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Peter Proud: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

Film memories from Hitchcock to the Second World War

Main image of Peter Proud: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Peter Proud was interviewed by Sid Cole with Alan Lawson on 18 November 1987.

1. Early years of sound

SC: You mentioned Blackmail a little earlier...

PP: I claim a first in sound. Dallas Bower was the first person to reckon that I might be useful and he got me out on the floor as his boom swinger and I did a big recording, at least Dallas did it and we had the mike for the woodwinds and a mike for the strings and so on, and he told me a little bit about it. I am being modest when I say I don't know anything but I did at that time know a bit.

SC: At that time, the music had to be recorded at the same time as the action, didn't it?

PP: Yes. Oh, I had such a happy time and a short time with Sound Effects working with E.A. Dupont, a famous German director on Cape Forlorn, Lighthouse Pictures. What else did I do? Oh yes, typical Hitchcock, on the picture which was subsequent to Blackmail. We tried to make a sound film out of Blackmail, that business of "knife, knife, knife" and... I can't really remember anything interesting except the excitement that was universal about sound. It was quite prestigious to be in sound in that year, even if you didn't know what you were talking about.

SC: What was the next Hitchcock film you were on?

PP: Murder! or Enter Sir John but it was changed to Murder!. One of the things they did for Murder! was with Herbert Marshall. He had been on a jury and the framework of it was that he had gone along with the other eleven just men and committed, I think it was Anny Ondra, to be hanged and Hitch then wanted to start Herbert Marshall's conscience working and his voice was a voice, you know, so typically of Hitchcock... and everybody else was photographing plays, with a microphone, you know and Hitch was into it now and here is an example worth talking about: if you are shaving, you close your lips don't you? So if you hear the sound of the scraping and the voice you know that that's his conscience. So we had a playback and I claim that as the first playback recording. I may be wrong, but I was holding the mike - a little bamboo thing - and he was scraping away and his wife says "You know that girl didn't kill him at all. I shouldn't have...".

SC: That was pre-recorded?

PP: Yes and then played back and we were re-recording the scrape on the other - and the band, of course.

2. Gainsborough Studios

PP: Sinclair Hill asked if I would like to come on his film. He already had a famous Art Director belonging to Pabst called Ernö Metzner, and he said "Well, I thought you ought to come and help Metzner, because it's a very Cockney English film called My Old Dutch and I don't think Metzner was familiar with the sort of ambience we expect on this film. Perhaps you could guide him". And I said "Well in what capacity? Art Director?" and he said "Well, no, he would be the Art Director."

Well, in that capacity I was the lowest of the low when I got there because he could see that I was drawing - you know, competitive manhood: he put Hensley and all the other members of the Gainsborough Art Department into blowing up his film because he couldn't draw. You see, you didn't have to draw to be a designer. He was a very clever man, wonderful with camera tricks. He put me on to doing these blow-ups... no, the rest of the staff were doing blow-ups of his lousy drawings, and I was doing breakdowns - snuff-box on mantelpiece, practical light switch and all that. That's the boy's job you know.

I had been left alone at this stage by [Alfred] Junge, who had been building a house in Berlin, and I had been alone with quite big pictures as senior member of the Art Department. So I had a little... everybody seems to have begun their married life in Belsize Park. I did - I had a little office there, a drawing office a T-square and so on, rather dusty...

SC: You mean in your flat?

PP: Yes, I went back and did the whole bloody film again right from scratch - "if they were going to treat me like that!", you know. So then Sinclair Hill asked me to come with Ernö to see to see Mick [i.e. Michael] Balcon to talk about the production. So Ernö had to take me to that because it was official, you see. I had my roll of drawings and would check them in the car rather like this as we drove to Shepherd's Bush. Then we went in and without any briefing from me or any rigging of the situation, his stuff was thrown out by Sinclair. They said "You have something, haven't you, Peter, to show us?" I said yes, going slightly pink, and I opened the drawings. They said "This is what we want, yes, that's it".

SC: You mean that you had designed, re-designed, on your own... you'd done everything yourself?

PP: Yes. So he was brought to Lime Grove to work for Alfred [Junge] in Alfred's department, recognising for the first time, which they should have done long since, that he wasn't an Art Director, he was the Supervising Art Director so Ernö was put in a subordinate position to Alfred at Lime Grove, and I was employed at Gainsborough.

SC: You say you drove to Lime Grove? Were you working at Gainsborough then at that time? Gainsborough at Islington?

PP: Yes at Islington - we used to call it Siberia.

3. VE Day with Alexander Mackendrick

SC: You were saying, Peter, that you met Sandy [i.e. Alexander] Mackendrick on the bus by coincidence, just after you'd been saying that the one person you wanted to meet now you were demobilised and back into civilian life was Sandy, who you'd worked with in Italy. So what happened after that?

PP: It was also a very hilariously neat day to be demobilised. Because it was VJ Day.. I beg your pardon, VE Day day, Victory in Europe. Or was it VJ? I can't remember. We had some drinks, we found friends, then we went to Paul Rotha's place in... Soho Square, was it?

SC: Yes, it probably would have been Soho Square - around there, anyway.

PP: ...and we climbed up the building, both of us, side by side, because there was something Sandy wanted to show me, and I can't remember what that was either!

SC: You obviously had been enjoying whatever it was!

PP: Yes! And I remember there was a member of a club that overlooked from the roof, Piccadilly Circus. It was on the corner of Haymarket and Coventry Street, and so we got there with some difficulty...

SC: What happened meanwhile at Paul Rotha's?

PP: Oh, I don't know, it's just a hazy memory. I met Paul at the door, and that was it. You see, hitherto Sandy was a documentary person, he had done films for advertising working for JWT [J. Walter Thompson] and he was really a late starter. I mean I had a complete career, a marriage, and family behind me and he was just beginning. I think I told you that we were both at Hillhead High School in Glasgow and neither of us were really Scotsmen.

SC: Well Sandy was half American anyway.

PP: Yes, and I was English really.

4. Launder and Gilliat

PP: I saw my old friend David Rawnsley who was working for Launder and Gilliat. Launder and Gilliat were long, long friends of mine. They used to have the same carriage with Val Valentine every morning to St. Pancras, and now of course Frank and Sidney were prosperous. Frank had a party at Queen's Street in Mayfair and I was asked and then offered a film. I said "I can't do that, Rawnsley is your designer", and they said, "Now that's none of your business", and in any case David Rawnsley was setting out in what turned out to be Independent Frame. So I also got landed with Al Parker in the same party as an agent, who did nothing whatsoever for me except to take my money - because I already had my first post war job which was Green for Danger.

SC: That was Launder and Gilliat, wasn't it?

PP: Yes and that also gave me an almost historical chore which was to open Pinewood Studios and snatch it back from Crown Film Unit, who were leaving miserably in twos and threes as we moved in. I was the first person there of the techno sort and I built for Green for Danger and of course being so long away I threw the book at them with the hanging miniatures and models and process work and so on. But they were pleased with it.

SC: It was a very successful film, as I remember.

PP: Yes, I think it was.

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Proud, Peter (1913-1989)