Vi Bebb (nee Robertson)

Family name: 
Bebb (nee Robertson)
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
10 Nov 1994
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

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Interview notes


                                                     BEHP 0337 S Vi Bebb synopsis


                                                                           SIDE 1

Born in Manningtree, Essex.   Father, at the time, was Master of one of the larger Thames  sailing barge named REDOUBTABLE, but had been a marine surveyor at the family ship construction  marina in Yorkshire. Her mother came from a farming family in Essex and Vi was one of two daughters. Eventually, the family moved to Mistley where the girls were educated at the local school. The family often sailed up to London with their father, even across to Holland or France on occasions during the summer holidays. More details of life aboard the ship. Father died at the age of 57 after being taken ill aboard his barge. Vi left school at l4 — the usual age for school leavers in those days, and decided to train for a position ln one of the large local    stores. The work was not to her liking, however, so she joined the local GPO as a telephonist in l939/40. After the  war  she  moved  to  Colchester  and  in  1947  transferred  to  a  GPO  exchange  at Paddington  and then  to  the West End. Some   details of the  work, which, in  general she found boring. She talks about a near miss at Manningtree exchange during the war, and of another enemy incident when sailing barges were set alight. Whilst working for the GP0 in London after the war, she decided to look for another job. Companies were advertising for GPO trained telephonists at this time, so she went to an employment agency in Praed Street and they sent her to Film Centre, at 34, Soho Square, where she was interviewed by Tony Roberts, the company  secretary  and several  other  directors including Edgar Anstey, and offered the job. The year was l947. She knew little about, and had no particular  interest in, film making up until  this time. But that was soon to change. She remained at Film Centre until it was closed down in l976.

Vi now runs through the list of names and organisations associated with the offices. On the top floor was the Scientific Film Association with Betty Preston. The Documentary News Letter was also published at No.34. In 1949 they  moved to 167, Tottenham Court Road. Anstey had then departed to go to Shell, and Vi had been asked to leave the switchboard to help the assistant to Tony Roberts. Films for BOAC  were  being made at the time  with  Film Centre acting as film consultants to various companies. The history of Film Centre and its formation is discussed: Grierson set it up.Film Centre  acted rather like a production company, employing people as required, on a freelance basis. Film Centre was asked to take the Shell Film Unit whilst the Shell Film Centre was being completed between the move from the Strand.  The office at Tottenham Court Road  had become too cramped and so Film Centre moved to 24, Conduit Street which remained the head office. There was further expansion to l33, Oxford Street for the purpose of housing Shell’s administration and cutting rooms. There was also a large 35mm [viewing] theatre in which prints from the labs were checked. Raymond Spottiswoode  devised  a  system using  5  synchronised projectors  which  allowed  4  prints  to be checked simultaneously against the answer print.

Also on the same floor at Oxford Street was the AEl  Film Unit which all came under the Film Centre umbrella. This was the boom period around 1951. Vi used to float between the three offices but worked mainly at Conduit Street. Much of the output was concerned with films about oil. She talks about her duties and responsibilities. They had special dispensation to run nitrate stock but could store only 6 reels which had to be kept in a steel cabinet. Some re-voicing in other languages for Shell was carried out at Oxford Street until their final move to Shell Film Centre was completed. Much of the Shell changeover, including the various personalities is discussed here. Oxford Street was not needed anymore. Film Centre paid above the minimum ACTT wages. A Union problem concerning Joe Telford  is mentioned. It  was  not  resolved  until  Vl  contacted  George  Elvin – interesting story. Film Centre was asked to take over the Shell Stills photographic section and moved them into premises at 37, Warren Street. More details.


The photographic unit was called FCP Studios.   Shell gave Film Centre permission to provide stills services for any company that required them, where previously the unit had only  worked for Shell. The Shell stock shot library was also  taken  over  at  this  time.  Details  of  the  considerable reorganisation  carried out. There was a neg cutter employed within the library together with viewing facilities. BBC and ITV made use of the service. Details on  the  various units  based abroad including  Singapore, Venezuela, Beirut,  Kuwait, Tehran and  Nigeria   in  the 1960’s. Most  material  came  back  to  this country for processing. Viewing was done at Film Centre. Vi talks about the gradual run down which led to the close in the 1970’s and the part she played in It. Film Centre had served its purpose as film consultants, a role no longer required. Sadly, Shell destroyed must of the stock shot library despite advice to the contrary from Film Centre. This included most of the old, and therefore, valuable material.

Vi   now returns to the 196O’s, the boom years.   Everyone enjoyed what they were doing and there was no great pressure. Official hours were 9:30 to 6pm. But that didn’t really mean anything. Vi was often still in the office at 9:30pm. She also received invitations to attend film premieres in the West End, sometimes not returning home until 2am. She often received calls from overseas units at all times of the day or night. Technicolor  —  very efficient and good to deal with. Great care had to be exercised when selecting people who were going abroad, particularly in alcohol restricted countries. People were sometimes sent out on a  Saudi  plane to  avoid  drink  problems at the other end! One hotel had HP Sauce bottles on the tables which did not contain sauce! Staff were told that they would be brought back immediately if there were any problems — if the Saudis didn’t get to them first!!!


Review of the female office staff.There was an overseas clothing allowance to ensure that  staff  were  correctly  dressed when  invited to  a  Shell base.Film Centre considered it important  that  film unit  personnel  should dress correctly on these occasions. At the end of Shell, Vi  transferred to a set up  called  Film Drama with Michael Orrom. Vi  talks  about the indoor  driving  training  films  that  Spottiswoode was involved with. Film Drama was making films for Cable & Wireless.  Vi ran the office and did the accounts for five years. Mention is made of Overseas Containers and how Vi went to Amsterdam to pick up an award for the film at the BISFA Festival. Distinguished Shell films are discussed and their attitude of not wanting to make money out of them. So many of them would  have  been  commercially  successful. Strangely, Shell never insured people going overseas - a basic ACTT requirement. Film Centre had to explain to them how it was done.

Vi talks about the end of Film Drama In the l980’s and about her love of sailing and the trauma of a broken leg.


Continues with the sailing and boatbuilding theme. Vi   is a member of The Veterans  and  BAFTA. Grierson came to the office several times in Film Centre days and Insisted on calling Vi "that Scottish Lass". She had some Scottish blood, it seems: her   maiden  name  was Robertson. Grierson  was so unpopular  that if his  visit was announced the directors found that they had appointments outside!

Vi feels very fortunate in joining Film Centre when she did and for being asked to do all the things she enjoyed doing so much. Mention is made of the Shell staff of FCP who had worked for that company all their working lives and didn’t have a clue about other working practices outside Shell. The interview ends with  a general discussion on diverse subjects.                                                                                                                       END.

Comment:  Vi  Bebb reveals her commitment to Film Centre in  no uncertain terms, and on the way, acquaints us with the company’s surprisingly vast output in the field of documentary production facilities.

Cast In order of appearance:- VI BEBB was interviewed by JOHN LEGARD. DAVID MATHER ROBSON   recorded it  and  wrote the  synopsis.

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