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Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

Memories of Ealing in the '30s and '40s

Main image of Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

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

1. Thorold Dickinson

SC: After that I began to be interested in editing and I went into the cutting rooms at Ealing, that was very early on at Ealing, as a second assistant to Thorold Dickinson on a film called Perfect Understanding which was a Gloria Swanson picture. Swanson had come over to Europe and made a couple of pictures, this was one of them. It was very ironic title because everything possible went wrong on that picture. But it was interesting to watch Dickinson editing a sequence which had been shot with one character winning a motor boat race down at Cannes that was won by an actor called Michael Farmer, a rich playboy married to Swanson at the time, and the character who lost the motor boat race was a promising young actor called Laurence Olivier. Swanson decided whatever other qualities her husband had he wasn't really such a good actor as she had hoped and consequently they changed the story around and Olivier consequently had to win the motor boat race. You can imagine it was fascinating watching an expert editor like Thorold contriving this cinematic miracle of reversing the result of a motorboat race.

2. Alberto Cavalcanti

SC: To begin with, I went there in 1942, the most interesting film I worked on a film Cavalcanti d1rected called Went The Day Well which still pops up from time to time on the box. This is a story originally written by Graham Green about what seems to be a platoon of British soldiers coming into a quiet, English countryside village. These turn out to be a lot of Germans who had been sent in as the advance guard of a possible Nazi invasion of the country. I'd known Cavalcanti slightly before but that was the first time I'd worked with him. Cav had an amazing sense of structure in film and appreciated editing and I found it a joy to work with Cav as a director and it was probably one of the best editing jobs I did I think. 1 still find it possible to look at it when it's repeated on the box and still feel pleased with what I did on it. It is very tightly shot by Cav and very tightly edited by me. Cav has a sense of style after all he'd been an art director in France before he started directing and he had that kind of stylistic approach to the way films were made.

3. Michael Balcon

AL: Let's go back to Micky Balcon. When did you first come across him?

SC: I can't recall when I first met him. My first working acquaintance with was in 1941. 1 went to Ealing and I stayed there for 11 years. I came to know Micky very well - I liked him as person. I liked him for a number of things. One was that he obviously was someone who had been willing to learn in all sorts of ways from experience. I didn't know him when he was in charge at Gaumont in the days of Victor Saville and Alfred Hitchcock era at the Bush but I have a feeling that the influence of people like Ivor [Ivor Montagu] who worked for him then and coming into contact with the younger generation of filmmakers that he used at Ealing he learnt a great deal from them not just about films but approach to life and learning from the political and social attitudes of younger people.

The War itself in a way helped to do that because the War crystallized a good many people's attitudes about things like the Nazis, it concentrated people's attention very forcibly. It took them by the scruff of the neck and said that they had to realize what was going on in the world and secondly they had to understand what if anything they could do about it. And I think Balcon learned something along those lines from the younger people he employed. I think he also had a talent which fairly successful people in his position have to have which is to have some skill at selecting the people who worked for him. As an editor myself one particularly appreciated that so many of the people who became directors and associate producers at Ealing started as editors - Charles Frend, Charles Crighton, myself, Robert Hamer - which showed that Micky was pretty astute in selecting people, if one can say that without a blush.

The other quality which followed from that was that within reason he was willing to let people do the kind of subject that they wanted - he kept a tight control over it. He developed a kind of family thing at Ealing which I suppose like all family situations had its good points and its bad points. Perhaps to some extent we got too involved in our own little world. One the other hand it did mean that there was a great deal of co-operation and one did feel that you were all pretty united - we would see each other's rough cuts and and rushes, and talk, not necessarily everybody together, but nobody kept what film they were doing totally secret and away from the other people working there.

The defects of that I suppose were that we were a bit parochial, Micky himself was a little parochial. In terms of subject matter one of his failings was that he distrusted any approach in story values to what might be called sexual themes. When that kind of material came up Mick was very inclined to soft pedal and play it down in a sort of genteel attitude to things which meant he would come in conflict with a director like Robert Hamer, for instance. [...]

Compared with Korda for instance, Korda is historically regarded as the great man who put British films on the map which in some ways has some truth to it. But I think Mick's contribution to British films was much greater because it was consistent, because it dealt specifically with British themes not in a narrow nationalistic way but because that was the native soil from which subjects ought to come.

In any country the importance of national culture in films is very strong and Mick believed in that, not in any flag waving way, although one is a little taken aback when one sees the old Ealinq films with the background with the Union Jack fluttering away. But he did make, particularly during the War years - I've mentioned Went the Day Well -, Nine Men which was Harry Watt's film about the fight in the desert, The Bells Go Down which was about the fire service, Undercover was a slightly different thing but that was interesting politically.

4. Scott of the Antartic

There were two films I am particularly fond of. One was Dead of Night , a film of four or five stories coming together which still doesn't look too bad. We used four directors on that - Cavalcanti, Crighton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer doing different things. It contains a sequence which was always regarded was one of the very best things Michael Redgrave did as an actor which is the story about the ventriloquist's dummy that has a rather macabre effect on Michael Redgrave's character. The interesting thing about that was that it was a very cooperative effort. We had two units shooting parallel. We shot the whole thing I think in four weeks, consequently eight weeks with one unit. Everybody saw each other's rushes and there was a kind of friendly competition between the two units about what they could do.

The other interesting thing was one of the first colour films that Ealing did, Scott of the Antartic, which was a project that Charles Frend, the director, and myself thought up. The music director at Baling at the time was Ernest Irving who was a very old experienced musical director, quite an Edwardian character, and he said he thought the right composer for the film was Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams read the script and thought he would like to do it but insisted that he must talk to Charles Frend and myself before anything else happened to make sure we were on the same wave length about the subject because after all this was very much VW's period and generation.

We sat alone in a room in a restaurant with VW and went through the script. Charles and I had already worked out where we thought there should be music and Vaughan William's had marked up his script where he thought there should be music. We went through and we agreed on every point except two places. One where Vaughan Williams thought there should be music and we hadn't and the other one where Charles and I thought there should be music and Vaughan Williams disagreed. So in a very sensible compromise, Vaughan Williams agreed to write both, have both recorded and see what happened. In fact Vaughan Williams turned out to be right. We recorded both pieces, the piece that he thought he should have and we hadn't we did use and the piece we thought we should have and he didn't think we should have we didn't.

The other thing I remember about Vaughan Williams is being at the recording by the ...London Philharmonic I think we used [actually used Philharmonia Orchestra], I was listening in the monitoring room and Ernest Irving over the intercom said Dr Williams, he was always very punctilious, would like a word with you. I went out and Vaughan Williams said what did you think of that music and I said I think it's great. No, no he said, I know it's good music but is it right for your film? A marvellous example of top people. Reverting a bit to They Came To A City. On the music we used a piece of Scriabin which hadn't been performed before, I think that was the LSO [London Symphony Orchestra though actually used London Philharmonic Orchestra].

We recorded the whole thing and used it as we needed it, we had a lot of music on They Came To A City and J. B. Priestly said he's love to hear the score. We hadn't dubbed it then so I ran They Came To A City just with the music score track, we did have music over a great deal of it. When it was finished and the lights went up Priestly said eeh, it's much better without the dialogue isn't it.

Click titles to see or read more

Audio & Video Clips
Went the Day Well? (1942)
Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Cole, Sidney (1908-1998)
Dickinson, Thorold (1903-1984)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)