The life stories of an industry: The Eureka moment

Roy Fowler with the blue cassettes

Roy Fowler with the blue cassettes of recordings stored in the basement on Wardour Street. Photographs dated 22 August 1995

Bob Dunbar with ACTT President Bruce Anderson

Bob Dunbar with ACTT President Bruce Anderson at Union Conference in 1984

Manny Yospa

Founding member of the History Project, sound recordist Manny Yospa (left) in discussion at an ACTT Conference

100th interviewee celebration

To mark passing the 100th interviewee, members of the History Project  Committee presented the Union with a Limited Edition poster of an American Cinematographer cover from 1922. Here Roy Fowler hands it to Tudor Gates for hanging in the Asquith Room

The Veteran, Issue 130, Spring 2011

Roy Fowler, initiator of the ACTT (now BECTU) History Project, looks back

“He’s film barmy!” Thus would my bemused Mum explain me away to the local curtain twitchers. I was one of those unfortunates whose cradle was hovered over by the shade of David Wark Griffith, preliminary to a multi-hued career on both sides of the Atlantic, incurably bitten by the cinema bug. I loved the smell of nitrate in the morning.

I tell you this as it bears directly on the foundation of The ACTT/BECTU History Project. My teenage years were spent indulging my filmic passions, hand cranking a 9.5 mm Pathescope,reading the trades, careering from picture palace to flea pit, tracking down Citizen Kane for yet another viewing, haunting the Denham corridor, writing coverage for Fox whilst still at school, even taking Gabriel Pascal to dinner at the Screenwriters Club, a bijou Georgian gaff hard by Rank’s favoured Dorchester. Gabby, prodigal with J Arthur’s brass, was less so with his own and came willingly. I can’t recall his menu choice but mine, I remember, was a wartime spaghetti Bolognese. “Poison!”, he pronounced.

The point is that instead of getting my knees muddy on the school playing field I had my nose in Variety and The Kine. Gabby let me attend the Caesar and Cleopatra dailies (one of our industry’s great all-time turkeys), Mickey Powell let me watch the escalator to heaven sequence being shot for A Matter of Life and Death. I too was in heaven, absorbing along the way a great deal of cinema history and making some fascinating acquaintances.

It all added up for later. I was registering, in fact, the closing years of Hollywood’s Golden Age alongside the dissolution of this country’s splendid wartime film renaissance. Having survived an army spell in Cairo that would have taxed even Evelyn Waugh’s satirical gifts, childhood indulgences were forsaken as I sought formal entrance to the industry.

These were the Forties. Rank was in hock to the NatPro for some staggering sum, Korda had made off with much of the state’s film funding aid and had a yacht to show for it: cue yet another collapse of our native production capability. I left for the USA without a backward glance at the austerity and mess I was abandoning; to my cost, and possibly in revenge, they devalued the pound the week I did so.
Fade out:
Fade in:
It’s now the late Sixties and, no Nixonian I, my preference was to resume in this country but in that pre-handbagging era the film union was guarding its closed shop with concentrated might. To work, a ticket was essential. I’d joined ACT in 1948 (my number was an even 13,000) but foolishly I’d forgotten to lodge my card when going to the States. Seeking to renew it with what was now ACTT (Television added), I was faced by one of the UK’s best-honed bureaucracies. ACTT officials managed always to come up with one delaying tactic after another, usually something to do with the holy Rule Book. In reality, they were suspicious of producers; plus, Ho! Ho!, they were asking for thirty years of back dues. For months, not even a tactical lunch here and there availed but finally our impasse was amicably resolved and – excellent advice – if you can’t beat them, join them. I became active in ACTT for the Producers and Directors.

What about the History Project, I hear a strangled cry. I’ve finally come to that. ACTT’s Annual Conference was part of the Brothers’ routine and I can be precise – the Project seminally began subsequent to the 1986 one.

Conference was always enjoyable; in a generally congenial atmosphere there were serious debates (ACTT was proud of its democratic structures, albeit they were unwieldy and expensive to operate). A fellow delegate that year was an old friend, Bob Dunbar, likewise a writer/producer. As with all of us, Bob’s career had experienced its ups and downs but dotted along the way were some great iconic moments. At age eighteen, forsaking college, he was despatched by Mick Balcon to Berlin to act as Gaumont’s unpaid contact on the English language version of an UFA film. He was present there when the end abruptly came for Herr Issyvoo’s Weimar and the National Socialists came to power – what more cogent twentieth century turning point was there than that?

It’s 1936 and, thanks to the Pru, Korda’s great white whale is newly beached on the Denham by-pass. They came to regret it, it cost them millions. Anyone who supped with Alex was advised to bring a long spoon. Bob, second AD, was appointed H. G. Wells’ minder on Things To Come. The talkative and opinionated author’s ideas didn’t always coincide with Alex’s own and Bob’s job at key moments was to lure him away from the set for a chat along the banks of the Colne, a fat cigar his reward.

He spent much of WWII at our Moscow Embassy, editing an English-language newspaper and befriending S. M. Eisenstein who was having perilous tussles with Stalin over Ivan The Terrible. 1948 saw Carol Reed despatch him to Rome to persuade a reluctant and cantankerous Orson Welles to report to Vienna for The Third Man. Later he founded the UK’s prototypic film school, only to see it wrested from him by political manoeuvrings that in the process bankrupted him.  Life in Films!

He and I took lunch together that Conference day and, as we enjoyed our pizzas and some rough red, we inevitably found ourselves corpsing each other, comparing backward glances down memory lane. He recalled keeping tight rein on Ernest Thesiger in the naughty Berliner Lokals, along with hilarious recollections of the Bush’s polyglot “Polish Corridor”. I contributed a few Sammy Glick moments from my days on both coasts in the US in my Hail Caesar! days. Teleporting back to 1986 we wove our way again to the TUC and resumed making the world safe for democracy.

The Eureka moment came that evening. I was reflecting on the luncheon hilarities when it struck me, possibly assisted by a recuperative belt of the single malt, that although we had been discussing Film History with a capital H, the way things stood it would all disappear along with us. That seemed enormously regrettable; in most colleagues’ memories fascinating stuff was uniquely stored away, simply demanding to be handed on. Ours was, after all, the most bewitching industry of them all.

Oral History by amateur had become increasingly widespread and the new Sony Walkman was a great facilitator. Voilà! The solution was obvious: the film industry needed its own History Project. A prospective enterprise had named itself.

ACTT was probably the best example of a curate’s egg that ever I encountered. It had been consciously founded, with others, in the early Thirties as the ACT by some nicely middle-class gentlemen occupying senior positions in a select industry they loved – not as a straightforward nuts-and-bolts trade union but as an Association of Cine Technicians. “Puffin” Asquith, a notable director and son of the former Liberal prime minister, had accepted to be its President. Hoitytoity? Not in the least, it had few pretensions and the ranks later encompassed a share of Fred Kites; “Everybody out!” was sometimes the cry. Ah, the times we had!

Civilised people that they were, the founders’ wide, altruist interests remained reflected in the traditions of the union and the pages of its monthly. In July 1986, for that journal, I wrote a flyer, DON’T LET THE INCINERATOR CLAIM OUR GOLDEN AGE. I expressed my sadness that, as colleagues checked out, so many of our collective industrial, cultural and personal histories went with them, and so much else was casually tossed into skips. Having canvassed possible interest, response to the article was encouraging – enough people liked the idea to test it a stage further.

I discussed it with Roy Lockett, the Deputy General Secretary, whose response was immediate: OK, but you have to do all the work and don’t look for any money. From the start, Roy was immensely supportive and remains so to this day, the single founding member still active, for some years the Chair of the Project to which he brought all his insights and bureaucratic skills.

Eleven in the morning, 20 August 1986, meeting in ACTT’s Asquith Room on Wardour Street, six of those who had responded attended an inaugural pro tem committee (I am the sole survivor); six more excused their absence. To make it official (that rule book again), on 25 January 1987 General Council unanimously sanctioned the Project and thereafter the union was always happy to provide us with a home and facilities and occasionally a crust or two. I was insistent, however, that we maintain an independent identity and remain essentially self-funding (not that we had much of a choice). It was time to get serious.

Our numbers grew rapidly. Some later dropped out but among the lasting recruits were new-found friends who stayed with the Project literally to their dying day. I single out Alan Lawson (an ACT founding member) who had joined us by the October. His subsequent contribution was immeasurable and irreplaceable. Alan had been “in the business” since the silent days, a teenager on camera at Stoll’s. His father had been Chaplin’s PR man in the UK and had occasioned a famous tabloid furore when he conned the army into escorting the original Phantom of the Opera up from Southampton. Alan’s son and grandson both followed him as film makers. Retired from a fascinatingly varied career (in 1934 he’d even been part of the Baird team at Alexandra Palace), Alan was ready for a challenging activity – he was our busy bee, constantly about the Project’s concerns. We owe him a great deal, not least in the way of shoe leather. My only complaint was that invariably he’d call me to talk about things just as Channel Four news was starting.

Equally due honourable billing are Sid Cole, Norman Swallow, Stephen Peet, Rodney Giesler, John Legard – they became the backbone interviewers. Manny Yospa was our dogged treasurer. Others were welcome bystanders, less active but pleased to have somewhere to go on the monthly Wednesdays.  One or two were great kibitzers, proposing much but doing little. Our routines established, the meetings were pleasures, a club-like feel attached to the proceedings as we discussed and pursued our objectives at length. Of course, other than modest expenses, no one received a penny for their efforts.

Norman and Stephen were renowned documentarists, authors of notable achievements in gathering social history. The rest of us were on a learning curve. Feeling our way, we set up two sub-committees, Ways & Means and Technical, out of which came both fund raising and acquisition of relevant equipment. Money we raised from many sources, soliciting the union’s members at large (they were very forthcoming), tackling industry friends and companies (ditto for their generosity), looking around for any likely plutocrat, organisation, foundation or lottery to cadge off. Some came through munificently, others left a bitter taste. I’ve got a little list, they never will be missed.

Quaint as it now may seem, there was not a lot of choice for the recording medium. We opted for audio, primarily because of its cost and portability, which in those days dictated cassettes, so we splashed out for two Walkman Professionals and two Marantz recorders, both ideal for purpose. We worked in three generations of tape: the C90 Master was used once, to record and then dub a protection copy for use in turn to make further reference copies. Cassettes were colour coded Red, Blue, Green (our homage to glorious Technicolor 3-Strip – honest!). The Red Master went direct to the National Film Archive, the Blue dub was stored in the basement on Wardour Street, the Green copy was deposited with the BFI Library for researchers’ access. From early on, we worked in co-operation with the BFI whose Librarian and Archivist were on the HP Committee. Of ongoing concern now is the survivability of those original recordings. Ideally all that material should be both digitised and transcribed. Money! The University of East Anglia has shown how satisfying, given proper funding, expert transcriptions can be. There’s a fascinating book to be drawn from them.

Clearly there was no shortage of candidates for memorialisation and we were everlastingly making lists of the great names still extant. Since, at that stage, our acquaintance and knowledge lay with the senior production disciplines, emphasis favoured directors, producers, writers, camera, editors, designers. It does mean the archive is regrettably short on some other arts and crafts of the four walls studio era.

Two veteran cameramen, Eric Cross and Bryan Langley, were our first victims, recorded by Arthur Graham who in 1933 as a devilmay-care eighteen-year-old at BIP Elstree had bravely awarded himself ticket #1 in the newly created and highly unwelcome ACT.

My first interviewee was Len Girdlestone, the past senior lab technician at Shepherd’s Bush, who had practised his arts from 1923. Approached with some diffidence, it turned out to be a hugely satisfying experience. Given the eventual size of the archive it’s not possible to dwell much on individual names but some remain vivid in my memory. The first interview of which I was really proud was with Alfie Roome who had “cut” (in Hollywood fashion, the departmental head then grabbed the editor’s credit) many of the Gaumont-British and Gainsborough comedies and ended a glorious career by doing the same with the Carry Ons. Alfie was very sweet and a bit naïf, rather like some little old Gainsborough character player.  Curiously he was convinced that David Lean was gay.

The length and quality of interviews varied hugely. A few were almost monosyllabic, on a single tape side – “Where did you go?” “Out.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” sort of thing. They used to drive me insane. Most of mine went on for hours over several sessions, examining exalted careers in minute detail. I had the pleasure of doing that with some fabled names: Sidney Gilliat (over 22 hours in total), Ronnie Neame, Roy Ward Baker, Val Guest, Clive Donner…

Clive and Jocelyn [Rickards] were a great couple and always came up with a delectable lunch overlooking the Thames – a rare perk, usually one starved or thirsted in vain. I’ll digress to recount how, on my way to one session with Clive, at a bus stop close to my home, an empty, ramshackle, single- decker bus of unknown livery never seen before or since, mysteriously admitted me and drove me, quite alone, to Hammersmith. It must have been that legendary Celestial Omnibus.

Another sidelight has also occurred to me. Alfie Roome, Bob Dunbar, Sidney Gilliat all had influential fathers in senior positions in the newspaper industry, through whom and unashamedly they got their break; not, then, a matter of what you know but whom? You bet! But we were not only into “names”. We were aiming to hand posterity a comprehensive picture of our cinema industry, variously from the teen years down to our own time. If I seem to be favouring film over television it’s simply that, despite all our efforts, few television people joined in, so film history predominates. There was also, because of our own experience, a strong bias toward “production”. Exhibition and distribution are lightly covered and a couple of trips to Glebelands made only a slight dent in that failing. Perhaps some Veterans will now do something about it. The Project’s cameras would always be readily available to them.

A couple more favourite memories linger on. Eddie Dryhurst had played joanna for the silent flicks at age fourteen, then in 1916 went to work at Neptune Studios in Elstree (the site today of East Enders). Eddie was a delicious old rogue, a proud and constant companion to the bald headed butler. He’d done everything and knew everyone, my idea of a film producer. Adolphe Simon was in his mid-nineties and had been an adventurous Pathé Newsreel cameraman. The day after the 1987 hurricane amid the fallen trees, French-accented still, he recalled filming Paris from a balloon in 1914 and flying in China in the early Twenties.

Disappointments were inevitable. Running Shepperton, the Boulting twins were well acquainted with aforementioned Brother Kite and endured a running feud with Soho Square over a bitter jurisdictional lawsuit. Their merciless satire and Peter Sellers’ sublime creation stemmed straight from the union. Fred’s character was based directly on one of its organisers – but it’s only fair to remember ACT’s origins lay in sixteen-hour days rewarded only with 1s.6d. supper money for some fish and chips. I wish we’d obtained a full account of those shenanigans but, by the time we were recording, John Boulting had died and Roy, although a friend, graciously sidestepped going on the record. There were several instances when senior players tip-toed very cautiously around the legalities. Such were the pities because, taking the long view, we’d always offer to embargo sensitive material.

I spent years trying to pin down Jack Cardiff but he was ever elusive; I think perhaps he was interview weary, having done it so often, but he’s well documented anyway. Emeric Pressburger, one of my gods, sadly was past it.  Mickey Powell was eager but even as an octogenarian was always on the move and, too late, too late, we never quite made the date.

I think my greatest failure and regret was JARO’s John Davis. Mutual friends had assured him of our bona fides and good intentions but he remained wary and suspicious, convinced we would edit the tapes to his disadvantage. We discussed the matter on the phone several times, his lady wife having summoned him in from “the gardin”. I offered to deposit sealed copies with his lawyer but it was no go, unmellowed he wasn’t having any. Such a nice man.

Commercials and Pop Promos are two areas of production activity I’m sorry we didn’t cover more fully, both iconic to the twentieth century and incubators of so much features talent. I’ll leave it to Sue Malden to give a fuller account of the archive. Like Topsy it jes’ grow’d and amazingly (to our surprise) suddenly reached critical point, ceasing to be a mom ‘n’ pop affair and gaining recognition as a national resource, one of a kind. I’ve even heard it referred to as “the jewel in ACTT’s crown”.

I tell you, for me those were such happy and rewarding days. Additional to the monthly committees and the incessant recording activity, we’d also from time to time mount a BAFTA event. Alexander Korda’s centenary was celebrated with a screening of The Epic That Never Was (but Dirky boy failed to show up). Sui generis Kevin Brownlow, always a friend and supporter, presented an engrossing evening devoted to his treasured silents. For Bob Dunbar’s eightieth birthday we revived The Man Upstairs, his favourite personal production, joined for the evening by Dickie Attenborough, its star.

1995, in what was accepted as the Centenary Year of Cinema, saw furious new activity. My contributions were to research and locate the highly significant sites of Robert Paul’s studio in New Southgate and where Birt Acres first filmed in Barnet. Plaques for both followed but somehow Barnet Council “forgot” to invite me to the ceremonies. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a credit stolen. Nor the last, as it turned out.

Speaking of plaques, I later had the pleasure (you might say) of organising a green one in memory of Michael Balcon, on the town house his family had occupied in Westminster in the early Thirties. It was not without its travails, as Mick’s son Jonathan will attest, but present at the unveiling, laboriously traced and rounded up, a few in their final public appearances, were some truly iconic figures.

Many more plaques need to be orchestrated. I made some effort on behalf of James Whale (close to me, his pre-Hollywood apartment survives still on the King’s Road) and, attached to several suitable sites, the redoubtable Alexander Korda – but it requires broader shoulders than I now possess. I wonder if volunteer Veterans might now have a go?

The Project’s formal AGMs, conducted strictly by the book, were always followed by an invitational (and somewhat liquid) reception for friends, benefactors and helpers: there’s no doubt, we could have organised magnificently well in any brewery. Those were our halcyon years, notwithstanding all the administrative tasks that Alan and I had to handle. I was conscious, however, that I’d been in the Chair for a long time and, no admirer of those convinced they held presumptive right to office, at each annual general meeting sincerely tried to pass it on. Eventually I made up my mind it was time to go, I’d done my stint, but along with that were political considerations. ACTT had ceased to exist, replaced by an amorphous conglomeration in which its culture had been dissipated. What was that song we sang in our salad days? The times, they are a-changin’.

I’d always written up the committee minutes seriously but informally, in free-wheeling fashion. Hoity toity nous? No way! They were now being circulated to the executive committee and closely scrutinised by the secretariat. BECTU’s mindset was top down in contrast to ACTT’s bottom up. Everyone, it seemed, had their two cents to put in, not only a retentive NEC but notably one jesuitically minded senior official whose picayune and patronising  commentaries were tediously enervating. Minuting  one of the group who had himself styled his enviable lecture cruise as a “freebie”, that word particularly upset him. I’d merely been quoting the lucky recipient jesting at himself.

I still looked for the Project to maintain its independence, not serve as anyone’s accessory; less parochial and self-serving perspectives were what I’d always had in mind. Having, too, been published since I was fifteen and having no patience with either control freakery or Eng Lit 101, I thought enough was enough. In 1996 I quit the Chair and, bows taken, curtain down, relaxed on a back seat of the committee to concentrate on recordings and transcripts.

By 2003, on thousands of tapes the collection was approaching five hundred individual interviews (more and more on video, thanks to a generous Sony) so it seemed the ideal occasion for a landmark celebration. BAFTA agreed and I outlined plans for a festive retrospective, aptly to be named “Read My Lips”; retired, however, from office, implementation was down to others. It was well handled but, come the night, I was startled to discover I’d been airbrushed off Lenin’s tomb and with nary a mention had become a non-person, a dead parrot, H.P. Sauce maybe. But that’s Show Biz for you (my restoration to the annals came later, with a subsequent regime).

Politics again, I was aware that, without wider reference, the Project had become virtually absorbed into the union, to which all our copyrights were ceded. Of course, our intellectual property required to be protected and properly organised, but it also needed to be made as widely available as possible. So, one thing and another, it just seemed a good time to collect my P45 – fresh fields, pastures new, and all that; a whimper, not a bang.

That’s more or less my story. Sue Malden will bring it up to date. I’m proud of The History Project and what we all did together. From simple, humble, unpretentious origins, it became a useful addition to the national culture and collective values, typically perhaps in a quixotic British fashion. Many interesting and informative interviews with our betters now exist (but needs must constantly be preserved and added to: I stress, added to).

We are a known oral history collection. We’ve made unique contributions to books, biographies and encyclopaedias, to theses and dissertations, to seminars, to documentary films, to radio and television programmes. In this, our Silver Jubilee year, both ACTT and BECTU (now much more relaxed, a worthy body I have no quarrel with) are to be praised and thanked for such estimable support throughout twenty-five years. And it’s time especially to remember the departed friends who made it all work, without whom… It’s back now in good hands and I’m looking forward to attending the Golden Jubilee.

For any iconoclasts among us, I’ll end the tape with this thought. It’s Henry Ford’s famous dictum from 1916, something we’ve gleefully quoted since the beginning but not as our mission statement. “History,” he said, “is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.” What do you think? Would you buy a used interview from that man?