Margaret Thomson

Family name: 
Work area/craft/role: 
Interview Number: 
Interview Date(s): 
23 Aug 1989
27 Mar 1990
18 Jan 1996
Production Media: 
Duration (mins): 

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Interview notes

The first interview was recorded on 23 Aug 1989 was abandoned after 15'35" on side 2. Interview  2 was recorded on 27th March 1990 and consisted of 4 sides.

The third interview was recorded on the 18th January 1996 and was conducted by Patricia Holland. Patricia kindly donated her copy of her interview with Margaret Thomson when Mike Dick met her at the  "Women Behind The Camera in World War II" event at the BFI Reuben Library on 15th May 2017  Please note the sound on the first 6 minutes is poor. The mic is adjusted and the recording is much improved.

Transcription PDF: 

Margaret Thomson Side 1

Gloria Sachs  0:00  
It's August the 23rd 1989. This is a recording of Margaret Thomson. Side one, tape one. Margaret, will you please like to tell me something about your, where you are, who you are, where you come from, your childhood days, anything about your early life?

Margaret Thomson  0:25  
Yes, I come from New Zealand. My parents came from New Zealand as well. And my grandparents went out to New Zealand in the very early days of the colonisation of New Zealand, and became, among the earliest citizens there, they went from Scotland, on both sides of the family. I suppose that the the most, one of the most important things, or the most romantic things, that happened to me, in my early days was before I was born really, when my father, who was a geologist, was chosen to be the chief geologist of Captain Scott's expedition to the Antarctic. And he went to Sydney, where the archives were from previous expeditions. And while he was there, it was discovered by famous Dr. Wilson of the Antarctic that he had tuberculosis, and couldn't go. But when I was two years old, the expedition finally set out from New Zealand and I was taken down to the quayside, where, my parents told me, Captain Scott held me in his arms, and I was the last baby he probably ever saw. This was quite a legend in my childhood. And I remember recounting it to the admiration of my chums. 

My mother died when I was five, my brother was three, two. And we were brought up by various aunts, both in New Zealand and in Australia. And when I was 14, my father found somewhere where we could live with him, and he could be looked after, medically, because he was still very ill. And he died three years later. So I had a rather mixed and strange childhood, unhappy childhood in some ways. And I expect it made me rather unsure of myself in my young days. However, I went to the University, it was the greatest joy and pleasure, and studied zoology. I took a master's degree in zoology, and loved it dearly, and would have been very happy to have had a had a job, doing research and so allergy for the rest of my life, I expect, but I hit the Depression time. And there were no jobs going. And I couldn't even teach in New Zealand, teach zoology in New Zealand, because no zoology was taught in the schools. So I came to England to get a diploma in education with a view of teaching in England. But I found to my horror, that I not only couldn't teach, but hated teaching, I didn't, didn't have any talent for it at all, as classroom teaching, so I looked around for something else that would use my zoology and would give me a satisfying life. And I had the greatest good luck to hit upon Gaumont-British Instructional, who at that time, were making a great number of natural history and zoological films under the guidance of Julian Huxley, and Professor Hewer of Imperial College. Those were the days of Mary Field's Secrets of Life and Secrets of Nature. But apart from these theatrical films, films for general release, they were making a great number of school films, teaching films of all kinds. And they had a programme for films on ecology. Now, ecology was a word that the layman never knew in those days, it was a very, very sort of academic word really. And by an extraordinary coincidence, my thesis had been on an ecological subject that had been the ecology of a little freshwater insect, a little insect that lived its life in freshwater and running streams. 

And it was part of a research programme that our professor was keen on because he was, he was going into the, the whole ecology of New Zealand streams, vis a vis the fish population of the streams. So anyhow, this was, this was what I had been doing. And here they had this programme of six films on ecology of different aspects of English natural history, British natural history, no one to do it. And nobody had even written any scripts, and I stepped straight into directing and scriptwriting without any training at all, which was really nonsense. But when one's dealing with inanimate subjects, well, I mean, when you're dealing with non, non human subjects, in a way, you have to string together what you can get in many ways. And it was an editing job as much as anything, a scripting and editing job as much as anything else. 

Gloria Sachs  5:46  
Did you have any experience at all of film, up to that point? 

Margaret Thomson  5:51  
None whatever, I'm ashamed of myself, really, I had none, whatever. And in fact, after those films were finished, that took about two years to do, I had to go back to the cutting room to learn about filmmaking. And I spent several years after that, as a cutting room assistant. I couldn't even call myself an editor. I'll just give you the titles of these films. I must say that ecology didn't have the broader meaning, then, it had a tighter meaning. We think of ecology now as being, being the concern of everything, every creature and of every influence in the natural world. These were much more specific things that were talked about, the ecology of moorlands, but nobody ever mentioned that mankind had any relationship to moorlands. It was just the natural history of moorlands really. Moorlands, oak forests, oak, the oak-hazel coppice was a man made feature and that we did acknowledge, it was dated back from the great days of shipbuilding, when they grew the trees to great size and filled in with the hazels, hazel copses. Which, I suppose were useful for lesser wood, and for harvesting the nuts as well. Then there was a film on salt marshes, another one on the chalk downs. And another one on heathlands. And one on meadows. I think that's six, and they went into schools. Our advisor was, our overall advisor was Julian Huxley, our immediate immediate advisor was an English teacher, person, teacher, lady, I think, who taught these subjects in English schools. And in fact, she wasn't very pleased when I got this job because she rightly thought that I wouldn't know much about English natural history. So I was pretty lucky all round really. 

Gloria Sachs  8:13  
And are these films still available to be seen if one wanted to see them? 

Margaret Thomson  8:18  
I don't think so. No, I don't think so. But I must say, before I finished with them. There were, there were two marvellous people who supplied material to order, pretty well, on natural history subjects. 

Gloria Sachs  8:37  
Who were they, can you remember? 

Margaret Thomson  8:40  
I remember now. One was Percy Smith. He was, he was a very famous man in his day, and he was the forerunner of the great, of natural, natural history films that we see so often on television. And the other one, I think his name is Oliver Pike, but I wouldn't be quite sure about that. 

Gloria Sachs  9:01  
What was the set up at Gaumont British? 

Margaret Thomson  9:05  

Gloria Sachs  9:07  
Who were the people there, do remember any of them? 

Margaret Thomson  9:08  
Yes, I do indeed. Bruce Woolfe was the producer. He... it was his company. Well I suppose his company along with Gaumont British. He had actually done this sort of work before, with his own company, British Gaumont, British Instructional, British Instructional Films. And he'd also made a lot of films in the silent, in the 20s, on the great battles of the First World War, sea battles and so on. I don't know, I've never seen them. But he were he was well known for that. And in fact, he was, although he was a commercial man entirely, he had this extraordinary idealism about educational films. He was quite before his time, and I never think that he's been given due credit for that pioneering work. Then Mary Field was his co-producer, I suppose, and made a number of very, very successful films on nature study subjects, which went into the cinemas. And she was very well known, well, quite famous, really, in that field. 

Then, of the other directors there, there were a number of people who, who became quite world figures, really. One was Stanley Hawes, who went with Grierson to Canada, and then took over the, built up the government Film Unit in Australia, I've forgotten what it's called. Alan Izod who did more or less the same thing in Rhodesia. And it was Jack Holmes, who, I don't know where he worked but he was a very significant figure in the documentary field later on. Prior to the time I went there, and I went there in 1936. 

Gloria Sachs  11:16  
How old would you have been at that time? 

Margaret Thomson  11:18  
Yes... and prior to the time I was there, Rotha had been there. And in fact, one of my jobs in between directing these ecology films, was to look after the, GBI's film library. And one of the jobs I had was to take a shot by shot description of one of Rotha's films, which was very, very revealing indeed, that one was the Face of Britain. It's one I never see mentioned nowadays. But I thought it was marvellous, when I saw it I thought it was so beautiful and so emotive. The shots were often not more than two or three frames long. And it was very, very interesting to, for a young person, to have the experience of examining every shot of a film by such a very famous director. 

Gloria Sachs  12:14  
How old were you at this time? 

Margaret Thomson  12:16  
I was 25. 

Gloria Sachs  12:19  
And what happened after you left? Did you leave GBI after that series or?

Margaret Thomson  12:29  
Yes, I did. But let me, I've forgotten some things I could tell you about GBI, which might be interesting. GBI, at that time, had a studio called Cleveland Hall in Cleveland Street. And it, a great deal of its revenue came from recording daily, the programmes for Radio Luxembourg, and we had people who were famous in those days in the pop music line like... can't think of their names... and Savoy Orpheans, the 

Gloria Sachs  13:07  
Carol Gibbons 

Margaret Thomson  13:08  
Carol Gibbons and the Savoy Orpheans, that's right. And people of his calibre were often there recording these programmes. 

On the camera side, there was, there are two whose names I remember. One was Harry Rignold, who very sadly, was killed in the very first days of the war, I'm not too sure where it was. I thought, I had thought it was in Norway. But I've been told I'm wrong. I can't remember where he was killed. Now the other was a chap called Jack Groves... Who else was there that I can remember...? Frances Cockburn, who became important in the COI later on, was just a young kid of 14 in the cutting room when I was there. There were two redoubtable neg cutters, whose names I can't remember, these, these women that were so so very powerful in the early days of filmmaking, they were nearly all very fierce and powerful. I don't know whether other people would agree with that. I struck them in others units... 

Gloria Sachs  14:24  
Because in those days neg cutting was basically done within the unit. 

Margaret Thomson  14:28  
Yes, it was indeed it was. Yes, that's right. Yes. When I, when I was out of work, and that's the story of my life, I got a job with Strand Film Unit, not not for very long. I can't remember being there very long. 

Gloria Sachs  14:53  
Doing what? 

Margaret Thomson  14:54  
As a cutting room assistant, by this time and... 

Gloria Sachs  14:58  
You started at the wrong end of the ladder didn't you?

Margaret Thomson  15:00  
I started at the wrong end, yes, indeed I did. I knew that too. And there, that was Donald, Donald Taylor's unit, as far as I know, he was certainly there. I think it was his unit. But the person who employed me was Stuart Legg, he must have been the producer there. And the people working, the directors, I remember working there, were Donald Alexander who became the producer of the Coal Board Film Unit, Alexander Shaw, who was making a film, which was famous in its day called The Future's in the Air [1937].

Jack Ellitt was there, he was, he was a sound editor, who had really worked as a partner with Len Lye, on his famous sound, animating, animated films, when he drew sound on films and he was really a genius, much, not maligned, but not nearly enough recognised in my opinion. I don't remember who else was there.

Gloria Sachs  16:28  
What time, whenabouts was this, was it in the early 30s?

Margaret Thomson  16:31  
So that would be about 37 by now, 38. Then I went, then, with a little bit more unemployment, I dare say, I had a job for a good few months, perhaps a year, I don't know, was Marion Grierson. She was made, she was in charge of a film unit, belonging to the Travel and Industrial Development Association. And that later became the British Council. It was a tiny unit. I think most of the work we did was editing work. I don't remember any, any shooting going on at all. The people who were there were Alan Izod, and Steven Peet, Marion and myself, and one cutting room and we're all very cosy and nice. I loved that little unit very much. Then the Travel and Industrial Development Association became ipso facto part of the British Council or it got amalgamated or was the British Council. And we moved from our tiny little hole in Oxford Street, or Charing Cross Road where it was, into very smart premises in Savile Row, or near to Savile Row. And where we had proper, proper sort of film facilities, a theatre and all the rest of it, but I didn't, my job didn't last very long there. And I got a job very close to the outbreak of war with a New Zealand outfit, which was called the New Zealand Public Relations Council. It was, it was a public relations job, sponsored by the New Zealand Wool Marketing... International Wool Secretariat, by the New Zealand Meat Board, New Zealand Fruit Board and the New Zealand Dairy Board. The head of it was a Labour MP called Gilbert McAllister, who was one of the very first Europeans that I ever met in that sense, he was very much given over to the idea of of what we now know as the... I can't think what to say... European Community, EEC (laughter). And he was also, he also wrote books on town and country planning. Anyhow, he gathered around him, a few people, of which I was the filmmaker and others were journalists. And we were working on programmes to do a public relations job on New Zealand and we would have made films in New Zealand, Anstey was one of the people from the film documentary world that had a sort of watching brief on this and I expect it was through him I got the job. But anyhow, it faded in the first month or two of the war. And, and nothing was ever done, it was never resuscitated as far as I know.

Gloria Sachs  20:17  
I was going to ask you, so you know, you've got the job here, and you've got the job there. How did you set about getting work? Were you a member of ACT at that stage at all?

Margaret Thomson  20:27  
No, I hadn't joined ACT  by that time, I didn't join ACT till about 1940, 41. 

Gloria Sachs  20:35  
So you got work how? By...

Margaret Thomson  20:38  
Word of mouth, yes. Trying to keep your ear to the ground ad so on. 

Gloria Sachs  20:44  
Did you meet with any kind of discrimination then? 

Margaret Thomson  20:49  
Well, I personally didn't think that I met any feminist, anti-feminist discrimination at all. I don't know whether I did or not. My discrimination, I thought, was that I wasn't one of the old boy net, that I was a colonial and unsure of myself, not one of the chaps. That's the discrimination I felt. But, that I couldn't say, I don't know how to answer that one. I never felt discrimination, later on, when I had more confidence and was known for the work I'd already done. I felt if I, if I got on with people, and they liked my work and knew I was capable of doing what they wanted, that I got the job, but if they didn't like me, didn't get on with me, or I didn't get on with them, then I didn't get the job. I felt it was a very personal thing, I didn't feel it was a feminist thing, though, at all. I know Kay Mander feels very much the other way. But I don't personally. In fact, you know, we've always had equal money, haven't we? 

Gloria Sachs  21:59  
In my own experience, yes, yes, I think probably all the way along.

Margaret Thomson  22:04  
But of course, there was discrimination, no doubt about it. You could, you could be a director of a documentary film, but you couldn't be a director of a feature film unless you had a very powerful personality or great skill. 

Gloria Sachs  22:16  
I can tell you, you couldn't also be a director of a documentary film with any great ease either. 

Margaret Thomson  22:21  
You couldn't, no Well, I was very lucky, I expect, because... But I was out of work an awful lot, I really was. When I, when the New Zealand Public Relations Council packed up, it was about January of 1940, so the war had started. It was the phone...yes, we were in the middle of the phoney war. Well, I'd come to Europe five years before, with a great longing to see more of the world, and I'd been hemmed in by the war, felt hemmed in by the war. And I hadn't got a job and no prospect of a job because there wasn't any work going at all for anybody then. I decided to take a stab at trying to teach English abroad. Now, at that time we were at war with Germany; France was still free, Italy wasn't in the war, In Spain, they had finished their war, that was over. And I wrote to about six Berlitz schools. I had a friend who had done this and so I was, I knew what to do. I wrote to about six Berlitz schools in the countries that weren't at war, such as Italy, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, perhaps France, I don't remember. 

And I got a job in Spain, and I crossed over blacked out France. I was, I was very very foolhardy about money. Can't believe it now. I left England was my fare as far as the frontier, and I had five pounds in my pocket (laughter) of which I had to pay a pound or so in Paris to get a taxi because I didn't know my way around sufficiently to get to the Gare de L'Este, which is along... a difficult one to get to. And I had just my luggage. I got to the frontier, I paid another pound or two to get to Madrid (laughter). I got on the metro and got off at the right street which was a, the metro station was the same name as my street, and rang the bell of the producer, the director rather, of the Berlitz School. And he said, "Well, I'm awfully sorry, but you've just hit the Easter holidays, the school won't resume for 10 days." (laughter) He said, "But come in, come in." And he was a very good Nazi German, and his wife was a pro - what's his name? - Vichy French lady. But they were so kind. Firstly, they gave me some tea, which I'd had little knowledge of how rare it was in Spain, that that was a terrific treat. He said, "I've got you accommodation in the pensione, which is just above the school." And he said, "Don't change any of your English money. Let me advance you money, because you won't be able to get it back." So I didn't tell him how little money I had. And I didn't have to pay anything to the pensione for a few weeks until I got my first salary. And I was there all the time, when France fell. The consulates told us we ought to have our bags packed in case something happened, that Hitler went on through Spain, and I often wondered why he didn't. I tried to get out of Spain to Portugal. But you couldn't get, couldn't get into Portugal without a transit visa, which proved that you would only be there in transit. And I had no way of doing that at that time. And then by another piece of luck in my life, a friend, the friend had already put me onto the Berlitz school situation, who was a bit of a linguist, had got himself a job with the British shipping control in Lisbon. And when I found this out, I wrote to him and said, 'I'm stuck here, can you do anything at all' and he fixed up something or other. And I got to Lisbon, but I still had to get a boat to England. And the only boat I could get onto was a Japanese one. So I travelled from Lisbon to Liverpool, in a Japanese steamer, a great big passenger ship, and we were ablaze with lights because we were neutral, Japan wasn't in the war. But of course we had to go through the minefields just the same as anybody else. However, the only people on it were Poles, there were 90 or 100, 200 Poles and about three other people and a ship that would take say 2000 passengers so everybody, it was a scary thing to do really, a foolhardy thing to do. 

Gloria Sachs  28:03  
Were you frightened?  

Margaret Thomson  28:05  
No, I don't think so. 

Gloria Sachs  28:08  
Confidence of youth.  

Margaret Thomson  28:09  
Yes, right.  

Gloria Sachs  28:10  
What a fantastic experience. 

Margaret Thomson  28:13  
So then I got to, I got back to London and then had to look for work again. And I got another job with Strand Film Unit, again in the cutting rooms. By this time they were at Merton Park and I had some relationship with Merton Park, but I didn't get on with Donald Taylor, a producer, at all well and that job hardly lasted any length of time and then I was out of work again. And then I got a job as a trainee electrician at Harrods 

Gloria Sachs  28:45  
I don't believe this! (laughter) 

Margaret Thomson  28:49  
Yeah and after the, I thought, very stickiness of Crown, of Strand, because Donald Taylor loved to collect around himself a lot of intellectuals, Dylan Thomas, Stephen Spender, again it was the old boys thing I thought, you know they were, they were a bit bland about a cutting room assisitant I must say. And I hated that job, I really loathed it, loathed it, it was just at the time, the only recollection I have of anything that was out of the ordinary there, was that we all rushed out of the studios at Merton Park to watch a dogfight in the sky. One of the real Battle of Britain dogfights, and we stood and gazed at it. Anyhow, I went to Harrods, and became the only member of a group of 30 chaps

Gloria Sachs  29:55  
Will be quite unusual even now, it must have been quite extraordinary in those days.

Margaret Thomson  29:59  
Yes, yes. It was a, it was a job of such pleasure to me, I can't tell you they were so kind, so nice. They thought it was a big joke, you know, having this woman. We, they were so sweet and lovely, except a foreman, who disapproved, he was one of the old fashioned sort that wore a bowler hat, you know. And he disapproved entirely. And I was supposed to become a mate, was was, was one, rather, of the electricians and go out in the shop when a fault was found, our shop was one of two shops. The other one looked after the machinery, like the escalators and lifts and things, we looked after the lighting. And when a fault was was found, it could be just a bulb, or it could be a cable, it could be all sorts of things. But he didn't want to have his men disgraced by a female. So he gave me a task to do, which he thought - I think - would last the duration. They'd taken all the strip lighting out of the showcases. And these were metal boxes with one side open. And they were wired in series with a number of bulbs in them, say 5, 6, 10 bulbs depending on their length. And they slotted underneath the glass partitions, somehow of the showcases. Well he wanted, he had a huge room full of these, right to the ceiling. And he wanted me to paint them all, inside and out and wire them in series. And he thought really, I think he really thought, 'that'll fix her'. And, but when I, when I want to do a job, get on with a job, I can concentrate and I got him done in a month. And he didn't know what to do with me. So then I became a sort of mate within the shop itself. I learned to repair tailoring irons. And I learned to cut plate glass and various other jobs which I've all forgotten about now. It was, I loved it very much. 

And then to my absolute astonishment, Frank Sainsbury rang me from Realist. Now I knew Frank and John slightly when, when I'd been a librarian at GBI, and they'd come to look for material. And I'd always sort of, and I'd had a drink with them there and then, here and there, I suppose, now and then

Gloria Sachs  32:28  
Who was John, sorry? 

Margaret Thomson  32:29  
John Taylor. And they offered me this job at Realist, making films for... horticultural films, gardening films. And that was the beginning of my working on a long, long series of films to do with the land, to do with agriculture and horticulture. I've got a list 

Gloria Sachs  33:01  
Do you remember the titles of any of these films? 

Margaret Thomson  33:04  
Yes, I've got a list here. The first ones were to do with growing vegetables, because we were encouraged very much to grow our own vegetables, people dug up lawns and so on. Anyhow, from film purposes, the Royal Horticultural Society, made available a section of their gardens to represent the average allotment. And we went filming there once a week, for about a year. 

Gloria Sachs  33:39  
Where were they?

Margaret Thomson  33:40  
At Wisley, sorry, at Wisley. And ones I was concerned with were: Summer Work in the Garden; Autumn Work in the Garden; Storing Vegetables Outdoors; Storing Vegetables Indoors, and Making a Compost Heap. Then, a little later, there was, BBC had a radio feature called Radio Allotment. And they gave advice, of the same sort really, this radio allotment was a piece of land, garden at the top of, what's the name of the wonderful Crescent at the top of Regents, you know, Great Portland Street. 

Gloria Sachs  34:36  
I can't remember either. 

Margaret Thomson  34:37  
Anyhow, in one of those little gardens, I filmed there for two or three films. 

Well, those will gardening ones, then, incidentally these were all sponsored by the Minister of Agriculture. And Realist seemed to have a sort of monopoly doing their films. There were three films on grassland management, because grass suddenly became frightfully important to keep the dairy industry going and not use up cattle cake and stuff I expect. We had Making Hay was one, Making Salads was another. Salads was a new... making salads was a rather new procedure in agriculture in England, and I think it took some persuading to, to make farmers do it. Any how we made a film about doing it. And one was inclined to be revolutionary, a farming technique that was planned to be revolutionary, and strangely enough, it had been employed in New Zealand very successfully for half a century possibly, but not in England. And we made a film about it, it was called Ploughing up and Reseeding for Better Grass. And the idea was that you could get a good grass crop that way, you didn't have to wait through the centuries to get a good turf, you could make a good grass crop like any other crop. I must tell you what happened on that film. We were filming over an Easter weekend, a long Easter weekend. And that was the time when the county agricultural advisor was available for us and the farm was available and all the rest of it. So we had to do this in the holiday weekend. We had superb weather. Every shot had beautiful billowing clouds against the hillside, lovely sun, everything was wonderful. Had a team of experts around telling the farmer to do this and to do that and get it right. And there was a big procedure of ploughing, harrowing, discing, sowing, reharrowing, and then we waited for the results and the whole crop failed (laughter). Hardly a grain of grass ever came up. And they never knew what went wrong, ever. 

Gloria Sachs  37:38  
Do you think the farmer went out at night and put something on it? 

Margaret Thomson  37:43  
Anyhow, we had to finish the film we'd done all this practical part getting the grass ground ready for it, then we had to show shots in different fields that were very ignominious. Terrible, really. 

Gloria Sachs  37:54  
Oh well, that's poetic licence isn't it? (laughter) 

Margaret Thomson  37:59  
So that was that one. Then there were other farming films, some of them quite simple ones: Hedging and Ditching, and Making Hedges.

Gloria Sachs  38:10  
Funny you should mention those, I was about to ask you. Did any of your films go into the archives? 

Now when I was in the, working for the Ministry of Agriculture, certainly the hedging and ditching films were still in the library... 

Margaret Thomson  38:22  
Where they really? 

Gloria Sachs  38:22  
And they were fantastic films, and I was, and some of the titles you've already mentioned, I have a feeling were still in the library there, because I was also responsible for... 

Margaret Thomson  38:32  
I know you were, yes. 

Gloria Sachs  38:34  
And I have the sad feeling that now subsequently, with a dispersion, they disbanded the library, they've probably thrown all those films away. But a lot of films did actually go into National Film Archive. Do you happen to know...

Margaret Thomson  38:47  
No, I don't know. But I know that one film I made on an agricultural subject, which was something... better milk production, better milk... Clean Milk it was called - that is still extant at the Imperial War Museum. And they have a lot of these films as part of the war effort. So, when I say they have a lot of these films, they have a lot of this sort of film. 

Gloria Sachs  39:17  
Yes, yes. 

Margaret Thomson  39:19  
So whether these are there, I don't know. I'm sorry, I'm making a noise (rustling). 

Then there was another film in Scotland on control of weeds, which actually I didn't, I only wrote the script of. And then there's Clean Milk film, which was just a very straightforward exposition of what a cowman should do to produce the best quality clean milk with, with the rather primitive cow sheds and implements that are available at the time. But I remember, it was written up some years later, saying that it made a considerable step towards better milk in Scotland. So I don't know whether that's true or not, I hope it was.  

Gloria Sachs  40:04  
I'm sure it was. 

Margaret Thomson  40:04  
Then some other films I did at Realist were a very, very brave series, there was a very, very brave series of films sponsored by ICI under the under the direction if you like, the prodding I suppose, of Basil Wright. They sponsored 11 half hour films on the technique of anaesthesia for medical students. That's a huge programme. And we made them at the Westminster Hospital with three women directors on these: myself, Rosanne Hunter and Yvonne Fletcher. It took us about two years to make them.

There were, some of them were ordinary straightforward beginners', beginners' or introductions to anaesthesia. One called The Signs and Stages of Anaesthesia, one called Open Drop Ether, which was, it was strange to make that film at that time because open drop ether had been dropped by the medical profession for about 20 years or so. But they reckoned in the conditions of war it might be the only anaesthetic available to a non-qualified doctor, to an ambulance driver or somebody who could stand by and grip the ether onto the mask over a patient's face while the doctor did what he had ever he had to do. So we made this film. And we staged a lot of it in a tent, which we put up in one of the theatres at Westminster Hospital. The whole series was made at Westminster Hospital. 

Another one that was probably has an historic value if it still exists now, was called Endotrachyl Anaesthesia. That is a technique whereby you pass a tube down a patient's nose and deliver the anaesthetic direct to the lungs without... bypassing the breathing part of the throat. And it's, it's useful for certain reasons, certain conditions. Well, the man who invented it as a chap called McGill. And he was a senior anaesthetist, the senior anaesthetist at Westminster Hospital. And he gave his name as a sort of sponsor for the whole series. But he only appeared in this one, and he only had anything to do physically was this one. And he was the, he was the anaesthetist who actually appeared throughout the film. He had been knighted, he was a famous man in his own right. And I should think that anyone that's interested in anaesthetics would be very interested to see him at work now, but whether it exists, I don't know. If it does, it would be, ICI might have copies, or the Westminster medical school might have copies. But I don't know whether they exist or not. In these films, the hospital wouldn't let us use students or medical, wouldn't let us use patients or medical students, I suppose because of insurance risks. So we all volunteered to be anaesthetised. And so there we are flat out on the operating table. 

Gloria Sachs  44:10  
You were literally anaesthetised?  

Margaret Thomson  44:10  
Yes, all of us. We were literally anaesthetised.  I made the one called Signs and Stages of Anaesthesia, and if I remember it right, there are four stages - from being mildly swoony, to being what they call surgically anaesthetised when you can do an operation, and below that you're on the borderlines of death and a very, very skilled anaesthetist, Dr Organe, took one of our, one of our own crew down to that stage and we filmed it.

Gloria Sachs  44:16  
I hope he was heavily insured 

Margaret Thomson  44:54  
I don't know anything about insurance at all, she's alive to this day at any rate (laughter). I think, I think it was very, very dangerous. But there you are, we didn't think about those things, I suppose. 

Gloria Sachs  45:09  
The ACT wasn't involved either in those days. They didn't ever let you do that. 

Margaret Thomson  45:15  
It was very interesting. I haven't talked really about Realist Film Unit?

Gloria Sachs  45:25  
I think, but maybe better to save this till the next tape.

Margaret Thomson  45:30  
All right. continue to the next. Yes, right. 

Gloria Sachs  45:34  
Watch this space for the next exciting installment. 

Margaret Thomson  45:36  
And anyhow I won't say anything about Realist until I've just finished with the films I'd made, I think really, that's the best thing, isn't it? 

Gloria Sachs  45:36  
All right, well, do you want to, well, we'll continue with that on the other side as well. Sure. 

Margaret Thomson  45:51  
Okay, yes, .

End of Side 1

Margaret Thomson Side 2

Gloria Sachs  0:00  
You're continuing with the list of other films.

Margaret Thomson  0:02  
Yes, well, really only two that I remember very clearly now. And those were after the war, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Education, wanted to make some films about children. This was nothing to do with classrooms, nothing to do with teaching, pedagogic methods, nothing like that. It was to show children how they were at their own affairs. And the reason they want to make these films was that coming back from the war, there would be a lot of young people who would want to go into teaching. And they would never, they wouldn't have, had seen any children perhaps for years, they wouldn't have seen their families they might not have seen any children at all for years. And so these films were made, two of them, two half hour films, quite a big coverage. We had fantastically generous allocations of stock in those days, I can't think how we got away with such a quantity of stock, it was wonderful. We filmed children doing their own thing. We, one of the films was called Children Learning by Experience, and the other was called Children Growing up Among Other People. While the second one was more or less a sociological, or psychological study of the development of children, I expect that one would be a bit more dubious nowadays, people wouldn't have the same thoughts, I don't know. And we had to stage it a bit, but the first one had no staging at all. It was purely children enjoying themselves and doing their own thing. And the thesis was that children want to learn, I'm sorry I get so emotional (pauses) 

The thesis was that children want to learn, they're avid to learn, they learn from everything they do, they learn from picking a flower to pieces or from jumping in a puddle or by turning upside down or by belting the little boy, (laughter) the little boy a bit bigger than you or  a little smaller than you, everything they do is, they're learning from. And as they get older, they become more skilful. And they know what, they know that they're learning a skill, they learn to sew or to, or to cut out paper or to paint or do all the things that are creative. But, but when they're little they learned through play and experiment. And through of course social contacts as well. And that teachers must, must take notice of that. And and lead children on to learn. 

Anyhow, we, we shot wherever we found children, we shot by the round pond in Kensington Gardens or on the river, in the mud flats or in youth clubs. There was a marvellous youth club in Bethnal Green, it had been set up by the Save the Children Fund. Among... it was a pub that had been badly bombed. And the children there were given a great deal of freedom in the sense that nobody told them to be quiet. The noise was incredible. The joy, the joyousness of these children was incredible, the enjoyment. And we got some fantastic shots of children enjoying themselves and learning there, and in other places. At the cinema, we saw children terrified of a spooky film, and killing themselves with laughter at a funny film. The enjoyment was so wonderful to see. And we knew that this was, this was a process of learning. So these films, this film became quite well known really, and it is being used today, 40 years later,

Gloria Sachs  4:39  
 What was it called? 

Margaret Thomson  4:40  
Children Learning by Experience.

I was very, very lucky to be able to make it, we used quantities of stock, we would go out and we were lucky to have a loosely, a loosely governed unit where if you went in and it was a nice day and the cameraman wasn't doing something else, you just hopped off and did something. It wasn't very organised, it would be very difficult to make a film like that now, I should think, you could make it privately, but to do it, well, I suppose you could do it with video, but, anyhow, that was, that was, those were the last two films I made at Realist before I went back to New Zealand for a bit. 

But I'd like to, before we leave Realist Film Unit, I must tell you who the people there were, or some of them. John Taylor, it was John Taylor's unit. He had founded it along with Basil Wright. I'm not sure of the dates, but middle 30s I guess, or late 30s. And his co-producer was Frank Sainsbury. And these two set their own seal on it, it had an atmosphere that was different from any other film unit. For one thing, it was very pure, it, it... I don't think hardly anyone did anything that they didn't truly believe in. There wasn't any feeling of commercialism about it, of showmanship. People didn't make films because they thought that would do them a bit of good, a nice film to make for a director, I don't think that came into it at all.

As far as I was concerned, my films were nearly all teaching films, it's funny that I should have gone in for teaching films when I found myself impossible, an impossible teacher (laughter) in a visual sense, but I loved this this type of work. And I think that the training that I had as a zoologist, which I never used in the whole of my life, stood me in good stead because I knew how to pick up an obtuse subject quite easily. I learned about endotracyl anaesthetic and know far more about it than an average medical student would ever learn. Because I had to pull the guts out of it to make a simple teaching film. And that I think goes for many documentary films and very many documentary filmmakers. Realist had a sort of idealistic territory. The films I was concerned were, were realist, they were really straightforward. But Realist also tried to make, not with the greatest success because they weren't, I think, quite skilled enough in the field of studio  shooting, they tried to make films about human relationships. I can't remember the names of them. But they also made films about people. Frank Sainsbury made a film about dockers and also about drift drifters, not drifters, trawlers, trawlermen. John  made some films, but I can't remember their names now. I hope somebody will be recording these or perhaps John has already.

Gloria Sachs  8:22  
I don't know what's on his tapes.

Margaret Thomson  8:24  
Yes, well, it would be, it would be terribly useful if somebody just drew out a list and made a separate tape of it really, because I'm not capable of saying much more than what I did. And I'm not sure whether John would think, to talk in those terms really. GS: ... John lots of questions. MT: Yes. Yes. It had great camaraderie if that's the word. GS: Good word. MT: We, we loved each other's company. It seems incredible, we we spent our days together, working and then we spent our evenings together and drinking in The Highlander [pub in Soho]. It was a halcyon time for us, I'm sure. Even although it was the middle of the war and bombs were falling. Fantastic time. 

Gloria Sachs  8:42  
I'm sitting here green with envy, you realise that don't you? 

Margaret Thomson  9:25  
Anybody could be green with envy for that time, I'm sure. Yes. Well, the people there apart from John and Frank were Max Anderson, who made a wonderful film about British Farm Labourers, it was called. 

Gloria Sachs  9:41  
I have a copy of that film. 

Margaret Thomson  9:42  
You have? I'd love to see it. 

Gloria Sachs  9:47  
I borrowed it from the Ministry of Agriculture when it was in our library 

Margaret Thomson  9:53  
Really? Well, he died, sadly at an early age.  Len Lye was there, he was a misfit in our unit because he, really, his interest really was the art form rather than the down to earth form, if you like. But he was a, he was marvellous chap and I'm very pleased to know him a little, because of course he's a New Zealander, and he's now very much idolised by the New Zealand art people. Now, I never saw any of his paintings in all the years that I knew him. But he finally went, left England and went to America. And he pretty well gave up filmmaking from the time he arrived in America, as far as I could gather, and concentrated on his different art forms, which included mobiles and, and, and painting and so on. And he's become quite famous in New Zealand now posthumously, and there's an art gallery donated to him. And he's considered New Zealand's prime artist now, which isn't true, of course. 

But who else was there, Alex Shaw was there. Now the producers were John Taylor was, John Taylor and Frank Sainsbury were producers, but we also had the use of, if you like, Basil Wright, who was on the board of directors, and was a closely associated with Realist. And Edgar Anstey, those are two producers I worked with mostly during the war. And I can honestly say that I never found producers in my ordinary freelance life afterwards, of anything approaching that calibre. I couldn't find good directors, nearly always had to flounder on my own. I don't know whether that's been the experience of other people at all, but they were nearly always two thirds preoccupied with the financial aspect, are you going over the top? Couldn't they slot you into their busy programme? There was a schedule, if you were a day late, it'd be disastrous. But not only that, there was a sort of, a sort of impurity in the aspect of the film itself. They didn't care enough, in my opinion. I'd love to know other people's opinions of that, that that circumstance. 

Gloria Sachs  11:53  
I think they might agree with you. 

Margaret Thomson  12:57  
I wonder? 

Gloria Sachs  12:57  
I don't think producers were the most popular species of mankind, like accountants.

Margaret Thomson  13:05  
 Yes. And yet you see they're so necessary. 

Gloria Sachs  13:10  
Terry used to think producers weren't necessary. Terry Trench used to say. 

Margaret Thomson  13:14  
Well, I think the director that doesn't want, thinks a producer isn't necessary is inclined to become very self indulgent, but of course, he was a, he was an editor. So he would act as a producer in some way, you see, an editor can be a producer, because he can see through the follies or extravagances of a director, can't he? But I found among people I worked for after that, hardly anyone who was really critical of the script or of the finished job, they let it go, you know, 'All right, OK'.

Gloria Sachs  13:57  
A bit discouraging. 

Margaret Thomson  14:01  
Very, very. 

Gloria Sachs  14:05  
Can I ask you a very prosaic question? 

Margaret Thomson  14:09  
Very what?

Gloria Sachs  14:10  

Margaret Thomson  14:11  
Yes, sure.

Gloria Sachs  14:11  
At least I think that's the word I want. If it isn't you'll have to tell me what is. When you were doing your filming, especially when you were filming with the children,  What kind of equipment were you using? I mean, were they... 

Margaret Thomson  14:23  
Newman Sinclair. 

Gloria Sachs  14:25  
35 millimetre? 

Margaret Thomson  14:26  
Yes, 35. 

Gloria Sachs  14:27  
Were you shooting sync sound? 

Margaret Thomson  14:29  

Gloria Sachs  14:30  
You were shooting mute?  

Margaret Thomson  14:31  

Gloria Sachs  14:31  
But were you recording sound at the same time? 

Margaret Thomson  14:33  

Gloria Sachs  14:33  
It was all wild track and putting sound on afterwards?

Margaret Thomson  14:38  
Sound on afterwards... We just had one, one session with sound, that was at that club that I mentioned in Bethnal Green. And we showed a shot at the beginning of the film of the children playing with a shocking coil around a table, and at the end of the film we showed it with sound, but you see we couldn't afford sound. And of course we lost half the story naturally. 

Gloria Sachs  15:08  
Who would have had then the sort of equipment that was around now... 

Margaret Thomson  15:12  
Absolutely, yes. 

Gloria Sachs  15:16  
Want to pause here? 

Margaret Thomson  15:17  
MT: Yes, before

End of Side 2

Margaret Thomson Side 3

Gloria Sachs  0:02  
The copyright of this recording is vested in the ACTT History Project. The interviewee's name is Margaret Thomson, t h o m s o n. The discipline is 3 stroke, D, stroke T. The interviewer's name is Gloria Sachs, and the date is the  27th of March 1990. 

Right, Tommy, can you start by telling us something about your early life, where you were born, when you were born? That sort of thing.

Margaret Thomson  0:45  
Well, I like to go even further back because I come from, I'm a New Zealander, my ancestors, going back now 150 years or more, went out to New Zealand in the very early days of New Zealand's colonisation. My father's mother's people went out to New Zealand in 1842, from Scotland, from Ayrshire, and settled in the south, and settled finally in the South Island of New Zealand where the Scottish settlements were. But they preceded the official Scottish settlement by about seven years, so they were very, very early pioneers. They were weavers from Scotland. And they went first to Nelson, which is at the top of the North Island of New Zealand. But after a few years, their position there was untenable, because that was the site of some of the early Maori wars. And one of the, I suppose, my great great grandfather travelled overland down to Dunedin, which was going to be the site of the Presbyterian settlement, and was there when the first official ships arrived in 1847, and became a surveyor, or active with the surveying party in those early days. They subsequently became farming people and prospered very well. That's my father's mother's people, my father's father - they also came from Scotland, via India, where my grandfather was born. And they made a great deal of money but lost it all, and went to New Zealand as immigrants in 1867. And they were professional people, my grandfather was a school teacher, he was a chemist and assayist, in the gold time, Gold Rush times there, and mostly a school teacher, and an educationalist, and a member of parliament and finally made a very great name for himself as a naturalist in New Zealand, as the grand old man of the world of natural history, in those days.

He embarked on his major magnus, what's the word, magnus opum, when he was 80, he was an absolutely terrific man, marvellous chap. 

Gloria Sachs  3:37  
Do you remember him? 

Margaret Thomson  3:38  
Oh, yes, oh, yes, he was around all my childhood. He died when I was 18 or 19, I suppose. My father became a geologist. And he was also really a brilliant man but had a, had a very sad life. He got a Rhodes Scholarship, he was the first Rhodes Scholar from New Zealand to Oxford. And he got his doctorate, doctor's degree there, doctor of science degree. And he was, then he returned to New Zealand to marry my mother. My mother's people I don't know so much about. They also came from Scotland, but we have very little history about them. They came from Edinburgh. Anyhow, he went to work as a mining geologist, geologist attached to mining activities in the gold fields in Australia of Kalgoorlie, which is in Western Australia. And it was about that time that he was chosen to be... sorry (rustling) are you missing it? Is that all right?

Gloria Sachs  5:01  
Right, we're ready.

Margaret Thomson  5:04  
Just to repeat, my father went, and my mother, went to live in Kalgoorlie, which was a gold mining area in Western Australia. And he was a geologist attached to that sort of venture. And it was about that time that he was chosen to be the chief geologist with Captain Scott's expedition to the South Pole. This was the most fantastic honour. And if it had happened, it would have put him in the history books, really. But it was discovered then that he had tuberculosis. Now, tuberculosis was rampaging in New Zealand in those early days - out of my immediate family, about four people died of it, my grandmother, my grandfather's second wife, my grandfather's only daughter, and now my father. And it was a terrible scourge. So he, he couldn't go on that expedition, and they returned to New Zealand. And he had a very, very sad life from then onwards, my mother died five years later. I was born in 1910, I have to say, and my mother died in 1915. And my brother was about two years old then, and we were sent to live with first one aunt, for seven years, and then another aunt. And so my father could only see us really in holiday times, and occasionally. He lived out his life in, partly, as a geologist, and as an administrator, he was the director of the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. But he also lived in sanatoria, on and off over the years, trying different cures, but he never got better. And he died when I was 17. And I can only say that he must have had a tragic life because his children were more or less estranged from him, he didn't know them very well. 

But in the meanwhile, he published - he managed to do a piece of very major geological research - and published a book, a very technical book, of course, on a certain, a certain shellfish, which has existed over the millennia, and is used as a sort of coding animal for various levels of geological times. And this book became an absolute world classic. So much so that when I was back in New Zealand in 1947, doing some filming with the New Zealand Film Unit, it was the time of the Pan Pacific Scientific Congress - this was a great get together of scientists from all round the Pacific, which meet in one country, a country, a different country every five years. And this was New Zealand's turn to be host, and I was there. We were filming them, filming the geologists, actually. And I happened to mention to quite a young American geologist that my father was a geologist and his name was Alan Thomson. And he said, "Not Alan Thomson, who published the Geomorphology of Brachiopods?" And I said "Yes," and he said, "His book's my Bible." That was 20 years after he'd died and in America, so that's a treasured memory for me. 

Well in the meanwhile, I just had the normal life of... 

Gloria Sachs  9:03  
Were you living with your aunt still? 

Margaret Thomson  9:05  
Living with one aunt in New Zealand. And actually, she was a very strict and stern woman and I can only say I hated and feared her. I think she was doing her best by what you might call Victorian standards bias. You have to realise that New Zealand's progress is always about 20 years behind the rest of the world. So when I was being brought up in in 1915, to 1923 in New Zealand, we were back in 1980 (presumably means 1880?), if you like, or 90, as far as progress was concerned, or ideas were concerned. Then I went to Australia, my brother and I went to Australia, to another aunt who was a darling kind woman, and we lived in a extremely countrified area of Australia. It was called Temora, and it was in an area called the Riverina. And, again, Australia was always 20 years behind times and there were actually seen occasionally bullock wagons in the streets there, it was like a Western town. It had hitching posts up and down the street, and nearly all the children were barefooted. That wasn't from poverty, that was just the the common way of carrying on. And I went to a school which was called the Temora Superior District High School. 

Gloria Sachs  10:29  
Was it superior? 

Margaret Thomson  10:31  
It was a ragamuffin place really and truly, it was it was like looking at the western film, I should think today really. They were farming people. And it was, it was a very interesting time really, even for me, I was 12 when I went there and 14 when I left. There was no running water or electricity in this little town. We used oil lamps for lighting. We used a huge, big wooden wood burnings tove for cooking. And you can imagine in the heat of Australia what that was in the kitchens... fantastic. We use a Primus stove for quick cooking, you know boiling a kettle, and my aunt had a gadget called a hay box for cooking, for long slow cooking, it was a superior hay box, it was two wooden boxes lined with metal, and in these there were fitted big stones, big round stones with metal hooks on them, so that you could lift them up and put them on the Primus stove and heat them. And then put a fitted pan in and another stone on top. And she could bake cakes or roasts or cook porridge overnight, all sorts of things like that. 

Gloria Sachs  11:49  
That was a real art of cooking. 

Margaret Thomson  11:50  
Yes, yes. And she was a great cook, wonderful cook. Another thing I remember on the food front there, was that it was in a very rich, fruit growing area. And my uncle was a bank manager, and farmers - I don't know whether this is common practice today - but the farmers, to keep in with the bank manager, used to bring in fruit, in season, as presents for my aunt. And we had a huge one of those old fashioned clothes baskets which stand about two feet high and about four feet long, I don't know if anyone remembers that sort of thing, and this could be easily full of fruit, full of melons and guavas and grapes and peaches and apricots. So, and my aunt had to bottle all this, and you know, it was much too much for us to eat. So the whole, the whole of our life was round, her making these Kilner jars full of bottled fruit all year round. Anyhow, it was a very lovely time. 

But in the meanwhile, my father found a way that we could be looked after, us children, and he could be looked after, together in one place. It was a little nursing home, and we joined him there. We didn't know him, you see, really at all. And I have to say really that I never loved him, I respected him, I enjoyed his company. But I think love's a thing that can't be forced and it's always been a great sadness to me that I didn't know that feeling for him at all. 

Gloria Sachs  13:30  
Well, I mean when you, if you were separated in that sort of way you never really had a chance to form a relationship. 

Margaret Thomson  13:38  
He was in bed a great deal of the time but he was still working hard at various things, his work, his geological work and his... it was a terminal period for him really... Meanwhile I went to what we might call the grammar school, there, the new Wellington Girls High School. And I had there an education that I consider was a very good one. I have not found that I'm less well educated, really, than most of my friends who've had a similar background. We didn't have in, New Zealand didn't have much in the way of artistic culture then at all. I hadn't ever heard of the Impressionists until I came to England, for example. But as far as literature was concerned, and history, I think we had a jolly good basic training and a great, it gave me a love of literature. But when my father died, I was still at school, and then, and then we were orphans then, but our grandfather was around and he was a Member of Parliament, and a member of the Upper House of Parliament. And I used to see him every week in the Parliament buildings, he used to take me to tea there and we used to sit in the library there every Friday afternoon, so it was a very good period. 

Gloria Sachs  15:04  
GS: How was your brother doing? 

Margaret Thomson  15:05  
Well, my brother, my brother, there was always this dread of tuberculosis hanging around us. And when my brother was about 14 - he would be 11 when we came back to New Zealand - when he was about 13, I suppose, or perhaps 14, perhaps it was after my father died, he was a bit, they thought a bit weakly and needed bucking up. So he was sent back to Australia where my uncle, the bank manager, had acquired a farm, and he lived on a farm for a year to give him an outdoor life. And this really set him up, physically and mentally. It was, it was a very independent life. he was living on this farm, it wasn't a working farm, it was the time of the Depression or near the time - it wasn't the time of Depression, but it was, it was a bad time, and this was a run down farm and he was living, there with another lad, and they were shooting rabbits and living off the land in a very primitive way. I expect my uncle and aunt kept an eye on them, but he came back to New Zealand quite a different boy, and he'd toughened up a lot. Then he in due course, went to the boys' college. And we stayed together in this nursing home, where they were prepared to look after us until I was 21. And he would be, he was 17, or so, or 18. I the meanwhile, went to the University, and followed the line of my grandfather and father, in wanting to do science. I had not had any schooling in zoology, there was no zoology taught in the schools then, but as soon as I started to include zoology among my disciplines, I fell in love with it with a huge bang, I really was engrossed in it and decided that would be my life. And I went on to take a bachelor's degree, majoring as they say nowadays, in zoology and chemistry. That's three years zoology, three year's chemistry, one year of botany, and one year of geology. Then I was preparing to do my master's degree, and friends, and my brother was wondering what to do in his life. And he decided he'd like to be a forester. We had lots, lots of relatives and friends, sort of guiding us or interfering with our lives in a big way. And, and it was, the idea was that we should be kept together, which was very sensible - but he had to go to Christchurch, that's in the South Island, to Canterbury College as it was then, it's now Canterbury University, because that's where the only forestry course was - and that I should also go to Canterbury and change into a different Zoology department where there was a young active professor, from England, Professor Percival, and come under his guidance for my research. And that's how it was. And this was a marvellous time for us both.

We both lived in halls of residence for a while, then we had a flat together. And I did my research for two years, and as far as I was concerned, I never wanted to do anything different, I've, I've always been a person of enthusiasms, and this was the one that had caught me at that time. But it was not to be, because I couldn't get a job when I'd got my qualification. I got a first class honours degree, but I couldn't get a job, it was now the time of the Depression. And I couldn't teach because no zoology was taught in the schools, that was the last thing, you know, that was always the fallback. But I wanted an academic job, but there wasn't one, there was nothing going at all. I got a job in the university for a bit, demonstrating, but that was a very, very low grade job and not much money, not enough to keep one. And our money was running out, it was fantastic how my father had saved with all his illness and his disability and having to keep us you know, he had to pay for us in separate places and live himself in lodgings and in, in institutions and things, sanatoria, and still save money enough for our educations. 

Well, the money was running very low. And my brother wasn't finished his education yet. So we just halved what was left, and I came to England with a view to being, to getting a diploma in education so that I could teach zoology. I'd longed to come to England, it had been my great ambition for many years. 

Gloria Sachs  20:14  
When was this? 

Margaret Thomson  20:15  
This was 1935. Well, I went to the Institute of Education, but I hated it. I hated being a new, a new girl, when I'd been a senior member of a department and been been on the university staff to some extent, I loathed being among only women, which seemed to be, I mean, there were I suppose men in this class, but I only remember women. I remember, we had to go to physical jerks, and I hated this, I loathed it. I hated teaching, they couldn't understand my New Zealand accent. I taught in Hounslow of all places. I hated the journey there in the cold winter mornings, I lived in Battersea at the time, with some New Zealand friends. I might say that I'd arrived in England with 150 pounds, which was considered a very adequate sum to see me through three year, a year, at three pounds a week. But it didn't work out like that, because when you're new to a country, you, you, you can't live as cheaply as a native person does, you don't know the wheezes you get, you get caught up in all sorts of eventualities that you couldn't foresee.

Gloria Sachs  21:34  
Well you've got no comparisons, have you? 

Margaret Thomson  21:35  
No comparisons, no, and the money was running out. So I knew I couldn't get an academic job in England, because I had no 'in' to it. The usual way in, I expect it's the same today, is that you, you go from your country of origin, and attach yourself - unless you're very, unless you've made a name for yourself already - if you're just a beginner, you attach yourself to a university department and take often a PhD. And then that professor, that department, sees you through into, into other work, because there's a network right through the whole country.

But I hadn't got that. So I knew that I wouldn't get an academic job. So what could I do with my zoology? And I went through the Yellow Pages looking at every heading of a trade or industry or occupation, that could possibly give me work that would be allied to my degree in some way, because I had chemistry as well you see. And I tried a cosmetic firm and I tried a firm that I had known through my work at the university, a zoological supply company, and they were sympathetic to me but hadn't got, hadn't got a job. But funnily enough, they offered me a job during the war time. 

Gloria Sachs  23:10  
This was what, 1939 or thereabouts?

Margaret Thomson  23:13  
35 still, 35, I mean they subsequently, oh, yes, that would be 1940 or so, they offered me a job. And then, in the cinemas, were coming out, a number of films about nature study. These were Mary Field's famous films, The Secrets of Life and The Secrets of Nature. And they were made by a company called Gaumont British Instructional. And I thought, 'Ha, there now, that's something.' And in the days that we could do these things, I don't suppose New Zealanders can do them now, but we were such a small country, I went to New Zealand house, and I said, 'I want an introduction, no, I want to know about firms that make nature study or scientific films.' And they said, "Oh, well, we'll put you on to our film contact, which is the British Film Institute." I don't know whether it was called the British Film Institute then, I'm not quite sure. But anyhow

Gloria Sachs  24:18  
Yes, I think it's always been called that.

I saw a young man called Ernest Lindgren, who was just about my age and young and new to it all. And he said, "Oh, well, here's a list of the companies we know about. And there were two or three actually, but Gaumont British Instructional seemed the most likely. And so then I went back to New Zealand House and said, with all the cheek in the world, 'I want a letter of introduction to the producer of Gaumont British Instructional films.' So he gave me a letter of introduction to Bruce Woolfe. And you see, I knew nothing about films, I knew nothing really about nature study in England, let's face it, but when I got there, I got an interview, and he said, "You did a thesis in New Zealand. Now Bruce Woolfe wasn't a particularly well-educated man. I think he was

What was his name again? 

Margaret Thomson  25:20  
Bruce Woolfe w.o.o.l.f.e. He was a real pioneer. And I don't think he's ever had enough credit, actually, for the work he did. But he wasn't what you might call a very well... schooled man. I mean, he'd probably left school and educated himself.  He said, "What was your, the subject of your thesis then?" and I said, "Well, actually, it's a bit remote, it was the ecology of a little insect that lived in the mountain streams of New Zealand." Now, ecology was a word that was a very technical word then, it wasn't known outside the realms of science at all, it wasn't on everybody's lips, as it is now. He said, "Well, that's a funny thing." And he produced out of his drawer a blank sheet on which was written just six words. He said, "We've got an ecology series, mooted at the moment, and we haven't got anyone to make them." Wasn't that extraordinary? 

Now GBI, Gaumont British Instructional to give it its proper name, Gaumont British Instructional had set itself up as a commercial organisation to make films for schools and educational purposes, under the guidance of Julian Huxley and Professor Hewer of Imperial College. They had between them, had drawn up ambitious programmes of films that must have been say 10 programmes of films on various subjects - chemistry mathematics, natural history, zoology.

Gloria Sachs  27:23  
Professor who was that?  

Margaret Thomson  27:24  

Gloria Sachs  27:27  
And that was which college? University College?  

Margaret Thomson  27:30  
Not University College, Imperial College. 

Gloria Sachs  27:33  
Sorry to interrupt. 

Margaret Thomson  27:34  
This would be, this would be, we're now 1936. And the basis of all this interest, I suppose, came from Mary Field's work on natural history. Her films were pioneer films in that line. But they were for the theatres, they were theatrical distribution. But allied to GBI was, were, a couple of very specialist cameramen. One was a man called Oliver Pike, who... there were two bird specialists, I can't remember the name of the other but one was called Oliver Pike. And he was a pioneer in filming birds. Like say, the inside of a tree where a woodpecker had its nest, that sort of thing, which is commonplace nowadays, but these were the pioneers that were... set the work for the great natural history film units there are today. 

And the other one was an even more famous person actually, there has been a book about him Percy Field, sorry Percy Smith. One of the other directors at GBI was Joe Durden [J.V.Durden], who wrote a book about him that was published in Penguins, D.u.r.d.e.n, I think. Now I am a little hazy there. It might be DEArden. He was a director, scriptwriter and director of films of these styles, you know, nature, I don't know what it was what his speciality was, but he did a lot of the films of GBI. 

And there was another one called Brian Salt as well, who was more of a mathematical man. 

Gloria Sachs  29:39  
He was a scriptwriter, as well?

Margaret Thomson  29:41  
He was a scriptwriter, director, yes, and a sort of mechanical genius, if you like, he could produce... not mechanical exactly, he could produce mathematical films. Have you heard of any of these? 

Gloria Sachs  29:58  
Oliver Pike, the name is familiar, but it may have been familiar because you probably mentioned it before. 

Margaret Thomson  30:03  
Yes. Anyhow, this was a terrifically far-seeing and ambitious undertaking. To put it in its context it was running parallel with Grierson, who was doing his work, of documentary work, of a sort of public relations type of thing. They ran parallel, they never met as far as I know. A lot of people from GBI joined the documentary field proper, as the 30s went on. Rotha had been at GBI, he'd left by the time I was there, he'd made a film called The Face of Britain [1935]. And maybe others, I don't know. Jack Holmes was there.

Gloria Sachs  31:01  
Jack Holmes went on to British Transport Films, didn't he.

Margaret Thomson  31:05  
Yes, he was the head of Crown [Film Unit] at one time. 

Gloria Sachs  31:08  
Was he? I didn't know that. 

Margaret Thomson  31:09  
Yes. And Alan Izod was there, who was in charge of the Rhodesian Film Unit, finally. And... can you break for a sec? 

Gloria Sachs  31:24  
Yes, certainly.  You remember where you were up to do you?

Margaret Thomson  31:27  
Yes. Yes. Another another person who was at GBI at that time, was Stanley Hawes, who finally became the film commissioner for Australia, I don't know whether that's the title, but in fact, he founded the Australian Government Film Unit. And still lives in Australia. The cameramen that I remember were... my mind's going. 

Gloria Sachs  31:27  
Join the club.  

Margaret Thomson  31:27  
I'm sorry, Jack Rose was one. 

Gloria Sachs  31:27  

Margaret Thomson  31:25  
Yes. And Harry Rignold was one of the people I remember with great affection, he was killed in the war, I have a thought that he was killed in Norway, Rignold R I G NOLD . Another person who was there, probably the youngest of all, there, was Frances Cockburn, who was just a cutting room assistant to Mary Field and others. And and she, even then she had the seeds of being... rising in her profession, because she was as a young child almost, she was only 15 perhaps, she looked upon upon efficiency as being a great virtue. And she she went through being a very good editor and supervising editor with many documentary units, including Crown Film Unit and Worldwide Films, and became the head of the Films Division at the COI. She was there then; the studio manager was Frank Bush. One of the directors was Donald somebody, whose name I can't remember, who was Bruce Woolfe's son in law. And he made as far as I remember feature films, which which went into the cinemas. One was called The Gap, and that was to do with looking forward to the war, but I can't remember where the gap was, it was a gap in our defences, that sort of thing. But it was a story film. I should go back a little and say that Bruce Woolfe's previous history, as far as I know it, was that he made a number of films for the cinema, silent films, on reconstructions of great battles, or, or naval events, I'm a little hazy, I remember one was Zeebrugge, First World War events. And he had his own company called British Films, and that's how it came, it became attached to the Gaumont title. I'm sorry, I know little more about him. But

Gloria Sachs  31:28  
Is it the same company that is British Films, I don't know if they still exist now, but they certainly existed as British Films...

Margaret Thomson  34:58  
I may be wrong about British Films, in that case, it might have been Bruce Woolfe Films. No, I'd better not take that for read. You're quite right, there was British Films and perhaps they exist now, but they certainly existed in the 50s and 60s. That wasn't to do with Bruce Woolfe at all, as far as I know. [NB: Bruce Woolfe founded British Instructional Films]

Gloria Sachs  35:16  
If his company, his film company, British Films, may have defunct that somebody else could use the title. 

Margaret Thomson  35:23  
I wouldn't take that... that's very dubious on second thoughts. 

Gloria Sachs  35:27  
We're recording all this anyway. So anyway, get back to you. 

Margaret Thomson  35:35  
Well, I, I embarked on these ecology films. They were, each one was a film about a natural history, ecological zone like one was about moorlands, one was about woodlands, one was about meadows, and peat bogs - oh that would be moorlands - and salt marshes. There were six altogether. I can't remember the other ones. But they were correlating the animals and plants that lived on those, in those habitats. And were interrelated in their needs on each other. So it was quite purely natural history. It was for schools. And...

Gloria Sachs  36:32  
How did you, I mean, if you'd had absolutely no experience of making films before, indeed, how did you, how did you set about it? Did you have any training of any description?

Margaret Thomson  36:42  
Well, let's face it, they were compilation jobs, they were, one shot to the habitat, long shot, close up, if you like. And then you, then you got material relating to the plants and animals living there. And in that I had to rely a lot on the specialist, natural history cameramen, and they did what they could and I did what I could was with the help of the cameraman. 

Gloria Sachs  37:10  
Did you work with an editor though? I mean, did you work closely...

Margaret Thomson  37:12  
No, we edited our own as far as I remember, I don't remember having an editor. So it was all, I had to learn as I went along. They were just commentary films, of course. Can I pause for a second? I, I have no notion how satisfactory these films were, now at this distance. But at the time I I remember receiving a letter from somebody who was concerned with the teaching of natural history in school, saying that they were very useful and very helpful. I hope they were. I don't suppose these films are extant any longer [NB: Some are held in the BFI National Archive]. Anyhow, that job lasted me about two years, eked out, I might say was my also being in charge of GBI's film library.

I should explain that GBI was in two places at that time, it had a studio called Cleveland Hall in Cleveland Street near the, near the Middlesex Hospital. And a lot of its income came from recording on a daily basis the material for Radio Luxembourg. And we were different every day with "We are the Ovalteenies" (laughter). But we also, there were some very interesting people were interviewed there, for example, there was the woman had flown from Australia, one of the first... I can't think of her name now 

Gloria Sachs  38:03  
I think you mean, Amy Johnson. 

Margaret Thomson  38:45  
I think it was Amy Johnson, yes, we all crowded to see her, and Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Orpheans were the resident orchestra, if you like, for the Radio Luxembourg, so it was very lively, there was a lot going on there. It was a strange contrast to these serious films that were being made, these educational films. Then we had cutting rooms in D'Arblay Street, that's where Bruce Woolfe had his office, that's where I worked mostly, and that's where the library was. I worked alongside of Frances Cockburn for these years because she was a cutting room girl, we got to know each other very well. One of the editors was Frank Bundy. There must have been editors there, Frank Bundy. 

Gloria Sachs  38:44  
That name rings a bell to me, where did he go to eventually? 

Margaret Thomson  39:38  
Well, he came, I understood from a rich city... father and went back into that world, I think, but I'm not too sure about that. Stephen Peet actually saw him recently and 

Gloria Sachs  39:53  
Oh he's still going is he? 

Margaret Thomson  39:54  
Yes... Right. Then about 1938 I finally finished at GBI, I got the push and was out of work for ages and ages. And I did little, little odds and sods of freelance work. I had, I have to explain and anyone can reading through, reading, or hearing this, will appreciate that I wasn't really a film director, by any means. I mean, I'd written the scripts, and I'd known what to find and shoot. And I've got the idea of compiling a film but I was no means a film technician. And I really had to go back to the beginning again, and I got jobs as cutting room assistants, for, for the next year or so. Two years, on and off. I was at Strand Film Unit. I was at Shell for a little bit, I can't remember any others but there may have been, because they were very brief jobs these, just, just... and I really wasn't... I was only just learning really. 

Gloria Sachs  39:54  
GS: In amongst all of this, where were you living when you..? 

Margaret Thomson  41:14  
Oh, yes, I was living in old fashioned digs in, just off Ladbroke Grove, Charles Square Ladbroke Grove, 

Gloria Sachs  41:24  
What you mean like they provided food as... 

Margaret Thomson  41:26  
Yes, provided food, yes, for 21 shillings a week, I had dinner and bed and breakfast, and quite a nice room. I was getting I suppose about two pounds 10 a week I think, so there was quite a lot out of my money.

But I existed. And I of course I was enjoying being in London and learning about London, learning about music and pictures and things like that, which one was starved of in New Zealand really.

Gloria Sachs  42:03  
Did you know you were starved of it until you came here?

Margaret Thomson  42:06  
No (laughter) of course not. Anyhow, so then I had a very thin time until I got a job with... oh I did a script I remember, I did a script for Grierson. And again, it was a semi natural history job. And now I must tell you of my first meeting with Grierson.

Everyone had him in awe. I knew about documentary films, not through really... the ethos of GBI wasn't in that direction, but the people were, the people like Jack Holmes and Stanley Hawes and so on were all potential documentary people. And, and strangely enough, where I lived in Ladbroke Grove, my newsagent had a new magazine on film, British films. And so I bought it, I bought Volume two, Number two. And this was World Film News. 

Gloria Sachs  43:16  
Have you still got that?  It's a collector's item if you have.

Margaret Thomson  43:19  
I had them until a few months ago. I worked with Marion Grierson later on, and one day she said would you like to come to Film Centre where we're packing up World Film News forever. And if you've got, she knew I had collected them, if you've got any spare, any spare numbers you want, you can pick them up. So I had a complete copy bar one, and, long although they weren't very good nick I mean, I'd travelled from A to B and they were in boxes and things. I'd long wondered how I could capitalise on them and make some money. But it didn't seem they were really worth a lot although it sounds as though they ought to be. And then just fairly recently, I met a New Zealand film man, a man really an academic man, he's a professor of English literature at Auckland University, Brian Horrocks. And when I told him about them, he said 'you wouldn't consider giving them to the New Zealand Film Archive would you?' And I said "Yes, the very thing, of course I would" so I collected all my papers, all my magazines, all the ACTT journals I had, and all the Sight and Sounds I had, dating back to the 30s you know. They were, I never, I didn't have complete of anything. And also Documentary News Letters. And we packed them all up and he took them off and 

Gloria Sachs  44:23  
Well they went to a good home, anyway. 

Margaret Thomson  44:50  
Yes. And when I recently did an oral history with Marion Grierson, I told her this - she was the editor of them - and she was tickled to death. She really was so thrilled that they'd found a good home. So that was nice. It's a good thing done. Right. So, 

Gloria Sachs  45:05  
Your first meeting with Grierson 

Margaret Thomson  45:07  
My first meeting with Grierson, yes. He, he was sitting at a desk facing the window in in Film Centre in Soho.

End of Side 3



Margaret Thomson was a  documentary filmmaker who divided her forty-year career between New Zealand and England. She was the first female film director active in New Zealand.

She was born  was born in 1910  in Australia to Gertrude Thomson and James Allan Thomson, a geologist. He was appointed head of the Dominion Museum in Wellington, so Margaret spent most of her childhood in New Zealand. She attended Canterbury University, graduating with a degree in zoology.

Margaret moved to England in 1934. Her first film-related job in England was with Gaumont-British Instructional Films, for whom she worked initially as their film librarian and subsequently as editor for a series of films on the ecology of Great Britain. She left in 1938 and worked as a film editor elsewhere, eventually joining Realist Film Unit RFU in 1941. Partly due to the onset of World War II, which opened opportunities for women while men were at war, she worked on a large number of RFU film projects, many aimed at educating people about dealing with wartime conditions. She shot two postwar projects, Children Learning by Experience 1946 and Children Growing Up with Other People 1947, in a proto-cinema verite style in order to capture the childrens behavior with as little interference as possible. She stayed at RFU for six years, developing a reputation as an outstanding director who conveyed complicated information clearly and without talking down to her audiences. 

In 1947, she was offered a position as a director for New Zealands National Film Unit NFU, and she returned to the country where she had been raised. Her NFU short film Railway Worker 1948 is now considered a classic, and the NFUs head called it the best thing the NFU had produced up to that point in its history. One of the things that set the film apart from others of its era is that it showed the workers home lives as well as their work lives. Thomsons own favorite among her NFU films was another short, The First Two Years at School 1949, which offered a close look at a school for Māori children. 

Thomson eventually became unhappy over the amount of government oversight of the NFU, which she felt had the potential to stifle controversial material and limit the independence of viewpoints expressed by NFU films. She returned to England in 1950, taking up a job as director for the Crown Film Unit. Crown closed a year later, but she continued making films in England for another two decades as a freelance filmmaker and producer, mostly of documentary shorts. In the 1950s, she set up a production company with her husband, Bob Ash. 

The only feature film Thomson directed was Childs Play 1954, a science-fiction film for Group 3 about children who managed to split the atom and thereby create a new form of popcorn. She coached child actors for other films, including The Kidnappers 1953, which won its two child stars juvenile Academy Awards. 

Thomson retired from film making in 1977. She was the subject of a 1995 documentary, Direction. Margaret Thomson, and her work was featured in the documentary War, Peace and Pictures 1989. She died on 30 December 2005.