Katy McGahan 0:02
OK, this is an interview by Katy McGahan, one of the curators in the Non-Fiction unit at the BFI interviewing for the BECTU History Project, Mary Orrom, filmmaker, editor and director. And it's 25th of January 2011.
Katy McGahan 0:30
OK Mary Orrom, many thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Maybe we can start with you telling us a little bit about your background, family, where you were born, etc. And then we can move into
Mary Orrom 0:48
Well, one remembers very little about one's background. But I was born in Sheffield in June 1926. My father had just got a job as lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics. And they moved to London in the late summer of that year, so I didn't have any experience of Sheffield beyond the first six weeks of my life. So first few years spent in the Hampstead Garden Suburb. I had two older brothers, one six years older, and one 11 years old, so considerably older. We moved to live in Church End, Finchley when I was about five, and there we lived until the outbreak of war when I was 13. School - variety of small schools. I then went to South Hampstead High School for Girls, aged 11. And at the outbreak of war, or rather just before the outbreak of war, we were on holiday in Cornwall, and I was dropped off on the way back to London, at Dartington Hall School, which was a co-educational boarding school set up by the Elmhurst, part of the Dartington estate, it was a very, very progressive and pretty unusual school. So the difference to be in a small co-ed, very advanced boarding school, to a girls' secondary school in London was a very considerable culture shock. I started by finding it absolutely awful and terrifying. That coupled with being away from home, not even knowing where home was any more because my family had been moved once to Cambridge, because the London School of Economics had been evacuated to Peterhouse in Cambridge, so I didn't ever go back to London, to live, for a considerable number of years. Well, wartime experience, it was, it was pretty favoured really, I mean, living in, first of all in South Devon and going to Cambridge for holidays. I suppose one started with a very much more free existence than is imaginable now.
Mary Orrom 3:37
To go backwards, before the war, I wandered around by myself, I'd disappear on my bicycle aged probably about 9, 10 - if I was asked where I was going, I was quite cross, I didn't know where I was going. And nobody really worried. I would cycle to school. At one point when I was about nine, about two miles along what is now an extremely busy main road. But we did wander around, we weren't restricted as people were not terrified that something was going to happen to you all the time. And of course, there was not heavy traffic. Anyway. War
Katy McGahan 4:26
You met Paul Rotha didn't you?
Mary Orrom 4:28
That happened through my father, either had, I think, Paul Rotha had approached him because he was an economic historian, had approached him when researching some film. I set out to be a painter, decided it was war - I had to do something rather than more useful, and I'd always loved films. So, decided I wanted to go into documentary films. Paul came on holiday with us, in probably 1941/2, no it must have been 42/3. And he liked being very... making great offers. And he said, "Oh, when you come to London, I'll give you a job." But I don't think he actually expecting me to hold him to that. So yes, I went to London, and I left school at 15 and a bit, and finished my matric, which you needed to go to university, I actually had a place to go to LSE, but you couldn't take it up then until you were 18, 17/18. And I was too young, so, I didn't actually want to do it anyway. So I went and saw, phoned up Paul Rotha repeatedly, looking for a job and he said... wouldn't speak to me after a time. So every day I used to phone through, this probably went on for the best part of two months.
Mary Orrom 6:05
One day fortunately, there was a woman on the switchboard who was new. She misheard my name, Mary Beales, thought I said Mary Fields , who was the, at that point, the Big Chief, so to speak in children's films. KM: British Instructional? MO: children's story films, and Paul had been trying to get her to give him, or to work with him, on I don't quite know what the idea was, but he had. So I was put through to Paul as Mary Fields. And when he discovered it wasn't, it was this horrid girl who kept phoning him up all the time, he just was so fed up, he said, "Oh, come and see me, then I'll see what I can do." So I did, and was given the most remarkably boring job. I was sent, or rather I had every single day, to read through Hansard, which was the record of the previous day's, every speech that was made at the House of Commons. I had to read this through and pick out all references to film, for I say, I think it was for about six months, wishing to do some, anything other than that, I did pester Paul. At that time, various people who were on the board of Paul Rotha Productions, were very fed up with his bringing people in. And they didn't want me at all initially. But fortunately, they, we became, I became friendly with them all and they were quite supportive. So when he actually said I could learn to be an editor, or do a bit of assistant editing, they didn't, they didn't object.
Mary Orrom 8:14
Paul Rotha's first wife, a woman called Bunch Dixon-Spain, (name unclear, Rotha's first wife was Margaret Louise Lee) who was an editor, was working for him at that time. And I was put to assist her, which really meant you were just winding up cuts and discovering where things were and what not, much much time was spent putting paper clips in little bits of film. After a number of, I've forgotten how long, two or three months of working for her, she, I think she was ill and wasn't there, and there wasn't anybody to do a bit of assembly editing, not fine cut, but remembering film was then of course entirely film, it wasn't, nothing was digital.
Mary Orrom 9:03
So Paul said he would like me to do this, but he didn't think I had enough experience. And so he said "Right, well, I'll teach you editing tonight." And I got to the cutting room. And he handed me a tin of clips and the sound, the music, the Post Horn Galop, and pointed me at a Moviola and said, "Right well, I expect this assembled into something which makes sense tomorrow." And went away. So I stayed all night. And in the morning I presented him with this sort of assembly. I'd tried to make it make some sort of sense and of course, the Post Horn Galop has such a very definite rhythm to it that you have to make your cuts. And obviously, that was quite a good way of learning. So he accepted that. So that that was really the start of actually working on film. And I think the useful thing to remember is that then one person tended to do everything on a film. So if, you would be an assistant editor, you could be an editor, you could have worked with the cameraman, you'd work with the director, you were a gopher, but you were also a gopher with a lot of, really a lot of responsibility.
Mary Orrom 10:49
At that time, I was still married to Francis Gysin. And er... which was not a very happy relationship, but anyway, we were married. But I think we got married - this is not very relevant to what you're doing but it's quite amusing. We were living together. And I think it was a relationship which was sort of gradually fading away. But we needed somewhere to live. And a mutual friend said, "Oh, we understand you're getting married and we've got a house in Chelsea and there's the ground floor basement flat you can have" but they wouldn't consider us living there unmarried. So we foolishly got married but that was, that's another story. Anyway, on the the film side, KG You worked at DATA didn't you? MO: This was before DATA. Part of the Rotha problems was that he was, he was a martinet. And so his unit would become pretty disenchanted with him from time to time with him. I think this happened more than once. But yes, and Donald Alexander as producer was falling quite a little bit, he and Paul were not kind of getting on, so it very much split the unit, and I was one of the ones that went with Donald to DATA. I think the first, I worked with, with Donald, with his wife, Budge Cooper, and with Kay Mander, as assistant on various different films. The first one I think was Kay Mander on a film called Boy Builders [New Builders] which Wolf Suschitzky was the cameraman. I'm not sure that Peter Pickering didn't work on that. Maybe he didn't, but, there would be one assistant only, in a unit of that - so it would be a unit of basically of three if you were only filming silently, or there might be a camera assistant as well but not always. So you did learn all around the, around the various disciplines.
Mary Orrom 13:53
With DATA, Donald suddenly told me I was going to be sent down to direct an early, whether it was yet Mining Review or whether it was before Mining Review was founded, I don't remember but it was a mining theme. And I do recollect saying 'I can't possibly direct, I don't know how to' and he said "yes, you can". So I did. It was not very long after that, that my first actual directing job came up, which was the film on rent tribunals which had just been set up in Scotland to determine the rent of a property which could be either furnished or unfurnished [film title Fair Rent (1947)]. But to make it impossible for a tenant to be given notice to quit if they'd applied for a Fair Rent. Initially, if somebody objected to the rent, the chances were that they would get thrown out. But this came, this film came up fairly early, I think, in the setting up of once a month, short documentaries in cinemas.
Mary Orrom 15:27
So the cinemas were actually obliged to show these between their first and second features. They had a set length. And basically, they had to be as a short story, not just a straightforward documentary, which meant that there were being, whether they were one a month or they lasted sometimes a bit longer, but it did mean that a number of these were made in any one year. And because they were short, had to be slightly entertaining, it was suddenly a different documentary approach, because you could use either an actor or people acting. In the case of the few I made it was basically people acting, as opposed to actors from outside, but they were not precluded.
Mary Orrom 16:35
So this first one, which was Fair Rent, I seem to remember that I had to go and do each stage, that meant doing your initial research, preparing an outline treatment, then a main treatment, and then going through two, if not three, script stages. That was shot entirely silent with with commentary, but it had some entertaining bits. I had something like the, some member of the, senior member of the local council, came into this very grotty flat that we were filming in, and I wanted a particular shot in which he had to look up, then look up and then look over there. He had to repeat this several times. Well I had absolutely no idea that this wasn't a very good movement for somebody, well he was only kind of late middle age, but it wasn't a very good movement for him to make. And so he, this poor chap repeated this several times and fell flat on the floor. Apparently this particular movement can actually briefly cut the blood supply to the brain (laughter)... so I nearly gave the poor man a stroke (unclear) but... so yes, we, I mean very young
Katy McGahan 18:15
Did you get to drive a tram in that film?
Katy McGahan 18:18
That was another nice little visit, the film was made in Aberdeen. And I certainly have fairly mixed memories, going up there during the stage of finding the people who were going to be in it. I was up there on my own and staying in a hotel. It was still wartime, blacked out. But the hotel had, you had a window in each room onto the main corridor. This was brightly illuminated outside, I couldn't sleep, I was nervous anyway, the bright light shining in, so I would get up and stick brown paper over it. Every morning they took the brown paper down again, I spent a great deal of time going out and trying to get brown paper because you wouldn't buy such a thing, you had to sort of find it somewhere. But we were trying to film a tram scene, well there happened to be a bit of tram line in Aberdeen, which runs just from one point to another, not very long. And they allowed us to fully commandeer a tram on this section. So we were able to kind of film this particular scene. If I remember, it was the young man of the couple, very concerned and had to go upstairs and sort of sit and worry about what he was going to do. And when we'd filmed it, and Wolf Suschitzky said 'yeah, it looked all right', as far as he could tell, I made some remark about always wanting to drive a tram, and so, the tram driver said "All right you can drive the tram." So I stood there and held this... and it was absolutely terrifying because it was so heavy, what you were holding, you thought "My god" you know, so, yes there was a lot of light relief really.
Mary Orrom 20:29
The the... something happened between that film and the next one which I think was... war had finished, the suggestion was made that there should be a... it would be very interesting to film the rebuilding of the worst bombed cities. Now whether this was then or came in later I'm not absolutely sure, but I think it was then. The worst bombed cities being considered to be London, Coventry, Bristol, Swansea and Hull, which... I was set to write the the treatment for that which involved a lot of interviewing and investigating. I think my chief claim to fame on that particular film was filming in, I was going to do the interviews in Hull, a very flat city, must be below sea level and the the, it was just at the beginning, I suppose, of the New Look, you had full skirts. And because I had to interview the the the sort of Mayor and Corporation, I thought I'd better wear a skirt. I usually wore trousers. So I found when I got up there, I'd forgotten to take up the suspender belt and then you didn't have tights, you had stockings which had to sort of hang on these things. I didn't have a suspender belt, so I, how was I to keep my stockings up? Well, all I could use was some rather large rubber bands. So I put these rubber bands around my stockings, and this full skirt, I was taken by the the mayor and his I suppose chief planning officer out to see the site, the area that had been so badly bombed. And we went in a large kind of taxi. Well there were these three gentlemen who seemed to me to be frightfully old but probably were not old at all. So they sat in the seat and I sat in one of the little fold down seat things. And I realised sitting there that my stockings were no longer in the rubber bands. And they were descending. So I managed with, I'm still impressed by, I managed under the fullness of my skirt to remove my stockings , put my shoes back on while keeping up a conversation. So, I don't remember very much else about it except this horrific... near embarrassment.
Katy McGahan 23:37
You worked on a good few Mining Reviews.
Mary Orrom 23:41
Yes, I've erased those pretty well from my memory. I was always terrified that I might have to go down a mine. I nearly did on one occasion, but actually I never went down the mine. Some of them were interesting, I mean there were still Bevin Boys, I think, I certainly remember one, about such things, and quite a lot in South Wales and just in different kinds of situations. But that was just directing, I wasn't involved in writing or editing. Otherwise the other films I did write and and edit as well as direct. With the exception of the film of Dover, rebuilding of Dover [title: Dover, Spring 1947], of which the initial treatment was written by Jack Howells. But I think much of the the later work on that... I mean inbetween times, you did other work, other assistant jobs and trying to get films going, some of us spent quite a lot of time at the COI, with your commissioning editor, or whatever, trying to to, that I think didn't change. We're getting a lot going
Katy McGahan 24:13
And at this time. was it like kind of working? As a woman, there was a few of you around. Do you think you were treated differently from male colleagues?
Katy McGahan 25:21
Well? Yes, yes, it was. It varied. I mean, most of the actual technicians were all right, but if there was an opportunity of putting you down, it did happen. In fact, there was one occasion, which is actually on the last of the those theatrical films I made, which was the one called Code Name: Westward Ho!, which was on a whole aspect - which has rather been forgotten really - of the people coming to Britain as what were called European Volunteer Workers. On this particular occasion, quite a lot of the time on this particular film, we were working either with, or in places where, nobody really spoke any English. On this particular occasion, we were filming at one of these ghastly ex-army camps that these poor people were put into. I don't know what had happened to my assistant, but they were obviously off somewhere. And we were trying to film with them, it was it was with sound, and of course, at that time, a sound truck was about the size of a removal van, and for anything you had this enormous sound truck. And somebody was hammering in the next room. So there was nobody to ask them to stop except me. So I went through. This chap didn't speak any English. And I was trying to, in this ridiculous way, if somebody doesn't speak a language, you speak to them, you repeat things, you repeat them ever more slowly. They're not going to understand them any better. So I kept trying to get him to stop. And we would then go back and he'd stopped for a bit and then he'd start again. Well, this must have happened about five times before finally we managed to find somebody who spoke Ukrainian or whatever it was, he spoke, and he finally did stop.
Mary Orrom 27:34
A bit later, after we'd finished filming, I was passing the sound truck, and the entire crew, who were all male, were in there roaring with laughter. And I discovered that the beasts had recorded me trying to make this chap shut up (laughter). So here was this prissy voice coming out saying, "Please, will... you... stop... hammering?... Please stop." They were all laughing at me. On the whole except that there is a certain tendency to everybody to assume that if you were a young woman it was their god given right to come into your bedroom at night. And that did happen KM: Really MO: Rather often. And I think most people probably had the same experience if they were... but, it was all right. You did have to be probably rather more, rather more tactful and careful than most men did. But I don't think, I mean, during the war women did all sorts of things. There was probably much less prejudice than people imagine. So no, I mean, I was probably over conscious of it really. And I think when later talking to people like Kay Mander, Budge [Cooper] they were fiercesome, quite fiercesome ladies.
Katy McGahan 29:13
Katy McGahan 29:15
People like, actual people like the cameramen I worked with were all absolutely lovely. Very, very supportive. Especially somebody like Wolf Suschitzky, who was a really lovely person to work with. I suppose then... I'm just trying to think what was the last thing? I suppose the last thing before I first left the industry was an agricultural film. With the splendidly imaginative title of Why Sterilise Glasshouse Soils [release title: Why Glasshouse Soils are Sterilized (1950)], which was encouraging people to sterilise by steam, not by using pesticides, and that if you kept on growing tomatoes in the same greenhouse, they would get diseases with splendid names like Verticillium Wilt and this sort of... that that
Katy McGahan 30:26
Was this for the Ministry of Agriculture?
Mary Orrom 30:30
Yes, it was. For, I'm not quite sure where they, how they showed these films to people, but, quite long, about half an hour. It, I mean it was basically the sort of scientific background, if you like, of such things. It was rather humorous because Michael [Orrom], in fact, who was basically a scientist, he trained as a physicist. He made How[emphasised] Glasshouse Soils are Sterilised (laughter). So I did the theoretical one, and he did the
Katy McGahan 31:11
So where did you and Michael Orrom, your late husband, where did you first meet or how did you...
Katy McGahan 31:16
In fact we'd met in Cambridge but he was a distant figure (unclear) up there that I... and then we, we met occasionally on on film things and in a quite distant way and it was only after my first marriage had broken up that we re-met in any serious sense. But when I became pregnant, I was 23 when Carrie was born, obviously... I actually did work until about 10 days before she was born, but that was working on on on a project, which didn't actually materialise, I was helping somebody else on that. But then I, I did leave the industry. In fact, when she was three, at that time, amazingly enough, there were nursery classes attached to primary schools, so she went to nursery at three. And I then went to art school, and went to St Martin's to do sculpture, which is what I wanted to do. And I was able to fit that around, with my mother's help. Having left Francis when she was one. And after a period of wandering around various places, I did go back to my parents' house. And they were great, very supportive. So I was able to take her nursery, go into St Martin's, do my day there, and my mother would pick her up, and I got back. And I was there for three and a bit years and I ran out of money and had to try and go back to work.
Mary Orrom 33:25
I found it quite difficult getting back in. I was wanting to move into features really and work as an editor. But I found I was kind of mistrusted because I'd been working as a director, that I wouldn't, it was said to me later by by one person who hadn't given me a job, that they thought I would try to take over, which actually of course, I wouldn't have done, I just wanted to be an editor at that time. So I got into, I think it was the Chopin [Chopin (1958)] film, which was produced by a lady called Theodora Olembert. And that was editing, entirely from the most odd bits of material which he had got hold off. In fact, the, my assistant on that, newly back from Africa, was Stephen Peet, who I think was one of the people who set up the History Project in the first place or certainly worked on it early on
Katy McGahan 31:54
This BECTU History Project?
Katy McGahan 34:45
Yeah, yes, which is... but he was he was great. He was, he literally was newly back from Africa, with lots of children. And, we, actually there was a second film with her, which, which I can't pretend I remember the name, but whatever happened to that I don't know. She was a remarkably difficult person to work for. But it was, it was a sort of way of, of doing things up
Katy McGahan 35:22
So this would be about 1958.
Mary Orrom 35:25
No... yes, yes it must have been because Carrie had... earlier than that actually probably 50... it would have been 55/6/7, something like that. Something like that. Then the, because there was a, what was No Governors [film title]? I don't really remember
Katy McGahan 35:49
A documentary on London buskers. MO: Oh that! KM So this would be with... Alan Forbes directed, Derrick Knight
Mary Orrom 35:49
Yup, yes. Yes. Yeah, yeah. Yes, I'd forgotten about that. That that was editing, wasn't it? KG: Yes. MO: Yeah.
Katy McGahan 36:08
supervising editor, you were credited.
Mary Orrom 36:11
The... then I think it was fairly soon after I'd just been, before Seven Years in Tibet, the the Master Ho films weren't they?
Katy McGahan 36:33
They would be around 1957, 58, Seven Years in Tibet - 1956.
Mary Orrom 36:41
Yeah, KG: On our records MO: That's right, the Seven Years in Tibet was actually very interesting. You know, Michael edited that. And I assisted him. It was largely using the material which Heinrich Harrer had actually filmed in Tibet. And a lot of that, the quality wasn't very good. But we did spend a lot of time, I certainly spent a great deal of time looking at it. A quite strange effect that when some years later, the Dalai Lama, in fact, came to Britain, and he appeared on television. I had, and then speaking with Michael, he had the same conviction that we knew him, it was quite strange, we'd say "that's not quite right. He wasn't like that." And it was only from this material. And after all he was he was really young, when that material was, was done. And Harrer himself was an extremely interesting man, more than came
Katy McGahan 37:50
He escaped from a British prisoner of war camp, didn't he?
Katy McGahan 37:53
Yeah, he was a, yes, he did. He, he escaped with a friend and had this astonishing journey. But he was quite open, I mean he had in fact, really been a Nazi. But I suppose what you realised was that a lot of young German, Austrian men were Nazis, they didn't really think about it. And we tend to think how could somebody have ever been like that? But you know they were young, they didn't sort of, they didn't think, they didn't actually really realise what they were doing. Some of them did. But
Katy McGahan 38:36
Now you mention the war. I'm just curious, we didn't quite cover it when we were talking about when you sort of started working with Rotha and DATA and just having Second World War, sort of working with that as your backdrop. And just editing away in the middle of so, I mean what, what did it feel like?
Katy McGahan 38:53
I suppose yes, yeah. Because I was 13 when, when the war broke out, and in your, your kind of adolescence, which we couldn't really have. When I think of my own children or grandchildren and how they're... the whole side of finding out about yourself growing up, about experimenting with clothes or make-up. You couldn't do that. I mean, you couldn't buy clothes, there weren't any. I remember one of my great things was I wanted a house coat, something you can't imagine now, this sort of thing like a down to the ground dressing gown, put on with a zip. And I suppose because basically houses were cold, there wasn't any central heating. Fuel was moderately short or expensive. They were cold, you actually wanted something you put on. Well I desperately wanted this housecoat, they cost about a year's clothing coupons. So, I was not somebody who was ever any good sewing, nor was my mother, but however, we went to a furnishing fabric shop and brought furnishing fabric, and I had this sort of garment made with a zip, which actually was perfectly capable of standing up by itself. There was nobody in it. So you sort of put this thing on and waddled about, but yeah, and I mean, it was dark, the blackout was singularly depressing.
Mary Orrom 40:05
KG: So did it affect your work in any way when you were filming?
Mary Orrom 40:38
Well yes, because you you KM: editing MO: you thought you know about... if you went out, it was dark and you'd have a torch. It's very hard for people to imagine now. Total, dark, street, dark, no lights in shops, no cars, what few there were with little tiny lights. Well, that, so from that, that blackness very much, was a pretty strong feature. And then of course, during the early time, when I was first editing, it was the time of the flying bombs, and sometimes during the worst period of those, there would be eight, nine air raids during the course of a day, so you'd be working in the cutting room, and you would hear the sound of the siren, then you'd be all alert. Well if you'd hear a buzz bomb as we called them, coming, as long as you could hear it's motor, that was all right. But then the thing would cut out. And you knew that there would only be perhaps two minutes or maybe a bit less before it exploded and you had no idea whether it was coming towards you still, or not. So that was the moment when you would all have to lie down under the, under the bench. But the particular editor I was working with quite a bit that time, a man called Jack Ellitt. And he had two - apart from being actually extremely good editor - he did have two interesting features. One of which was that every day after lunch, after his sandwich, he lay down right across the bench. He'd have his turntables, sticking out bits, he'd lie on that, and go to sleep for half an hour and woe betide you if you woke him up. He was having, this tremendous temper, that plus the fact that he kept a lot of chickens and ducks and things and he would go around various Soho cafes and collect their scraps and come back with this enormous bag, which sometimes smelt, which he would hang up in the cutting room until it was time for him to go, evening time, when he would go off with his sack of chicken food.
Mary Orrom 42:09
But I suppose the thing is, you got kind of used to it really, but I do remember sometimes going to the get the tube to go home. And the chaps who sold the Evening Standard would have their board and they would always put up Warning On and then they would cross it out. And it'd be Warning On Warning On Warning On Warning On sometimes 7, 8, 9 times you'd see this. So yeah, coloured, coloured, it was pretty frightening, I remember getting very worked up about those. Ah, [presumably looking at her filmography] Aldermaston March film, that that was very interesting. Initially, I was actually asked if I would edit it with Terry Twigg, which we started off to do. And then Lindsay Anderson came in and he was actually great. He had very definite, very definite views. I actually got on with him and liked him. But he he was pretty scathing about an awful lot of people. Bernice Reubens, the novelist also,
Katy McGahan 44:32
So it was coverage of an anti nuclear
Katy McGahan 44:34
Well it was the first, it was the first march from Aldermaston in protest and I think Wolf Suschitzky did did did do a camera on it. So there was this large quantity of assorted, some awful, some quite good, which was basically just people walking. And bits of, you know, going into wherever they spent the night, because after all the first march was five, took five days. And then of course, the speechs and whatnot in Trafalgar Square. But, I was a member of CND. And that was pretty well, kind of last thing, I did. One of, then then I was, had, Michael and my first child, who was born in 1959. And after that, it was very much, well then I had another two children, very much looking after that. Being here, and all of the things that went with that, I did, when Melissa was 10, 9, 10, so the younger children were then six and three, I did think of trying to go back to films. And I'd always wanted to make children's films. In fact, I wrote the story of The Secret Pony. And we, we filmed it together here, using, the daughter Melissa, as the main part in it, by which time we had a pony and so on.
Katy McGahan 46:39
This was through Film Drama.
Katy McGahan 46:41
This was, this was, I mean, yes, Film Drama, sort of produced it. But we had put up the money, what little there was, ourselves. I enjoyed it, there were, there were... Michael and I couldn't really work together. It was a good proof of that, because we tended to think rather differently. But I did find that the length of time that elapsed between actually making the film and it ever coming into, or thinking of it coming into fruition, by that time, I found I didn't really have patience with things which took quite so long (laughter).
Katy McGahan 47:31
MO: So KM: currently, you were still doing your art work
Katy McGahan 47:35
Well then, yeah, I'd been, I was a fairly ruthless mother and I expected them to have a rest in the afternoon. So my hour, I would, it didn't matter, I thought, 'No' In fact I've often said this to other people in the same position. Don't think 'Oh I'd better do the washing up first. If you're going to have an hour, get on with your own work. And make sure you actually have it. The moment they've gone to bed, or whatever they have the rest, you go into your private space.' And so yes, that was the time that I did it. So I did always do something even when they were little. Even though this was, I have a very much a self sufficiency thing and attempted to grow vegetables and have chickens and goats. One time, this was very difficult ground full of stones. And I thought I should have a plough, and we had a donkey so I sought out, and found a company which made Third World bits of equipment and got this donkey plough. Unfortunately, I didn't allow for the intelligence of the donkey who realised it was much easier to keep ploughing the same furrow. So if you plough one furrow beautifully, and then you try and do the next one and he'd steer back to so he was endlessly doing... it didn't quite work out (laughter). And Michael quite reasonably used to say, "well, it's all very well this self sufficiency lark, but you've got to have somebody willing to be earning some money for us. But I mean he had to work very hard. He was earning money, there were four children, however economic you are.
Mary Orrom 49:33
We always went on holidays every year. So it, I mean, I was technically the company's secretary. But that didn't really mean anything very much. But it was a question of being supportive.
Mary Orrom 49:55
I always read scripts, but he had his own, pretty definite ideas what he was doing. It was very much a supportive, rather than any other sort of, role.
Katy McGahan 50:15
One series we didn't mention was the The Journey of Master Ho, the Willow Pattern Boy series for Small Films.
Katy McGahan 50:23
This was Oliver Postgate, who's been friends since early childhood. Our parents were friends. He is a man of his exceedingly vast talent. And he had tried all kinds of ways of earning a living. He'd invented the most remarkable devices and toys. He said, at one point, he was making buttons out of, well in fact, it was early-on use of plastic, which was then being given metallic cover, but they were very imaginative buttons indeed, and they would kind of do a copy of maybe an ancient scroll or some prehistoric bit and produce these buttons. But none of these things ever made any money. And he had, you see we had known each other, we'd been at school together, we were very much, he was very much my brother, in addition to my actual brothers. So Oliver would tell me about his, his troubles and his love life and whatnot, and he had met and fallen in love with Prue, who was married to a, I think he actually composed music of, I don't know very much about what his background was, but I know that the marriage was very unhappy. She had three children and had left him, and Oliver and Prue formed this relationship, and I remember him coming to me once and saying, "I don't see what I have to offer." I was saying to him he had a great deal more than most people had to offer. Anyway, there they were, they were married, she had just produced twins. And they were living in, not very far from where we were in Finchley. And he decided he was going to try and make children's films. Now, he had a small 16mm camera, which is just a camera. And he decided he was going to make animated films. So he made an animation table, the movement of the camera up and down was governed by a bicycle wheel to turn the kind of pedal in it, move the thing up and down. The thing with Oliver's inventions, is actually, they worked. But he came he he he talked to to, to Michael and to be about, he was filming these these series about Willow pattern plates, the characters on the Willow pattern plate came to life. So this was a boy and his water buffalo. And they were paper cutouts and moving like that off the flat. And he he wanted help in editing them. So that was what I did. I would go along to his house. And he would have to keep stopping in order to give one of the twins a bottle or change his nappy or help Prue, so it was in the front room of his house in Finchley and these were the first things he did. They were pretty aw(ful?), they were not very good. But they were enough to get an interest in in I think whether they were ever shown on television, I have a feeling they probably weren't [they were tx on ITV in 1958]. But they must have survived somewhere. And he then got his sort of first proper things. And I think the Journey of Master Ho was rather happily forgotten really. But it was between that and and our moving out here.
Katy McGahan 54:56
Katy McGahan 54:58
Yeah, just, just shortly before my second daughter was born, we came out here in 1959. But that was some, apart from, you say, The Secret Pony much later, that that was my, the end of my personal film journey. It was difficult, I missed it hugely, I missed the people. I mean, I loved the work. But I took the decision, I was going to bring up my own children. I remember talking about this very much particularly with with I mean Sarah Erulkar took the other decision. She, she had au pairs. And I thought, well, when I was working, the real difficulty was that that work was the first love. And it was also that which had your attention. If you were going to be married, and have children, I wasn't the sort of character that could really combine that very successfully. And I thought, well, I don't want another failed marriage.
Mary Orrom 56:15
And so that was really quite a big part of deciding to give it up. But it was, it was great. And I was very, very lucky to have had the whole experience, I must say. Other things?
Katy McGahan 56:35
OK, well, I think that's a natural kind of,
Mary Orrom 56:38
I'm sure you've got more than you could possibly want there. But there may be other things which I should have.
Katy McGahan 56:45
Yeah, I was just talking, wondering about how Michael had aspirations to work in other genres and how how he might have progressed, if you'd started out in the 1930s say, with with Rotha, and Cavalcanti and those people and, and how he kind of sits, and yourself as well, just looking at that period. And yeah, just before you, entered.
Mary Orrom 57:16
As far as Michael was concerned, he, he very much believed that film was an art material, art medium. And that the essentially, movement was a very strong part of it, much more than words, much more than dialogue. So he did very much look to German expressionist films and the Russian films, and very much studied film. So, I think the same applied, when I came into it, it was essentially film, and documentary seemed to have more of, really more opportunity for working in a visual way than did the standard sort of feature film. So that was one of the things that drew Michael towards documentary, plus the fact that when he was in Cambridge, he had of course made, done quite a lot of filming from an early stage. And that came up particularly in in Fragment of Memory, the fact that he was using there, film which he'd taken basically, in going back to recreating his university life in the sort of 1939 to 41. Which time of life was incredibly important to him and remained so really, throughout his life in a way that that was not a period of, I had no equivalent that I look back to, but yes, he, he was an intellectual and he he he wanted to develop film in a particular, or his work in a particular direction, which, he was frustrated in that, partly I think it was because he wasn't willing to compromise and it would have been very much better for him if he had been, and towards the end of his life with, video was available, and I used to try hard to persuade him to use video camera, 'do the sorts of things you've wanted to do, do it on a small scale.'
Mary Orrom 59:41
But I suppose the thing is, if you've worked in a big pond, you don't want to work in a little one. So he didn't adapt and use things, where for instance, John Krish did, which was, which was a shame, because whether whether it would have worked out, I don't know. But he never really tried, I mean he tried for a long time with the film that he, the work that he did on films that were never in fact made. But there we are, that's just one of one of those things. I mean, we we worked together on, but I only worked on his films very much as a supportive... yes, I'd read scripts, make comments, my goodness, I was careful to make positive comments. Very, very careful about not making any negative ones (laughter), which didn't, which meant sometimes probably I was weaker than I should have been. So, I mean he was away a lot, on, I suppose locations, as we call them, then rather than shoots, were much longer then than they are now. Travelling was slower, because quite a lot of the time he was in he was in the African countries, Arab countries
Katy McGahan 1:01:27
Cable and Wireless mainly?
Mary Orrom 1:01:29
Yes, mostly for Cable and Wireless, some some for Shell. But, I mean Cable and Wireless were very good sponsors. In the... there was one occasion when, I suppose it was about 19....very early 70s. And we were going to have the first holiday on our own without children that we had had for ever, no not quite ever, but for a long time. And we were all booked to go and my, Michael's mother was coming to look after the children during the time she could, and my oldest daughter was then at university, so she was basically looking them while she was away, and Cable and Wireless suddenly phoned up and said they had a crisis on a job in Hong Kong. Because Mike had made two if not three films in Hong Kong for them, 'would he go and see to this?' They had been asked to make a short film, a number of items, items rather than a film, for the first satellite connection through to the United States. And these were a disaster. 'Would Michael go?' and he said 'well, he couldn't go because we were going on holiday.' They said 'Well, take Mary too, we will, we will pay for her to go with you.' And I said "Listen, one thing I never ever want to do, is to accompany anybody on location," because I know what it was like, when, with a couple of times this happened when I was doing things. But they persuaded, so I thought, well I've never been anything like as far as that, my travelling has all been basically in Europe, so decided to go. And I said "Well look I'll only come if I can work, too." So it was agreed that I would, and we tried to think of some reasonable items to send.
Mary Orrom 1:02:46
Well, one of them was on acupuncture, which the American Medical Association had just decided to accept as a reasonable medical treatment. So we, that was one, and we came up with various others. But getting to Hong Kong, September is very hot, we looked out, up acupuncturists you see and we found in the Chinese equivalent of the Yellow Pages, we found this 'Kowloon (unclear) School of Acupuncture, English is spoken'. So phoned them up, I phoned them up when Michael was trying to deal with something else in this chaotic situation. And they said "Yes, you you, you come, we speak, we speak, we speak very good English." So we went there and one of them did speak quite good English (laughter). But... worked out a small story, and Michael said "Well it should be, it should be a woman. It should be Western woman, you'd better have acupuncture." I'd been complaining that I had a lot of problems with my little finger, it was extremely painful joint, you see, "so will you have acupuncture for the joint?" But I think I'm the only person who was cured by not having acupuncture. Because I was so scared it got better at once (laughter). Actually, one of my daughters became an acupuncturist, but still... many years later. However, we did film this, we found, one of his daughters was willing to be a guinea pig, not guinea pig because she'd had it often, so we filmed there. And it was very interesting. They also did a technique called Moxa [Moxibustion], which is burning this little bit of stuff, it's sort of wormwood stuff, which they make very hot on the acupuncture point, the only thing is that it smelt exactly like pot. So I wasn't at all sure what they were doing (laughter).
Mary Orrom 1:02:46
We made one on food, and one on the manufacture of Chinese mooncakes, which was again, fascinating because mooncakes originally, were the way in which communication happened in the Chinese villages, when there was to be the first ever peasant uprising in China. And the mooncake contained the whole yolk of a duck egg. When people receive their mooncakes, this was going back however many hundreds of years it was, they knew because it was a whole yolk, it would be the next full moon. So these, I think people probably no longer remember why they had mooncakes, but it happened that at the time of the, when the American astronauts got to wherever it was, which was the time when this satellite connection was to happen, was the mooncake time. So mooncakes were being manufactured in enormous quantities. We filmed in a mooncake factory, which was extremely memorable. The factory was about the size of two tennis courts. And the roof was about, I don't know, not even six foot high, this huge place where people sat, this person doing that bit, right the way through this factory. A lot of them were moonlighting, they had other jobs. It was so unbelievably hot. One fan which would go around... so I was helping on the camera, and you, this, this fan would come and you would breathe for a few seconds and then it would move off and you think, how long you had to wait for the fan to come around again. And they worked for... However, that was a very interesting occasion, but that was the only time I ever accompanied Michael on an actual shoot.
Katy McGahan 1:08:32
And, it was Rotha that gave Michael his first break as well, wasn't it? It's kind of interesting.
Mary Orrom 1:08:39
Yes. And I don't actually know how he ever did that. Because we were, I was still married to Francis at that time. Rotha was a very difficult character. He, he, he caused Michael a lot of, a lot of misery later. And in making the feature No Resting Place, which Michael was deeply involved in, he, he, he, he made a lot of promises, which he didn't fulfil. I mean, (indistinguishable) knew him very well, towards the end with him, he, he really, drank a great deal. And certainly there was an occasion when he came here and I had to say, "I cannot... he cannot come here again" he did behave pretty terribly. But that was late on in his life and a bit sad really, but yes, he was very, he was a very great character in lots of ways, but a very difficult, very opinionated man, but had he not been very opinionated man, he probably wouldn't have done the things he did do. But he, he did get a lot of enemies as time went by, Rotha but he also achieved a lot. They were a strange lot really. I don't know whether... Jack Holmes comes up a bit in the, in the book, he was an exceedingly nice man. But you know, when you're living through something, you don't look at people and think what you're, what position you're going to have in the long run. You're just sort of doing the day to day. But whether, whether, what Michael wanted to do would have worked out, I don't know. But I must say Queenie [Portrait of Queenie (1964)] did work very well.
Katy McGahan 1:11:17
It certainly did.
Mary Orrom 1:11:19
And it was very interesting to have, to see it with, specially with, a couple of granddaughters, another generation in their early 20s, how much they enjoyed it.
Katy McGahan 1:11:37
She worked with James Stephens on another. Didn't she work?
Mary Orrom 1:11:44
Malcolm Arnold did the music for a couple of... KM: Cable and Wireless. MO: ...my films. But, oh, Michael did.
Katy McGahan 1:11:52
Did you work with James Stephens on another film?
Mary Orrom 1:11:54
I didn't work with him, except I mean he was here a lot of the time. I don't think he did any music for... oh yes of course he did, The Secret Pony KM: The Secret Pony. MO: Yeah, yes. Oh, he, that was great, it was very nice music. He did it very well. He's very, very good. He was very good at his job. But he had such a huge chip as you saw (laughter) or heard. He was very talented, very talented man. Again, somebody who did fall foul of people a bit, James. And I think Joan Littlewood was a very difficult person to work for.
Katy McGahan 1:12:52
Sparrows Can't Sing.
Mary Orrom 1:12:52
: Yes. But the, I've never been a very good thinking-back person I tend to be here and now and what's tomorrow? It's been interesting to try and do so. But I'm sure I'll think of all kinds of things subsequently.
Katy McGahan 1:13:18
And what are you working on at the moment? Your work all around us, it's wonderful [sculptures]
Katy McGahan 1:13:30
Well apart from the, this summer show in relation to the Elgin Marbles, which was not my idea, but something I'm quite enjoying, exploring different aspects, you know, whether, whether we should ever have, whether the marbles would ever have survived had Lord Elgin not pinched them in the first place. But actually, I don't think it matters really, in one sense if pieces of sculpture go back to the country of origin, because the replicas are so brilliant now, but if every country insisted on having its own stuff back, all that any of us have would be our own culture. I think the present attitude of 'things must be returned' is a bit questionable. I mean, if it's, if it's the shrunken head of somewhere and they have things about their own, things should be buried where they come from, well, fair enough. But when it's artefacts, I think, you can a little bit over precious about it. But I don' think it would make any difference. I think it's a little bit like, it's not relevant to this at all, but the, the current government statement it's going to sell off the Forestry Commission land, which regardless of being absolutely heinous suggestion, forestry going to private ownership, Michael's brother, who worked in the Forestry Commission throughout his life, wrote to our Prime Minister, or whoever, suggesting that it would make rather more sense for the public, instead of selling off the Forestry Commission's land, we simply sold the crown jewels, after all nobody ever gets to see the real ones. So what would it matter and it would make rather more money. I think that's an excellent (laughter)
Katy McGahan 1:15:43
Well, maybe we should end on that (laughter). Thank you very much. Yes, we've come to the end of the interview now. Thank you very much, Mary.