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John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1988)

How 'Conquest of Everest', about the 1953 ascent, finally got made

Main image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 1 (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. Setting up Countryman Films

JT: Grahame Tharp, Leon Clore and I started a company called Countryman Films. We had a contract with Columbia to produce 6 2-reelers a year.

SP: Theatricals?

JT: Yes, for theatrical distribution. It was a kind of open air magazines of animals, anything to do with the countryside. The average issue started off with an item on young animals to sweeten the audience for about two minutes, some of them were quite good, we did a very good one on seals. On the [unintelligible] Islands. They were very cheap. I think the budgets were fifteen hundred pounds and we seemed to be able to do it relatively easy. And we started one or two sponsored films for Brook Bonds tea which Graham had a contract with. And towards the end of 1952 Adrian De Potier came along and said look I'm sure they're going to climb Everest next year.

He'd worked it out on paper as well quite convincingly. Somehow we managed to get a contract from the RGS [Royal Geographic Society] to make the film. Then we ran into real troubles. We went to the National Film Finance Corporation, we were getting money from them for something, I can't remember what but we had good contacts there anyway and said we want £8,000 to photograph the first part, you know just the photography of the expedition to Everest. Jimmy Lawrie who was head of it said wonderful idea, wonderful idea. We went ahead ordering the cameras and things like that. Tom Stobart appeared on the scene and we got him. And I tried to phone Lawrie one day and he wouldn't speak to me. After phoning him 6 times I realised he wasn't speaking to me and we couldn't make out what was happening . Finally we got through to him and he said I'm sorry we've had to withdraw the offer. I said for Christsake we've got it all lined up. He said I'm sorry that's it.

So, the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, I can't remember his name he was a pleasant character, we rang him and said we're terribly sorry about this but the Film Finance Corporation have decided to cancel it but we'll do everything we can for whoever takes the job over. We'll give you all our research material, Adrian had done a magnificent job on the research material, about 50 or 60 pages of information, and he said just leave it with me. He rang us back and said look can you come to a meeting tonight in Sloane Street at Woodham Smith who was the Rank lawyer. So Graham, Leon and I turned up at this house.

SP: This is Leon Clore.

JT: Leon Clore, right. A man opened the door and I said good evening, my name's Taylor, and he said good evening sir, I'm the butler [Laughter] but you're very welcome. So we went in and there were about 4 people there in the library, a very posh library with decanters, we were made very welcome and sat down. Woodham Smith, the husband of Woodham Smith who wrote Florence Nightingale and The Charge of The Light Brigade said now tell us all about it. We said this is what actually happened. We went to them and they said yes, and then they wouldn't speak to us and then they said no. Woodham Smith said I can't remember who the President of the Board of Trade was which was in charge of the National Film Finance Corporation, he said is it... Joe's in charge of that isn't he. Yes, yes, of course and they said forget it we'll ring you in the morning. In the morning at half past nine Jimmy Lawrie rings up and says could I come and see you.

2. Getting the film made

JT: I'm terribly sorry about this, there's been an awful mix up, we'd be very pleased to put the money up. What had actually happened was that Balcon at this time was running everything, he was head of the National Film Finance Corporation, head of Rank, head of Ealing, he was really running the whole film industry. And when at their meeting they'd put up this proposition for eight thousand quid for a miserable little company, Countryman Films, he said certainly not, this film should be made by Rank Screen Services. But then the President of the Board of Trade had rung Jimmy Lawrie and said look do as you're told, give them the money. But it wasn't without strings. We were fools actually. They said we can't give it to you which was nonsense because they were giving vast sums of money to everyone, it can only be done through Group 3 and we want 75% of the profits. It was a crooked deal really. But we were so pleased to get the thing going we said anything you like as long as we get on with what we are doing. And so we got the money. Adrian was proved right, they did climb Everest. Then old Stobart was taken ill on it.

SP: There were two cameramen weren't there, one at lower level, and Stobart at higher level am I right?

JT: Stobart was taken ill at lower level, but luckily for us, and shot very little material actually, I think he brought back about 2,200 feet of 16mm.

SP: It was shot on16mm?

JT: Yes on Kodachrome.

SP: But who was the other man who shot the other?

JT: George Lowe. The other New Zealander. We gave George two cameras, two Imos with complete sets of lenses with everything from a 1 inch to a 24 inch.

SP: He wasn't an entirely experienced cameraman was he?

JT: Not really. He was this charming beautiful young man.

SP: He was a mountaineer?

JT: Yes. He was about 6 foot 2 and when he walked into the pub all the ladies swooned an amusing, pleasant, nice man, but he wasn't really a film technician. Anyway Stobart was taken ill, he had pneumonia. But we also gave them four automatic cameras with preset focus and exposure and automatic loading. All you had to do was, they were little tiny things about the size of a double cigarette packet, a 20-cigarette packet, with an automatic magazine, you just pushed it in. You pressed a button and the magazine jumped out and you put another one in. And Tom gave one to Lowe and one to one of the other men whose name I've forgotten. Lowe was the partner of Hillary [Edmund Hillary] and he was determined - using his own words - to give Hillary a fair crack of the whip, so he shot everything with it he possibly could. I think he came back with about a dozen magazines of stuff, all of high level stuff.

SP: What did they run 50 feet or something

JT: I suppose they were 50 feet, they may have been 70, about that. But everything above the Western Combe was short by Georqe and the other one whose name I've forgotten and that saved our bacon.

3. George Lowe

JT: But when we got the material we shot everything all over the place to pad it out because we had to make an hour and a half of it. We put shots of the Coronation procession [Laughter], Everest grave, anything we could think of to pad it out. Also we had to do it in something like 6 weeks. The minute the mountain was climbed everybody climbed onto the act - Balcon, Korda - anyone you could think of it was their film, well not their film, it was part of their empire kind of thing.

SP: But you did quite well out of even the 25% you got from the profits or not?

JT: Well I didn't because by that time I'd left Countryman soon afterwards [Laughter]. But I suppose Graham and Leon did.

SP: I met George Lowe a year or two later in the Highlander a year or two later I think it was and he had strange stories of the two coming down from the peak and him with the camera there filming them as they came down to the first camp which had people in extreme anger at that altitude, not wanting to be filmed because he hadn't done his hair or some extraordinary story of altitude sickness and behaviour. However that's by the by.

JT: He was a very unusual man was our George. Tom wouldn't come down to the studio so we took on George, I mean Tom was beseiged by the Daily Express, the Times, Evening this, Ladies, he was feted all over London and he could never find time to come down to the studio and tell us what the material was. George though, neither Hillary or Lowe had any money at all, it was all voluntary work, the team and so on. We took George Lowe on for a fee of five hundred quid to come and tell us what it was about so we got to know him very well indeed. He was always at Beaconsfield.

But to drift off from films for a minute, he was the reason they managed to climb the mountain. He was very independent sort of character. And I can't remember it in detail but the final push, Hunt [John Hunt] was up on the South Col and two sherpas and Hillary and Tensing [Tensing Norgay] and George was down the Western Combe and George said sod this, I'm going up and I'm going to take some oxygen with me. They said you're not allowed to use the oxygen. George said I don't care what Hunt said I'm going to use the oxygen. He took cylinders of oxygen and went up the Lhotse face, this appalling cliff, got to the top and during the night a gale came up and they spent two nights in a tent or something like that. When they woke up on the day they were to start the climb one of the sherpas had got mountain sickness and couldn't move and it was George who carried something like 70 lbs up to the final camp, if he hadn't been there they wouldn't have been able to do it. They were a very tough couple, physically tough.

Anyway, we had a very, very short time. We cut it at Beaconsfield and we had, I think we had four slash cutting copies. We had to cut the picture complete, for Technicolor to do the blow-ups in something like three weeks, four weeks, I can't remember what it was.

SP: And then you started working on the soundtrack while they were doing the commentary. Did they had a 35mm Technicolor blow up of it for cinema release?

JT: Yes. Muir went ahead with the music quite independently. Louis MacNeice went ahead writing the commentary and so on. I didn't go home for about a month. I just slept at the studio. It all worked out. It had wonderful first night at the Warners and I think did very well on distribution I imagine.

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Conquest of Everest, The (1953)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)