The art of film grading: Bill Girdlestone
The BEHP’s audio interview with Bill Girdlestone – conducted in 1987, and now digitised and available on the website at https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/bill-girdlestone – offers fascinating insights into the world of the film lab, and in particular Bill’s own craft of grading (For an invaluable historical overview of Britain’s film labs, go to http://www.brianpritchard.com/British%20Labs.htm). His career spanned much of the twentieth century, from the First World War to the 1970s, taking in the advent of sound and the coming of colour. And his changing fortunes also shine a light on the power-play and cut-throat competition which characterised the British film industry in these decades.
As a boy before the First World War Bill was already a film enthusiast, who built his own home projector and was always scrounging random strips of film. One day in Wandsworth he met a cinema manager willing to sell him odd feet for a few bob. In later years he realised he had been buying stolen goods, film which should have been returned to the renters but had been withheld by the manager so as to make a bit of money on the side - a common problem at the time.
Bill’s first job in the industry was as an office boy for Provincial Cinematograph Theatres (PCT), Britain’s first national cinema chain. (For a list of former PCT cinemas which are still open, go to: http://cinematreasures.org/chains/664/previous). But he wasn’t cut out for an office, and quickly moved on to the Worton Hall studio at Isleworth, set up by George Berthold Samuelson, father of Sir Sydney Samuelson (whose own BEHP interview is at https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/sydney-samuelson). Here he had the pleasure of washing out the lab’s chemical tanks.
His next move was to the London Film Company’s lab at Twickenham, to work as a printer. One of his first jobs was to print rushes for D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World. This must have been around mid-1917 when Griffiths was filming in England and on the Western Front: Hearts of the World was a propaganda film, backed by the British Government and intended to bolster US public support for the Allied war effort.
After a short period of Army service, Bill went into the dark-room at the Gaumont-British film lab in Shepherd’s Bush. His job was at the ‘front end’, making the negative and producing the first print; bulk printing was done separately in the ‘works laboratory’. This was where his career really got started, because Gaumont-British was a major force in the industry. The company grew steadily through the 1920s and 1930s, affiliating with others – notably Gainsborough - and running film studios at Lime Grove and Islington in addition to the Shepherd’s Bush lab. Its international links meant that Bill was handling negatives from different countries, and he realised that American negs were far better than British ones, with subtler contrasts and textures. He started experimenting with film grading, working by trial and error, adjusting the chemical mix and developing time to try to replicate this higher quality. And as he did so, he started attracting the attention of the camera department: he describes being in awe of the American cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, quite unaware that Musuraca was equally impressed by him, and used his negative as a model for others to aspire to.
It might be thought that Shepherd’s Bush, as the in-house lab, would have enjoyed a guaranteed flow of work from Gaumont and Gainsborough productions, but in fact things were less clear-cut. Michael Balcon, who from 1931 was overall Director of Production, came from the Gainsborough side, and had no particular loyalty to Shepherd’s Bush. In fact, according to Bill, he positively preferred to place work with Humphries lab in Whitfield Street. Although Bill was very much on the technical side, he observed these commercial rivalries and it’s clear from the interview that had his own views – including the view that Humphries owed much of their success to their willingness to pay ‘back-handers’.
Bill worked at Shepherd’s Bush until about 1950, when he was caught up by the ambitions of another big beast in the film industry. From the early 1930s, flour-magnate J. Arthur Rank had, ploddingly but effectively, built up a formidable vertically-integrated film empire. In 1939 Rank snapped up Alexander Korda’s brand-new but heavily-mortgaged studios at Denham; and in 1941 it acquired Gaumont-British and Gainsborough. In the late 1940s Rank decided to concentrate its film processing in a new, state-of-the-art lab at Denham. Shepherd’s Bush was surplus to requirements and Bill was invited to move to Denham or take redundancy. He chose to move.
It’s clear from the interview that it was a wrench to leave Shepherd’s Bush. By this time Bill was in his fifties, and he’d worked there for the best part of thirty years. His reputation as a master of the art of grading was secure – but it must have hurt to leave the place where that reputation had been won. And initially, he wasn’t too impressed by some of his new colleagues.
And yet, in the end, Denham became a happy place for him. The BEHP interviewers, Roy Fowler and Alan Lawson, asked Bill which had been the most satisfying time in his working life and he replied:-
“At Denham, the last five years. They had sufficient sense to know what I was doing and I was able to produce the best colour pictures that this country ever saw. When I did Oh What a Lovely War, 1968, we showed it at the Plaza, I sat with Dickie Attenborough, it was a Paramount picture. The Paramount executive came to me and he said, 'Bill, this is the best colour print I've ever seen.'”.
Bill retired in 1970, at the age of 71.