Sidney Cole: editor, producer, union man
Recently digitised and now available online (https://historyproject.org.uk/interview/sidney-cole) is the British Entertainment History Project’s 1987 interview with Sidney Cole. Sidney was a constant presence in the film and television industries from the 1930s to the 1980s. He was an editor and a producer, in both drama and documentary, and throughout a busy career he regularly found the time and the means to put his socialist politics into practice.
Sidney was a South London boy, clever enough to get a place at the LSE, from where he went straight into the film industry in 1930, at the age of 21. He started out as a ‘scenario reader’ at Stoll Studios, and quickly struck up a friendship with Thorold Dickinson who was working as an editor. Thorold was only a few years older than Sidney, but was already a key figure among London’s progressive film intelligentsia, a mainstay of the Film Society and an ally of figures such as Ivor Montagu and John Grierson.
When Thorold moved to Ealing Studios in 1933 to edit Gloria Swanson’s Perfect Understanding, Sidney went with him as second assistant editor. And as Thorold moved from editing to directing, Sidney moved up from assisting to editing in his own right, working on films by Carol Reed and Frank Richardson, as well as Thorold’s own film The High Command in 1936.
They worked together politically as well. Both were early activists within the ACT, the film technicians’ trade union, which had been founded in 1933 and, after a rocky start, found its feet from 1934 once George Elvin came on board as General Secretary. Thorold was elected as one of the union’s Vice Presidents in 1935, and in 1936 Sidney served on an ACT delegation to the Board of Trade to discuss the future of the film industry. In the following year, he too was elected as a Vice President.
By this time the Spanish Civil War was under way, widely seen as the opening episode of armed confrontation between fascism on one side, and socialism and communism on the other. Sidney and Thorold travelled together to Spain in 1938 and made two short films to rally support for the Spanish republic: Behind the enemy lines, and Spanish ABC. Both were distributed by Ivor Montagu’s Progressive Film Institute.
During the Second World War Sidney worked on several films which are now regarded as British classics. In 1940 he edited the melodrama Gaslight, directed by Thorold: it was a stunning success, so much so that MGM bought the rights and tried to destroy all copies of it so as to give themselves a sure-fire winner with their own re-make. Thorold and Sidney thwarted them by squirrelling away a secret print. Sidney also edited Cavalcanti’s 's ‘what-if’ fantasy Went The Day Well? in 1942: a brilliantly audacious film, made at a time when victory was far from assured, which tells its wartime story from the vantage point of a peaceful, post-war future. And, in a sign of things to come, he acted not as editor but as associate producer on the ground-breaking horror compilation Dead of Night in 1945.
From this point on, Sidney worked primarily as a producer, firstly of films (including Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in The White Suit in 1951, and Thorold’s Secret People in 1952), and then from the mid-50s in television.
From 1955 to 1982 Sidney produced a series of long-running, popular shows for commercial television: children’s tales of derring-do (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and The Buccaneers for ATV; The Adventures of Black Beauty and Dick Turpin for LWT); and secret-agent tough-guy drama (Danger Man and Man in a Suitcase for ITC). I still remember Robin Hood and Danger Man with enormous affection but let’s face it, none of this was cutting-edge television. And yet, Sidney being Sidney, he still found ways to inject his politics. Robin Hood was produced in the ‘50s when McCarthyism was live in the USA, and Sidney used it as a refuge for blacklisted American writers such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter who were blocked from working in their own country.
Even in his 70s, Sidney didn’t give up. In 1981, with Thatcher in power and unemployment climbing inexorably, he helped produce People's March for Jobs, a film about the nationwide trade union march of that year, inspired by the Hunger Marches and Jarrow March of the 1930s. This final project, fittingly, was for ACT Films, the production arm of the union with which he had been associated for almost half a century.
Sidney died in January 1998.