This copyright of this interview is vested in the BECTU History Project.
Interviewer Bob Allen
This is an interview with Peter Handford, sound recordist, and it is taking place in his studio where most of the train records for which he is quite famous have been put together at his home. The date is the 19 November 1988.
The questionnaire asked where were you born and what sort of schooling did you receive and any specialised training, so can you give us a little run down on your early days of where you were born etc and school and so on.
PH I was born in an Army nursing home in Hampstead, London on 21 March 1919. The reason for the Army nursing home was because my father was in the Army as a chaplain and after he left the Army he moved to Canterbury I believe – obviously I don’t remember that – the first thing I remember was when he was made the vicar of a little country parish in Kent near Edenbridge and we lived there until he was taken very ill and he died after a very long illness. He had consumption. He died when I was aged about nine. So really we had quite a disrupted time at that time. Because he was so ill I was sent away to school locally at first when I was very young, because it was difficult to be at home obviously. And I was sent there as a boarder. I used to go home – I don’t remember a great deal about that.
But when he died - one talks about charity but charity does not apply so far as the Church of England is concerned. It does not apply to the parsons because all that happened was that my mother was told to get out of the house within a very short time and we moved then to Hampshire, in a house that was lent to us by one of her relatives in a little village in what was then very rural Hampshire between Basingstoke and Newbury.
Meanwhile I had gone to school at Christ’s Hospital, the Bluecoat School in Horsham which had scholarships and what they call Presentations so that needy boys could go there without having to pay the fees. I must say I hated the place because it was run on very militaristic lines and we marched into dinner, we marched everywhere. I really have no happy memories at all of my school days and I was there until I was sixteen.
There was a very strong tradition there that you were expected to go into the Army or the church or one of the other services or to be a tea planter or something in the City or anything like that. When I said that I wanted to be a sound recordist they did not even understand what a sound recordist was in those days because there were only two ways of doing it – you either went into broadcasting or gramophone records or films and it was practically unknown for anybody to be interested in such a thing.
I was always fascinated by sounds and that is what I wanted to do. As a result of that unbelievably they thought I was deranged and sent me to a psychiatrist, which was wonderful because I used to go to London once a month and all the other boys were very envious of this. I used to go and sit in this man’s surgery and be talked to for an hour or two and then I used to make for the nearest cinema before going back to school. It was wonderful. I mean it did not change my mind. The whole thing was absolute nonsense but it was about the only pleasant thing that happened during those terms.
I left school at the age of sixteen in 1935 and through various friends of relations who – my relations luckily did not think it was mad wanting to go into films – and they had through a very – I can’t really remember what it was but anyway through various networks of contacts they had, they had a contact with a man called Radell Terino who at that time was in charge of Humphries Laboratories. He obviously knew everybody because Humphries at that time was one of the top laboratories. And through him – I went up to see him in Whitfield Street – and he said well I will tell you that you should write to everybody. And I said, ‘Well I have already done that.’ He said, ‘Well I will tell you what I will do, I will write to my friend Mr AW Watkins who is in charge of sound with Korda and they are going to open this new studio at Denham in 1936.
So he said, ‘I will contact Mr Watkins and you can go and see him. He will no doubt see you.’ So I went and had an interview with him. And he said, ‘Yes, we are opening this studio at Denham. We are enlarging the Sound Department. I am quite sure we can find a place for you in the new sound department at Denham Studios. But it won’t be open until March or April of 1936.’ So knowing that I thought well I have got a lot of time to fill in – I had done a lot of – not cine photography but I was always showing sub standard films and hiring them out of the library and the library was I think called The Amateur Cine Service or something, it was in Bromley Kent. So I thought I would write to them and see if they have got any job that I could do until Denham opens.
So I went to Bromley and was a general dogsbody helping to run their film library and packing up parcels of films and everything like that which helped fill in time until Denham Studios said you can come and work for us in March 1936.
So I managed to get some digs near the studios. I had my bicycle and went there. I can remember that wonderful character DP Field who was Watkins’ assistant and chief maintenance man. He was in charge of everything really because Mr Watkins really just sat in his office and was very much the sound supervisor. Anyway DP Field was there. Rather a terrifying man but with a wonderful heart. Such a good man, he taught me more than anybody else in every way.
But on the first morning I went there he came storming into the workshop and said, ‘Who are you?’ I told him and he said, ‘Oh well if you like this place now you won’t very soon. Get that broom and sweep up and then you can make some tea.’ So that was my introduction to Denham. Good Heavens, extraordinary thing. But he was as I say a wonderful man. Very brusque and did not suffer fools at all gladly.
My job was, apart from making tea and things like that, to load the magazines with film. It was Western Electric system. They were Mitchell magazines just as we used on the camera. But as it was positive stock it was used for sound recording at least we could have a red light in the darkroom so it was not quite such an ordeal as it would be to load camera magazines. And it was my job to load all these magazines and take them round to all the various stages or even to sound trucks which were used on the lot. There were an enormous number of films going on at that time. I think there were about nine or ten so it was quite hectic and really very hard work, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was all fascinating to see all the different films that were being made at that time.
The hours were incredibly long. There was no limit to the hours one worked and if there had been a factory inspector I am sure they would have been jailed for making not only me – I was just one of several sixteen year olds or thereabouts working incredibly long hours. I would go in at eight o’clock in the morning and might not finish until ten or eleven at night and still be back next morning at eight o’clock and it was a six day week, sometimes a seven
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day week. If they were dubbing it could go on all night sometimes, but fortunately if they were dubbing I usually used to ask the sound camera operator to do his own loading because otherwise I would never have got home at all.
They were films like Fire Over England, Divorce of Lady X, and Wings of the Morning which I believe was the first three strip Technicolor film made in England. Elephant Boy was being finished off. They had been out on location in India. The Four Feathers went on location to Africa. To think of a film like that going on location in those days by boat – it was just incredible the organisation that it must have entailed. Of course I did not see anything of that because I was always stuck in the studio all the time. [13.32]
After two years or more, it must have been about 1938, they said right well – they had meanwhile taken on two other sound loaders because the pressure of work was just too much for one – and after about a couple of years they said – well you can be a sound camera operator. And I was absolutely thrilled at the thought of actually working on a picture. I worked with a mixer called John Cooke who was I think I am right in saying some relation of John Cox. I think he was his brother-in-law, wonderful man, very good man, and I was on his crew all the time.
We worked on a film with Brian Desmond Hirst, I forget the title, but there was one – maybe it was this film – there was a film with Michael Redgrave and we had locations on Waterloo Bridge which was then being built, the present Waterloo Bridge was being built at that time and Michael Redgrave played the part of a crane driver so we had to transport all this Western Electric equipment, batteries and goodness know what. It weighed a ton. From the sound truck out into the middle of Waterloo Bridge and it just seemed extraordinary looking back on it to have all that mass of equipment stuck up out in the open and to be on location there. It was really an undertaking. I wish I could remember the title of the film but it was Michael Redgrave and Sally Grey I think. It was shown on television fairly recently. He sees what he thinks is a murder being committed. He sees it from an underground train.
M Was it an Agatha Christie story?
PH I don’t think so.
M He gets off the train and goes back to the house and it is an actor rehearsing....
PH Yes, but I believe it ends with a real murder.
M Yes. Just a question there, the channel that you had out there, would that have been a Q Channel?
PH No a Western Electric F channel which was a square one, more portable. A Q was very long and even more unwieldy. The F was the most convenient of any of the Western Electric channels.
M Was that a later development than the Q then?
PH No, the Q was later than the F.
M And again of course that was light valve, variable density.
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PH Light valve, Variable density, yes. The batteries of course when you drove the camera in those days, interlock system.
Was that the AC/DC type interlock. Yes.
comparison as I often say it hasn’t actually gained us that much improvement in quality.
Yes people don’t today realise how the sound department has become so portable by
PH Not at all.
M I am pretty sure that every word in that picture you have just been mentioning was understandable.
PH I am sure because one is struck now when you see the older films how good the dialogue is. I mean I would have been or rather the mixers in those days would have been fired if they had produced results like we have to put up with these days. [18.11]
The other mixers there at Denham at that time were John Cooke, Charlie Tasto, Terry Cotter who came from Newsreel, Red Law who later came on as dubbing mixer, Desmond Dew who went to Canada after the war. There was Dick Smith. There was an American called Martin Page. I never quite knew why or how he came to work at Denham but he was very highly respected and it was always said that he was very highly paid but I never quite understood why or how he was able to work in England. Most of the early mixers at least at Denham had come from the Merchant Navy or the Navy. They had been wireless operators and a lot of them had also worked in France because when the Western Electric system was installed in French studios they went out there to act as kind of instructors. Europe was carved up between Tobis Claimfilm and Western Electric. Western Electric was in France, Tobis Claimfilm I believe was in all the rest of Europe, Germany and all the Balkan countries. [19.54]
The dubbing theatre used to work literally night and day. It was not unusual to have to work all night on the night before the premiere of a film and finish at five or six in the morning on the last reel and that would then be shown that night in the West End. But there was no rock and roll or anything like that. You would go through a whole reel and if there was a mistake you would have to go back to the beginning.
There again I learned a lot from being able to sit in on dubbing sessions when there was time to do so. But it was very....the desks in those days were very much simpler than they are now.
At the time of I Claudius, the ill-fated film that von Sternberg directed, it got into terrible trouble and it did not seem to be getting anywhere, at the same time there was a minor slump in the film business and there was one week when we had notices in our pay packet to say that all pay would be reduced by ten per cent. We didn’t have any option, it was take ten per cent less or else. There was no overtime payment at all. After a year or two, it must have been about the beginning of 1938 or the end of 1937 they did agree to pay us if we worked late a supper allowance. They didn’t actually pay it, they would give you a voucher, I
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think it was for two and sixpence to use in the canteen which was a slight advance. But we never had any overtime payment whatever at least while I was there.
The Munich crisis came and after the Munich crisis between there and the actual outbreak of war they brought in this conscription for people of my age, I think it was between the ages of nineteen and twenty, anyway I was absolutely one of the first to be conscripted which was all arranged before the actual outbreak of war. I knew I would have to go into the Army or wherever, and I was in fact called up in October 1939 just after the outbreak of war and put into the artillery. I was sent to a training camp at Devizes and then they said, well as you have got some connection with electronics – it wasn’t called electronics in those days I don’t know what it was called – but they seemed to think I should know something about RDF which was the name then given to what is now Radar, Radio Direction Finding, RDF to the Artillery.
So I was sent to a training camp at Watchet in Somerset and it was there that I met John Cox who was also on the same course, though he was a Warrant officer [24.11] and I was just an ordinary Private, a Gunner. I went through the course there and just before Christmas in 1939 we were sent to Woolwich Barracks before going out to join the BEF in France. We landed at Le Havre and then went by train to a gunsite near Reims where we stayed doing not a great deal because that was the period of the stalemate and nothing much happened until suddenly on May 10th 1944 when we had no warning whatever, everybody, all the Brigadiers and the Colonels and all the rest of it said nothing to do just sit and wait for Jerry to give up and it will be all right and nothing will happen. Anyway because of this sort of relaxed attitude we had given up manning the guns at night and we were all in bed. We heard this tremendous noise and thought it was a thunderstorm but within half an hour while we were still in bed though we very quickly got up, every aircraft on the aerodrome that we were supposed to be defending was bombed out of existence. Not one of them ever took off. And we were absolutely flabbergasted by such an extraordinary situation, we were absolutely useless. There was nothing we could do. Within a few days we were order to destroy our guns and move off. We didn’t know where to. We knew nothing about Dunkirk or anything that was happening in any of the other fronts and we literally wandered around France. We had conflicting orders, a little detachment of us, we wandered around France with the NCOs because the officers had disappeared. They were all Territorial officers. Goodness knows where they went. And we contacted various units. We existed on rations that had been abandoned or NAFFI stores. I can remember thousands of cigarettes. We all had plenty of cigarettes and things like that. We had contacted various units, they said we are going to regroup down on in the South of France and we are going to mount a new attack and everything like that. And we finally ended up at Le Havre again trying to cross the Seine. We got across the Seine and we ended up in Cherbourg where we were told that an Armistice had been signed the day before and we were all to go back to England. So we returned to England in a coal boat arriving the day after the Armistice. Everybody, all our relations had given us up for dead or prisoners of war because obviously we had had no contact with anybody in England for a month or so.
We arrived back in England and we were sent up to Blackpool because they really did not know what else to do with us. We stayed there for a time and then after I think it was six to nine months a Directive came through from the War Office that anybody who had any experience with films or photography was to report to the CO which I did. And I was sent for
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an interview at the War Office and told that they were forming an Army Film Unit, very belatedly because obviously the Germans had been using Arriflexes and goodness knows what and done the most magnificent propaganda films, and we had done nothing.
So they said, you have had experience in the film industry, I don’t know whether we shall use sound but you had better stand by and see what happens. So eventually they said, Oh yes well you must be seconded to the Army Film Unit and I was sent to Pinewood where DP Field was in charge of the sound department of the Army Film Unit. So we met up again. He also had been in the Artillery meanwhile and he had been an officer. He was a Captain and he had been, like me, seconded to the Army Film Unit and was given the job of creating this new section with equipment loaned from Western Electric and we had to have an enormous truck for location work and he also had one of the dubbing theatres at Pinewood. The other one was used by the Crown Film Unit the RCA and the one we had we shared with the RAF. And we went out on manoeuvres and did various rather abortive films actually, for some time. Now this got – didn’t seem to be getting anywhere really because the whole state of the war was pretty grim at that time and Alex Brice who was in charge of the....he had taken over from David MacDonald. David MacDonald was the original CO of the Army Film Unit and Alex Brice had taken over from him, and he said, there is not really much doing with sound at the moment, would you like to try and be a cameraman? I said, yes all right. And there were courses going on all the time to train people as cameramen, people who had some experience of photography. I had had some experience of photography as an amateur so I went on this course instructed by Harold Payne who was later at ABP and it took some months and at the end of the course you either passed out or not and I passed out as a cameraman.
Meanwhile I had been commissioned for some extraordinary reason and was a Second Lieutenant. When you had completed your training as a cameraman and passed out the trade test, you were then sent to Battle School and Infantry Training because obviously if you were going to be a combat cameraman the prime thing was that you didn’t not want to be a danger to anybody else. So you had to know infantry tactics and everything else and I was trained as Airborne. [32.17] A few months before D-Day they said you are to go out as a Commando, out with No.4 Royal Marine Commando on D-Day with a detachment and one of the sergeants was Ernie Walter who later became an editor at MGM and we landed at D- Day on the beach at St Urban sur Mer [32.46] and I went through all the Normandy campaign until just at the time of the breakout from Falaise they said we want you to go to Paris because the Free French are going into Paris and there is nobody there to represent them, there is nobody to represent the British and it will all be Americans. So join up with such and such a detachment at Romboyet.
I think there were about half a dozen of us we went and joined up with this American unit and from there joined up with General Éclair of the Free French and we went into the Liberation of Paris and filmed that which was a wonderful occasion, I shall never forget it. It was very difficult to go back to the war afterwards.
From there we went back across the Seine at Vernonnes ?? and on through Belgium to the liberation of Brussels. Now at this time everybody was very fed up with the sound tracks of the British war films because they just went out on the range on Salisbury Plain or somewhere like that and recorded a few guns and it was absolutely and completely inferior
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to the sound tracks of the German propaganda films which were really very, very good and much more warlike. So it was decided that they would send recording equipment out to Belgium and it would be waiting for us in Brussels and they would send someone out to help me and my brief was to record the actual sounds of battle.
They sent us one of these Western Electric F-channels, optical of course, with all the necessary power equipment. There was no thought of doing sync sound, it was obviously impossible. This was just to be wild tracks and they sent this equipment out with John Aldred who at that time was a sergeant in the Army ?? [35.20] at Pinewood in the sound department and he was sent out with this equipment to help me.
So we mounted all this in a scout car and for the next six months we used to go around having been properly briefed. All the Army Film Unit officers were properly briefed as to what was likely to happen, where the next offensive or defensive operation was to take place and we used to go and sit out – either demount all the equipment and put it in a dug out or something like that which we did at the time of the Arnhem battle – our troops were trying to reach Arnhem but we were bogged down by the side of the road and never got anywhere near it. We did manage to make some very dramatic recordings there and later on, in a town called Hertogenbosch in Holland again which was a very fierce battle, and when we had got what the authorities thought were enough recordings they said well you have done all this now you can go back to being a cameraman.
John Aldred went back to England with the equipment and I just went back to my detachment as a cameraman and went on through Germany ending up in Copenhagen, for the Liberation of Copenhagen at the end of the war. And after a month or two after the Armistice I was sent back to Pinewood and because I had been in the Army for so long I was fairly quickly demobbed.
London Films obviously did not really exist because there was talk of London Films and MGM forming a new company and taking over studios at what became the MGM studios at Borehamwood but it was all very fluid and I didn’t even bother to try and get a job. You were supposed to go back to your original employers but it was very difficult because nobody quite knew which company was which. Meanwhile Ken Cameron had offered me a job with the Crown Film Unit which I took and worked out of Pinewood with the Crown Film Unit on various locations, various documentary films for some time until the future of the Crown Film Unit looked very uncertain and they were going to be turned out of Pinewood and maybe go to Beaconsfield. There was a lot of uncertainty about the Crown Film Unit.
Meanwhile DP Field and AW Watkins had decided to go to MGM Studios at Borehamwood and they offered me a job there as an assistant dubbing mixer. Well MGM proved to be fairly disastrous for British technicians because very little happened. MGM Studios started with a couple of cheap pictures Edward Dryhurst produced one called The Dream of Olwyn – or maybe that was the title of the signature tune that became quite famous – but that was all that happened. That was to open the studio, this Edward Dryhurst production directed by John Harlow and then nothing happened at all. MGM brought in one picture which I think was Edward My Son which I think was the first MGM picture there [39.48] But for weeks and indeed month on end nothing used to happen at all and we just used to go in every day and sit around and get thoroughly demoralised and then suddenly I got a call from Ben Gets the
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boss of the studio who said to AW Watkins look a friend of mine is in trouble with a picture in Rome being directed by Gregory Ratoff and the sound absolutely dreadful and they want someone out there in a hurry. So they decided to send me with Bill Cook who was my boom operator at Crown Film Unit and had moved with me to MGM.
So we went out to Rome at very, very short notice. I did not even have a passport. There was a great rush to get a passport and we flew from Northolt. I remember it was a flight that took eight hours stopping at Nice to refuel and arrived at Rome on a Sunday night. We were met by a funny little American man who said, ‘I am very pleased to see you. The sound is absolutely disastrous, everything is out of sync. The boom operator wears headphones, he should know if it is out of sync. I thought, Good Lord if this man is the technical director we are really in trouble.
On the next day we went to the studio. We were met by Gregory Ratoff and introduced to everyone. He said, these two people have come from England and they have worked on Great Expectations and this that and the other. I was very amazed at this. I said to him later we never had anything to do with Great Expectations. ‘Never mind,’ he said, ‘it was a great picture.’
The whole thing was absolutely chaotic. Orson Welles was the star and the hours were absolutely horrendous, the Italian cameraman had never seen a boom in his life and pushed it off the set. He couldn’t understand what was happening. And we would work in the studio during the day and then maybe go out and do locations at night and there was an actor called Bruce Belfridge who had come from BBC who was doing his dialogue with a very strong Welsh accent. I said doesn’t anybody mind about this and he said, ‘No they don’t seem to. I thought it would make a change.’
That sort of picture is crazy. It was called Black Magic the story of Cagliostro [42.44] It went on far longer than it should have done and Orson Welles was also doing on the side some sound tracks and little scenes for his own films, because he was short of money at the time. Eventually it came to an end and we went back to Borehamwood for another period of inactivity.
Then Hitchcock came over to do Under Capricorn produced by Sydney Bernstein and I was for some reason – I don’t know – I suppose because there was so little dubbing – they said you have done all right in Rome now you can do this picture. I thought, I am not really very experienced but who am I to say no. It was to be done originally as a ten minute take. He had done the film Rope [43.46] with ten minute takes and he was absolutely besotted with this idea of ten minute takes and he had had the whole – or Sydney Bernstein had paid for it – they had had the whole floor of the stage at MGM laid with carpet from Granada cinemas so that the transatlantic dolly which did not run on tracks could track over the floor without making a noise and smoothly. The sets were constructed so that walls could run backwards and forwards on rollers, fairly silently, and it was a major operation.
I remember I had four boom operators because of these immensely long takes but in the end it proved so difficult to do these ten minute takes that the idea – it was not abandoned – we did very long takes but there were very, very few in comparison with what had originally been intended. But it was fascinating to work with Hitchcock. He was absolutely superb to work with and very good to me. A very funny man. He was in his....full of practical jokes
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and fun and all the rest of it. It was a very, very interesting experience although the film subsequently was absolutely slated when it came out but it later became a bit of a cult particularly in France. It was a wonderful experience.
That actually is the only film I did as a whole at MGM until later on when Herbert Wilcox did Maytime in Mayfair. Now I was still employed by MGM at the time of Maytime in Mayfair but I had previously done the music recording and assistant dubbing mixer for Spring in Park Lane and after Maytime in Mayfair Herbert Wilcox said if you ever want a job I am thinking of forming my own crew. [fades out at 46.24]
Side 2 of Interview with Peter Handford 19 November 1988.
I Just before we pick up again Peter I have a couple of questions I would like to ask you about what you have already said. One was can you give us an idea about what the money was when you started and when you said you were promoted to sound camera operator what the increase was and how that compared with living rates at the day.
And the other question was if you could say when you went on to cameras in the Army Film Unit what the cameras were that that Army Film Unit were using at that time.
PH As a sound loading boy I was paid £2 10s a week which was pretty good for a young boy at that time. I think I paid about 30s a week for digs and I was not wealthy by any means but I was not short of money. We used to work so hard there was not much time to spend any money. But I do remember I had money left over to go home and see my mother and things like that by train. I didn’t have to be subsidised, I could quite well support myself on £2 10s a week. And when I was made a sound camera operator that was doubled and I was paid £5 a week which I thought was very, very good indeed. I could even afford to buy a little car although I had very little time to use it before the war came.
I don’t know what mixers were paid at that time but I gather that they were very well paid and had quite a good lifestyle. I really have no idea but I do know they were fairly well paid.
As for the Army Film Unit cameras everything was done on a shoe string. We had still cameras which were captured German cameras, captured on boats exporting them to South America. We had two types of camera Voigtlander Bessa and the Super Ikonta if you were lucky. [2-02.46] They were 120 sized film. They both took 120 sized film, 8 or 10 exposures.
The cine cameras were awful things called Debrie – clockwork – they only had 100 foot daylight loading spools. The airborne cameramen obviously deserved better and got better because they had Eyemos
Later on there was a camera made by Vintons called the Vinton Normandy which had 200 foot daylight loading spools but it was fairly disastrous I am sorry to say. It had all sorts of problems and Ensign made a still camera called the Ensign Commando but that did not come in till fairly close to the end of the war. Once we were in Germany of course it was easy to pick up very much better cameras by just – you could see them not lying around but you could requisition them from places we had captured.
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I Another point which occurred to me when you were talking about when you had the Western Electric Channel for doing the battle noises, how many light valves got blown with such a ....
PH Not very many. It was remarkable. I always have thought that the light valve was a far better device than the RCA Galvanometer because you could – with the RCA Galvanometer you would go right off the card and have the most appalling distortion, whereas with the light valve, if you over modulated you got what they call clash and it could be quite useful because the distortion was not of the same order as that produced by an area track and it could add to the effect of certain things. I mean it was astonishing with the gunfire and shell bursts and things that we did – actually we blew up – we were using Western Electric 630 microphones – a good old standby – we blew up two mics, not physically blown up by direct hits from shells or anything like that but I mean the diaphragm went. But we really did not use very many light valves, about three I think as far as I remember. That is all. They seemed to stand up to an enormous amount of punishment. Possibly because I mean there was no limiter – it may be the nature of the sound. I think high frequency sound from what I remember used to be more – used to cause more trouble than the lower frequencies.....
I ...causing the ribbons to fray.....
Now we were at the stage of being......[2-06.23] offered by Wilcox to go with yourself and Bill Cook to join.....
PH We were working on this film Maytime in Mayfair with Michael Wilding and Nicholas Phipps and all the other Wilcox Repertory Company, it was really a colour sequel to Spring in Park Lane. And at that time Herbert Wilcox said, well if you ever want to leave MGM I should be very happy to employ you in my own unit which I am going to set up. So I said well unfortunately I have got a contract with MGM and it has another two or three years to run. I think it had three years to run actually.
So we had meanwhile been lent out to 20th Century Fox to do a film called Night in the City with George Duffin and I began to think well what is the point of working for MGM when we never work for MGM and I did know, I was told by the production people on Night in the City that they were in fact making a great deal of money – MGM were making a great deal of money out of us by loaning out our services, adding a fairly high percentage to what we were paid. I was paid at that time a flat rate of £1000 a year. £20 a week. And I began to think this is just stupid. Why work for MGM when you are not actually doing anything for them ever. I never did an MGM picture the whole time I was there. And it came to the time of renewing the contract, taking up the option, and the option was supposed to be taken up by sending a registered letter to me by post to my home address within a certain period of time.
The date by which the option should have been taken up [09.03] passed and I had not had the registered letter. The day after that Mr Watkins called me into his office. I had previously said this is just not good enough. You keep lending me out, the company is making a lot of money on our services and I don’t think it is right. I don’t think it is fair. Either let me go or give me some work that is worth doing in the studio instead of having to sit around when I am not on loan to someone else and we have to sit around and it is very, very demoralising and I just don‘t think it is right. Either let me go or improve the conditions and give me some proper work to do. So I had said all this before the option was due to be
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taken up, and as I say the day passed when they should have taken up the option by registered letter to my home address and they had not done so and a day or so after that Watkins called me into the office and said – Oh I am very pleased to tell you old boy that we are taking up the option. Well – I said – you are not because you have not renewed it in the proper legal way. He said, what do you mean? I said, well it should have been sent by registered letter. I have consulted the solicitor and you have not taken up the option and I am leaving. And he said,you can’t leave. I said, I can. I have talked to the solicitor and I am perfectly entitled to leave because you have not complied with the conditions for taking up the option.
Oh , he said, we must go and see Mr Getz. Mr Getz will be very angry and you can’t leave. And I said, well I am sorry but I am going to. Then Getz called for me and it was a hilarious interview. He tried to scare me by picking up the phone and saying, Get me the lawyers. Get me Los Angeles and get me this that and the other and then dropped a match into the waste paper basket and set it on fire. And I got the giggles which was not at all intended but the whole atmosphere was very tense and I had previously phoned Herbert Wilcox and he said – Yes, I would be delighted. You can start as soon as you are free of MGM.
So a lot of intimidation went on and Watkins called me into the office again and he said – you have got a lot of respect for DP Field, let’s see what he has to say. So he sent for DP Field and DP came into the office and Watkins said – I have been talking to Peter, he wants to leave and I have told him he is very stupid. So DP Field said – I don’t think he is stupid at all. If I knew of anywhere to go I would go myself. So that did not go down well and I left MGM and we went to join Herbert Wilcox at Shepperton to work on his next film The Lady with the Lamp, again with Anna Neagle. But MGM management had been in touch with the management at Shepperton and said – don’t allow these two people, Peter Handford and Bill Cook into the studio, they are troublemakers. Fortunately I think it was Lou Thornburn or Harold Boxwell [12.58] one or the other, said it is nothing to do with you who we employ. They are not working for us anyway, they are working for Herbert Wilcox. We have no control over it. If Herbert Wilcox wants to bring them in so much the better.
Then they tried to stir up trouble unfortunately through the ACT I am sorry to say to try and have us prevented from working through the shop stewards, the shop committee. But again, that failed because we had already worked on Night in the City with people from Shepperton and they said, they are all right. Why shouldn’t they come and work here? But there was a lot of ill feeling and we were ostracised by certain people at Shepperton I am sorry to say. But it gradually calmed down and we finished The Lady with the Lamp. We used a Shepperton crew apart from Bill and myself, and it gradually calmed down. We were sort of accepted as part of the Wilcox crew and I worked for Herbert for a number of years, until the disaster of The Beggar’s Opera which virtually bankrupted the poor old boy. He was a wonderful employer Herbert. He was very considerate. He was very good to his crew and he was the only producer who really had the courage to have his own crew. He had Mutts Green, Austin Dempster as camera operator and Frank Hollands as the first assistant, and Bill Cook and myself and even when we were not working he used to pay us the whole time though in fact we did work most of the time because he used to let us out to other producers. He was as I say a wonderful employer. It was very sad when he gradually went downhill after the Beggar’s Opera and did some pretty terrible films like – again with Orson Welles – Trouble in the Glen, and Trent’s Last Case he did with Orson Welles again. [15.33]
Peter Handford AMPS.Doc 11
And then Michael Wilding went off with Elizabeth Taylor, went off to Hollywood and that was another blow to Herbert because Michael was such a box office draw and such a very nice man who incidentally also went to the same school as me, Christ’s Hospital, the Bluecoat School Horsham. And Herbert being a bit of a snob always used to introduce us as – they went to Christ’s Hospital you know, Michael and Peter Handford. He very much tried to impress people like Harold Wilson who was then Secretary of the Board of Trade and we were always brought out as proof that public schoolboys were working in the film industry and all that sort of thing.
I Can I just interrupt a moment, with Beggar’s Opera that was Peter Brook directing. Why was there such a disaster then do you think?
PH Peter Brook had no idea what he what he was doing and he resented any .....it was his first film, he was supposed to be the wonderboy, and resented any sort of guidance from anyone and it just went on and on and on, way over schedule, extremely expensive.
I So you were meaning it was more of a disaster for what it cost rather than that it .....
PH It was a disaster, I think it only ran one day or two days at the London Pavilion. It was taken off. Never seen again.
I It is interesting that Gollom Canon ??[17.22] is doing a remake at the moment in Budapest. Maybe it will be his final downfall too.
PH It had a wonderful cast. Olivier, Dorothy Tutin, Stanley Holloway, Athene Seyler, George Devine, Daphne Anderson.....it was no fault of the cast but it was a disaster.
I But Wilcox was able to handle Orson Welles who sort of traditionally given the idea that he is the bête noir of producers.
PH No, he had done a favour for Orson sometime in the past when – I can’t remember what it was but Orson was grateful to him, and he was very good with Herbert. It was the films that were not very good.
I When you mentioned about this nasty thing of going to Shepperton and so on and you mentioned ACT, how had they tried to stop you from working at Shepperton then?
PH I believe there was some collusion between the shop steward at MGM – I don’t know this may be libellous. I never found out but they called a meeting, it is probably unfair to blame ACT. It was probably the members rather than ACT.
I That is what they always say, the union is the members. It is a very pitiful sort of thing isn’t it, a jealousy I suppose.
PH Yes, but I mean as you probably know at that time studios were very jealous of preserving the rights of their staff to work in the studio. Even as late as 1959 at Pinewood when I went to work there I was told that I could not take my own boom operator, I would have to use a Pinewood crew. Pinewood was exceptional in that way actually.
Peter Handford AMPS.Doc 12
I I had that once with a picture that I was going to have done at Shepperton. We used to have to use their boom operator and I eventually said, I am sorry but if that is the sort of way that I have to go in – it wasn’t the studio – well the studio was saying it I suppose to the production manager but I said no I have got to have my own boom operator at least otherwise I won’t be able to do anything – I would have to do it their way and not my way. And so I did not do the picture.
PH Yes, that’s right.
I So I suppose that you were one of the first of the other freelance operators really although you were not actually freelancing, you were working for another company, but that style of production company taking their own sound mixer and boom operator in to the studio. You would be the first then.
PH I think we were.
I Sorry I am interrupting and you are in such a good flow continuing with Herbert Wilcox
then – you were saying with Trent’s Last Case and.....
PH Yes. Shortly after the Beggar’s Opera we did pictures for an American – he got tied up with an American company – I can’t remember the name of it but it was really a B picture with an American company we made a terrible film called Laughing And and after that he very reluctantly had to fire us all and it was just before Christmas 1953 I think and we were all of us Austin and Bill Cook and myself, we were all fired which was very difficult because if you didn’t work for a studio there was very little chance of working for anybody else because studios used to supply the sound crews and in any case we had all been associated with Herbert and everybody thought we were working.
I was out of work for a considerable time and only did various odd jobs on documentaries and things like that and then in 1954 Herbert did a picture called Lilacs in the Spring with Errol Flynn and Anna Neagle at ABPC. Again there was a fight with ABPC because ABPC said you have got to use their sound crew and Herbert said, no I won’t. He said I must have Peter Handford and Bill Cook. They have worked for me before. He absolutely insisted on having us fortunately and that was the first time he insisted on having Austin Dempster as an operator as well and of course Max Green as a cameraman.
ABPC at that time was absolutely one of the worst studios of the lot – they were all on the time clock and very rigidly controlled and it was always known as the porridge mine. The security people did not like us going in as freelancers at all – not punching a time clock and all the rest of it. So we used to do all sorts of weird things going in – not only Bill and myself but Austen Dempster and Max Green as well we used to find ways of getting in to the studio without going past the gate so that the security people used to come on the set and report that we had not arrived and Herbert used to be very amused and say – well they are here. They are working. [24.37] What an extraordinary thing.
At the end of Lilacs in the Spring Lean who I had worked for before finishing off a big of Hobson’s Choice when Buster Ambler who did most of the picture had to go off on something else and I just filled in finished off on my own Hobson’s Choice. David Lean had been in touch with me to work for him on – again based on Shepperton although it was all
Peter Handford AMPS.Doc 13
made outside the studio it was organised through Shepperton – Summer Madness also sometimes called Summertime with Katherine Hepburn in Venice. That was in the summer of 1954. Again I was told that I could not take any crew at all. I needed the job so I said all right I would do it.
I went out to Venice. It was the first film that I had ever done on magnetic 35mm magnetic not magnetic tape. It was a French sound system called Omnium Sonoa which was like so many of these systems, it was a pirate system, modified. I mean the French are very, very good at that, brilliant at that improvising equipment and things like that. I did not know very much at all about magnetic recording at that time and I had this French crew and a very excellent man called Paul Duron but he spoke no English and I had to get by with what little French I knew. We had a boom operator who had been provided by the brother of Elia Lopert who was the producer of the film. This boom operator had been provided by the brother of Elia Lopert. I had never seen him before. I thought it was a bit odd because he did not seem to know what he was doing. And it turned out that he was actually a chauffeur who worked for Lopert and had never done any boom operating in his life, he had just sort of watched on set to see what they did.
So the first few days of that picture were absolutely fraught and I thought whatever can I do. I thought I really don’t know, it can’t go on like this because it is absolutely ludicrous. Luckily Jack Hildyard was cameraman and was very understanding and I had known Jack for a long time of course. So I said look either you must get me a proper boom operator or I give up because it is hopeless. I can’t do an important picture like this and there are wonderful opportunities for doing it, it is just ridiculous. David Lean luckily agreed and said, Yes you have had an absolutely terrible time, we have got to do something. So they got a French boom operator Georgie Louiseau who is still working. He is a very, very highly respected boom operator. He is about six foot six tall so he does not really need a very big pole or anything like that and as with all French boom operators he never uses the boom, but he was wonderful and he and Paul knew each other and we all got on very well together and after many, many weeks we finished the picture. It was a very satisfying picture to work on. A very beautiful looking picture and a lot of opportunities for sound in Venice at that time.
So then I went back and did some odd jobs at Shepperton. [29.14] Herbert obviously had no more work to do for a time though he did shortly afterwards, I think it was 1955, he did Kings Rapsody, again with Errol Flynn and Anna Neagle and also from ABP with locations in Spain and that kept me going for a bit.
Now about this time, as a result of what happened in Venice, I had had the idea of doing the sound effects with a tape recorder, but the only tape recorder available in England then that was anything approaching professional standard was the Ferrograph [30.08] and I persuaded the company to hire a Ferrograph with a DC/AC converter to run it and we did all the effects on quarter inch tape which was absolutely wonderful because it was so much easier than what had always been in the past all the problem of doing it on optical and the cumbersome equipment and all the rest of it and you could not get away from the shooting crew if there was nothing to do. You could not do anything. And I thought this was terrific.
Meanwhile – I have always been fascinated by railways. If I had not going into the film industry it was always my ambition to go and work on the railway. I lived then right beside
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the railway near Aylesbury and had been playing about with 78 acetate disc recorder and things like that and an early tape recorder that I had, recording trains which I had always wanted to do. Every time on a picture where there was any opportunity to record the sound effects of trains I look it. Some of the effects in Venice were of trains and they turned out very well and I thought this was wonderful, I must really start doing this properly because they are fascinating sounds and I loved doing it. So I managed to get hold of a converter for myself and I had bought a Ferrograph and started recording these trains.
At about this time there was one of the numerous reports published to say that British Rail had decided that diesels were going to be used before long and I thought good Heavens, I don’t really believe it but supposing the steam engines vanish like they had in the States, there would be nothing left of all these wonderful sounds. So I had formed a company while I was out of work to try and do various tape recordings and things like that and put them on disc, local singers. And I decided that I would really go and make a proper job of recording trains and at the end of 1955 I thought well there is no point in....there might be other people who are interested in these sounds and so I made two 78rpm records which I had pressed 99 copies of each because you could not do more than 99 without paying what was then called purchase tax. I advertised them in the Railway magazines. And I was absolutely astonished at the number of people that wrote. I mean the 99 copies were sold in no time at all and I had letters back – they were very crude records, not much thought to it. They were just the sound of trains. I thought Good Heavens this is really worth doing properly if there is that much interest. And from then on I used to turn down quite a lot of pictures for the sake of going out and recording trains. And then when I ran out of money I used to do another picture.
In spite of all the cumbersome equipment – it was really very difficult lugging this Ferrograph around and two heavy duty lorry batteries, and a converter and all the rest of it. And it was not until EMI brought out the L2 recorder which was really the first professional portable recorder – it had its drawbacks – it had no erase head – you had to make sure the tape was absolutely clean before you used it. I had the 15 ips model which was pretty good quality. It was really ahead of its time. But recording trains used to take up a lot of my time and making records, and still does. Not that I record many trains now but I still like making these records. [35.10] Never made.....I suppose it covered its costs but very little more but it was enormous fun. I met some very interesting people doing it and it has paid for me to go to a lot of places that I would never have.....like Eastern Europe and places like that.
But to revert to films, in 1958 Jack Clayton make Room at the Top which really was revolutionary because at last it got us out of the studio and into real places, Bradford in that case, on location and it was a very good film and it really seemed that from then on for some years at least British films took on a totally new aspect.
Room at the Top I did after that The Entertainer with Tony Richardson and worked on a number of films with Tony and loved it. I loved him, I loved his way of working because he would let anybody do anything they wanted as long as he thought it contributed to his picture. After that I did Saturday Night, Sunday Morning which he produced and Carol Rice directed and Tom Jones I did with him, Taste of Honey I did some of the sound track with him. As I say he was a wonderful man because Desmond Davis for instance was camera operator, he gave Desmond his chance to direct. He gave Peter Yates his chance to direct
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because Peter Yates directed One Way Pendulum – that was his first film – but before that Tony had allowed him to direct a play at the Royal Court, and Peter Yates never looked back after that.
So far as sound was concerned I had always said that some of the music in films is absolutely abysmal and there is far too much of it very often, and there should be more use made of natural sound. And he said, Yes you are right. He said, I will think about that.’ [38.10] Well years later, 1963 or 1964 he made a film in France called Mademoiselle and he said now we are not going to have any music in this. You and Kevin Connor are the sound editors, you and Kevin must construct a sound track. Just use sound as music. We are not going to have any music at all. It was a fascinating experience. Unfortunately the film was not a great success but the sound track was interesting and it is interesting that people have said to Neil Hartley who was the producer that they liked the music, where in fact there is no music in the film at all.
Much the same thing happened with Tom Jones where people have congratulated John Addison the composer who did the music for the film, they have congratulated John on the music for the hunt. Now in fact there is no music in the hunt. The hunt is entirely sound effects- so just shows how the audience can be affected by sound just as much as by music and they are really....I won’t say misled.....but it does show what effects sound can have if a lot of thought is given to it and if it is used intelligently.
Sidney Pollack again had much the same idea – if you think of Out of Africa there is not a great deal of music in it. There is about 40 minutes in a picture that ran about two and a half hours and that 40 minutes includes a lot of native music which we recorded on location and he had much the same idea. The intelligent use of sound is very important and I think so few people do it. They rely on music to get them out of trouble and so often it doesn’t. [40.23]
I have gone ahead of myself – but after the early Woodfall pictures I then did Billy Liar with John Schlesinger and later on did other pictures with Tony like Charge of the Light Brigade.
I did another picture with John Schlesinger, Darling. Another picture with Jack Clayton Pumpkin Eater. Meanwhile of course optical recording had been superseded by magnetic. I think coincidentally or within a very short space of time the sound crew lost an enormous amount of prestige because with optical nobody really understood quite what we were doing. You had this sound track, nobody could see into the sound track. In Shepperton it was always in a garage or never on the stage. All you had on the stage was a large and very impressive mixer with at least four channels on it, and it was all rather mysterious to people other than sound crew. You had a great deal of respect as a rule. Now when optical was superseded by magnetic, magnetic 35 was all right because it was still using the same equipment as optical, modified. The cameras were modified from optical to magnetic and it still had the same sort of mystique about it but the first and greatest disaster was something that was frequently lauded by production companies and even by some sound people because it meant there was less equipment to carry about was Leevers Rich which was a technical catastrophe because it meant that you altered the speed of the tape in transfer to comply with the speed of the camera and often camera speed varies and it immediately made anything you had recorded on location unusable, apart from the fact that it was two little boxes that were obviously very simple and you only had two mic inputs, so there was
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very little chance of doing any sort of multi mic’ing at all. There was no way to do it. And it did reduce our prestige.
At about this time or maybe a little earlier the cameras introduced two things which also made the recording of sound immensely more difficult, those two things were – the zoom lens and the crab dolly which made the positioning of microphones very difficult particularly in the case of the zoom lens.
The crab dolly made it difficult also because of the noise that was made by the crab dolly moving around the set and some directors, some cameramen went mad with it and the camera was constantly on the move so you had constant noise even in the studio where you would previously when it was confined to tracks you would take a great deal of trouble to make the tracks quiet and you would get very high quality sound.
Now I have already mentioned the loss of prestige which came about as a result of the introduction of Leevers Rich and these other things, part of this was due to the fact that producers, directors, production managers they all had their own tape recorders and fancied themselves as recordists, forgetting that what they were listening to was coming out of a tiny little speaker of rather dubious quality and they were carried away by the fact that they could record something no matter what, and that when they played it back they were influenced by the wonder of magnetic recording to think that anybody could be a sound recordist.
It was very interesting, working on the Orient Express with Sidney Lumet for whom I have enormous respect, a wonderfully technical director and very good with actors as well, the perfect director. One of the perfect types of directors. We had in the early weeks of that picture The Murder on the Orient Express we had a lot of criticism of not so much of the sound track but of the voices of certain of the actors.
End of file 2
PH In the first week or two of Murder on the Orient Express during and after the rushes there was a sort of undercurrent of comment, almost criticism, about the voices of certain actors. Now I could see no reason for this. Sidney certainly if he had not been satisfied would have told me in no uncertain way that he was not satisfied. Now he happened to overhear some of these comments and was absolutely livid. He came up to me and to David Stephenson who was my boom operator, he said, I am going to get these people to apologise to you personally. They have no right to make these comments. He said, the trouble is so many people have these little cassette recorders and they all fancy themselves as experts on sound. Now we did in fact have an apology because he insisted on it. And I admired him for that, but also it did make the point that it is so much easier to criticise sound. Sound is an abstract thing....it is so much easier to criticise that then it is to criticise photography or cinematography which is so much more finite. Really the job of sound recordist is so vulnerable compared to that of a cameraman. A cameraman can justify what he is doing even if it is not right, it is definite if a colour is too green or too blue, he can say well yes, I did it because so-and-so or he can say it can be put right in the labs. You can’t do that with sound. You can’t be so definite. In the case of dialogue yes you can say, I agree it is not intelligible and I said so at the time and you will have to put it right. But even so you
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may find that with a particular actor or a particular line no two people will agree on what is intelligible and what is not. And you always have the trouble with Americans they say they can’t understand the English accent, but likewise they will never agree that we can’t understand half of what certain American actors say either when we are working on a picture or when we go to a cinema and listen to the soundtrack.
I A number of people today will comment that the spoken dialogue in movies is so much inferior in intelligibility to what it was in just after the war and pre war.
PH Oh yes.
I Pictures that they are now seeing coming from or hearing from their television sets. Have you got any particular  theories why you consider that one hears so much unintelligible dialogue in feature movies these days?
PH Yes, it is partly I think because you are not given the same consideration as we were which goes back to what I said about loss of prestige. You are often by certain directors of which I am lucky not to have worked with too many of that type but my friends have told me that any comment you make about intelligibility is dismissed. Or if you say you want a wild track because of intelligibility, oh well we will do that later. Well later is too late and it is never done. And then you come to post production and again it is too late because they are up against it and they have run out of money and they can’t get the actor and they can’t post sync, the damage is done. Or they have listened to it so often during the process of cutting and dubbing on it that they think it is intelligible. They forget that the audience is only going to hear it once or twice at the most and this often applied – I think it is often forgotten in the time that it takes to post production and editing – I think it is often forgotten that the audience is not going to see the picture time and time again, it is going to see it once or twice at the most.
Also there are certain actors who are at fault because they won’t be told and they resent any form of criticism and this does not apply to what I call real actors who come from the theatre or have done a number of films but unfortunately certain actors come straight in from television or perhaps have done one film and they are not – for the lack of a better expression – they are not really trained as actors. They are not trained in the technique of films and they are not disciplined enough to be told that what they are doing should be corrected. Directors too often concentrate entirely on the picture. It must be very difficult – I mean I could not presume to be a director, I would not know how to begin to be a director but I consider the job of the sound recordist is to tell the director what he is hearing and if he says well all right it doesn’t matter, then that is his prerogative but you must be on your guard the whole time because he may have missed something that you have heard, or he may think he has heard something which in fact is not on the soundtrack. I have often found that, even with the best of directors, that occasionally they miss even a wrong line and intelligibility is the last thing they are thinking of. With a good director they will always listen to you and always correct it. I think it is a mistake to talk to the actor directly because a lot of directors quite rightly will resent that. Personally I always go through the director. He may think you are a nuisance but even so that is really the only way to do it. But I quite agree that intelligibility is not what it was in the days of the 40s and 50s.
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Another reason of course is that you don’t get .....the technique is different. You don’t get the same opportunity to record dialogue as you used to in the days when you did your master shot and a two shot, close ups and all the rest of it. It does not happen any more which again, leads back to what I said about the crab dolly and the zoom lens. You don’t get that opportunity, you don’t get that number of goes at the same lines as you used to. It is inevitable that something will suffer.
I Do you think there is anything in the fact that when we talk about loss of prestige but also that the simplification of the equipment, the fact that magnetic you must admit is nowhere near as difficult to record as optical sound was and the quality even in the producer’s mind he can do it with his own tape recorder kind of thing, that when it was optical people had this respect for the medium because it was a difficult one and you had to be careful, you had to apply care right from the loading of the magazines through the processing stages of negative and through the whole process. Whereas now it is a quarter inch tape transferred to 35mm magnetic and that piece of film is what in a number of cases is the piece of film that ends up in the dubbing theatre for rerecording from. When all this care had to be taken people also took more care over the actual listening to and what was actually being recorded at the time.
PH I don’t think that really has a lot to do with it because as I said earlier it was all mystique and they did not really know what went on. I don’t think it affected the way they listened. I do think another problem now is rock and roll and the dubbing theatre which goes back to what I said. You hear the line over and over again and if you are not careful you think you understand something which in fact is not really very clear or not clear enough to be understood on the first hearing. Whereas if you went, as we used to, through a whole reel you did not hear the line quite so often. I mean you viewed it as a reel not in bits and pieces.
I What I probably was trying to get at I suppose was not so much – I agree with you the mystique – but not so much the producer and the director perhaps considering that it had been difficult or the difficulties and it was a difficult process – but the present or upcoming sound people perhaps do not apply quite the same care and don’t have to have the same training, and put the same care into the work as had to be done when it was optical days.
PH No, I think you are right. It is a much simpler process. You are quite right. It does not require nearly as much care, equipment is far more reliable. I mean in optical days if you had a breakdown in the studio even you would wait until it was put right. Everyone would sit round for maybe 20 minutes while you found out what the fault was and put it right. But now you just bring in another Nagra. No there is not the same respect for equipment and there is not the same necessity to understand really what is going on because you can’t mend a Nagra in the field. If it is an obscure fault there is nothing you can do because it would take too long even if you could trace the fault. So you just have a second Nagra but there is not the same necessity to have any sort of feeling for the equipment really.
I [3-13.33] I feel that the start of the loss of prestige I agree with you but I think that a lot of the people that have come into the business since that loss of prestige have accepted it and will sit and go on the floor as just a background function.
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I They are not prepared to go to the director and say..... PH No, not prepared to make an effort.
I No, or to apply any.....
PH ....thought to it really.
I It’s – we are just a technical function. I notice it if I do a commercial for example they never even enquire whether there is any sound on the floor. It is just taken for granted that it will be there. The person just sits there and calls – or doesn’t even have to call ‘sound running’ because they have got to get turned over before the camera gets turned over, otherwise the clappers have gone on.......
I Ignoring of sound is what happens I think an awful lot these days. PH Absolutely, you are absolutely right.
Following on what you were saying about the attitude of some sound people who have come into the job more recently I think you are quite right, the whole attitude is different now from what it was twenty years ago even. [15.02] Certainly very different to what it was thirty years ago and it is very strange that in many cases the sound man seems to be completely ignored, not so much on the floor but afterwards and the whole job of assessing sound or deciding what is good and what is bad and what is acceptable and what is not seems to have passed entirely to the editors who, particularly in the case of some of the more recent ones, are often not really qualified to judge in the same way as sound recordists used to be.
It is a very strange thing. The editors for some reason seem to have become much more powerful, with the case of what to post synch and what not to post synch it is very rare to be consulted at all it seems to me. Actually I have been lucky because of the people I have been working with and I have great respect for the editors and directors with whom I have worked but from what friends of mine tell me this is quite exceptional.
I We want to hear a little bit about your work on Out of Africa because we all know that it culminated in receiving what is considered the highest award in the Motion Picture business, that is the Academy Oscar. Can you tell us a little bit about working on the picture and your enjoyment and problems and so on.
PH It goes back beyond Out of Africa. It really is a case that however conscientious you are as a sound recordist and however good the crew is you can’t really succeed particularly on a location picture, you can’t really succeed in getting a satisfactory soundtrack unless you have the full cooperation of the director. A lot of directors and producers will in the initial stages say now we have direct sound and we must have this we must have real atmosphere and location recording but when it becomes difficult and when it takes a little extra time or a little extra trouble on the part of other people such as in doing wild tracks which should be done immediately after a shot, then all that goes by the board and you are really on a losing
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battle from then on. But in the case of Out of Africa we had an exceptional director, Sydney Pollack, who not only is wonderful with actors because he has been an actor himself, but he also has a considerable amount of technical knowledge not only about photography but also about sound. He knows what he wants, he has a pretty fair idea of what the problems are, and is extremely considerate and when I was first interviewed by him I did say that there is really nothing very clever about getting a good soundtrack on location provided that you have the cooperation of the director. And he said, Yes I know what you mean. And he was absolutely true to that. He was extremely considerate. Whenever I said anything he would not always agree but he would never say Oh it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. I can’t be bothered, there is no time, or anything like that. He would often say to me, Now don’t worry about this because I am not going to use that angle or I am going to cover it, or something that would take the worry out of a situation. He insisted on my recording as many sound effects as possible and he made very good use of them. The actors were absolutely superb, particularly Meryl Streep who was on set every day except two for five months. She was never late, she never complained, she was hot, she was dirty, she was wet but never complained. One of the most professional ladies I have ever worked with.
There was a little problem with Robert Redford because initially they flew out a dialogue coach from England to teach him to speak English but within a week the dialogue coach was dismissed because it worried Redford. He could not concentrate on anything except trying to speak English and Sydney quite rightly I think said, well look everybody knows you are Redford. Just do the best you can and have your transatlantic something like mid Atlantic and we will settle for that. And although some people criticised the fact that as an Englishman he was speaking with an American accent I really don’t think it was all that important. And after all the English audience unfortunately is such a tiny proportion of the audience as a whole for films nowadays, the important thing is that you can understand what he says, which again Sydney was very insistent about, and if we had not had those two actors then the film would not have been made. We would not have got the money to make it.
There are a number of directors like Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet is one, Tony Richardson was another, who would always pay attention to what you say. And it is a real joy to work with them. As it was with Joe Losey who was another one. He was a very, very demanding man. He was known to be a bit grumpy but he really was a very kind hearted man, he was a wonderful man to work with. He was always extremely appreciative, terrible problems in the way that he shot, but again he would always pay attention to anything one said to him. And it was a real joy to work with people like that.
The other thing that I should have said much earlier is of course the fact that although the sound recordist or sound mixer or whatever you call him has the responsibility for the sound on a picture and should always be up front to deal with the director, producer anything else, any problems that arise, nevertheless he cannot do anything without his crew. The crew is absolutely the most important thing – far more important than equipment is to have a good crew, particularly the boom operator. I have worked with very few boom operators in my career and I have always been grateful to them because they have been such an enormous help and without them I might as well have given up. And I would have given up because you get when you work with someone for a time you get to a state where you hardly have to mention anything to them. They know instinctively what to do and although you might have
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a little discussion it has been a matter of comment to other people on the crew if there is a camera operator and a first assistant and even directors as well, You never seem to have to talk to each other.... Which I think is one of the finest compliments for the boom operator that anybody could pay. I have been very lucky. I have worked with David Stephenson who is now a very good sound recordist in his own right. With John Stevenson who I have worked with on several pictures recently. And I can’t praise them enough. I can’t say how grateful I am to them for all the work they have done. [3-25.38]
I Can I take you back onto Out of Africa because I believe you went to Hollywood on the post production as well.
PH Yes. Again Sydney Pollack insisted that I should go out for the dubbing which was very good of him because it certainly was not cheap to fly me out there for five weeks but it paid off he said, it was worthwhile. I was a bit apprehensive because although any picture I work on I always try to go into the dubbing theatre at least for a few days in case there is anything I can do to tell the dubbing mixer that might possibly be of help and out of interest because I think you learn a lot by sitting in on the dubbing of your own pictures. You learn what mistakes you have made; you learn what can be corrected and in this case going over to Hollywood I thought they might rather resent an Englishman coming over to sit in on the dubbing but in fact they were absolutely wonderful and they were a marvellous dubbing crew. Chris Jenkins who works for Todd AO had a wonderful feel for sound and it was a great experience to work with him, but another thing which struck me was that Out of Africa I recorded in two track. I had been recording every picture I have done in 2 track since Romantic English Woman which was in 1974 I think, I have worked with a 2 track Nagra ever since then because I think it is a useful way of doing a picture; it can get you out of trouble; it has got to be used intelligently, you have got to be absolutely consistent and you must keep everybody informed by means of notes on the sound sheets as to what is on what track and whether one track is perhaps better than the other. Provided you do that I think it is a wonderful way of recording.
There is opposition from certain people in the cutting rooms.
I When you say 2 track that is putting personal mics on one and boom on the other? Is that what you are meaning?
PH You use a stereo Nagra. The way you do it depends on circumstances. In Out of Africa for instance if I had to use radio mics with an open mic I would put the radio mics on one track and the open mic on the other track.
Now in more recent pictures if I get into serious trouble where an open mic would be absolutely useless and simply add a lot of ambient noise that you did not want I might split the radio mic – if you have got two actors with radio mics I would split them, one on track 1 and one on track 2, which again is useful in case one of the radio mics goes down you have still got the other one. You preserve that. It is not going to mess up the whole track.
Or you can use one track for dialogue and maybe track 2 for some sound effects or something like that. I think it is a most useful tool to have.
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But as I say there has been and still is a certain amount of opposition from some sound editors and some picture editors because they say it is too complicated and it adds unnecessary extra work. Most dubbing mixers like it. Gerry Humphreys at Twickenham thinks it is the only way to record a film, but as I say most of the opposition has come from certain sound editors and I think it is quite unjustifiable because really it is no more complicated than the other and this was proved in Out of Africa because the sound editors in Hollywood, you have a supervising sound editor, and then he gives one reel to one sound editor and so on, so if you have a 12 reel picture you may have 12 sound editors under his control. None of these people on Out of Africa, not one of these sound editors ever worked on two track before. There was not the slightest query or complaint from any of them. From the very beginning they said, Oh this is marvellous. I can’t see what the problem is. Because Sydney had warned them that this was on two track and that was one of the reasons why he had me go out there.
As I say they handled it with no problems whatsoever. Never complained. Chris Jenkins also had not worked with 2 track. He had heard about it but he had not actually dubbed a picture in two track himself and he too thought it was a wonderful way to work. And the whole operation went very smoothly. We dubbed the picture in five weeks though it is not quite as short as it seems because they had two theatres. For the premixes there would be the dialogue in one theatre and meanwhile they would premix the effects in another. So then they come into the big theatre at the end, the effects people come in from their theatre and they all get on with it.
But it was a very great experience. A very wonderful experience.
I Were you able to go through your own atmosphere tracks and effects tracks and select material to supply to the dubbing editors?
PH Yes, with the supervising sound editor. He had made out a list before I got there what he thought but he had come onto the picture later after some other people had laid up some tracks which were totally inappropriate and Sydney went mad because they were all like Tarzan.
I They were library tracks?
PH Yes. And he said, no, no you have got no idea. Incidentally, to go back to Nairobi, what I was saying about editors not liking two track. One of the things about two track recording is that you do the transfers onto fully coated stock so that you have your two tracks separate and you have an arbitrarily combined track which you use for rushes in the same position as the normal sound track.
So you do it onto fully coated stock. Now we had an American editor who came out to Nairobi, a very well-known editor. I won’t say his name because it is not necessary, and I had told him what I was doing shooting on two track. I said it would be on fully coated stock. He said – Oh I can’t work with that. And I said – Well I am sorry but there is no other way to do it. Why can’t you work with it? You have got a coloured stripe down the side. – Oh well I have never done it before it is going to take time, take time.
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So he gave instructions while we were away from Nairobi and unknown to any of us, he gave instructions that everything was to be transferred onto striped in future which of course undoes all the advantages of 2 track.
So Sydney heard about this and he asked me – did you know what is going on? And I said – No what has happened? - he is not doing what you asked him to do transferred onto fully coated. I said – That is nonsense. He said – What do we do? I said - what it means is that all right you can do it, you can transfer onto stripe but before you dub you will have to retransfer everything onto fully coat so that they know what they have got in the dubbing theatre. So he went to the editor and said – You have cost me thousands of dollars, I don’t know what you are doing. If you can’t do your job you can go. And he fired him.
We in fact finished the rest of the location without an editor there and a new editor was taken on to finish the picture, which just proves how cooperative Sydney was with sound.
Excellent man. I loved to work for him any time. There is little chance because he has not directed a picture since I don’t know why.
I Probably having won an Academy Award people consider he will be too expensive.
PH No, he has had a lot of bad luck. A lot of unfortunate – the pictures he has been going to do they have gone down one after the other.
I So there was no, as the Americans have nowadays, no sound designer? PH No, no. I don’t know what that is. Do you?
I A pain in the neck to the recordist I should think. What was your surprise when you got the nomination.
PH I was surprised when I got the nomination. I was even more surprised when the picture won the award because it was a very subtle picture, the sound track, I thought. It was not....it was a dialogue picture with effects and a little very good music.
I This of course was for a number of sound recordists myself especially was why one felt so good about it getting it because sound Oscars had in the past few years gone to the special effects pictures where there is very little original dialogue in them and they are all reliant on bangs and crashes and zooms and whizzes and electronic effects. So that this one was recognising and you yourself can be justly proud of the achievement because it was featuring your original work. So as production recordist it is an extra large feather.
PH It was a wonderful surprise because we were up against quite a lot of opposition, Back to the Future and Chorus Line and things like that. It was a complete and wonderful surprise.
I You went to the ceremonies?
PH Yes. The worst thing was that my wife was in a play and could not come with me, so I was all on my own, well not on my own because I had the dubbing crew with me. But it was amazing. It is very strange because you have a directive or we did that year, we had a directive from Stanley Donan who was in charge of the whole show saying that you are
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allowed half a minute or whatever it is for your speech, don’t thank your mother, don’t thank your agent that can be done by a phone call.....
I It sounds like a lot of people disregard those .....
PH What do you do? You dare not....you don’t imagine you are going to win so you don’t think about what you are going to say. And you are up there in front of thousands of people and you have got to make a speech. But somehow it happens – it worked. All I could think of was to thank the director and thank the actors. I couldn’t think of anything else – and the crew. But it is a wonderful experience, a wonderful moment I must say.
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