Sarah Erulkar 471
Sides 1 and 2
Interviwee Sarah Erulkar,
Interviewer Rodney Giesler
Rodney Giesler 00:00
This is an interview with Sarah Erulkar, recorded by Rodney Giesler on the ninth of March 2000, for the BECTU oral history archive, in whom the copyright of this recording is vested. Well we're starting and perhaps could I ask you when and where you were born, Sarah?
Sarah Erulkar 00:23
I was born in Calcutta. My parents had to come over to England, when I was five, my father got a position here in a shipping company, Indian shipping company,
Rodney Giesler 00:36
What was he doing out there, was he working for a shipping company?
Sarah Erulkar 00:39
Well, he, no, he was originally a barrister. But he was one of the people who helped defend Gandhi and he was one of the... junior on the team that defended Nehru and Gandhi and Jinnah and could not get any work after that in, in, in the law world, you know RG: he was blacklisted? SE: He was blacklisted, yes. And he was, eventually, he was offered this as a kind of, you know, a hopeful beginning as he had been to England before, he'd been to university here at Cambridge. And so he was asked whether he'd like to go and help set up a shipping company, Scindia Steamship Company, a branch of it in London RG: Was that the Indian colonial government, I mean they were anxious presumably to get rid of him weren't they at that time? Well, no, it was a straight offer from an Indian company. Just, you know, he was one of the people who could speak English well, and he had a good background. So they sent him over. RG: And when were you born? SE: 1923 in Calcutta, and at five years old, we came over to England. And it wasn't good (laughter). I mean, quite honestly,
Rodney Giesler 02:03
Tell me about it.
Sarah Erulkar 02:04
Well, we were niggers, we were called niggers quite often, I've seen my father turned away from places like the Cafe Royal, you know, and we had not many friends. So we were very much, you know, involved with each other as a family, which again, wasn't very good. There weren't many... RG: Where did you live when you came here? SE: We first, we arrived, we lived in Streatham and that, in a way was the best thing that happened. Because we were sent to school, where there was (a) wonderful headmistress called Miss Lefroy, who apparently was a famous person, I didn't know. But you know, she was, she, she liked us (laughter). And that was a nice rare thing. And we could feel this, all of us. RG: That was a local school in Streatham? SE Yes, but after that, we moved to Kensington. And vaguely you know I went through the St Paul's, kind of college, girls school, St Paul's system.
Rodney Giesler 02:59
And you had a brother as well, didn't you?
Sarah Erulkar 03:00
I had a brother and sister. My elder sister is four years older than me, she was St Paul's. She had a very unhappy time. She, I mean, I was five, she was nine, which is an awkward age to come over to England. And she wasn't, she didn't adapt very well. And she eventually ended up by not really liking being an Indian at all, and certainly not liking being a Jew. That was the other thing - we were Bene Israels. My brother, again, he had a bad time, he was a year younger than, than me. And he used to be spat on by the local kids, you know, that kind of thing. It really wasn't a good thing. And quite honestly, the best thing that happened to me, I think, was joining the film industry. Next best thing was coming to Hampstead (laughter) which was very relaxed... About colour and religion.
At school did you have many white school friends or not?
Sarah Erulkar 04:01
Not many, and none of us had. We weren't very, I wasn't very close to anybody. And they used to, you know, sort of suddenly start things like, you know, "Why don't you have times have a bath to get that colour off". You know, I can remember that kind of, as I say, I didn't have it nearly as badly as my sister did and, or my, my brother did. RG: So you had a rotten childhood really? SE: I didn't enjoy it. And I remember very little of it apart from these little bad things (laughter) you know, I don't remember a lot. We had good things as well. You know, I mean, there were people that you would meet who were absolutely loving, you know, and very caring. But there were so few Indians in England at that time. I think people forget that now. There were very, very few. Most of them were attached to India House. So we were a rarity. Years later when I was going round with Peter, a girl - I used to wear a sari a lot when I was older - and when I was going around with Peter and went down to where he lived, I remember being told that one of the girls there had said "What on earth is she doing wearing an evening dress all day?" It was that rare, you know, to see a sari or an Indian woman. RG: Did you have any Indian friends at that time? SE: No, not really. In fact, I had none, no Indian friends until I went to, to Shell and met Rachel Judah (?), who was also an Indian Jew.
Rodney Giesler 05:40
Tell me a bit about your Jewish background because my knowledge of Jewry is very limited. I mean, I, I know the Ashkenazis and I know the Sephardics, but the Bene Israels, are they an Indian branch of Jewry or what?
Sarah Erulkar 05:55
They were meant to be one of the lost tribes, they landed up on the Malabar Coast, and were shipwrecked, according to legend, and were adopted by the Hindus, the local Hindus. Fortunately for everybody, there was, you know, the same number of, equal numbers of males and females (laughter). So, they got married each, and, but they became absorbed in the Hindu thing, except that they used to have the Friday light. And this was found by a wandering Jew, who inquired about it, discovered the history and then started converting them back into Judaism. But I may say my father, my father was very anti-religion of any kind. He said that religion had ruined India. And he refused to bring us up in any religious way at all. I know nothing about Judaism or Hinduism, or Christianity or anything. I've never read the Bible from beginning to end. He really was very, very strongly against
Rodney Giesler 07:09
I think most people share my ignorance, you know, that Indians are Indians, they're not Jews. SE: Yes. RG: Europeans, you know, identify Jewish people as Europeans.
Sarah Erulkar 07:18
Rodney Giesler 07:19
With often very definite physical characteristics. SE: Your Middle East, yes.
Sarah Erulkar 07:25
No, it is strange. I mean, that there is this thing about Indians, they they have, in people's minds of the picture of an Indian, at this antique emporium where I'm working at the moment, there's a woman who's now 90. And she kept on saying, "of course, you're not Indian. Don't be silly. You're not Indian". So I said, "Why do you say that?" She said, "You're the wrong colour." So I said, "For goodness sake, you look at a Scandinavian and you look at a Southern Greek, you know, and they're different colours." There's a huge range of colours in India, people forget that. They sort of have a kind of, you know, a Nehru kind of picture. And they forget the
Rodney Giesler 08:13
huge range of colours in Africa.
Sarah Erulkar 08:14
And in Africa. Yes. RG: Even among the Bantu. SE: Yes. Yes.
Rodney Giesler 08:21
Yes. Anyhow, you, you went through school, and you went to St Paul's School, so obviously you were pretty brainy.
Sarah Erulkar 08:31
No, I really wasn't actually (laughter). RG: Was it highly selective to get in, in those days? I know it is now... did you have to sit an exam? SE: Yes, we had to sit an exam and everything, but I don't know why, but I certainly wasn't brilliant. I was in, I was in the top stream, but I was the bottom of the top stream, if you know what I mean. I was very good at the things like English literature because I, I must say this, my parents were marvellous and they used to take us to the theatre, to Shakespeare, we used to go to Stratford on Avon and spend a week there going to the theatre, they were determined we were going to be cultured, if you like, in the English form, as well as, but not very much in the Indian form, which was sad. And but that that was great, it was a great beginning and I learned about you know, I got very knowledgeable and attached to English literature of any kind.
Rodney Giesler 09:37
What about your language upbringing? Your childhood language, was that English in Calcutta?
Sarah Erulkar 09:41
No, no, I didn't speak English when I came here. And we were not only given, you know, tutoring in English, but also we were given elocution lessons. Again, he was a strange man, my father (laughter), I wish I'd realised it when he was alive, more, you know, he was determined we weren't going to have this kind of Indian accent you know this, singsong thing, he hated that he didn't have it RG: What language did you speak as a child? SE: Marathi.
Rodney Giesler 10:17
Did you still remember it?
Sarah Erulkar 10:18
No. I mean, they, funnily enough, cut off an awful lot of our background because they wanted us to be not strangers in this country. And I think they overdid it a bit. We didn't go back for, till, till after the war,
Rodney Giesler 10:34
SE: which was crazy. RG: You were, what, 16, when war broke out?
Sarah Erulkar 10:38
that's right, yes. I was in London, and evacuated, then evacuated to Wickham Abbey, which was dreadful (laughter).[...unclear] A real snob school, you know, really awful.
Rodney Giesler 10:53
Did you get a lot of stick again, for your colour and Jewish background?
Sarah Erulkar 10:56
No, I learned how to stand back from, the Jewish thing no, the number of vac people from Germany who'd come over, and were at school by then, had got absorbed into the English system. And, but no, it wasn't, it wasn't that bad, it was just a kind of peculiar snobbery, which I couldn't, and kind of, you know, "what did you do on your holidays?" you know, "Well I was walking down the road, and there was this man following me" that kind of story, it was all they had a terrible summer holiday that, you know, that kind of situation, they were just boring. Frankly, I was bored there. But... RG: Did you stay there all through the war? SE: No, I had just had one year and then begged my parents to take me out. And so I went to Cambridge at the age of 17. To do my Intermediate from Cambridge, which, which I did, I was accepted at Bedford College, London college, which was evacuated to Cambridge at the time. And they would only take me if I did sociology, as an, as an honours degree, but which, in fact, was marvellous, because it was because of that degree I was accepted in the film industry, and it was by Shell.
Rodney Giesler 12:12
All through the war, presumably your father was working for the shipping company? SE: Yes. Yes. RG: I would imagine, you know, highly busy and SE: Yes. RG: That was what, involved in shipping, military personnel and so on?
Sarah Erulkar 12:24
and, and a lot of, you know, sort of goods I mean,
Rodney Giesler 12:32
imported goods from India?
Sarah Erulkar 12:33
Yes. I mean, what, what's it called? Not military ships, but RG: Civilian, cargo ships? SE: Yes, and whatever yes, from India and taking to India when the time came obviously, when the Japanese got involved.
Rodney Giesler 12:52
So, the fact that your father was was so unreligious I mean, when all the awful things about the concentration camps came out, you didn't feel a particular horror of this, did you, any more than a normal human being?
Sarah Erulkar 13:08
No, I should think as much as normal. RG: No sort of Jewish solidarity or anything? No, no, I, I get uptight (laughter) when people start criticising Jews. I mean, I, it's still there, you know, I mean, inside me, but that's mainly you know, because I react to prejudice of any kind.
Rodney Giesler 13:30
So you graduated from Bedford College with your sociology degree, when would that be - just after the war?
Sarah Erulkar 13:37
In 44. And I'd been wanting to go into films from about the age of 14, either cinema or theatre, whichever.
Rodney Giesler 13:47
What grabbed you about movies and wanting to be in them?
Sarah Erulkar 13:51
I just don't know, you know, but I was grabbed and that's what I was aiming at. And I got an introduction from my professor to Rotha and also to Korda. If I remember rightly, can I tell you his story about Korda, I went down to see Korda, I think it was Denham. RG: This was Alexander Korda SE: Alexander Korda, and I arrived on this train and we got out at the stop for the station. We all got out. They were all, as I was then, slim, long black hair, well longish black hair. And you know they, we all, they all looked exactly like (laughter), I walked through and realised they were casting for the extras for Cleopatra. And you know they, I couldn't, I couldn't get through to Korda, they kept on saying "no, no you go this way dear" you know, RG: You were up for the part were you, as well? SE: That's what they thought. But anyway, I eventually got to see Korda and, who was very nice, very charming, but patted my hand and said, "There, there," you know, wished me luck, but really didn't help me very much. And Paul Rotha, he, believe it or not, told me to go and learn how to pack films. So I said "Pack films?" So he said "yes, go into a library, or into a laboratory and learn how to handle film. And then you can think about going, becoming a film technician" which is the most ridiculous advice I think that anyone could give, but there you are. That was the way, women weren't wanted, not the colour, not being a Jew, being a woman, you know.
Rodney Giesler 15:41
So you eventually ended up at Shell.
Sarah Erulkar 15:45
I, yes, I got two replies, one from Shell and one from Crown. And the Crown one came four days after Shell. So I went, went for the interview at Shell and, and was accepted right away. My life would have been very different if I'd gone to Crown. I've never have met Peter. Well, Edgar Anstey was at Film Centre, and Wolcough, who was a wonderful man. Alex Wolcough, he really was a lovely man, he really, he was the one who really accepted me.
Rodney Giesler 16:20
And there was no, obviously discernible prejudice?
Sarah Erulkar 16:24
Not, not in the slightest. They, their idea was in a way to train me and then to send me back to India, which never happened. But which was, I think, what, you know, their whole thinking was based on that.
Rodney Giesler 16:43
And so you were accepted by Shell. What was your first work? What did they set you to do when you started?
Sarah Erulkar 16:50
Well apart from learning how to join film, I was sent, quite strange, I was sent to, because they didn't know what to do with me, it was very odd. There were quite a number of women there, Kay Mander was just finishing there. And, Anne Womersley who did most of the fruit films that they did you know... Anne Womersley
Rodney Giesler 17:15
Sarah Erulkar 17:17
That's right (actual spelling is Womersley). Yes, yeah. But she was, I worked with her a bit on shooting apples and things, you know. And Kay Mander was just finishing in fact. But there were a number of people and the Unit was managed by Betty Lariat (?) Betty Lyrid (?) Did you, have come across her? I mean, she was, she was, she should be people should talk about her. She was a great lady, you know, she just took over the Film Unit and looked after it. There was no production manager. She was the head of the secretarial originally, you know, head the office staff. And she just looked after everybody.
Rodney Giesler 18:04
Now what year was it? About 1946? SE: 44. RG: They were still involved in a wartime filmmaking programme? SE: Yes. Yes, that's right. RG And they were at Shell Mex House then?
Sarah Erulkar 18:14
Shell Mex House room 101, yes.
Rodney Giesler 18:17
So you learnt everything, cutting room work and?
Sarah Erulkar 18:21
yes, RG: all the sort of boring jobs. SE: And they sent me to an army projection school. Goodness knows why, but I went to learn how to project films with a group of soldiers down in some obscure southern suburb. And this is all with the bombing, the V bombs were coming over, I think at that time. And they were as surprised as I was, you know, to get, everybody kept on thinking Miss Erulkar meant Mr. Walker, so Mr. Walker was always expected, but anyway RG: Did you feel vulnerable at among all those? SE: not in the slightest (laughter) they were as horrified and kept their distance as I did, you know, they really were sort of very young and very, I suppose they were 18, 19 year olds, you know,
Rodney Giesler 19:14
So you learnt how to lace up projectors,
Sarah Erulkar 19:16
But they didn't, yes but they wouldn't teach me how to wire the mill up (unclear). They said no, no, somebody will always do it up. I didn't know how to change a plug, it was absolutely crazy. But anyway, it passed, you know, 10 days of my time and then I came back and was made assistant to Geoffrey Bell, which was again, a wonderful thing to happen. Because he was, he was a strange man, but you know, he was very vibrant, very inventive. And he didn't want to handle film. So he was working on the AOSB (unclear) film then, do you know, the War Office film and it was all, had all been shot, RG: all sync sound? SE: sync sound - and he just handed it over to me and told me to get on with editing it. So you know, the first bit of real film thing I did, I was just handed a huge amount of sync 35mm and told, "edit it". And that really was a wonderful beginning. He was like that, he didn't... he'd like to stand back and organise things in his head and everything. When we went... when we were carrying all these huge cans of film, I'd, he'd give me the whole lot, he'd say, "take all that load, and he'd pick up one and tuck it under his arm, and I go in my sari, traipsing after him with about six or seven 35mm cans, and he'd slam all the doors in my face as I went. It was the best training in the business. I learnt how not to be a woman (laughter) It was good. No, he didn't treat me like one, you know, when we when we had drinks together and things and you know, he was relaxed, and that was fine. But professionally, I wasn't a woman. And that was, that was wonderful, best training.
Rodney Giesler 21:15
A marvellous training, because I mean, you were taught a broad spectrum of work,
Sarah Erulkar 21:19
Rodney Giesler 21:20
and to have all these things, rushes thrown at you and having to learn how to cut them with a synchronizer and making the sync marks all the time and so on must have been a tremendous,
Sarah Erulkar 21:30
it was great. It really was. I mean, really, that was, in a sense, when, for me, the sort of really happy life began, it really was, I was very lucky to get there
Rodney Giesler 21:47
The day came, presumably, when you were given your first film to direct.
Sarah Erulkar 21:52
The, it came by chance again. I mean, so much of my life has been luck, you know, the, I was going, my father was going back, this was 46, 46 yes. The war was over. My father was going back to India to sort things out there. And we went with him, my mother, my sister and I. And they said to me, at Shell, you know, Burmah Shell's quite interested, we've informed them you're coming, they're going to look out, you know, look you up and everything. They were wondering whether you would consider making a film jointly with us. And that's how I got going. I made Lord Siva Danced.
Rodney Giesler 22:44
Now, that was a very famous film with with the dancer Ram Gopal
Sarah Erulkar 22:47
That's right, yes.
Rodney Giesler 22:49
Tell me how it all came together.
Sarah Erulkar 22:53
The, the discussions about what film to make, I mean, they just had an idea, a film. It just emerged eventually, they wanted one, an Indian dancing and Ram Gopal was their was the most popular dancer there. He was young and beautiful at the time. And I went down to Bangalore to see him. And we got on well, he wasn't originally going to take part in the film, just his, his group. But, but eventually he decided he'd do the final dance in the film, the Lord, the Siva dance. And it was, it was again sort of sheer luck, wonderful luck. And, but I'd never been in a studio, except to see Alexander Korda, before. And there was I directing a film in a studio. I didn't know. RG: Where was the studio, in Bangalore? SE: No, in Bombay, Bombay. Yes. RG: In Bollywood SE: Yes, in Bollywood, what is now Bollywood. But you know, I didn't know the crew. I didn't know anybody. I was given a couple of assistants from Burmah Shell. Just, you know, people who belonged to Burma Shell, one of whom was very nice, one of whom was there because he was learning the business so he go in at the top. You know, I mean, he was on that level, and was very vain and uncooperative and didn't like working with a woman. But it was a success. The great horror came when we'd finished shooting and they had a big party, which was lovely. And then they decided that they were going to show all the rushes to everybody (laughter). Crazy, you know, can you imagine all of the critics, everybody, were brought in to see it, and all Burmah Shell. It was, it was terrifying. But it went down all right, and that was fine
Rodney Giesler 24:57
Tell me how you actually went around. This is your first film as a director. How did you go about making it? I mean, did Ram Gopal put on a performance for you? And then you worked out in film terms, how you were going to shoot it, how did it actually happen?
Sarah Erulkar 25:12
It happened with my, but having to learn obviously, to start learning about what Indian dancing, I mean, the history of it, the legends of it. And the different areas of it, I mean, that I chose, as you know, four different areas of dance for different - geographical areas I'm talking about. And it was just talking to to to people like Ram Gopal, who's a very articulate and intelligent man, you know, we, he, he helped me work out what the dances should represent and what, why they, how they came about, I mean, how the dance structures came about. And from that, I just, I just did the shooting, that's all I could do. Later, a year later, Ram Gopal came to England, with his company, and then I was able to so to speak, put in all the infill, you know, between the dances, all the, the legends that they were representing the, the, what the gestures meant, what the expressions meant. And, again, that was a lucky thing that he came, and he stayed in England and worked here.
Rodney Giesler 26:38
I remember seeing the film years ago at a film society when I was about 17, or something. I've still fairly clear memories of it, you know, with all the hand gestures,
Sarah Erulkar 26:47
I mean, it was all so new then to people. I mean, I made a film years later, I mean, 20 years later, on design and steel. And the, one of the designers, I went to Holland, to shoot, a wonderful, articulated, animal, steel animal that he'd got, which was in the museum there, Eindhoven Museum. And he, when he discovered that I was the one who'd made Lord Siva Danced, he said, "I sit at your feet" and like you he'd been, he'd seen it at university at about the age of 17, or 18, or something. And it had hit him you know, and and that's wonderful, wonderful, to be told things like that. It's not a brilliant film, you know (laughter).
Rodney Giesler 27:35
No, but I mean, the majesty of Ram Gopal and so on, and the elegance and the fluidity of his performance, I mean, that was captured on the film. And I suppose it was a recording in some ways, but I mean, you put your own interpretation on it, with the sort of cultural meaning behind it, it builds it up into a story. And I find this whole thing very ironic because you as a child and a teenager, were if you like, purged of your Indianism, by your parents, and yes, when you marched into Shell, they said "Ah, a real Indian, we'll go and send her to make a film about India. SE: Yes. RG: And you knew nothing about India, effectively, did you? I mean, you had to do an awful lot of research. SE: Yes. I mean RG: You had to work your way back into an Indian culture that you'd left.
Sarah Erulkar 28:18
I mean, when you when you say purged, you know, they didn't want me, as so many did, to deny that I was Indian, I mean, I was Indian, more than I was a Jew, you know, to them, I was an Indian. I mean, that's what my parents did tell me. But they did not tell me enough about my background, my, about India itself, and never took us back there. For various peculiar reasons, but, you know, they they just wanted us to sort of, and yet they didn't want us to get married here and just... ridiculous, quite ridiculous.
Rodney Giesler 28:58
Ram Gopal was a different area of India anyway, one tends to think India is one country, but it's no more a country than Europe is.
Sarah Erulkar 29:04
Rodney Giesler 29:06
And so he was probably of a different culture anyway.
Sarah Erulkar 29:08
Yes, oh definitely, yes, absolutely. Yes. But I also made a film while I was there on coastal craft, it was a sort of magazine, you know, one of them, the film magazine episodes, so to speak, and that I thoroughly enjoyed again, it was a lovely thing, and that was total documentary. You know, about boats going up and down the coast. Yes, and carrying tea or marble or whatever they would carry, you know, and I had a documentary cameraman with me, an Indian, and it, I enjoyed that enormously. It was great. RG: You spent how long in India at that time? SE: About four months altogether.
Rodney Giesler 30:01
Did you feel yourself at home there or?
Sarah Erulkar 30:04
I did, actually, yes. I mean, strangely strangely at home, but I have you see, every time I've been back, mainly on film work. I mean, it is, it's where I belong really. RG: Did you get back into the social idiom quickly? SE: Yes, well I'm not, I'm not always accepted. I mean, people think of me as being Anglicised, which I am inevitably. And there's a certain amount of resentment about that, you know, but but, you know, I, I'm an Indian (laughs).
Rodney Giesler 30:38
Now you came, you came back and you had had Lord Siva Danced completed. Then came the next film. Which was what, do you remember?
Sarah Erulkar 30:48
I think it was the Farnborough film, or detergents, no it was detergents. I made a film called New Detergents. It's, it's all it's all a long time ago now. But I think
Rodney Giesler 31:02
yes, they were very new things then, I mean, this would have been the late 40s.
Sarah Erulkar 31:07
About 47 I started I think on that, yes.
Rodney Giesler 31:13
And that was a totally different form of discipline, the science, whatever, you know to dancing and you've gone from the arts side to the science side, you had to understand the chemical nature of detergents, presumably,
Sarah Erulkar 31:28
which was very exciting again, I'm using microphotography and slow motion photography, and all those things which are now so common, but at that time weren't, and, and trying to dunk a duck, I think I told you this story did I? You know, if a duck gets detergent on it, as well, as you've seen from these dreadful, newsreel things, about seabirds, they lose all the oil from their feathers, and they can't float anymore. And so to demonstrate the power of detergents, I dunked a duck into detergent (laughter), they put it on the water. And this wretched duck fought hard, fought back and wouldn't sink. So we did it in the laboratory eventually, but it does work in fact. They don't suffer, they come out, they give them a bit of a, you know, hosing down and let them rest and the oil comes back naturally. But at the time, I don't think I was popular with the people around me, they thought I was being cruel
Rodney Giesler 32:31
It's a typical Shell image, you know, ordinary, everyday but very compelling. And very informative.
Sarah Erulkar 32:38
And exactly, I mean to the public this says more than showing slow motion shots of what happens to a drop of water if you put a touch of detergent and a drop of detergent in it. You know, they just, the penetration of the of the detergent does. It's so much more. It catches your mind, you know, when you see a poor little duck struggling to stay on the surface. I assure you there was no cruelty
Rodney Giesler 33:09
You still get the animal rights people banning films
Sarah Erulkar 33:15
It went to live a very happy life on a farm.
Rodney Giesler 33:20
That was presumably one of Shell's typical teaching films.
Sarah Erulkar 33:24
Yes, yes, RG: I mean it wasn't selling detergent or anything. SE: Well, it was introducing the idea of detergent. That was the, it was the beginning of the new detergent era, era which we now take for granted so much. RG: So what, the Farnborough film followed? SE: and then the Aircraft Today and Tomorrow, or one of those, I made two of them. They were not at Farnborough in fact, they were at Radlett but they were at the air show. RG: So you had to learn about how aeroplanes flew presumably? Yes. RG: Well you had a technical advisor I imagine? SE: Yes, indeed. And it was very much, again, it's something I very much enjoyed. Again, amazing, you know, that, you go down to an airfield, and you have this woman in a sari or a skirt, whatever it is, you know, roaring around with a camera crew, shooting aircraft, I mean, it, you look back on it, it really was all nonsense, even today, it would be a bit of nonsense. I mean, even with all the Indian names you see on television, you know, it's it's still surprising, then it must have been quite, quite bewildering actually.
Rodney Giesler 34:39
How were you received by the pilots?
Sarah Erulkar 34:42
Very well, very well indeed. I used to, they used to greet me very, very nice. I mean, they, you know, that that was it. I mean, there was no time for anything, and anyway, but I mean, I was in at their briefings and I was watching when they were flying and that was it really. I followed the people from Miles Aircraft back to the Mars Aviation. And, you know, followed them through there, but that, that was, that was the only one that I really got to know that
Rodney Giesler 35:19
Had Peter come on the scene by this time?
Sarah Erulkar 35:21
Oh very much so, he was my assistant on the, on those films and the Miles when we went to, up to the Miles Aviation at Mars Aircraft, and went in Miles. Miles Madison was it? RG: no, Marathon? SE: No, two engine RG: Gemini? SE: Miles Gemini, that's right. I remember that I was sitting in the front with the pilot and Peter was at the back... No, I was in the back with Peter, that's right and Beadle, the cameraman Sidney Beadle, was in the front with the camera. And Peter was terrified, it was the first time he'd been up in a plane since his crash in the Air Force. So it was, you know, quite a traumatic thing. I didn't know that at the time. But he stood it out quite well, but I could feel this kind of tension. And fists clenched. RG: Was he a good assistant? SE: Oh, he was he was very good indeed. He accepted graciously working for a woman? Oh, he was marvellous. No, no, he, he'd never had any, I mean, that was to Peter's credit, he never sort of really had any feelings about that. By that time, he was also in love with me so that helped, you know (laughter). RG: (Unclear: And you with him I hope?) SE: No, no, not really. We were sort of getting together when we, he worked with me on History of the Helicopter. He did a bit of, not all the time, but some of the time. And we were getting together then. But that was a year later. Yes, 48, no it was 48. RG: When did you get married? SE: 50. But we started living together in 48 so in fact
Rodney Giesler 37:18
How did that go down, particularly with Peter's family?
Sarah Erulkar 37:21
Oh no, let's not go into that (laughter). RG: Enough said then. SE: I mean his siblings - fine, lovely, I got on well with them, we became friends and stayed friends. But his parents, they they did everything they could to stop stop us getting together. And when Peter finally told his mother that we were going to get married, she made the classic remark that "I can see the attraction dear, but can't you keep her as a mistress and find somebody more suitable to marry?" to a classic kind of upper class... RG: They were a Catholic family? SE: They were Catholics, which also didn't help. I think you know the story about Peter's father when I first had, went to a dinner party there. RG: Could you tell it to the tape recorder. SE: It was first time I really had a meal at Peter's parents' house, there was a lot of us there, a lot of people I knew as well, but a lot of very tough, anti-semitic friends of theirs. And one of them was sitting on Peter's father's right, I was on his left. And this, this other woman called Rosemary, I remember, she said, she started talking about the Jews in this country. Now this was 1948, soon after the opening of the concentration camps and all that. And her, Peter's father said to her, "Of course Jews are the sewage of this country." I mean, those are his words. And Peter, who's sitting next to me on the other side, started, you know, sort of... I kicked him hard. And I said sweetly "I don't actually agree, but then I am prejudiced because I am a Jew." And there was this wonderful silence, startled silence over the table. And Peter's mother actually did say the famous words "Some of my best friends are Jews." But it was, you know, it was the beginning of a sort of strange relationship. Peter's father, I never got on well with, he used to make terrible remarks about coloured people, about Jews and things, which, it hurt quite a lot. His mother, I became very fond of, and once she was a widow, she was, she and I got on extremely well and I really loved her dearly, and she loved me, as she told me when she was dying. So you know, but I'm afraid, his father, I really had no feeling for at all.
Rodney Giesler 40:14
Anyhow you were living together at this time and both working at Shell and Peter presumably graduated to being a director fairly soon after that, did he?
Sarah Erulkar 40:22
No, he took, it took a long time, he came in at a bad time, he also worked with somebody who was quite obstructive... (to RG) mention name? RG: Yes. SE: Denis Segaller, who, they were working on, on sort of various kinds of projects, and it was quite a, he would send Peter off to do a lot of research in libraries and things and, you know, just do everything himself. He had... The unit was full anyway. And frankly, it was only when Peter told them that he'd been offered a job by Transport. Edgar had moved to Transport by then. RG: British Transport Films. SE: that they eventually said, "No, no, don't, you know, you'll be a director writer," ...he'd done a bit of directing here and there. But it took a long time, it was after we were married. But I remember, again, the first time I saw Peter, I can still remember, it was so extraordinary, because they were interviewing a lot of people. And we were all in one big office. Charles Sylvester, who was then the production manager, was interviewing these people, and they came in. And I can still remember, this young man coming in with his shoulders raised very stiff. And the interview went on, I didn't take any notice, I was doing expenses or something, sitting at a desk, and then he, the interview was over and this young man got up again, very stiff and rigid and walked out, looking neither to right nor left. And as he left, Charles Sylvester said, "There goes a hawk-eyed young man." And that has stuck in my mind. I didn't know that I was going to become involved with this hawk-eyed young man. But just the first first time and, you know, we had a good, good life. We really did. We helped each other. We've, when we won our major awards, we won them at the same time, the BAFTA Awards. We rarely work together, only at the end when we made two films in India. And we did some... a script on something else and Steel. But apart from that, we, he was science and technology, I was more general films, educational, whatever.
Rodney Giesler 42:50
I believe, I remember you once telling me that when you were living together you you lived on a commune with Donald Alexander. How did that come about?
Sarah Erulkar 42:58
Peter, Peter did, his his sister and his brother were in this huge house, which is, I think, National Trust, Barwythe, near Whipsnade, and they bought it all together. They each had a small flat, Peter just had a stable room, but the families had flats and Donald was there. And I think he gave Peter his first introductions to tell him where to go to get jobs. I was, I didn't really, by the time I was living with Peter, Donald had had gone he'd moved on with Budge, Budge Cooper and the children. But it was a strange set-up. I only went there for weekends most of the time, so it was not... I wasn't totally involved. But I met some good people there. RG: Do you remember who they were? SE: There was Max Martin who was part of the Macmillan Publishing. You know, there were there were people who were just ordinary working people, most of them, Bill.... my memory has got so bad these last couple of years. But Bill McMillan, that's right, he was also, his name was Bill McMillan. He, I mean, he worked in the city, Edward Morren, who was Peter's brother in law's solicitor. And they had no feelings about colour or religion. I mean, they were very relaxed about things, they were, it was the first time I'd really come across a group that was like that.
Rodney Giesler 44:54
Donald was a great sort of collectivist person, wasn't he? I mean, he founded Data Films. SE: That's right. RG: which was again a big co-op.
Sarah Erulkar 45:02
That's right. Yes, yes.
Rodney Giesler 45:03
You know, he was an extraordinary man. I mean, as you know, he was my first boss.
Sarah Erulkar 45:08
Yes, of course at Coal (National Coal Board Film Unit) Yes. (End of Part 1)
Rodney Giesler 45:13
Anyhow, Sarah, to continue your career at Shell, you and Peter were making films and you weren't yet married. And you wanted to get married. And I think there was a problem wasn't there?
Sarah Erulkar 45:26
Yes. When we, when we went to discuss it, I mentioned this to Charles Sylvester, who was production manager, he told us that there's a absolutely firm ruling in the Shell company, that if two people in the same department get married, either they go to, one of them's got to leave that department, or one of them's got to go. And it inevitably had to be the woman. No question of it. I think, if I could lead this on to what I feel is very important in this, I think a lot of this was Arthur Elton. Arthur, did everything he could to stop me being a director, he did not believe in women directing, he wanted them to the editing room. Years later, he told me I should be putting Peter's slippers out. I mean, literally those, that that's what he said. And he just was determined that, you know, I should be out of the place. He didn't really in a way want to know what, didn't know, didn't want to know what I could do there apart from these odd, fairly minor films that I've been making there. RG: Have you any idea why he thought that way? SE: I have no idea why, I have no idea why, Edgar (Anstey) to some extent had the same feeling, not to quite such an extent. But he certainly many years later at a party that we'd given, he turned around he said, "Sarah, you should be doing this all the time instead of bothering with films." I mean, incredible. It was it was incredible. Both Peter and I couldn't believe this. But, I was at that time, when we did announce this, I was just starting making what was my I think my most successful film at Shell, apart perhaps from Lord Siva, but that was a different, in a different category, that was History of the Helicopter, a film I remember with great pleasure and has, as you know, it still goes around funnily enough in various places. And Peter was my assistant. He was for quite a lot of it up and shooting in Wales and people, places like that. They didn't at that time obviously know that we were living together, we kept it fairly quiet. But it was a, it was a great film, won me my first major award, which is the first prize at Venice. And then 12 years later by mistake it was sent to a second space - and what's it called? - space festival, aeronautical and space festival, festival, film festival at Rouen where it won the Golden Wing, but that was 12, and was 12 years old. And it was a good film to to finish a tour with, but despite all that, despite the fact that it was going so well, they they kicked me out. I stayed until the film had been edited. And then I was out. RG: Who was your producer on these films? SE: Arthur Elton, mainly Arthur Elton, and when I, when I did Lord Siva Danced that was Geoffrey Bell. That's why I, the whole idea of my directing a film in India came up, but Arthur Elton was was in charge then. RG: And on the detergent film as well? SE: Yes, he was on the detergents...
Rodney Giesler 49:05
So although he had a prejudice against directors that didn't stop him producing you.
Sarah Erulkar 49:09
Well, I had to do something otherwise, people would have been wondering what on earth I was there for, you know, he could kick, kicked me out or, or kept me but Wolcough I think was on my side. I think he was just disappointed after Lord Siva Danced that I didn't sort of... but he
Rodney Giesler 49:34
Did you find it difficult working with Arthur Elton?
Sarah Erulkar 49:37
Terribly difficult, terribly difficult. On New Detergents, he sent me to Holland, because he decided that he wanted a whole sort of laboratory sequence. And at the end of it, he said, he said I can't see why we wanted anything to do with the laboratory. Somebody else said this and Arthur agreed with them, you know, he wasn't somebody I enjoyed working with at all. Not at all. I know a lot of people at Shell felt that. RG: Anyhow, sadly you then had to leave Shell. SE: Yes, it was a worrying time RG: And became freelance I suppose? SE: And became freelance. Worldwide took me on first, a nice female film about district nursing, which I again thoroughly enjoyed. Learnt where babies, how babies were born for the first time in my life (laughter) ridiculous, isn't it? Because I had to shoot a delivery. RG: You surely knew about it before? SE: I knew what happened in principle but not in practice you know. RG: ...the details. SE: No, exactly. And became pregnant in fact soon after that, but I did... RG: Appropriate! SE: Appropriate (laughs) I did realise, realise it was all right: RG: You worked with Jimmy Carr then did you? SE: I worked with Jimmy Carr and Peter Bradford. Yep. And then just, you know, gently went on various films, Tony Roberts at Film Centre, gave me a film for BOAC called Flying Wardrobe, which was great fun, with Richard Wattis, I thoroughly enjoyed that, it was total nonsense, RG: Flying Wardrobe. SE: Flying Wardrobe, how to pack for when you go overseas, overseas, I mean, a total nonsense film, but great fun, and we, it was done with great panache, it was really quite a successful little film, you know, absolutely unimportant. But but but as I say, great fun with Richard Wattis as the sort of main character, they liked very much. But you know, there were sort of little films, came up. And then, then I got my real first break. I went to Rayant to have an interview, to see Anthony Gilkison. And he said, "No," he said, "I'm sorry, you're too much of a bluestocking for us. We don't employ bluestockings. Sorry about that." He was very charming, but that was it. And then about three weeks later, I got a call saying, 'would I come and talk about a film? Tony Isaacs, you know? RG: I know the name, SE: Yep, he had a Unilever film. They'd had a very unsuccessful script, written by a woman director. And Unilever had turned it down. And Tony Isaacs said, let's try Sarah. And so I went there. And that was the beginning of a very good relationship with, with Gilkison. We had our ups and downs, we had terrible rows, but it was, it was good. We, you know, we respected each other's work. And I found him very, a creative producer, in a way. Strange, but, you know, I... RG: And these were all films for Unilever were they? SE: No, no, started off, this first film, The World of Difference was with Unilever. And it was successful, with Edward Williams' lovely version, of Dashing Away With, which is what I based it on, Dashing Away With the Smoothing Iron. Going through the whole thing, you know. And I just moved on from there. The other people were Balfour Films they, they also took took me on. It was, yes, it was about then, just before the Balfour films, I had my second baby. And that was 55. And I decided that I really had to give up directing for a bit because it took me away from home too much. And so I applied for a job with the Coal Board, as you know, and was taken on, and got into this marvellous team of Ralph Elton and Rodney Giesler and myself, it was again, lovely RG: We mustn't forget Alan Faulkner, must we SE: sorry, Alan Faulkner, yes, yes, yes. But it was it was again a great, and Kitty Marshall was there, always, it was a, it was a good good two or three years that I spent there, really, I didn't, you know, I was, I was frustrated because I still wanted to direct, write and direct, but I really did enjoy it. And you know, I had a lovely working relationship but but with you all, so that was great
Rodney Giesler 54:45
Donald was a tyrant in some ways, but he fostered a very friendly atmosphere. There was never any backbiting there. I never remember ever having a row with anyone there, because I'm someone who can be pretty easily ignited, but everyone was so easy to work with, I mean you know, people I was an assistant to like Geoffrey, like Ralph Elton. SE: Yes. RG: And I remember I think you cut the first film I directed there.
Sarah Erulkar 55:08
That's right. Yes, yes. RG: And that was fun, you taught me a lot. SE: Well, (laughs)
Rodney Giesler 55:14
You gave me a bollocking when I shot from the wrong angles (laughs)
Sarah Erulkar 55:18
I think this was one of good things. We all helped each other. I mean, I remember learning from Ralph, the thing... and you, you too, because you took it on and I learnt from you as well, about these big close ups, people's faces, not this sort of standing back head and shoulders, but real strong, close ups. That's where I learnt about that, you know, and as I, as I used it always, because either I think the close up is a wonderful, you know, invention if you like, or thought, but it, Donald was, what his great achievement, I think, was that he chose the heads of his various sections very well. Kitty Marshall. Ralph is up there, the other producer, Alan Faulkner as the chief director, RG And John Shaw-Jones, in his own way... SE: John Shaw-Jones, and who's the other cameraman? John Shaw-Jones, that's right. That's right. Yes. RG: He was the only cameraman. SE: The only cameraman, yes. So after that, all the others were sort of, you know, kept, kept in line. And I thought he was very good in that as as a producer, that's what a producer should do, delegate well.
Rodney Giesler 56:47
I know we're only sort of on our way through your career, but I mean, the thing that I'm constantly reminded of when when you talk about the films you made and the ones I made, it was a golden era when not only were films being sponsored, but the people making them had a clear run to make the film as they thought best.
Sarah Erulkar 57:07
Rodney Giesler 57:08
You didn't have a committee of people hanging on your tails, saying 'you've got to say this, you've got to do that', and all the great, you know, all the great nationalised industries, you know, British Rail, or Shell wasn't nationalised but it was the same sort of situation. SE: Yes. Unilever. RG: Used film intelligently, SE: Yes, yes. RG: and gave us all a chance to spread our wings. SE: Yes, absolutely.
Sarah Erulkar 57:31
No, it was, we had a lot of free play, if you like, you know, we could... And people like Lawrence Mitchell, I, you know, I didn't like him enormously (laughter) in fact I didn't like him very much, but he was, he was good in his handling of film, ideas and things. And he wanted to be inventive, people to be inventive.
So, anyway, when you
left the Coal Board,
Rodney Giesler 58:05
I went away for four years. And I, you by the time I saw you again, you were directing again.
Sarah Erulkar 58:12
This was due to Karel Reisz. Yes, he was offered a film by Balfour Films. And he said, "No, I can't do it. I've totally committed." But he said, "I do suggest that you ask Sarah Erulkar, I think she'd be right for this. I was still editing, longing to get back into directing. I was doing, I'd got Basic, by then I was doing editing on 100, A Century of Coal. That very big, Sam Napier-Bell, yes. But I was still editing. And Karel, and Anne Balfour Fraser rang me and asked me if I'd like to come and talk about it. And, again, a wonderful film to work on. And I you know, I think it was a good film, Birthright. So it sort of launched me again, RG: Birthright, what was that all about, family planning? SE: family planning, yes. For the Family Planning Unit. And, you know, sync, sync dialogue again, which was some, somehow rare in documentaries. RG: Was that costly in those days? SE: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. So that, that, you know, Balfour, I mean, I had, again, RG: She was an extraordinary lady wasn't she? SE: Strange, yes. RG: I ought to interview her I suppose sometime really. SE: You should really yes. I've got her number if you...
Rodney Giesler 59:38
She was a descendant of Balfour the Prime Minister, wasn't she? SE: That's right.
Sarah Erulkar 59:44
And she, I never really knew why she started a Film Unit but she was, she was good at it and she had so many contacts. I made a film called A Woman's Work for her which is about the history of housework and took me all from Castle Howard down to Penshurst Place and, you know, various places, and everybody who was vaguely related to the ward in some way or other so she got, you know, she got permission. I mean, she got them to agree to, to our filming there, or even took part in the filming, which was great.
Rodney Giesler 1:00:25
Did you feel at all typecast when you when you were sort of put onto these subjects, like on birth control and housework and so on?
Sarah Erulkar 1:00:31
in a way, in a way, it, I think things like, even things like Never Go With Strangers, you know, it was a woman's film if you like, a woman's subject and, but they were good subjects. So I didn't even, then, cooking - Something Nice to Eat, which was wonderful. I mean, I did have some lovely films to work on and that really was one of my favourite and worked out excitingly, as well, you know, won the award for being the most imaginative film of the year or something. RG: But was that not a Unilever film? SE: No, it was the Gas Board. That was with, that was with Gilkey. That was Anthony Gilkison
Rodney Giesler 1:01:26
You worked for Antony Barrier as well, didn't you, at one time or not?
Sarah Erulkar 1:01:29
Much later, much later, sort of we were vaguely getting on for, you know, for our retirement I suppose....Yes that was the Clifford Wheeler Award the Something Nice to Eat. Meanwhile, I'd made my children's feature which, that's a wonderful film (laughs) . The Hunch, yes, which won the Script Award of the Year. I mean, it was again, a wonderful film with, oh dammit, my memory for names, the cameraman... RG: Su? (Wolfgang Suschitsky) SE: No, no, no, lived in Hampstead down the hill... It'll come. Yes. RG: It's called The Hunch
Rodney Giesler 1:02:18
Made for the CFF. SE: Yes RG: It was one of your stories was it?
Sarah Erulkar 1:02:22
It was one of my stories. Yes. I'd been... done some shooting in Wick. And I thought it was a wonderful place for film about boats, for children. And very unlike me, again, you see I was trying to get away from the woman's thing. So we were on trawlers and cargo ships and the cargo ship - the villain of the piece, the the master - and tiny little boats. And it was, it was lovely. I had the Wick natives so to speak, were absolutely wonderful. It's an extraordinary thing. RG: Did you have any professionals in the cast or was it all local cast? SE: Oh no, no no, we had a big cast of professionals, no, no, the children, the main characters were all you know, Equity people. And we had about 32 people up there you know, the usual smallish, wonderful Children's Film Foundation.
Rodney Giesler 1:03:23
I always tried to, I wrote a number of scripts or ideas for Henry Geddes but we never really clicked, because I think those children's features were a marvellous way of getting experience in feature making
Sarah Erulkar 1:03:36
Yes, yes. Yes.
Rodney Giesler 1:03:37
They were an hour long, very modestly budgeted. SE: Yep. RG: For the Saturday morning film show
Sarah Erulkar 1:03:42
Yes, that's right. They, it was, it was good, I'd love to have gone on to do other things with them but I never did really, I never got going any more again
Rodney Giesler 1:03:53
But it was well received, was it?
Sarah Erulkar 1:03:55
Oh, it was it was well received, the only problem were the accents, in England the Scottish accents were a, were a problem. That, that had problems down here. But I think they revoiced couple of bits but
Rodney Giesler 1:04:12
Which company did you do that through?
Sarah Erulkar 1:04:14
Through Realist... now who was the cameraman at Realist? Jeaks, that that was the cameraman. RG: A.E. Jeakins. SE: a wonderful man. What a wonderful man. RG: Who produced you there? Jack? SE: Jack Holmes yes, yes, yes. He came up with me, came up and... he and I would have explored all the malts together (laughter).
Rodney Giesler 1:04:49
So that was an enjoyable time. Your film career, it is very wide ranging, isn't it? I mean, you, I mean, I called you typecast, but not really, because you've contributed your own, if you like feminine outlook and allied them to the subject. And so the women who were looking at the films, so obviously got got much more out of them than they maybe, they wouldn't have done it was directed by a mere male I don't know,
Sarah Erulkar 1:05:15
I don't know either
Rodney Giesler 1:05:17
It's certainly a contribution there. So this CFF film came in the middle of everything, did it?
Sarah Erulkar 1:05:22
Yes, RG: in the early 60s. SE: In the 60s that's right. That was really, in a way the 60s were my prime, if you like, I, it ended with The Physics and Chemistry of Water, which was totally unlike any film I'd ever made, a totally scientific film for, I thought originally for sixth year school, but in fact, they said, when I started to write the script, that 'aim it for first year university', which is, I'm not scientifically oriented, was a problem. And Peter was away shooting, so I didn't even have my local scientist around. But they sent me to a sort of private woman in Hampstead, and I think Arthur must have, might have known her, she lived in his street, in Eldon Grove, who taught me about starting from the atom upwards, and I, again it became a very successful film, won the first prize at Cork RG: And that was sponsored by whom? SE: by Unilever again. Yes, yes. That's why they used me, I think. RG: Through Gilkison? SE: No, this was, who was it through? It was through, it was through Realist again? No, it wasn't it was Worldwide, Worldwide. That's right. But I think Laurence Mitchell again suggested that I should do it. And so it came to me, that's right it was Worldwide because they made another companion film about water and biology, the biology of water, so to speak.
Rodney Giesler 1:07:07
Now, Peter was pursuing a very active and distinguished career at the same time. SE: Yes, RG: and you had two children. So how did you balance everything?
Sarah Erulkar 1:07:19
Well, Rodney let me be quite honest and tell you that my, both my children think we didn't balance things. Peter and I thought we'd done a pretty good job. We made sure that one of us was at home all the time, up to their teens, to put them to bed. And, the well you know, we always had our Sundays together, we always had our holidays together, we thought we had done a pretty good job. We had an au pair girl, again, very carefully chosen usually, and usually got on well, but both my daughters thought that I was a dreadful mother. I must tell you this, (laughter) and record it (unclear). You know. RG: The went to school locally, did they, they went to day school? SE: They went to, yes, they went to the Fitzjohn Primary and then one went to Camden School for Girls and the other one went to, the other went to King Alfred's. But I'm not going to, you know, to some extent, I was an unusual mother, a lot of my, wives of my friends used to say, well my friends, used to say that I shouldn't be working. I had this compulsion I couldn't stop it was, I needed it. And I wanted it, you know. The rights and wrongs of it, I don't know, today it would be accepted without any any murmur at all. But this was, my daughters are 44 and 47, so it was a long time ago.
Rodney Giesler 1:08:54
What you say, is this compulsion to work, I mean, I had it in spades as well. And, but I was very fortunate in marrying someone who had not got this compulsion. And you know, who was quite happy to stay at home and bring the children up. So there was never this conflict. But I can quite see that it does pose tremendous problems where you've got two compulsive workers.
Sarah Erulkar 1:09:21
Yes, Making films was everything to me. Almost everything to me. And I may say that when I had Siri, when she was a baby, I said to Peter, I mean, when she was a few weeks old, I'm talking about, and I said to Peter, that I, you know, think I'd better give up working until she was older and all the rest of it. And Peter said, "No way." He said "I married a director, and I'm going to stay married to a director." He had the same feeling, we both shared enormously on this level, you know, it was a very important part of our marriage, we not only loved each other, we also were proud of each other and what they were doing and we enjoyed being involved in the other person's project. RG: And you saw each other's films? SE: And well we, you know, scripts and things, we discussed our scripts with each other, we would discuss plans and things for the filming, who we should use, cameramen, we'd hate everybody together (laughter), we'd love everybody together. It was, it was a very important part of our lives.
Rodney Giesler 1:10:37
In all the years I've known you both, it always was a great mystery to me why you didn't pool your talents and resources and set up your own company, De Normanville Pictures or something.
Sarah Erulkar 1:10:47
We thought about it. We did think about it. And, and particularly when John Armstrong did it. We thought, 'Well, why haven't we done this?' You know, but, you know, we wanted to make films. And I think even, I mean, John was frustrated that he wasn't actually involved in the making, just as Dougie (Douglas) Gordon was always a frustrated director, I think, and I think we would have been too, I don't think we'd have been very good at it as production company.
Rodney Giesler 1:11:21
Anyway, where did we get to, Something Nice to Eat?
Rodney Giesler 1:11:27
We're still in the 60s are we?
Sarah Erulkar 1:11:29
Yes, that was, you know, yes, that's right. It's really, almost there isn't it, perhaps, you know, in, during that time, we also won our BAFTA Awards. One, we, we won one, each for a different category, but at the same year, which was lovely. Peter was winning awards all over the place, as you know. And the second one we did as a joint thing. We only worked together really on two films, Peter and his film in Calcutta, about the living, called The Living City, which won the BAFTA Award, and then my film on leprosy in South India. And
Rodney Giesler 1:12:24
Perhaps you can tell me a bit about them, how they came into being and so on?
Sarah Erulkar 1:12:28
Well, the, the Calcutta film was rather strange, it was Christian Aid, was the sponsor. And Peter had gone there to discuss it and all the rest of it. And they had a great, there was a great meeting that, it was thought that there should be an Indian crew all the time - Peter wanted to use Arthur Wooster - a total Indian crew, and they weren't even sure about Peter directing. It was then that, I'm trying to think, who was it by this time, must have been Barrier, Antony Barrier. Trying to think, it wasn't Balfour, I think it was Gilkison again, I think it was Gilkison. I think Peter was approached and he, he passed it on to Gilkison whom we both sort of trusted at the time. Anyway, he, it was then suggested that perhaps if I went as a kind of co-director plus kind of statutory Indian from this country, that we could take an Indian crew on there. We had contacts there, Peter'd already got got to know a producer in India, in Calcutta at his film in Assam that he made, 48 Rivers. So we went there very much very much in a blind sort of situation, we were there for about three months. In which time we both wrote the script together, from him, based on his treatment that he'd had accepted, and then we vaguely sort of split up our, our directoral duties, I tended to do, the children were scared of Peter funnily enough, these little kids and the dusties you know, and I mean, this sort of tall, very blonde, very hawk eyed (laughter) old man was something very alien to them and these are very poor children. We would, it was mainly, on the rejuvenation, of Calcutta, you know, starting with the bustees and going around. And it was just, so I did most of the work to do with women and children, and Peter did the rest if you like, but mainly with men and the industry and all that in India, in Calcutta. I didn't, I didn't enjoy it in many ways. Because Peter was still the main director. I mean, that was the, that was accepted. And I did tell him once that when he was hanging around while I was directing, it was rather like, making love with with a man when the mother in law's in the next room and could hear everything, you know, I just felt he was he was watching every move, every little bit. And I felt very frustrated by this and very held back in a way. But it worked out all right. It was a good film, in the end.
Rodney Giesler 1:15:56
It holds together as one film.
Sarah Erulkar 1:15:58
Yes, yes, it does. And Peter took over the whole of the, you know, keeping an eye on the editing and everything as I'd gone on to another production anyway, when we got back. The second film, The Leprosy (A Disease Called Leprosy) was the last film I ever made. I'd started by directing first in India and I did my last film in India. Peter made a film on leprosy for LEPRA, in Africa, and, and Spain. And they suggested for him to make a film in India. This started in 1980. And it took ages, ages to get anyone in India to agree that there was a problem with leprosy. The government absolutely refused. It was only when the lady at LEPRA, I really can't re(member), Joy, somebody Joy Maitland yes, got it. She RG: This was the leprosy charity? SE: Yes, the charity. She knew the Attenboroughs. And she went and talked to Sheila and Richard Attenborough, who at that time making the Gandhi film, and said, "You know, this is ridiculous, you know, leprosy is rife in India. Let's get some money for it." And they went and spoke to Mrs. Gandhi. And it was then agreed, so in 1983-ish, 84, I went down to investigate the film again, and then set it up. And I choose my crew, I thought I knew this was going to be my last film. And I said, "I want Peter as kind of, kind of co-director, but in charge of all the production. And Arthur and I, in fact, I used Ann Wooster, as well; Arthur Wooster I wanted as cameraman. And it worked out well. It's it was, it was, again, a good, good location. The film was okay, I think. RG: This was what 1980 and it was the last film that you made SE: 1984
Rodney Giesler 1:18:13
So you were coming up to 60 then.
Sarah Erulkar 1:18:17
I was just past, 23 23 I was born. So I was just past 60. But I was very much, I was having bad trouble my arthritis, my legs. And you know, a little while later that I had to have one replaced. So it was really, I knew it was the end of the line for me, for me, also Rodney, we were entering the new world of film, of technology and... RG: The video age. SE: the video age and we were coming through to, even, you could sort of feel the way ahead was, was going to be a strange new world, you know. And I felt you know, very strongly that I just, you know, I'd had a good, good 40 years or so run, and fine. So it was from 44 to 84 yeah.
Rodney Giesler 1:19:16
Well it was an amazing story. I'd just like you to go back to what you were saying earlier, and your childhood and the prejudices and so on you came across and how everything changed when you came up to live in Hampstead. How did you come to live in Hampstead, was it Peter, Peter's idea, or yours, or what?
Sarah Erulkar 1:19:38
No, it was both of us actually. We were living at the time in Chelsea. And you know, the kind of remark, and I always say really is in quotes, you know, and I came back one day to our flat with a landlady who we knew well, you know, and she and Peter were sort of inside the hall roaring with laughter and apparently the neighbour had said to them, you know, said to our landlady, "oh he's such a lovely young man, such a lovely young man, what a pity that dreadful woman's got her claws in him." You know, that kind of remark, I joined in the laughing but it hurt, you know, I could have wept just as easily. I mean, people always thought it was funny, even Peter thought these remarks were funny. Even when his father said something in the later years when we were married, like when I was pregnant, that the, thought that the children might come out striped, the baby might come out striped, I mean, you know, it hurts, you know. And so, I don't know why, but we'd sort of cottoned on to Hampstead, and we'd found a wonderful place. We'd been gazumped, one of the first gazumped, and the estate agent had said he was going to find us an equally if not better place, which he did. And we ended up as you know, in Trellis Cottage, which was wonderful. Just up the Hill, New End.
Rodney Giesler 1:21:07
I knew you when we were down
Sarah Erulkar 1:21:09
Denning Road, no, no, we had four years in this lovely Regency cottage, totally sort of isolated in, in a way because it was surrounded by council flats in a sort of, Bickersteth Hall was in front of it. But just off New End Square, and a wonderful place. And that's where I had Siri and just wish I had it now, lovely place. And Hampstead was different, my neighbours were different. They welcomed us the neighbours in New End, and you know, you met people. We just were totally different, total different world. Which is good.
Rodney Giesler 1:21:56
It was a comfortable place to spend your later years here.
Sarah Erulkar 1:22:01
Yes, I'm not sure now the hill, the hill is, is quite a blight with my legs. And I had you know, for a long time I could I couldn't walk very much, didn't participate in climbing up the hill, which is a pity because I like Hampstead. But anyway, at the moment things are all right.
Rodney Giesler 1:22:22
Can I just go back on a retrospective look on your career. And if you could tell me some of the people who really got your films onto the screen for you. I'm thinking in particular about cameramen and so on. We've talked about Jeep, we talked about Arthur Wooster. SE: And Suschitsky. RG: Exactly what
Sarah Erulkar 1:22:40
Wolfgang Suschitsky. Yes.
Rodney Giesler 1:22:43
You did a number of films with Su.
Sarah Erulkar 1:22:45
I did a lot of films with Su, yes. I think our best one was Birthright, was one of our early ones together. And I knew him, he was the first person I ever went out shooting with, as an assistant funnily enough shooting apples. Yes, just a day shooting apples with Anne Womersley, that's her name yes, w o r m, but he, you know, he, we know, he taught me a lot. And I think I'm Something Nice to Eat he had I exchanged a lot of sort of, sense of film together, if you know what I mean. Because I wanted everything in abstract you know, in that film, which is what what it is really, I didn't want shots of gungy food and people eating gungy food. So the whole thing had to be sort of done as a kind of abstract view of of food and the joys of cooking and giving people things good to eat, 'a kind of loving' as I say in the (a quote from the film) and but Su and I, yes we did do very well together, we worked together over the years very well. Arthur again, you know, in the later years, because he was very much tied up with John and people like that, earlier. RG: John Armstrong. SE: Yes. Did a lot with Peter, overseas mainly. And Arthur was great, again. He did the last film with us as I said... I was just trying to think who else, so we've left off very many other cameramen.
Rodney Giesler 1:24:44
I was just going to say as a sort of final thing - as a freelance did you have payment problems?
Sarah Erulkar 1:24:50
I was always paid less than Peter. Always. And to be quite honest, Rodney, I didn't fight. I wanted to make films and I was prepared to go in. I mean, I know this is pathetic. I've always felt a little ashamed of myself. But Peter was a top director by then, you know. And... RG: But were you also plagued by slow payers? SE: Not really no, no, I don't think I ever had that problem, can't remember it.
Rodney Giesler 1:25:27
You were also involved in some films in Scotland, at one time weren't you, health films?
Sarah Erulkar 1:25:32
Yes, it's a it's a it's a very strange story. It wasn't so much health as, if you'd like, education about life, you know. I'd been interviewed by The Guardian, and Antony Gilkison had been very upset about it, it was about my film, about pollution, The Air My Enemy. And he'd been very upset, and told me that I'd never get another job again, in my life if I went on like that. Anyway, because of The Guardian, the Scottish RG: Because you went public to The Guardian or why? SE: Because I discussed this film, and talked about air pollution and problems I'd had with various people. It was perhaps, I don't know, I didn't see anything wrong with it. But anyway, he was very, very angry with me. And told me "that was a hideous photograph of you on it as well, wasn't it?" (laughter). Anyway, the point, thing was that I got a call from the Scottish Health Education people saying that they had read the article, and would I be interested in discussing a series with them. And I met them and we got on. And I was offered this series, which I handed over to Antony Gilkison with great pleasure, telling him why I got it. It was a series of non ending films, ie, it would be about family problems, about love, about her parents got a viewpoint, that kind of thing. And they all ended with a question mark, so that they were really just to stimulate dialogue and discussion. And I went with a, with a sound man, we went over, did about 500 different interviews all over Scotland at schools, talking to children trying to find out what are the important areas. Again, a thing I, I really thoroughly enjoyed. And I couldn't always understand what they were saying (laughter) particular particularly in the Glasgow area, but we got on and it was fine. And from this, from the basis of these tapes, I wrote a series of scripts. And we collected a group of children up in Scotland. And we went through these, you know, just worked these out. It's a good good unit, Eddie... RG: Eddie McConnell, SE: McConnell, and, you know, totally Scottish crew. You know, a great thing. And the series really was quite good. We ended up doing, there were 10 of them, actually. And then we ended up by doing three on, just on alcohol, problems of alcohol, again, with interview, plus, you know, sort of being scripted out. And I found that I found that very stimulating, very interesting and very, I was very touched by the fact that they asked me, you know, it was, it was good. And then my other alien, sort of, film, so to speak, was in Korea. This was with Rayant. And it had been, very much, it was Caltex was the sponsor, they'd made several films for Caltex. And this one, for some reason, I'm sorry, Rodney, I can't remember the names again, the name of the producer, RG: What was the film called? SE: Korean Spring... John.... Oh, my goodness, it's terrible, names go. But anyway, he, the producer had been to Korea to investigate it and had come back, you know, they'd got it all lined up, found me somebody who was going to help me through it, an assistant production manager. And I went out there, via Japan. And it was really the worst location I've ever had. I was there for six weeks and it was total misery. They didn't want a woman, the particular production, young man that I had as my production assistant, just didn't, he wanted John. John was his absolute idol. You know, "why did they send a woman?" He made no bones about it. He just did not want me, we had the two Dougies, you know, Dougie Ransom, and Dougie Williams as my cameramen, nobody else from, and they kept back, they just did their thing. And Korea was a very unhappy country. It still had a lot of American military presence. There were dreadful things like, senior police beating up a kid because he had a radio. He's listening to a radio by his ear and they were saying he was listening into their wavelengths. The prostitutes there, there were many, were always been beaten up. So really was an unhappy place. RG: What year was this? SE: This was 1966ish, yes, about 1966... 66,67 that's right.
Sarah Erulkar 1:31:09
sorry, what was I going to say?