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Tilly Day: BECTU Interview (1988)

Memories of the begining of her career in the film industry

Main image of Tilly Day: BECTU Interview (1988)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Tilly Day was interviewed by Sid Cole and Alan Lawson on 15 January 1988.

1. Starting in the film industry

TD: I was born in Walthamstow on August 31st, 1903 and I started in the film business in July 1917.

SC/AL: How did you come to start in the film business?

TD: There was an advertisement in the paper saying wanted very bright secretary, very ladylike, very this, that and the other, every speciality in the world.

SC/AL: Everything you had in fact.

TD: Oh yes, I had it. [Laughter] I thought. So, unknown to my parents, because I was at school, I was at high school. I answered this advertisement all on the sly. And of course idiot that I was at that time I never thought that if I got a reply that it would come home and they'd find out anyway. And of course it came home, the reply, saying they would be very pleased to see me on the Monday morning and would I apply. Of course there was a tremendous fuss when it arrived, the letter. My mother said what can you doing answering letters like this, to my father, because they were spring cleaning. This is shocking. My mother said well you know her, if she's made up her mind she'll go. So to cut a long story short I went for the interview.

SC/AL: Where was that?

TD: Wood Street, Walthamstow, The old Wood Street Walthamstow film studio. I'd never heard of the film studio. I thought pictures were made you know somehow magically out of the air. Well, I went for this interview and there was a man there named Savage and he interviewed me and he seemed to think that I'd got what they wanted for 32 shillings and 6 pence I don't know, but he seemed to think I'd got everything. [Laughter]. And so I was engaged and started. I was terribly thrilled. I started the next day which was a Tuesday.

And it was a film studio. I didn't know what it was. It was incredible. There were all these painting on the wall, there was a scene shifter there and a scenario painter. I looked at these things and I thought well this is a funny place, I wonder what they sell. But of course they didn't sell anything, I mean films. And the first films I saw being made were Spratt's dog biscuits, Lux toilet soap, 4711 cream for hands, my hands were used. This went on for ages. And I learnt the industry slowly.

2. Silent continuity

TD: The cameramen interested me. There was Phil Ross, Leslie Eveleigh and old Bert Ford. They used to tell me to count numbers and I learnt how to count from trick photography.

SC/AL: You mean how many turns of the camera.

TD: Yes, how many times back, because it was 16 frames per second then not 24 of course because it was silent. I learnt all these things and found it so interesting. After that we made a big film which was The Burgomaster of Stilemonde with Sir John Martin Harvey. I was thrilled to be on a film with Sir John Martin Harvey and in such close contact. I mean he called me my dear every day. He was a dear old gentleman too, that sort of thing, I was thrilled to pieces. Even my father who thought it was a bit dicey the whole thing, he was quite sure I was in the white slave traffic when I got 32/6d, that huge sum [Laughter]. He didn't know what I had to do for it, all the various things, I worked harder than I ever worked in my life.

SC/AL Did your father come to visit the studios.

TD: Oh yes he did. He insisted that he must see this place where I was working and he came and he finished up at 1 o'clock in the morning like I did. Because we used to work incredible hours. He finished at 1 o'clock in the morning and took me home. It was amazing. It was just round the corner. well up the road and round the corner, you know.

And then we made The Burgomaster of Stilemonde that was Sir John Martin Harvey. [...]

SC/AL: Was there anything like what you finally became famous for, continuity, in those days or didn't people bother?

T'D . Oh no, silent continuity was entirely different. You had to make up your own continuity when you were sound first of all. You made it up yourself because there was nobody to teach you. In silent days Leslie Everleigh told me what to do each time and how to match things. It was much harder because you used to have to match the facial expressions and their words that they said silently, you had to more or less learn because they were going to put titles in.

SC/AL: And people learnt to lipread in those days, I mean audiences.

TD: Oh yes.

SC/AL: So how long did this go on?

TD: That went on for ages, 18 months. Then at the end of about 18 months, 2 years it folded up and I was left in by the liquidators. I was always left in by the liquidators [...] I lived locally, so that was me. Someone paid my wages, I don't know who but that was that. Empty studio. It was rather eerie really because they had glass roofs then and they used to rattle when the wind was on. And this great glass roof used to echo and the rain used to patter on it. And the telephone when it rang had an eerie sound.

And then after that they finally said that they had packed up, the liquidators had packed up and it became the London Chair Bottle Cane Company of all things and I was out of a job. So my father said that will teach you to be educated and learn a proper job. So I said yes, no intention of course of doing it.

Then I got a job, I could do shorthand typing, I'd learnt that much from my schooldays, although I was only 14 years and 10 months, I learnt from my schooldays. I went to somewhere, where I was there for two weeks and then somebody phoned me up that they had a job at Twickenham Studios. I couldn't wait to get there.

I got there and it was night work and talking pictures had just started, and it was a George King picture called Leave it to Me with Robin Irvine. I went to Twickenham Studios and it was all night. Then I got a job on the day picture which was, I can't remember the day picture. I must have been in such a bemused state because I used to come off the night picture, go and wash my hands and face and go onto the day shift for the day picture and then I'd work all day. This went on for a whole week.

SC/AL: What were you actually doing on that?

TD Continuity. I learnt how to put it together, this that and the other, I'm sure it was wrong at times, but still you know how to put it together.

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Day, Tilly (1903-1994)