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Kay Mander: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1988)

How Basic Films was formed, a putsch at the company and some highlights

Main image of Kay Mander: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1988)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Kay Mander was interviewed by Sid Cole with John Sherman on 28 November 1988.

1. Formation of Basic Films

KM: I didn't want to form a company. Rod [R. K. Neilson] wanted to...

SC: Didn't you?

KM: No. I wanted to be - I just didn't want any burdens. Rod wanted to form a company, and so it was Rod and Sam [Sam Napier-Bell] and myself who formed the company.

SC: This is Basic?

KM: This is Basic films, and...

SC: What? Just about '44?

KM: Near Home was '45, so it must have been, yes. Data was going to be a co-operative, and Rod didn't want to form a co-operative, because he wanted to retain control, so we formed a co-partnership.

SC: Which was you and Rod?

KM: No. Me, Rod and Sam, and two people elected from the staff - two board members elected from the staff. ie three and two. It was all very interesting, it worked very well.

SC: Who were the two from the staff?

KM: Well, they varied. 'Tubby' Englander [A. Arthur Englander] was one of them at one time.

SC: Tubby Englander? He was one of the first people I met in the industry.

KM: Ah! Well, he was our first cameraman, and then Michael Currer-Briggs came as the second cameraman, and Larry Pizer came as Tubby's assistant, and Peter Brown[?] came also, and Bob Camplin.[?]

SC: Wasn't Cynthia on it?

KM: Well, Cynthia was the reason for the company starting, because we wanted an animation bench. Cynthia Whitby. No, not Moody, Whitby.

SC: Right so, you're set up with this new company, and you're going to make documentaries?

KM: And scientific and educational films. And we did!

SC: For how long. Twenty years?

KM: Five years.

SC: Five years? Surely longer?

KM: No, because the staff decided they wanted to make cinema commercials. [...]Because we'd formed a co-partnership, very democratic.

SC: Yeah, but you had three to two votes anyway, so...

KM: Ah yes, but the third sided with the two.

SC: Ah. And when was that? After you'd made a lot of films, surely?

KM: No, it would have been 1949 - late '49 I think. Oh, we'd made a lot of films, yes - a great many films.

SC: The staff decided they wanted to go and...

KM: ... and make cinema commercials.

SC: There's a lot of money involved, presumably?

KM: I don't know that they thought about that, they just wanted to make cinema commercials, and Rod didn't. So Rod resigned, and I was sacked!

SC: Rod resigned and the remaining people sacked you?

KM: Yes.

SC: Which was charming of them!

KM: One of my best friends, Leon Clore took over. He'd been brought in as my production manager on the last film I made there! [laughs] [...]

SC: You did a lot of good films at Basic.

KM: Basic was a wonderful company, we had a wonderful crew, wonderful technicians...

SC: Tell me some of the films you made.

KM: ...They made a lovely film called The History of the Wool Trade [England's Wealth From Wool] for COI [Central Office of Information] which was a beautiful film, and John Shearman, who was with us for a brief period, made The Story of Liver Fluke! [Liver Fluke in Great Britain] [laughter] Liver fluke! - something that affects sheep. It was a beautiful, beautiful film. I made something called Near Home.

2. Children's Film Foundation

I took on a contract with Mary Field - Children's Film Foundation. Mary and I always got on very well together, and we did a series of - I'd shot bits and pieces for her children's magazines and things - and I put up to her the idea that we should make something called, How, What and Why? - which was three episodes in each one, about how things happened and why they happened and so on. One of the items which was, "Why does the outside horse on a roundabout go faster than the inside one?" Which was fascinating to demonstrate on film, with white tape and children running and things - it was lovely! And those were very difficult because we had a penalty clause, if I didn't deliver them by such and such a date they would deduct so much of the fee for every day thereafter. That was very good training, we got them in on time. Each one had an animated subject - "how does the elephant use it's trunk?" was one of them.

SC: That's a Rudyard Kipling thing.

KM: Yeah, anyway, they were good fun and good training, and everybody shot some of them - you shot - did you shoot one of them, John.

JS: I shot one on railway signalling, and you hated it!

KM: You shot one on railway signalling! [laughs]

SC: John Shearman talking there!

KM: And there was one on "How do the locks on a canal work?", Railway Signalling, "How do the patterns get onto fabrics?" ... They were very interesting anyway.

JS: They were great fun to do. I remember doing Railway Signalling and you sent me and Tubby Englander out to shoot this, and I knew all about railway signalling, I'd got it absolutely buttoned up. I shot it in a day and a half, and it had been pissing with rain - there was no exposure whatsoever! And when we saw the rushes, I clearly remember you, Kay [...]

JS: Kay was the producer, and she sent for me, having seen my rushes on this signalling thing, and she said, "I can't think why we employ you, John!" [laughter] That was the beginning of our friendship!

KM: I can't quite believe that! Anyway you are probably quite right. You must have done something f**king silly!

SC: That will have to be an item in John's story

3. La Famille Martin

SC: Obviously La Famille Martin relates to the fact that in your girlhood, and indeed before that at school, you learnt a lot about French, and you spent a lot of time in Paris, so that meant that you were well qualified to do a series about the French language. But also the thing that interests me is that this must have been one of the - an actually pioneer film about language.

KM: It was. It was the first.

SC: I must have actually the first. So tell me about it. [...]

KM: Well, it was a Ministry of Education, and two absolutely brilliant professors at Cambridge, called Charvet [P.E. Charvet] and somebody or other [possibly L. C. Harmer], who had written this story - they'd written one story about La Famille Martin and the Ministry of Education gave it to us and said, "Can you do anything with this?" We had the usual technical advisor from the Ministry of Education, and we all got together and we worked it out into a script. The thing that was good about it was that we went to France and we cast real French actors as Monsieur and Madame Martin. The children, the girl was an aspiring actress - I think it was her first film part - and the two boys were just two ordinary people. It was just one of those things that worked - that's all I can say. It was 194...

SC: 1945?

KM: No, no, no. It was after the War.

SC: Oh, 1946?

KM: Well, I won the BFI award in 1949, so it must have been 1948. And the first one - they liked the first one, so Jacques Brunius was commontateur[?]. This is another piece of technical nonsense, you see. We decided we wanted to present La Famille Martin as a family portrait - as a group - and they would come on the screen, and the commentator's voice says, "Monsieur Martin", and he comes on, "Madame Martin", etc, and you get the whole five of the family, and then the shadow stands up in front of the family group and says, "Et moi, je suis la commontateur". Break - so how do you shoot it? Can I tell you how we shot it? There was a wonderful cinema called the Crown Theatre in Wardour Street, which was run by a lovely gentleman called Frost, who was always known as Frosty. And so we decided that we couldn't afford any elaborate back-projection, or anything like that, we'd got to do it ourselves. So we went to Frosty and we talked and we decided that we could project our family onto the screen and line up our camera and our actor and then take the family off the screen, and have the open light from the projector on the screen, and our shadow just stood up in front of it. So all you had to was a straight slap together. [...]

SC: How many films did you make in that series?

KM: After the first one they liked it and they said, could we do two more, and we made another one called Depart de Vacances which was about them all going away on holiday and forgetting everything and having a meal en route, which introduced everybody to food and so forth. The third one was called Histoire de Poisson when the curé was coming to lunch and they wanted a fish, and they all went out and caught a fish, and so they ended up with about six fishes - I can't remember - anyway they were all very funny. They were made with French crews in Paris and in the Loire.

SC: Those films were very famous in their day, and they were pioneer films I think in teaching languages by television.

KM: Yes

SC: They were shown on television, weren't they?

KM: I don't - No, I shouldn't think so, they were strictly for schools. [...] When Rod [Rod Napier-Bell] and I left Basic we made one for Linguaphone on the same basis. Linguaphone liked them, and we made an English teaching one for Linguaphone called Saturday Morning.

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Mander, Kay (1915-)