John Taylor

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Interview Date(s): 
17 Mar 1988
18 Mar 1988
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The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. John Taylor was interviewed by Stephen Peet on 17 March 1988.

1. Setting up Countryman Films

JT: Grahame Tharp, Leon Clore and I started a company called Countryman Films. We had a contract with Columbia to produce 6 2-reelers a year.

SP: Theatricals?

JT: Yes, for theatrical distribution. It was a kind of open air magazines of animals, anything to do with the countryside. The average issue started off with an item on young animals to sweeten the audience for about two minutes, some of them were quite good, we did a very good one on seals. On the [unintelligible] Islands. They were very cheap. I think the budgets were fifteen hundred pounds and we seemed to be able to do it relatively easy. And we started one or two sponsored films for Brook Bonds tea which Graham had a contract with. And towards the end of 1952 Adrian De Potier came along and said look I'm sure they're going to climb Everest next year. 

He'd worked it out on paper as well quite convincingly. Somehow we managed to get a contract from the RGS [Royal Geographic Society] to make the film. Then we ran into real troubles. We went to the National Film Finance Corporation, we were getting money from them for something, I can't remember what but we had good contacts there anyway and said we want £8,000 to photograph the first part, you know just the photography of the expedition to Everest. Jimmy Lawrie who was head of it said wonderful idea, wonderful idea. We went ahead ordering the cameras and things like that. Tom Stobart appeared on the scene and we got him. And I tried to phone Lawrie one day and he wouldn't speak to me. After phoning him 6 times I realised he wasn't speaking to me and we couldn't make out what was happening . Finally we got through to him and he said I'm sorry we've had to withdraw the offer. I said for Christsake we've got it all lined up. He said I'm sorry that's it. 

So, the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, I can't remember his name he was a pleasant character, we rang him and said we're terribly sorry about this but the Film Finance Corporation have decided to cancel it but we'll do everything we can for whoever takes the job over. We'll give you all our research material, Adrian had done a magnificent job on the research material, about 50 or 60 pages of information, and he said just leave it with me. He rang us back and said look can you come to a meeting tonight in Sloane Street at Woodham Smith who was the Rank lawyer. So Graham, Leon and I turned up at this house.

SP: This is Leon Clore.

JT: Leon Clore, right. A man opened the door and I said good evening, my name's Taylor, and he said good evening sir, I'm the butler [Laughter] but you're very welcome. So we went in and there were about 4 people there in the library, a very posh library with decanters, we were made very welcome and sat down. Woodham Smith, the husband of Woodham Smith who wrote Florence Nightingale and The Charge of The Light Brigade said now tell us all about it. We said this is what actually happened. We went to them and they said yes, and then they wouldn't speak to us and then they said no. Woodham Smith said I can't remember who the President of the Board of Trade was which was in charge of the National Film Finance Corporation, he said is it... Joe's in charge of that isn't he. Yes, yes, of course and they said forget it we'll ring you in the morning. In the morning at half past nine Jimmy Lawrie rings up and says could I come and see you.

2. Getting the film made

JT: I'm terribly sorry about this, there's been an awful mix up, we'd be very pleased to put the money up. What had actually happened was that Balcon at this time was running everything, he was head of the National Film Finance Corporation, head of Rank, head of Ealing, he was really running the whole film industry. And when at their meeting they'd put up this proposition for eight thousand quid for a miserable little company, Countryman Films, he said certainly not, this film should be made by Rank Screen Services. But then the President of the Board of Trade had rung Jimmy Lawrie and said look do as you're told, give them the money. But it wasn't without strings. We were fools actually. They said we can't give it to you which was nonsense because they were giving vast sums of money to everyone, it can only be done through Group 3 and we want 75% of the profits. It was a crooked deal really. But we were so pleased to get the thing going we said anything you like as long as we get on with what we are doing. And so we got the money. Adrian was proved right, they did climb Everest. Then old Stobart was taken ill on it.

SP: There were two cameramen weren't there, one at lower level, and Stobart at higher level am I right?

JT: Stobart was taken ill at lower level, but luckily for us, and shot very little material actually, I think he brought back about 2,200 feet of 16mm.

SP: It was shot on16mm?

JT: Yes on Kodachrome.

SP: But who was the other man who shot the other?

JT: George Lowe. The other New Zealander. We gave George two cameras, two Imos with complete sets of lenses with everything from a 1 inch to a 24 inch.

SP: He wasn't an entirely experienced cameraman was he?

JT: Not really. He was this charming beautiful young man.

SP: He was a mountaineer?

JT: Yes. He was about 6 foot 2 and when he walked into the pub all the ladies swooned an amusing, pleasant, nice man, but he wasn't really a film technician. Anyway Stobart was taken ill, he had pneumonia. But we also gave them four automatic cameras with preset focus and exposure and automatic loading. All you had to do was, they were little tiny things about the size of a double cigarette packet, a 20-cigarette packet, with an automatic magazine, you just pushed it in. You pressed a button and the magazine jumped out and you put another one in. And Tom gave one to Lowe and one to one of the other men whose name I've forgotten. Lowe was the partner of Hillary [Edmund Hillary] and he was determined - using his own words - to give Hillary a fair crack of the whip, so he shot everything with it he possibly could. I think he came back with about a dozen magazines of stuff, all of high level stuff.

SP: What did they run 50 feet or something

JT: I suppose they were 50 feet, they may have been 70, about that. But everything above the Western Combe was short by Georqe and the other one whose name I've forgotten and that saved our bacon. 

3. George Lowe

JT: But when we got the material we shot everything all over the place to pad it out because we had to make an hour and a half of it. We put shots of the Coronation procession [Laughter], Everest grave, anything we could think of to pad it out. Also we had to do it in something like 6 weeks. The minute the mountain was climbed everybody climbed onto the act - Balcon, Korda - anyone you could think of it was their film, well not their film, it was part of their empire kind of thing.

SP: But you did quite well out of even the 25% you got from the profits or not?

JT: Well I didn't because by that time I'd left Countryman soon afterwards [Laughter]. But I suppose Graham and Leon did.

SP: I met George Lowe a year or two later in the Highlander a year or two later I think it was and he had strange stories of the two coming down from the peak and him with the camera there filming them as they came down to the first camp which had people in extreme anger at that altitude, not wanting to be filmed because he hadn't done his hair or some extraordinary story of altitude sickness and behaviour. However that's by the by.

JT: He was a very unusual man was our George. Tom wouldn't come down to the studio so we took on George, I mean Tom was beseiged by the Daily Express, the Times, Evening this, Ladies, he was feted all over London and he could never find time to come down to the studio and tell us what the material was. George though, neither Hillary or Lowe had any money at all, it was all voluntary work, the team and so on. We took George Lowe on for a fee of five hundred quid to come and tell us what it was about so we got to know him very well indeed. He was always at Beaconsfield.

But to drift off from films for a minute, he was the reason they managed to climb the mountain. He was very independent sort of character. And I can't remember it in detail but the final push, Hunt [John Hunt] was up on the South Col and two sherpas and Hillary and Tensing [Tensing Norgay] and George was down the Western Combe and George said sod this, I'm going up and I'm going to take some oxygen with me. They said you're not allowed to use the oxygen. George said I don't care what Hunt said I'm going to use the oxygen. He took cylinders of oxygen and went up the Lhotse face, this appalling cliff, got to the top and during the night a gale came up and they spent two nights in a tent or something like that. When they woke up on the day they were to start the climb one of the sherpas had got mountain sickness and couldn't move and it was George who carried something like 70 lbs up to the final camp, if he hadn't been there they wouldn't have been able to do it. They were a very tough couple, physically tough. 

Anyway, we had a very, very short time. We cut it at Beaconsfield and we had, I think we had four slash cutting copies. We had to cut the picture complete, for Technicolor to do the blow-ups in something like three weeks, four weeks, I can't remember what it was.

SP: And then you started working on the soundtrack while they were doing the commentary. Did they had a 35mm Technicolor blow up of it for cinema release?

JT: Yes. Muir went ahead with the music quite independently. Louis MacNeice went ahead writing the commentary and so on. I didn't go home for about a month. I just slept at the studio. It all worked out. It had wonderful first night at the Warners and I think did very well on distribution I imagine. 

1. His start in the business

JT: Easter 1930, there was a conference in the kitchen at the Hope Dining Rooms in Holloway Road at which my future was decided by Grierson saying, we won't have any of this nonsense, you can come and start for us on Tuesday.

SP: When you say have any of this nonsense you mean wanting to be a carpenter?

JT: Yes.

SP: This is 1930. Had your sister married Grierson then or was that later?

JT: No, they were married Grierson in I think about January 1930.

SP: You had left school? 

JT: I hadn't left school. He told me to leave school, Uncle John. I mean he was like that, I was still at school and he said start work on Tuesday morning, £1 a week. And when I arrived there, one of the early things, oh it wasn't £1a week, it was 15 shillings. [Laughter]

SP: What did your parents feel about this?

JT: Grierson steamrollered any one pretty nearly, they seemed quite happy. In those days, they were so different, our world was so different anyway. You didn't really expect to go on and work for Saatchi and Saatchi, or in the city, you thought you were going to be a carpenter.

SP: So you just walked out of school and that was that.

JT: I must have told them because the headmaster gave me a reference. The. Headmaster lived on that estate that you lived on, his name was Linker.

SP: Holly Lodges.

JT: Yes. And I was very proud of my reference. It said this is a very fine boy and dom dom dom, and so I took it and gave it to Grierson who said this is the most illiterate bloody letter I've ever read in life. [Laughter]

SP: So you went off to work at EMI was it...Empire... 

JT: The Empire Marketing Board.

SP: Now what was that? Was it an office or a studio. Can you tell me about the Empire Marketing Board.

JT: We had Dancing Yard which was a turning which runs between lower Wardour Street and lower Dean St, you know parallel with Gerard St. It's in alley and in the middle of it was one of those iron gentlemen's lavatories, and it was the place where all the sandwich board men used to go at the end of the day and turn their boards in. And they used to sit around on the ground with sheets of newspaper spread around sorting out the cigarette ends and they used to put the burnt piece in one pile, the wet piece in another pile and then the good piece in the middle and they used to have mounds of this stuff. All day long they'd do this, you know every one was smoking and throwing them away and they'd be going along picking them up. They sold the middle pile to shops that made their own cigarettes, if you can believe it. [Laughter] 

I think we were on the first floor and we had one small cutting room and one slightly larger which was the office as well, and a lavatory. And we had a 35mm projector in the lavatory and 2 or 3 vaults. I was completely innocent, I didn't know anything about anything, I couldn't even answer the telephone. If there was noone there, I used to pick up the telephone, I couldn't hear what they said at the other end, and say sorry there is no one here and hang up again. About 10 minutes later Grierson would come rushing up the steps saying what do you mean, I've been trying to get you on the telephone all day. [Laughter]

2. Empire Marketing Board

JT: When I arrived there, there was Grierson and a man called Jimmy Davidson who was a film technician and he'd done every thing in the film industry, he'd been an assistant director and assistant cameraman and I think he'd done a certain amount of camera work. He was really the only one who knew anything about films at all and Basil Wright.

SP: Oh he was there already.

JT: Yes I think he'd arrived at Christmas, I think, well I'm practically certain.

SP: What was the purpose of the Empire Marketing Board film unit? I mean looking back now, it was all new to you and just an office. What was it's purpose and what films were they making

JT: The purpose was to promote Empire trade, understanding and the Empire Marketing Board. It must have been quite a big organisation, they had their own very nice poster boards all over the country, do you remember them?

SP: Yes I do. Buy British goods and all that.

JT: Well, they did that but there were quite a lot of very good artists who were commissioned. There was one big central one and two small ones at each side, half size you know. There were three posters and they were literally all over the country. All the contemporary good graphic people of the time and good painters were doing the posters for them. Today you look back on it and say oh the Empire Marketing Board and imperialism and so on but Tallents, Sir Stephen Tallents, who ran it was a liberal and would be much more in tune with Commonwealth than Empire, I think although the Empire was still there which is the thing people forget. I mean there was Empire Day at school and so on. 

SP: But the films were they made for home audiences or sending overseas? JT: Well, to start with we didn't really seem to do much for the Empire Marketing Board. They were re-editing the Russian films. I was the office boy and general dogsbody and did all the dirty work that nobody else wanted to do. I can remember going to Argus [?], maybe. When I was younger my father and I quite often went for a walk on Parliament Hill on Sunday afternoons and half way up Parliament Hill there's a white stone monument, a pillar, where there was public speaking going on. In those days there was a lot of speaking from wooden platforms. One day when I first started work I was told to go and pick up a copy of Turksib or something like that from Argus. And I go into Argus and wait the counter. Iron sheeted counters they had in those days because the film was flam, now out from the back comes the bloke who's always speaking on Parliament Hill, Ralph Bond! [Laughter] And I say please can I have a copy of Turksib for Mr Grierson.

SP: It strikes me as rather odd that here's the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit and you're re-editing Russian films in the early 30s, how did this come about?

JT: This was Grierson. He sold the Empire Marketing Board the idea of making films by showing them Russian films. The public relation officers of those days were quite different. They had much wider perspective on what they were there for and people like Tallents and Beddington and Ryan and Lesley, who was at the gas company - there were half a dozen of them who in some way quite blatantly used the money they had to do progressive stuff or progressive stuff at that time, which I can't believe particularly had any great effect on what they were supposed to be doing. 

Not only that they were editing a German film about skiing. I think it was about [unintelligible] and climbing. I think it was called Matterhorn It was a silent feature which had got into trouble and Basil was doing the donkey work and Grierson was doing the supervisory stuff on it. And they were trying to re-edit it and knock it into shape. Every morning I used to go in and there would be about 8 rolls or 5 rolls and 3 rolls of film with hundreds of paper clips in it. Because in those days, in silent films, all the cuts were much shorter than they are now and I'd spend all day with no equipment at all for joining except a piece of blotting paper and a paper clip and a bottle of estone. And with the blade of a knife you had to scrape these beastly things by spitting on them. The joins must have been appalling, when they used to go through the projector, they sounded like gunshots going through.

3. New Era Films

JT: The Film Unit, the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit was managed by a film company called New Era and they'd had Days of Glory and so on and had made quite a number of successful box office films. They had a building in D'Arblay St, with a commissionaire and pageboys and so on, and we kind of drew on them for anything we wanted from what I can remember. Like, I think they managed the money and I suppose when we bought stock from Kodak it was done through New Era. 

New Era made an awful mistake on the early days of sound. It was really a prosperous film company, they'd made Zeebrugge, Q-Ships, The Co-optimists, but when sound started coming in they went for sound on disk. They were very prosperous and they put all their money into projectors with this great big disk-table underneath at the back. And by the time I started there they had a dispatch department at the back but the projectors were coming back like [unintelligible] half a dozen at a time and they had a big yard out at the back where all these wooden cases were stacked and the desperate gamble, they went in for clock golf which was the craze at the time. They were small things small things like billiard tables on the floor where you knocked a ball around various things and after about 6 months all the golf tables came back as well. [Laughter]

SP: It seems that the Empire Marketing Board unit were at first just studying other people's films and persuading the Empire Marketing Board that films should be made in the style of Turksib.

JT: This had all happened before. Grierson went to America on a scholarship, something like the reverse of the Rhodes scholarship, I can't remember what it was and I think and he must have, at the time, films were 99% for entertainment. It was something like someone going into the Guttenberg Printing Press and realising that you could use printing presses for something other than bibles. And he came back and met Tallents, I don't know how he met Tallents, but Tallents was obviously thinking about using film because they'd already made one film, One Family which was an absolute and complete disaster. 

SP: Silent film I imagine was it?

JT: Yes it was a silent film and about an hour long and it was made by a man named Walter Creighton who previously had been organising things like torch night tattoo at Wembley. He was quite good in that world but it was an absolute disaster this thing. It was full of society ladies dressed up as Britannia, and it was a small boy going round the Empire collecting the contents of a Christmas pudding for George V. [Laughter] It was very sad really because it cost a lot of money. 

It had one showing. They hired the Palace for a week and I went to one of the shows, it was appalling, they had 3 people there. Crichton had made One Family with a lot of publicity, you can imagine but in the meantime Grierson had made Drifters which was a tremendous success both critically and in the cinemas. It got quite a big distribution and so from then on he was running the thing.

I think originally he was going to go on making films himself, because he certainly started this film, the Port of London authority one [Port of London , unfinished film], and then he realised that one man could only do so much, and if his purpose was, which he always said it was, to use film to some social purpose, one man's not going to do very much. So we did quite a lot of shooting on the Port of London film. We had a professional cameraman from New Era called Sidney Blythe, who was a very good feature cameraman. I don't know what happened in the end but I think that Grierson just diverted the money from that film into the unit.

Going back it's slightly misleading to say they spent we spent our time, or they spent their time editing Russian films and German films, at the same time they were making two film, one was called Conquest which was silent and another one was called Lumber which was made out of library material.

4. Port of London

SP: On this Port of London shooting, did you work as assistant to the cameraman? How did you train because very soon you were shooting things yourself weren't you?

JT: One of the things about Grierson was that he would just say to someone do this, and you went and did it, this went all the way through. It's not entirely true that, Davidson was very good, he was a martinet but he was very, very good in teaching people. A bit later when we moved to a bigger place, all the younger people were taught how to develop and print and make stills and how to work a camera and how to service a camera. And you automatically, you'd go in and they'd say there's the projector, lace it up and run it you know. But it was very definitely you were in it from the beginning. From the time I was 15, although I spent half my time dragging copies of film around London, you were expected to do anything that came up. Like joining, the first day I was there I suppose I was joining up.

SP: What was the first film that you actually worked on as part of the producing team?

JT: That would be the PLA film. For a while had a boat on the river, a motor launch. There was Grierson and to start with Sidney Blythe, but Grierson didn't really want to know about technicians like Sidney, Sidney was wonderful cameraman, but as far as Grierson was concerned, he wasn't interested because mentally he knew the cameraman was never going to understand what he was trying to do. The Cameraman was interested in taking good pictures or beautiful photography and Grierson's purpose was something else. He wanted people who started from the basis of we're not here to make bloody films, we're here to be of use to society. So Davidson soon caught on to this to a certain extent, and he replaced Blythe and I was always with them as the assistant, as the boy. And very soon you did things like loading magazines and canning out and setting up the camera. I don't know how long the Dancing Yard thing lasted, it might have been 3 years.

One day Davidson came in to me and said here's half a crown, go and get a coster barrow which you could hire down the road. So I go down the road, and he says we're moving today, we're moving to 167 Wardour St, we'll see you there. [Laughter] There were 3 bl**dy vaults full of film on top of everything else, and we were on the third floor and the vaults in the new building were on the roof. I can still remember that day with horror. Loading up the coster barrow, pushing it up Wardour St and carrying all this film - projectors, cutting benches, the lot up. We didn't have much, but it seemed to be a lot to me at the time. And there we had a very good cutting room, and an office and projectors with arcs. The cutting room was the theatre itself and it had these enormous old projectors with arcs. 

Then all sorts of people started to arrive. Marion Grierson, Edwin Spice, and then there were a whole crowd of cockney children.

SP: This was still the EMB?

JT: Yes, still the EMB. Frank Jones or Jonah Jones, Fred Gamage, Chick Fowle and Phyllis Long and um, Olive Plumb. 

SP: People who were all working at the GPO film unit a little later were they?

JT: They all came you see at 16. It really was the strangest place you've ever seen. There was the upper crust like Bas and so on, and everyone had to say 'Mister'. It took me weeks to say 'Sir' and 'Mister'. Grierson would come home where I lived in the evening, he'd say look you've bl**dy well got to learn to say 'Sir' to people, not growl at them, and you must call Wright 'Mister'. And for years and years, in the end I called everyone bl**dy Mister and Sir and it took years to get out of it.

5. Grierson and distribution

JT: Grierson realised the kind of films he wanted to make were not going to be shown in the cinemas and this was one of the divisions that came between Grierson and people like Cav [Alberto Cavalcanti] and Harry [Harry Watt]. Cav and Harry wanted cinema distribution. It was at that point that Grierson set up the non-theatrical distribution and they had travelling projectors. They had a non-theatrical manager called Thomas Baird and a chief projectionist who was Flora Robson's brother, and a number of people like Duggie Smith who went right the way through and ended up at Anvil in the dubbing box. 

I can remember working during one of my holidays in Edinburgh at the Radio Exhibition, they had a radio exhibition there and Duggie Smith and I had 2 automatic Philips projectors with 3 copies of Radio Interference made by Harry Watt on each projector. They were push button projectors, in those days.

SP: Was this 35mm?

JT: Yes.

SP: Because nothing was reduced to 16mm then for this kind of thing was it?

JT: It was beginning, by then. I worked for 2 weeks in the box up there. Baird was the theatre man, they had a theatre in the exhibition, and people who poured into the cinema, it was a new kind of thing, and he used to shove them, I think the film lasted 10 minutes. He'd get them in and out in about 12 minutes, then we'd run another copy, another other 10 minutes, in and out, we used to do this from 10 in the morning till 10 at night. This was the start of the non-theatrical distribution. After this it was taken over by the Ministry of Information and expanded into 160 mobile units which travelled between the war. The audience they said was something like 18 million during the war. 

SP: That was in wartime. But before the war when these films were being made, theatrical distribution was very small. I remember seeing North Seaand Night Mail, in the Tatler I think it was on Tottenham Court Rd, which is a wonderful place for seeing these films. Thinking back I'm wondering how many other cinemas showed these films.

JT: North Sea and Night Mail got quite good distribution.

SP: Did they go round with feature films?

JT: Yes and Song of Ceylon had not too bad [distribution]. That type of films you could show but films like Housing Problems or any of the other films there was no chance really and this is why Grierson started the non-theatrical thing. The studio was the depot for the projecting people. I don't know what size it was by the time they finished but it had built up into quite a business by the coming of the war anyway.

6. Grierson's training methods

SP: In those few years from 1930 as a boy to the beginning of the war, this was almost non-stop training period. Learning as you went.

JT: I was no means alone in this.

SP: Well there weren't any training schools.

JT: All the others, there was Chick Fowle, Jonah Jones, Fred Gamage, Pat Jackson, Roy Stocks, McNaughton

SP: Ken Cameron.

JT: He came in, he wasn't a sound recordist at all. McAllister. There were a lot of young people who were brought in and were being trained through this period. I was lucky because I was the first one there. So I was two years a head of most of them. Pat Jackson for instance was sent to Grenoble University and I think he most likely did his full time there. 

SP: In a similar kind of way?

JT: As I was, yes. It really was a proper comprehensive school all things considered. Roy Stocks, I don't think he was 17 and he worked as Cav's editor. He packed up in the end for some reason or another and became chief salesman at that Rolls Royce place in Berkeley Sq ultimately, a very prosperous character. But anyway and then of course, there were a lot of other people who were older than we were who were also being trained. Harry for instance, Harry was working as a storeman in British Home Stores. He went to see Grierson, and being one of Harry's stories Grierson didn't want to know until he told Grierson he'd crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship and he got a job on the spot, that's Harry's story [Laughter]. 

Harry joined the Empire Marketing Board Unit in mid 1932. He worked as a roustabout, driving the car, delivering messages, carrying goods here and there, helping with this that and the other thing. By 1935 or 36 he'd made Night Mail. It worked all the way through this training and pushing people on quickly as well.

At this time there were other units being started like Strand and Shell, but it still kind of centred on the GPO, 21 Soho Sq and every Friday night they used to have films shows which everybody used to come to. Everyone would go and have a drink to start off with, and you got all sorts of people there like Len Lye. I can remember Len who was a very cheerful character and very forthcoming one night saying after the film show, saying oh for christsake we can't stand around here, let's have a dance. And everyone said what will Grierson say, and Len said I don't care what Grierson says. They took up the coconut matting and put a record on the box and every one started dancing, he was a wonderful man. And people met all the time. At this time Grierson was running World Film News which everybody had to help with as well. He always managed to succeed, well not always but he had this great thing of bringing people together. He did exactly the same thing in Canada, all the people who worked at the Canadian Film Board still meet one another and are still connected.

1. The banning of Goodbye Yesterday

JT: Goodbye Yesterday was quite an interesting film actually, it was banned. It was a film about the future and the past.

It was a film about an old man living alone, old and neglected; a young woman who worked in an office - there were five characters in it - and the film was assembled around them in a projection theatre, looking at the film and then discussing it afterwards and what the future of Britain should be. We took it out, they used to sneak preview the films, we took it out to the Camden Town Gaumont with Beddington, Elton and a man called Radcliffe and they slipped it into the programme and came out at the end of it. Radcliffe said this film is never going to be shown as far as I'm concerned, he was one of the bosses. We argued, Elton and Beggington argued, and he said absolutely not, there's no question about it, and somebody burnt the negative.

2. Penicillin

SP: SP: Regarding the various, many films you produced at Realist during the second world war there were a few that were outstanding, can you remember?

JT: Penicillin you'd think of I suppose. It was the official film of the discovery of Penicillin. It was financed by ICI and directed by Alex Shaw and Kay Mander. Alex Shaw and Jeak [A.E. Jeakins] went out to the front line in Holland, picked up an wounded soldier at a front line dressing station where they had the Pencillin tab put on and the story of Penicillin was told as he was brought back through the stages and to England.

SP: Was the Penicillin tab something which was put on someone who had had their first injection?

JT: Yes, it was so crude in those days, they hadn't got it concentrated as they have now, and on top of that it got very, very painful after the fifth injection, from what I remember. They had a card which they filled in each injection, which I think was about every 3 hours. But it had Fleming, Florey [Ernst] and Chain [Howard] in it and the team at Oxford. It's always talked of as Fleming's discovery but there was a team of about 45 who worked on it trying to find the cure for gas gangrene which was the thing in the First World War which killed so many men. And it wasn't a chance discovery by any means, they knew what they were looking for and they found it.

SP: So the chance discovery is yet again another historical myth, is it, of the stuff that was growing on somebody's saucer on a window sill?

JT: Well it is and it isn't, Fleming was a fairly haphazard scientist. One of his disks was contaminated with a penicillin spore, but he did write a short paper saying there does seem to be some antipathy between this mould and the bacteria. Then 12 years went by and he didn't do anything about it. And they set up this team in I don't know in what year, 1938, somewhere around there, purposely to discover a cure for gas gangrene.

SP: Was this encoded in the film? 

JT: Yes.

SP: But to go out to the front, or near the front and pick up a wounded person was a fairly innovative style of filmmaking.

JT: Well Alex was a very, very good filmmaker.

SP: It's the kind of thing you would only consider doing now with a video camera, or at least lightweight equipment which they didn't have then did they?

JT: No, it was silent stuff anyway, with a Newman inevitably. Alex was a very good filmmaker, very good indeed, very good scriptwriter and Kay shot a lot of the stuff, she was a very good filmmaker too. Suschitsky [Wolfgang] photographed half of it and Jeak photographed the other half. They lost actually reel two, the British Film Institute and after a certain amount of jumping up and down they rediscovered it.

3. Setting up the Crown Film Unit

JT: I went on at Realist until till the end of [1946]. Alex Shaw left at the beginning of 1946, and went as producer to Crown. Then at the end of that year he asked me if I'd go and I didn't want to go but he said it was my duty to go. I didn't particularly want to leave Realist but in the end I went anyway. First of January 1947.

SP: In what capacity then?

JT: As Producer, Producer-In-Charge. They'd taken over Beaconsfield Studios which had been an aircraft factory. It had no heating in it at all and was a ruin. The cutting rooms were at Denham, Pinewood and Twickenham. I don't know where the sound people were and it was that winter when everything froze solid.

SP: And no easy transport.

JT: There was tons of transport. They had masses of transport of their own. 

SP: What, the hangover from the war?

JT: Yes they had big Ford green army cars for production. They had generator lorries. There was something like 250 people there. At the end of the war they had to decide what the future shape of the government film department was going to be. Basil Wright was on the committee at the Ministry of Information with 2 or 3 high-up civil servants deciding what shape it should be. And they decided they would set up a film department based on the Canadian National Film Board, which would be a department which would have it's own grant and decide which films were made, in consultation with the other governments departments, but they would be the authority.

SP: Did Grierson come in on this at all?

TJ: No, not at all. Grierson at this time was with UNESCO in Paris. But Basil was their adviser and it was all agreed. One morning Basil picked up a paper and opened it and read that the Central Office of Information is the new body and will have a film department. This was really the beginning of the end because it didn't really work very well. There'd been scores of public relation officers appointed during the war. And after the war they poured out of the forces to become public relation officers and hadn't the vaguest idea of what they were doing at all but wouldn't it be nice to have a film. What sort of film, oh a film, any film would do [Laughter]. There were a few who were good. It was completely the wrong way of doing it unfortunately. 

The second mistake was to give Crown a studio. The last thing Crown wanted was the plasterers department, a carpenters department, an art department and so on. What it wanted was 2 projection rooms, or 3 projection rooms, a dozen cutting rooms, a camera department and some offices.

SP: Mm and some transport which there was.

JT: Yes, but you could even hire the transport. But instead of that it was landed with this enormous overhead which controlled the whole of it's production. There was this a very good chief executive there called Smith, Gordon Smith who was a very enthusiastic good character. The camera department was terrible, they couldn't do anything except put the camera 3 foot 6 from the ground, lock it firmly and put every light they'd got onto whatever it was they were photographing. They were all nice people but they'd really got control of the situation.

When I went there they had things like the establishment which you couldn't break. That was 8 directors and 4 scritpwriters.

SP: Had they been there during all the war.

TJ: One director had made a film, the other 7 hadn't.

SP: How had they managed to get there?

JT: I don't know, Alex had appointed them. All the people had left and gone into the studios. Humphrey Jennings, Jack Lee, Pat Jackson, and so on, all of them. The four scriptwriters, I don't think any of them had ever written a script but they were all likely people to be trained. It took a year and a half to build the studio. We slowly got bits, everything was in short supply. You couldn't get switches for the cutting rooms so you couldn't use the cutting rooms and all this kind of thing.

SP: Was any production going on at all?

JT: We used every conceivable method of getting films made. We made a lot of films. We converted the plasterers shop into a studio. We got Jack Holmes to come in and make a film. I tried to get Joris Ivens, I told you, to come here. Max Anderson came in, Terry Bishop, ultimately Phil Leacock and Margaret Thomson, but you were very strictly controlled on how many you could employ. The budget was some enormous sum of money, about £2 million a year, and 8 directors could never spend £2 million a year even if they were making features. You'd try and explain this to people, the establishment people and the finance people, they just wouldn't listen. I enjoyed it actually. It was quite a thing to do

4. Daybreak at Udi

JT: After a while we reaIly began to churn films out, all sorts of things, the kind of films I like to make anyway, The Diagnosis and Management of PoliomylitisPolio - Diagnosis And Management], which was a five-reeler. There was a very big outbreak of polio at that time and most doctors had never seen it.

SP: So this was a specific film for doctors.

JT: Yes. All sorts of stuff.

SP: What make you decide some pictures rather than others? Did some of the directors who were sitting there who hadn't directed did they come up with stories too. 

JT: No, the snag was that you could only make films that were requested by other government departments.

SP: It was all government departments was it?

JT: Yes.

SP: It couldn't be anyone else. You were there to service the government as it were.

JT: It depended on whether the chief secretary or someone... they could bend the rules but you couldn't, if you see what I mean. Occasionally, we made a film, one morning I read an article in the Times about a man called Chadwick who was a district officer in Nigeria, about a fundamental education. I rang Helen Demoulpied who I got on very well with, we both believed in the same kind of things. I said have you seen that and she said yes I have, I said what about it and she said right. We had a thing called, for The Ministry of Education which Jacquetta Hawkes was the films officer, called Ships and Seafaring, an educational film. Helen and Jacquetta changed Ships and Seafaringinto Daybreak in Udi

SP: You mean there was something on the stocks?

JT: [Laughter] If the other end agreed you could do anything practically. There were two other ends, I mean it was easy enough to get Helen Demoulpied to agree because she would think the same way but in this case there was Jacquetta Hawks who was quite good to. 

Half way through the production, the original budget was £15,000 and they were all out there with sound and everything.

SP: Who directed that?

JT: Terry Bishop was directing that and Max Anderson producing it, Monty Slater wrote the script, they were all out there trying to shoot. We'd spent the £15,000 and we couldn't get authority from the finance people to go on and finish the film. I think they were held up two weeks before I could get permission. There were all sorts of things happened like that. 

During the war the Civil Service lost control of film production completely and Beddington and Elton and all the other controlling officers would say go and make a film. Then the budget people would groan and moan and say we shouldn't really pass this and they knew that they had to pass it but they would put up an objection. The minute the war finished they got back in control again, they didn't say we shouldn't pass this, they'd say we won't pass this. And that made life difficult. But between us we knocked it into not a bad [place], we got the unit feeling going. We had a cricket team, a darts team, a sports club, everybody ate in the canteen, there were no posh lunches, I always ate in the canteen. We had dances and a magazine called Short Ends which Bob Angel edited. There were a lot of very enthusiastic young people there as well.

SP: Was Daybreak at Udi a one-off overseas production or were you making things on post-war reconstruction or wasn't that your briefing.

JT: The briefing covered anything practically which any government department wanted. We made films about road safety, teaching films for schools, we did a lot of secret work on the building of Harwell [Secrets of Harwell], which was a fairly crazy business and other secret work which I can't really remember and which I didn't really know much about but I knew about Harwell.

SP: Was that filming for the archives for the future?

JT: Yes. It was a record of the construction. God alone knows where the stuff is now. We did a lot of record stuff. We did the building of Brabazon [Story Of The Bristol Brabazon], we used to send a unit down there once a month. And various other things like that, there was quite a lot of that. There was a Russian delegation which came over here in 1947 which we recorded everything they did more or less. Very good coverage of it and I felt there's no point of us making a film of it, so we made it up into reels with full notes saying shot number 1, this is so and so, and this is the background to it, Tower of London and so on and so on, they went around everywhere. We got about 10 or 12 reels of this stuff. We sent it to Moscow to be edited by the Russians and the bl**dy fools at the British Embassy ran it as a film at a cinema in Moscow.

SP: Just as it stood?

JT: As it stood. [Laughter] Camera flashes in the lot. Alexander Berth was the Guardian correspondent and a friend of ours wrote back saying this is a disgrace, the Crown Film Unit's falling to pieces, which didn't help us very much I might say but it was fair old chaos one way and another. 

1. Preparation

SP: Now on the previous tape you were beginning to say about the preparations for shooting Man of Aran, and the entire family and you and all the children and equipment were all arriving there.

JT: Right.

SP: Was that shot in the same way like Flaherty, filming instinctively, sequence by sequence or was it scripted to a certain extent?

JT: No, I shouldn't have thought that he ever scripted anything, really. No, he'd got the idea from reading Singe, Riders To the Sea, and there's a two volume description of the Aran Islands by Singe when he lived there called Aran Islands.

Although he couldn't use a screwdriver or anything like that he was a very practical man and as I've said before very innovative. He was always ahead technically on things in some ways, especially on photography. He developed Nanook of the North in the Arctic. The printer he used, we didn't have electricity and the window was blocked up and they had a hole in the woodwork that blocked the window, which let the light in to be the printer light. And he was very good at getting the other people and trusting other people to do the work. He trusted me to develop this damn thing, which was fair risk really for someone who is 17 to develop it. It wasn't a costly feature but there was a certain amount of money as involved. In some ways he was not unlike Grierson, he was very good with young people, in encouraging them. And having confidence in them.

SP: You must have been very nervous because if you did a days shooting and then you went to do the processing, was that in the same evening as you shot?

JT: Not usually. I'll tell you we started off, we had a 2 kilowat generator which is nothing, one electric fire really. And the drying drums had been made at Gaumont. They were large wooden drums about 6 feet long, by I suppose about 5 feet in diameter. He converted this fish shed which was just an ordinary rough stone shed and lined it with wood and painted to keep the dust down.

SP?. You did all that after you got there.

JT: After we got there, yes. We moved into the house. There were one or two quite good carpenters on the island, no-one knew anything about electricity at all except me and I didn't know very much about it! [Laughter] I wired the house and things like that and did the wiring, all that kind of thing you learned at the GPO or EMB. No-one knew how to start the generator and by luck I read the instruction manual and found out. There was no one on the island who knew anything about engines or anything like that. We'd been trying to get the thing going for about two days and nothing would happen, and one evening I read the instruction manual carefully [Laughter] and from then on I was a genius on anything mechanical as far as Flaherty was concerned. 

2. Laboratory 

JT: We had terrible trouble with the laboratory, we couldn't get it to work. We started off with a thing called corex bands which were celluloid bands, the kind of band they used to used for developing leica rolls, with indentations. There was 200ft of celluloid with bulges on it which kept the film in between the two as you wound it and the only snag with that was that this band had corex patent about every meter along it, punched through it and it printed it onto the negative. So the first 200 feet we developed had corex painted over every meter. We threw those away and then we started on the old-fashioned, um, we had tanks made, I suppose about I foot wide and 4 foot long and 5 foot deep, and there's a wooden rack, something like an old wooden clothes horse, just one bar each side and you wound the film on it, 200 feet, and then pushed it into the tank. And we got flutter and waver and uneven development on that.

SP: Had anybody suggested that you have a dry run with the equipment before you left for Aran?

JT: You couldn't have done it any way because it would have meant setting up, the point was that he'd done it on Moana, and on Nanook, and he couldn't understand why, we did endless tests, really, endless. One of the things about him was that he his persistence. He would go on and on and on from morning till night you know. We did hundreds and hundreds of tests of different ways of developing.

SP: This was really before the proper shooting began?

JT: No, he was shooting at the same time and I was left at home to do the tests. But every night Mrs Flaherty, who was a good stills photographer, every night we would have about 3 leica rolls which I'd develop before we had supper. We had an enlarger in the dark room and he and I would go down and we would make 100 prints, every night of the bl**dy week this went on and we'd never stop. You never stopped Saturdays or Sundays, we must have worked something like 6 months without any break at all.

SP: What were the 100 prints for?

JT: Stills of what he was shooting, so he knew what he was shooting. I'll explain it a bit more. There was a trade war on between the Irish Republic and Britain at the time and Britain had put an embargo on anything coming from Ireland so we couldn't send the rushes back to London. Because there was a duty of something like a shilling a foot on film going from Ireland into England, so we kept it all there. And he had a lot of trouble doing the casting. They got the boys easy enough, the man, I don't think they got the man for 3 or 4 months. If you're doing things in that way it does take time to build a laboratory, it must have taken a month or two months to do the building work there. He was a very uncertain worker, he seemed to have no confidence in what he was doing at all.

3. Managing the production

JT: I used to do everything on the thing really. I was production manager, accountant, laboratory man, assistant cameraman, nursemaid to his children, the lot. Once a month we used to get a registered letter from Gaumont or Gainsborough and I can't really remember how much was in it, because the value of money has changed so much. But I suppose it was £100 in white £5 notes. And Flaherty used to open the envelope, take two or three and give me the rest which I used to put it in my back pocket. Then at the end of the month, he and I, we were both completely illiterate, we used to sit down, he couldn't write and I could only just write and we used to do the expenses. Thomas McDonaugh £2/10, Pauls, which was the local shop £14, Dalys, which was the pub £12 and so on. We'd get it up to about £52 and we didn't know what we'd done with the rest. Then I used to write, I didn't even know how to spell it, I used to put M.I.S.C expenditure £49. [Laughter]

Gaumont used to accept these without any quibble, they must have thought it was the most peculiar production anyone had ever seen. But he had this business that if you were going to make a film, you went there and you got to know the place. The costs were minute, I was getting £2/10sh a week. Pat Mullen who became the kind of production manager who arranged everything and knew everybody and fixed up everything and told Flaherty what to do and what not to do I think he got £4 a week. The assistant in the lab was my future brother in law who was 14, who's name was PJ I think he was getting £l a week. So the costs were, I don't know what Flaherty was getting, I think he was getting £40 a week but I'm not certain about that. Then there were 2 girls in the kitchen which I suppose were maybe £1 a week and an odd job man who used to empty the lavatory and things like that so the cost was negligible. And this is how he believed in making films, you get to know the place, you get to know the people and so forth. In the end, we more or less gave up the laboratory.

SP: It's a way that's only used, I'm guessing here now, by anthropologists, ethnographic filmmakers now, to go and live in a place for months and months and months.

JT: He was almost an anthropologist, in a simple nineteenth century way. You have to remember he was 48 in 1932, so he was born during the Victorian era and lived during it.

SP: But then at the end, was it 6 months you were there?

JT: One year and 8 months.

SP: I beg your pardon. It was 6 months you were talking about in the preliminary period.

JT: This was the first 6 months, yes.

SP: Did you go away and come back?

JT: No.

SP: You were there the whole time?

JT: He went over to London and took the exposed film with him and saw it in London with Balcon and so on and everyone seemed quite happy. He brought back a 17" lens was unknown of in those days.

P: You say he saw it with Balcon was he supervising, was he the producer of it?

JT: Balcon was the producer and he was nagged into making the film by the film critic of the Sunday Express, a man called Cedric Belfrage. Belfrage saw Balcon and said you've got one of the great filmmakers of the world in London and all you're making is this crap about Jew Süss and so on. And Balcon fell for it.

4. Budget

SP: I suppose the cost was small in comparison to a big feature production.

JT: The original budget was £11,000. I think we went slightly over that on the shooting but only slightly. But then when they went back to the studio there were things like a pearl necklace for one of the young starlets bought by one of the Ostrer brothers which Flaherty blew his top on, for 500 quid, and said what the hell is this doing on my cost? But there were things like that added and the final cost I think was £26,000. Which sounds tiny money today but in those days it wasn't that small. Jew Suss I suppose most likely cost about £200,000, £150,000 or something. It was a tiny budget. Balcon, the strange thing about Balcon was if you talk to him, the one film he was proud of was Man of Aran. Out of the all the hundreds of film he produced, the one he would always say, of course when we made man of Aran, amazing. I suppose it was such small beer and Flaherty was such a personality. There's a long story about him getting this 17" lens. Balcon had a brother known as S.C. Balcon who was his right hand man for stopping anything happening, and he fled from Flaherty, who was pursuing him for getting this 17" lens which I don't suppose cost all that much. And Flaherty waited outside the lavatory for hours and hours until S.C finally had to come out, and he came back proudly with his, I think it must have been one of Flaherty's stories, with this 17" lens.

By the end of the summer they got the cast together, Maggie [Maggie Dirrane], Mike [Michael Dillane] the boy and Tiger [Coleman 'Tiger' King] who was the man. Then Flaherty brought up from London a man called Coullison who in charge of testing Kodak's stock, at Kodak, which was a very responsible job because every foot that went out, they had to be sure. There were many problems, there used to be you know in coating stock, all sorts of things could go wrong with it, and he really knew what he was talking about. He was a small young cockney, a very, very nice man indeed, he came out. In the meantime Flaherty had sent to America and had got things called Stineman racks, a monel metal rack. It's a spiral, a flat spiral, not a spiral going up into the air, of 200 feet of monel metal about half an inch deep, and you run the film onto it and it loads itself more or less.

SP: All your shooting was 200 foot lengths?

JT: Mm. A lot of the stock was short ends from Gaumont anyway, because on those 1,000 foot cameras, if they got 200 or 300 left they put on a new one. A lot of the stock I used to have to rewind into 200 foot rolls. Flaherty sent to America for these things which he'd used before. We had about 6 of them, Coullison arrived and took a look at it and said - the width of the Stineman racks came, monel metal tanks which were about 3" or 4" deep - those tanks are quite wrong you want a tank that's 3 ft deep. And they built 3 big tanks of wood and corked the seams, and we used to have to make up all the developer, there were various formulas, D76 was the one we used, I think. Whether any of this is true or not I haven't the faintest idea, but I vaguely remember, I haven't mentioned D76 for 50 years I suppose. He did all sorts of things. He wrapped the baths of the drying drums with gauze and he showed me how to run the negative onto the drums with a pad of chammy leather with which you took off all the surplus water. All sorts of little things like that.

SP: This was after quite a bit of shooting had already begun.

JT: This was about October

5. Shark hunt

JT: One of the reasons we stayed on for so long was because we were waiting for a storm. The first year he was there, the basking sharks came and went and it was only me and PJ. In PJ's loft there were some harpoons that were left over from when they were shark hunting, and PJ and I went out in a canoe, which was a daft thing to do because they turn over as easy as anything, trying to kill a shark with one of these enormous great irons. I couldn't even stick it in the shark let alone get it harpooned [Laughter]. Flaherty came down and said what are you doing? We said we were trying to harpoon a shark, and he said where did you get the harpoons from? PJ said they were in the loft at home, and Flaherty then said we're going to have a shark hunt in it, this is literally where it came from. We rushed off to Galway into the library, there were 2 or 3 books in the library about this business of shark hunting for oil on the West Coast of Ireland. It probably hadn't been done for 50-60 years but it wasn't all that far away and certainly the harpoons were there. 

Flaherty then sent off to Scotland to a Captain Murray who was a whaling captain, who's a wonderful man. He was a captain of a sailing whaler from Dundee when he was 26, and he was now about 80, but he was supposed to be the finest ice pilot who ever sailed into Hudson's Bay and Flaherty knew him from there of course. Somewhere on the island we dug up two harpoon guns so it had been done fairly recently. Tiger who was the leading man in the film was also the blacksmith so he got the guns into working order and we hired a big sailing Brixham trawler, a sailing boat and the gun was mounted on the front. We sailed out to kill the sharks. By this time all the bl**dy sharks had gone [Laughter] so we had to wait another year for the sharks to come back. All sorts of things happened all the time. 

Cedric Belfrage appeared. Cedric was the film critic of the Sunday Express. And in those days he had 2 full pages in the Sunday Express and he was very highly thought of. He was a very elegant young gent. His brother was Bruce Belfrage and so on, the actor. He appeared in a light plane, a two- seater, and they couldn't land on the island. We went in and collected them and we took them out shark hunting. We had a boat called a puquan which is the actual one they used in the film which the men rowed and then we had a fishing boat, a 40 foot fishing boat for the camera. 

Somehow, I was always getting into trouble for something or another and I think poor old Flaherty really must have suffered considerably having me as his assistant, but never mind. We had big thermos flasks, great big ones and someone left them at home. I suppose I left them at home on the quay or something. We were out all day in these two boats with nothing to drink at all, plenty of food but nothing to drink. In the evening we went across which was about 10 miles away to the mainland. There was Belfrage and his pilot and Flaherty, a man called Rowe who was a writer and about 6 or 7 Aran islanders and me. And there was a tiny pub in this place, you wouldn't really recognise it as a pub, it was just one room with a barrel of porter and so on. We went in there and they really started drinking, they cleaned out the porter to begin with, then they drank all the whiskey and gin, there wasn't a lot of it. Then Flaherty said someone go up the road and get a jar of potcheen, one or two of them went up the road and came back with a big stone jar of potcheen, a ferocious drink. The drinking went on and on and on. There was a place there called the Hotel of the Isles, a place where about 3 in the morning we all went in to have breakfast. The West of Ireland was like this in anyway, it was quite accepted. Everyone was paralytic by this time. We went out of the harbour at full speed and it was a very dangerous harbour with rocks all over the place.

Cedric Belfrage was standing up in the seat, in the middle of the Atlantic this is, if he'd gone over the side no-one would have known, saying Beaverbrook, f**k him, and then he's singing life's just a bowl of cherries. The man called Rowe had passed out by this time. The Aran islanders said this is very dangerous, anyone passing out from potcheen, we must make him sick, so one put his finger down his finger down his throat at which point Rowe bit him. They said this is no good, just drag him over the side, so they just put him over the side and held him by his legs [Laughter]. Absolute craziness, 5 miles each way from land with 14 paralytics.

6. Processing techniques

JT: It was incredibly primitive, you can't believe how primitive it was. You loaded the film onto these Stineman racks and you bolted two together, one above the other, developed it, washed it, fixed it and then washed it in a cascade. We had 3 wooden tanks as cascade. But then there was a round white enamel tray about 4" deep which was full of fresh water. You tested it first with permanganate of potash If it was clear of, if it had been washed clean of all the acid and fixing stuff, you took a test on the water, and the permanganate of potash came out purple. If there was any acid left in it, it came out brown and you had to go on washing it. Once you'd washed it, you picked up this rack and turned it upside down into the tank and shook the film out into the water, 200 feet of film. Then we had a carpenter's brace and bit with a nail and a wooden centre out of a 200 foot roll, and you'd clip the end of the film to it and you wound up 200 feet on a carpenters brace and bit in the water.

SP: It did get scratched or damaged?

JT: No

SP: Incredible.

JT: And then PJ would hold it on a nail, and I'd clip it on the drum, and with a large pad of chammy leather turned the drum and took off all the surface water which would leave stains on it. In the drying room we had a 2 burner valor perfection oil stove to supply the heat for the drying, in the other room we had a 4 burner valor perfection oil stove, with an open wick. It seemed incredible primitive but it worked absolutely without any problems at all. If you were doubtful about developing anything, you would take a test off the end of a roll to see what it was like.

We had a little printer which took 200 feet of positive, 200 feet negative on spools above, and it had a gate with red glass on this side of it because it was positive stock and not sensitive to red light. And on the right there was a diaphragm control and you just sat and watched it and changed the thing to what you thought it was. It worked perfectly. But by this time, John Goldman had arrived from Gaumont. He was sent up as an assistant cameraman and Flaherty immediately made him the editor, I don't think he'd ever edited anything in his life before [Laughter].

SP: Was the idea to do a rough cut on the island to know whether any extra shots were needed?

JT: Not a rough cut. He cut the picture completely. And they'd sit there for hours and bl**dy hours running it through, running it through, running it through. He had this persistence, of going on and on until everyone was going mad.

SP: But the negative was left intact obviously

JT: The negative, yes. We had a pigsty which was a clean pigsty which was built as a pigsty and the negative was kept in there in transit cases.

SP: But that all remained on the island in case you wanted to have to use it.

JT: All the way through.

SP: did you have to print some of it up again?

JT: Well couldn't take it back to England you see.

SP: I just wondered with all this editing and re-editing going on whether you had to print up 200 foot lengths sometimes to replace...

JT: Oh yes, sometimes. There was a certain amount of reprinting. But once the problem was solved, the laboratory was no problem at all.

7. End of the shoot

JT: We were there a year and 8 months, we finally packed up in August 1933. I can remember packing all the negative up into transit cases. You know this is of the things about Flaherty and Grierson to some certain extent, they really put complete confidence in people. I was 18 at the time, the negative, it was a quite valuable thing and it was quite natural that I should take it to Dublin. Today I don't know if I would trust an 18 year old with a year and a half's work, but he seemed to. I left the negative in Dublin because the trade war was still going on and they sent negative cutters to select the stuff they wanted. 

Flaherty, by this time, the end of the first year two other people had appeared on the scene, Flaherty's brother David who became the production manager, he was an experienced production manager, managed to knock some order into the production. And John Goldman, who during the war he had to change his name to Monck because the Jewish thing if they was captured, he was at the Crown film Unit during the war, but then he was John Goldman and he was the editor. I finished then and went back to the GPO Film Unit and then went on to Shepherds Bush to finish the cutting and to put the sound on.

SP: When you say you were put in charge or left to transport the negative to Dublin, there must have been crates and crates of it at the end of a year and a half shooting.

JT: There was quite a lot but not as much as people say. In actual fact I think he undershot the stuff of the real life of the island. There were a lot of quite nice things that we could have shot and a certain amount he did shoot. But in the end the film finally was just 2 shark hunting sequences and 2 storm sequences, whereas all the rest of the stuff, it was a very exceptional place Aran in those days, it was a hangover society from the 19th century, people lived very, very simply indeed.

SP: The camera was a Newman Sinclair but not a hand cranked one.

JT: No, it was a 200 foot, we had two, one which broke and I mended.

SP: They were both the same were they?

JT: Yes both the same. There were 12 magazines and he used very largely 6" and 1" lenses, he very seldom used shorter focuses than that, even when shooting sequence like the boy on the cliff fishing, which is quite a nice sequence. I think that was all shot with a 6" or something like that. He was very good at looking at something. For example, I think it was the first Christmas eve we had a big sea and we went out with 2 cameras and shot an awful lot of footage because it was the first chance of shooting big sea stuff. We came back and I developed it, he saw it and it was all shot with the horizon in the picture, with waves bursting up in the air and so on. He then formulated the theory if you want seas to look big don't show the horizon. And if you see that, the storm sequence, I mean, if he did nothing else out there the storm sequence is really quite exceptional, which he and Mrs Flaherty shot.

8. Shooting the storms

JT: Some of the days I was there and some of the days I was using the second camera. There's a shot in that where a very big wave comes over them Maggie and Mike and the crew of the boat when they're on the beach carrying the fishing net up, and a wave absolutely buries them. We nearly lost them actually, very nearly, it was touch and go. There were two cameras on that, you can see it in the film. They cut from one camera to another. But on the day of the big sea when they shot the boats, I'd got everything ready and the two cameras and loaded everything up and so I'm standing there. We travelled by Danton car to the place where we went to shoot that stuff and was waiting there and Flaherty and Mrs Flaherty came out. Flaherty said you better get on with the developing today, I said are you sure, I mean today's the day we've waited a year or more for this. And he said no you get on with the developing. 

What it actually was I realised afterwards, years afterwards, at the time they weren't all that old, they were only 48. He was 48 and his wife was a bit younger and this was their big day together and they wanted to do it together. At the time I thought pff this is crazy having waited a year, but I realised that this was something that meant a lot to them. 

They shot this superb boat stuff which was terribly dangerous, it really was dangerous, there were 2 or 3 shots in it that ... They still run it in Aran every Sunday night during the summer in the village hall for the tourists, but the locals every time these two shot comes on, the locals, you can hear an intake of breath as the canoe swings around a rock and pulls off it. And there's another one when they're coming up to an island and one of the men pulls a boat around and you can hear the audience sigh each time because they know what it means. I think they paid them £25 each, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days. You could say 20 times at least, so that would be five hundred quid equivalent today. I mean it would be much more than a family income for the year out there but the danger was quite something. 

But anyway, if you notice that there's no horizon in it at all and the seas look enormous. When David Lean was making Ryan's Daughter, they had a copy of Man of Aran there and everyone who worked on the film, Paddy Carey worked on Ryan's Daughter. David Lean said to him have you seen Man of Aran? He said yes, he said well go up to the projection room and look at the storm sequence, because that's the sequence we've got to do better than. I don't think they did really. And this was just Mr and Mrs Flaherty. You know it was rough shooting and there were waves breaking over them, there was big gales blowing. But she was quite an amazing woman, and very much a partner of his.

1. Photography and sound

JT: At the end of 33 we went to Ceylon [Sri Lanka] by ship, needless to say

SP: In what capacity, you went as cameraman?

JT: No, assistant. Bas did his own photography. He'd photographed quite a number of films by that time.

SP: I didn't realise that.

JT: We had a 200 foot clockwork Newman and a 400 foot Newman as a standby. In those days it took 3 weeks to get to Ceylon so you had to have something. We had a packing case full of lights. Before we went to Ceylon we were in Soho Square one day - Flaherty used to come in and out quite often, he was close to Grierson, most nights they used to go out to supper together. And Flaherty appeared one day with a Leica camera in a case and it had a 2" lens, a 4" lens and a 6" lens and a very posh view finder and every thing in it, filters and magazines, the lot, in a large, beautiful leather case. This was his present to me for working on Man of Aran. Incredible. 

We did the same thing in Ceylon that we did in Aran. Every day I used to develop a roll of leica film, we didn't see any rushes while we were out there. There was a very nice tea-planter there named Scott who was a keen amateur photographer and he had a dark room. Once a week or once a fortnight we'd go up to this place and stay the night and I'd make enlargement of the things so Basil could see what he was doing, a very useful way of working in those days when you couldn't get the rushes in. We had quite big crew.

SP: You didn't take short strips from the end of some of the rolls and develop them too from the cameras as a technical check.

JT: No, I loaded the film from the camera magazine so it was the same film and I worked with the same exposure that he was working at. We had, he had an enormous collection of stills when we came back, there were really thousands and they were lost somewhere. Before he died I said what happened to the stills of Song of Ceylon and they got lost along the wayside which was rather a pity. There are a few production stills left.

SP: How long were you in Ceylon then?

JT: I don't really know, but I should think 3 months. We had a crew of Sinhalese who were very nice people and a very, very good contact man called Lionel Wendt who was half Dutch and half Sinhalese.

SP: When you say crew, you mean people for carrying the equipment and rigging the lights and all this kind of thing.

JT: The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board had kind of travelling caravans which travelled round Ceylon, doing publicity work and they lent us one of their caravans and the crew which was about 6, which was wonderful really. It made everything very easy and Bas was a very efficient and very organised man.

SP: You were both so very young.

JT: I was 19 then and Bas was born in 1907 so he was 26 roughly, but he was very experienced. By nature he was the best filmmaker I have ever met, he really knew how to make films.

SP: Did he, if you can remember, the eventual shape and form of the film was that something that he had from the beginning or did it evolve during the editing?

JT: No he had terrible troubles during the editing which he's described in various places. He came back with this mass of material, well mass, I suppose there may have been 20,000 feet, 25,000 feet or something like that and he really suffered with the editing because Grierson kept at him and wouldn't accept anything except something special. With Grierson pursuing him and Basil being tortured he produced this formula of the 4 parts of it. To me one of the special things about it was the use of sound and this was very much Basil.

It was practically the first sound film he made and he evolved that technique of contrapuntal sound or whatever you call it, which sound really played a very important part in. It's completely forgotten now, no one uses sound in any way but straight forwarded, or music or straight sound. But that kind of sound played as important a part as the picture to it. And the equipment was very crude, I suppose you could only mix two or three tracks, you can do ten tracks or twenty tracks today. He really was a very, very intelligent man, very well organised, really a very imaginative filmmaker.

2. Budgets and working relationships

JT: The costs were so low, I suppose I was getting about £4 a week. I don't suppose Bas was getting much more than £8 a week, so what did it matter. And I think practically everything on the production was free. We stayed a lot at rest houses, they had Government rest houses which were very, very nice places indeed, especially out in the jungle, and that was all contributed by the government. The van and the crew didn't cost anything. I don't know what the cost of it was but I should think the total cost was say £3,000. There were few precedents for someone like Basil, he was really finding his way, how to make this kind of film. There were no other films really like this.

SP: Were there any alarms and excursions during the shooting of it or did it all go fairly smoothly?

JT: I think it all went very smoothly indeed. Partly because he was so well organised. He did the accounts and he was a very thorough character. It all seemed to go very simply really.

SP: 1 suppose this is going a bit off a tangent, but you and he and the other people working at the GPO Film Unit, you weren't aware that lots of things were being innovated, that you were trying out ideas, but it was just a very exciting time and a gruelling time. But you weren't aware that you were part of what is known now in the history books as the documentary movement. Or did you have big discussions or were you aware that you were doing something new.

JT: There were a lot of discussions but I'm sure we were insufferable in some ways, we were so bloody superior to everyone else, we must have been a pain in the neck to many people. But at the same time there was a feeling this was something new and this is why you got this was tremendous cooperation between everyone and completely unselfish contribution. People would go and help other people, it really was quite a nice time.

When we came back Basil started editing it and I worked there. They made four shorts out of the material as well as the film. In those days they used to use it all up [in] a number of these films. There was the main film and then they'd made 3 or 4 one-reelers, or 750 footers. I can remember making cuts of Negombo Coast, I can't remember the others, but there were 4 one-reelers and Song if Ceylon, they rather prided themselves on their shooting ratio.


Married to Barbara Mullen; brother-in-law of John Grierson