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Is it true that your father played for Watford?
Yes, a long time ago, he was centre-half. I had a book sent to me a couple of years ago with a letter asking if I have a photograph of him. I did an early photograph and I sent it to be included in a book of ex-Watford players. So I have become a fan of Watford. We havent done much good, but there you are.
Did you ever live in Watford?
In between shows I used to stay with my grandmother, for a week at a time sometimes, so I virtually lived in Watford for a while; 7, Sutton Road, in Watford, I remember it well.
How old were you?
Six or seven, something like that.
What are your earliest memories of being on stage?
I didnt have a home but we had digs, and I used to call the land lady Auntie, that was my idea of family life. I knew that when I got older I would be a Call Boy that was the boy that called the actors, overtures and beginners or something. Then, in between shows, when we were resting, we used to fill in with film work. Which was very nice, very pleasant stuff. I did a bit of acting, of course, I worked for some time as a child actor. Then at a certain point we all moved to Elstree, which was then the beginning of the film business. I went to a different school every week from the time I went to school, until about the time I was about eleven or twelve and it was a weird life. I didnt really have a stable existence at all. I got my first job on the silent version of The Informer, in 1928 I was two weeks short of 14. From then onwards I worked behind the camera.
I have read that you did some camera work on The Informer.
No, on the silent version I was not even on the camera. I was sort of an office boy on the set who used to get drinks for people, run messages. I had to give the director, Arthur Robeson, Vichy Water all day. This is a funny story because people think I always had an interest in photography. I hadnt a clue about photography. I had no interest in it. But what fascinated me about when I was on The Informer was that I noticed in the camera department, all the young lads used to go abroad a lot. They used to go to France and Italy, Germany, and maybe even Egypt. I thought, Thats the job for me. I managed to get a job in the camera department as a number boy not because I was fascinated with photography, but because I wanted to go abroad. The joke was I didnt go abroad. In two years, the nearest I got to going abroad was the Isle of Wight one afternoon. After that the studios caught fire and we rescued some cameras. One of them wasnt insured, that was a French camera, so for the French Debris they gave me three or four days in Paris. That was it, that broke the notch, and from then on I started doing all kinds of pictures abroad.
What was the moment that you really grew to love cinematography for its own sake rather than the opportunity it gave you to go abroad?
It came very slowly. It wasnt like a settled thing where you go into a trade and work for so long and then get a promotion. The thing is on a film set you work on a certain job in this case I was a Number Boy, and I used to do the clappers when sound came in and you keep your eyes open, you watch the camera and the movement. I didnt watch lighting too much at first, obviously, but I got a job eventually as a Focus Puller on the camera. Usually something happens where the director wants so many cameras and there arent that many operators so they give you a camera to operate a bit. Lucky breaks ease you into it.
Eventually, I remember I was working in Elstree, I was supposed to be the camera operator on a test of Freddie Bartholomew, an important test for David Copperfield, and on the day of the test the cameraman was ill and couldnt turn up. The Chief Cameraman was somewhere abroad, and I was the only one in the studio to do it. They said, Could you light this test, its very important? So I said Yes, I lit the test, and they were very satisfied with it. But when the Chief Cameraman came back he was furious. With good reason I suppose. If I had mucked it up, we would have been responsible. As it was they liked it and it was that moment I felt I could do things here.
There was a time I felt I made a wise decisions. I could have got an early break as a cameraman but I wasnt sort of confident that I would be ready to photograph anything. I thought I would stay as an operator working with good cameramen. This was at Denham with Alexander Korda he brought over lots of people from Hollywood and I worked as an operator with them to gain experience. I came home one evening - I had just driven from Isleworth to Borehamwood, which is a long drive, and my mother said, Youve got to go back to the studio right away. I was furious. I said, Why? She said, Theyre testing operators for something Technicolor or something so youve got to go back to be tested and have an interview. Those that had been in came out shaken because the questions were highly technical. When it came to my turn they started all this technical stuff and I said, I dont think Im your man because Im a dunce at a lot of these things. So there was a shocked silence and they said, How do you expect to get on? I said, Well Im very fond of painting, and I also watch the light. I had formed a habit, oddly enough, of watching the light in a room. Anyway, they said, Which side of the face does Rembrandt light? I said This side, which was a guess, really. And for etching, of course, it would be reversed. That was another bluff. But the next day they told me I had been chosen.
That meant I was automatically working under contract for Technicolor, as a kind of junior staff cameraman. Then came the big problem that I couldnt photograph a feature. I did two years of travelogues, which was invaluable for experience, and finally I got the big chance. I used to do a lot of Second Unit work, which usually is a bit dull. You know, a close-up of an ash tray or a postage letter, all very dull. But the first unit wouldnt have time to do those little things and theyd leave it to the Second Unit.
But one of the things I had to do was complicated, on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I was lighting this thing and it looked pretty good, and I heard this voice say, Very interesting. I turned around and there was the great Michael Powell. He said, Would you like to photograph my next film? and that was it. Thats how it all started.
Did the love of painting feed the cinematography or did it arise from the cinematography?
It became a background of knowledge. What I had picked up from painting was that light was the most important thing. The lighting played an important part. So its easy enough to analyse it and work out what looked good or what worked and so on. The only difference was I realised early on that because film was a transparency, and the Hollywood photographers used to use a lot of back-light because it made everything look crisper and glamorous. I realised that back-light and I relied very much on what I had picked up from paintings - a simplicity of lighting. Mind you, I recognised that paintings a still picture where its easy enough to have a lighting effect, and on film where the actor gets up and walks around the room, you had to bear that in mind. But I still felt then, and still do, that you stick to a simple form of lighting.
The ballet sequence in The Red Shoes seems to be informed by lots of painters, including Van Gogh.
Yes. I fell very much in love with Van Gogh and on Black Narcissus I remember saying to Michael Powell that Van Gogh had used on a picture of a billiard table saloon green and red. It was a harsh dramatisation and had a kind of interest to it. I said to Michael, Id like to use green filler-light in the shadows; it wasnt strictly true to nature but it gave a subtly dramatic effect. One in ten might have seen it, but it was there. So these things definitely made a difference.
Did you try to use lighting to create emotional effects subliminally?
Yes I did. Because later on I had an added love, in a way my original love in painting was Rembrandt, Carravaggio, people like that but then I fell in love with the Impressionists. The Impressionists exaggerated everything. If someone is sitting on the grass, they would reflect the green light on their face. I sometimes used subtle green filters that probably one in fifty would notice but I got satisfaction out of it. That was the great thing. I used to use on the spot rails in those days we used lots of arcs and arc-lights when light was apparently coming from the sky. I used to use a faint blue filter so that its cold, and I used to use their methods by exaggerating the colour. I was always fighting with Technicolor because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.
In A Matter of Life and Death you used colour and black and white and the latter was a challenge, I believe, because youd never shot in b&w before.
I didn't have trouble with it. When I started to light, I went straight into colour and side stepped black and white. But I knew black and white lighting was virtually the same but the contrast was different. I didnt tell anybody that I hadnt photographed anything in black and white. But nevertheless when we shot the sequences in heaven, we used black and white cameras and black and white film. The penultimate shot was done with a Technicolor camera that we had to sort of merge into colour as we went on. There was no great difficulty, but it was a great, great break. That was my first feature film.