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Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

Memories of his father making silent films to his career up to the 1940s

Main image of Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Roy Parkinson was interviewed by Sid Cole in 1987.

1. On his father H.B. Parkinson

RP: I was born in Surbiton, 22nd January 1916, and my father at that time was a cinema manager. I remember when I was about 2 we lived in a flat, I should think, or a hotel in Brighton, when he was manager of the cinema in Westfleet. Then I think he met someone who had Teddington Studios, and we moved up to Ferry Road in Teddington when I was roughly 4 years old, because I went to a school at the end of the road when I was 5. He at that time was making films, producing and directing as far as I know at Teddington Studios.

SC: What was his first name?

RP: Harry Parkinson. I do remember one incident from then when he was making a series called Detective Haigh of the Yard.

[no record of this series. In the early 20s Detective Magazine published a series of short stories called Secrets of Scotland Yard by ex Chief Detective Inspector Ernest Haigh, one of these stories was filmed by H.B. Parkinson as Lost, Stolen or Strayed in 1921 in which Haigh is credited as writer and cast member]

I was playing a small part in it, the boy I suppose. I'll always remember this because they put me into a trunk on the set and I screamed my head off at being shut in this box and I think the prop man took over afterwards and had to bang on the roof, I suppose you might say that was my introduction to the film business.

SC: How old would you have been then?

RP: I would have been four and a half, five. He made then many pictures at Teddington Studios, some are in the archive and some have not yet been transferred from nitrate stock to [unintelligible].

SC: Mm, that is a problem. What was the company called?

RP: Master Films [Master Film Company aka Master British Films] and a man called Salomaire [?] owned the studios then. Actually Charlie Wheeler once said to me he remembered working as a prop man there with my father. [Laughter] So we stayed there at Teddington for some time and I went to a private school there and then to another private school and eventually ended up at a boarder at Castle Hill School in West Ealing.

SC: I was fascinated to realise that there was a boarding school in West Ealing at that time because I know Ealing well of course, I've lived there a good many years, I never realised that. What year would that be?

RP: I was then 11, so 26 - 27 and I stayed there till I was 14 and a half and left school then.

SC: What did you do when you left school?

RP: My father at that time moved up to an office he'd taken in Little Denmark Street, off Charing Cross Road. The whole place was owned by R. E. Strange and Company which were film processors and printers and I went there as an office boy. Being in this film printers they also taught me how to wind film onto the drum like they had in those days for drying. Bryan Langley was a well-known cameraman, he was also working for my father and he taught me how to turn a camera, in those days 16 frames.

SC: Because it was silent days still.

RP: Silent days, oh yes rather. My father was then making a number of series: Wonderful London, Wonderful Britain, London Cabarets, etc., of which there are about 26 of them in the National Film Archive.

SC: What sort of length were those?

RP: One reelers. I've got the catalogue which give them all there, quite a bit have been used at various times on films about the [unintelligible] and so on. At one time I used to get some royalties out of them but that's all passed now. [Laughter]

2. Start of career at Shepperton

RP: My father knew Norman Lee who was directing films in those days.

SC: He was directing at BIP [British International Pictures] and places.

RP: Yes, he was quite a well-known director. He was making a film at Riverside and so I went there as a runner, generally seeing what it was all about. There was a picture being made On Top of the World at Shepperton. Tony Nelson Keys [Anthony Nelson Keys] was the PM [Production Manager] and I don't know how but I suppose through Norman Lee's influence I got a job as the 3rd assistant. That had Betty Fields playing the lead, Redd Davis was the director, the studio was then run by Norman Loudon and Maggie was his secretary.

SC: It had another name then, was it called Sound City?

RP: Sound City, that's right.

SC: Tell me something if you remember anything special about Redd Davis as the director.

RP: I don't really remember much about it. They only had one stage there at that time of course and I think I was getting about £3 a week and we used to get about 2 [shillings] and 6 [pence] supper money. We had two or three nights on the lot when they built a village. I remember we used to finish whenever they finished at dawn and then have a call back again at 2 that day.

SC: This was at Shepperton.

RP: Yes.

SC: The Riverside was just the one picture was it? You've mentioned Riverside.

RP: Riverside, oh yes that was just the one picture, I never went back there again.

SC: So you spent some time at Shepperton.

RP: Yes. Then I did a John Argyle picture Happy Days Are Here Again, with the Houston sisters [3 sisters, Renée, Billy, Shirley.

SC: Oh yes Renée and Billy,

RP: Renée used to stay in the old manor house then.

SC: Do you have any stories about the Houston sisters that you remember?

RP: Not really, they were lots of fun themselves. I can't remember if it was John Argyle producing or directing or both. [picture produced by John F. Argyle, directed by Norman Lee ]. Then of course Wainwrights [J.G. and R.B. Wainwright Productions] came in and they built the four big stages. One of the pictures was Wolf's Clothing with Lilli Palmer and Claude Hulbert.

SC: Did you work on that?

RP: Yes, I suppose I was 3rd assistant still, I can't remember who the 1st was. Another one Kate Plus Ten with Jack Hulbert.

ISC: Do you have any stories about any of those people that were on those [films] like Hulbert?

RP: I remember one story with Jack Hulbert. We were shooting a scene, it involved a train of which Jack was the stoker, and we built this signal box on the stage and there was a scene of Jack creeping up outside and listening to what was going on inside. But the editor when we saw the rushes had dubbed on it a lot of dirty stories so when it came out on the rushes we heard Jack listening a lot of dirty stories. [Laughter]

SC: Did he mind?

RP: No, he took the joke.

ISC: Anything about Lilli Palmer?

RP: No, she was very young in those days. I've got some pictures of her of course but...she was very nice to work with.

3. Progressing to second assistant director

SC: So how long would you say you were at Shepperton?

RP: I suppose about 2 years.

SC: And then what happened?

RP: And then I got a job with Marcel Hellman and young Doug Fairbanks [Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.] who had two companies, Excelsior Films and Criterion Films, and they worked at Worton Hall. We made Accused

SC: Where was Worton Hall because that's disappeared now

RP: Worton Hall that was Isleworth, no Hounslow. I was at Hounslow and the big silent stage was there then. The first one was directed by Thornton Freedland with Delores del Rio. Googie Withers was in it. On the big silent stage, it was a semi-musical come court drama.

SC: What was it called?

RP: Accused.

SC: I remember that actually. By this time you probably were no longer a third assistant.

RP: I'm a second by then. Billy Boyle [William N. Boyle] was first assistant. That was followed by Crime Over London which young Doug wasn't in and then Jump for Glory which was young Doug and Valerie Hobson.

SC: I think that was the picture that brought Valerie Hobson into real notice.

RP: I think so, yes. Raoul Walsh directed that one, because I've got a picture, a unit still with Raoul Walsh with his patch over his eye and Valerie Hobson is in the picture so it must have been Jump for Glory.

SC: About Fairbanks, young Fairbanks junior, do you have any stories about him, any memories?

RP: None, except he was a jolly good chap to get on with. He was really good, you could talk to him, he joined in with everybody, he was really one of the boys you might say.

SC: So he didn't put on airs.

RP: I do remember a scene, not so much with him, but with Marcel Hellman. We were shooting outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the top of Birdcage Walk. Marcel told me to get on the phone about something which hadn't turned up and so I came off the phone and said what had happened. He was so enraged - Marcel always wore a trilby hat - he took off this hat and banged it on the floor and jumped on it in his rage. [Laughter]

SC: This was in the street?

RP: Yes, on top of Birdcage Walk?

SC: Did anybody passing by notice? [Laughter]

RP: I don't know. One hears tales of people jumping on their hats but he did actually do it.

4. Welling, Pinewood and Ustinov

SC: When did you become a first assistant?

RP: That was after the war because I then went to work at Welling, again on a John Argyle film, and then I was called up.

SC: This was in 39.

RP: Was this right at the beginning of the war, 39-40?

RP: Well I did a little bit inbetween, I'd forgotten that - I went to work at Pinewood 1937-38, before going to Welling obviously, on the Inspector Hornleigh series.

SC: Because Pinewood was pretty new then.

RP: Yes. Donald Wilson might have bee the first on that, I don't remember, that was a feature film and then I think they made a series after it or the other way around, with Gordon Harker on it. John Bryan I think was the art director.

SC: Very good art director, yes. How did you get on with John?

RP: Fine. And then from there I went to work at Welling. Then I was called up in my age group on 20th June 1940.

SC: You were still quite young then. What did you do at Welling? Can you remember what pictures you were on.

RP: Only this John Argyle film, A Door With Seven Locks, then we did a documentary which I think Walter Mycroft was the producer on. [Mein Kampf, My Crimes]

SC: He was in charge of production.

RP: He was at ABC, but I think he did this one at Welling. I remember Peter Ustinov who must have been about 19 playing the man who burnt down the Riechstag, in his very young days.

SC: Because Peter Ustinov at that time had been in various reviews and things when very young, doing comic impressions so I suppose that's why he was in that.

RP: Yes I suppose I only remember that because of his name in later years. I remember him playing that part.

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Audio & Video Clips
Parkinson, Roy (1916-)
Ustinov, Peter (1921-2004)
Pinewood Studios