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Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1987)

On the collaborative process and why Ealing stopped making films

Main image of Charles Crichton: BECTU Interview Part 3 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Charles Crichton was interviewed by Sid Cole with Alan Lawson in 1987.

1. Collaboration at Ealing

Charles Crichton: Well of course the way we worked is well known, the way all directors and associate producers, the associate producer of course being the creative producer as opposed to Micky [Michael] Balcon, who was the executive. So all the associate producers, the directors used to read each other's scripts, criticise them, see each other's rushes, see each other's rough cuts.

And we had those monthly meetings. So I wouldn't like to call it a team effort because it can't quite be a team effort, but, for instance, one of Sandy [Alexander] Mackendrick's contributions was that he always found ways of suggesting that we should do exactly the opposite to what we wanted to do. The result of that was that he forced us to clarify our own thinking about something in order to defend ourselves against his harsh and rather cruel criticisms. But then Dougie [Douglas] Slocombe would contribute ideas. It was a very nice way of working.

Sid Cole: Do you remember on the end of The Dead of Night, which already had in the script the recurring dream idea, which finished the film in the script and it was the projectionist at the studio who, when we were running the completed thing, Percy Moss was his name, he always liked to comment on the picture which was good and he said, "why don't you carry on, it ought to go on longer at the end." And we looked at him and said, "what a marvellous idea, how right you are."

CC: The end should be the beginning.

SC: Yes. That's why we repeated the whole of the beginning under the end titles instead of just leaving it with Mervyn John saying "Cor, I think I've been here." That was symptomatic of the way I think anyone could make suggestions at that time.

2. Influence of Cavalcanti

CC: I think Cav was an enormous, I mean I think he was the really creative thing about Ealing. He always was talking about the necessity for truth, and he didn't mean you couldn't make a comedy, but he was always looking for sincerity. It's very difficult, I mean the word is too small, sincerity, but we always knew what he meant, and I think he had an enormous influence.

AL: He never really made it did he, not really.

CC: I think Mick was jealous of him but knew of his value. But if you were talking about him as a director outside, he didn't really make it but he was an enormous influence on us.

AL: Why do you think it was that he didn't really make it?

CC: No idea.

SC: I think perhaps it's in what you just said Charles, basically perhaps his best function was as a...

CC: As a producer.

SC: As a real creative producer, to encourage people. I think the best film he made in England apart from those documentary things was perhaps the one I cut, which was Went the Day Well, which still survives and has that thing you were talking about, sincerity, stylistic sincerity. If you're going to do it, you do it the best you can, truthfully and in it's own terms. If you've decided to make a thing, you mustn't do things which don't belong to what you're trying to do. Would you agree with that, Charles?

CC: Yes I would. Also what about the dummy sequence?

SC: The best thing of all is the dummy sequence in Dead of Night.

CC: Brilliant

SC: It's absolutely brilliant, yes of course.

3. Producers

AL: How do you see a proper producer's job, as opposed to the director's job?

CC: The way it worked at Ealing was really this that there would be the writer, the associate producer, the creative producer, and the director, and we would all work through the script together. Then the time would come when the director went on the floor, which was what we had discussed, talked about and put on paper and we would put it was put on film. Now, the associate producer never came onto the floor at all, practically speaking, but then he saw the rushes and he was assessing, shall we say, whether the rushes had really managed to put onto film all the things and the hopes and desires that we had been talking about beforehand. He would criticise them from that end, whereas the director was more detailedly involved. Therefore he had an enormously important function.

For instance there was one sequence in The Lavender Hill Mob which Michael Truman thought we hadn't quite achieved what he had hoped for and we talked about it and we looked at the rushes and we talked about it and we shot it again. And the only change we made was we put the camera about a foot lower down than it had been in our original shot. And in point of fact it did make a very strong difference to the scene. That was the function there and in fact I think that's the correct function.

AL: So he takes an overall view of everything that has been discussed, and he makes sure it gels.

CC: More or less, yes. But some producers like to interfere more than that, but I think that it's right that they should keep off the floor. But they can say what they bloody well like about the rushes.

SC: But you need that detached thing - as a director you need that detached thing of someone, because always, doesn't an odd thing happen Charles, sometimes on the floor? It seems right to you when you say, "OK cut, print, that's the one", and when you sit in rushes it might still lack something which you didn't see at the time and that's where a producer and indeed an editor very often can say, point out something that, you know, maybe is lacking and needs someone outside to mention it to you.

4. The end of Ealing

AL: I wanted to get your impressions: what went wrong at Ealing eventually? Because it had been so successful - what went wrong?

CC: I think to some extent everybody at Ealing towards the late 50s was beginning to feel a bit incestuous. But this is not why the studio closed. Why the studio closed must be a secret which Micky [Michael] Balcon has taken with him to the tomb. Because, whenever encouraged by good trade unionists like Sidney Cole, we asked for more money he always said, "what are you talking about this is your studio, I'm getting old, I'm going to retire, and then the studio will be yours, so don't bloody well ask for any more money." And then suddenly I wasn't there, I'd left already, suddenly one day all those people who really thought that was their studio, were told, "that's it chums, f**k off". And people like Charlie [Charles] Frend were absolutely shattered.

SC: That isn't quite true. There was an interesting thing I think you may have forgotten Charles, but there was a moment at Ealing when everybody started thinking that, alright, everybody was going on year by year, but we weren't getting as much money as we might get outside. And there was a meeting of all the directors and all the associate producers which finally deputed Cavalcanti and myself to go and talk to Mick about money.

CC: No, I'm not forgetting that. When I said encouraged by good trade unionists, like Sidney Cole. [Laughter]

SC: Ah, but it was interesting because I went and saw Mick about it and I think Mick was very frightened at these modest signs of revolt, because I think you'll agree Charles, Mick had a sort of family feeling. We were people, to be fair he had promoted most of us, and he suddenly got, I think, very frightened at the idea that we might be deserting the ship. Anyhow, it wasn't too difficult to get him to give us a bit more money. Mind you, they probably could afford it, he and Reg [Reginald] Baker, but I'll always remember that. I remember it for personal reasons, which was that having finally, Cav sort of dropped out, and I concluded the negotiations and fixed the fees and I neglected for a time to sign my contract as a result. Finally Mick Balcon sent for me and said I realised that I should have put you in the top echelons which I haven't, so please if I give you that other five pounds a week will you sign your contract, which I did, but I hadn't meant that at all. But that was a symptomatic thing about Ealing, because Mick was a very divided person, wasn't he.

CC: I think he was a very mean person in money terms, I think, and yet he was deeply emotional about making films and about this being his studio and we being Sir Michael, not Sir Michael at that time, Michael Balcon's young men in the second-hand clothing. [Laughter] We did have second-hand clothing for the simple reason we were paid bloody little until you and Cav went and stirred things up. I mean, I was earning 25 pounds a week for making feature pictures.

AL: What, The Lavender Hill Mob!

SC: Oh no, not The Lavender Hill Mob, but to begin with.

5. Profitability

AL: Had Ealing lost its touch at all, its way of making films which were successful?

CC: I don't think it's possible to answer that one. Basil Dearden was always making financially successful pictures and when he left he continued to make them. It's difficult to say.

SC: It's interesting you say that about Basil because I think that's true, his films on the whole were consistently successful.

CC: Less critically successful and more economically successful.

SC: Yes, which is the right basis for a studio, really, you need pictures which make money to enable the studio to do the interesting things, more interesting than commercial things.

CC: Alright, you were allowed to make a picture which wasn't at all successful, but that was partly because of the excess profits tax, I think. But at that period there was more feeling of experiment at Ealing than later on, I think.

SC: Perhaps Alan is right in the sense that that whole impetus of what is now known of the Ealing pictures and has developed a kind of mythology, tails off, as it's liable to in any situation, I think.

CC: I don't know whether it tailed off or not, all I only know is that I felt I wanted to fly from another nest which I unsuccessfully did. I plummeted to the ground immediately, of course, and bloke my bloody neck.

AL: Was new blood brought in at all?

CC: No. There would have been. I mean what was very unhappy for people like Michael Truman and Seth Holt, they were just about to get their chance when all this happened.

They made pictures but they didn't make them with the protection.

SC: Sure which is a great shame, because they were both extremely good and promising.

CC: Absolutely. So if Ealing had gone on, this is what you're talking about, that new blood might have recreated a new Ealing.

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Audio & Video Clips
Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)