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Peter Proud: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

Memories of a career in television and his foray into commercials

Main image of Peter Proud: BECTU Interview Part 2 (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. The Adventures of Robin Hood 1

SC: That is where, as you say, I came in and the first time I think met you, Peter, I might have met you personally before but I don't think so - I think it was when we became associated on the original black and white Richard Greene Robin Hood that was the first time we worked together and it was very interesting and exciting wasn't it?

PP: It was indeed.

AL: What did you actually do on Robin Hood?

PP: Well, Production Designer. I think Art Director was the word then, but I treated it as production design. Sid had a very brief meeting with sandwiches and beer. Each episode, which is after all a third of the length of a film, had one hours' talk. That's what was so marvellous. One hour's planning. We did the no-luncher with the beer and sandwiches and we went through it and we got the thing on the rails.

SC: Everybody was there, you see - I'd be in the chair and everybody could say their piece, and bring up any problems, so everybody went on the floor knowing exactly what everybody else was about. And apart from that there were discussions and the great thing, Peter, I remember you did was the whole concept of the construction of sets on that, where a wall is a wall is a wall, and an arch is an arch is an arch. Perhaps you could explain something about that.

PP: It was something that I would like to put forward as thoroughly and clearly as possible. What happened was that it was a pretty ancient studio and we had the most ancient of the stages

SC: That was Walton-on-Thames?

PP: Walton. Was it Walton?

SC: Yes. Nettlefold originally.

PP: Yes. And the roof had no strength for hanging things, and the Master Carpenter was very jealous about the flooring, which was tongue and groove boarding - so this, for some reason, made me realise that what we wanted was mobile pieces called modular units. And we made about 36 of these with great difficulty because of the tight budget - never really had quite enough wheels. It wasn't just a doorway, it might be a buttress that could be a doorway, if you used the other buttress. So you got a doorway which could be two buttresses and so on.

We also had one or two princely pieces which in what we called the Higher Arts Unit, where there was an interior to that into which, on a system of arithmetic or geometry, the stairs would fit in there - you see, everything fitted together. I learned this from [German studio] Ufa - when my maestro was Alfred Junge, who used to tell me that at Ufa they wouldn't allow you to breach the system of arithmetic, so that everything that was in stock fitted, and you could reassemble things in different angles. So, in memory of dear Alfred and so on, I set this thing up. The result was that we couldn't reduce the number of prop men, because the humping, as we called it, remained the same. We couldn't reduce the number of stage hands, in fact we increased them - we didn't have one stage hand, we had three standbys. And they were busy all the time, the stags.

It became a combination of films, television and the stage in the sense that the unit could go off at 12.30 or say 1.00 and come back at 2.00 and Sherwood Forest had vanished and been replaced by a large banquet hall in one hour. They could do it on the stage, so why can't we do it in a film studio? That was my attitude and that's how we did it.

2. The Adventures of Robin Hood 2

PP: The standbys included one painter, and one plasterer. When the pieces were put together the plasterer moved in made a good joint, and the painter followed him and it looked pretty solid. You see, sometimes a doorway would be part of a four arch unit, so that when the door opened what you saw through was rather more than you would expect on quickie telly. You know, it was solid looking, wasn't it?

SC: Yes, fantastic.

PP: We then built a castle outside and later on Portsmouth Road. And it went on for... nothing, nothing was destroyed. Nothing was burned. I used to park my car behind the place where they would be burned and walk through it to make sure that they hadn't got hold of anything. They loved to burn things. Studio Managers were the guilty parties. So this went on for 39, 39, 39, 26...

SC: 143 in all, 4 years.

PP: At the end of it there were more units than when we started, but nothing, nothing was destroyed.

AL: It meant that shooting could be absolutely efficient as you say, because through the lunch hour, a director could even slightly change his mind and it would only take a matter of quarter of an hour perhaps to realign.

PP: Sid tried out quite a number of tyros, you know. So for them they would have a four wall set with recessions where possible, and he would say "Where do I shoot this?" and I'd say "Where do you want to shoot from? You can shoot from any angle you like - it's all on wheels". So I would then give them all a little nudge to show what I meant - so if you want him to come in the doorway across the fire, this goes out, and we'd roll that away. It was so fascinating that the cast used to join in - we hadn't enough wheels, so we needed them, there was a wonderful rep feeling to it all.

The big trees of Sherwood Forest presented a certain problem, but what we did was various local people, some of them working with us, told us of large trees lying on village greens you see, and so we got a low loader and drove over in the dark with tubular scaffolding and put the scaffolding inside the tree, the hollow tree. The poor children lost their tree overnight. It was loaded up on the wheels and onto the low loader. One of the had a big hole in it, it was called by the woodsman a c***. Apparently this is the correct word for a hole in a tree! And Little John put his head through that on one occasion, I remember. But with these holes we put real branches in and it was a pretty damn good tree. And with the wheels again, it was about five feet across and one could turn it round, it was very effective. We also had bits of forest floor which modulated together. They went through a reverser so that you could go down and up, or down and down. This had ashes, chicken wire and grass sods on top and they were watered and the grass grew beautifully in the heat.

3. Buccaneers 1

PP: We then did a thing called Buccaneer. You know, in the old days a ship had a rather pregnant look, so that below the water line the deck head would be curving inwards, and above the waterline it would be curving in and then changing direction in the form of an 'S'.

So we built units which clunked together. It had to be built well because we intended to use them again. The side-effect is that it was good quality scenery can be implicit - it had to be strong. So we could, in a matter of seconds, produce a big gun deck for example. The guns were fired by elastic.

SC: The guns recoiled when they fired?

PP: Yes. They recoiled over the elastic, that's right. Then for the weather decks, we had a high poop for the pirates. You took the high poop out and rearranged the thing, so that was the Government sloop that was chasing the thing. We then had a deal with Victor Magutti who I'm afraid has passed on now, whereby when, say the Admiralty sloop was close-hauling the Galleon, you would shoot the sloop with the blue travelling matte backing and then reassemble the things as a galleon - so the sloop would raid itself! We also had a perfectly wonderful quarter-full size galleon on Staines reservoir, so that was plated in. We had huge sails made of skin ply which were billowing before the wind. They looked damn good because they also hid all the lamps which were swung around by the stage hands. There was a sort of atmosphere of... wilful will-power among the stage hands that responded to all the fun of it, and everybody seemed to display their ability, which is a wonderful feeling.

They kind of responded to all the fun of it really. And everyone seemed to display their ability. It is a wonderful feeling, isn't it?

4. Buccaneers 2

SC: There were some real exteriors down at Falmouth, weren't there?

PP: We had the 'Piquod' converted to a galleon.

SC: The 'Piquod' had been put down for the Herman Melville story. What was that called?

PP: Moby-Dick. The ship called the 'Pequod' had ended up in Cardiff and the great problem from a budget point of view was getting it round the Land, which was their word for Land's End, and round to Falmouth. That was over £300 - quite an item! But we did it. We got it to Falmouth Boat Construction and they altered it from being a schooner and turned it into a galleon. It could do six knots on its engines, which was very handy - you don't want to wait for the wind when you are making movies!

So there was the situation - we had the 'Piquod' with a crew of four people, I think, we had our ship on the Staines Resevoir, just big enough to have three men, one inside in a very submariner situation, one doing the gunfire, one steering and one doing the radio. We had modular units which could be assembled to make an Admiralty sloop deck or a galleon deck. There was one, for example with a mast which would serve both a sloop or a galleon and nobody could argue about that, We had another set of modular units which made the below-deck cabins. I don't know what happened to Buccaneers, I never saw it, I suppose you did?

SC: My memory is very hazy about it. But listening to you talk makes me want to sample some episodes. I don't even know what happened to them, I suppose they still exist.

5. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

SC: Did you have anything to do with Sir Lancelot?

PP: Yes.

SC: Tell us something about that.

PP: Well Sir Lancelot, from the Art Department's point of view, was simply a repetition of the Norman Transitional. Norman Transitional architecture is very simple and lends itself to Robin Hood very very well. You know, Robin Hood can be placed in several points of history and none of them are right but we chose the Norman Transitional. For Sir Lancelot, there were some changes made by another Art Director, because while I was at sea with The Buccaneer they brought another Art Director in, Kellner.

SC: Oh yes, Bill Kellner.

PP: Yes. He left after a while and I returned to Walton to continue with Sir Lancelot, which was Robin Hood all over but plus armour and gothic arches from our point of view. Not much difference.

SC: The other interesting thing from your point of view, I don't know if you were involved with that on Sir Lancelot, but a few episodes were shot in colour.

PP: Yes, what they called Compatible Colour.

SC: Can you remember anything about that?

PP: Yes, there was a vice president from some so-called great American company. He spent a long time with me. Really, my attitude towards colour is to recognise that colour is adjusted by the cognoscenti to make lips look good on the screen, and that's about it as far as I'm concerned. You know, be tolerant of pink and red and pale orange and I just tried to make it look nice within that simple range.

SC: What was the idea of 'compatible' colour?

PP: You could transmit it on a black and white set.

SC: I see. You had to be careful, I remember. Who was the cameraman, Ernie Palmer, I think. He was saying on one of those colour things that everybody was supposed to be dressed in blue, but of course they had used slightly different materials, which looked all right to the eye, but when we photographed them the blues came out slightly differently. In the early days all these simple things about colour still had to be found out, didn't they?

PP: Yes.

6. ITV and commercials 1

SC: You spent a long time, many years, in commercials - do you remember anything particular about that period?

PP: I remember the Independent Television Committee or some such name, of which I was a member, where we were attempting to bring independent television into being. I was employed by the Sea Devil President of the Practitioners in Advertising - I've forgotten the exact name, a very charming man with a company called Haddons, a quite well known advertising agency. I wrote a report about the new proposed television, and that put it strongly into my mind. Although first features... I can't remember which one or how many drew me away from it, I started to get back to where I might be expected to be. As the independent television came into being, I was quite friendly with two pertinent fellows at J. Walter Thompson, both troubleshooters.

They were Associate Directors of the company, one an art director, advertising style and the other a top copy-writer. They were Percy Tutor and Bernard Gutteridge, and they plugged for me with J. Walter Thompson. Now, the silly situation is that I was talking about the job of a television executive, and we none of us knew quite what that would be. We didn't know that over 50% of J.Walter Thompson's business would be television, in the very near future.

When they asked me what about building a studio for them and running it, I then got all integrity and honest said "You know, you don't want a studio, you want to hire whatever you need for whatever it is and let the production companies have that worry, you don't want to have it." Of course I shouldn't have done that, I should have said "Oh yes, you must have a studio" and lived happily ever after running it for them. I think they were seven million pounds ahead of any other agency in their gross turnover.

However, I did do a lot of work in television and I like it.

SC: You mean commercials?

PP: Commercials, yes.

7. ITV and commercials 2

PP: I found that the younger men in it, especially the production officers, were rather young and untrained and inexperienced and I found that there was business for me as being a pretty experienced person. I mean, I had been a studio manager at Lime Grove on all sorts of different jobs. What I started to do was to sub-contract with the production companies and give them an overall quote for the scenery, the electricity and the space, which of course included my sum which was a mystery to them - they weren't allowed to know what my fee was. It acted as a cushion against overtime so if I made a balls-up I paid for it, but if I didn't and got a clean clear run through, I made good money. I was perhaps doing more than one at a time, so I was making good money for a while.

SC: Did you have your own production company then?

PP: Yes, Peter Proud Productions.

I got tired of it, really, not being a real advertising man. Michael Relph, my colleague from the thirties, asked me if I would make a film at Pinewood and a commercial, and that drew me away from it in the end.

AL: Coming back to the commercials. Can you remember any of the outstanding ones from your point of view?

PP: Caravel for Air France, I did a certain lager a lot which was quite well known. I did the Hoover Keymatic that wasn't an ordinary commercial, it was a dealer promotion scheme telling them how to sell it, and that was in colour and half an hour long. That was quite a big job - Hoovers were tremendously pleased with that.

I could see my way to cut into advertising. I seemed to have the sort of qualities that they want, the ideas and the graphic ability and the sort of nonsense side which we had. We seem to be developing a kind of infantile race. I don't know if you ever look at the Hobgoblins and things in the morning, children are being absolutely pumped with absolute rubbish. I find it really most disturbing. I have six grandchildren, no sign of them producing any great-grandchildren, but I hate to think when they do, and I hope they will produce some great-grandchildren that somebody will say "stop". This powerful nonsense drive on television I think is ghastly.

SC: To buy things that they don't need and so on?

PP: It's the sort of jokes and the sort of attitudes, the Yah Boo syndrome, so to speak. It's horrifying.

SC: Of course, in your day the commercials were much more straight forward, more hard sell, as it were.

PP: Yes.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
Adventures of Robin Hood, The (1955-59)
Adventures of Sir Lancelot, The (1956-57)
Buccaneers, The (1956-57)
Proud, Peter (1913-1989)