Karel Reisz

Karel Reisz
Forename/s: 
Karel
Family name: 
Reisz
Work area/craft/role: 
Industry: 
Interview Number: 
193
Interview Date(s): 
17 Apr 1991
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 
130

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Behp0193-karel-reisz-summary

SIDE ONE

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1926, educated there until the German invasion, when his parents sent him to the UK, where he went to a Quaker school along with his brother; at the age of 17 joined the Czech air force, sent on a short course (six months) held at Cambridge, got his wings three weeks before the end of the war. Was demobbed in Prague, went to search out his parents, but found no trace. Returned to UK, went back to Emmanuel College wher he finished his degree in chemistry. Joined the Film Society while he was there; came down in 1948, did supply teaching for three or four years, then started to write reviews for the Monthly Film Bulletin The British Film Academy asked him to edit their proposed book on editing (Focal Press). This had a so-called committee consisting of Thorold Dickinson, Sid Cole, David Lean and Jack Harris, but as he said, you cannot write a book with a committee! So for eighteen to twenty four months he watched all kinds of films on a movieola and the book was published; to the question “was this the definitive book on editing?”, he replied, “No, it's the only book on editing, and its sold all over the world.”  He later became the programme director for the National Film Theatre, and when the Experimental Film Production Fund was set up, together with Tony Richardson, and a £300 grant they made a film Momma Don’t Allow, which went into the NFT programme series Free Cinema. This was based upon Humphrey Jennings poetic approach to film; with two other films, made by other people O Dreamland and Together. He saw an advert put out by the Ford Company looking for a Films Officer, applied and got the job on his terms that once a year they would provide the money to make a non-commercial film. This produced Every day except Christmas Day and The Lambeth Boys, which went out on the circuit as a second feature. He then got his chance to make a feature film. Made for Woodfall Films, their first was Room at the Top (Jack Clayton) then Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger, then Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and then came This Sporting Life, directed by Lindsay Anderson and produced by Reisz.

SIDE TWO

He talks about his first disaster film Night Must Fall, and the break up of the group; he then talks about his great success with Morgan, A Suitable Case for Treatment. He also talks about the consortium who bought British Lion (He together with Tony Richardson and Oscar Lewenstein along with the Boultings, Launder and Gilliat and Joseph Jannie). Their offering was Morgan. He then made Isadora, which was a very unhappy experience, because of Universal’s request to make it a “road show” in the way The Sound of Music was exploited. He then made The Gambler, working in the USA, after that Dog Soldiers (called Who Stopped the Rain? In the USA). He then started talking about the French Lieutenant’s Woman.

SIDE THREE

French Lieutenant’s Woman continued. He has continued to work in the USA because no British company is coming up with the type of money now required to make feature films.

Transcript

Copyright is vested in the BECTU History Project

Karel Reisz, film director.

Interviewer Norman Swallow, recorded 17 April 1991

SIDE 1, TAPE 1

Norman Swallow: Where and when were you born

Karel Reisz: I was born in 1926, in a small town in Czechoslovakia called Ostria, which is a Sheffield of Czechoslovakia, a mining and industrial town, to a middle class Jewish family. My father was lawyer, and lived there until 1938, till the Occupation. A very uneventful childhood until the Occupation.

Norman Swallow: Then you came to England. I came to England.

Karel Reisz: What had happened was, my parents had sent my older brother Paul to a school, to a Quaker school in Reading, Leyton Park School, simply to be educated in England. And when the Occupation started my brother spoke to the school and asked whether they would take me on. I was 12 ½ then as a refugee. Because the British government was admitting children on condition there was a guarantor. And they did that. And I came to England in the beginning of June 1939 with a children's transporter, a Quaker's children transport. And went straight to the school. And was at that boarding school, the Quaker boarding school, Leyton Park for 4 ½ years.

Norman Swallow: Did your parents come over

Karel Reisz: No, my parents didn't survive the war.

Alan Lawson: When you left school, what did you do after that

Karel Reisz: Just before my 17th birthday I volunteered for the Czech airforce and at that time the Czech government was getting its subsidy from the British government depending on how many people it had in uniform, so they would take you if you were 12. Anyway I went on what was then called an RAF Short Course to Cambridge, 6 months short course where they taught you aeronautics and

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meteorology and that kind of thing. And then I went into the Czech Branch of the RAF

Norman Swallow: Czech squadron

Karel Reisz: In fact there was not a separate training squadron, I was trained in an international, we had Dutch and we had Turks. The Turks came in right at the end of the war and in fact there were some Turks being trained with me before the Turks were in the war. And I got my wings 3 weeks before the end of the war so it was very neatly timed. I never saw combat. And I went back to Prague which I hadn't known because I had come from a provincial city, I was repatriated with the Czech forces. And we all immediately deserted, because everybody had been away from home for six years

Karel Reisz: Two weeks later they gave an amnesty and we all returned to barracks. And then my parents, I knew by then, I went to Poland to search for my parents but I discovered they had in fact not survived. And I really had nobody left there at all, because my brother decided to stay in England. So I deserted and went to Pilsen which was then occupied by the American forces. Prague was Russian but the Western part of Czechoslovakia was American.

I was still in my RAF uniform with Czechoslovakia on my shoulder and I hitch-hiked to Munich on a Dakota and I spend a night in a camp, an American airforce camp. And it was the first time I had peanut butter and honey. It was on the table in the px

Norman Swallow: You liked it

Karel Reisz: Yes. And at the px we saw Along Came Jones, it's a minor film with Loretta Young and Gary Cooper I think. And the next day I got another plane to England. And two days later I was that Emanuel College, Cambridge, and I said to my tutor, I'm back. And he said you better come and start straight away, because nobody much is demobilised yet but next year it is going to be hell, so we'd better get you in now. And I spend two, three years at Cambridge and got my degree

Norman Swallow: Studying chemistry Karel Reisz Yes

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Norman Swallow: Why

Karel Rise: I don't know why. Yes, I do know why. My guardian, the man who had been my guardian during the war, a man I very greatly admired, was a chemist and so it was assumed in the family that the children would do as Papa did. And I had a scholarship. And it was the question of doing chemistry and going, or not going to university.

And at university I was very active in the Socialist Club and the very active playing rugger, and very active not working. And I joined the film society and my film mania, not a mania year, my film obsession really started there. And I came down in 1948-. Like everybody else, I couldn't get a job in the film industry. I became a supply teacher and taught at secondary modern and grammar schools for about three years.

Norman Swallow: At several, not just one Karel Reisz: I was a supply teacher Norman Swallow: A stand-in

Karel Reisz that's right. That's rights. And I taught physics and chemistry and maths. And then I started doing reviews for The Monthly Film Bulletin and things like that. And then as chance would have it I knew a lady who worked at the British Film Academy, a lady called Kumari Ralph, they it were looking for some body, they were planning a series of books on film technique. And the idea was there should be a book about camerawork, music and so on. And the dream was the books would be written by practitioners and that they would hire a kind of Boswell to do the work and I'd got the job of doing the editing one. Which was an extraordinary stroke of luck.

Norman Swallow: It was a great book if I may say so, 1953, published Focal Press.

Karel Reisz: That's right. It may be earlier than 1953. My committee was Thorold Dickinson, David Lean, Roy Boulting, Sid Cole and Jack Harris and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. And of course the idea of writing a book by committee is completely absurd.

Norman Swallow: Like making a film by committee.

Karel Reisz: And they never, they were very nice but of course they never turned up and who can blame them. But it was a gift from heaven for me because it meant that I could, I was paid to look at films on the Moviola, and break them down and describe the editing process and I made the book a kind practical, quite unpretentious analysis of actual edited sequences. So I had a period of 18 months or two years just have literally studying film. And it was the most fortunate circumstance.

Norman Swallow: The book is still around, and it was updated with Gavin Millar.

Karel Reisz: No, Gavin wasn't involved at all but 20 years later when the publisher wanted it brought up to date, Gavin was taken on. And he's written the last section on what had happened to editing since I'd written the book.

And the books great virtue is that it's the only book on this subject.. So all the students all over the world, it is the only.

At that time I met Lindsey Anderson who had with the Gavin Lambert started a magazine called Sequence at Oxford. And they brought it down with them and I started reviewing for it.

Norman Swallow: Was this around 1947

Karel Reisz: That sounds about right, I think it ended about 1951

Norman Swallow: Or 1952 Anyway we can look that up. Norman Swallow: I think I looked it up yesterday

Karel Reisz: Then I got a job and at the princely sum of £3 a week as assistant curator or to the National Film Archive, National Library it was called then, to Ernest Lindgren. That was at the BFI. And I did that and for about six months or a year and then the Telekinema which was the Festival of Britain cinema which had been used curiously enough by the husband of Kumari Ralph, my friend, Jack Ralph was in charge of it; and they'd used it mainly to demonstrate 3 D. But it was there that was an auditorium which the British film Institute took over and turned into

4

the National Film Theatre and I moved over and became the first programme director of the National Film Theatre. And this was about the same time as we were writing, working on Sequence. But Sequence was a purely voluntary, labour of love

Norman Swallow: It is very important, Sequence. Could you tell us more about Sequence. Looking back on it, it influenced me a lot and a lot of people.

Karel Reisz: I can claim practically no credit for that, because the kind of stance that Sequence took which I can talk about in a minute was established by Lindsey Anderson and Gavin Lambert and to some less extent by Penelope Houston, and a man called Peter Ericson. I wonder where Peter Ericson is, he's moved out of movies altogether. The importance of Sequence was that it was written by people who liked the American cinema, in intelligent circles this was the time of CA Lejeune, where cultivated people only went to a French films, that kind of thing. And Sequence wrote about Preston Sturges and John Ford and Wellman and Wilder as well as about French and British films. I think Lindsay should talk about it really because it was Lindsay's Baby and I came in on it quite late. I had a very good time and it was a very important part of my film education.

Then I read an advertisement in, no, no, the British film Institute organised a committee called the British Film Experimental Production Fund committee and Tony Richardson and I submitted a script for a half-hour 16 mm documentary that. And we got an advance of £300 and we made a film called Momma Don't Allow which was a film about

Norman Swallow: 1955 according to my records.

Karel Reisz: It was an unpretentious documentary about an evening in a north London jazz club and it made a bit of a splash. And it made a splash because at that time, mainly through Lindsay's energies, and I was that the National Film Theatre so I had some influence there, we put on a series of programmes with the catchphrase Free Cinema.

Really we were just friends. I think I'll leave it Lindsay to describe

Norman Swallow: What of the philosophy was

5

Karel Reisz: The philosophy was first of all the director should be in charge. And films should have some kind of connection with reality outside the studio. And it is very hard to remember now how rigid and class-bound and studio stuck the British film industry was at that time. So this group of films, and as films I don't want to deny_them in any way, but they caused a stir far beyond their quality. What held at them together was, one of the things we said in the kind of statement, in the first programme was about the importance of the every day. And that ran counter very much to the traditions of British documentary. British documentary having started with Grierson as, Drifters was very much like a Free Cinema film in a sense. But the movement had very much changed into films with arguments, films of polemic, films of social reform, films that used the documentary material in the chain of an argument about housing or about whatever. And admirable thought they were, the films we were wanting to make were more based on Humphrey Jennings, Humphrey Jennings was the poet, the outsider in a way of the British documentary movement. And his great films, Listen To Britain and Fires Were Started were really the starting point of the Free Cinema thing, that is to say films that aimed at a kind of poetic response to reality, not a polemical one. And it so happened we had three films, one that that Lindsay had made, a sharp satirical disenchanted film called and 0 Dreamland about a fairground in Wakefield was it, somewhere in the North. Tony and I had made Momma Don't Allow. Lorenz Mazes, an Italian student at the Slade had made a film called Together which was a film about the East End but really a story film about two deaf mutes distantly based on a Carson Mccullers story and this film was an hour long and Lindsay was very active in helping her to finish it in the cutting room.

So we put these three films together and put out the Free Cinema programme with the manifesto. And as I said the whole thing caused a very big splash.

Just about that time I read an advertisement, I don't know where, that the Ford Motor Company wanted a films officer and I applied and I got the job. And the job was some body who would be in charge of their films about tractors and ball bearings and advertising films and so on. This was round about the time ITA started. I remember we had made a commercial, an absolutely dreadful commercial

6

Norman Swallow This was around 1955

Karel Reisz: Yes That was during my time there. We had a commercial on the first night that ITA opened comparing Ford cars to perfectly chiseled jewels I remember, an extremely embarrassing commercial. My deal with the Ford Motor Company was that I would do those, be the films officer on condition that once a year they gave us money to make a sponsored film, Ford Motor Company sponsored, but not in any way advertising. And the first series first film in that series that we made was Lindsay's film Every Day Except Christmas, a film about Covent Garden market which formed the basis of the second Free Cinema programme, I think. I've got it confused in my head now. And the year after I made the one myself, We Are The Lambeth Boys which was a kind of expanded version of Momma Don't Allow, an hour long documentary about a youth club in Lambeth. And the hutzbar I must have had to go to the Ford people and say I'll do these advertising films if you give me money for these completely, it's amazing when I think about it.

In fact the Ford Motor Company did very well by these films because they got a lot of publicity and they got the reputation of being

Norman Swallow: They had a line at the end

Karel Reisz: They did, they had the Ford Motor Company presents. Like Shell, really, except that Shell made scientific films and ethnographical films. And we made these, I suppose, social documentaries. And those films continued to cause a bit of a splash.

Norman Swallow: Like making a film by committee.

Karel Reisz: And they never, they were very nice but of course they never turned up and who can blame them. But it was a gift from heaven for me because it meant that I could, I was paid to look at films on the Moviola, and break them down and describe the editing process and I made the book a kind practical, quite unpretentious analysis of actual edited sequences. So I had a period of 18 months or two years just have literally studying film. And it was the most fortunate circumstance.

Norman Swallow: The book is still around, and it was updated with Gavin Millar.

Karel Reisz: No, Gavin wasn't involved at all but 20 years later when the publisher wanted it brought up to date, Gavin was taken on. And he's written the last section on what had happened to editing since I'd written the book.

And the books great virtue is that it's the only book on this subject.. So all the students all over the world, it is the only.

At that time I met Lindsey Anderson who had with the Gavin Lambert started a magazine called Sequence at Oxford. And they brought it down with them and I started reviewing for it.

Norman Swallow: Was this around 1947

Karel Reisz: That sounds about right, I think it ended about 1951

Norman Swallow: Or 1952 Anyway we can look that up. Norman Swallow: I think I looked it up yesterday

Karel Reisz: Then I got a job and at the princely sum of £3 a week as assistant curator or to the National Film Archive, National Library it was called then, to Ernest Lindgren. That was at the BFI. And I did that and for about six months or a year and then the Telekinema which was the Festival of Britain cinema which had been used curiously enough by the husband of Kumari Ralph, my friend, Jack Ralph was in charge of it; and they'd used it mainly to demonstrate 3 D. But it was there that was an auditorium which the British film Institute took over and turned into

4

the National Film Theatre and I moved over and became the first programme director of the National Film Theatre. And this was about the same time as we were writing, working on Sequence. But Sequence was a purely voluntary, labour of love

Norman Swallow: It is very important, Sequence. Could you tell us more about Sequence. Looking back on it, it influenced me a lot and a lot of people.

Karel Reisz: I can claim practically no credit for that, because the kind of stance that Sequence took which I can talk about in a minute was established by Lindsey Anderson and Gavin Lambert and to some less extent by Penelope Houston, and a man called Peter Ericson. I wonder where Peter Ericson is, he's moved out of movies altogether. The importance of Sequence was that it was written by people who liked the American cinema, in intelligent circles this was the time of CA Lejeune, where cultivated people only went to a French films, that kind of thing. And Sequence wrote about Preston Sturges and John Ford and Wellman and Wilder as well as about French and British films. I think Lindsay should talk about it really because it was Lindsay's Baby and I came in on it quite late. I had a very good time and it was a very important part of my film education.

Then I read an advertisement in, no, no, the British film Institute organised a committee called the British Film Experimental Production Fund committee and Tony Richardson and I submitted a script for a half-hour 16 mm documentary that. And we got an advance of £300 and we made a film called Momma Don't Allow which was a film about

Norman Swallow: 1955 according to my records.

Karel Reisz: It was an unpretentious documentary about an evening in a north London jazz club and it made a bit of a splash. And it made a splash because at that time, mainly through Lindsay's energies, and I was that the National Film Theatre so I had some influence there, we put on a series of programmes with the catchphrase Free Cinema.

Really we were just friends. I think I'll leave it Lindsay to describe

Norman Swallow: What of the philosophy was 

Karel Reisz: The philosophy was first of all the director should be in charge. And films should have some kind of connection with reality outside the studio. And it is very hard to remember now how rigid and class-bound and studio stuck the British film industry was at that time. So this group of films, and as films I don't want to deny_them in any way, but they caused a stir far beyond their quality. What held at them together was, one of the things we said in the kind of statement, in the first programme was about the importance of the every day. And that ran counter very much to the traditions of British documentary. British documentary having started with Grierson as, Drifters was very much like a Free Cinema film in a sense. But the movement had very much changed into films with arguments, films of polemic, films of social reform, films that used the documentary material in the chain of an argument about housing or about whatever. And admirable thought they were, the films we were wanting to make were more based on Humphrey Jennings, Humphrey Jennings was the poet, the outsider in a way of the British documentary movement. And his great films, Listen To Britain and Fires Were Started were really the starting point of the Free Cinema thing, that is to say films that aimed at a kind of poetic response to reality, not a polemical one. And it so happened we had three films, one that that Lindsay had made, a sharp satirical disenchanted film called and 0 Dreamland about a fairground in Wakefield was it, somewhere in the North. Tony and I had made Momma Don't Allow. Lorenz Mazes, an Italian student at the Slade had made a film called Together which was a film about the East End but really a story film about two deaf mutes distantly based on a Carson Mccullers story and this film was an hour long and Lindsay was very active in helping her to finish it in the cutting room.

So we put these three films together and put out the Free Cinema programme with the manifesto. And as I said the whole thing caused a very big splash.

Just about that time I read an advertisement, I don't know where, that the Ford Motor Company wanted a films officer and I applied and I got the job. And the job was some body who would be in charge of their films about tractors and ball bearings and advertising films and so on. This was round about the time ITA started. I remember we had made a commercial, an absolutely dreadful commercial

6

Norman Swallow This was around 1955

Karel Reisz: Yes That was during my time there. We had a commercial on the first night that ITA opened comparing Ford cars to perfectly chiseled jewels I remember, an extremely embarrassing commercial. My deal with the Ford Motor Company was that I would do those, be the films officer on condition that once a year they gave us money to make a sponsored film, Ford Motor Company sponsored, but not in any way advertising. And the first series first film in that series that we made was Lindsay's film Every Day Except Christmas, a film about Covent Garden market which formed the basis of the second Free Cinema programme, I think. I've got it confused in my head now. And the year after I made the one myself, We Are The Lambeth Boys which was a kind of expanded version of Momma Don't Allow, an hour long documentary about a youth club in Lambeth. And the hutzbar I must have had to go to the Ford people and say I'll do these advertising films if you give me money for these completely, it's amazing when I think about it.

In fact the Ford Motor Company did very well by these films because they got a lot of publicity and they got the reputation of being

Norman Swallow: They had a line at the end

Karel Reisz: They did, they had the Ford Motor Company presents. Like Shell, really, except that Shell made scientific films and ethnographical films. And we made these, I suppose, social documentaries. And those films continued to cause a bit of a splash.

We Are the Lambeth Boys actually went out, and this was a great achievement, went out as a second feature in commercial cinema's and this was the time when documentaries were absolutely anathema to the exhibitors

Norman Swallow: Do you remember what it was packaged with

Karel Reisz: No I don't, I don't remember. It got a lot of publicity because the industry was stuck in a kind of Pinewood rut and it was absolutely ready for somebody to just prick the balloon of ABC and Rank. And these films were the forerunners of the social films that followed, in fact made by the same people, or some of the same people