IN THE BEGINNING: EARLY DAYS IN TALKIES AND TV
If Dallas Bower is remembered today, it is probably as the driving force behind the 1944 Laurence Olivier film of Henry V. Olivier himself is credited as Producer and Director, but many believe it was Dallas (credited as Associate Producer) who made the whole thing happen.
His interview with the British Entertainment History Project (https://historyproject.org.uk/content/dallas-bower) reveals that there was more to Dallas Bower than one Shakespearean film. From the late 1920s to the early 1960s he crossed and re-crossed from film to television and back again, and participated both in the birth of the talkies, and the birth of TV. The interview, conducted way back in 1987, has recently been digitised and uploaded to the Project’s website. It covers his whole career, but it is his account of his early years which most intrigues me.
Born in 1907, Dallas was a middle-class London boy, obsessed by the new technology of radio. His first jobs were in wireless, with Marconi and others. Then in 1928 he heard that British International Pictures (BIP) at Elstree were getting fitted out with the latest sound recording kit, to enable them to make talkies. He applied for a job as a Sound Recordist, got it, and arrived just in time to work (uncredited) on Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, ‘Britain’s first talking picture’. (In fact Blackmail was made right on the cusp of the sound revolution. According to legend it went into production as a silent; then Hitchcock was given permission to include some limited sync sound; but he ignored this and made it as a full-blooded talkie. Even so, many cinemas were still not equipped for sound when it appeared in 1929, so a silent version was released alongside the sound version).
Dallas gives a fascinating account of the practical problems of sound recording in these early days – where to place the mike, how to work as a team when the camera was isolated in a sound-proof booth. Equally fascinating is his account of studio working practices: 12 or more hours a day was the norm, and during his 18 months at BIP he only got three weekends off work. When he got the chance, he left BIP for the Stoll Studios at Cricklewood, where attitudes were more civilised.
By this time Dallas was developing a broader interest in filmmaking, and came under the influence of Thorold Dickenson and others in the Film Society. He took an interest in editing and watched editors at work: in his interview he credits “two admirable women”, Doris Dooley and Violet Burdon, “without whom nothing would ever have been in sync”. But he himself only edited one film before moving on again to directing and producing. His first project as Producer and Director was the 1934 quota-quickie comedy The Path of Glory. So far as we know, no copies survive: it’s on the BFI list of ’75 Most Wanted Films’.
So: in six years Dallas had progressed from humble wireless engineer to film producer and director, and by the mid-1930s it seemed that film would be his career. But once again, he took the opportunity to jump sideways into something completely new. While he had been making his way in the film studios, a three-way tussle had been in progress between the BBC, the Post Office, and John Logie Baird, over the feasibility of a public television service. After interminable argument, the BBC had finally, reluctantly, bowed to pressure and agreed to launch a service. In 1935 it acquired Alexandra Palace to serve as its TV broadcasting centre, and started recruiting its embryonic TV team. Dallas joined as a Producer.
The decision to launch the service had been essentially technical: live TV broadcasting started because it was technically feasible. But that still left unanswered the question of content. What should television be? Should it model itself upon some existing art-form or medium? Should it try to be like radio, but with moving pictures? Or like theatre, but on a small screen? Or like cinema, but with all the action performed live and unedited? When Dallas joined the team as one of the BBC’s first television producers, these were the issues he was wrestling with. For instance, he arrived to find that the new TV studios were - quite unlike the film studios with which he was familiar - modelled on theatres, complete with cyclorama. This clashed with his own conviction that television should, as far as possible, take cinema as its model.
Over the next three years Dallas produced a range of pioneering TV programmes for those viewers in and around north London who had bought TV sets, and were able to pick up the signal from Alexandra Palace. He drew on his film industry contacts to make a series about current productions in the film studios; and he produced and directed live TV productions of Shakespeare: Julius Caesar in 1938, and The Tempest (with Peggy Ashcroft as Miranda) in 1939.
The BBC stopped its television broadcasts when the War broke out in the autumn of 1939, to re-focus exclusively on radio. Dallas’s career continued, of course – including his role in Henry V - and is fully covered in his interview. It’s all worth listening to – but for me the most precious parts are those which take us back to the birth of talking pictures, and the birth of television.