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Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

His career at Ealing Studios as an editor and subsequently as a director

Main image of Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

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

1. Young Veteran

Sid Cole: What was the last picture before the outbreak of war that you worked on?

Charles Crichton: That was The Thief of Bagdad.

SC: Yes, which you were saying wasn't completed so they took it away to America.

CC: It was nearly completed.

SC: So what happened to you now there was a war on? How did it affect you?

CC: Well I worked for a little while on a propaganda film at Denham. You know, one was waiting to be called up. Then Cavalcanti wanted me to go and cut a little film called Young Veteran at Ealing, and apparently my work was satisfactory because they wanted me to go on and on. So I became a reserved occupation and I stayed at Ealing

SC: Yes, that was reserved occupation people, if I remember rightly you had to be 30 and in certain grades in the industry which ACTT had arranged with the government as part of the war preparation. Did you know Cavalcanti before he asked you to work on this film?

CC: No, I'd never met him.

SC: He just knew you by reputation?

CC: I don't know. I just got 'please go and see him' and that was it.

SC: How did you get on with Cav?

CC: Very well of course. In a funny kind of way he had the same sort of approach to things which Bill [William] Hornbeck did. Because, for instance on Young Veteran, which was meant to be about a young chap returning from Dunkirk, we would go and see a whole lot newsreel material, including some of that French series, I can't remember what it was called that they made before the Germans walked in. They got the negative over here, and he would select all sorts of things like troops skiing: everything which to me had nothing to do with his theme, but somehow or other he managed to find beautiful images to illustrate what he was getting at, if that makes any sense to you.

SC: It's a very creative way of editing, isn't it, binding different things together with a theme.

2. Those in Peril

CC: An editor. Then I did start to direct, the first picture was a propaganda picture, of course, called Those In Peril, where we rushed around the Channel in high speed motorboats, boats which were used for picking up crashed airmen and so on. It's a horrifying thing to say, but it was very exciting rushing around the channel in high speed motorboats. And that was the first picture Dougie [Douglas] Slocombe photographed, except he didn't photograph the interiors.

SC: Who did, Gordon Dines?

CC: No, Ernie [Ernest] Palmer.

SC: What were your particular problems on that, you say it was quite exciting and it wasn't dangerous but you must have had some problems on For Those In Peril?

CC: Just hanging on to the boat. You know we were warned beforehand that if a crash call came, they'd take no notice of us if anybody needed help. And we got a crash call once and to accelerate from just idling along at 5 knots to something like 45 knots in no time at all, I mean how we didn't go overboard I don't know. Mind you, we rather enjoyed our predicament sometimes because the first time we went out we really tied down the camera, it was a very narrow little boat. And we had Ted Lockhart who was an old sailor and we thought we were absolutely safe, the way everything was done. And we could see them all grinning in the wheelhouse, because we were up in the bow, and we came out of the harbour at considerable speed. Of course once we got past the jetty, we hit a wave and we all fell over. The camera went 'blomb', you know, we had managed to strap ourselves, we were careful enough to make sure we had ropes.

SC: What camera were you using, can you remember?

CC: Probably a Newman Sinclair.

SC: It wasn't damaged?

CC: No.

SC: You said there was no danger, no aircraft?

CC: The big danger was Dougie Slocombe. [Laughter] Because one day we went out and arranged all sort of things like Spitfires diving at us and actually firing at us. And it was an extremely rough day, in fact all ships were confined to port except the film unit because they were mad and expendable anyway. [Laughter] So we were tossing about in the Channel and these Spitfires were coming and we were trying to get the boats with machinegun bullets hitting the water and so on. And Dougie was in the wheelhouse saying, "can't you shoot a bit closer?" [Laughter]

SC: And they did.

CC: And they did. [Laughter]

3. Painted Boats

CC: Then we made Painted Boats, which was a more docile, peaceful experience.

SC: That was the one about canals, which I seem to remember because I was at Ealing at that time, you enjoyed very much. Was Bill Blewitt on that one?

CC: Yes.

SC: Tell me about Bill Blewitt. You mentioned him earlier, but for the sake of people who might be listening to the tape later they might not know about Bill Blewitt.

CC: Bill Blewitt was the postmaster at Masle. I think Harry Watt or Cavalcanti, I don't know, the documentary boys had used him quite a lot before the war. He was a natural actor, enjoyed his drink, was a rogue and a lovely person to talk to or to be in his company. He would sit in the pub at the side of the canal and tell a fascinated audience long stories about his early days when he was a boy on the canal. Well he'd never seen a canal before, but everyone would believe him, absolutely rapt attention.

SC: I remember he was a great storyteller. I remember on one occasion at our local pub, the Red Lion, at Ealing, him persuading people he wasn't Bill Blewitt, that he was his twin brother, inventing a whole history. He was as you say a quite a natural actor.

4. Dead of Night

SC: So after that your next picture was one I was associated with, Dead of Night.

CC: That's right. That's when we began to know each other, to our mutual advantage or disadvantage. [Laughter]

SC: Tell me about Dead Of Night from your point of view.

CC: I was just lucky to be given this comedy sequence to direct with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne. And my first day's work was appallingly bad actually. And I was trying to slow them up in their delivery all the time. I was looking at it more like from an editor's point of view, I think.

SC: I remember that first day's rushes. It takes me back and you will remember it too, because the story as I heard was, I saw the rushes with Mick [Michael Balcon] and we felt that it was as you said, you slowed Naunton and Basil down, and we came on the floor. And as I heard it, certainly it must have been from you, Basil Radford saw Mick and myself coming onto the floor and he said aha here come the angry boys. So you re-shot that first day.

CC: Yes, that's right

SC: But that's the sort of thing one learns by isn't it. You can be told a lot of things in theory but you learn in fact by making your own mistakes.

CC: Absolutely.

5. Hue and Cry

SC: You did Hue and Cry after that, which is a very famous picture and was very enjoyable to make I should think - certainly enjoyable to see.

CC: I think making any picture is a rather masochistic experience, but yes, it was fun, I suppose.

SC: Tell me about the famous shot where you and [Henry] Cornelius, who was producing, worked out how many kids you could get into one taxi cab.

CC: I didn't, that was Corny. I had always envisaged the fact that the taxi would stop at a place where we could conceal a whole lot of boys and we would open one door and boys would pour out and be re-fed into the cab. But Corny shot that shot. I was on the bombsite at the time, shooting other stuff, and then I saw him doing this shot. And the taxi came, and without stopping or anything, it obviously didn't stop at a pre-prepared position, he had just crammed about 50 boys into one taxi! [Laughter} To hell with what they felt about it.

SC: They probably enjoyed it. I remember it's a marvellous shot in the film where this endless succession of small boys pile out of this one taxi.

CC: That's right. Very good shot.

SC: By the end of Hue and Cry you must have been beginning to feel very sure as a director.

CC: No, no, you're never sure. Quite honestly, the first time I ever had much confidence was after Lavender Hill Mob, because I began to feel it was all done by the associate producer plus the cameraman plus the operator, because they were good. Then I suddenly went to do a picture outside called Hunted, without any of those people and I found it was still successful and that gave me a lot of confidence because I was disassociated from all the people who helped.

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Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)
Ealing Comedy
Ealing at War