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John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1988)

A newcomer's look at the 1930s documentary scene

Main image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 2 (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. His start in the business

JT: Easter 1930, there was a conference in the kitchen at the Hope Dining Rooms in Holloway Road at which my future was decided by Grierson saying, we won't have any of this nonsense, you can come and start for us on Tuesday.

SP: When you say have any of this nonsense you mean wanting to be a carpenter?

JT: Yes.

SP: This is 1930. Had your sister married Grierson then or was that later?

JT: No, they were married Grierson in I think about January 1930.

SP: You had left school?

JT: I hadn't left school. He told me to leave school, Uncle John. I mean he was like that, I was still at school and he said start work on Tuesday morning, £1 a week. And when I arrived there, one of the early things, oh it wasn't £1a week, it was 15 shillings. [Laughter]

SP: What did your parents feel about this?

JT: Grierson steamrollered any one pretty nearly, they seemed quite happy. In those days, they were so different, our world was so different anyway. You didn't really expect to go on and work for Saatchi and Saatchi, or in the city, you thought you were going to be a carpenter.

SP: So you just walked out of school and that was that.

JT: I must have told them because the headmaster gave me a reference. The. Headmaster lived on that estate that you lived on, his name was Linker.

SP: Holly Lodges.

JT: Yes. And I was very proud of my reference. It said this is a very fine boy and dom dom dom, and so I took it and gave it to Grierson who said this is the most illiterate bloody letter I've ever read in life. [Laughter]

SP: So you went off to work at EMI was it...Empire...

JT: The Empire Marketing Board.

SP: Now what was that? Was it an office or a studio. Can you tell me about the Empire Marketing Board.

JT: We had Dancing Yard which was a turning which runs between lower Wardour Street and lower Dean St, you know parallel with Gerard St. It's in alley and in the middle of it was one of those iron gentlemen's lavatories, and it was the place where all the sandwich board men used to go at the end of the day and turn their boards in. And they used to sit around on the ground with sheets of newspaper spread around sorting out the cigarette ends and they used to put the burnt piece in one pile, the wet piece in another pile and then the good piece in the middle and they used to have mounds of this stuff. All day long they'd do this, you know every one was smoking and throwing them away and they'd be going along picking them up. They sold the middle pile to shops that made their own cigarettes, if you can believe it. [Laughter]

I think we were on the first floor and we had one small cutting room and one slightly larger which was the office as well, and a lavatory. And we had a 35mm projector in the lavatory and 2 or 3 vaults. I was completely innocent, I didn't know anything about anything, I couldn't even answer the telephone. If there was noone there, I used to pick up the telephone, I couldn't hear what they said at the other end, and say sorry there is no one here and hang up again. About 10 minutes later Grierson would come rushing up the steps saying what do you mean, I've been trying to get you on the telephone all day. [Laughter]

2. Empire Marketing Board

JT: When I arrived there, there was Grierson and a man called Jimmy Davidson who was a film technician and he'd done every thing in the film industry, he'd been an assistant director and assistant cameraman and I think he'd done a certain amount of camera work. He was really the only one who knew anything about films at all and Basil Wright.

SP: Oh he was there already.

JT: Yes I think he'd arrived at Christmas, I think, well I'm practically certain.

SP: What was the purpose of the Empire Marketing Board film unit? I mean looking back now, it was all new to you and just an office. What was it's purpose and what films were they making

JT: The purpose was to promote Empire trade, understanding and the Empire Marketing Board. It must have been quite a big organisation, they had their own very nice poster boards all over the country, do you remember them?

SP: Yes I do. Buy British goods and all that.

JT: Well, they did that but there were quite a lot of very good artists who were commissioned. There was one big central one and two small ones at each side, half size you know. There were three posters and they were literally all over the country. All the contemporary good graphic people of the time and good painters were doing the posters for them. Today you look back on it and say oh the Empire Marketing Board and imperialism and so on but Tallents, Sir Stephen Tallents, who ran it was a liberal and would be much more in tune with Commonwealth than Empire, I think although the Empire was still there which is the thing people forget. I mean there was Empire Day at school and so on.

SP: But the films were they made for home audiences or sending overseas? JT: Well, to start with we didn't really seem to do much for the Empire Marketing Board. They were re-editing the Russian films. I was the office boy and general dogsbody and did all the dirty work that nobody else wanted to do. I can remember going to Argus [?], maybe. When I was younger my father and I quite often went for a walk on Parliament Hill on Sunday afternoons and half way up Parliament Hill there's a white stone monument, a pillar, where there was public speaking going on. In those days there was a lot of speaking from wooden platforms. One day when I first started work I was told to go and pick up a copy of Turksib or something like that from Argus. And I go into Argus and wait the counter. Iron sheeted counters they had in those days because the film was flam, now out from the back comes the bloke who's always speaking on Parliament Hill, Ralph Bond! [Laughter] And I say please can I have a copy of Turksib for Mr Grierson.

SP: It strikes me as rather odd that here's the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit and you're re-editing Russian films in the early 30s, how did this come about?

JT: This was Grierson. He sold the Empire Marketing Board the idea of making films by showing them Russian films. The public relation officers of those days were quite different. They had much wider perspective on what they were there for and people like Tallents and Beddington and Ryan and Lesley, who was at the gas company - there were half a dozen of them who in some way quite blatantly used the money they had to do progressive stuff or progressive stuff at that time, which I can't believe particularly had any great effect on what they were supposed to be doing.

Not only that they were editing a German film about skiing. I think it was about [unintelligible] and climbing. I think it was called Matterhorn It was a silent feature which had got into trouble and Basil was doing the donkey work and Grierson was doing the supervisory stuff on it. And they were trying to re-edit it and knock it into shape. Every morning I used to go in and there would be about 8 rolls or 5 rolls and 3 rolls of film with hundreds of paper clips in it. Because in those days, in silent films, all the cuts were much shorter than they are now and I'd spend all day with no equipment at all for joining except a piece of blotting paper and a paper clip and a bottle of estone. And with the blade of a knife you had to scrape these beastly things by spitting on them. The joins must have been appalling, when they used to go through the projector, they sounded like gunshots going through.

3. New Era Films

JT: The Film Unit, the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit was managed by a film company called New Era and they'd had Days of Glory and so on and had made quite a number of successful box office films. They had a building in D'Arblay St, with a commissionaire and pageboys and so on, and we kind of drew on them for anything we wanted from what I can remember. Like, I think they managed the money and I suppose when we bought stock from Kodak it was done through New Era.

New Era made an awful mistake on the early days of sound. It was really a prosperous film company, they'd made Zeebrugge, Q-Ships, The Co-optimists, but when sound started coming in they went for sound on disk. They were very prosperous and they put all their money into projectors with this great big disk-table underneath at the back. And by the time I started there they had a dispatch department at the back but the projectors were coming back like [unintelligible] half a dozen at a time and they had a big yard out at the back where all these wooden cases were stacked and the desperate gamble, they went in for clock golf which was the craze at the time. They were small things small things like billiard tables on the floor where you knocked a ball around various things and after about 6 months all the golf tables came back as well. [Laughter]

SP: It seems that the Empire Marketing Board unit were at first just studying other people's films and persuading the Empire Marketing Board that films should be made in the style of Turksib.

JT: This had all happened before. Grierson went to America on a scholarship, something like the reverse of the Rhodes scholarship, I can't remember what it was and I think and he must have, at the time, films were 99% for entertainment. It was something like someone going into the Guttenberg Printing Press and realising that you could use printing presses for something other than bibles. And he came back and met Tallents, I don't know how he met Tallents, but Tallents was obviously thinking about using film because they'd already made one film, One Family which was an absolute and complete disaster.

SP: Silent film I imagine was it?

JT: Yes it was a silent film and about an hour long and it was made by a man named Walter Creighton who previously had been organising things like torch night tattoo at Wembley. He was quite good in that world but it was an absolute disaster this thing. It was full of society ladies dressed up as Britannia, and it was a small boy going round the Empire collecting the contents of a Christmas pudding for George V. [Laughter] It was very sad really because it cost a lot of money.

It had one showing. They hired the Palace for a week and I went to one of the shows, it was appalling, they had 3 people there. Crichton had made One Family with a lot of publicity, you can imagine but in the meantime Grierson had made Drifters which was a tremendous success both critically and in the cinemas. It got quite a big distribution and so from then on he was running the thing.

I think originally he was going to go on making films himself, because he certainly started this film, the Port of London authority one [Port of London , unfinished film], and then he realised that one man could only do so much, and if his purpose was, which he always said it was, to use film to some social purpose, one man's not going to do very much. So we did quite a lot of shooting on the Port of London film. We had a professional cameraman from New Era called Sidney Blythe, who was a very good feature cameraman. I don't know what happened in the end but I think that Grierson just diverted the money from that film into the unit.

Going back it's slightly misleading to say they spent we spent our time, or they spent their time editing Russian films and German films, at the same time they were making two film, one was called Conquest which was silent and another one was called Lumber which was made out of library material.

4. Port of London

SP: On this Port of London shooting, did you work as assistant to the cameraman? How did you train because very soon you were shooting things yourself weren't you?

JT: One of the things about Grierson was that he would just say to someone do this, and you went and did it, this went all the way through. It's not entirely true that, Davidson was very good, he was a martinet but he was very, very good in teaching people. A bit later when we moved to a bigger place, all the younger people were taught how to develop and print and make stills and how to work a camera and how to service a camera. And you automatically, you'd go in and they'd say there's the projector, lace it up and run it you know. But it was very definitely you were in it from the beginning. From the time I was 15, although I spent half my time dragging copies of film around London, you were expected to do anything that came up. Like joining, the first day I was there I suppose I was joining up.

SP: What was the first film that you actually worked on as part of the producing team?

JT: That would be the PLA film. For a while had a boat on the river, a motor launch. There was Grierson and to start with Sidney Blythe, but Grierson didn't really want to know about technicians like Sidney, Sidney was wonderful cameraman, but as far as Grierson was concerned, he wasn't interested because mentally he knew the cameraman was never going to understand what he was trying to do. The Cameraman was interested in taking good pictures or beautiful photography and Grierson's purpose was something else. He wanted people who started from the basis of we're not here to make bloody films, we're here to be of use to society. So Davidson soon caught on to this to a certain extent, and he replaced Blythe and I was always with them as the assistant, as the boy. And very soon you did things like loading magazines and canning out and setting up the camera. I don't know how long the Dancing Yard thing lasted, it might have been 3 years.

One day Davidson came in to me and said here's half a crown, go and get a coster barrow which you could hire down the road. So I go down the road, and he says we're moving today, we're moving to 167 Wardour St, we'll see you there. [Laughter] There were 3 bl**dy vaults full of film on top of everything else, and we were on the third floor and the vaults in the new building were on the roof. I can still remember that day with horror. Loading up the coster barrow, pushing it up Wardour St and carrying all this film - projectors, cutting benches, the lot up. We didn't have much, but it seemed to be a lot to me at the time. And there we had a very good cutting room, and an office and projectors with arcs. The cutting room was the theatre itself and it had these enormous old projectors with arcs.

Then all sorts of people started to arrive. Marion Grierson, Edwin Spice, and then there were a whole crowd of cockney children.

SP: This was still the EMB?

JT: Yes, still the EMB. Frank Jones or Jonah Jones, Fred Gamage, Chick Fowle and Phyllis Long and um, Olive Plumb.

SP: People who were all working at the GPO film unit a little later were they?

JT: They all came you see at 16. It really was the strangest place you've ever seen. There was the upper crust like Bas and so on, and everyone had to say 'Mister'. It took me weeks to say 'Sir' and 'Mister'. Grierson would come home where I lived in the evening, he'd say look you've bl**dy well got to learn to say 'Sir' to people, not growl at them, and you must call Wright 'Mister'. And for years and years, in the end I called everyone bl**dy Mister and Sir and it took years to get out of it.

5. Grierson and distribution

JT: Grierson realised the kind of films he wanted to make were not going to be shown in the cinemas and this was one of the divisions that came between Grierson and people like Cav [Alberto Cavalcanti] and Harry [Harry Watt]. Cav and Harry wanted cinema distribution. It was at that point that Grierson set up the non-theatrical distribution and they had travelling projectors. They had a non-theatrical manager called Thomas Baird and a chief projectionist who was Flora Robson's brother, and a number of people like Duggie Smith who went right the way through and ended up at Anvil in the dubbing box.

I can remember working during one of my holidays in Edinburgh at the Radio Exhibition, they had a radio exhibition there and Duggie Smith and I had 2 automatic Philips projectors with 3 copies of Radio Interference made by Harry Watt on each projector. They were push button projectors, in those days.

SP: Was this 35mm?

JT: Yes.

SP: Because nothing was reduced to 16mm then for this kind of thing was it?

JT: It was beginning, by then. I worked for 2 weeks in the box up there. Baird was the theatre man, they had a theatre in the exhibition, and people who poured into the cinema, it was a new kind of thing, and he used to shove them, I think the film lasted 10 minutes. He'd get them in and out in about 12 minutes, then we'd run another copy, another other 10 minutes, in and out, we used to do this from 10 in the morning till 10 at night. This was the start of the non-theatrical distribution. After this it was taken over by the Ministry of Information and expanded into 160 mobile units which travelled between the war. The audience they said was something like 18 million during the war.

SP: That was in wartime. But before the war when these films were being made, theatrical distribution was very small. I remember seeing North Seaand Night Mail, in the Tatler I think it was on Tottenham Court Rd, which is a wonderful place for seeing these films. Thinking back I'm wondering how many other cinemas showed these films.

JT: North Sea and Night Mail got quite good distribution.

SP: Did they go round with feature films?

JT: Yes and Song of Ceylon had not too bad [distribution]. That type of films you could show but films like Housing Problems or any of the other films there was no chance really and this is why Grierson started the non-theatrical thing. The studio was the depot for the projecting people. I don't know what size it was by the time they finished but it had built up into quite a business by the coming of the war anyway.

6. Grierson's training methods

SP: In those few years from 1930 as a boy to the beginning of the war, this was almost non-stop training period. Learning as you went.

JT: I was no means alone in this.

SP: Well there weren't any training schools.

JT: All the others, there was Chick Fowle, Jonah Jones, Fred Gamage, Pat Jackson, Roy Stocks, McNaughton

SP: Ken Cameron.

JT: He came in, he wasn't a sound recordist at all. McAllister. There were a lot of young people who were brought in and were being trained through this period. I was lucky because I was the first one there. So I was two years a head of most of them. Pat Jackson for instance was sent to Grenoble University and I think he most likely did his full time there.

SP: In a similar kind of way?

JT: As I was, yes. It really was a proper comprehensive school all things considered. Roy Stocks, I don't think he was 17 and he worked as Cav's editor. He packed up in the end for some reason or another and became chief salesman at that Rolls Royce place in Berkeley Sq ultimately, a very prosperous character. But anyway and then of course, there were a lot of other people who were older than we were who were also being trained. Harry for instance, Harry was working as a storeman in British Home Stores. He went to see Grierson, and being one of Harry's stories Grierson didn't want to know until he told Grierson he'd crossed the Atlantic in a sailing ship and he got a job on the spot, that's Harry's story [Laughter].

Harry joined the Empire Marketing Board Unit in mid 1932. He worked as a roustabout, driving the car, delivering messages, carrying goods here and there, helping with this that and the other thing. By 1935 or 36 he'd made Night Mail. It worked all the way through this training and pushing people on quickly as well.

At this time there were other units being started like Strand and Shell, but it still kind of centred on the GPO, 21 Soho Sq and every Friday night they used to have films shows which everybody used to come to. Everyone would go and have a drink to start off with, and you got all sorts of people there like Len Lye. I can remember Len who was a very cheerful character and very forthcoming one night saying after the film show, saying oh for christsake we can't stand around here, let's have a dance. And everyone said what will Grierson say, and Len said I don't care what Grierson says. They took up the coconut matting and put a record on the box and every one started dancing, he was a wonderful man. And people met all the time. At this time Grierson was running World Film News which everybody had to help with as well. He always managed to succeed, well not always but he had this great thing of bringing people together. He did exactly the same thing in Canada, all the people who worked at the Canadian Film Board still meet one another and are still connected.

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Grierson, John (1898-1972)
Taylor, John (1914-1992)