Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1988)

Highlights from his career at Realist Films and Crown Film Unit

Main image of John Taylor: BECTU Interview Part 3 (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. The banning of Goodbye Yesterday

JT: Goodbye Yesterday was quite an interesting film actually, it was banned. It was a film about the future and the past.

It was a film about an old man living alone, old and neglected; a young woman who worked in an office - there were five characters in it - and the film was assembled around them in a projection theatre, looking at the film and then discussing it afterwards and what the future of Britain should be. We took it out, they used to sneak preview the films, we took it out to the Camden Town Gaumont with Beddington, Elton and a man called Radcliffe and they slipped it into the programme and came out at the end of it. Radcliffe said this film is never going to be shown as far as I'm concerned, he was one of the bosses. We argued, Elton and Beggington argued, and he said absolutely not, there's no question about it, and somebody burnt the negative.

2. Penicillin

SP: SP: Regarding the various, many films you produced at Realist during the second world war there were a few that were outstanding, can you remember?

JT: Penicillin you'd think of I suppose. It was the official film of the discovery of Penicillin. It was financed by ICI and directed by Alex Shaw and Kay Mander. Alex Shaw and Jeak [A.E. Jeakins] went out to the front line in Holland, picked up an wounded soldier at a front line dressing station where they had the Pencillin tab put on and the story of Penicillin was told as he was brought back through the stages and to England.

SP: Was the Penicillin tab something which was put on someone who had had their first injection?

JT: Yes, it was so crude in those days, they hadn't got it concentrated as they have now, and on top of that it got very, very painful after the fifth injection, from what I remember. They had a card which they filled in each injection, which I think was about every 3 hours. But it had Fleming, Florey [Ernst] and Chain [Howard] in it and the team at Oxford. It's always talked of as Fleming's discovery but there was a team of about 45 who worked on it trying to find the cure for gas gangrene which was the thing in the First World War which killed so many men. And it wasn't a chance discovery by any means, they knew what they were looking for and they found it.

SP: So the chance discovery is yet again another historical myth, is it, of the stuff that was growing on somebody's saucer on a window sill?

JT: Well it is and it isn't, Fleming was a fairly haphazard scientist. One of his disks was contaminated with a penicillin spore, but he did write a short paper saying there does seem to be some antipathy between this mould and the bacteria. Then 12 years went by and he didn't do anything about it. And they set up this team in I don't know in what year, 1938, somewhere around there, purposely to discover a cure for gas gangrene.

SP: Was this encoded in the film?

JT: Yes.

SP: But to go out to the front, or near the front and pick up a wounded person was a fairly innovative style of filmmaking.

JT: Well Alex was a very, very good filmmaker.

SP: It's the kind of thing you would only consider doing now with a video camera, or at least lightweight equipment which they didn't have then did they?

JT: No, it was silent stuff anyway, with a Newman inevitably. Alex was a very good filmmaker, very good indeed, very good scriptwriter and Kay shot a lot of the stuff, she was a very good filmmaker too. Suschitsky [Wolfgang] photographed half of it and Jeak photographed the other half. They lost actually reel two, the British Film Institute and after a certain amount of jumping up and down they rediscovered it.

3. Setting up the Crown Film Unit

JT: I went on at Realist until till the end of [1946]. Alex Shaw left at the beginning of 1946, and went as producer to Crown. Then at the end of that year he asked me if I'd go and I didn't want to go but he said it was my duty to go. I didn't particularly want to leave Realist but in the end I went anyway. First of January 1947.

SP: In what capacity then?

JT: As Producer, Producer-In-Charge. They'd taken over Beaconsfield Studios which had been an aircraft factory. It had no heating in it at all and was a ruin. The cutting rooms were at Denham, Pinewood and Twickenham. I don't know where the sound people were and it was that winter when everything froze solid.

SP: And no easy transport.

JT: There was tons of transport. They had masses of transport of their own.

SP: What, the hangover from the war?

JT: Yes they had big Ford green army cars for production. They had generator lorries. There was something like 250 people there. At the end of the war they had to decide what the future shape of the government film department was going to be. Basil Wright was on the committee at the Ministry of Information with 2 or 3 high-up civil servants deciding what shape it should be. And they decided they would set up a film department based on the Canadian National Film Board, which would be a department which would have it's own grant and decide which films were made, in consultation with the other governments departments, but they would be the authority.

SP: Did Grierson come in on this at all?

TJ: No, not at all. Grierson at this time was with UNESCO in Paris. But Basil was their adviser and it was all agreed. One morning Basil picked up a paper and opened it and read that the Central Office of Information is the new body and will have a film department. This was really the beginning of the end because it didn't really work very well. There'd been scores of public relation officers appointed during the war. And after the war they poured out of the forces to become public relation officers and hadn't the vaguest idea of what they were doing at all but wouldn't it be nice to have a film. What sort of film, oh a film, any film would do [Laughter]. There were a few who were good. It was completely the wrong way of doing it unfortunately.

The second mistake was to give Crown a studio. The last thing Crown wanted was the plasterers department, a carpenters department, an art department and so on. What it wanted was 2 projection rooms, or 3 projection rooms, a dozen cutting rooms, a camera department and some offices.

SP: Mm and some transport which there was.

JT: Yes, but you could even hire the transport. But instead of that it was landed with this enormous overhead which controlled the whole of it's production. There was this a very good chief executive there called Smith, Gordon Smith who was a very enthusiastic good character. The camera department was terrible, they couldn't do anything except put the camera 3 foot 6 from the ground, lock it firmly and put every light they'd got onto whatever it was they were photographing. They were all nice people but they'd really got control of the situation.

When I went there they had things like the establishment which you couldn't break. That was 8 directors and 4 scritpwriters.

SP: Had they been there during all the war.

TJ: One director had made a film, the other 7 hadn't.

SP: How had they managed to get there?

JT: I don't know, Alex had appointed them. All the people had left and gone into the studios. Humphrey Jennings, Jack Lee, Pat Jackson, and so on, all of them. The four scriptwriters, I don't think any of them had ever written a script but they were all likely people to be trained. It took a year and a half to build the studio. We slowly got bits, everything was in short supply. You couldn't get switches for the cutting rooms so you couldn't use the cutting rooms and all this kind of thing.

SP: Was any production going on at all?

JT: We used every conceivable method of getting films made. We made a lot of films. We converted the plasterers shop into a studio. We got Jack Holmes to come in and make a film. I tried to get Joris Ivens, I told you, to come here. Max Anderson came in, Terry Bishop, ultimately Phil Leacock and Margaret Thomson, but you were very strictly controlled on how many you could employ. The budget was some enormous sum of money, about £2 million a year, and 8 directors could never spend £2 million a year even if they were making features. You'd try and explain this to people, the establishment people and the finance people, they just wouldn't listen. I enjoyed it actually. It was quite a thing to do

4. Daybreak at Udi

JT: After a while we reaIly began to churn films out, all sorts of things, the kind of films I like to make anyway, The Diagnosis and Management of Poliomylitis[ Polio - Diagnosis And Management], which was a five-reeler. There was a very big outbreak of polio at that time and most doctors had never seen it.

SP: So this was a specific film for doctors.

JT: Yes. All sorts of stuff.

SP: What make you decide some pictures rather than others? Did some of the directors who were sitting there who hadn't directed did they come up with stories too.

JT: No, the snag was that you could only make films that were requested by other government departments.

SP: It was all government departments was it?

JT: Yes.

SP: It couldn't be anyone else. You were there to service the government as it were.

JT: It depended on whether the chief secretary or someone... they could bend the rules but you couldn't, if you see what I mean. Occasionally, we made a film, one morning I read an article in the Times about a man called Chadwick who was a district officer in Nigeria, about a fundamental education. I rang Helen Demoulpied who I got on very well with, we both believed in the same kind of things. I said have you seen that and she said yes I have, I said what about it and she said right. We had a thing called, for The Ministry of Education which Jacquetta Hawkes was the films officer, called Ships and Seafaring, an educational film. Helen and Jacquetta changed Ships and Seafaringinto Daybreak in Udi.

SP: You mean there was something on the stocks?

JT: [Laughter] If the other end agreed you could do anything practically. There were two other ends, I mean it was easy enough to get Helen Demoulpied to agree because she would think the same way but in this case there was Jacquetta Hawks who was quite good to.

Half way through the production, the original budget was £15,000 and they were all out there with sound and everything.

SP: Who directed that?

JT: Terry Bishop was directing that and Max Anderson producing it, Monty Slater wrote the script, they were all out there trying to shoot. We'd spent the £15,000 and we couldn't get authority from the finance people to go on and finish the film. I think they were held up two weeks before I could get permission. There were all sorts of things happened like that.

During the war the Civil Service lost control of film production completely and Beddington and Elton and all the other controlling officers would say go and make a film. Then the budget people would groan and moan and say we shouldn't really pass this and they knew that they had to pass it but they would put up an objection. The minute the war finished they got back in control again, they didn't say we shouldn't pass this, they'd say we won't pass this. And that made life difficult. But between us we knocked it into not a bad [place], we got the unit feeling going. We had a cricket team, a darts team, a sports club, everybody ate in the canteen, there were no posh lunches, I always ate in the canteen. We had dances and a magazine called Short Ends which Bob Angel edited. There were a lot of very enthusiastic young people there as well.

SP: Was Daybreak at Udi a one-off overseas production or were you making things on post-war reconstruction or wasn't that your briefing.

JT: The briefing covered anything practically which any government department wanted. We made films about road safety, teaching films for schools, we did a lot of secret work on the building of Harwell [Secrets of Harwell], which was a fairly crazy business and other secret work which I can't really remember and which I didn't really know much about but I knew about Harwell.

SP: Was that filming for the archives for the future?

JT: Yes. It was a record of the construction. God alone knows where the stuff is now. We did a lot of record stuff. We did the building of Brabazon [Story Of The Bristol Brabazon], we used to send a unit down there once a month. And various other things like that, there was quite a lot of that. There was a Russian delegation which came over here in 1947 which we recorded everything they did more or less. Very good coverage of it and I felt there's no point of us making a film of it, so we made it up into reels with full notes saying shot number 1, this is so and so, and this is the background to it, Tower of London and so on and so on, they went around everywhere. We got about 10 or 12 reels of this stuff. We sent it to Moscow to be edited by the Russians and the bl**dy fools at the British Embassy ran it as a film at a cinema in Moscow.

SP: Just as it stood?

JT: As it stood. [Laughter] Camera flashes in the lot. Alexander Berth was the Guardian correspondent and a friend of ours wrote back saying this is a disgrace, the Crown Film Unit's falling to pieces, which didn't help us very much I might say but it was fair old chaos one way and another.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
Taylor, John (1914-1992)