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.
SIDE 1, TAPE 1
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
SIDE 2 , TAPE 1
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
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
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
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..?
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
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?
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
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.
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 essential.as 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
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]