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Bryan Langley: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

On his early career in silent film at the studios of H.B. Parkinson

Main image of Bryan Langley: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Bryan Langley was interviewed by Arthur Graham on 18 November 1987.

1. Starting in films

BL: I was born in Fulham in London in 1909, December 29th, so it's really 1910 almost. My parents lived in Uxbridge during the First World War and I went to the local secondary school there and my father was an opera singer and he was touring all he time so he carted me off to a public school, what they called a public school in Somerset and I was there from 11 to 17 and during my holidays I joined my parents on tour with the opera company. So I had a secluded upbringing.

AG: When did you enter the industry?

BL: I entered as an unpaid assistant during my holidays from school working with the H.B. Parkinson Company. My father was acting, singing for Mr. Parkinson making two-reel opera shorts, silent films oddly enough. The idea was that an artist would appear on the stage and sing to accompany the film, this was the great thing. My father was, an opera singer and during my holidays I went with the film company while they were filming various operas and my father would be singing and acting in the thing. Now I worked as an unpaid gofer as we call it now during the holidays but when I left school at the age of 17 I went straight away to Mr. Parkinson's, H.B. Parkinson's company as a trainee because I had no photographic ideas or any ideas whatsoever. All I knew was that my father had arranged for Mr. Parkinson to take me on and for them to find out what was most suitable for whatever talents I had.

Mr. Parkinson passed me through every department he had: negative cutting, positive cutting, vault work - I used to hump cans of films up and down Wardour St to a chap called Wally Dahlberg [?] who in later life I met at Pinewood when he was chief projectionist. I did all these things as well as assisting the projectionist and helping in the film labs, R.E. Strange's film labs - Percy Anthony and Leo Kass were there. In due course Mr. Parkinson noticed I appeared rather strong and he wondered if I could carry a tripod up and down Wardour St, around London, I suppose to save the bus fares. I humped this tripod up and down, all over the place. Mr. Parkinson was making a series called Wonderful London, which is very famous and is in the National Film Archives. His son Roy can tell you all about these things.

Anyway in due course I found on top of the tripod was a camera which was a Debrie and I practiced in my lunch hour loading this camera and in the end I was able to do it against a stop watch with my eyes closed. I could do it now actually, in my mind anyway.

2. The talkies

BL: We had two cameras, a wooden Debrie so called, and a metal Debrie - Super Parvo, and we made a great number of two reel films some of which we did at Stolls Studios usually using sets left over from the previous production. The sort of films we were doing, these were silent films, had the titles like Ave Maria, The Rosary, Rock of Ages all these sort of religious things. I suppose the end idea was to get some chap on stage to sing to accompany these films.

Anyway I cut my teeth on these things and we worked also at Southall Studios which used to be an aircraft hangar in the First World War and Worton Hall Studios and on one wonderful occasion we heard the talkies were coming in the shape of Dark Red Roses lit by Eric Cross and it was going to be a night shoot. And so I stayed up all night watching Eric Cross and these other people shooting Dark Red Roses, this was about 1928 or 29 and they had incandescent lights and I think the director was Sinclair Hill. Anyway I remember him saying to the actors whatever you do don't dry up, just say anything that comes into your head it's a talking film and you must talk. This was the principle. This was the advent to me of the talkies.

I must pay a credit to Mr. Parkinson, not only did he pass me through all his departments, in every department, he also had me trained to drive, I suspected at the time he wanted me as an unpaid chauffeur. Anyway he had me taught to drive at the British School of Motoring and he sent me off the Regent Street Polytechnic to attend what I think was the first course on kinematography, with a 'k' in those days, and one occasion Mr. George, I think it was George Pearson, Mr. Sinclair, either Mr. Newman or Mr. Sinclair, one of those two people came to give us a lecture on the camera he'd made for Mr. Ponting who went to the South Pole to film this expedition. He told us that his camera had only one claw to shift the films but Mr. Ponting said this is ridiculous, you must have two claws to shift the film. And Mr. Sinclair or Mr. Newman said alright well I'll put you in a second claw. And he told us confidentially he put this claw in and made sure so that it didn't touch the edge of the perforation.

I must confess to not being a very good student but that was my fault, my omission. Mr. Parkinson certainly fulfilled every obligation whatever he had with my father both practically and in a good sense and I would never have had an all round training had it had not been for him. And I found this in later life invaluable. In my later career I had to be in charge of a film laboratory and I took this, to this control, the management without a great deal of doubts because I'd seen it all happen with Percy Anthony and Leo Kass dumping their film in the tanks. In the lab I took over we had machines with cogs but I was able to look after it pretty well and I shouldn't have been able to do that if I had not had my training at Parkinsons.

3. H.B. Parkinson's film lab

AG: From what you've said Bryan, you obviously started work some time in the middle 20s. When exactly was it?

BL: I was at school at Wellington in Somerset and I left there at the end of term in 1927 so I must have started in August, something life that, 1927.

AG: Where was Parkinson's place of work, was it in Wardour Street?

BL: No, it was actually in Little Denmark St, off Charing Cross Rd and it was located in the laboratories, the first floor up of R. E. Strange and Company. H. B. Parkinson had a whole floor in Mr. Strange's Laboratory factory [unintelligible] and on the ground floor in the basement Mr. Parkinson had a film vault from which I would get on suitable occasions, nitrate film. I remember the smell right now of nitrate film in the vault. One of the films Mir Parkinson always trotted out was Married to a Mormon. Whenever the Mormons were coming Mr. Parkinson would cash in on this and release his film and 1 would used to get it and I remember on one chilling moment I went in the vault and the door shut. I was then starting to experiment with smoking and I reached in my pocket for my matches to find a way out but fortunately I hadn't brought them that day so I'm still here. [Laughter]

AG: A certain amount of danger attached there. What wages did you get?

BL: I can't remember. I've been trying to remember. I don't suppose they were magnificent. At the end of my time at Parkinson's which was in 1930, I was the chief cameraman and lighting, so called. Anyway I was photographing at any quite a number of Mr. Parkinson's films and I had the idea, vaguely, that I was getting about £5 a week which was a hefty salary in those days. I suppose it was considerably less than he would have been paying to Frank Cannon, the cameraman I displaced I suppose is the word - there was Frank Cannon, Sidney Eaton, Alf Tunwell and Bert Ford. All of these were freelance cameramen who turned up and when Mr. Parkinson found that I could a handle with great success, I had a strong right arm, I suppose he took a prudent decision and promoted me and reaped the benefits financially to my benefit too. Anyway, I think it was about £5 a week.

4. R.E. Strange and Percy Anthony

BL: Mr. Parkinson sent me down to R. E. Strange's developing department laboratory and in particular the negative developing part which was run by Percy Anthony, father of Bryan Anthony. Percy Anthony had one eye, he was a cameraman originally before he became a lab manager, and the labs had great big drums on which the film was dried. We would shoot film in either 100 ft rolls on Imo or 400 ft rolls in our Debrie magazines, and they would be also chromatic or ordinary film and latterly panchromatic.

Ordinary film of course is blue sensitive only, ortho is sensitive to something I can't remember what, panchromatic is sensitive to everything. These films, the exposed films were given to Percy Anthony who would unwind it on a frame which you would wind. The frame would stand in a horse and the film would be unwound out of a magazine onto the frame so 400 ft of film would be held on this wooden frame, of course never touching, one on top of the other, and the frame of exposed film would be dunked in a bath of developer, D76 I suppose, and dunked in there for so many minutes and then put into a stop path and then in a bath of hypo.

Now, a hypo, when the rack was taken out of the tank to put it the washing tanks it dripped on the floor, the floor was covered with duck boards and underneath the floor were all these liquids which were dripping of the frame and consequently the labs smelt wonderfully I think of hypo. So, whenever I go to a laboratory nowadays I always ask to go where there's some hypo so I can smell this lovely smell of hypo.

The film after it was washed was then brought out and unwound. And I was given this job to do of unwinding the film from the frame onto a giant drum about 5 or 6 ft in diameter, you'd clip it on the front part of one of the bars and unwind it slowly so it didn't touch anything else and this drum was driven by a motor and in due course it dried. And I also had to pass the film through the chammy leather in my hand so as to wipe off the excess moisture.

In the days of ordinary film and ortho film, in the laboratory you had a red light so you could see everything in a kind of red glow. But when they invented panchromatic of course there was no light other than a very dull green light, you could hardly see anything. Now we dried the film and then Percy Anthony also did the titles. He had a camera, I think it was a camera like a Williamson you turn at the back and you'd photograph the titles. Because all films, silent films had titles and somebody had to photograph the things, and then R. E. Strange's had automatic tubes for positive film developing which went up and down the building from top to bottom, giant tubes of positive developper, I didn't of course have anything to do with those.

5. Sound recording on films

BL: And if I may, while we're at Parkinson's and before we cast him to oblivion, I'd like to tell you about our entry into the sound recording business. Mr. Parkinson somehow got involved with an inventor of sound recording techniques and this consisted of connecting the Debrie camera which in the end I had to hand crank. The Debrie camera was connected by a chain, a bicycle chain and a cog on the handle-shaft to another cog which drove the turntable of the gramophone. Now the idea was you'd go out and buy a lovely gramophone record of say Caruso singing whatever it is recorded with the very, very best techniques of the time, His Master's Voice, and it would probably cost 1'6.

This gramophone record would be given to an actor, a singer who was told to go home and learn the song just like the man sings it. So the next day he'd come and I'd mount the camera on the tripod, the special little tripod and my chains and cans and things and gramophone disk. We'd put the gramophone disk on the turntable, I'd crank and I became so expert in cranking this thing that the sound would never waver, warble or anything wrong. I was mechanically as good as the machine I thought and we made dozens of films like this and the actor would sing away up against the sky and I suppose Mr. Parkinson had a cinema somewhere where the whole system was reversed. Where there was a turntable connected to a projector and you could see the man singing. Anyway my end was just cranking the thing and making sure the exposure was right.

And then Mr. Parkinson made a fatal mistake, he hired a director. Hitherto it had all been done by him, he hired this director who said we'll knock this singing fool stuff to six I suppose. Anyway he had an invalid car company dolly made for me and the camera and the turntable and the idea was that we'd go on location and we went to Twickenham, I remember very well. We tracked along some chap singing, like it was singing on a gramophone and the director said cut Bryan so I stopped turning and the director said now the next camera set up is here and we moved everything round and he said start. And the actor couldn't pick it up. So the director got the needle back in the grove and we tried all day and we never got the thing in synchronism and so the thing was abandoned.

Nowadays I think we realise that if we'd have started right again from the beginning and got the actors to sing everything twice in two positions that would have been alright, we could have managed. But we couldn't pick it up in the middle of the gramophone record in synchronism and this was a bitter blow I think to Mr. Parkinson's sound recording hopes. The quality of the sound was first class, it was very much better than anything you could hear up in the cinemas because of the bad sound recording and inefficient systems. I think that is worth nothing down.

6. Colour in silent films

AG: Did you have anything, either shooting or in the laboratories, to do with colour?

BL: Yes, in silent films. We had a system which was developed called tinting and toning. Tinting consisted of ordering any one of umpteen coloured tints in which the celluloid, the base, was coloured - one I of them was called Pathe pink I remember and there was all sort of hues. The idea being that all the transparent parts of the film, the hi-lights when projected would come out whatever the hue was, the tint was in the hi-lights of the film. And then someone, I have no idea who, found out that if you treated the deposits, the silver deposits, the black parts, with some chemical they would be toned some colour. So in Parkinsons we quite often had films which had pink hi-lights and blue shadows so you got an impression of colour. It was very attractive especially for fire sequences and deserts. The tinting was really a very attractive thing. I believe it was very difficult thing to do, the toning to get it consistent but the tinting was certainly a jolly good system and it was much appreciated. People would compose their scripts and write on their scripts pathe pink here or frosted blue there or whatever. Also while I'm on what was in the scripts, the directors used to put down the camera speed. Normal camera speed was 16 frames per second and it was the practice then to under-crank or over-crank various things according to the nature of the scene. For example I think boxing matches it was always thought best to under-crank boxing matches so they appeared more animated. Dancing you over-cranked a little bit so they became more graceful and these things directors would specify.

7. Hazards of early studios

AG: You've mentioned a number of studios you worked in like Worton Hall and Highbury. What were the various studios like, what were the condition like in them, what were they like as studios?

BL: With youthful eyes I thought they were wonderful but thinking back, at BIP and Welling, I'm probably not thinking back in sequence but at BIP and Welling the original sound stages were draped in great big blankets which contained a lot of dust and were terribly inflammable. Why there weren't more fires when you think of all those carbon arcs, I thought the idea of parting the curtain and going onto the stage was wonderful. It was like going onto a circus.

Whilst at BIP I was hired out as a camera assistant with Walter Blakely to Gainsborough Poole St on a film called the Stronger Sex which was the first film after the great big fire at Gainsborough Poole Street. The equipment there was a mixture of mercury banks of lights hanging in the rafters and incandescent lights so actors looked sometimes horribly blue and sometimes jaundiced yellow. Much of the equipment you asked for they'd sometimes say that was destroyed in the fire guv. So it was pretty hard at Islington on the first film after the fire, justly so. Another thing at Welling, Welling had been completely equipped with arc lighting lamps while they were run by British Instructional Films, came the talkies these light were absolutely useless because they howled and whistled and hummed and so at Welling there were crates and crates of lamps which were never unpacked. A terrible expense of course.

Another problem we had was in the development of sound at BIP originally microphones were buried in bits of the set. Actors would walk up to a microphone and say their bit, walk to another place and say their next bit, microphones didn't follow. Then they developed bamboo poles and then some bright chap invented the Lazy-tong Boom which Otto Kanturek my boss described as the Loch Ness Monster because it was staked out undulating all over the set casting enormous shadows, it was terrifying from the cameraman's point of view.

Another problem was that the sound man at BIP and other studios always used to be away in a glass fronted box, he didn't sit on the set looking at the action, he was up there looking at the levers and modules. Another thing was the sound was recorded on film so you never heard it till tomorrow when it was developed and printed, so you were never really sure how it was.

8. Stolls Studios in the '30s

At Stoll's where we made a number of films, they seemed cavernous. One time we went there they had a giant set which stretched from one stage to another through a kind of tunnel. I remember walking through this thing doing our Rock of Ages scene or whatever it was on the corner of this big set. It was enormous.

I would think the greatest difference between then and now is the weight of the lighting equipment because the lights were mostly old military searchlights. For example we had 1000mm sun arcs with facet mirror reflectors - you could almost stand inside them, these things were enormously heavy - all the lighting equipment was heavy. Every arc light had to have an electrician standing by to keep the arc burning properly and to stop the howling. The cables were heavy but of course there were lots of people available and this in turn gave lots of work to lots of people.

Then later I'll never forget they invented Colourtran. I was at the BBC Ealing and a man came with Colourtran and said look two kilowats of light in that little thing, I didn't believe him. He lifted it up with one hand and there we are two kilowatts of light, unheard of. The light was wonderful. And of course cameras, the first stage of sound required that the cameras to be in a booth. The booth was originally just like a sentry box and then they put it on wheels and then the booth revolved and tracked. Nevertheless the camera crew was sitting inside this thing, the cameraman Jack Cox usually and me, I was pulling the focus.

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Langley, Bryan (1909-2008)