INTERVIEW WITH PETER SARGENT, 8/5/2000
PS: Peter Sargent; MS: Mike Sargent; DB: David Brown
DB. What is your earliest memory, Peter? Where did you actually start?
PS. I started in 1934, at Lime Grove, which of course has gone now, Lime Grove at Shepherd's Bush, and I started there. And the reason I started there was because my father was having a film made there. He wrote for the cinema and theatre, and I thought it would be a good idea to go into films because you didn't need any intelligence as far as I was concerned, and I went in as clapper-boy - you know that - and that's how I started. The first director I worked with was Alfred Hitchcock, and for all the ruderies that have been written about him since I found him very pleasant to work with - and only being clapper-boy I don't think he knew I was there half the time. But it was a good training. In those days the board I held up with tLe clapper on it we had chalk to write the numbers on, and of course if we were doing a rain sequence it was an absolute devil because you put all the chalk on it with the numbers and everything and it all disappeared in no time at all. I got five shillings a week, and the basic minimum wage in those days was three pounds ten, and I got five shillings a week.
DB. So did you look at the various things going on on the set and decide that being a cameraman was what you wanted to go for, as opposed to the sound, or stage management, or something else?
PS. I never took the slightest interest in anything except a pretty girl if there was one, and food. It never struck me that it was going to lead to a life, and as I worked with some of the finest lighting cameramen in the world, because Gaumonts had German, French, Japanese, all nationalities working as lighting cameramen.
DB. Did you know Freddie Young?
PS. Freddie Young had the reputation as being the finest lighting cameraman in this country. It was completely disproved by plenty of other lighting cameramen because they were much better than him, and he established his reputation as being the finest because he was able to get work on some of the really top movies made in this country. That's how his reputation sort of grew round him, and in fact if you see his films today on television they aren't brilliantly lit compared with some of the others. He was very good, but working on the top-notch movies made here-he got the reputation of being the best.
DB. So who do you think were his equal or superior at the time?
PS. I can't think, because I'm trying to think of some of the American lighting cameramen. You see it was the practice before the War to use German, French, or American cameramen to light our films. It was always thought that there wasn't anybody over here who could do it, and so you worked with foreigners the whole time.
DB. Let' s go back to you. So you were clapper-boy in 1934, only interested in the girls ['and food' ]. What happened then?
PS. Well, I spent two years as a clapper-boy, and I don't think I learnt a thing, and Lime Grove Studios where I was the clapper-boy, and then I went up a notch as focus-puller. You know what that is? Yes. And I went up a notch to that, then they shut down Lime Grove completely , and I was very lucky because a pal of mine who was a camera operator worked at Ealing Studios, and he phoned me up and said 'you can come here'. So I went to Ealing, which was a great break because at Gaumonts at Lime Grove the re was no overtime paid, you worked every hour you had se ve n days a week. You didn' t get one penny' s overtime , whereas going to Ealing they paid overtime, so I got a steady six pounds a wee k plus overtime. Lime Grove I got five shillings to start with , and the most I ever got was fifty bob.
DB. So, when you were working with Hitchcock, that was on 'The Thirty-Nine Steps', and you were the clapper-boy. Did you work on any other Hitchcock movies?
PS. 'Secret Agent' ... was 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'? [Yes, Leslie Banks] That's right. I worked on five I think. I'm trying to think. I mean it's forty years ago. [Oh, more than that!] But you know, when I worked with Hitchcock it never s truck me as a privilege to work on his films. I remember one of the camera crews when we were going onto 'The Thirty-Nine Steps', he said 'we're very lucky, we'll always remember this' and I couldn't think why. And now, of course, I do know why, because when I see his mastery of everything, although I didn't see it then, nowadays I appreciate just what a master he was.
DB. But you couldn't see that at the time... But how actually did he work? What could you discem about the way he created what he was creating from where you were?
PS. The use of the camera. He was very... way up... in the use of the camera, and he could even tell you the focal length of the lens to use, and when we went to Switzerland on one of his films he came out and joined us in the hotel for three weeks, and he used to go out and pick loca tions and draw on them the exact focal length of the lens to use and the exact set-up so that - I knew it was very clever but now I realise he was a master, really - I think plenty of other cameramen can do it now but I don't think they could then.
DB. So that's where you see his genius lying - through the camera, not necessarily the way he controlled the actors... Because he's got this reputation of being quite brutal with actors, hasn't he?
PS. I never saw any of it in this country. I think because he had the gift of getting them to do what he wanted without being too hard on them, and, you know, it instilled a feeling of confidence that everything worked just as he wanted it.
DB. Did he tend to have the same team of people working with him from one film to the next keep a core team?
PS. He did to a certain extent. He always had the same first assistant director, the same production manager. He had the key people, always had them, and I think that paid off, because they knew his ideas and worked accordingly to incorporate them in everything. And of course the cameras in those days were about four times the size of the cameras today, and co nseq uen tly you had to be quick, but you couldn't move these darn great things, and everywhere, and also if he was doing a scene in a living-room, and we had a set built, he' d always have imaginary walls that weren't in the shot. He'd have them there in his mind. You couldn' t take the camera back beyond where that wall was, because you had to stick, as it were, in a real place. I can't think of the women I worked with, really, can you think of any?
DB. I was talking about this with Mike, and I thought the lead in 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' was Madeleine Carroll.
PS. Oh yes, Madeleine Carroll was, yes, and John Gielgud...
DB. He was in 'The Secret Agent'.
PS. Oh, yes, 'The Secret Agent'. 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' was Robert Donat. Absolute dream to work with. Never any temperament with the stars then. I know Donat lived near where I lived, so I used to get a lift home. [You got lifts home with Robert Donat?] Yes.
MS. So what was Jessie Matthews in that we used to talk about?
PS. 'First a Girl' , wasn't it? Jessie Matthews... Yes, she was a singing and dancing star, and she was extraordinarily sweet with me, and I know when we went to Monte Carlo on location she
had to swim, and she couldn't swim, and when we came to do the scene where she's supposed to swim, the director - Victor Savile was the director - he said to me 'you can swim!' So I said 'yes sir'. So he said 'you double for Jessie, then'. I put a hat and swimming costume on, and all the rest of it, and did the stuff that she should do. And of course I got my leg pulled a lot.
There's a scene in 'First a Girl' where the man has to drive a car at breakneck speed down the Grande Corniche in the South of France, and Savile said to me ' you can drive, can't you?' and having said I could swim I could hardly get out of that. We were going to use his own car in this car chase scene, so the chauffeur takes me up in the car to the top of the Grand Corniche, I get in, and the idea is that I get chased down by - is it Griffiths? - Who was the man in...? But - er - being chased by him, and I managed to do it immediately , you see, and all I'd done driving was back a car out of a garage, that's all I'd done! And when we finished 'well done youngster!' says the director, and I said 'do you know, that's the first time I've drive n a car'. I got such a dressing-down because it was his car that I was driving! Nowadays they'd have stuntmen for all this, but then they could do it cheaper..
MS. When are you talking about...? What year?
MS. When did you meet Vivien Leigh?
PS. Oh, that's a point. Vivien Leigh, who you must have heard of, the first time I met her she was getting a pound a day as an extra, and it was a film we made half of it at Islington; it belonged to Gaumonts but...
MS. It' s not Gainsborough, is it?
PS. No, Islington Studios. Yes, Gainsborough...
MS. They've just rehabilitated that, they've just got it going again.
PS. And that's the first time I met her, and all she was getting was a pound a day.
DB. Was she in 'Fire Over England'? Was that her, or am I getting confused with somebody else? With Laurence Olivier. I can't think what her first big break was. Obviously 'Gone With The Wind' was, but before, when she was in England.
PS. She made one or two decent films before that... Yes... You know, I found her very pleasant because she was only an extra when I got to know her, and I remember telling her that I thought she was a lot of fun, and that she ought to stick to filming... and she did!
MS. You used to play table-tennis with her, didn't you?
PS. Oh yes, we used to play table-tenni s in the lunchtime because we were on location where there was a clubhouse, and I used to beat her. But she was very pleasant.
DB. Where was that on location? Which film?
PS. South London, funnily enough. It wasn't a glamorous place, it was a sports ground belonging to the studios. Oh yes, she was very pleasant. It wasn't until she got famous that things got difficult.
DB. Were you employed by a studio, or were you employed by a producer, or by Hitchcock? I mean, who was your boss?
PS. By a studio, and of course when a film finished you could be sacked on the spot. I well remember at Gaumont's studio at Shepherd's Bush, four or five of us were in the camera rest room - I don't think we were doing much - and one of the focus-pullers went out for an interview and came back, and I said to him 'you do look miserable - what's the trouble?'. He said 'I've got the sack'. I said ' Oh lord', he said 'don't worry, you have as well, we all have' and Gaumont shut down that week without any pay, warning, or anything. We were thrown out on the scrapheap.
DB. And then what happened?
PS. Well I was lucky because a pal of mine was working at Ealing...
DB. So that's how you got to Ealing... So you worked at Gaumont as a focus-puller, and worked at Ealing as a focus -puller... And then what happened? How long before you moved up the ladder... And where to?
PS. Well, I suppose the war came, and after the war I considered myself good enough to operate, and I operated on some things.
DB. Were you working on movies during the war?
PS. No... No..
DB. No documentaries or anything?
PS. No, still photography. No I was lucky because Ealing was second heaven to me to work in after Gaumonts. I did work out at Elstree, in fact all the studios... I've forgotten how many studios there were, but there were about eight or nine...
DB. That sounds like two years for Ealing... You went there in 1937 until 1939...
PS. Yes.. yes.. And I liked Ealing very much... And way after the war, when the BBC formed a film unit, and I got in, they bought Ealing Studios, and it was home from home, because I went there, and one of the electricians who'd known me as a clappe r-boy before the war greeted me with a slight rudeness, I must admit, pulling my leg. But I've been very lucky, because the reason the BBC formed a film unit in those days.... It was run by a man - you may have heard of him - called Philip Daughty (sp?), and he'd been a sound recordist before the war, and after the war I bumped into a pal of mine. I was filmi ng the maiden flight of Concorde, and one of the newsreel blokes I knew, I said 'what are you doing?', and he said 'I'm joining the film unit for
the BBC ' . I said 'I didn't know they had one', and he told me about it, and I wrote to Philip Daughty ( ?) who was going to run this film unit, and got an interview and got in. They had to have a film unit because tape-reco rding wasn't even invented in those days and so they had to record on film if they wanted to repeat it, so that's the way I got into the BBC.
DB. The maiden flight of Concorde... That sounds quite... When did Concorde begin to fly... MS. About 25 years ago, wasn't it?
DB. 1 thought so... 1970...
PS. It is a long time, because I... The BBC shot film of Concorde being built and everything,
which I was on... I loved working for the Beeb... I know it was laughed at by people outside, but it was a permanent job, and a pension at the end...
DB. It was Concorde, and not the Comet...? I'ni just thinking that the time doesn't seem to tie up.
PS. It was Concorde, I'm sure.
DB. You've got a photo of you with Concorde there...
PS. And that was when...
DB. I was just thinking of the gap between when the war ended, 1945, and you went to the BBC in 19...?
PS. About three years afterwards... '51 or '52 I went to the BBC. I'd worked before the war at Ealing, so I was very glad to go to the BBC, and we made some extremely good programmes... Z-Cars...did you know Z-Cars? I was on that for two years.
DB Were you in the studio on the telerecording of those, or were you on location with film?
PS. It was all film, in the studio and out. Mainly it was Lime Grove and then Ealing, and I couldn't have done anything else but film. Tape wasn't invented, so it all helped me to make a living.
DB. Just going back to before the war at Ealing, what films did you work on there?
PS. I don't know the titles but it was all Gracie Fields and George Formby...
DB. What was George Formby like?
PS. Well he was alright... His wife was the difficult one. She ruled him with a rod of iron, and we were always on his side. She was an absolute devil... I don't know why he married her, I must admit. But Gracie Fields was wonderful, oh yes. At the end of each film, she gave everyone on the unit a nice present.
MS. Were you working with your father at that time?
PS. No. My father was writing scripts, but I never worked with him. I don't think he'd have had me, anyway.
DB. I didn't realise your father was in the business as well.
PS. Well, my father started in about 1907 , writing for the music-hall, and my mother was on the stage, so he met her and they married.
DB. But he was involved in films... Silent films?
PS. Yes, because he wrote all comedy stuff, and when the talkies came in, it was easy to transcribe, or transfer, the scripts that were alright on the music-halls to the talkies, as second features, and my treat used to be when I was you ng to go out to Elstree to the old BIP - British International Pictures - where he was working, and watch the filming. It never dawned on me that I'd like to do it... It simply seemed an easy way of earning a few bob...
MS. He knew quite a lot of well-known people, didn't he? Because you lived next door to Rudyard Kipling, didn't you, in Rottingdean?
PS. Oh yes, for a while, yes... We weren't on speaking terms...but his father being in the music hall, in the film(?) trade, knew pretty well e verybody. And so did my mother... And when I was young, and had a twin sister, often at supper time three or four of the top-notch performers on the music-hall stage used to come to supper...
DB. People like who? Marie Lloyd, or is that too early?
PS. That well-known, but... The names have gone.... But if somebody repeats them...
MS. George Robey?
[Interruption for delivery of Indian meal]
PS. I thank God that I've had an extremely interesting life, and fortunately, as a result, after I'd given up filming, I got a phone call offering me the job of running the camera side at the National Film School at Beaconsfield, and I went out and was interviewed, and said 'Well, when do I start?', and they said 'Now', and I hadn't got a clue what I was going to say or anything because I'd no guidance, but the students taught me more about filming, I think, than I ever knew, because a lot of their ideas, totally impractical for the cinema, but making films out there for private showing...
MS. Where was that?
MS. Did you ever meet Will Hay?
PS. I worked with Will Hay before the war, yes.
DB. At Gainsborough?
PS. Yes, because Will Hay worked for Gainsboroughs, but Gainsborough and Gaumont were the same. It was only a tax fiddle keeping them different. I used to like going to Islington to the Gainsborough Studios. It was always know as Ginsburgh, because Gainsborough had an enormous number of Jewish people working for them, and Mickey Balcon - you've heard of him? - he was a production manager for Hitchcock, that's how he started.
DB. Going back to Mike mentioning Will Hay... Which of those movies did you work on? With Moore Marriott?
PS. Oh yes...
DB. There were three of them, weren't there... There was the old man and the fat boy?
PS. Oh yes, the fat boy used to be the page boy at Lime Grove studios, and when he grew out of his uniform they were going to sack him, and fortunately a well-known comedy actor, Tom Walls, was doing a film, and he needed an office boy just sitting on the stool, and they hadn't called anybody. Equity didn't mean a lot then, so they dressed this Moore Marriott up as an office boy, and that's what started him. I mean, he never looked back.
DB. There was an old man, too, wasn't there?
PS. What was his name?
DB. I can't remember..
PS. But when I worked with Will Hay, of course, the old man wasn't thought of. Will Hay was a difficult person, he wanted all his own way. He was a very very keen astronomer. Did you know that?
PS. Yes, and where he lived, not very far from this house, in the garden he had an observatory built, and he was there until he died.
DB. So he lived round here...
PS. Oh yes, where the North Circular starts, always at the beginning, on the left, his house.
DB. How many films were you involved in with him?
PS. Probably two or three... I don't know what they are now.
DB. Oh Mr Porter?
PS. Oh Mr Porter I loved... Because I was passionately keen on railway trains. Well, it's shown so often on television, even today.
DB. Did you go on location with it, or was it all done in the studio?
PS. Oh no...they tried to avoid location work, because they said the only way you can do
exteriors is if the sun is out, and you could wait for ages, so they used to make the sun shine in the studio, but you did have to go on location sometimes. I mean, I went all over the place. Will Hay was I think a very gifted man, but he was unpleasant to work with.
[END OF FIRST SIDE]
PS. You have to ask questions because it's difficult for me to just...
DB. I'm thinking about the jibns that were made in Ealing before 1939.
PS. Well, all the ones I that worked on were Jessie Matthews - not Jessie Matthews: who was the comedienne at Ealing in those days?
DB. What, apart from Gracie Fields?
PS. I don't now if there was another one... And George Formby... DB. Yes, you mentioned George Formby - about his awful wife... PS. Beryl.
DB. So, going on after the war, then, when you joined the BBC, were you involved in mostly documentary programmes, or plays, or series?
PS. The whole lot That's why I liked the BBC, because you got this variety. The documentaries were always great fun. I loved those because I met so many well-known people... I can't think of names , particularly...
MS. You told me you met Churchill.
PS. Oh yes... I think I've heard of him.
MS. You [worked on/] his obituary... Before he died. And the Queen Mother used to...
PS. The Queen Mum, and all sorts of well-known people...
DB. In what context? Were they being interviewed for the news or what sort of thing?
PS . No - it was 45-minute programmes, and they were all worthwhile.
MS. What was Churchill like?
PS. Well, I met Churchill covering an election address he was going to give, at an enormous hall
- it was for boxing, actually. He comes on, gets into where the ring would be, and he points at the lights I'd got on, and he said 'put them out!'. So I ignored him... He said 'I said, put 'em out!' and I said to him 'If I do, I'm not going to film you because there won't be enough light' and that was the end of the conversation, because I mean there wouldn't have been enough light to have them all turned off. It was silly. But I filmed him several times.
DB. He sounds quite unpleasant.
PS. I don't know that's it... He was used to having his own way. If you didn't give in... and in fact, I got a round of applause when I said I wouldn't, and because I said 'I won't vote for you at the next election' , and I got a round of applause.
MS. How did you get on with Ken Russell?
PS. Ken Russell?
MS. You've heard of Ken Russell.
DB. I didn't know you worked with Ken Russell.
PS. When I knew him, he'd obviously got talent, and he was only a sort of junior director on documentaries.
DB. So that was the Elgar film, was it? Were you on that one?
PS. I don't know - I think I did bits and pieces but he started before that and didn' t get a mention doing documentaries, and he obviously breathed a fresh air of something into the Beeb because the documentary and that side of film-making had become so bogged down, and he came in and broke all the traditions, and when I worked with him I always remember he said to me 'can I use the camera?'. So I said 'yes!', because he was a brilliant still photographer, and it didn't worry me, and it was a hand-held camera, and he knew what he wanted, so I let him do it.
DB. What sort of traditions did he break down?
PS. Well, all the traditions of long shot, medium shot, close-up, he broke all those - he did startling things with the use of the camera, and other people of course followed suit afterwards.
MS. You fllmed Richard Strauss, didn't you? You worked on Richard Strauss - you remember, the one where there were complaints about the Nazis - where they had the guys jumping from seat to seat.
PS. Yes, I worked on some of the musicals, but they tried to avoid doing the musicals on film, because they wanted the recording to be the highest possible standard, and therefore by then they'd record onto disc and god knows what, and of course all recording when I went into films
- sound recording - was done on tape, photographically, so it was out of the question, at the end of a day's work, for the recordist to play anything back. But it went to laboratories, like the picture film, and had to be developed and printed, so they were extraordinarily accurate in everything .
[Break for food]
PS. [...] to take me on a sort of[?] visit there, so I was taken to Gainsborough and down I went.
DB. Did it bring it all back or was it ve,y different, or completely different from when you were there?
PS. No. The exterior was identical - have you been there?
DB. Only passed it - I kn.ow what the outside looks like.
PS The best view is to look at it across the canal which runs at the outside of the studio G, because originally that studio was built to house a pile of electric generators for trams, and that's how they came into being, and the place now to loo k at it is to stand the other side of the canal. The studio when I worked there - was a dead end street that went up to the main entrance, and now it's a through road, and if you had a car - I had an old Morris Cowley - you paid sixpence to the gang of boys around there and they kept an eye on it. If you didn't pay your sixpence they
[vandalised it - DB]
DB. You weren't there when the nwstfamous Gainsborough films - the Margaret Lockwoods
- at least they are now - The Wicked Lady - you weren't involved with those?
PS. That was after the war when I joined the BBC.
MS. Jo's got a flat near Gainsborough Studios - you haven't met her have you? The one who works in television. Did you see that Christmas Day television progranime '!
PS. Annette Mills - who was responsible for 'Muffin the Mule' - she took over doing films for children, and it was all 'Bill and Ben' .
MS. You.filmed 'Bill and Ben', didn't you?
PS. Yes, and 'The Flowerpot Men'.
MS. Then you went on to 'Doctor Who' .
PS. Yes, but Bill and Ben, and the rest of it, I was on those nearly two years.
MS. You see they are going to remake them?
PS. Yes, but they'll all be done... When we did them they were all string puppets, now it' s all going to be sophisticated.
DB. It looks like it was done on a very very small soundstage, a small studio.
PS. It was a big studio, it was at Alexandra Palace...
DB. .. But the actual set for it...
PS. Oh yes. The stage was about equal to the width of this room, and a woman, Freda Lindstrom was head of children's television at the BBC, and she used to direct these. She was a brilliant woman, and I got to know her quite well.
MS. You.filmed 'Sooty' as well, didn't you?
PS. I don't think so.
MS. Well, you gave me a Sooty - you gave me one of the original Sootys - did you see what one sold for in an auction recently? With Harry H Corbett.
PS. I might have done.
DB. But Sooty's still going on, isn't it? The son does it now, Matthew Corbett.
PS. He was a very nice man, Harry Corbett. I don't think he realised what a goldmine he started.
MS. Where was he from?
PS. The North Country, I don't know where.
MS It sounds like Blackpool.
DB. Was there anybody you really disliked - anybody who was absolutely awful to work for?
PS. I don't think so. I mean , if you go back to before the war, the most difficult director was Victor Saville, but I was in his good books, having driven this... risked my life and all the rest of it. He had a very humane side.
DB. Was he American or more English?
PS. English .
DB. Because he went to America, didn't he? Made a lot of movies in America?
PS. And the idea of Pine Grove ( sic) before the war was for major features to have at least one if not two American stars in them.
DB. Before the war? So that was already seen as something that would pull the public in?
PS. Yes that's right, because they weren't really interest ed in films that didn' t have American stars.
MS Because I was talking to your brother in the pub about a series called 'Man in a Suitcase' where they got an American actor in to give it a bit of weight.
PS. That was Pinewood, was it?
PS. It was a very good life that I had, and of course finishing up with the Beeb on the film unit.
DB. What were you doing with the Queen Mother?
PS. Well, we did a little documentary about her, and consequently it meant filming her, you see.
DB. Did you go to the Palace?
PS. No, she didn' t live there. She lived at the big house opposite.
DB. Clarence House.
PS. I've been to Buckingham Palace...
DB. To do what?
PS. Probably to film the Queen.
MS Did you meet the Duke of Edinburgh?
MS. What was he like?
PS. Well, he was quite pleasant. I mean he may not have been to other people, but when you are doing film things they seem to hide the fact that they can be nasty .
MS. Did you meet Princess Margaret?
MS. What was she like?
PS. Oh, you know, when you are filming, and it is twenty-five to thirty years ago, a lot of it... apart from Victor Saville, the director, I don't think I have met anybody who was difficult.
MS. Did you ever meet those small blokes, those comedians - that comedian..?
PS. What was his name?
DB. Ronnie Corbett?
PS. I have filmed him.
MS. Because he has got a bad reputation.
PS. Has he?
DB. But the other one is very pleasant - Ronnie Barker - very affable, friendly guy. I bumped into him quite by chance in the antique shop he has, or had, in Chipping Norton.
MS. Have you worked on many comedies?
PS. Yes - some of them weren' t supposed to be funny.
MS. Who do you think was the best of the comedians you worked with? Did you work with Morecambe and Wise? - a lot of people reckon they were the best that Britain has ever produced.
PS. There used to be an old saying, too, with comedians - if they got the unit laughing when you were doing the filming, it wouldn't be funny when it was shown in the cinema, and it's true to a certain extent.
DB. Why would that be? PS. I just don't know.. [Pause]
PS. 'Z-Cars' - a lot of it was shot at night , and before you could start, if you was going to use a road like this, all the residents had to agree to be disturbed at night. I know they used to get paid something.
DB. Was that actually shot in London, because it was set in the North, wasn't it?
PS. It was, but every foot of it was shot in London.
DB. So no location photography at all.
PS. Southend was used - supposed to be Blackpool. They used to bring down a couple of buses from Blackpool, and have them go through.
MS. How did you get on with Brian Blessed?
PS. Oh, he was a great mate of mine, he used to come here.
MS. He's become very.famous, hasn't he? You know, at the handover in Hong Kong.he represented the English side.
DB. Jeremy Kemp... And James Ellis was the other guy...
PS. There were four of them - because there were two pairs. I can't think who the fourth one was. That series certainly launched people off.
DB. You didn't have anything to do with Dixon, did you.? The other side of police series...
PS. The opening sequence, when he used to come out, we used to do it at Ealing.
DB. He'd had a big career in music hall, hadn't he, Jack Warner? Dixon was quite a late part of his career.
PS. In the beginning, all the stars either had to be in music hall or they had to be in film. Tele vision wasn't even thought about.
MS. Why were you based at Alexandra Palace?
PS. I wasn't. Lime Grove was the main studio, but Alexandra Palace had two stages and we could use those. I used to like that because I used to get home for lunch.
DB. That's where television started up, wasn't it, in 1936?
PS. That ' s right, and in fact a friend of mine who used to live in the Suburb, only a stone' s throw from here, worked before the war with Baird and... I can' t think of his name... But he was in at the very beginning, and he used to light the sets at Alexandra Palace.
MS. I thought you had something to do with newsreels from there
PS. I was on the BBC Television newsreel, and they only had, I think, five or six cameramen. We had to cover the world.
MS Did you get any overseas assignments.for that, or were there local location people?
PS. For the main stories we had to go, and I remember I went abroad three times in a week to three different countries....
There were just programmes... I can remem ber nothing about the programmes, all done at Ealing.
MS. What was Benny Hill like'! Can you remember?
PS. Very pleasant to work with... I think[ they realised their careers were in our hands.
DB. Did you use the same sort of equipment that you'd used in films - the same kind of cameras?
PS. Yes, we did, and one of them, the Newman Sinclair , was a hand-held [botanic/] camera, spring-wound and all the rest of it - used to use that for documentaries and new sreel. You
couldn' t use it for sound because of the clatter they made, so we used a fast [vast/] cumbersome thing called the Vinton Visertone[?]
DB. Did you ever use a Technicolor camera?
PS. [No?] thank god.
DB. Because they were so huge?
PS. WelI, you had the original... Was it two or three rolls of film went...? You know the ASA speed rating they have o n films? It's sensitivity to light. Fast film - black and white - we used in those days, was 32 ASA. Technicolor was 6.
MS. We're comparing that with JOO.for ordinary.film now.
PS. And yo u' d got to do a close -u p in those days they' d got to use a brute[?] - with a key darkener[?] - a brute is a great sun-arc.
DB. So for Technicolor you needed a great deal of illumination?
PS. Yes, but controlled. Well, for black-and-white, when I came in , it was only 30ASA, and that stuc k for a long time.
DB. Did you have different grades of black-and-white.film, and did you get.faster film as time went on?
PS. You got it, but it was up to the cameraman to decide what he wanted. Plus-X [Plus-6 ?] which was black-and-white film 30ASA I think. Then there was another Kodak film , black-and white one, which was 60, but I could cho ose what film I wanted, and I went for the fast one, if I was doing night exteriors, and used the slower one for everything else.
DB. Was using day-for-night very common in those days?
PS. Oh yes... it' s difficult because the way you do it... if you show the sky it' s got to be blue. If you use a road, you've got to have very powerful lights shining out of windows. It was very necessary not to show anything that gave the thing away.
DB. Often, I think, looking at old television programmes, it's obvious that it's a day for-night shot.
PS. If it' s badly done.... the principle of filming, even today in television if they use film, is much the same as it was years ago.
PS....most of them are dead, or moved, that' s the real trouble. One or two of my crew that I had in those days I keep in touch with, and of course they've all retired themselves.
Garbo [?] when you go and do a close-up, she'd direct the lighting cameraman where to put the lights on her.
I was very good at lighting close -ups, so that when I was doing a film, I used to really love doing the close-ups. I knew how to light a person's face, both male and female, to make them look the best.
DB. Did you work on any large, spectacular exterior ,navies-' The Four Feathers' or something like that?
PS. They didn't make them when I was working on films in this country. The only studio really was Pinewood, or Denham.
DB. You didn't work at Denham? Because that was a big studio, wasn't it?
PS. I used to go past there, every day, on the way to Beaconsfield Studios.
DB. Denham was built by Korda, wasn't it, to be a rival to Hollywood.
PS. Oh yes... Because he started at Elstree. I didn't know him, but I knew of him. Pinewood, of course, he had a studio there. The two were always linked together. In fact I think you saw films called D&P - Denham and Pinewood Studio. An ex-camera assistant of mine, called Sydney Samuelson - he's now Sir Sydney. Have you heard of the Samuelson empire? They were the biggest hirers of equipment anywhere in the world, because they had branches all over, and Sydney when he started was my ------ [END OF SECOND SIDE]
DB. You never aspired to going up the next stage - to directing anything?
PS. No, not really; it didn't seem to me to offer what my line did, and also I remember being offered, by the head of Film Two[?], children's films in the BBC, a marvellous foreign woman, although she seemed English, called Freda Lindstrom, and she invented 'The Flowerpot Men' , and all those, and I was asked to photograph them, and because I got on very well with her, I enjoyed it immensely , and she used to say to me 'why don' t you become a director? ' , because she ran the whole empire, you see, and I said 'I don't want to'. She said 'why not?', and I said 'because I couldn't stand the shoddy standards of everything' - because the sets were rotten very often, you know. So I never wanted to do that.
DB. But only for that reason? Or did you feel just at home with the camera?
PS. Oh yes. I always, you know , liked the camera.
DB. Did you know Michael Powell?
PS. I think I met him, but I met so many people, and famous people, it's difficult to remember them all.
DB. Who made the most impression on you as a personality? Not necessarily in the fllm world.
PS. I don't know, because if they were known to have a good personality, they didn't drop it when they were working with me. It was there the whole time.
DB. Of all the people who I've seen interviewed, Orson Welles always struck me as the one who had the most extraordinary magnetism, and I just wondered lthere was anyone who stood out in your mind, who you worked with or not? You mentioned Hitchcock, and I wondered if there was anyone else?
PS. Well, I think he was THE director in the '30s.
DB. Did you have much to do with his wife, Alma?
PS. She used to come on the set every day - she used to sit on the set. I got to know her, yes.
DB. What was she like?
PS. Oh, very pleasant... And did you ever see a famous film called 'King Kong' ? Well, the woman in that, Fay Wray, she came over to do a film at Lime Grove, and I remember it was on the set, and she was sitting down crying her eyes out, and I went over to her, sat down next to her, held her hand, and I said 'don't cry love, it ain't worth it', and we became good friends.
DB. Tell me more about her. Was that only on one.film she was here for?
PS. Yes, one film. She was very pleasant.
DB. Now she was in the Erich Von Stroheim fllm we saw, which I can't remember the title of [The Wedding March]. It was her.first.film because he discovered her.
PS. She was very nice .
DB. What was she crying about?
PS. Her director was an absolute bastard, he ' d made her cry.
DB. Not Victor Saville?
PS. It probably was! But I, as I say, got in his good books because of the way I did the swimming sequence. He always used to call me 'clumsy' , I remember. But he was a devil. I mean if the lift at Lime Grove, the attendant stopped it with a jerk, when he got out he'd go to the studio manager and demand that the Iift attendant was sacked. Of course he wasn't, but he tried to get him sacked.
DB. Was he director of 'Sanders of the River'? Because that was late '30s.
PS. I don't know.
DB. Did you meet Leslie Howard, or work with him at all?
PS. No, and he was a very unpleasant man. You heard it, but I've heard since stories from people who've worked with him. You didn't really lead off too much in those days because the whole film industry was like a club and if you said something about somebody it would be passed on.
I restrict myself today to still photography.
DB. Did you used to do that as a hobby then?
PS. I went to a photographic school before I went into film, and I still do it. I've got cameras that are nearly 100 years old.
DB. Can you still get the sort of film you need to take the sort of photographs you like to take?
PS. No, I use the 35mm and the two and a quarter square. But that I took - friend of ours - or mine - she had a car and somebody crashed it and I took a series of pictures of it, and I put them alI together on there.
DB. You took that one [which one..?J
PS. No, it was a friend of Michael's, who just stuck the camera up and took it without thinking, and I think it' s brilliant.
PS. ...man that plays Christ... It was amazing: directed by a woman, who was brilliant, and we went to Israel on location, and Jordan, and shot in the studio at Ealing, and it was an enormous success, and the man who played Jesus is an actor, and every year he does the commentary on the celebrations at the Cenotaph.
DB. Tom Fleming.
PS. Yes... How do you know that..? And he played Christ , and it was bloody funny, because we used to have tea on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and at the end of the
day he'd join us for tea still dressed as Christ, you see. At a table not far away there were two American tourists and the Israeli guide, and the Israeli guide is saying to these tourists 'at the present moment we are going to be invaded by the Arabs; they'll come across the Sea of Galilee and attack us'. Tom got up dressed as Christ, walks over to the table, looks at them, and says 'don't talk such bloody silly nonsense'. So I got up, and went over to them and said 'absolutely right, and in a minute he'll walk on the water'. I mean... stupid thing to say.
DB. So that must have been about 1963-64?
PS. I suppose so, I get muddled. I mean I've kept diaries very carefully.
DB. Do you remember anybody else who was in that, apart from him?
PS. There were very well-known artists in, who weren't much known then but have since become famous. But it was a great series to work on, and particularly a woman director - she was incredible, and I always remember she was sitting on a cliff and there were a whole lot of Arabs, and she's sitting there, and all these Arabs were clapping, and she said to me 'what's the matter with them - stupid people!' And I said 'I'll tell you what's the matter', and she said 'what?' and I said 'you haven't any knickers on, have you, and they all saw you haven't!'
[break for laughter]
This was a magazine for the unit I worked with when I left the services after the war. I'm in this too - I seem to pop up a lot.
DB. Whereabouts in Africa was this?
PS. Oh, Gold Coast... They covered the whole of Africa, but I only did the Gold Coast. I was out there for five or six months, my first occasion.
DB. What was this for, news events, or what?
PS. No, it was a story and everything, and they were shown extensively in film clubs and even in cinemas.
DB. Oh, this was the Colonial Film Unit... So this was between the end of the war and going to the BBC.
PS. How sad - I think back... So long ago. They were based - or we were - in Soho Square. Just across the road from us were the laboratories that used to process the newsreels, and they used to process our film. It was all 35mm of course then. 16 was in use but we didn't use it.
DB. Because you couldn't get the picture quality?
PS. Oh, you cou d , but it was just that where the film was wanted, it was easier to get 35mm copies than have it reduced.
DB. Was 8mm not in use at all?
PS. It was coming in, or had , but all my filming was 16 and 35.
DB. You never had to do anything in widescreen?
PS. No... I may have done it when I was freelancing after the way... I can't really remember. Do you like shooting?
DB. With guns? No, I've never...
PS. I'm not now so much... But I was an absolute crack rifle shot - target shooting, and I used to go to Bisley twice a week, and I only shot 200 and 600 yards, but they used to shoot there up to 1000. And some of them when they shot 1000 used to lie on their back with their feet crossed and the rifle resting on their feet.
DB. Shooting was a hobby?
PS. Yes - I have legitimately a rifle, but I don't know how much longer I can keep it up.
DB. When you're watching a.film on video, do you always see it as a cameraman? - are you always looking at the image quality?
PS. Yes, but I get thoroughly transfixed by it, but even a variation in eye direction between a medium shot and a close-up I see it immediately. I don't look for it, but it just hits me, so most people I'm friendly with won't watch films on television with me - they say 'we can't stand you!' I see faults that nobody else does but they're glaring faults to me, and you see more and more of them nowadays in films than you ever did when I was young.
DB. So is there anybody you think was virtually faultless, someone you didn't necessarily work with but you can watch a film now and just see it as virtually perfect?
PS. No, I don't think... because I think all the good directors, you don't see... because their faults should be seen by the continuity girl, the cameraman, the operator, anyone should see the faults, and the fact they creep in sometimes isn't because they've been filmed wrongly - but because the editor, when he comes to edit the film, picks the take, just the wrong second or two of the wrong take, and I don't think they think... I don't think they care about it nowadays. But when I went to join the BBC, and we filmed anything, and we heard 'don't worry - it's good enough for telly!', and I wouldn't stand for that, because in my opinion a thing had got to be right, and if there had been a fault, you could sometimes shoot an additional shot of another artist looking or just something.
DB. So why did they have that attitude? Was it because they thought television was just an inferior medium, or because the image quality you could get on a television. screen was just not that good?
PS. Oh - inferior medium, and they were so wrong.
DB. Why do you think they were wrong?
PS. Having that attitude - I just wouldn't stand for it, and neither would some of my friends who have been in the industry.
DB. I can in a way sympathise with it because a film costs more, it's more elaborate, and it's kind of built to last. It has a longer lifetime in cinema whereas television is churn churn churn; it's gone very quickly.
PS. Yes, but if you're using the same material, the same equipment, that is used for the cinema there is no reason why you shouldn't get it right, and so I've always stuck out for it. But even today there are people working in television that should be cleaning lavatories.
DB. From what point of view? The quality of the.filming they get or the creation of the programmes?
PS. The creation of the programmes. But I watch things on television that are so brilliant. Some of the natural history - you see in the old days we had to do those: Bristol wasn't even thought of as the home of natural history filming. It was just our job. If we needed any special equipment we hired it.
DB. Did you know Armand and Michaela Denis?
PS. I met them, and there are a lot of stories about them. First of all they weren't on speaking terms, and there was a cameraman who came to the BBC, and he used to work with them , and he was a brilliant nature photographer - the stories he told me about them. Most of the good stuff he had got without them knowing. I mean in their own way they started off a big interest, and there was a man who was a great friend of mine, and he did natural history - I can't remember his name - but...
I used to like doing natural history things. A couple of women living near Rugby, and they were on television only a few weeks ago - they had chimps as pets,and I went to do a story with them and I remember I had a fairly free hand, and I called the series ' Chimpantics' and these two chimps lived with these women and they used to sit at the table at mealtimes and everything, and I know once I was in the kitchen and one of them was in there and she got hold of a large tin of Vim and I saw her hand going like this and she let fly at me with it. I dodged it, picked it up, threw it back at her, and it hit her fair and square. I said 'now we understand each other'. Why I called it 'Chimpantics' because once every six weeks I used to go to their house and do a documentary about them that was 45 minutes. I know once, during a lunchtime or something, I was sitting watching television with both the chimps, and the woman came in and switched the set off, and the chimp got up, got hold of the television and threw it across the room. I knew them well enough that I was allowed to take them for a walk across farmland, and I used to go across there holding both their hands, walking along.
DB. Were they quite young ones, because when they'refully grown they are pretty powerful and dangerous?
PS. Oh they weren't dangerous... They were fairly big, and going across this farmland one of them insisted on... always liked to smoke, so he had his cigarette, and he gets up a tree, and he sits up this tree smoking, and he wouldn't come down, and I was worried the farmer would come out. But I liked them very much, and a fellow cameraman - because I was on leave - went to do a story with them, and they went for him, because he had a beard. He just wasn't wanted, and the other day a programme about chimps, and the women that owned the chimps when I used to do it were in the programme.
DB. Was that made for children's television?
PS. Yes, because in those days they had two film units, the grown-ups film unit and the children's film unit, and any story could be done... well, good enough for adults, but certainly fo r children ... We used to do. Subsequently I was transferred to the adult unit, but the children's one was a lot of fun. We used to go abroad on them, and all over the place.
DB. Mike said you were involved with 'Doctor Who' - was that right from when it started?
PS. I think it had started, but it was fairly primitive, and they went to a lot of trouble and expense, because we did one - it was located, or we were, on the Isle of Wight, and it was all about being done in a submarine, and we did all that - because it was no good trying to fool children by pretending on locations and everything else. I think they knew more than their parents about how right things should be.
DB. 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' made a huge impact, didn't it, with Peter Cushing in 1950.
PS. Oh yes... Of course when I was in Richard Dimbleby was the - great - and I did several documentaries with him .
DB. For 'Panorama'?
PS. Well, they were separate documentaries, really, but I can remember he couldn't get anything right once... He was in a real trouble... He said 'too much Dimbleby and not enough
thought!' ... Such a nice man... And his son is involved with it now.
DB. There are two of them, aren't there, David and Jonathan?
PS. Yes, but neither of them will ever be their father, though.
DB. You weren't involved in that spaghetti harvest hoax?
PS. I wasn't involved in it - I knew about it. It was done in Switzerland, and the cameraman, it was his idea, and he decided to do this practical joke and the BBC put it out. I did one... Not as famous as that... But a practical joke one, and I can't think what it was now. It was my idea.
DB. The other thing I remember most.from the television in the '60s was the 'Tonight' programme, and there were those two - Slim Hewitt and Fyfe Robertson...
PS. Oh I know them, because I worked on it...
DB. Slim Hewitt always seenied a real joker.
PS. He always had a joke with you and in fact he used to shoot them too, cause he'd been a cameraman.
DB. They were a very good team on that programme, because there was Geoffrey Johnson - Smith, Derek Hart.. But Slim Hewitt and Fyfe Robertson seemed to do a double -act.
PS. Of course it's all too big now, governed by committees and God knows what... I mean when I was in it if I thought up an idea for a story for kids I could organise it and do it myself. I didn't have to get a committee to approve it or anything. It was very easy-going.
DB. Cliff Michelmore is still broadcasting, but I don't know what happened to the others.
PS. I'm trying to think of examples of how free and easy it was...
DB. It sounds like you actually got a lot more out of the television work than the films.
PS. Yes I did - I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
DB. But you had nothing to do with live broadcasts from the studio?
PS. No... They could put film out, and they were able to use feature films, which were old, of course, but I know when I got a story go ing out - 45 minute thing of whatever - I had to go up
to the telecine room in Lime Grove and sit there while the operator had it in front of him and had it transmitted ----- ---- [END OF THIRD SIDE]
PS. Sometimes the transmitted results were absolutely beautiful.
DB.I went to see one of the Ken Russell.films at the National Film Theatre not long ago, with Oliver Reed, about the Pre-Raphaelites. Do you remember that one?
PS. No, I didn't see it; I remember it...
DB. It was very very good - beautiful photography. Oliver Reed was Rossetti in it, and Andrew Faulds plays William Morris.
PS . But the lighting cameraman that lit his early efforts, he was at the BBC then, and h.e was very difficult to work with, but this lighting cameraman realised his potential and when I worked with him - I only did one thing - I found him enormously pleasant to work with. That's why when he said 'could I have the camera - would you mind?' I said 'good Lord no'. And I know when one or two of the crew said 'you shouldn't have let him do...' I said 'he knows more about it than I do'. What's happened to him?
[DB runs through recent Russell... ] Don't know of a feature film in the last few years.
PS. Sad, because people wouldn't use him because of the trouble he caused, but he had such talent.
[More about Russell from DB...] Thinks the best of him was the music films.
PS. The only snag about the music films is the rotten sound that television sets give out.
DB. The lighting cameraman that I am most familiar with in feature films is Vittorio Storaro.
PS. Oh yes.
DB. I went to see 'Apocalypse Now' for the first time and I thought it was just fantastic.
PS. And it is... And of course when you reach the state that he has, he has the final say in exactly how everything's set to fit the camera, even the lights and everything. But funnily enough, when I've been abroad, I'd have a lighting crew, apart from an English gaffer who'd come with me sometimes, it was foreign, all foreign electricians from the industry, and I know we'd finished - in Italy I think - and the Italian gaffer came up to me and said, via an interpreter, 'you're the nicest cameraman we've ever met', because they're real devils, some of them. He presented me with a present... And of course working... The same equipment is standard, all the lights in studios all over the world come from mainly Noel[?] Richards, and that's easy, but communicating is difficult. You know... You want the light to go up, and you do this, and they raise it, and you want the light spread... And it takes time. But I found the most efficient crew of electricians I had was, of all places, in India. Of course, they make more films than any other country, and they do everything at the double, because if they don't they get the sack.
DB. Do you like those films? Have you watched any of them?
PS. I have done, yes.
DB. But they are so long, and bland.
PS. Well , going to the cinema in India is the best part of the day, I think. But the studios were well run. I didn' t film - oh, I think I did - in Bombay. We certainly used them on loca tion. Of course over here the French, Gennan, Italian sparks - electricians - they were always very good.
I'm bursting to do a pee! [END OF RECORDING]