly, the money had to go

up but maybe that had to go up anyway. The war caused money to rise so

obviously wages had to rise, salaries had to rise, I don't know. My main

complaint is never have I heard a statement from the union which I feel

enhances the working within the business, which would inspire a producer

or a company because the union had suggested different ways. The union

enhanced a better life for their members but I do think they should be

leaders as well, and this is the thing which I've rather thought about at

the time, they should say more things or come up with more ideas which

everybody would jump at and say what a good idea, let's do that. Also

the other thing, certainly from my point of view, they have worried about

wages, time, whatsoever, they've done nothing about pensions, they may be

doing it now, I'm not sure. I have heard they are starting something but

they've never done anything about pensions and that was a bad thing

because I'm sure that could have been done with a movable pension, you

paid so much and the film paid so much, and it goes into a fund run by

the union and you get a pension for work which you do not get unless

you're an employee of a big company in Wardour St. If you're an office

worker, fine, you'll get a pension perhaps. No film technicians has ever

got, that's another bad thing. I do think they should do more inspiring

as well as improving things for their members which often do not enhance

the making of a film. I think sometimes they're far too restrictive and

far too unhelpful and have pushed up the cost of filmmaking. There's no

question about that, I think a lot more film making would go on if they

hadn't priced film making out of the market to some extent. But I still

think you've got to have a union, I'm not against having a union.

AG: Which particular film gave you the most satisfaction and why?

DB: Several. The one I liked the best was Ice Cold in Alex which Lee

Thompson directed in 1958, John Mills, Sylvia Sims, Tony Quayle, Gill

Taylor was the cameraman and this was shot in the studio and Libya. I

think for a total piece of filmmaking, excellent script, excellent

camera work, everything excellent about it and acting. Other films like

The Dam Busters, I enjoyed that very much indeed. There were quite a

number of favourites but those two I think, and the war films.

AG: This question is probably a bit redundant in view of what you've

been saying but if you could start your career over again, would you

change course?

DB: Not a bit. If I started my career again, I would never want to do

anything except a film editor, as I knew it. That is the phrase. Not

today. Well of course if I was young I wouId accept today for what it

was. It's very hard to accept these restrictive conditions, I don't mean

in a union term, the rather terrible sweatshop conditions in the cutting

rooms you are put through by directors and producers and time schedules.

Today I don't think I could take it. But if I was young and starting

again, I would accept it.

AG: Thank you.


[edits 2017 by David Sharp]



1. Married to Noreen Ackland (#327).

2. See BEHP article - Richard Best, by Edward Ions (