This is an interview with Anthony Simmons, recorded by Rodney Giesler on September 25 1997 for the Bectu Oral History Archive.
RG: Well, Tony, can I start by asking you when you were born and to tell me a little bit about your early years and your parents and your family life?
AS: That takes me by surprise! I thought of many things, trying to get my memory going, but... I was born at Christmas, 16 December, 1922, which has always added one year more to my life than I count, if you see what I mean, in the sense that I always count 1922 as the start date, but it is in fact 1923 that was... there are times when one year more or less seems to have made a difference. I was born in the East End, in West Ham, in Queens Road market, street market. My father... my parents had a couple of shops in the market, they were one of the very early people who opened there, and we had a stall where as a kid I used to work at the stall at weekends and market days, which I didn't particularly like, but it was a quite interesting experience. My father came over to England from Poland to join his family when he was about thirteen, beginning of the century. My mother was born to a very large, numerous family, and they ran quite a famous fish and chip shop in Mile End called Court's. One of the great treats of my youth was going up there and having fish and chips and a wally (CHECK) and a bottle of Tizer. I went to the local school, infants' school, Upton Cross. From there I went... I was one of two who went on to West Ham Secondary School, which later became West Ham Grammar, where Bryan Forbes also went, and West Ham has produced a number of people,Alf Garnett and Johnny Speight and so on. And... I was planning to leave school at the age of fifteen, because I'd done my matric a year early, when the threat of war happened. I was encouraged to stay at school for the extra year, and I had one of those breaks that matter a lot in life. I had a young, very left-wing poet, graduated from Oxford, who had suddenly joined the school, he was the headmaster's son-in-law. And he became a teacher, and I became a target for him to recruit for the left-wing affiliation. And I had wanted to become a writer and he very much helped me in that period to write, encourage my writing.
RG: What was his name?
AS: His name was Peter Hewitt, and we stayed in touch until quite recently, a couple of years ago, when he died. He became a headmaster at a school in Ipswich. And at that point I was very conscious of lack of language in the sense that neither of my parents spoke English very well, or read it very well, and I was very aware of the slightly stilted nature of anything I wrote. So it was Hewitt who made me concentrate more on what I was writing than how I was writing. The war broke out, the threat of war broke out, and my father wanted... I had a younger brother, eight... I had a family of four, I have two brothers, two sisters and a younger brother, eight years younger. And my father wanted me to go with the school, to be evacuated to Brentwood, where we were going, so that I could get him out of London at the same time, my younger brother. So we went to Brentwood with the school, and again that influenced my life enormously, because I was given the opportunity to do A-levels, to get a university entrance. Up to that time I had seen myself going into a solicitor's office as a clerk, which I did a bit of that summer, summer of '40. No, summer of '39. No, summer of '40 - get it right! And it meant that we were in touch with the teachers for the first time on a one to one basis. I had suddenly something like six months to prepare myself for A-levels, Oxford, Cambridge, to get an entrance and an exam result, which entitled me to a scholarship to go to university. And because we were in Brentwood for a very short while, one became very friendly on a personal basis with teachers, who suddenly had to tutor me in a hurry to get the exam results. And it was quite a change from anything that had happened before. I became very close to a number of them including Hewitt, my Latin teacher, and did in fact get very good results very rapidly. And that continued, even though I came back to London fairly early on, the school came back into London after the Blitz didn't actually start in '39, we maintained the same relationships, particularly as shortly afterwards - I can't tell you exactly when - the school then evacuated itself down to Cornwall. But certain teachers stayed in touch in London. And I had a choice, I got reasonable results, sufficient anyway for me to apply for college, and I had a choice of going to King's, University College or LSE. And of course LSE was in Cambridge and had slightly more political tinge about it, because at that stage we were all being very red and anti-fascist and all the rest of it. In the East End it was like that, in the East End you were either a fascist or very left-wing. It seemed a good place to go, Laski was there, and I went up to Cambridge, where I stayed, doing law because that's what I'd been paid to do by my grant, but spending a fair amount of time as a writer. There I stayed until '42, I became President of the Union, but that was mainly because of political lobbying by the various left-wing groups to get me in as a reasonable postle candidate. But it was a very good college because at that period it was very small. It was only 400 schol, and therefore one was in very close touch with everyone else there. Not so much with the staff but with the other students. And of course out of that block of students came Gordon Brunton, who works for the Thompson Organisation, Vladimir Reisen, who started off Reisen Holidays and became a guru, Steve Lee-Croft who runs British Airways... the British Airport Association, David Davis who went on to run the Royal Bank, and above all Arnold Weinstock, who became another legend. So we were all very much in touch with each other, and many of us still are in touch with each other, although we split up all over the world. There was one point after the war where it seemed that wherever you went you could meet someone you knew at LSE in quite a powerful position.
RG: Were you liable for call-up at that time?
AS: I was liable for call-up when I was nineteen, but although most people went off in July of that year, which was '42, I didn't go because, my father being Polish, I was given an option of joining the Polish Army, which of course I didn't want. But it meant...
RG: So you had Polish nationality then?
AS: My father being Polish... he'd been naturalised, but at that stage if you were the son of a naturalised Pole, you were going to have the option of becoming a naturalised... going back to being Polish if you chose. I chose not to, obviously, but that gave me another few months, and I spent that time in fact running the work camps for various students, we were trying to get a fourth term going to assist students to get their degrees in two years instead of three. It was a very lively, lively period.
RG: What were the work camps?
AS: Oh, going out harvesting, picking the crops. Not labour camps, getting students out to go and help with the harvest. And in fact I was under the one bomb that fell in Cambridge, just by the Round House. It was a quite amusing moment. And then I was called up in the end of that period, and joined the army, where I stayed, and I was in India. I'd gone out to India after the... I was at that generation when I was being trained constantly for things that happened before I got there. You know, I was trained for D-Day, I was trained for the Rhine crossing, I went out to India to join Frank Owen on long-range desert routes, long-range reporting. Newspapertype, reporting back. And whenever I arrived it was already gone. We were also being trained for the Singapore landings. In fact, what happened, two of us were trained... I spent a long time in the Isle of Man on intercept radio, and two of us on the ship going out after V-E Day, we were commissioned like literally a week before V-E Day and we were held on to in London and kept getting another week, and then a whole batch of us were sent out to India.
RG: When you say "intercept radio" you were listening, what, to German broadcasts?
AS: Yes, German and Japanese.
RG: You spoke German?
AS: Not a word, it was simply mechanical. The test was simply your ability to hear and write a symbol corresponding to what you heard. And all one did was know certain things meant dash and certain things... you just wrote fast. I in fact spent most of that time... I was held on to by the training camp in the Isle of Man for longer than I should have been. And I ran ABCAs and war newspapers and did some writing. There was a group of writers, I got in with Jack Lindsay, a well-known novelist, who was stationed all over the island. We met as a group, and it took quite an effort to lever myself out of the Isle of Man so I could go and have a chance to see the war, which didn't happen until 1944.
RG: That was when you went to India, was it?
AS: No, in '44 I finally went off to WOSBy, and we were in fact... all of us going to Catterick in that period, officer training camp, were sent down to Arundel - Washington, near Arundel - as a defence troop to protect all the airfields against any German paratroops that landed. We had a very fierce two or three months' training. And we were quite a fit, strong, tough little group. In fact, no German paratroops landed, so we spent that period just lazing in the sun watching the bombers fly over. I then went up to Catterick and did my training and went out in June or whatever it was in 1945, to India, to prepare for the various invasions of Singapore at that stage. On the boat out I ran... this will all become relevant when I say this thing about writing, I ran war newspapers, about five editions of the paper on the ship. It was the time of the general election, and the captain couldn't quite understand the left-wing bias of the various newspapers that we were publishing. But when we arrived, there were two of us who were trained in intercept radio, and of course actually being a pair we were posted as a pair, and I finished up in an Indian Army signals camp teaching recruits and coaching them how to wear boots. And that's why I stayed until one day I got a… the war was over, and although I was the youngest in the mess I was the first to leave because I was given a Class B release.
RG: Why was that?
AS: Because anyone doing a degree whose degree had been interrupted was given what was called a Class B release to go back to university. And I was given the option of going on, staying on for another year, going possibly to Japan, or going back to UK, and I opted to go back to UK. And, you know, I had six, eight months in India, and it was a quite exciting period, it was a period of potential partition, and again I was running upwards of 5,000 men from villages.
RG: You were running film shows for them?
AS: No, discussions. And I was actually released on January 1st, 1946, went back to college - LSE was by that time back in London - and it was amazing to see the kind of strange dichotomy between those of us who came back, all in their twenties and the youngsters coming up from college, and from being a college of 400 where everybody knew everybody it was now a few thousand. And I then spent the next year both... I was given a grant to go on to become a barrister at law, so it meant that I actually had the wherewithal, I had about five pounds a week to spend an awful lot of time doing student politics as well as... I didn't know whether I wanted to become a writer or a barrister, I didn't know which I was good at. All I knew was I had a grant to go on being... training as a barrister. And the grant, which wasn't much, used to keep me alive. And I lived in Soho, very close to the film industry of that period, we found a small room. And it's interesting to think that back at that time they were still sending out men with long poles to turn off the gaslights in Soho.
RG: Going back to the war years, you talked about editing newspapers and things like that. Were your political thoughts still running, or were they rather dormant?
AS: Oh no, they were really very strong. I was very... I mean, LSE was a very political college anyway, and I was part of the left-wing group of very politically involved... I became President of the Union, which was not a great honour at that point because there was only a few people, only a few hundred of us anyway, it was more or less who wanted the job and who was prepared to spend the time. It was a very active political existence with the student labour federation, ULF as it was then. And...
RG: Were you campaigning for the Second Front, and all this sort of stuff?
AS: Yup. It started off by campaigning against the war, it was People's Convention time of 1940, and then Second Front, turning into a People's War... People's Peace turning into a People's War. But the whole... that was the general mood, the general student mood. People wanted at that stage to get on with the war. A lovely book was written called Students In Action where we were trying to find all kinds of ways of helping the war effort. And ironically, one of my standout moments was that before I was called up in November... November 17th became a Students' Day, International Students' Day, because November 17th was when the Germans massacred a number of students in Lidice, in Czechoslovakia. And on November 17th 1942 there was a big rally in Albert Hall, student rally of some kind, connected with remembering... I don't know exactly what it was about. At that time...
RG: This was what, 1942?
AS: 1942. There was a Russian man who was a sniper who had become a hero of the Russian Revolution because he'd sniped and killed so many Germans. And I was selected - I was about to go into the Army - as the English student to read the translation of the... you know, Russian was on one side of the stage at the Albert Hall, and I was on the microphone at the other side, reading the translation. The nicest compliment I was ever paid was that someone said it was rather like Omar Khayyam, the translation is better than the original. A couple of days later I joined up. During this period, the postwar period I spent a lot of time in student politics, I became a vice-president of the NUS, very involved with getting student grants, and we formulated at that stage what we called the four-point policy, which was open... places available for everybody for university education, no fees, full grant, and I can't remember what the fourth one was, but it became a four-point programme. And we managed to get the government to change their attitude - although it was a Labour government - about paying grants and making sure they were paid on time. It was quite a successful campaign at that period because when in the morning, a guy called Hardiman, connected with the Department of Education stood up and said no way could they accept the scheme that we had devised for paying students on time, and there were something like two thousand ex-service students standing outside the House of Parliament and there was Hardiman on his feet saying "We have worked out a system, which is a very good system" - which happened, of course, to be ours. Which meant that the colleges paid the grants and then they got reimbursed by the government. It became a much easier, mechanical process.
Can I just go back a minute before I forget to raise this point - when you went off to university, did your parents manage to keep up with you? In the sense that they came from humble origins, you'd climbed out of your class, if you like, in a way. They were presumably proud of you, but did they understand what was going on, and what your political ambitions were?
AS: Oh no, not entirely, my mother never really understood, and asked me what is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister. And you could have that argument fifteen times, or that discussion fifteen times and it would never register. But I think we were fairly typical of most Jewish families of that period in that the sons were always one step further on in terms of... you know, it was the period when you became accountants and doctors.
RG: And you needed to run his business, presumably?
Oh yes, and I continued to stay in the market. But I effectively left home in 1942... 1940, because my parents moved down to High Wycombe, where they ran a stall in the market there. The shops were still open, I'm not quite sure what happened exactly, but they were actually living in High Wycombe, and when I came back I used to go and stay with them, during the college holidays. But when I went off to LSE and Cambridge I was effectively leaving home and never really went back. So even when I came back from the war, yes I came back to Upton Park when I first came back, but within a very short time of moving... going back to college, I was already living in a two-room flat in Soho. Two rooms, that was me and somebody, we had a room each, a basin on the landing and a loo downstairs in the yard, but nevertheless it was ours: it was part of our student world.
RG: Anyhow, if we can get back onto chronological order, your NUS days led to where, you went into chambers, did you?
AS: It actually led into film, because I was... in '46... is this too much detail for you?
RG: No, no, this is very valuable.
AS: ...in '46 I was part of the group, the delegation for the British NUS, National Union of Students, going to Prague where they were founding the International Union of Students. And we went via Paris and one guy with whom I was living at the period, Duncan Wood, we were sharing a flat together, he and I hitch-hiked through Europe and living on peanuts. It was amazing, I actually had something like twenty pounds and 400 cigarettes, and that eventually paid for the trip which lasted nearly four months, going through Europe and doing... you could change... provided you changed currencies in the right direction, you were forever enlarging your fund. And we went to a... I don't know, some kind of Arts Council jamboree in Salzburg, which cost us a couple of... paid for us for a couple of weeks, and then somebody lent me some Austrian schillings and I went to see his father in Vienna, and so that Duncan and I were staying, in fact, in Sacker's Hotel, which is part of the Third Man story, and spending like tuppence on dinner with wine and listening to music. But going out to visit like the father of this friend, who was using his entire meat ration for a month to provide us with a supper of offal. And I'll never forget him... he used to make cigarettes... he'd been in a concentration camp himself, and he'd smoke a cigarette, pinch it out about a third of the way down, and put it in a box, and so he was forever rolling new cigarettes out of the bits, but there was an unending supply of ends, of course. Equally, we had... I walked into a café, Duncan and I sat at a table, put the twenty packets of Players on the table and in moments a waiter came along and made us an offer on behalf of somebody sitting over there, and that repaid the money we owed, and we then from the Arts Council got onto a convoy going up to Prague and saw the black market in operation where petrol was siphoned off all the way as we moved up, without the officer in charge of the convoy having any idea what was happening at the back. And then I went to the council meeting, and from there I went on with the delegation to Hungary, where I met Rakosy, and down to Yugoslavia where I met Tito and then into Bulgaria where I met Dimitrov. When I say "I met", a small group of 10-15 of us were doing all the handshaking and meeting people. It was actually wonderful. It's relevant in a sense that when I went back I was invited to do a book on this called History Goes on Holiday to describe the journey we made, and I've still got the manuscript. It was a very long, slow process of typing it on bits of paper with carbons, and God knows how you ever edited at that period. And it got as far as being about to be published, on the back of a book by Konni Zilliacus, a quite well-known MP, and unfortunately Zilliacus... no, not Zilliacus, the company went bankrupt and it never got published. This came up through contacts through Jack Lindsay, who I'd maintained contact with, and through Jack I'd met other people who are now writing for magazines like Our Time and so on. So I was in touch with writers around at that period, again through the student organisation I was in touch with writers. It was something I wanted to do. During the army period I'd written a pantomime which we'd performed, I'd written two plays. So I saw myself, you know, as a real choice to make between writing and becoming a barrister.
RG: This journey you went on, when you met these political leaders, presumably the organisation you were with had these strong political affiliations, and opened these doors…?
AS: Yes, it had strong political affiliations, but…
RG: Were you a party member at that time?
AS: Yeah. I was, but only on the edge - I was actually in the process of almost leaving, because it was a very… if you like, I was the, you know, the Communist Democratic Party. We'd come into the party as part of the flow of the Second World War, and we were leaving it as part of the process of peace, and that, you know, we were kind of... we always… those of us who regarded ourselves as the kind of humanist bridge. But of course the NUS was not a political organisation, the NUS was extremely broad based. And I was very careful at that stage that I was representing the NUS and not the Communist Party. And it became very important to maintain, in my own mind, that distinction, in order... because the NUS, the International Union itself, although it was under pressure from one side by Stalin on the left, it was equally under pressure by the Vatican on the right. And you had to watch what you were doing very carefully. But the intention of students at that period was to say: we want peace, and we want a world organisation with everybody in it. And that continued as a… you know, there were efforts on both sides to pull the organisation. Equally, those of us actually working were making tremendous efforts to make sure it remained… retained its broad base. But through that period where I staffed towards the student… I qualified in '47, got my degree in '47 and went to the Bar shortly afterwards, and did my Bar in '48, all this time reading a very... keeping… living on a very small… I think it was six pounds by then, a week, grant. We were only paying six shillings a week rent.
RG: Grant from where, at this time?
AS: Government. Because I was qualified to go on to become a barrister. They were paying for my professional qualification. But I was paying like six shillings a week rent and eating for like a shilling. And it was that period that the NUS was starting its travel organisation, its hostels, getting food into canteens and into colleges. It was a very active organisation. And I maintained my contacts with the IUS throughout, and then I decided - this is where we come to my grown-up career, as it were - that I was going to do the trip again, but I was going to do it as a film. And what I planned to do was to do the… Negley Farson had done a trip down the rivers of Europe from the Channel, through the Seine, the Rhine, the Danube, down to the Black Sea, then back via the Mediterranean. Well, we decided that we'd do this by boat. We'd actually repeat this journey. None of us knew anything about film, but through various contacts I'd been in touch with the Federation of Documentary Film Units, and I now knew people who were making films, and it struck me as being a much better way than writing books. And after all, if you can write a long book and spend a year writing a book called History Goes On Holiday, and see it just remain paper, whereas film was actually… it seemed to me much more glamorous. So we found people who put gratuities into buying… first of all a boat, which was a converted lifeboat, which we took across the Pennines and got as far as the Humber, and then we found a cameraman who was an architectural student… his brother was an architectural student who called himself a director-cameraman, documentary, and he was going to make the movie. And all I was going to do was use my contacts to find the story. And somebody called Owen Ambrose came up with the idea… there was a world youth festival in Prague going on at that time, '47, so we were going to join up… no, that was when we were still going to do the journey by boat. I've jumped a step, which was when we sank the boat in the mouth of the Humber, and got rescued, fortunately, on Spurn Point, and, you know, being still very young, we weren't put off by this, it just meant we hadn't got a boat. What were we going to do? We were going to make a film, no matter what, so we then decided that we'd go by train to join up with the various organisations which were going to be in Prague in '47 for the youth festival, and I was after all going to the IUS as another part of the NUS delegation. And from there we would go and make a movie somewhere. We intended to make it… we actually intended to film the festival, but when we arrived, apart from doing what had to be done, we looked around and thought, my God, there are so many cameras including Chinese doing these hand-held, cranked cameras, I mean, we looked slightly silly. So I remember Owen Ambrose came up with the idea that… he saw this young Bulgarian boy who was a dancer, and said why don't you go down to Bulgaria, because no-one else was going to get behind the Iron Curtain. So we then changed our direction and decided after the congress and all the things going on, we would in fact go and film this young boy in his village in Bulgaria. It seemed like a good idea, this ten-year-old dancer. So that became our intention. And because through the various contacts we got visas as a group, and it didn't quite work because by the time we got down to the Bulgarian frontier, the Yugoslav-Bulgarian frontier, we were then arrested for trying to get into Bulgaria illegally. Then we spent like four days on the platform being fed by the Bulgarians but under close observation. We then got in to Sofia, where the Bulgarian contacts I'd made through the students were now going to help us get permissions to film. But Bulgaria had nothing, there were no cars, there was no food. And I'd had burned into my mind a film I had seen, a documentary I'd seen called Forgotten Village by Steinbeck, and after we did a trip round the country, my very close friend at that point was John Morris, who was President of University College Union - we were all students, except for the director-cameraman. We went round the various villages and we decided that the only way to approach this without becoming stupidly…
RG: And you were inside Bulgaria?
AS: We were allowed into Bulgaria. They took us around on trips to let us see what it was. We were still basically going to go after this boy, was the pretext. It seemed to us that it was rather pointless going to film a boy, because there's no story behind it. But on the other hand we found one village called Plovdiv, which was in the Balkan mountains, which was a remarkable village because it wasn't terribly Communist, it wasn't not Communist, it was now learning how to have two harvests a year through help from the Communists coming in from the town. There were town brigades coming out to help. It had had a number of villagers involved in the partisan fighting the German occupation, and the hillside was dotted with crosses, where they'd been shot. It also had a Turkish population, who were the outsiders, so it had that kind of racial tensions going on. And it struck us as being a marvellous place to film, called Balkan Village. And we then all moved camp, with an interpreter, up to the village where we lived in the school, and we were fed once a day on peppers and eggs and slatko, which is a kind of sweet wine, while we wrote a story. Now I must tell you at this point that I had never, ever seen a camera. I didn't know where the lenses were. I had only ever been to the pictures like everybody else, it was one's great diet.
RG: Your director-cameraman was in charge of it?
AS: My director-cameraman was supposed to be in charge of it. I was going to write the story. So I wrote the script of Bulgarian Village, about… which took us from looking at the village as it was, back into the past, then came back for a big celebration, when the local town brigade came out to the village, we were going to have a big celebration. And we were going to tell the story of the village and the changes. And Edward Thompson's brother had written a book about Bulgaria, or at least the Balkans at that point, and I'll always remember the last line…
RG: E.P. Thompson?
AS: Yes. His brother, who was killed. And I still remember the last line of the book, which was "The people are changing, and the people are changing the face of the land". And that became the story of the documentary.
RG: I'm interested at this point, because you knew nothing about cinema at that point…
AS: Nothing at all. All I'd known is that I'd written a book the year before, and I was pissed off because I'd spent all thislength of time writing a book… I'd met a number of people who were in writers at that period, who were in publishing, because we'd taken over the flat from somebody who was in publishing. You know, it's a very small world, that period. The left-wing intelligentsia was quite small, I mean, tight, as a group. I remember going round to pubs in Charlotte Street meeting… the Welsh poet, what's his name? Dylan Thomas, and his wife, you know, drunk as… pissed as newts. But you met them. Because you were moving… it was a circle you moved around, and it was a wonderful, exciting time. And above all, this is the thing which I don't know… I'm not sure of your age, whether you were in the war, but the great thing about the peace, VE Day, is that you suddenly realised you were going to be alive next week. It was this kind of feeling of awareness, and you came out of this… you know, England at that period was a very good place to be living because everyone was together. We had a common purpose. No-one was slacking, even the black market was well run. And all that energy was transmuted into the peacetime efforts. Now in Europe, equally, you had… we found particularly in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and other places, the students were part of the recreation of the world. They were rebuilding their country. You know, I worked for a week on building a youth railway up in the Balkan mountains on behalf of Tito. You know, students were leading a large part of the rebuilding of Europe.
RG: You're talking about eastern Europe now, are you?
RG: I mean, it didn't happen in Britain.
AS: It didn't happen in Britain. No, it didn't happen in Britain, because I came back amongst others, and through the NUS we tried to make it happen. And I remember… I can't tell you which year it was, but it was the year when there was a shortage of coal.
AS: '47. And we organised, through the NUS, students in the coal mining areas to load coal onto trains so that students in the other areas could offload them and deliver them to people. It was the trade unions and Harry Pollitt who put a stop to us doing it. The students were prepared to do it. But Harry Pollitt and the other trade unionists of the period were saying "Comrades, you're stopping us from getting our work, you're creating unemployment, you shouldn't be doing this, you should be learning and reading your books!"
RG: But they weren't doing it!
AS: They weren't doing it. No, the class war was starting, and so where class struggle produced work in eastern Europe where the students were leading, here we were bloody nuisances. I remember another scheme that came forward in that period, when… to go out and start clearing bomb sites to build playgrounds. It wasn't the Tories who stopped us, it was the left-wing trades councils. They didn't want to see our cheap labour coming in, because that was work for the next twenty years, clearing bomb sites. In fact they all became car parks. But the students were learning but stopped. The atmosphere was totally different. And this was what was fairly exciting for us.
RG: Going back now to your village, you said you'd written a book, but there's quite a big jump from writing a book to writing a film script.
AS: Well, I just told a story. It was down to John Morris on the one side who had some notion about cameras and lenses and Charles Heath, who was the director-cameraman, was going to film it. I was the organiser…
RG: So you put it through his film mind? You didn't write it as a shooting script?
AS: I didn't write a shooting script, what I wrote was a film story kind of treatment. With sequences. It was all… we did our best to realise that you had to design what you had to shoot on a particular day. And we had somebody from the Bulgarian Trade in France who was with us, we had a guy who later on became the press attaché here in London, who joined us as a kind of political commissar making sure we got the help we wanted but weren't too free. And then Charles, director-cameraman, said "I can't do this, I can't handle people - you're going to direct this". And I said "What do you mean, direct it?" "You tell them what to do in front of the camera
and we'll work out what lenses we're going to use by looking though the lens, you know, camera.". And I was thrown in the deep end. And I did it.
RG: I like that expression, "telling people what to do in front of the camera".
RG: There's an essence there.
AS: Well it also affected my life enormously because I find that as I write and as I direct that if I've seen it I can do it. I'm not very good at making it up out of fantasy, but I'm very good at creating a reality. So that later on when I did things like Sunday by the Sea and Bow Bells the rule for me was never see the camera. There should be no edge to the frame. What you should be... there should be a centre to the frame which was life, energetic, looking back at you, but no sense of art, artifice - it was a reality. And what I could do, and I still do basically, is I recreate what I've seen where it looks real, it can smell, you can touch it. With The Optimists of Nine Elms the thing that the camera crew and I had as our guideline all the time was it was going to be a romantic shit. You could touch the nastiness of the locations, the poverty, but it would look good. It would be evocative of a mood. The mood that we were... my word was poetic shit or romantic shit, but in the same way that we used the Lowry skyline which was one-third up and two-thirds sky, but essentially it was a real feel. And most of the work I've worked on since, two stories, projects I'm working on at the moment, I find that you get more reality, more strength... reality in the artistic sense, more strength in the story, by using real facts as your starting point and then getting as much fiction as you need to do later on. But better to go and say to somebody "what did you do when you were about to drown?" than try and imagine what being drowning would be like, because the imagination would come in as the after-effect. Now this is what happened in Bulgarian Village. To foreshorten the story, we got arrested on the way back. We had tremendous problems getting back, we were arrested at the Bulgarian frontier, the Yugoslav frontier, the Trieste frontier, but we came back with the only film footage that anybody had filmed behind the Iron Curtain except Joris Ivens, whom I'd met during that period - and nobody over here wanted it.
RG: Although you were arrested, you didn't have to give up your...?
AS: No, no, we were very defiant - after all, we were still very young and aggressive, so that when on the Yugoslav frontier people came and shoved rifles in our bellies and said they were going to take us off to Lubianka (sic), the answer was "sod off, we're British, we're standing here, we're waiting for the train". And if they said what took you so long coming across Yugoslavia because you were late, the answer is: your trains. Your train broke down. We didn't get off the train. It was just "sod you!". And I can go into the details because it was quite funny, we've been put on trains crossing frontiers at night because no-one wanted to admit we were there. And we were arrested in Trieste because where did we come from? We had gone walking across the dark night between frontiers in no man's land, not quite sure whether or not anyone was going to shoot us. And then when we arrived in Trieste the railway workers were delighted to see us because we'd escaped from Yugoslavia, but the British were worried about us because where the hell had we come from? It was a very funny period but very exciting nevertheless. And when we got back to London, of course I was suddenly thrown into the film world, and that's when I first met Donald, because I was looking for someone to help me make this film.
RG: So you'd shot it on 16mm?
RG: Oh, 35? You had plenty of stock?
AS: No, no - stock was at a premium. But we did get some help from the Bulgarians, and, you know, you shot once, you didn't do lots of takes. It didn't occur to me, I didn't know about takes in any case.
RG: And sound?
AS: No sound - it was silent.
RG: What did you have, a Newman?
AS: Yes, a Newman Sinclair.
(end of tape 1)
(start of tape 2)
AS: Well, that's real nostalgia for me!
RG: So you got back and you met Donald?
AS: We got back, and… when was this, '47, and we got it… Donald Alexander came into it because somebody had to pay for processing, and I went to see Data, and at that period it was Jack Chambers there and somebody… Ralph… somebody else, and Donald was there.
RG: Rolf Hermelin?
AS: Rolf Hermelin. He was in charge of all the money, though, in that period. And Data agreed to put up - because they were a cooperative unit - agreed to put up the money for the development at Humphreys. And this was my first taste of… I had no idea of such things. And I showed the print to an ex-LSE guy, who was… I forget the guy who ran the Academy, we screened it there.
RG: The Academy cinema?
AS: Yes. Hoellering
RG: George Hoellering.
AS: George Hoellering. And it looked, you know, I must say , it did look pretty impressive to me, but no-one could see a commercial future for the film. I showed it to Phil Hyams who was then running Eros Films because I knew his son. And Phil looked at the material and said "you want £200 to finish the film? I'll tell you what, I'll give you £200 not to finish it. Who's going to want to watch women washing themselves in rivers?" He took me out to lunch and at that period it was quite impressive, he took me to lunch at Kettner's to tell me all this, and he himself, because he had an ulcer, was eating bread and water for his lunch. And then we got an offer - but, remember, this time I was still studying officially and living on a couple of quid a week - then we got an offer, I'm not sure how it came, from March of Time, because we had the only footage from behind the Iron Curtain, and it was available. But it meant giving them absolute control of the material. They didn't want to know about doing the documentary which I'd written. And I decided, and we all decided, that we weren't going to do this. We would be going back on all of the help we'd had up to this point if we just handed over this material to somebody who could use it in a dozen different ways. So I was then in touch with Peter Brinson through student activity who was working at Film Centre, and through Peter - because I was still basically a lawyer, but I was by now beginning to take more part in getting to know about film through film people. And somebody who'd been a student organiser connected with the running of students was also working for the Federation of Documentary Film Units, Sinclair Road was around… There are a lot of names from that period who suddenly became people I knew, although I was not in their business. And Peter Brinson, for example, was working with Sinclair at Film Centre. And through them, through Peter I got an offer to go off to Rome to finish it in Rome, by an organisation… I can't remember what it was called, I know the actual cutting rooms was in a place called Piazza della Sedera. They sent me a letter, showing me what money I would need to finish the film in Rome, to edit it. And I took it to Ralph Bond, and I showed him the envelope, which everything was written down on, and Ralph did a quick calculation and said he couldn't tell me whether the money was enough, he could only tell me that they had covered all the headings.
RG: How was Ralph Bond involved, then?
AS: He was working at ACT, and he was a contact, and I was introduced to Ralph, and he was the only person I knew that could actually give me that kind of answer. And Ralph gave me those figures, and by this time I was married to an architect who was earning the wonderful sum of ten pounds a week for the GLC as an architect, and so now we had, like… I was beginning to lose my grant, but we had £10-12 a week. And I had to find £200 to transmit via the Bulgarian delegation to somebody in Rome, because there was after all kinds of currency controls in operation. And if that £200 landed in Rome, then they would guarantee to finish the film. So I then went down in the summer of '48-49, summer of '49, after I'd just qualified at the Bar and I was in chambers as a pupil, which I'd become. I went down in the summer break to Rome with practically no money in my pocket, to finish… I thought my £200 would also pay for my keep for the few weeks I thought I was going to be there to finish the film. What I hadn't allowed for, I'd been offered a room in a young assistant director's flat, Fabio d'Agostini, I was going to stay there. I was having one meal a day with the Bulgarian press attaché, and walking around with this group but not touching the film because the film was impounded, because we couldn't get the permission to import it into Italy. And I then spent the next two months as a guest of all kinds of wonderful people trying to get the film out of customs, trying to find the various ways of getting this permit, using all kinds of contacts from the highest to the lowest. And suddenly I discovered the right way to do it, which was you bribed the fonctionnaire de corridor, a little old man who stood around, and you gave him a couple of quid, and he stood around beside the guy who had a pile on his desk, and and took your form and put it on the top of the in-tray. He waited while the guy signed it, and put it on top of the out-tray, then he took it and introduced you to another fonctionnaire de corridor, and in one half a day, for about two pounds, I got my permission to import the film. But I'd been going through the most complicated procedures and contacts trying to get it officially - but with this system: fantastic, half a day. We then got the film out…
RG: And this was still in rush print form, was it?
AS: It was still in rush print. And the negative was still [unclear]. And they looked at it, the Italians looked at it for the first time. I must tell you that during this period, I had now got the smell of film in my nose, because working in the next office was Fellini, as a writer. He had just done Bitter Rice. Bicycle Thieves I saw there. I mean, it was incredible: you were around people who were making films the way I understood film, going out and shooting in the streets. I went with them on various shoots, just as a kind of labourer to watch what they did, and… Lizzani was there, first assistant director. Fabio d'Agostini was actually working at Cinecitta on a big Hungarian movie, with a Hungarian director. So I was not a student of law, I wasn't a barrister, I was a filmmaker in Rome.
RG: And you met De Sica?
AS: De Sica - well, he was already established, but I'd seen Bicycle Thieves, the guy who made Bitter Rice, he was fairly young, Lattuada…
AS: No, I didn't meet Rossellini. But this was the atmosphere - it was people's cinema. And when we got the film out of Customs eventually, we had a screening of rushes, and the great phrase that was used - because French was the lingua franca of the period - was it was a "petit bijou", and they were dying to work on it. And they found a way of finishing it, which was to persuade the conferatera, which was the peasants' organisation, who were going to put up a little money to enable them to work on it. Now by this time my £200 had long gone in, you know, dinners and what have you, my wife had come over for a fortnight to stay on holiday, and we then edited the film, and I saw editing for the first time.
RG: You cut it, did you?
AS: I cut it with… Enzo somebody, I know his name was Enzo. And there was Sergio Grieco, who was the assistant producer. The names eventually will come back. But we talked about how we were going to do it, but we actually cut it more or less as it was shot. And I… editing at that period was done with paperclips - the editor was a woman in an apron who sat at her machine and did that kind of action with the length of film with the horse on it, and then she cut it, snipped it, took out the clips and put it into the roll, and then somebody went off and foot-joined it and came back and then you started to cut. It was assembled by this lady. And we worked on it… what was lovely for me was that one said it was a good-looking movie, it was a petit bijou. And that's the movie on which they were working, and the peasants' organisation wanted it. But it was round about… I'd been there since something like June or July and it was getting towards October, I felt I had to go home at some point. They wanted me to stay and become a director. They were now saying that I had a director's eye, and I had no idea what a director's eye was. All I knew was basically I was an organiser. I'd produced a work, but I regarded myself as somebody who'd organised it more than had an eye. Very flattered, but I then spun a coin, had to decide whether I would stay in Italy and be trained as a director having no idea how I'd earn a living, or go back to my wife and family, my own family, in London, as a barrister who dabbled in film on the sideline. And whether I made a mistake or not, I came back. It wasn't the days when you could pick up the phone and do long conversations. I was there, had no idea how I'd go on living, it was very much a kind of hand-to-mouth, penny… you know, there was one period when I used to spend each night in a different flat, because amongst all the student Fabio's friends were students whose parents were away for the night, so I'd be sleeping in that room for the night. I even slept one night in a hotel under the stairs, in a cot under the stairs with the curtain across. It was fun, but it was no way to kind of plan one's future in one's mid… early twenties. And so I decided to come back. Then, I didn't finish the film. We cut it, and I spent time writing a commentary - which I came across the other day - to match the film. And we'd done music from records, which were mostly pinched from Russian non-copyright, but nobody cared about these things. And so I laid it… we hadn't actually recorded it, but we'd sorted the music out and written the commentary and it had been marked up. And I left it for them to do the finishing. If it was now, I'd know it was not the thing to do. I mean, Italy was classically Italy in the sense that you'd work in the morning, I'd turn up at nine, no-one else would turn up till about eleven. Then about quarter to one they'd break to lunch and say they'd be back at three, and I'd get back at three and they'd be back about five. On the other hand, you then worked till midnight. So you'd do the same amount of work, but it was in a different style. And I left them with the delivery - they had to put the soundtrack on and complete the film, and we would neg-cut it back in London. I came back to Data and this was more or less agreed. But we never saw the film for something like six years. The film was banned in Italy as being too left-wing. The Italian government thought it was a disaster - you know, it wasn't prepared to give it any kind of certificate for screening. So it was then shipped…
RG: Did Italian exhibition really determine its commercial future then, or what?
AS: Well, I mean, it just wasn't allowed to be shown by anybody. Not commercially, it wasn't even to be screened by the peasant organisation.
RG: Couldn't you get the fine cut and mix track back?
AS: There was no… I didn't know if there was a… No, I couldn't. It was then sent by… let me get this right, it was '49, with communications very long-distance and no possibility of jumping on a plane and picking it up. It then went through a diplomatic bag to Bulgaria, where it was then banned for being too right-wing. Because it wasn't… we had actually made a film which was addressed to Western audiences, we weren't about to say "long live Stalin and the Bulgarian revolution". We had chosen deliberately a village which was in the process of change, where the peasants were changing but where they hadn't already become a model village. So they didn't like it, and then we couldn't get hold of it. Andthrough Data we tried many many ways, and the film did not turn up again until the mid-50s, when I got back a 16mm print… it may have been 16mm, but I have a feeling it was 35. But we got back a 16mm print, silent, eventually. And I went to Data and to Rolf Hermelin and said it's going to cost about four hundred quid to finish the film, to edit it and to make up a new soundtrack. And Data would not… they agreed to put up money, but on condition they were paid first. No, we had to pay back… I managed to find the money, let's get it right, they wanted their money up first, because they'd paid for processing, but I said this stops me from going to anybody now to find the money to finish the film, because they will have to come behind you. If you allow me to get the money to go and finish the film, repay it and then give you the money, you'll be number two in the queue, and I think I could find the cash. But Rolf absolutely refused. And the film is still in negative form in Humphries' lab.
RG: So the negative was never cut, was it?
AS: The negative was never cut.
RG: So what did you get back in the end?
AS: What I got here is the slash dupe 16mm of the cutting copy, and I screened it about twice, reading the commentary.
RG: And the original print is…?
AS: The original negative is still at Humphries, belonging to Data Films, not to me.
RG: But I mean the print that you worked on in Rome, is that still in Rome?
AS: I've no idea.
RG: It could have ended up anywhere.
AS: It was years later that I got together with Fabio Agostini who became a maker of porno films, and I also went back to Rome in the late '70s, and I've often… you know, I believe that what has shaped my career is that being an outsider in the sense that I make European films. And they didn't fit into the slot in this country at any point. And although I tried many different ways of actually fitting into the industry, it's never quite worked out. At that period, when I came back here, I then took part in a lot of ACT activities, I also became responsible for taking ACT out onto the streets, filming things like May Day 1950, but I wasn't a film-maker, I was the organiser. We made a film called May Day 1950 on 8mm cameras that Ivor Montagu gave us that he'd been using in Spain. I filmed youth festivals. We all used Walter Lassally as the cameraman at that time, and then… but I met Walter first in 1952. I'd taken a decision that I had to move… it was an ironic situation. I was in a very good set of chambers, half were very left wing and the other half were very Tory, and I'd completed my training but I wasn't allowed to stay there as a tenant because I was Jewish.
AS: Absolutely. The head of chambers was a right-wing Tory. Not a bad man, but he would not have a Jewish tenant. Whereas I'd been there for a year because I was the pupil of a tenant. So I had to leave those chambers, there was no way I could stay.
RG: I mean, you had your existing surname?
RG: Because your father's name presumably was changed on naturalisation?
AS: I don't know, it was… my father came late, after his brothers were already here. All the other Simmondses were Simmonds with a D. My father had it without a D. God knows why.
RG: You were born Simmons, anyway?
AS: I was born Simmons.
RG: Which is not a Jewish name.
AS: No, it's a Welsh name, as far as I know. Or Simmons of Reading, I believe. I was at high table at Reading University after a night's lecture and there was a member of quite a well known family like Bonham Carter who was down the table and said "By the way, are you related to the Reading Simmons?", and I said no, I'm related to the West Ham Simmons. But…
RG: Anyhow, back to the chambers…
AS: I had to move chambers, and I couldn't decide… the only thing I was good at at that period was… I did a lot of defended and undefended divorces, and I've still got the little clips sent to me by a judge to say how much I'd helped him. But my wife didn't like the idea of my working on divorces, and I went into a set of chambers when I was supposed to do town planning. And I didn't get a day's work in six months of any kind, and I sat there writing a play. And I had to take a decision whether I was going to be financed by my wife to stay in chambers, or be financed by my wife to try and become a writer in film. And we decided to give it a year. And so I left those chambers - I kept my name on the door, became a door tenant, and in that year I joined up with… I met with Leon and tried to find sponsors for films, for documentaries. And during that time, round about '51, '52… '52 probably, I had an idea for doing a film based on music-hall songs with The Players Theatre. And I prepared a script based with Betty Lawrence who was their pianist - I don't know how I came in contact with the Players. My wife currently works there. I don't know how I came into contact with the Players but I worked with Betty and I had this idea that the music of the East End was in fact music hall, no matter what song they sang, whatever Bing Crosby sang, they still sang it in the pubs like it was old music hall. And the one day out we'd had as a kid was to go to Southend or Westcliff for us, on a Sunday. So I got the idea of saying we could do a Sunday by the sea, a picture of a day in Southend using the music hall songs as the track to no commentary. And I did a script which was based on the songs, and based also on a developing mood throughout the day. So you had two timescales, you move from kids to old people, from old people to lovers in the evening. It followed a progression, an emotional progression. And I took it to Leon and said would Max Anderson, who was our one Academy Award documentary filmmaker, like to do this? And Max took one look at the script that hadn't got a shot list and said "no bloody fear, I can't make films that don't have shot lists!". And I said "well, you can't go down to Southend and shoot with hand-held cameras with a shot list. You know what you're after, it's there in front of you. Film it." And the idea of hand-held was appalling. So Leon said to me "well, look, it's going to cost about a hundred and sixty quid, two hundred quid for stock". If I can find the hundred and sixty quid for stock, he would lend me the cameras and introduce me to a young cameraman called Walter Lassally, who agreed. And we agreed to do two weekends, two days one weekend and a three-day Bank Holiday, so five days' shooting on this script. And I went to the bank, the Midland at that point, who lent me the money to pay for the stock.
RG: On what security?
AS: Nothing. Just the fact that my wife's family had banked there and they were now dead, but nevertheless… it was that period, you know, have a go. So we did, and we filmed a mano as I'd been seeing people doing in Italy. Because after all in Italy, even when they made features, you spent a week if you had money for a week, and then you went away for another couple of weeks until you found some more money and you went back again and you put the sound on afterwards and you made the story up as you went along, and you kind of… you know, if it didn't seem like it was developing the right way, you did it another way. So that's what I tried to do, and I must say Leon gave me the camera and said go. And it was the first time I'd seen an Arriflex, and Walter and I went down and we shot it in five days. And then took three months… I was introduced to Lusia Krakowska, who'd been working for Unesco in Paris, and was an editor, and she agreed to edit it for a future fee, whatever the fee was at that period, can't remember, and we cut it. And at that stage, I was so involved in editing that we'd actually argue to a sprocket hole. We recorded the songs… can't remember where we recorded them but Joan Sterndale-Bennett and Johnny Hewer, who was the Findus captain, sang it and Betty played it, and we cut to the track. But we'd argue, as I say, over a sprocket hole, as to laying it against it, and still looking at rest tracks, soundtracks, marking up. And we worked day and night, and Crown was underneath the cutting room, we used to take it downstairs and have a look at it on the big screen occasionally for free because old Mr Frost was kind to us, and it was full of youthful enthusiasm. And we finished the film, paid for it, and I went off with Walter Lassally to film a youth festival in Bucharest. And when I came back, my wife was there to meet me, my son was… no, my son wasn't born, so it's '51, clearly. She was waiting to meet me and tell me we'd won a Grand Prix at Venice. And I didn't even know it had gone to Venice.
RG: What, Leon had put it in?
AS: Leon had put it in. And the film got the Grand Prix for the best short film. So the bank were very pleased about that and put up some more money, based on a thing to do Bow Bells. And I was introduced to a guy through family who was publicity director at Republic Pictures in Soho, and they screened the film, and he loved it, and it was then put out as a short. And it's played ever since, I must tell you, it's still playing.
RG: And Bow Bells, what, had a similar approach?
AS: Yes. Bow Bells was then to do the same thing in London. And by this time I was now obviously beginning to become a filmmaker, but believe it or not, totally unemployable, because I had no technical training of any kind and didn't know where to fit in to the unit. Yeah, I could fit in to one square with Leon because Leon was that kind of producer. But to people like Donald Alexander I was a total outsider because I wasn't the home-bred type director. I remember going out with Donald to shoot some film for a Polish company, he wanted some shots of a coal mining town in the north of England, and Donald's argument was that I should become a producer, that's what I was good at. I knew how to organise. Leave the directing to other people. And I organised Donald to go up north, with Donald lying on a mac aiming at the skyline, a factory skyline with smoke coming out of a chimney. Now I went out and I kept organising people for the foreground streets, Lowry type stuff, and Donald wouldn't shoot, and I kept having to go back and get more people. I was doing my nut, because I could only get so many people to fill the screen. But Donald was waiting for a plume of smoke he'd seen in the distance, and he wasn't going to film until he'd got his plume of smoke. But I somehow didn't quite fit in to that world. Ken Gay, incidentally, I should have mentioned, Ken Gay was evacuated with me in Brentworth.
AS: We lived in the same house.
RG: Is he an LSE contemporary, then?
AS: He also went to LSE, and to the same school. We went from West Ham, to LSE and Cambridge together.
RG: How interesting.
AS: And he went on to the Coal Board. But there was a discipline about that kind of filmmaking which I have never really settled into, and although I then became a producer with Leon of B pictures and later on features, I was never accepted by anybody in the industry at that point as a director, any more than Karel Reisz was or Lindsay. Because you were outsiders. You didn't... you were, you know, the alternative filmmaker. And I wasn't accepted by Free Cinema because I was too left-wing. They were very… it was a fairly gay atmosphere, and also rather esoteric, of the kind of films they approved of. Certainly...
RG: But Sunday By The Sea and Momma Don't Allow are very similar.
AS: Yes, but not... Momma Don't Allow was very Karel, and I'd say that Karel and I were very similar, but if you take... one of the interesting things to do is take Sunday By The Sea and O Dreamland, which Lindsay made. They're two different worlds, I mean, they're different planets. Same cameraman. But there was I talking about the ability of people who were poor and... well, I won't say illiterate but not over-cultured anyway, still able to have a marvellous, enjoyable, life-satisfying time. And there was Lindsay going to Dreamland full of the funfair saying how bloody miserable, how inadequate people were and how incapable they were of appreciating time. And these were two shorts shot by the same cameraman.
RG: Because I always thought Lindsay's weakness was that he never identified properly with his subjects.
AS: Lindsay was basically a very bitter man, and very dissatisfied, and very competitive. So that although Sunday By The Sea and Bow Bells had their moment, they were what somebody in one of the papers at Films & Filming of that period wrote that I was the John the Baptist of Free Cinema. I'm never quite sure, being Jewish, quite where John the Baptist was, but he was pre-Jesus. And Lindsay was able at that period to create a world where we all went to see Every Day Except Christmas at the National Film Theatre, and people going in who hadn't seen it were already talking about it as a masterpiece. Now there is a groundswell which you get in commercial cinema who knows about whether a film's going to be good or bad long before anyone's seen it. And this was true - Lindsay was able to create that atmosphere about his own movies. Karel went out and he did Saturday Night & Sunday Morning as his first commercial film. I as a director went out and did Your Money or Your Wife, which was shot in about ten days, as my first commercial film. And both of us, for opposite reasons, said we'd never make another commercial film ever. But Karel was part of the swing of that period, and it wasn't until Four in the Morning, which was mid-60s, that I was able to find my feet as an independent filmmaker. But that again was built out of deciding to make a short on the riverusing money we'd made in doing commercials. Larry Pizer and I went out intending to shoot on the river.
RG: You went out with whom?
AS: Larry Pizer. And when we arrived on the very first... I'd done a deal with Tough Brothers to borrow a tug at dawn. I used to go on one of their tugs at dawn, which was doing its normal work, and the river was full of fog. And I'd read somewhere that on Potemkin Eisenstein had gone down to shoot during the fog and decided that it made for good movies. So I said to Larry, let's go and shoot a bit of Potemkin. So we went out and we shot, and when we came back we discovered that we'd shot thirty minutes of film of which 27 were usable. On fog. And so this idea of doing people on the river, which was our original plan, was daft because by this time we were adept enough that every foot of film we brought back was usable. So it seemed that I had to do something different, so I was going to do a film with a story. And this became, because of ACT regulations in the end, we decided to make three short films, under short-film rules. And so one story was the one we started with, about a dead body pulled out of the river, and then we had two films, based on two different women, as to which one was the dead body. But again, it was following one's intuition. I didn't like writing scripts, although I'd done it - it wasn't the way I wanted to make movies. So also to attract actors to work for nothing, one had to find something more exciting. So we tried to pull it out of improvisation, and that became another whole long story about improvisation. And we learned from doing one, the first episode with Ann Lynn and Brian Phelan, that the way to do it wasn't to improvise on the set.
AS: Wasn't. Because all you're doing is getting actors to settle themselves into stylised performances. The way to do it was to improvise for weeks beforehand and then build the script. I would build the script out of what they'd done. And that became... the irony was that when people saw the film, they decided that the one that was most improvised was the second, with (Dench? - CHECK), which was the one that was most tightly written, and the one that was actually tightly written they thought was the one which was built up entirely on the set. I had spent a long time writing a book called... I'd been asked to do a feature film like Sunday By The Sea and Bow Bells. And I'd found a story which I wrote for Anglo-Scottish about kids in Hyde Park, about an old busker. I've still got it somewhere. And they didn't want to do it. And then an American producer who was living in London tried to encourage me to have a go at it. I tried to write a feature shot in Corsica, with an American writer, a Canadian writer called Ted Allen, and I started to talk to Ted about this idea I'd had on Hyde Park, and in talking out came this idea of the story about making it a girl and an old busker. And Ted had various tries to write the story, and at no time did it work. We were down in the country, a house I had in Hayning (CHECK) Island, and Ted said "You fucking do it!" So I must say, I got up that morning and I started to write. And I was writing on my typewriter and I wrote the story along the lines that Ted and I had discussed, and Ted was at the next typewriter taking my pages and just polishing them. And that became a complete treatment of The Optimists of Nine Elms. Which was then... we then tried to set up, and I got Buster Keaton to agree to play it, and no-one... for two years, I wouldn't leave Buster Keaton for two years and no-one would finance Keaton because he'd already come over here once and had just gone onto a drunk and cost Eros a lot of money. Eros had agreed to make the film, I found the contract, actually, where they'd agreed to finance the film, that was for Hyams (CHECK) again, for whom we'd made Time Without Pity, providing I got an actor they agreed, and it was a young actor called Peter Sellers out of the Goon Show. And I'd had a... I didn't like Peter as an actor. I liked him as a comic, but not as an actor. And then I got... I almost sold an option to Robert Aldrich, who wanted to make it with Red Buttons. And then I was introduced to Charles Laughton, who then went up and Columbia were interested, but he died. At which point I remember meeting with a friend of mine going right back to Soho days, early Soho days when I was still a student, who was now in publishing at Heinemann. He'd gone through a marriage blip, and we were sitting in the Gaggia having coffee, and I was trying to explain how terrible the film business was compared to publishing. I said: here have I got this lovely story, and I've been going at it for nearly three years, and I've given it up. And I said if it was a book it would just get published. So he said, let him read it, and I gave it to him, and he gave it to his readers - he had nothing to do with publishing, he was all to do with international foreign sales, but he passed it on, and I got an offer from Heinemann to publish it as a book. And I then said that's it - so after Four in the Morning, when people said let's do The Optimists I said no way. I've had The Optimists - it's gone. And it wasn't until four or five years after Four in the Morning when I'd gone through various problems with the industry that I finally settled down to make it, and Dmitri paid me and Tudor Gates to do a screenplay in about 68, and we went on with it for a long period. But my career has basically been never quite fitting in to a niche.
RG: Going back to complete the story on Four in the Morning, I mean, who backed it originally?
AS: Four in the Morning was written... I wrote the three stories, and we had a... Rex Berry was a publicist whom I'd met through commercials, who was very keen to get me going, let's go and make a movie type thing. And Larry Pizer was keen to go and do his thing. And I had got good relations with the NFFC, because I had done three shorts for them, they'd got their money back, we'd done Time Without Pity as a producer and they'd got their money back. So I took them this project and they agreed to put up pound for pound. If we put up a pound, either in cash or in labour or in some other way, they would put up a pound. In cash. That was the deal. And on that basis we in fact budgeted to make the film for about... I think we actually spent in the end about £26,000. The form C, the official figure was £46, £46,000. I gave the film when we'd finished it to Roy Baird to cost - the script, to cost - and he said conventionally the film would have been made at £150,000, but we actually made it for 25. And I personally put up about £11,000 out of monies I'd made doing commercials. Which is why I ain't got no money! Because in fact... I think everyone was doing the same...
RG: Did it get a release? A circuit?
AS: Four in the Morning almost made a fortune. We had a tremendous response here, and we took it to Cannes in '65, and we were supported by two young guys. I'd met them through Joe Losey, when we planned writing a script in Paris, because Ben Basel (CHECK) was living in Paris, who wrote the script, Joe was pursued by these two young French cineastes to write his life story. And when I took the film back to... planned to take it to Cannes, I thought, let's try and find these two guys. And they loved the film, and they decided that they would... they had an organisation called Avant-Premier, and Avant-Premier were going to release the film at Cannes. And so we all found money to turn up in one little apartment in a hotel in part of Cannes. Polanski had... Tony Klinger [sic] had just released, outside the organisation, outside the festival, I think Cul-de-sac. No, it wasn't Cul-de-sac, it was the film before... Repulsion, at Cannes, for Polanski. And so we thought: if they can collect an audience, we took it on as a challenge. And so through various contacts we'd made, all five of us - that's Judi Dench, not Rodway but Rex Barry, John Morris was the producer, myself, Ann Lynn, just spread ourselves out through the festival, and we just talked Four in the Morning everywhere. Through Avant-Premier we used to take half pages in the Screen International, and we'd only put two things on it, middle of the page, Four in the Morning, Avant-Premier, then the time. And it was amazing because the night it was screened at 10:15 after the main festival, and we had a cinema booked, and at ten o'clock there was not a soul - absolutely empty. And at eleven minutes past ten they suddenly started to pour down the street. We had actually succeeded through all the contacts, the film was overflowing - people couldn't get in. The guys running Critics' Week were angry with the Avant-Premier guys because they thought they should have had the film, and the Avant-Premier guys were saying fuck you, you had the opportunity. And the film became a succés d'éstime at that point. Next morning at the hotel the phone didn't stop with offers to go to various festivals and people wanting to buy it. When we got it back to UK it was a very depressing film, and it was not in mood of the Sixties. And it was quite clear that... Rank took it, but played it at six o'clock in the evening, so nobody was going to see Four in the Morning at six o'clock in the evening. And they played it with some Swedish film which was on at nights that no-one went to see anyway, so that was an absolute killer. Rank couldn't refuse the film - we played in the West End for quite a long time, and successfully, but not a... you know, it wasn't an enormous thing, until it went back and was combined with The War Game. And then it played for a year in the West End, the programme played for a year. But I don't think either we or... we were paid a flat fee, something quite ridiculous. In fact, all we eventually got was our Eady money. But the big thing was the Americans, the Americans were going to buy it. We had two people, and Joe Levine was going to buy it, and this for us was enormousbecause it was going to pay back for the film. But instead Joe Levine bought MGM, and the film never got bought for the States. And so it never made... it was potentially a big earner.
RG: Did it make its neg costs back or not?
(end of tape two)
(start of tape three)
AS: ...actors. Why I refer back to the niche, not finding a niche is that I have found myself somewhere between BFI and commercial cinema, and never quite at ease with either side. Just as with Four in the Morning, when I first wrote The Optimists, rather, the left wing, people in the union, said you can't do this film because it's got nothing to do with the housing movement and trade unions. And I said it wasn't anything to do with that, it was a story about kids. And yet for the other side it was too... not downbeat but about drab conditions. And so I kind of... I always floated along that uneasy path. With the book, which was very... you know, wonderful reviews and highly regarded when it's been read, it didn't find its place in the market, because it was about children and therefore went into the children's books section, but it was designed to be read by adults, and adults enjoy it twice as much as kids. So anyway, I just did another book - not just, couple of years back - for Oxford University Press, for their children's department. I could show you some amazingly wonderful reviews of the book in the adult press, but it's not in the shops in the adult section, it's in the kids' section, and it's much too sophisticated for kids. My fault for writing it! But it's about teenagers in the Blitz. I had a theory, which I still hold, which is the East End as I'd known it stopped in 1940, September 1940, on the first day of the Blitz. And so I wrote two stories combined, which both came to an abrupt end because of the first Blitz. And again, it's a much-liked book by those who read it, but an uneasy book because it's not either market. And I found that to be generally true, that while I fitted comfortably into the Italian market, I haven't found it very comfortable in the commercial market here or in the States. I was recently working for UA, and what I was being employed to do is to add the kind of gritty reality that I'm used to. But when they actually got it they weren't sure - like two stages further on, that they actually wanted it. Same way with... I don't know whether you've seen Little Sister or Poison Candy, which is about a ten-year-old who kills another ten-year-old, because she's a kind of ten-year-old Joan Collins, determined to get her own way without realising all the implications of what happens when you shoot a gun. Now on paper, Hollywood loved it, and the only problem was casting it. And the BBC were going to... we did make it, as the BBC's first commercial film. We got trapped because of the nature of the BBC at that period, because, you know, it was commissioned in... you crewed up as from October one year to be shot on a certain date the next year, but we couldn't keep up. We couldn't actually fulfil it, and Louis Marks, the producer, and I were wandering around Hollywood looking for a star who was acceptable to both the Americans and the BBC, who was actually free in three weeks' time and would accept BBC money. Anyway, we at that stage had a crew in Florida, because they'd been booked six months before, we'd spent nearly three quarters of a million dollars on preparing the film, for which we had no cast, because the BBC had greenlighted it so late, and we had a three-week lead time.
RG: This was a co-production?
AS: This was a co-production, yeah. And although John Hurt did a wonderful job, it wasn't ... you know, it was under tremendous pressure, when John read it, saw it, flew out and was into the film like within days. And similarly with the rest of the cast. And also on delivery. It was a mess from that point of view. But the point of that story was that Hollywood liked the script and hated the movie, because when they came to see the scenes of the shooting on the beach, which was very gritty, very tough, you know, when I went to put it in my showreel the guy doing the showreel said "Christ, you can't include that - it's horrifying!" Not in terms of blood or anything, but just the emotional atmosphere. So I took it off the showreel - I mean, if the guy putting the showreel together felt that, I certainly wasn't going to screen it. When Hollywood saw it, it wasn't the same as on paper, and the reason for it was that when I thought about it and talked about it in L.A., Hollywood likes the idea of toughness, but they had seen it with Shirley Temple. They hadn't seen it with a kid, with a real kid playing the part. They'd seen "sweet and lovely". And that's a mistake. And similarly on this thing I'm working on - when they got the grittiness I was supposed to produce a story where our hero was in a tough situation at the end of Act 2, and had to fly off, go away to exercise himself, and would redeem himself in Act 3. The one thing they didn't want when I wrote it as the treatment, one thing the producers didn't want, though it's exactly what United Artists wanted and exactly what the director wanted, but the producers didn't want a story where the man redeemed himself in Act 3. They didn't want him as that low at the end of Act 2. He had to be a hero. He had to, at the end of Act 2, he had to do something terrific, and although it went wrong, it went wrong through other people.
RG: Sorry, which film...?
AS: This was a film I was just working on the treatment on, in L.A. And so it's a kind of... I was trying to describe the discomfort that you get... This is why Mike Radford, for example, having done In A Lonely Place, Lonely whatever it was, Another Time Another Place, in Scotland, about prisoners of war, it didn't find what he wanted to do, and could do, until he went to Italy and after four years in the wilderness finally did Il Postino. He finally made the film he should have made.
RG: Do you look on it as a big mistake that you ever left Italy?
AS: I've always trained myself never to go back and say what would have happened if...
RG: You've got neo-realism echoing through much of your work...
RG: But this is not a neo-realistic climate.
AS: I never had the freedom of choice to go back and try it out. If I'd done it in '49, it would have worked, '48, whatever it was, because I was the new thing. I went back to Italy a couple of times, but they had their own people, they'd moved on. And I always hoped that we would move on here, but we never did. There's a kind of... even now, we aren't doing neo-realists. It's very much a kind of rock'n'roll subculture, should one look at things like Trainspotting. It's a different world, it's not a world... it's not a nice world, and to try and adapt a story where I'm currently involved... I'm sure this is not unique to me, but I took a story which I think is a wonderful true story and prepared it for television. I've just rewritten it for my agent where I have now to hide everything that was good about the story because at the moment, people don't want to do true stories, because of all the complications that go with it. You find yourself talking about leading actors for parts because they carry with them a vast audience for television, and any film of any size has got to have... can't have a cinema starrer because they don't exist if you haven't got Anthony Hopkins or Sean Connery. All you can have, therefore, is a TV star.
RG: And so you have John Thaw or David Jason?
AS: And so you have John Thaw or David Jason or Nick Berry or whatever. And now Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor. But in the end, actors will go to Hollywood or they'll dry up. It's a... we're a colony. We don't have a cinemagoing public who want to see English films. I mean, yes there's a cineaste audience, but that audience is not big enough to finance films. The only source of finance that's ever been here in the last ten years is TV. And TV, in the end, wants a TV audience. And you've got a kind of conflict: your filmmaking at the moment, which corresponds a lot to what was happening in commercials: I don't know if there's a similar element in corporate videos. But in commercials, as a filmmaker, you were not required to make a film to sell the product. What you were required to do was to make a commercial that advanced the career of the producer you were working for. Therefore, he wanted it to look good, look contemporary... whether it sold the product or not mattered not at all. It had to be vogueish, trendy, and get him a good lunch and the possibility of another job.
RG: That's not a corporate video firm.
AS: No, no it's not. But you understand... for example, the most denounced or ridiculed commercial were Playtex, Playtex Bras. But Playtex Bras sold bras. They weren't very good commercials artistically. Now on the other hand, you could make marvellous commercials, which were wonderful, but you don't know what the product is. Or you know it's for a beer but not which beer. And somehow it's kind of buggering itself. Now this was true of a lot of the current mood of the film industry, the so-called theatrical film industry. It wants to make mainstream pictures, but they've got to be attractive to the Channel 4 audience, because that's where the producers come from. They want a film that they can be proud of and get the right reviews for. They don't really want it... they're not really talking to the audience, they're talking to each other. Similarly, or alternatively, it has got to have a TV starrer in the hope that when it comes back to TV, it will be of value. And so we're very confused. Of the 50 films that are being made at the moment, of the 20 or 30 which are low-budget films being made, I guarantee most of them will never get seen.
RG: This is the tragic irony with some of the best talent from television. I mean, someone like Mick Jackson, who made Life Story, which was a brilliant Horizon special, on the discovery of DNA. Now he goes off to Hollywood. Mick who? What's he done since then?
AS: Well, he made The Bodyguard. But it was Mick Who? up to The Bodyguard. Mick Jackson was having a fairly rough ride trying to do his own things, and suddenly he got onto The Bodyguard, and it's an enormous success despite him, because he had tremendous rows, and the cutting room was taken away from him. But nevertheless it's made Mick Jackson - I wouldn't mind being in his shoes!
RG: Maybe I've chosen the wrong guy, but there are a lot of people like him. Like La Frenais and Clement, for instance, the writing team. Anyway, can I go back a little bit to get chronological order: The Optimists of Nine Elms, was that a success?
AS: Critically, it was an enormous success. Commercially, no, it never was. There was nothing… you also discover that these things don't always have to do with the nature of the film. They loved it, and it's regarded as one of Peter's most important two or three acting moments, we got him one of his two or three awards at the Tehran Festival. But it opened… Paramount liked it so much they opened at Radio City Music Hall, which is a several thousand seater, with The Tiller Girls, which is not really the right audience for The Optimists. So it didn't run very far from there, it had tremendous reviews, I've got them, but it didn't happen in the States. So they opened it here with very little money on advertising, it had a big first night through our own private efforts to get people there in a cinema next to The Exorcist. So they had long queues for The Exorcist and nobody buying tickets for The Optimists. It was then… from then on taken as a tax loss by Sagittarius, was sold in perpetuity to Viacom, and now I've been trying for about four years to get it back, but can't. And it's… it was appallingly badly treated, the whole thing. If the thing hits the wrong day or the wrong year, you've had it. I mean, Four in the Morning opened in Brussels, for example, and was taking more business than… I can't remember which film, but one of those films which was a tremendous success. But the day after it opened, buses were shut down by a snowstorm and ice, and nobody moved for a week, so that was the end of the filmin Brussels. The Optimists opened strongly in Australia, by a company that didn't ever pay out the money. Black Joy, which we did later, was a very powerful contender, opened so strongly that the record went platinum in two weeks…
RG: This was in Australia?
AS: No, Black Joy, here.
RG: Oh, Black Joy, here?
AS: Yeah. And they forgot to pay the music. PRS. Not the PRS, the…
RG: The performing rights.
AS: The performing rights. For the film. They paid it for the record, but the film was withdrawn, and we had a three-year legal battle to get it released. You have those careers.
RG: Did Black Joy follow The Optimists?
AS: Yeah, I did a lot of commercials in between. I'd written various things, but The Optimists we made it in '74, '5, and I spent a long time surviving with it. It was also the time that the industry was practically dead. Very hard to make a living at that period. I was also going through a divorce in that period, and I was taken to see a play, a black play, and decided that it would actually be a start of a good movie. And I got together with the writer, and we wrote… we more or less threw the play away except for the relationship, the initial relationship between an experienced hustler, played later by Norman Beaton, and a newcomer from Guyana played by Trevor Thomas. And we'd seen them, they did a thing together at the Royal Court, and they worked beautifully. Well, I took that three-pager around as a comedy, and I called it Black Joy in order to have it in the title, so that no-one was going to waste anyone's time saying yes or no. And out of the blue I got a phone call from Jack Gold saying that he knew Elliott Kastner was looking for a film that he could shoot for under £100,000 on 16mm. So we got in touch with Elliott and persuaded him in the end, as it turned out, to shoot it on 35mm for £120,000. When they saw the film, they loved it so much the budget went up to £300,000, all of which was spent in about three days. We actually shot it within the budget of 120… I think 130. We did it on a very careful basis of saying, I think, here's £10,000 for cast, no matter what you want, Norman, that's the £10,000 - we'll give you X% of the budget. Same for editing, same for camera, same for everybody. Including the director - writer, director and producers. And it was a very successful movie, we loved making it, but it was made purely by accident because that phone call, and one further coincidence. Shawn Slovo, the daughter of the Slovo who is African National Congress, happened to be working for Elliott. She saw the three pages on his desk and said "My God, somebody wants to make a film about blacks in Brixton". And that was why we got the backing. The NFFC came in for half, and Arnon Milchan came in as his first film,he's now one of the kings of Hollywood.
AS: Milchan. It was his first movie. And the film was one of the most successful films. But again, it should have made - and I owned quite a large percentage - a lot and lot of money. But there's always some part of the industry you can't beat. And in the States… it never recovered here, although at the time it was taking a lot of money, and opened four years too late in the States, and then was withdrawn because of intervention by Elliott and all the money for PR was spent, and it opened with no PR. But I've got the reviews - again - and I couldn't have written better reviews than the American ones. But it's… the American blacks did not want to know about West Indians, and the West Indians didn't want to know about West Indians, and it never became a crossover, which we thought it would. It did partly become here.
RG: That's very interesting, because if I could just interject an experience I had, I made a couple of films in Africa on teachers going out there to work, and the people I came across who could integrate the least well, if at all, were black Peace Corps Americans.
RG: They just couldn't make contact with black Africans. You know, somehow it was taken for granted that by their colour there should be some rapport, but they were far more remote and non-understanding than their white colleagues. And I came across this both in East Africa and West Africa.
AS: That's fascinating. It's certainly the film… I won't say died with audiences in the States. Those who saw it loved it, but it was getting them in. There was no big tub-thumping to get them in. There was here. Here, it was launched tremendously well, and was actually in full flood when we were hit by the writs and it was a few years later before we could release it.
RG: Hit by the...?
AS: The writs. We had injunctions served on us. So there's… these are stories which are ten a penny in the industry.
RG: It wouldn't have a video release now, would it?
AS: It would have… we were talking about it yesterday. It's handled… we have video rights - it took years to persuade Elliott to let us do it and with the NFFC, who were our partners, and we've been looking for video releases. We've been bought currently by Channel Five, it was bought by Channel Four who showed it only once in the middle of the night because of language, but we are wondering whether… who would be the right person to release it on video here. It would have a very big video sale if it were launched, but I've been going through it in fact only yesterday trying to think where to take it.
RG: Yes, I'm too far gone from the industry now - seven years, I've completely lost touch. So what came next, Giants' Shoulders, or...?
AS: No, um… I'm trying to get myself into order. I was doing commercials all this time as well, not vast amounts, but kind of bread and butter. Because the choice which one had to make, which, you know, Karel, Lindsay and myself made, was that if you did commercials full time you could want to make theatrical features but you weren't going to spend the time it would take to hustle your film. You could only ever do commercials as a part-time occupation. Those people who wanted to do features but spent all their time doing commercials never made any features. It just didn't work, and hasn't worked since. Now I... after Black Joy I was asked out of the blue at a dinner one night why I didn't work for television. And the reason I hadn't worked for television was that some time in the 1950s, after Sunday by the Sea and Bow Bells I attended an interview for a training course at the BBC, and at the interview they said what do you want to do, and I said I wanted to make movies. And I couldn't have said anything worse! I was out, because in television you only had to make television. And I never had any contact with them after that, except once. I had one meeting with Norman Swallow about an idea which he liked but they couldn't finance. It was to do a film on London in the fog, sending out lots of camera crews all over London when the next fog struck, to make a film of what actually took place. Anyway, I was asked this question, and I was asked it by Gerry O'Hara, who was then working as script editor for The Professionals, which was being set up at that stage. They'd done one year unsuccessfully and changed producers and changed tack: they weren't going to do it in studios any more, which they did the first series. It was all going to be on the streets, no rooms, no offices, all on the move. And we'd just done Black Joy. And so Gerry said, well come and look at The Professionals, meet with Raymond Muir, the new producer. And so I became the first director of the new Professionals, shooting off the cuff and fast and furious: my first experience of shooting eighty setups in a day. But loving it, absolutely loving it. And so I did about three, and they were enormously successful. But that was the only contact I'd had with television until I got a call from Mark Hewitt whom I'd met, saying he'd send me a book which had originally been offered to Alan Parker, who was not available, he was in Hollywood. And it turned out to be On Giants' Shoulders, which had been on the shelf... in typical BBC fashion, they had a start date but no script. I mean, they had various goes at the script, but no success. And I accepted and I persuaded Judi Dench and Bryan Probyn...
AS: Pringle! I'll tell you off the record a thing about that...
RG: Running again.
AS: And I persuaded them to do it on the book, no script. And Judi had done this already with Four in the Morning. We had like four weeks to write the script and get it set up. I mean, we were actually setting up the film with nothing. But it worked marvellously. It worked, as you'll appreciate, schedule wise because suddenly, after about two weeks in, the BBC went on working to rule, so you lost Monday mornings and you finished early every night. We lost Friday afternoons. But the BBC had a slush fund which meant that we just kept shooting until we finished. So suddenly all the pressures of schedules went off us, and the film was a big hit.
RG: Where did you find the principal actor?
AS: The thalidomide actor? It's his story.
RG: It's his story? The book is?
AS: The book is his story, yes. And in fact, Equity said... we had Equity permission to do a casting session. And we said fine, you find us an actor who's got one eye, one lung, one kidney, no legs and no arms, and we'll cast him. It was absurd: this is the story of a unique child. Now in fact the voice... by that stage he was seventeen but playing ten, and the difference between him at seventeen and ten was one inch, except for his voice. So we had to revoice him with the kid who played the kid in Black Joy, who was tremendous. And out of that came an offer to direct Green Ice for Lew Grade, which I left after about a year, eighteen months, for all kinds of reasons which we won't go into, but it was an un... not a success. I got paid. But after that, try and make sure I've got the exact... I then came back into television.
RG: The Day After the Fair?
AS: The Day After the Fair. I did some documentaries, The Day After the Fair, which was Hannah Gordon, which was a script. I had found with my agent who then was a freelance, he wasn't at that moment... he was a producer.
RG: It was a Thomas Hardy story, wasn't it?
AS: A Thomas Hardy story. We found it as early as seventy... after The Optimists, and it took us ten years to get it made. It was only made because Bill Kenwright wanted a part for Hannah Gordon and accepted the fact that I worked [unclear] with Gillian Freeman on getting it prepared as a feature, and it was very clear that Hannah couldn't carry a film, theatrical film. But we got the BBC to accept it, with Bill putting up half the money, which in fact didn't quite happen, and out of that...
RG: Who put up half the money?
AS: Well, Bill was going to, but then eventually it was... We were going to make it with Jodie Foster, and Jodie accepted the part. But when Jodie dropped out because of dates, the BBC wouldn't accommodate her. You'd think that with Jodie Foster they would move, but no. So we spent a long time finding the girl who actually did play the part, who was marvellous.
RG: I can't remember her name: who was that?
AS: I can't at this moment. But she went on to have a career, but then she suddenly stopped, which is why neither of us can remember her name. I've got it up there, I'll tell you. And we started, Hugh thought it was as strong as the boy, and we all decided no it wasn't, it was as strong as the girl. And with Hannah came Gillian Freeman, and I think she did a wonderful script. But after that I was now acceptable for television, and I did... then set up Poison Candy, which used to be called A Little Sister, which I'd written for theatre, which had almost been done with MGM, except we hadn't found the ending for MGM. Limelight, Limehouse, as they were, were going to do it, they paid for the screenplay and we found a new ending which is not as per book, and then that went in with the BBC. But then after that the BBC changed, that's when it finished. Because after Poison Candy I found a very powerful story about the hole in the heart baby in Birmingham, and I got the rights to do the story with Gillian Freeman, and I took it into Peter Goodchild who's head of drama, and I said let's do exactly what we did with On Giants' Shoulders. I guarantee that we'll give you a story, a good screenplay based on facts, and you tell us the day you'll book your crew and we'll guarantee to be ready for that. And he said wonderful, incredible. We'd given him the outline because we'd done the research, given him the shape of the story and because it was anti-Maggie Thatcher everyone ran scared. They'd paid for the screenplay and then dropped it. And when that happens you've lost a year of your life. And it's a fabulous screenplay by Gillian about a very moving story. And in fact it's come up, people have wanted to do it two or three times since.
RG: What's it called?
AS: It's called... well, at that stage it was called Whose Turn to Live, and it's now called simply Baby Barber (CHECK). Because I don't know if you remember the story: the baby had its operation, a few months old baby had a hole in the heart, and at that period, because of the shortage of nurses in intensive care, they could only operate every so often because they hadn't any nurses to look after the baby after the operation. They had more than enough time to do the operation, the theatre staff was there, but they couldn't look after the kids, and this kid over a period of about a month he had his operation cancelled five times. And finally a stink was created in Parliament and Maggie Thatcher came on the box and said it will have its operation. And it did. And a tragic story because the mum would not go on the Wogan show, she was invited onto Wogan and said no, when the baby comes home, I will come on Wogan. And the baby survived as well, she went to Wogan, and the night she went down to Wogan, but the night, when she came back the baby died. I mean, it's an amazing story, and I think a tremendous screenplay. But the BBC said no. Because we thought at that stage, I'd just done two big successes for them. But the BBC didn't work like that. I mean, after On Giants' Shoulders I didn't get a phone call from the BBC for two years. It's a funny old world.
RG: Was this changes of office or what?
AS: No, it's that you've done your bit and people want to move onto the next guy, and... There's no tradition of creating teams. The only person who did that was Ken Trodd with... what's his name? The writer.
RG: Tony Garnett?
AS: Well, Tony Garnett and, um... the writer who died.
RG: He did a whole series of... Allen, isn't it? This is terrible: I'll have to insert it in!
AS: OK, but he did Whistling Gypsies, production company.
RG: And The Lump, and...
AS: No, The Lump wasn't him
RG: Wasn't it?
AS: That was Ken Trodd
RG: Ken Trodd produced that.
AS: No, it was the guy who did two plays for the BBC and Channel 4 after he died.
RG: Oh, Dennis Potter?
AS: Dennis Potter, yes. But there wasn't a tradition of building teams. There was for a period with Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, but it folded, and after Poison Candy/Little Sister, they didn't get back.
RG: Going back to your remark that runs through your career, that you've never really fitted in in a sense, you were a journeyman director in television, you did Morse and things like that, didn't you? And you were a journeyman director in commercials. And yet no-one was interested in employing you as a journeyman director in features. Or maybe you weren't interested yourself?
AS: Some people fit into the kind of hierarchical thing that develops, other people don't. Now, I'm not sure if this is for the record or not, but let's take David Jason. That came out of the blue, I'm not quite sure where the job came from, but it was from my point of view a very happy job, a wonderful script by Richard Harris, and David is a tremendous actor to work with. At the same time, absolutely no rapport with you on the set. He needs his cheerleaders amongst the crew, but he wanted to work where you worked with him alone on the set, and then you gradually brought in the other actors where he got the attention, and where he felt you had not made up your mind what you wanted to do before you had your conference with him. Now I have a note here on the wall which I keep from the Head of Drama at ... who made it?
AS: Yorkshire. I keep saying Tyne Tees, but it was Yorkshire. Vernon Lawrence, saying how much he thought this was the best of the first three, and the producers thought the same.
RG: This was a series of what?
AS: Three Frosts. Inspector Frosts. And it was by a genuine director. But I wasn't invited back by David, because David didn't want strong directors. And if you look at the director lists there's only one or two directors who've made more than one film over a dozen, eighteen, whatever it is, episodes. Because he is the star, and you can't develop working relationships on that basis. And you become a journeyman director , but nevertheless you've got around you an aura of being a big-time director. People don't really want that, and you can't get rid of it. There's no suggestion of Karel Reisz doing it. Lindsay wasn't doing it. You know, you are... I remember discussions at dinner, I was having dinner with Don Lever, the producer of Frost, Inspector Frost series, and there was always the edge in conversation that I came from theatrical movies, and I was only doing him a favour. Same way I did Supergran, which got an Emmy. There was that with the crew. I expected the kind of work we were doing elsewhere. The crew were expecting... they clocked on at 8.30 in the studios and they came out to the location by about 9.15. They were due back in the studios at 5.30, so we clocked off at 4.30. That's the way it was at that period. Now I as a director from London found this very hard to accommodate, because I was expecting a different kind of tempo. I stayed and I did all the editing work and created the series, but it went onto other real journeyman directors. And then at the other end of the sale, there's probably... I don't feel very comfortable with dealing with Hollywood types. I can't play the Hollywood game, I don't have the arrogance, and I mean that as a compliment, of people like Parker who are sure of themselves, who know what they want, who've got that fierceness.
RG: And the armour plating.
AS: And the armour plating that goes with it, yeah. I think I'm lucky, I'm into my seventies and I'm still working. But I couldn't get a job doing a series now if I paid them, because they've got young producers who want even younger directors. There are a few directors who've somehow managed to keep themselves going, but quite what the criteria... I don't know. It's... I've had a very lucky and happy creative career. At the moment I'm mainly writing. But I know that my agent will always get asked the question: does Tony intend to direct this himself?
RG: We're getting to the ageism thing you were talking about?
AS: Oh, it's heavy. And it gets heavier. I mean, even people of fifty are finding the same thing. I mean, after Black Joy I was in Tehran on the jury of a festival, and we got sent out. I didn't want to be in London the first night because I had a terrible experience of a successful first night and a disastrous follow-up with The Optimists, so Maria and I had gone out to Tehran and accepted this invitation to be on the jury. And we were sent the reviews for Black Joy, which were amazing. And I showed them to an American publisher who happened to be... his wife, something Davis, who was a ventriloquist with dummies, very well known. Not Sharon, something like that, Shari. I showed them and she said: but you should be in L.A. If you were in America walking around with those reviews, you'd never stop for work. I thought that I was too old to go to Hollywood even then, because I was into my fifties and I thought I was too late to get on the Hollywood bandwagon. You had... but also, you had... the experience of everyone else I know in Hollywood is that you've got to be there for at least a year to actually make the break. To be there and go away, even if you're there as I was last trip, for a month, six weeks working - not enough. You can't get the next job. Once you've got going, after that year, people were successful, but I remember going to a BAFTA drinks thing and everyone who was there had had this experience. You need time.
(end of tape 3)
AS: Taking the contrast, when I kept going back, which I did for a period, in Hollywood, to try to find a basis there, Hollywood is both ageist and not ageist. The thing I found in Hollywood is that... Hollywood tends to accept you at the face value. If you've got something they want to buy, they'll assume you can do it. You're into marketing terms, marketing problems. And Hollywood is full of respect for older directors. They may not always use them - is it Robert Rossen who did The Sound of Music? I saw him, he was well into his late seventies, early eighties, going into the office every day. Young, healthy, vigorous man. And I thought, if he can do it, I can. That's what I think is marvellous about being a filmmaker. You don't stop… if your mind is working, your body can be working too. I mean, there's nobody... I'm as fit as anybody else on the film set. When I did CHECK with Leslie Grantham, you know, I'm there at eight, and I do my full job and I do my preparation. I put up a (coughs, apologises). I decided I'd have a go at Channel 4 for commissioning a programme. And I'd been advised to a particular area which was to do with crippled or handicapped people. So I said why not? I wrote a letter to them and said Terry Wiles, the thalidomide boy, is now in his thirties and is a consultant advising kids on their careers in New Zealand. This has to be a success story and worth telling. I got a response that said "well, we'll think about it". I wrote to them later, about six months ago, and said you were going to think about Terry Wiles, who I've been in touch with - are you interested? Well, there's a slot that we might be interested for. Then I got a letter after Christmas, a year gone by, saying why don't you get in touch with Isis who did a film which we liked. Well, Isis happens to be Nick de Grunwald, who I know very well, been involved with The Optimists...
RG: Sorry, Nick who?
AS: Nick de Grunwald, son of Dimitri. And Nick and I had done a book together for Oxford University Press, I did the second book for him. And yeah, I rang up Nick and said let's do it together. And we then put it together as a package: I was now going to be the writer-director of this little team going out to…. And then we were told to put it on ice and it was then put off for another long period, I've lost my track of the actual time dates. But the commissioning editor was leaving. In the autumn I went to a meeting with her at Channel Four and obviously shocked her because she looked at me and could see that I wasn't right. But she couldn't get rid of it because it was my project, but we couldn't go that year. Then they came back and asked me to do it again, and I was told by Nick privately that I had to become the executive producer, and we'd call in Sarah Boston, as a woman, to direct it, but I in fact would make it. So I went to a meeting on this basis, and agreed that I would be the executive producer and I would write the thing, but Sarah Boston would direct it, and I'd be working on it. So I went to another meeting at Channel 4, where she was now leaving, this commissioning editor, going to the BBC. But we talked about who was going and I suggested Peter Barley (CHECK) as the cameraman, because he'd done On Giant's Shoulders and knew New Zealand and would do a wonderful job. I could see everybody look "what's he suggesting a cameraman for?" and certainly one who's as old as Peter, in his sixties. I said subject, of course, to Sarah Boston, the director, approving and meeting with him and them getting on. Then the crew was being talked about, who was going out to New Zealand, and suddenly it was: why am I going to New Zealand? Now I get a phone call later on from Nick saying it's all getting very embarrassing, this whole problem, how do we cope with it? And in the end I had to say, Nick, tell you what, I've got a job coming up in Sri Lanka where I'm going to direct a feature, at roughly the same time. Why don't you pay me half of what you say you promised, and you can make it. You can keep the copyright of everything I've done, I'm sure Terry will work. And it was not a question at all of relationships with anybody connected with making the film, with Sarah or with anybody, it was simply to do with being a senior member of the film profession with a commissioning editor who was in her late twenties, who thought I had no business making films of this kind - it had to be somebody young. Now Sarah ain't young, I mean, Sarah's in her late thirties, but she was a woman and acceptable. And I think it was disgraceful.
RG: So you were paid off?
AS: I was paid off. I said providing you pay me half, and in the next two weeks. Which in fact took four weeks.
(tape ends here)