Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 1
The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Roy Parkinson was interviewed by Sid Cole in 1987.
1. On his father H.B. Parkinson
RP: I was born in Surbiton, 22nd January 1916, and my father at that time was a cinema manager. I remember when I was about 2 we lived in a flat, I should think, or a hotel in Brighton, when he was manager of the cinema in Westfleet. Then I think he met someone who had Teddington Studios, and we moved up to Ferry Road in Teddington when I was roughly 4 years old, because I went to a school at the end of the road when I was 5. He at that time was making films, producing and directing as far as I know at Teddington Studios.
SC: What was his first name?
RP: Harry Parkinson. I do remember one incident from then when he was making a series called Detective Haigh of the Yard.
[no record of this series. In the early 20s Detective Magazine published a series of short stories called Secrets of Scotland Yard by ex Chief Detective Inspector Ernest Haigh, one of these stories was filmed by H.B. Parkinson as Lost, Stolen or Strayed in 1921 in which Haigh is credited as writer and cast member]
I was playing a small part in it, the boy I suppose. I'll always remember this because they put me into a trunk on the set and I screamed my head off at being shut in this box and I think the prop man took over afterwards and had to bang on the roof, I suppose you might say that was my introduction to the film business.
SC: How old would you have been then?
RP: I would have been four and a half, five. He made then many pictures at Teddington Studios, some are in the archive and some have not yet been transferred from nitrate stock to [unintelligible].
SC: Mm, that is a problem. What was the company called?
RP: Master Films [Master Film Company aka Master British Films] and a man called Salomaire [?] owned the studios then. Actually Charlie Wheeler once said to me he remembered working as a prop man there with my father. [Laughter] So we stayed there at Teddington for some time and I went to a private school there and then to another private school and eventually ended up at a boarder at Castle Hill School in West Ealing.
SC: I was fascinated to realise that there was a boarding school in West Ealing at that time because I know Ealing well of course, I've lived there a good many years, I never realised that. What year would that be?
RP: I was then 11, so 26 - 27 and I stayed there till I was 14 and a half and left school then.
SC: What did you do when you left school?
RP: My father at that time moved up to an office he'd taken in Little Denmark Street, off Charing Cross Road. The whole place was owned by R. E. Strange and Company which were film processors and printers and I went there as an office boy. Being in this film printers they also taught me how to wind film onto the drum like they had in those days for drying. Bryan Langley was a well-known cameraman, he was also working for my father and he taught me how to turn a camera, in those days 16 frames.
SC: Because it was silent days still.
RP: Silent days, oh yes rather. My father was then making a number of series: Wonderful London, Wonderful Britain, London Cabarets, etc., of which there are about 26 of them in the National Film Archive.
SC: What sort of length were those?
RP: One reelers. I've got the catalogue which give them all there, quite a bit have been used at various times on films about the [unintelligible] and so on. At one time I used to get some royalties out of them but that's all passed now. [Laughter]
2. Start of career at Shepperton
RP: My father knew Norman Lee who was directing films in those days.
SC: He was directing at BIP [British International Pictures] and places.
RP: Yes, he was quite a well-known director. He was making a film at Riverside and so I went there as a runner, generally seeing what it was all about. There was a picture being made On Top of the World at Shepperton. Tony Nelson Keys [Anthony Nelson Keys] was the PM [Production Manager] and I don't know how but I suppose through Norman Lee's influence I got a job as the 3rd assistant. That had Betty Fields playing the lead, Redd Davis was the director, the studio was then run by Norman Loudon and Maggie was his secretary.
SC: It had another name then, was it called Sound City?
RP: Sound City, that's right.
SC: Tell me something if you remember anything special about Redd Davis as the director.
RP: I don't really remember much about it. They only had one stage there at that time of course and I think I was getting about £3 a week and we used to get about 2 [shillings] and 6 [pence] supper money. We had two or three nights on the lot when they built a village. I remember we used to finish whenever they finished at dawn and then have a call back again at 2 that day.
SC: This was at Shepperton.
SC: The Riverside was just the one picture was it? You've mentioned Riverside.
RP: Riverside, oh yes that was just the one picture, I never went back there again.
SC: So you spent some time at Shepperton.
RP: Yes. Then I did a John Argyle picture Happy Days Are Here Again, with the Houston sisters [3 sisters, Renée, Billy, Shirley.
SC: Oh yes Renée and Billy,
RP: Renée used to stay in the old manor house then.
SC: Do you have any stories about the Houston sisters that you remember?
RP: Not really, they were lots of fun themselves. I can't remember if it was John Argyle producing or directing or both. [picture produced by John F. Argyle, directed by Norman Lee ]. Then of course Wainwrights [J.G. and R.B. Wainwright Productions] came in and they built the four big stages. One of the pictures was Wolf's Clothing with Lilli Palmer and Claude Hulbert.
SC: Did you work on that?
RP: Yes, I suppose I was 3rd assistant still, I can't remember who the 1st was. Another one Kate Plus Ten with Jack Hulbert.
ISC: Do you have any stories about any of those people that were on those [films] like Hulbert?
RP: I remember one story with Jack Hulbert. We were shooting a scene, it involved a train of which Jack was the stoker, and we built this signal box on the stage and there was a scene of Jack creeping up outside and listening to what was going on inside. But the editor when we saw the rushes had dubbed on it a lot of dirty stories so when it came out on the rushes we heard Jack listening a lot of dirty stories. [Laughter]
SC: Did he mind?
RP: No, he took the joke.
ISC: Anything about Lilli Palmer?
RP: No, she was very young in those days. I've got some pictures of her of course but...she was very nice to work with.
3. Progressing to second assistant director
SC: So how long would you say you were at Shepperton?
RP: I suppose about 2 years.
SC: And then what happened?
RP: And then I got a job with Marcel Hellman and young Doug Fairbanks [Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.] who had two companies, Excelsior Films and Criterion Films, and they worked at Worton Hall. We made Accused
SC: Where was Worton Hall because that's disappeared now
RP: Worton Hall that was Isleworth, no Hounslow. I was at Hounslow and the big silent stage was there then. The first one was directed by Thornton Freedland with Delores del Rio. Googie Withers was in it. On the big silent stage, it was a semi-musical come court drama.
SC: What was it called?
SC: I remember that actually. By this time you probably were no longer a third assistant.
RP: I'm a second by then. Billy Boyle [William N. Boyle] was first assistant. That was followed by Crime Over London which young Doug wasn't in and then Jump for Glory which was young Doug and Valerie Hobson.
SC: I think that was the picture that brought Valerie Hobson into real notice.
RP: I think so, yes. Raoul Walsh directed that one, because I've got a picture, a unit still with Raoul Walsh with his patch over his eye and Valerie Hobson is in the picture so it must have been Jump for Glory.
SC: About Fairbanks, young Fairbanks junior, do you have any stories about him, any memories?
RP: None, except he was a jolly good chap to get on with. He was really good, you could talk to him, he joined in with everybody, he was really one of the boys you might say.
SC: So he didn't put on airs.
RP: I do remember a scene, not so much with him, but with Marcel Hellman. We were shooting outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the top of Birdcage Walk. Marcel told me to get on the phone about something which hadn't turned up and so I came off the phone and said what had happened. He was so enraged - Marcel always wore a trilby hat - he took off this hat and banged it on the floor and jumped on it in his rage. [Laughter]
SC: This was in the street?
RP: Yes, on top of Birdcage Walk?
SC: Did anybody passing by notice? [Laughter]
RP: I don't know. One hears tales of people jumping on their hats but he did actually do it.
4. Welling, Pinewood and Ustinov
SC: When did you become a first assistant?
RP: That was after the war because I then went to work at Welling, again on a John Argyle film, and then I was called up.
SC: This was in 39.
RP: Was this right at the beginning of the war, 39-40?
RP: Well I did a little bit inbetween, I'd forgotten that - I went to work at Pinewood 1937-38, before going to Welling obviously, on the Inspector Hornleigh series.
SC: Because Pinewood was pretty new then.
RP: Yes. Donald Wilson might have bee the first on that, I don't remember, that was a feature film and then I think they made a series after it or the other way around, with Gordon Harker on it. John Bryan I think was the art director.
SC: Very good art director, yes. How did you get on with John?
RP: Fine. And then from there I went to work at Welling. Then I was called up in my age group on 20th June 1940.
SC: You were still quite young then. What did you do at Welling? Can you remember what pictures you were on.
RP: Only this John Argyle film, A Door With Seven Locks, then we did a documentary which I think Walter Mycroft was the producer on. [Mein Kampf, My Crimes]
SC: He was in charge of production.
RP: He was at ABC, but I think he did this one at Welling. I remember Peter Ustinov who must have been about 19 playing the man who burnt down the Riechstag, in his very young days.
SC: Because Peter Ustinov at that time had been in various reviews and things when very young, doing comic impressions so I suppose that's why he was in that.
RP: Yes I suppose I only remember that because of his name in later years. I remember him playing that part.
Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 2
The work of a production manager and how it has changed over time
. Breaking down the script
SC: Imagine, Roy, somebody listening to this and who is not in the business or not all that familiar with it, would need to know possibly what a production manager does. Could you say a few things on that do you think?
RP: Yes. Production manager, well first of all you have your producer who then has a script and then he's got to see how much that script is going to cost, the production manager reads through the script and probably at that time not even knowing who the director is going to be. So having read the script you then make a set list and make a number of pages of script as per set. And then roughly, you can work out maybe about three pages a day on an average, so you then work out how long it takes to shoot each set which then gives you the amount of time it's going to take to shoot the picture. And if you've got locations in you then have to allow for travelling to location and travelling back from location. So you eventually end up with a picture that's going to take let's say 10 weeks. Right, you then can then do a budget, x number of people, or if it's a location picture you have to allow for costs on location, hotels, feeding etc., and with your accountant you can work out then what should be the actual cost of the picture in what is called below the line.
SC: Please define that for the sake of our [listener].
RP: Below the line is the actual running costs of the picture, above the line is the costs of the story, the writer, the producer's fees, the director's fees and your principal artists. The minor artists come below the line under the cast budget. You've then got your finishing costs which is really below the line but is budgeted separately. So having arrived at your below the line costs the producer can then add above the line costs. In other words if you've got Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor, it's going to be a lot less if you've got an unknown playing the lead which can sometimes happen. So having got to that the producer can go ahead with the companies making the picture to carry on.
When you're doing the budget you very often have no idea who's going to direct it, but then going back to the previous director, Dick, who I can't remember now, he was such a practical director, having done one with him I realised on the next film I did with him I could tighten up the schedule. I knew he was shooting a lot faster knowing the way he worked.
Then after that the production manager is always thinking the day ahead. By 10 o'clock in the morning I reckoned my day had finished. Then I'd start to think about tomorrow's work. I'd go on the set two or three times, but providing all was going well by 10 o'clock that day was done.
2. Locations and unions
RP: You always had all your movement orders to work out, if you were going on location, whether you were going abroad, or whether a daily location for studio. You had to lay on transport, you had to arrange for trucks to be loaded, catering, numbers, scenes, getting permissions. In those days, I'm going back to 1955, 1960, the production manager did a lot of most of these things themselves. These days you have location managers that can go out and arrange locations and be with the unit the whole day in case any problems pop up. I mean you may have police problems and things, but in the early days, the PM was in the studio, out the studio. I think it's a good think having a location manager because you've got somebody on the spot the whole time, so if anything went wrong, if the police came up and said look here you're blocking up the roadway, he was there to sort things out. As I say, that's come in since 1960 I would think.
SC: Apart from that, you were available for all those things as a production manager but of course also if any sudden unforeseen thing turned up then you would be the person to sort it out.
RP: Oh yes, you were there for all sorts of things, you were also there [for] any union problems, you had to sort out with them.
SC: There used to be a system of pre production meetings between the company which you would be one of the representative or perhaps the representative and the union representatives to discuss what was your requirements and what could be done in terms of the actual agreements which existed then.
RP: Yes, you always had a pre production meeting on all pictures which was basically a good idea because the unions, it was all unions - ACTT [Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians], ETU [Electricians Trade Union], NATKKE [National Association of Theatrical Television and Kine Employees] - all there, they could ask questions and you were there to answer them. Occasionally you had problems and it was a question of sorting it out. Sometimes the union would insist on more people than the actual picture required, but on the other hand eventually it was brought in that you had to be, I think you had to be 27 ACTT. But they could be in different grades. At one time you had to have 4 camera, 4 sound.
RP: Yes, but it was eventually varied which was a lot better because sometimes you wanted 2 cameras or something and maybe you only wanted, for the sake of the picture it might have been just a small set picture, you maybe only wanted two assistants and not 3. But by that system it was much more practical, at least from the PM's point of view to work the picture.
SC: Sure. Of course that was partly associated with the nature of equipment, as time has gone on equipment has got more manoeuvrable, lighter, easier to handle and not requiring so many technicians.
RP: That's right. When I said just now that you reckoned you could do 3 pages a day, that didn't always apply because say you had a crane shot of somebody on a staircase scene coming down from a landing with the crane following the person down the stairs, across the room and out the front door, well I knew that shot would take all morning. And that day I would probably put down, in the script it was probably four lines, I knew that shot was going to take all morning, so in that case I would probably put just that one page down for the day.
SC: Those are the sort of shots that are very difficult to learn to estimate, and dialogue scenes of course are very easy to estimate the timing of.
3. Antonioni and Blow-Up
RP: I remember on Blow-Up which Antonioni [Michelangelo Antonioni] directed and that was all made, well there was eventually a studio set but that was all made on location up in Notting Hill Gate.
SC: And the park scene, where were they shot?
RP: That park scene was shot down in Greenwich. There's a row of houses opposite the park in Greenwich where the art director built a different front of it to match the film. But what I was going to say about budgets was we did a budget on Blow-Up. I always reckon the budget I did with the art director was the true budget, what it was going to cost below the line. And I remember we did Blow-Up, MGM said oh no, far too much. The accountant, the accountant I should have said just now, he and I got down and reduced it down to what MGM said. We both knew it was going to cost what we first said, so roundabout three quarters of the way through we'd reached the budget and of course we had to go on and it ended up pretty much what we said in the first place.
SC: There was a problem at the end of that picture wasn't there. Didn't Antonioni shoot something other than he'd originally scripted?
RP: Well, not quite so much but there was a scene in the nightclub. We were going to shoot it at a nightclub in Windsor, then we decided to have, I've forgotten now, two or three weeks lay off while Antonioni saw, well he had seen the rushes but he was also getting a rough cut. Then it was decided to build a set at MGM instead of shooting at this one near Windsor, something to do with the script or the fact that the singer wasn't available - a combination of things that we had a 2 or 3 week lay off for that.
SC: How did you get on with Antonioni, did he speak good English?
RP: He spoke quite good English. He was a little bit of a cold fish, he very much kept himself to himself. When I got the script I think there was 76 pages. So I sat quiet and said eventually well when are we going to get the rest of the script. He [unintelligible] said that's the script. I think I actually had to work out a schedule with him on that. Of course he knew what he was going to do and what was in the script was maybe half a page and he said well I think I'll take three days doing that, because he had it in his mind.
SC: It makes life difficult though for the production manager.
RP: Yes and also for planning, because we were shooting as I say out at Greenwich and when one has organised the next locations and things... He was a bit tricky. On the other hand again he all - on I won't say nearly every shot but - he had two cameras and probably three cameras turning. Even working in - we had a little studio in Notting Hill Gate which was David Hemming's place in the story - and he had a small room, he'd have two cameras going.
SC: Really? It meant an enormous amount of rushes. He saw his rushes.
RP: I think he did. I don't really remember, I'm not sure about that. Maybe he spent the weekend seeing it.
SC: That's another problems you have on location isn't it about rushes. When you're some distance away you have to organise somewhere where the rushes can be seen by the unit.
RP: Yes you can do, but the unit seemed to drop out on some pictures, especially on location. The cameraman goes and the editor goes and probably first assistant goes, and if there's some make-up problems they might go but if you're on location the unit is rather keen to get home. Local location I'm talking about.
4. Changes in the industry
SC: In your long experience what has been the main changes do you think have happened in your sphere of working in the industry since the days when you first came in as a very... as a runner practically.
RP: I suppose it's the lighter equipment, certainly silent generators, because in the old days, shooting at night the problems one had from neighbours complaining of the noise of generators. Silent generators are one of the main things.
SC: There were great problem for the sound people, everybody.
RP: Yes, everybody that's right. I mean you had to stick the generator ages away for sound and often had to post sync because of it. Zoom lens, I think is a good idea.
SC: Now it's used as a multi-purpose thing.
RP: Often you don't have to put down tracks which takes time. Walkie-talkies for the assistants and to the office.
SC: It's amazing how far you can go with walkie-talkies, what a range modern walkie-talkies have.
RP: Yes. And also with the throat mikes too. You can shoot actors far away and get good sound on it. Recently [unintelligible] and now you've got computers and things which the accountants use which [unintelligible. And also you're shooting more films on actual locations, rather than building sets in the studio. Whether it saves money I'm not awfully sure, because some times it's easier to put up a four-wall set in the studio than to shoot on location where you've probably got to get equipment up about 4 stories high to shoot out of a window when you could shoot it in the studio in a day, it probably takes three days to shoot it on location. But that's one of those things to do with the director. [Laughter]
SC: A tremendous amount of stuff is done now on real locations. Actors have told me that they find that rather good because it gives them more of an atmosphere than possibly even the best sets in the studio.
RP: It probably does from the actor's point of view. On the other hand you've got to put up with sometimes extraneous noises and everything's got to be post-synched anyhow.
Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 3
MGM-UK in the late 1940s where he was a second assistant director
1. MGM Borehamwood
RP: And then after that I was offered a job at MGM at Borehamwood, which was just getting themselves organised.
SC: That was a new studio wasn't it?
RP: Brand new studio, yes. I can't remember what it was called before it became MGM.
SC: Amalgamated, I think.
RP: Dora Wright was the production manager and Donald Wilson was first assistant, and I'd worked with Don before the war. There was three of us second assistants, John Street, Dennis Peteer [?] and myself. Freddy Young [Frederick A. Young] was on the payroll.
SC: Was Young the cameraman?
RP: The cameraman, yes. Alfred Junge the art director, they were already there but it was right at the beginning because I remember my first job was going onto stage 7 with a couple of prop men and it was full of office furniture. I had to allocate that was a desk for that office and that was a producer's desk and so on and the prop man was then putting all the furniture into the various offices.
SC: I think on the history of that studio if I can add to your memories of it, I think it was built before the war, but it got bomb damaged during the war, and I'm not sure if it was ever used until MGM took it over immediately after the war.
RP: It certainly wasn't used as a film studio. I know on one of the stages, 5, 1 was told they used to be, have aero-engines or making aeroplane parts. I think they were also making mock up planes for putting onto fields to make it look like an air drill to delude the Germans, so I was told.
SC: That's very likely because a little way away, The Thatched Farm, do you remember Thatched Farm?
SC: That was the place which was used in the war for manufacturing all sorts of things, that were dropped in France, funny things like explosive horse dung. I remember some art directors worked there so it seemed natural that Amalgamated, MGM studios might have been used during the war for similar purposes.
RP: Yes, there certainly weren't any films made there and the first one in there was Brighton Rock, with Dicky Attenborough [Richard Attenborough] playing the lead and the Boulting film.
SC: Now who did what of the two Boultings [Identical twins Roy and John] on that?
RP: That I don't know because I had nothing to do with the film. They only built one set there, why I don't know, but I remember that was the actual first set built on the stage at MGM.
SC: What did you actually first work on at MGM?
RP: Well, Donald Wilson left to go to Pinewood and got involved in Independent Frame which was then just coming in at Pinewood with David Rawnsley who was in charge of Independent Frame, so he went to join them. The first film coming in was an Eddie Dryhurst [Edward Dryhurst] film called While I Live with Tom Walls. Freddy Young lit it and Dora made me up to first assistant on that.
2. MGM in the forties
SC: Can you say something about Dora Wright because it was unusual in those days, well I suppose it still is, to have a woman as a PM [Production Manager].
RP: I think there was one other who's name I can't remember. I think Dora was with the Crown Film Unit and I think she worked for Victor Saville either during the war or before the war and that was how she became associated with MGM. It was right at the beginning and they were taking on staff and Ben Getz was in charge of operations.
SC: Oh yes Ben Getz [?], from Hollywood. Quite a character.
RP: Yes, he was there for many years until eventually he left and Matthew Lehman [?] took over. While I Live was the first film to be shot on the stages.
SC: Can you remember what you got as first assistant?
RP: When I went there I got £11 a week. Incidentally on Corridor of Mirrorsfor some unknown reason I got £15 a week. When I went to MGM I got £11 a week, then they made me up to £17 a week, then as first assistant up to £25 a week.
SC: That was quite a good wage in those days.
RP: I'm sure it was, yes. At that time I was living in Kenton, which was quite a handy journey, come in on the bus in the morning, I didn't have a car then. After that MGM loaned Freddy Young and myself out to Twentieth Century Fox for a film called Escape with Rex Harrison at Denham. Freddy Young used to give me a life down to the studio every day.
SC: That must have been nice. He was a nice man. Did he tell you any stories about his own experiences?
RP: I suppose I got to know him at MGM being on While I Live because I didn't know him before that. Escape was directed by Joe Mankiewicz [Joseph L. Mankiewicz] and this was really his first film as director.
SC: Mm because he had been purely a writer.
RP: He and Freddy worked out a system where Freddy would suggest the set-ups and Joe concentrated on the directing the artists. Freddy would say we'll shoot from here an I think we want a close up on there, etc. So that was really Joe's first film and he probably learnt quite a lot from Freddy.
SC: So who was he directing in that?
RP: Rex Harrison was the lead, I've forgotten who the girl was in it [Peggy Cummins]. We had a location down in Devon, the Moors. Frank Bevis was the production manager, Freddie Fox was the American representative.
SC: This from the John Galsworthy play, Escape was it?
RP: I suppose it was, it was a prisoner story.