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Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

An editor at Ealing; observations on directors and Michael Balcon

Main image of Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Sid Cole was interviewed by Alan Lawson in 1987.

1. Early work in film

SC: The first job I had was an extraordinarily silly job to give someone who had no idea really even how films were made. I became a reader in the scenario department which meant I came in every morning, picked up a pile of short story magazines - there were a lot of short story magazines then including one very good one which went on for a long time but now no longer exists called the Argosy and I used to sit there and read through these magazines all day long never finding one I thought they really could make into a film. I read all the scripts and story ideas that were sent in. I did this for some months and then went onto the floor as a supernumerary assistant.

My very first job was to be the sea. This was in a film called The House of Unrest which was directed not by Sinclair Hill but by Leslie Howard Gordon who was the script editor whom I'd been working for as a reader. This film took place on an island and consequently in almost all the scenes there was a background of noise. In those days there wasn't any dubbing. All sound was recorded direct. So the sea had to be recorded at the same time as the dialogue.

This was handed to me as my job. Just as in the theatre I had a sort of drumhead and pounds and pounds of lead shot and I stood at the side of the set enthusiastically moving this drum backwards and forwards to produce the sound of surf. I always remember, the first few times I did it at the end of the take, how was that to the sound recordist who was Dallas Bower, and Dallas coming forward saying oh it was fine except the sea was rather too loud. So I moderated it after that.

I was going to go into the camera department and somehow that didn't work. What I did do though was to start learning something about editing because Thorold Dickinson was editing films there at that time and I became an assistant to him and started to learn about how films were really made. [...]

The next thing that happened was a film called The First Mrs. Fraser which Sinclair Hill directed, but not for Stolls. That was done at the Wembley Studios and I was a floor assistant on that. [...] But the interesting thing technically about The First Mrs. Fraser was again the fact that all sound had to be recorded direct and since there was a cabaret sequence in The First Mrs. Fraser, the music for that had to be recorded of course at the same time. Which meant that the editor, who was Thorold Dickinson had to prepare elaborate plan with the director as to whereabouts the music was when any particular shot was being taken. Also various cutaway shots of people just listening and so on at other tables had to be taken to fill in any discrepancies between the planned length of the music behind the dialogue and what actually happened.

2. Basil Dean

SC: An assistant theatre director who had worked with Dean directed a production that I'd played in at the London School of Economics, a play by Hans Toler called Masses and Man. As a result of this when Dean was making a film of Galsworthy's Escape, and there were night locations in Hyde Park corner this chap said to people who had worked on the play at the school with him if they wanted to earn a little extra money during the vacation doing crowd work. It was two nights at Hyde Park Corner sitting by the Achilles Statue and all I remember about that, apart from getting I think one pound a night which was rather good in those days and getting free food, was hearing the sound recordist saying that take was no good Mr Dean's voice was all over it. This was one of the earliest sound pictures which Dean directed and of course directors in those days were still used to the idea of talking to the artist while they were performing and he was still doing that even though there was sound being recorded.

Dean was a great theatre director. He was very brusque sort of character. He wasn't very good at doing films. He was very brusque with artists. I remember for some reason having to go up to Shaftesbury Avenue where he was rehearsing a play and give him a message. This was some time in 1936 I imagine, when I was at Ealing. I had to wait in the stalls while he was completing what he was immediately doing and I was absolutely amazed to hear the way in which he addressed star artists, people like Edna Best. She was a big star in those days. I was astonished at the way really he was treating his stars like dirt.

3. Production techniques: synchronisation

SC: Of course you had sound being freed from the tyranny of everything having to be recorded at once and the idea taking its place that sound could be put on afterwards or even recorded beforehand. Post sync and pre sync was fairly well developed by the time the Second World War started.

In editing, which is the thing I am particularly familiar with there were considerable advances. Synchronisation of sound - the sound record and the visual record - only existed in my early days in a very basic form. When I started editing at Elstree for instance there was no system of synchronising every foot of sound to the equivalent foot of the picture so therefore when you got the rushes apart from the clapper at the beginning, you had to wind through on the synchroniser and make with a china pencil a series of synchronising marks on both sound and picture.

It was some time before rubber numbering - I'm not sure that Thorold Dickinson wasn't one of the innovators on this he may have got the idea perhaps from America. This was an elaborate code so that each foot of both records could be imprinted with edge numbers so that you knew every single frame. Otherwise it could be very difficult when you started cutting things and then wanted to put bits back. When you were an assistant you had to write on every single little frame or few frames that had been cut out where they didn't have the rubber edge numbering on it, you had to write on it in pencil. And of course there was always one little bit of film you could never find, the gremlins really decided that those vital frames in the middle of take 3 of slate number 193 were never going to be found again.

AL: What about changes in the cutting room equipment in the pre-war days?

SC: Well, I don't think they were very great as a matter of fact. We still went on using, as far as I remember, up to those days the upright moviola machine which made a considering clattering noise and with take up spools which you fed the thing off through a synchroniser through the moviola and back on to the synchronizer and wound everything on by hand. And with a foot pedal release and starter and things like that. We were still using those moviolas right up to the War.

AL: You worked at Stolls, you worked at BIP and Ealing.

4. Ealing, Wembley and BIP Studios

SC: The interesting thing about working at Ealing was that in its day it was the most up to date studio in the country because it had been built, although much smaller, on the model of RKO in Hollywood. It was connected with RKO to begin with and therefore it had been planned. It hadn't just grown like most of the older studios including Elstree which had just been added to bit by bit as it were. It really was designed. The concept of the stages being opposite the background workshops, like carpentry and electricians, meant that it was a great labour saving. Also it was the first place to have mechanically operated doors to the stages and also to have a console control for almost everything that was happening on the floor. Which I don't think happened at the other studios. Wembley was quite a nice studio as I remember but in terms of equipment, for instance, I remember Sinclair Hill had a tracking shot on The First Mrs Fraser, in a big hall or some such set.

In those days, on a shot like that the microphone boom used to be stuck on top of the camera. I remember Gunther Krampf, the cameraman, refusing to allow this to happen. He wasn't going to make any concession to sound. Consequently, instead of having that one continuous shot, it had to be done with an off-scene microphone boom hanging over the set and the tracking shot had to be substituted by a series of movements and stopping, and then the dialogue and moving on and dialogue and moving on and dialogue which was a very bad thing. I suppose there has always been a resentment in those days about sound because sound nearly always seemed to have a chip on its shoulder in those days because they felt or were made to feel like intruders into what had been the sacrosanct world of the silent movie.

5. Ivor Montagu

SC: Ivor was an intellectual maverick, a fascinating person, so skilful and accomplished in so many ways. In reference to what he did at ACTT, one admired his speaking ability. He would launch on the most elaborate paragraph with sixteen subordinate clauses, all of which were grammatically correct, and just when you thought he'd totally lost his way in this verbal labyrinth, he would triumphantly come out at the end with the correct tense and the appropriate verb. I've always tried as far as possible to do the same thing [laughs]. I really owe that to Ivor. Of course he was a great enthusiast for films and a great enthusiast for films meaning something.

He worked on the script of a film on which I was associate producer at Ealing in later years, Scott of the Antartic. He managed to get a script out of a mass of material which other writers like H.E. Bates had tried to do and had failed. He was a great man. He founded the Film Society which in those days was the only way, apart from the Avenue Pavilion and one or two cinemas like that, where you could see a lot of films, particularly Russian films and films which would never have any kind of chance of being shown commercially. That was very largely Ivor's idea.

He also founded the world table tennis federation which was one of the first, I think the first sporting organisation to put in its constitution that nobody should be barred from playing for any reason of creed or colour or belief which was unusual in those days. He could have had a longer career than he did as a filmmaker - he was an associate producer for Micky Balcon on some of the early Hitchcock films at Shepherds Bush and he made some very entertaining short films himself, Blue Bottles, and I forget the other titles - but his main interest in life was political, working for causes, particularly in the thirties the anti fascist cause.

He devoted his life much more to politics than to movies. He had so many interests and was so full of energy that he did manage several careers simultaneously. But perhaps not as much in films as he could of done if he had been less interested in other matters.

6. Leslie Howard

SC: Finding myself working for Leslie Howard on a film called Mister Pimpernel Smith ["Pimpernel" Smith] in 1941 at Denham. That was particularly interesting because Leslie Howard had a great sense of style as an actor. He was starring, producing and directing. He was a very pleasant man to work with. He was also very practical and down to earth. He had not directed before as far as I remember consequently he liked to surround himself with all the technical aid he could summon. I was made supervising editor on the picture and he asked me to be on the floor all the time so that he could ask my advise or if I had any suggestions about the way he was shooting the film I was immediately available.

Even when he was directing a sequence which involved music he had the music director there. I found it very stimulating to work with Leslie. As I said he had a great sense of style. I think that picture and another one, First of The Few, which he later did, on which I was also supervising editor, I found very rewarding because Leslie had considerable style both as an actor and a director, that one took this as the keynote to the way you edited the film.

If one took the rhythm of Leslie's performance that was the rhythm that you did as an editor to carry the whole stylistic approach through into the editing and final film. And of course that was a contribution to the war effort in the sense that "Pimpernel" Smith was all about a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing people from the Nazis.

It was very interesting working with Leslie. I was also supervising editor of First of the Few. [...] One interesting story on First of the Few was that when the film was finally edited, William Walton was doing the music. Leslie, for some reason, could not be at the running of the film for Walton so he told me very elaborately what he wanted from the music. So after we had the viewing I went up to Walton and repeated what Leslie had said as accurately as I could. Walton listened very carefully and said Oh I see, Leslie wants a lot of notes and he went away and wrote The Spitfire Fugue.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
'Pimpernel' Smith (1940)
Blue Bottles (1928)
First of the Few, The (1942)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)