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Lionel Banes: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988)

The start of his career at Gainsborough Studios

Main image of Lionel Banes: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Lionel Banes was interviewed by Peter Sargent on 28 July 1988.

1. The start of his career

PS: What did your parents think when you said you were going to give up furs.

LB: My father wasn't very pleased. He seemed to infer that doing anything to do with photography was as though you were just going to knock on people's doors and ask can we take your photograph.

PS: Which you and I did before the war. [laugher]

LB: That's quite true for a period.

PS: They didn't have any connections with the industry did they?

LB: None at all.

PS: So you did have to knock on doors then. How did you get in?

LB: I wrote many letters to different film studios at that time. Most of them simply said they weren't interested but when I wrote round a second time Gainsboroughs did reply and said they would give me an interview at Poole St., Islington, and after the interview they said yes we will

PS: Was that Ted Black.

LB: No, he wasn't there then. Phil Samuels. And he introduced me to the cameraman at that time, an English cameraman, a very good cameraman, but he used to drink too much...

PS: Percy Strong

LB: No, before Percy, another Percy. [Laughter]. I started on the day the film commenced production, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

PS: What were your duties then?

LB: Loading, clappers, for a very short time, because I was able to, because of my knowledge of photography, to pull focus better than the person who was then employed to do that.

PS: What camera were you working on?

LB: They had two or three cameras. They had one standard Mitchell

PS: In a blimp?

LB: Yes, they had a homemade blimp that that went in, and a Bell and Howell, and that had to go in a telephone booth, the Bell and Howell. It used to make a noise like one was playing a kettledrum.

PS: What were you paid?

LB: 30 shillings a week.

PS: That was a fortune.

LB: I was told by the studio manager there, his name was Harold Boxall, he told me I'd be paid 30 shillings a week for three months and that I'd have an increase to 3 pounds. But I remember having to press very hard about the 4th and 5th month, what about the increase?

PS: The thing is that they did have a trainee scheme operating.

LB: Not then. That was later.

PS: But that was a flat 30 shillings a week, you didn't get overtime.

LB: No, I used to work from about 8 in the morning to 2 am the next morning practically every day.

PS: How did you get home?

LB: They used to have taxis. They used to send you home in taxis. And I can remember if ever I finished work before 10 at night it would feel like today finishing about 6 o'clock in the evening. I used to think Oh I'll see my parents, and relations, they won't be in bed.

PS: It was no good having a girl friend in those days, you'd never see them.

B: I can remember I could never date up to go to a dance or do anything because that particular night you'd work late. And all day Saturdays and Sundays, and I've done 8 weeks without any weekend off at all.

2. Courtneidge and Hulbert films

PS: Apart from lunch did you get an evening meal provided?

LB: If you worked after 8 o'clock they used to break for half an hour and give you something like fried egg and chips.

PS: On the set?

LB: No, you went to the canteen.

PS: Working under those conditions it was much hotter.

LB: Particularly in Gainsboroughs, because that had been built by an American company, so I've been told, to prove, because they had to make quota films here from 1927, and they picked on that area because they were told that because there was a canal at the back of the studio, there'd always be a fog and they wanted to prove that they couldn't make films in England. When Sir Michael Balcon, he was not a 'Sir' then, bought the studio, he had some plant put in order to do away with this fog and it was terrific heat, terrible heat.

PS: Because the studio at one time had been a power station, and then Famous Players Lasky. But before that it was Gainsborough-Welch-Pearson for a while wasn't it with George Pearson.

LB: No, he might have taken it over before

PS: This is silent days

LB: before Sir Michael did it but it had been a power station, and the tube from Old Street ran right underneath the power station and then the famous Lasky Players, they came over from the States and they had it built to do the quota pictures.

PS: What other films of that time can you remember. Did you work on any of the Cicely Courtneidge.

LB: I worked on all the Cecily Courtneidge/Jack Hulberts. The Ghost Train was the first one. And then there were about 3 others I think were made there, I don't remember the titles. I do remember one in which Jack Hulbert was a sweep

PS: You didn't work on Sunshine Susie did you?

LB Yes.

PS: Which was a remake of the German film.

LB: Renate Muller playing the leading role. I don't remember who the male was.

PS: Jack Hulbert was in Sunshine Susie because he sang 'The Flies Crawl Up The Window' [written by Vivian Ellis]

LB: That's correct and he did some terrific dancing.

PS: Did you find that he took a long time to get going?

LB: Always. Jack Hulbert would read his script and he'd never really learn it by heart, he'd suddenly say I think we can improve this, and they'd break for about an hour or more in which he'd try to rewrite it or say that he ought to walk round walk here or jump round there.

PS: I remember an occasion when he came out with a brilliant idea, after about 2 hours of rehearsing, and the director said but that's what you' ve been already doing for two hours!. He didn't seem to remember

3. Cameras

PS: By then had things changed at all? Were cameras different, film stock different?

LB: Yes. By then we'd purchased new cameras, they'd bought a camera they'd called the Cinephon from Prague in Czechoslovakia.

PS: Otto Kanturek I believe

LB: Otto Kanturek who was a Czechoslovakian cameraman working in London, he'd been going round every studio and trying to sell these cameras, and Gainsboroughs were the first to buy them. They first of all bought two, but were not really silent but they were somewhat blimped, and after running them for about a week the gears inside completely snapped. And Roy Kellino and I, we took both the cameras, got in a taxi and went to see George Hill, of Newman and Sinclair on Highgate Hill. In front of us he took several sized screwdrivers and undid all the exterior of the camera putting them all in empty film tins, all the bits and pieces, showed us the gear wheels and said I could make new ones out of brass or some other material. We phoned back to the manager, he said yes tell him to go ahead, he did that very quickly and we got the two cameras back working very well.

PS: I remember the motor driver which hung under the tripod.

LB: It hung under the tripod and a flexible shaft as the drive.

PS: And they used to snap.

LB: Yes they could do. And then we bought, they made a more modern camera, the same firm did, that was much better at silence. It was pretty well blimped, and so we bought two of those as well. So Gainsboroughs had then four Cinephons and Gaumont British bought, I think about 4 of those.

PS: Because I remember, and I worked with you as your focus puller at Gaumont British later, we used to have eiderdowns to put over the top. And then they tore and the feathers used to come out all over the place.

LB: That's right.

PS: Was the Cinephon, did you look through the base of the film when you were operating?

LB: Yes you looked right through the film, it was very difficult to see through. Particularly when they brought out the grey back.

PS: And also of course depending on the amount of light, the smaller the aperture, the harder it got.

LB: Yes.

PS: And you had a black cloth.

LB: Yes, you used to put a black cloth. You'd go under that black cloth before a take started in order to get your eye accustomed to see

PS: If you were on exteriors, you really couldn't come out for a cup of tea because you'd go back under for hours.

LB: No, once you were in the bright light you couldn't see again.

PS: What was production like in those early days compared with much later? Did it change much?

LB: Not so very much. There was still director, assistant director.

PS: And sound seemed to cope quite well.

LB: Sound used to cope very well.

PS: And of course they couldn't play their rushes back like they can today.

LB: No, they used to cope, apart from the boom, they'd often tie a microphone in a hidden thing on a table.

PS: What was the crew then, did you have the grips as the member of the crew?

LB: Yes. Not in my first year or two, but after I'd been there about two years there was always one grip who was on the crew.

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Banes, Lionel (1904-1996)