Donald Wilson

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Interview Date(s): 
12 Jul 1991
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Interview notes


[Rekeyed from Dave Robson’s handwritten notes. DS]


Born Dunblane, Perthshire in 1910. Educated at Wellington College and Glasgow School of Art. Started work by selling drawings and writings to newspapers in Glasgow. Interested in cinema at an early age – regularly visited a mobile cinema with the family which showed films at the local town hall. Entered film industry by accident through the newspaper he worked for. On an assignment he asked the film correspondent to arrange a visit to Elstree and met Walter Mycroft who asked him if he could write lyrics. He took four songs [tunes?] back to his hotel and wrote lyrics that same evening. Mycroft liked them, bought them and offered him a job in the scenario department, arranged through John Maxwell.

Maxwell profile: a mean man. Various personalities discussed. Early sound equipment – everything primitive but very exciting; amongst his contemporaries at Elstree were Frank Launder and Miller [?].  Moved from Scenario Department to become Assistant Director. Assistant Director’s duties explored: a long working day, minimum salary, £6 a week. By 1939 he was earning £18 a week – one of the highest paid assistants (at MGM). A car was shared with David Rawnsley which kept them mobile for location work. Wilson spent hours in cutting rooms learning the craft with Leslie Norman[BEHP Interview No 126] who was cutting at that time. Worked on Lupino Lane films at Elstree, also the first film with Will Hay. Also Invitation to the Waltz, where he met Wendy Toye aged 16, and ‘mimi’. Many directors and cameramen were working hard here to escape Hitler! King George V a two-reeler which became an eight-reeler: four directors and four crews, production discussed. Remained at BIP [British International Pictures] for three years, and then worked for Capitol. Worked on a film based on a play called His Majesty’s Pyjamas with Clive Brook – a total disaster because of a fire which destroyed all the property (B & D studios). Production moved to Teddington. Story was similar to real life drama of Edward and Mrs Simpson – rather unfortunate timing – the film flopped! Film was premiered on the very day that Edward made his announcement!! [of abdication].

Wilson joined up as Production Manager with Percy Stapleton and Max Schlack. Max went on to own three cinemas when the business went bust. Films: Land Without Music (first film made at Denham) and Knight without Armour.

He meets Walter Futter who wants to make a big movie with Paul Robeson (Song of Freedom). Profile on Futter. Eventually the company went bust after making the movie, nearly stranding the crew in Cairo. Interesting notes about making the movie and the sad death of the ‘Princess’.


Wilson joined the Army at the age of 29 as a volunteer. Was sent to the OTC [Officers’ Training Corps] for training and gained experience of handling people. Earned the nickname ‘Gaffer’ with film crews.

Differences between Denham and BIP Studios discussed: he preferred Pinewood. Joined MGM and worked on Goodbye Mr Chips. Got on well with Ben Goetz and after war service he re-joined MGM under him. Elstree was in a shambles and his job was to re-equip it, rehabilitate offices etc. When the work was completed, he joined Rank to work on Independent Frame with David Rawnsley and stayed on to produce. Meanwhile Goetz wanted him to succeed him at MGM.

Independent Frame – the concept explained: not allowed to use contract stars. John Davies described as the man who did the dirty work for J. Arthur [Rank] – with some pleasure!! Four films were made: Flood Tide, the most successful at the box office: five week shooting schedule. Schedules could be tightly controlled. ACT unhappy with the system, despite the fact that more films meant more crews. Everyone was prejudiced! The last film Wilson made was a version of Robin Hood (Group 3). Some anecdotes about Sam Wood and his work on Mr Chips. (10% talent and 90% bullshit).


Wilson formed a partnership with Emlyn Williams but it never got off the ground. Went to America and sold a piece to the New Yorker. He then went on to write various pieces for the BBC, including Standby to Shoot, a thriller in 1955. Just William. He was then invited at age 44 to start a script department at the BBC. Drama output then was about five hours a week. Discussion on how the Script Department was run. Competition with ITV caused standards to fall – Sidney Newman was brought in and Michael Barry left to start television in Ireland. Wilson became Head of Serials under Newman, but eventually gave it up to produce The Forsyte Saga as a Senior producer – a new grade. His salary was reduced but he was happy to be more active again. Discussion about how The Forsyte Saga came to be produced.

The classic serials for the BBC: Wilson wanted to do them well by increasing each episode from 30 to 60 minutes.

After The Forsyte Saga, he wrote The Churchills – very difficult to do – he had to read 30 books and dip into another 20 on this subject.

After retirement he went to Anglia to do a series with Orson Wells for a year. Orson only did the introductions. Then he went to America and wrote a script, and then onto Rome to write for Carlo Ponti, returning to Scotland to write Anna Karenina which took a year. He was well paid but it fell through because of problems in the USSR.


Joined ACT after the War, but resigned when he stopped making pictures. During his career the biggest change he experienced was over-manning! He liked working in films when employed in that capacity, but when he entered TV he also enjoyed that very much. Early work in both was exciting. “There are more crooks to deal with in films”.