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John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 5 (1988)

Making 'The Song of Ceylon' and working with Basil Wright

Main image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 5 (1988)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. John Taylor was interviewed by Stephen Peet on 17 March 1988.

1. Photography and sound

JT: At the end of 33 we went to Ceylon [Sri Lanka] by ship, needless to say

SP: In what capacity, you went as cameraman?

JT: No, assistant. Bas did his own photography. He'd photographed quite a number of films by that time.

SP: I didn't realise that.

JT: We had a 200 foot clockwork Newman and a 400 foot Newman as a standby. In those days it took 3 weeks to get to Ceylon so you had to have something. We had a packing case full of lights. Before we went to Ceylon we were in Soho Square one day - Flaherty used to come in and out quite often, he was close to Grierson, most nights they used to go out to supper together. And Flaherty appeared one day with a Leica camera in a case and it had a 2" lens, a 4" lens and a 6" lens and a very posh view finder and every thing in it, filters and magazines, the lot, in a large, beautiful leather case. This was his present to me for working on Man of Aran. Incredible.

We did the same thing in Ceylon that we did in Aran. Every day I used to develop a roll of leica film, we didn't see any rushes while we were out there. There was a very nice tea-planter there named Scott who was a keen amateur photographer and he had a dark room. Once a week or once a fortnight we'd go up to this place and stay the night and I'd make enlargement of the things so Basil could see what he was doing, a very useful way of working in those days when you couldn't get the rushes in. We had quite big crew.

SP: You didn't take short strips from the end of some of the rolls and develop them too from the cameras as a technical check.

JT: No, I loaded the film from the camera magazine so it was the same film and I worked with the same exposure that he was working at. We had, he had an enormous collection of stills when we came back, there were really thousands and they were lost somewhere. Before he died I said what happened to the stills of Song of Ceylon and they got lost along the wayside which was rather a pity. There are a few production stills left.

SP: How long were you in Ceylon then?

JT: I don't really know, but I should think 3 months. We had a crew of Sinhalese who were very nice people and a very, very good contact man called Lionel Wendt who was half Dutch and half Sinhalese.

SP: When you say crew, you mean people for carrying the equipment and rigging the lights and all this kind of thing.

JT: The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board had kind of travelling caravans which travelled round Ceylon, doing publicity work and they lent us one of their caravans and the crew which was about 6, which was wonderful really. It made everything very easy and Bas was a very efficient and very organised man.

SP: You were both so very young.

JT: I was 19 then and Bas was born in 1907 so he was 26 roughly, but he was very experienced. By nature he was the best filmmaker I have ever met, he really knew how to make films.

SP: Did he, if you can remember, the eventual shape and form of the film was that something that he had from the beginning or did it evolve during the editing?

JT: No he had terrible troubles during the editing which he's described in various places. He came back with this mass of material, well mass, I suppose there may have been 20,000 feet, 25,000 feet or something like that and he really suffered with the editing because Grierson kept at him and wouldn't accept anything except something special. With Grierson pursuing him and Basil being tortured he produced this formula of the 4 parts of it. To me one of the special things about it was the use of sound and this was very much Basil.

It was practically the first sound film he made and he evolved that technique of contrapuntal sound or whatever you call it, which sound really played a very important part in. It's completely forgotten now, no one uses sound in any way but straight forwarded, or music or straight sound. But that kind of sound played as important a part as the picture to it. And the equipment was very crude, I suppose you could only mix two or three tracks, you can do ten tracks or twenty tracks today. He really was a very, very intelligent man, very well organised, really a very imaginative filmmaker.

2. Budgets and working relationships

JT: The costs were so low, I suppose I was getting about £4 a week. I don't suppose Bas was getting much more than £8 a week, so what did it matter. And I think practically everything on the production was free. We stayed a lot at rest houses, they had Government rest houses which were very, very nice places indeed, especially out in the jungle, and that was all contributed by the government. The van and the crew didn't cost anything. I don't know what the cost of it was but I should think the total cost was say £3,000. There were few precedents for someone like Basil, he was really finding his way, how to make this kind of film. There were no other films really like this.

SP: Were there any alarms and excursions during the shooting of it or did it all go fairly smoothly?

JT: I think it all went very smoothly indeed. Partly because he was so well organised. He did the accounts and he was a very thorough character. It all seemed to go very simply really.

SP: 1 suppose this is going a bit off a tangent, but you and he and the other people working at the GPO Film Unit, you weren't aware that lots of things were being innovated, that you were trying out ideas, but it was just a very exciting time and a gruelling time. But you weren't aware that you were part of what is known now in the history books as the documentary movement. Or did you have big discussions or were you aware that you were doing something new.

JT: There were a lot of discussions but I'm sure we were insufferable in some ways, we were so bloody superior to everyone else, we must have been a pain in the neck to many people. But at the same time there was a feeling this was something new and this is why you got this was tremendous cooperation between everyone and completely unselfish contribution. People would go and help other people, it really was quite a nice time.

When we came back Basil started editing it and I worked there. They made four shorts out of the material as well as the film. In those days they used to use it all up [in] a number of these films. There was the main film and then they'd made 3 or 4 one-reelers, or 750 footers. I can remember making cuts of Negombo Coast, I can't remember the others, but there were 4 one-reelers and Song if Ceylon, they rather prided themselves on their shooting ratio.

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Audio & Video Clips
Song of Ceylon (1934)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)