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Kay Mander: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988)

Memories of working at Shell Film Unit from start of career to 'Penicillin'

Main image of Kay Mander: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Kay Mander was interviewed by Sid Cole with John Sherman on 28 November 1988.

1. Getting started

SC: Kay, we've talked a lot about your early experiences in feature films, but now your real career, in a way, starts with going into documentary. How did that happen?

KM: Well, it's all tied in with the circumstances of 1938, the pre-war period, with political inclinations and contacts made through different associations. There was a very interesting Russian technician called Leontinon Plantskoy [?], who had worked with Vernon Sewell - I discovered when I read Vernon Sewell's autobiography - and he came down to Denham Studios, and was working for Warner Brothers doing research into the improvement of fine grain emulsions for...

SC: Dupes.

KM: Dupes, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And he was a very interesting man. I got to know him fairly well. He and Henry Cornelius, and Henry's subsequent wife and I used to meet and play cards and eat, and Leigh was a wonderful cook. And he was very left wing, and he interested me in politics, which I had never been interested in before. And I then got involved with the Left Book Club, and used to go to regular meeting of the Left Book Club. Which dovetailed in with certain people I knew in ACTT who also used to attend those meetings, and of course one of the leading people who used to come was Sidney Bernstein, who we all got to know. And another of the people I met was Max Anderson. I'm going back now to what - 1938-9 - no, pre '38 even. Max at that time was working with... Davidson - what the hell was his Christian name?

SC: Jimmy.

KM: Jimmy Davidson. They were editing the History of the... What was it called, John, you know what it was called...the big film, the Persian Oil film?

JS: [indecipherable]

AL: Oh yes, I know perfectly well, I'll think of it in a moment.

KM: Jimmy was knee deep in film in the cutting room and Max was his assistant. Max and I used to go into the Highlander every Friday night.

SC: A great resort of the documentary movement!

AL: I'll tell you who worked on it, Dylan Thomas wrote some of the script for it, I know the film I'll remember it's name.

KM: The Anglo-Iranian Film it was called. [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Presents A Survey Of Its Operation]

AL: That's right!

KM: Max said, "What do you want to do?" Because at this time I was either not working, or working on features. He explained to me how interesting documentary was, because you got to make your films about real subjects, social subjects, all of which sounded interesting. He said, "Well, if you come into the Highlander on a Friday evening, you'll meet everybody there, that's where we all get our jobs!"

SC: That's quite true, yes!

KM: So he and I used to go in every Friday night, and I'd buy him a beer and he'd buy me a beer and it cost us sixpence each - i.e. a shilling each for each others, you see! [laughs]. Eventually word went round that Shell Film Unit were looking for people - it was 1940 then by now - and I was introduced to Arthur Elton, and Arthur said, "What have you done?" I told him what I'd done, and he said, "Well we want a production assistant, Geoffrey Bell's making a film. Do you think you could do it?" And I said, "Yes, I'm sure I could," not having the faintest idea what it was all about, and so I started work at the Shell Film Unit.

2. Transfer of skill

Geoffrey Bell, who had already directed a fabulous film called Transfer of Power, which was quite beautiful, I'd never seen anything quite like it. It was an absolutely brilliant film, it was beautifully made and it was an absolutely clear explanation of a subject that one had not approached before.

SC: Which was...?

KM: Levers, the principle of levers. Oh God! It was wonderful!

JS: Transfer of Power - it began with windmills, and went on to the epi-cyclic gear. Beautiful film. Sorry, I interrupted.

KM: No, I'm not sure that you're right [laughs]. I'm not sure that you're right, but I won't argue with you! There were other wonderful films, there was a man called Peter Baylis, who was doing wonderful things with animation, and Frank Rodker who was the animator, who was a minor genius. They were all absolutely brilliant. And Geoffrey Bell, who was tall and had very long legs, and therefore walked very fast, he and I and Erwin Hillier - three man crew - started to work on a film called Transfer of Skill which was about people in wartime doing things that they hadn't done before. For instance there was a man who always used to make fishing rods, doing something with gun barrels and there was a - Feranntes electrical machinery and so on and so forth, were making fuses - detonators and so forth. Anyway, we went away on location, and we shot this film. It was absolutely fascinating; I carried more heavy tripods than I'd ever met in my life before! Because it was a three man crew, I learned a lot about - well first of all I had to organise all the transport, the accommodation, everything, all the contacts with the factories that we were working in, the food and so on and so forth, so it was quite a...

SC: And hump the machinery around.

KM: Well, hump the camera [laughing]. We only had a Newman, but we had these very heavy giro tripods, the big tripod was exceedingly heavy. We came back from that - I think that must have been when I got into the cutting room, because I probably helped in the cutting of that, I'm not quite sure. I was then asked if I would like to make a little training film at De Havilland's, for myself - me directing - and I said, "Yes please". That was called How to File and it was [makes action presumably] that sort of filing, it was for training apprentices.

SC: That was the first time you directed?

KM: Yeah. I drove everybody mad, because I wanted to track - they'd never tracked in documentaries before, and me coming from features, I wanted to go into big close ups on lovely pieces of metal with a lovely gleam on them, and the file going to and fro.

3. The art of blooping

KM: Shell had a wonderful cameraman called Sid Beadle, who'd been an electrician, and had become a cameraman. Stan Rodwell [...] was the chief cameraman. [...] Anyway, we made our two films for the fire service, then - on all of these one was doing one's own research and cutting and going right through to mixing, which is where I'm very indebted to a gentleman called George Burgess, who was the sound recordist at Riverside, who was an RCA man [...].he taught me how to 'bloop' which of course nobody knows about any more - painting bloops!

SC: Gosh, as late as that, were you blooping?

KM: Well, I'm only in 1941.

SC: I know, but even so!

KM: Well, some people punched them, but that made a horrible noise.

SC: Explain about blooping for the benefit of people who are not in the industry.

KM: ...Your picture was on celluloid and your sound was on celluloid too. I in order to get your film together you had to cut them. Your picture you just joined with a joining machine, or, Edgar Anstey showed us how to do it with a piece of blotting paper and two paper clips! [laugher] We were trying to get a film out in seven days at the Shell Film Unit! But when you were joining sound you did a very fine join on the negative joiner, but it still made a little noise when it went through at recording, so you had to paint a sort of - um swirl...

SC: Triangular shape.

KM: No, a swirl with black what was known as blooping ink, which deadened the bump of the join going across.

4. Micro photography on Percy Smith's Malaria

KM: After we'd made the fire service films, by which time I'd learnt quite a lot about cameras and so forth, they were making a film about malaria [Malaria] and Percy [...] Percy Smith!! [...] Shell had commissioned him to do the life-cycle of the mosquito and this that and the other, which he had done absolutely brilliantly, but they were missing certain shots that they wanted for the film. They wanted a close-up of the mosquito laying eggs, and they wanted a mosquito feeding so that you could see it's body swelling with blood and plasma coming up the tail and so forth, and a few other odd shots like that. They sent Beadle and I down to Horton hospital at Epsom, and they said, "Don't come back 'till you've got them." [laughter] It took us three weeks.

SC: And years later...!

KM: Well, no actually it took us three weeks. By this time we'd - you couldn't look in any books in wartime, there weren't any books about scientific photography, so we went away with a 400ft Debrie. We had learned by devious means that if you wanted to shoot a great big close up, you took your 50mm lens and went "voom" [makes noise in throat, clearly miming action as well] with it - with an extension tube, but of course we didn't have an extension tube so we had to construct our own. We ended up with an extension tube, the 400ft Debrie, a 50mm lens, holding an area that size on my hand. Which was quite good going.

SC: Showing the mosquitos swelling up with the blood.

AL: About an inch square, yes.

KM: Yes. But in order to - the stage was a microscope stand which you could work forwards and backwards or sideways, so that having got your mosquito in position you could line it up. [...] So we were working in the room with all these muslin covered cages with malaria mosquitoes around [laughs]

SC: Did you have any protective covering?

KM: No, no, no, no, nothing like that. We only got one loose once! Anyway, we started off trying to light this small area you see, and we started out with convex mirrors - concave mirrors, beg your pardon - with one 1k's directed into them, and we etherised - we doped the mosquitoes with ether - but the moment we put them under these two spots they froze solid, you see, when the ether dried out! So that didn't work. So we then got lab flasks with water and put our lights through the flasks, that was better. We stunned our mosquitoes so we had controllable mosquitoes. And the mosquito, when its been unconscious, when it comes to life it immediately bites, so that one was easy because all we had to do was to get that there, put a mosquito on it and wait.

SC: And then photograph it when ...

KM: We were turning at two frames a second to get an exposure. Anyway we did it, we got the mosquito laying eggs, we did everything and by the end of that time, Beadle and I had learnt an awful lot about micorography or whatever you like to - photo-micrography, micrography, everything. And about lenses, I know I was terribly lucky.

5. National Fire Service

In those days in documentary, one was told that somebody wanted a film. In this case the National Fire Service wanted some training films, they wanted a film to explain - they had just become the National Fire Service. In other words it was the first time that they had an overall command with all the fire services in the country, and there was a system of command with the right way to give instructions, and the right way to do this that and the other - which was mobilising procedure - which they wanted to put on film, so that they could send it out to all the regions, and the regions would all be working on the same basis. And that was a sound film, because obviously, there were a lot of people talking on telephones and that sort of thing.

So the routine was that one went to the National Fire Service, and they said, "Officer So and So is going to look after you." So Officer So and So took you around and you went to various fire stations and you studied how they worked, and you decided how you could best put it on film, and you wrote a script and you did a budget and you organised your shooting, and you went and shot it. In this case we were shooting two films, we were shooting one called Mobilising Procedure and the other called Water Relaying, which was getting water from point A to point B, which they could do by various means - there's different pumps and so forth.

That was very complicated because it involved me understanding water pressures, and - what do you call it? - you lose pressure, and all sorts of things with different lengths. So I had a water expert who tried to teach me all these things - it took a very long time! [laughing] Because in order to script the film and to make it an intelligible whole, I had to understand the principles behind it.

Does that answer your question about how one went about doing it? So that one then went out and made the film with back up from the Shell Film Unit - who gave you the money after all - and with certain help. Well they saw rushes and reported back on rushes, and you then came back and you cut your film together, and you took it right through to show-copy stage. Right the way through doing your own opticals and everything.

SC: Was this connected with the Ministry of Information in any way, these films that you were doing?

KM: Yes, these were Ministry of Information, the Fire Service ones were.

AL: Coming back - can I interrupt? - How much - not veto - how much...

KM: Producer control?

AL: ... did the Fire Service have?

KM: Oh, the Fire Service had to be happy that you were saying what they wanted said, yes. Oh absolutely. But they had the script and they were with you when you were filming.

6. Penicillin

I then was asked by somebody at Film Centre if Su [Wolfgang Suschitzsky] and I would go and shoot what was left to shoot - the laboratory sequences - on Alex Shaw's film about penicillin. Alex had done all of the live stuff and the French stuff - the battlefield stuff. And they wanted the whole of the Fleming discovery story and the laboratory stuff, which we did - that's what I did on Penicillin. Which was very interesting, again, and used - oh all sorts of photomicrography, micrography and this that and the other, and we met all of the interesting people, Doctor Chain and goodness knows who, at Oxford. Thereafter, Rod [R.K. Neilson] and Sam Napier-Bell, who had also been working at Shell - first assisting Rod - Rod got him out of a factory. Sam Napier-Bell had been a cameraman at Gaumont-British when Rod was working there. ... Rod disentangled Alan Gorley [?], too. He disentangled Alan Gorley as his editor, and he disentangled Sam to come and be his assistant-cum-cameraman on these Naval and RADAR films.

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Mander, Kay (1915-)