Desmond Dickinson

Desmond Dickinson Photo [Source, Cinema Museum]
Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
5 Jul 1963
30 Jul 1972
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Interview notes

SUMMARY: This transcript contains two interviews, the first conducted in 1963 with Ralph Bond  ( Side 1 and 2) and the second in 1972 with Kevin Brownlow ( Sides 3-5). Several anecdotes feature in both sittings; a remarkable feat given the interval between them. Dickinson proves a lively and garrulous subject, but neither interviewer is able to keep him from digressing and so systematic details of his career, particularly the latter part, are hazy. Nevertheless, he provides some fascinating insights into working conditions, particularly in the 1910s and 1920s, and in the first interview he discusses the establishment of the ACT union. Much valuable technical information is also provided. Unfortunately, both interviews are periodically interrupted by breaks in the tape. It is unclear whether this is the due to censorship or to the recording being paused on site.  


The Desmond Dickinson interviews were conducted over two sittings in 1963 (1 tape 2 sides) and 1972 (2 tapes 3 sides). (Note on the BECTU website: Unfortunately, both interviews are periodically interrupted by breaks in the tape. It is unclear whether this is the due to censorship or to the recording being paused on site.)

Desmond Dickinson (DD)

Camera, Director

BECTU No. 111

Interviewers: Ralph Bond (1963) (RB), Kevin Brownlow (1972) (KB)

05/07/1963 and 30/07/1972

3 Tapes

Interview with Ralph Bond (1963)

Side 1

00:00:00 – 00:05:22 Introductions; DD first entered a film studio in 1914 at the age of 12; a cousin asked to be an extra on the film England Wake Up with cameraman Otto Rieve and director Tom Watts; his cousin was offered a job at [Quick’s, St Martins ?] where he acquired junk film which DD would edit and screen at home to an audience; DD had been an office boy; asked for a job at a Croydon studio in framing; at this time there were not machines for developing film except at Hepworth – it all had to be done by hand in frames.

[Break in recording]

00:05:22 – 00:14:17 Trade unions; attempt to establish a film workers union in 1920; the company eventually went broke; DD moved to Stoll Studios as a camera assistant working with D. P. Cooper; first film was about horseracing directed by A. E. Colby; 16 years at Stoll – threatened to leave four times in order to secure a pay rise; loading film, held up numbers as there were no clapperboards at this time, maintenance, log book, still photos, grind second camera, projection, printing; Stoll worked on a number of epics one of which was Boadicea; DD tells a story about making armour for the film.

00:14:17 – 00:21:10 Directors DD worked with include George Pearson, Graham Cutts, Sinclair Hill; after Stoll DD was a lighting cameraman; in 1925 only one film was being made in all of the British Empire which DD worked on as a camera assistant – Satan’s Sister starring Betty Balfour; discussion of the British Quota Act of 1927; this was a period of ‘true slavery’ according to DD – a result of the number of Quota Quickies that needed to be made.

00:21:10 – 00:25:00 Outbreak of WWII; in 1939 DD had just worked on The Arsenal Stadium Mystery; tried to join the Navy but in fact went to direct Ministry of Information films.

00:25:00 – 00:27:20 After the war DD worked with Thorold Dickinson on Men of Two Worlds, shot in Africa; shooting on monopack which later became Eastmancolor – an agreement was reached with Dr Kalmus that Kodak would not sell their product elsewhere, Technicolor were using a lot of this stock at the time; DD had a lot of trouble with the film; the monopack stock was nothing like the quality of the later Eastmancolor stocks – it used get magenta streaks in the middle layer (green record); a lot of the stock was ruined as a result of the heat; they didn’t see any rushes – it had to be sent to Hollywood and they didn’t see any of what they shot until a year later.

00:27:20 – 00:32:07 Men of Two Worlds was a Rank picture – DD joined Rank as this point, making Hamlet, The Woman in Question, The Browning Version, The Importance of Being Earnest; Hamlet – preparation done in Italy, Olivier asked the film to be sharp all over; DD copied the techniques of Gregg Toland.

[Break in recording]

00:32:07 – 00:34:15 DD talks about Adolph Zukor and Famous Players-Lasky and film projection.

[Break in recording]

00:34:15 – 00:35:36 DD discusses the use of venetian blinds in cinema and censorship.

[Break in recording]

00:35:36 – 00:43:15 Un-perforated film stock in early cinema; perforating film was done by women in the studios; shuffle-gate Bell and Howell camera was the best made according to DD; viewfinders in cameras; DD discusses modern developments including scope and Technirama which drew in audiences; 

00:43:15 – 00:44:00 Panchromatic negative film stocks and Eastmancolor are regarded by DD as two of the greatest developments in photography; Eastmancolor ‘real colour pictures’, ‘nature’.

00:44:00 – 00:48:27 DD dismisses stereoscopic photography; negative B&W film stock has developed greatly throughout his career; lighting in 1919 studios were made of glass using natural light and very violet light with long arcs – stock was only sensitive to blue light before panchromatic stock; panchromatic stock was lit by incandescent light. [Tape stops mid-sentence]

Side 2

00:00:00 – 00:03:18 [Starts mid-sentence] DD talks about the importance of 70mm and image sharpness; some colour films are worse because of the colour – it’s not always necessary for a film; DD suggested using colourless colour on Hamlet.

[Break in recording]

00:03:18 – 00:08:35 Methods of moving the camera; location working, Iceland, Italy, Nice (20 pictures), Monte Carlo and so on – one of the most travelled camera operators; conditions working overseas.

[Break in recording]

00:08:35 – 00:09:46 DD talks about recording in the studio overseas

[Break in recording]

00:09:46 – 00:21:30 DD founder member of the ACT; improvements made by the union; difficulty becoming a cameraman in the film industry; calls for an apprentice scheme for young people; DD believes the decline in cinema is related to the educated public who are no longer drawn to these films; DD mentions the benefits of pay-tv; the films which need to be seen in the cinema are the epics shot on large-format stock – anything else can be watched at home.

00:21:30 – 00:22:00 [Break in Recording]

00:22:00 – 00:32:35 DD talks about filming at the Trocadero and watching the audience in front of the screen; taste has improved over the years as a result of the audience’s education; DD had always wanted to be a director but knew that sticking with camera work meant longevity in the business; DD met Fritz Lang not long after filming Metropolis; discusses a film he worked on with Max Ophuls which didn’t get made.

[Break in Recording]

00:32:55 – 00:35:15 DD born in Norbiton, Surrey – no education as a child.


Interview with Kevin Brownlow (1972)

Side 3

00:00:00 – 00:10:40 [Tape starts mid-sentence and then restarts again at 00:00:18, again mid-sentence] Cameramen were initially seen as engineers there to fix cameras; DD had never been to school; DD started working at Sopwith’s in Kingston; DD tells the story of his first time in a film studio with his cousin (see 1963 interview); DD used to tint films at home as a child; Sopwith’s told him not to move into the film business.

00:10:40 – 00:22:40 He started at the Clarendon Film Company, Croydon, in framing (developing) and then tinting; DD talks about his experiences with tinting film; DD then moved into printing and grading; the only thing he wasn’t able to do was developing the negative; DD started out at Stoll’s as a camera assistant working with D. P Cooper.; second camera work on The Guns of Loos; DD talks about the switch to incandescent lights.

00:22:40 – 00:34:10 DD talks about his work across the globe; DD talks about working in a studio in Nice with director Rex Ingram; meeting Michael Powell; his experiences at other studios including Islington; the American intrusion on British films c.1923.

00:34:10 – 00:41:10 DD discusses the cost of print runs in the UK and the dying industry; the quality of film compared to television; Famous Players-Lasky and Adolf Zukor.

[Break in recording]

00:41:10 – 00:42:10 Anthony Asquith, A. V. Bramble.

[Break in recording]

00:42:10 – 00:47:50 DD’s first film as cameraman with Dinah Shurey who ran Britannia Pictures, Carry On shot in Cornwall; he worked all throughout this period until the depression; later he worked with Rank at Denham [tape ends mid-sentence]

Side 2

00:00:00 – 00:10:33 Rank made religious films and bought the Gaumont circuit to show them; DD spent time in a Russian studio working with Anthony Asquith on a planned American-British co-production; Gorky Film Studio Moscow; the Russia trip was approximately 10 years prior to the interview.

00:10:33 – 00:20:00 DD continues to discuss his time in Russia, including Visa problems; most of the studios around the world have are very similar; discussion of ‘blimp’ cameras.

00:20:00 – 00:22:10 Talking pictures; first film DD was involved with was at Wembley, but not as cameraman; DD remembers the first dialogue he heard in the studio; recalls a story about Elsa Lanchester.

00:22:10 – 00:22:30 [Audio drops out]

00:22:30 – 00:31:30 Working with Walter Byron and Lilian Gish, relationship with cameraman Charles Rosher

[Break in recording]

00:31:30 – 00:33:30 Islington Studios and working with Alfred Hitchcock who worked as art director at the time; cameramen who came to work in the UK from the US.

00:33:30 – 00:37:55 DD talks about his latest film Horror on Snape Island [AKA Tower of Evil] all shot in the studio but the film was praised for the location work – this was a result of controlling the studio environment effectively; DD believes films should be made in the studio; KB talks about the need for location work in his filming; anything is possible in the studio.

[Break in recording]

00:37:55 – 00:41:00 DD talks about Denham, lenses and gauzes.

[Break in recording]

00:41:00 – 00:44:08 Talks a little about Nic Roeg and shooting an unnamed film.

[Break in recording]

00:44:08 – 00:44:49 Ben Hur and Vinny Cassel.

[Break in recording]

00:44:49 – 00:48:40 Denham’s restaurant during the post-war period and flying lessons.

Side 3

00:00:00 – 00:06:20 [Conversation continues from previous side] DD was taught to fly in five and a half hours; DD started the Denham Flying Club.

[Break in recording]

00:06:20 – 00:06:57 Conversation continues briefly



BIOGRAPHY: Desmond Dickinson was one of the most prolific and long-serving cinematographers to work in the British film industry. By his own account, he started work at the Sopwith Aviation Company at the age of 13, before finding employment in the photographic department at Clarendon Film Company. In 1919 he moved again to the Stoll Picture Productions, where he remained for sixteen years, eventually graduating chief cameraman. He produced documentaries for the Ministry of Information during WWII, and in the postwar period he achieved renown for his photography on several high-profile projects, notably Hamlet (1948) for Laurence Olivier and The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) for Anthony Asquith. He received his final credit in 1972.