Full Transcript of Interview with Dai Vaughan

Richard MacDonald and Martin Stollery

Was there a decisive experience, a film viewing or reading that made you realise that this is how I want to make my career? DV: I’ll give you the way I got into it, it is a bit rambling and diffuse, but in a way that is the point, just how random these things are in one’s life. I had no particular interest in film when I was at school. During the war we used to go to cinemas every other evening because there was nothing else to do, but I never thought of film as an art form or anything. The sort of films my teachers at school were interested in, that they thought wonderful, were Scott of the Antarctic, Henry the Fifth. I’m not saying those aren’t good films but you can see what criteria are being used there. So I was never very interested, didn’t go very much to the cinema. And then I read in the paper that the Telekinema from the Festival of Britain, which I had never actually visited as part of the Festival, was going to be retained, largely due to a petition organised by Denis Forman who was then head of the BFI and who is really one of the unsung heroes of British film culture, that was going to open up as a national film theatre that would show historical films and things which in those days, the idea that the film continued to exist after it had gone on the circuit hardly crossed anyone’s mind. So I read that and I was fascinated because it said they would be showing old silent movies with people like Buster Keaton, and my parents had talked about these names and I thought it would be interesting to see what my Mum and Dad had been talking about. So I joined the National Film Theatre and went to their opening show which consisted of extracts from lots of what nowadays we would call standard classic repertoire, Caligari and everything up to Norman McLaren. In the course of that they showed an extract from Battleship Potemkin, it was probably the Odessa Steps, I can’t remember. I thought, this is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like this before. And the fact that it was silent gave it an extra oomph. I was used to the way things are rather evened out by the use of background music in conventional films. So I thought I must find out more about this guy Eisenstein and I bought a copy of Film Form and that I was bowled over by, because suddenly I found here was somebody discussing the way films went together image by image, shot by shot - I wrote poetry as a kid, all teenagers write poetry, so I was interested – he seemed to be talking about film on the same level that someone like William Empson would talk about poetry. I had read Seven Types of Ambiguity, which was another one of those pow experiences in my late teens and I thought you can do that about film. Not only that but then he started talking about montage working like Chinese ideograms, which is exactly what Ezra Pound had been talking about in relation to poetry. So I got into the whole interest in film via having tried to write poems when I was young. So the connection with poetry are the leaps from one image to the next?



Yes. I suppose my model, though I never articulated it, for what a film is like would have been drama for obvious reasons. But the fact that you could see it in quite a different way, that you could see shots or images as a complex metaphor was a revelation. I still find the idea exciting, that hasn’t gone. I was very unhappy in my job. I was a junior draughtsman, if you want to know what that was like read the first chapter of Non-Return. I knew it wasn’t for me but I didn’t know what the alternatives were. Then one day I was watching a film and I saw the credits going through and I thought, people get paid for doing this, it is a job, I could do this. And then I started looking around for ways to get in and was told there were no ways to get in but one finds one’s way round that. So one of the things I did after I finished the various courses I had to do as an engineering student, having done all that, I experienced what so many students experienced who have done evening classes, which was a sense of what do I do now? So I took this course in sculpture at the John Cass College and I also enrolled for some lectures that John Huntley was giving on film appreciation which was a history of film but with a more detailed discussion, that was either the year ’54/’55 or 55/’56. That took place in one of the BFI’s then premises which was in Great Russell Street. I don’t know if you ever came across John Huntley but he was full of boyish enthusiasm for film and could communicate it, he was very good at making you want to think about films without being in any way intellectually abstruse. During the course of that, obviously one was chatting to other people on the course, and one of these others, a guy called Jim Kearley, he said to me, we run a film society in North London, would you be interested in joining. I started doing designs and displays for the society and also writing the odd programme note. Meanwhile Jim had drawn my attention to an advertisement, it was the Heatherley School of Art which had a film training unit attached to it. So I took a deep breath and went and had an interview with the Heatherley film training unit. A guy called Gilmore Roberts showed me around their facilities which were pretty good and showed me the films they were making on 35mm. And I thought this looks like the real thing, so I signed on. I’d saved enough money I decided I could afford to. It began either late September or early October 1956 at which point I arrived there and there was a group of other people sitting around, David Naden arrived the next day, David is still teaching at the London Film School after all these years, and the guy who ran it Gilmore Roberts said look I’ve got bad news. I’ve had a difference of opinion with the people who run the Heatherley Art School, so I’m going to go it alone. You’ve paid your money to Heatherley unfortunately but I won’t ask you for more money. We’ll just do the best we can. I think we had about three meetings at the school and then he said I have to find some premises, we’ll let you know. So about a week later he phoned round and said I’ve somewhere I can do some lecturing. It turned out to be the back of a derelict greengrocer’s shop in Pimlico and there was no light, no electricity and no heating and this was November. The only equipment we had was a blackboard and chalk. If you sign up for a filmmaking course you need access to the equipment don’t you? Yes. We were sitting there in our overcoats and gloves because it was cold. After about a week of that Gilmore said this is a bit silly, we really do need to get the equipment out, I’ll have to find a place, I’ll let you know. So again there was this long pause. It must have been the beginning of the next year that he found a building in a place called Beehive Place in Brixton, which again was a sort of derelict building but   2  

we had things like a big Ross 35mm projector and there was a Debrie 35mm camera. Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of 16mm equipment. There was no sound equipment, we were pretty limited. One of the students had a wind-up Bell Howell, 100 foot loading, no sound, there was never any sound equipment all the time I was there. So it was very, very limited what you could do. Gilmore’s lectures turned out to be in not all respects accurate so you would have to discuss it with each other. Our learning consisted largely of talking to each other and passing on information. And he had things like feature scripts which he could show us and he had some friends in the industry who would come in and lecture. Who do you recall coming in? Bob Dunbar who was actually tied up with the school in some way came in and did quite a bit. Peter Hallam, have I got the name right? An editor who I think only retired a few years ago. You must have been very committed to this path to stick with it. Well yes and no. The thing is having got into that I’d handed in my notice at the engineering firm. There wasn’t another film course so the options were few and I thought at least let’s see this through. How were you supporting yourself at the time? Well I’d saved up money because I’d been working. I left school at sixteen and I’d been working for whatever it was, five years, six years as a junior draughtsman and living at home so I had some money put by. Mind you by the time the school course had gone I ended up with my parents keeping me for a few months before I managed to get a job. When you were on the course did you have a particular aspiration to work in documentary? If an opening had come up in features would you have gone for that? I don’t know. I never did have an opportunity to work in features and whether I would have done – I might have done. But I always knew that it was documentary that I was interested in. I assumed when I first started the film school that I wanted to be a director because people thought they were the only people who made films in those days. But then I realised during the course of being at the film school that what I really enjoyed unsurprisingly really in view of what I’ve said about poetry was putting shots together. This could be my retrospective impression but between the late twenties and the fifties there was actually more acknowledgement of other roles in filmmaking. It probably would have been well out of date by the time you started studying but the Adrian Brunel books on film craft and film production. They had appendices written by people in different departments, editors – They were more how-to books weren’t they?



But I’m also thinking about the people associated with Sequence who are now thought of as promoting the idea of the director but you had Karel Reisz with his book on film editing – Which he wrote before he had edited a film. Yes but that was the generation that really were – Lindsay Anderson hardly ever mentioned an editor. They were coming out of a situation where even directors hadn’t been taken very seriously. Films were made by studios with stars and most people only knew the studios and stars and in some cases the writer if it happened to be Shakespeare. So this idea that even though directors in Hollywood are sometimes taken on after a script was written and dismissed before the editing started they nevertheless had some primary role, which indeed they do, I’m not disputing that. The fight to get even the director recognised was still to be won which is why there was no time to bother about anybody else. So you emerged from the School with the conviction that editing was what you wanted to do. Yes I did. As soon as I had left the school I went through the Kine Yearbook and I took down the addresses of all the documentary companies, there were about thirtyfive, thirty-six independent documentary companies and I wrote, I typed out the same letter to all of them and I think fifty per cent of them didn’t reply at all. Out of the thirty-five I think five agreed to interview me, one of whom was Edgar Anstey at British Transport, who predictably said, once you’ve got a union card come back. That was the problem getting into the union. One offered me a job, not as an editor, but as a general dogsbody assistant this and assistant that which was a little unit called the Topical Film Unit which were attached to Brent Labs who are long defunct and they were a sort of descendant of the old Topical Budget from the First World War days: very elderly man called Baron Hartley, I don’t think he was a Baron, that was his name. There was just a cameraman, an odd job man, a driver and me. They did quite a bit of work for the RAF. I was first of all given the job of writing scripts based on the information that had been given to me and sometimes editing a sequence for something, but there wasn’t actually much being made at the time I was there. I was there for about nine months which was interesting, I learnt a bit by doing that sort of thing. Eventually the work ran out, the money ran out, and I was nearest the door so I got the push. What was interesting was after we finished at the film school David Naden carried on teaching there with the result that he was making contact with lots of interesting people who were coming through. He would keep in touch with the really interesting people one of whom was Jane Wood who was one of the founder members of David Naden Associates, John Irvin, people like that were being nurtured by David and drawn into our circle as part of a diffuse group. There was a Sinhalese girl called Sumitra Gunarwadana who had been subtitling for Mai Harris and she was going to back to Ceylon, as it was then, and she contacted me and said, do you want this job of spotting for subtitles. I was there for about five years trying to get a union ticket which I did eventually because the union didn’t know what a spotter was so they gave me a ticket and then I had it changed to editor. I had Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz on my application form and still had difficulty getting in. What I was doing there firstly was spotting up things for subtitles. So I was watching feature films all the time, foreign films mainly on that score. The other thing which was almost equally part of the job was doing release scripts, British films mainly for Columbia.   4  

Once the film is completed they would send the film to us with the continuity sheet so we could identify characters and my job was to sit there with an editola and a typewriter and type out action on that side, sound on the other, music in, music out. It would be wrong to say I was consciously studying how films are put together because I was too busy doing the job but I think something was filtering into me about what made a good sequence. I think I was learning a lot in a subliminal way from that. You mentioned that you knew Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz, how did you make connection with them? I’m not sure about Karel Reisz, I think David [Naden] had some connection with him. Lindsay, we used to go to showings of Free Cinema and things because that was a part of what we were about. I’m talking now about when we were at the film school. I never finished telling you about Beehive Place which was a wreck and actually in February of 1957 the floor boards were rotten and we were laying concrete. Arnold Wesker and I were mixing concrete in the street and we used an old bedframe to reinforce it. So that was our film education and then we discovered there was a big crack down the back wall so we thought all right move again. We had another period twiddling our thumbs before we moved to Electric Avenue where the film school stayed for quite a long time and I was given the job of organising the film showings because I had been doing some of that with the film society and I knew the connections. I’d also sussed out by that time where you could get stuff for free. I was particularly keen on Carl Dreyer and I’d discovered that you could get his documentaries and shorts from the Danish Embassy. I was always going round there and bringing back another Carl Dreyer short film to review on the Ross projector. You mention the formative influence of Eisenstein and now Dreyer. As far as I’m aware you haven’t written a major piece on Eisenstein or Dreyer. There is an article on Dreyer in Sight and Sound which I would actually prefer people not to read. I rewrote it quite recently because a couple of years ago I tried to assemble a collection of essays on various topics, film, literature. It was really a nonstarter because either you have got to have an academic background or you’ve got to be someone like Zadie Smith who has really hit the public eye. I thought I’d give it a try and in the course of that I rewrote the Carl Dreyer essay and dropped out all the embarrassingly bad bits and kept the kernel of what I thought still stood as being worth having in. Have you written on Eisenstein? No. In the context of other things I’ve mentioned him but not as a specific thing about him. You refer to the Odessa Steps sequence towards the end of Totes Meer. Do I? I’d forgotten that. Partly it’s because so many other people including Eisenstein have already done it. And also sometimes I have a sort of inhibition about writing about things that really matter. My favourite novel is The Waves and I could probably write a very good article on that but I wouldn’t dream of it. It is too personal. I’d rather other people found out for themselves what I found out by reading it.   5  

At this point you were writing critical pieces for Film and Films and Filming short reviews and also longer pieces. How were you developing as a film writer? Yes. There are two longer pieces I think, one on the pre-history of documentary and one on Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. They were part of a project I had probably in the early days of the film school if not before of writing what I called at that time a history of documentary reality. What I understood by that was what you would nowadays call different ways in which reality had been represented. In those days you saw them as realities in their own right. Because I had a slightly different though recognisably ancestral view of documentary in those days. Part of the Eisenstein thing, I know he was making fiction, it was tied up in my mind with the idea that film had a special claim on reality. At that time I would probably have argued that it was because of the mechanical nature of the camera which is probably not what I would say now. But nonetheless the idea that there was a privileged relationship between the film image and the real world that doesn’t exist with a painted image and that therefore by manipulating the film image you are in some sense manipulating a potential reality: the world became malleable through its representations in film. As I say my progress, if it has been progress, in writing about film has been in refining that idea, dropping out things that don’t make sense and the fact that what is special about the film image is not that it is mechanical but that you need the object in order to make the subject. The thing you are photographing is also part of the artistic medium itself. Some of what you are saying obviously resonates with Bazin’s ideas. Were you exposed to his writing early on? I read Bazin a long time ago. I honestly can’t remember much about him but my recollection, which may be false, is that he didn’t really make a distinction between documentary and fiction. He was primarily interested in recruiting that specific property of film into the fictitious presentation of the world so his ideas about deep focus and the close ups in Jeanne D’Arc, he was impressed by those, long-held sequence shots, that sort of thing. Funnily enough he seemed in a way to be almost prophetic of some of the things which became important practices in the observational film movement many years later but my recollection is not that he was actually talking about documentary. Bazin is very preoccupied with those moments of contingency that lie outside the fictional apparatus which seems to overlap with what you are talking about. It does overlap, yes indeed. I think it was John Huntley who was around at the time they were shooting Henry V and he said there was one speech, I think it was the ‘Harry and England and St George’ bit where Olivier was having difficulty controlling the horse, because he wasn’t a very good horseman, and the horse reared up so they retook it about three or four times until he had control of the horse and then of course the editor went and used the first take. That brings me on to a question that touches on the two aspects of your career. You mention those contingencies that affect every production, where you can’t capture the shot that you wanted, something unexpected happens and you end up using it in the   6  

film all those things. Reading your book on Odd Man Out what interested me was that unlike most academics you have many years grounding in film production but you never mention the possibility that some of what was included in the film can be accounted for by the contingencies of shooting. Sometimes you can get annoyed with academic writing because they don’t seem to realise that those contingencies occur. In the case of Odd Man Out I was so impressed by what actually was there on the screen it didn’t seem part of what I was interested in at that point. And also the problem is that a lot of the time you don’t know. What gets irritating is when academics start attaching a great significance in terms of directorial choice to something which you suspect, though you could never be sure, was purely fluke. But they used it and somebody’s choice was to use that fluke, probably the editors. But when you are actually looking at a film and saying why does this move me, why does it work, those considerations are probably on a different critical track. It is always interesting to get someone’s personal response to the film but does it matter to you that what you get from the film is not Carol Reed’s intention? Well there is no way you can ever know. I’ve always been convinced that the film for you is the film you have seen and what it means to you. In fact that has been a very central thing in the doubts that I have had about the academic treatment of film. I am not hostile to, it is probably out of date now because I haven’t read academic writing for some time, but I am not hostile to the trends such as semiology, structuralism, all those things, very interesting insights came out of those. But one thing they do seem to almost deliberately bracket out of consideration is the way the human individual responds to a film. I came across a wonderful quote very recently in a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann which said ‘between the word and the thing you encounter only yourself.’ I thought wow, you might say it is obvious but I had never seen it expressed quite so succinctly and powerfully. In a way that seems to be something which certainly in the seventies and eighties, maybe still today, academic critics didn’t take into account, that the hinge between the world and its representation is individual human consciousness, whether of the maker or the recipient it hardly matters, and that you always have to filter it through that. And that was really what was at the root of those debates we had in the fifties about commitment and criticism. I do remember then being very, very impressed by Sartre’s collection What is Literature? And this whole idea that the way we read a work of literature or by implication any of the other arts is an existential choice. That is what I was always keen on homing in on, what is really happening when we look at a film. And funnily enough perhaps because it has the appearance of being purely subjective or fanciful or not scientific enough the academic community seems to fight shy of, sometimes with very positive results, the sort of analysis that people like Barthes were making works, you are persuaded by what he is saying. But there is an implication that these meanings occur in an abstract realm not in somebody’s mind. Perhaps we could follow that track thinking about commitment and criticism and talk about Definition. Tell us about the background to establishing Definition. There was a Polish friend of ours who was a student at the film school, somebody else that David brought into our circle called Boleslaw Sulik, Bolik we used to call him. He is now back in Poland working in some prominent position in the Polish television   7  

industry I think. He was a sort of émigré Pole and he once said when two Poles meet they always start a magazine, there aren’t any more Poles but is anyone else up for it? So it was his idea that we should start a film magazine. The title was his idea as well. We were all going through titles like Sequence, Close Up, titles which related in some way to film and he came up with Definition and we thought that’s it, that is the right answer. We brought out the first issue which was tiny octavo with very few photographs, rather grubby photographs and I was rather keen it should stay like that. We should have a different cover for each issue but we should avoid going for production values. I quite liked the grubby little photographs. In fact I quite liked the idea of not having any at all. There is something about film stills which is always slightly misleading unless you are using them to illustrate a very specific point about composition or frame sequence. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is but a still image takes on a different, more iconic quality than that frame would have en passant, so in a way you are getting a misleading view of films by publishing stills. Was it your choice not to include stills in Portrait of an Invisible Man? I certainly didn’t suggest including stills. There is a front and end photo of Mac in Portrait. Nobody else said to me that I recall that I ought to include them. Odd Man Out of course it is part of the format that they have. I went along to help them select them. Interesting thing about that is the big central one where he screams in the pub, he is sweeping the beer of the table, the guy who was selecting them with me from the BFI said you can’t use that his hand is blurred. I said that is the point. In the end they had to because there wasn’t a shot where his hand wasn’t blurred but I thought what a strange objection to raise. But maybe that is part of the same thing I’ve been talking about. Anyway so then Alan Lovell came on board, I think maybe Bolik knew him from somewhere, it certainly wasn’t me, but he came onto the editorial team. Basically it was Bolik and me, David doing a little bit, the others didn’t do much, and then Alan came in and he was very much a prominent figure because he had his own ideas of what a magazine should be like. We produced three issues, the second and third one were more glossy. I think it was Alan who knew Paddy Whannel, so we used to have our editorial meetings in Paddy’s front room in Putney. I went along with the majority vote of making it a more glossy thing but I was never entirely happy. Then a year later Colin Ward brought out the magazine Anarchy which was exactly the format, Octavo, small print, no concessions made to production values and that went on with almost indecent regularity for an anarchist publication for about ten years. I thought he’s got away with it, why can’t I? There are two interesting pieces of yours in the first issue of Definition, ‘Towards of Theory’ and the editorial where you wrote: “We offer the pages of Definition to any critic who is prepared to devote to films the same analytical study as it is customary to devote to literature or painting, and who is not scared to assess their implications from a responsible human standpoint. We have, however, virtually no tradition behind us.” What were the intellectual sources you were drawing on at the time? I think probably the Sartre essays that I’ve mentioned would be one. There were quite a few people, not only Empson, but other people who were doing detailed and very exciting analyses of poetry. In terms of the visual arts of course there was John Berger who was writing in the Statesman at the time who was another major figure of that period. People talk about Berger as if he began with Ways of Seeing but in fact for me   8  

and other people of my generation that was a culmination rather than a launch pad for John. What is interesting to me about John is that you don’t have to agree with his judgements all the time, in fact I often don’t with his individual judgements, but what remains admirable is the sheer intensity of his gaze. He never wavers, he never goes off and his formulations never or very seldom slip their moorings. They don’t become as I think they do for some academics like counters to use in a casino. Most academic writers engage in a brisk exchange of footnotes, he doesn’t do the footnotes. It is putting all the focus on what you have actually experienced not in a way which is fanciful or ultra solipsistic but rather what matters about a work of art is what a person, in this case it has to be me if I am writing the piece gets from it but then you actually try to analyse it and say why. The other piece Towards a Theory could create the impression that I was being prophetic of theory with a capital T which occurred later and of course I wasn’t, I wasn’t expecting that. What I was hoping for was a more intensive and searching analysis of what is in front of you and why what is in front of you generates a certain response in you. The other site where that push for greater analytical rigor and professionalism in criticism was occurring was around Oxford Opinion and Movie. How do you now see that moment in British film criticism? Our difference with Movie was I think more political it wasn’t that we objected to the detail with which they were studying things. We thought there was something a bit perverse about the things they chose to give their attention to. Whether I would think that now if I looked back I don’t know because it was all very much tied up with the politics of the period as well. What was Definition’s relationship to the New Left? Definition as such probably didn’t have one. There was very much a feeling that we were all part of the same thing at that time. It was actually a very exciting period to be around. You look back sometimes at some of these historical moments and think I wonder if it was really the ferment that it appeared or was it just a few isolated individuals who in retrospect we can group together and say they were the impressionists. But in the late fifties there really was that feeling that there were so many things happening. The suppression of the Hungarian rising released from the Communist Party people like Edward Thompson and John Saville who founded the New Reasoner, so that was one thing that happened. Earlier in the year you had had all the protests at the invasion of Suez which was the younger generation at that time, university students for the first time, as far as I am aware, really flexing their muscles and saying they were fed up with Gaitskell and the wishy-washy Labour opposition to the Tory government. So you’d got on the one hand the former communists released from the strictures of the Party line, they could now say what they liked. And there was the theatre: Theatre Workshop, the Royal Court. While we were at the film school Arnold [Wesker] was writing Chicken Soup with Barley in the evenings. Royal Court used to do productions without décor on Sunday night and people from London School of Film Technique and their girlfriends from Central School of Film and Drama virtually had a pew. We used to go there every week and saw John Arden’s first play and there was this feeling we were all part of the same thing. Peace News had a regular column by John Arden, I had a poem in the New Reasoner and there was Free Cinema. We thought Definition was part of the same thing.   9  

Could you say a few words about your own political formation? The word that we would have used in the 1950s would have been socialist humanism. I’d probably still use that word to describe myself. I’ve flirted to greater or lesser degrees with the anarchist wing, so I probably would call myself an anarchosyndicalist if I wanted to be really doctrinaire about it. I’ve never actually joined a political party, never even joined CND though I went on plenty of their demos. I wrote for Peace News but I’ve never been an absolute pacifist. Anyone who went through the Second World War as a child, I was a child of about eleven when those concentration camp pictures appeared on the newsreels and it really is a shock. And it was a shock in a way because this was a child discovering something which even one’s parents didn’t know, it was new to them as well. In Definition you wrote an in depth study of Flaherty’s oeuvre and in the same year 1960 a critical analysis of Man with a Movie Camera. What was the background to these pieces? I had got it into my head that documentary rested on two basic planks, one of which was Flaherty and one of which was Dziga Vertov, with the difference being that Flaherty’s view was that you immersed yourself in a situation rather in the way that observational filmmakers in the recent past have done and then you learnt about it and if you had to set things up, you set them, you couldn’t get the camera into an igloo so Nanook had to build a half igloo. Is that cheating? Yes, but who cares? So it is coming out of your knowledge which is very thoroughly researched as to what you are doing. The other is that you start taking almost random shots of reality, with or without quotes according to your philosophical position, and then by putting them together you will automatically get some sort of truth because if you put bits of the world together some sort of truth will be generated. Most documentaries can be seen to fall somewhere between those two. The essay that was published in 1958 in Films and Filming and republished by Lewis Jacobs in a book in the 1970s I was a bit worried about it, I wouldn’t like to reprint it now, I think I was right about the way the film is structured, but for some reason or another I assumed that Dziga Vertov wasn’t consciously trying to subvert the possible languages of film, whereas now I would assume that he was trying to do just that. I don’t think I gave him credit for the intelligence of that film. I gave him credit for the interest of it. And the other thing, of course, politically, is that I failed to grasp the degree to which it was an attack on the NEP, an attack on the rich, partly because his idea of people being rich didn’t look like our idea of people being rich. So there was that aspect of it where I felt I had been a bit politically naïve. How often were you able to watch the film? I can’t remember. I’d probably seen it a couple of times. I think what had probably happened was I had seen it first of all and realised it was worth thinking about. So therefore when it was next shown I went to see it and made sure I remembered the important things. In those days that is all you could do. Even when I wrote Portrait of an Invisible Man I don’t think I ever had a film I could run on a Steenbeck. I was very lucky because the Riverside Studios were doing a Jennings exhibition just at that time and the film theatre at the Riverside was running Jennings films every night. So I   10  

went and saw some of those three and four times and then one or two others I saw in different contexts. Somebody I knew was doing a film course in Ealing and she arranged for me to go down there and they showed Listen to Britain for me. I had to pick things up as and when I could, in contrast to Odd Man Out which had been shown on telly and I’d recorded it on VHS. I could go back and check every detail and make sure I’d got it right. I’m interested to know if there were any models of historical research that you were drawing on when you embarked on Portrait of an Invisible Man. Who were your precursors? I don’t think there were any. The influences on the structure of that book are the influences of someone who is used to editing film. It is a consciously structured book in the sense that every chapter has a slightly different relationship between the interview material, the archival material, my comments. It is not uniform, it is meant to have a fragmented surface. There are a lot of chapters as well, lots of short chapters. Yes and they vary quite considerably in length and again that was part of the plan that that should be the case. Do you know it is amazing the things that actually influence you in life. The silly little thing that has stayed in the back of my mind for years and years, I read something by the people who were designing the Festival of Britain and one of the things they said was that they were careful to use different underfoot surfaces: cobble, tarmac, grass, whatever, to avoid people’s feet becoming too tired because variety actually stimulates your feet. Well actually that is very much like trying to cut a film. It is the only tactile comparison that I have come across. And was that in your mind when you were writing Portrait? Well I think it probably was. It is so often in my mind. Whatever I’m writing I hate the idea of it all coming across as uniform. My fiction work is, in many cases, quite fragmentary, not to the point of being a bit of this and a bit of that, but sharp cuts. I think there is some influence of film editing in that. As far as the structure of that book is concerned nobody who has written about it has ever said that it breaks new ground in the writing of biography, and I thought it did. And I was actually rather chuffed that it did. It was my first book so it meant a lot to me. Can you spell out what you feel that new ground was? I think partly, and this is where the relationship to cutting documentaries comes in, it was to do with letting the interview material largely speak for itself rather than introducing it: ‘and here is somebody who says so and so.’ The thing that any documentary editor, I’m sure, will tell you is maddening is when someone comes on to say, ‘I think the Crimean War was a bad thing’ and the commentary before it says, ‘so and so thinks the Crimean War is a bad thing.’ Because they don’t believe that you can actually take information from arbitrarily selected members of the public. They think that everything has to come from the voice of authority.



And was that something you appreciated in the films that Jennings and McAllister worked on, the lack of a voice over? Oh yes, wherever you can avoid it. So that is replicated in the structure of the book to a certain extent? Only to an extent because obviously a lot of it is me rabbiting on about auterism or just giving plain historical or factual material but I like to juxtapose it with other things so that the connection isn’t smeared over. You have got to make the connection yourself. For example, I don’t think I made the direct juxtaposition but people talking about the sort of guy McAllister was, and somebody says, he was a free spirit, he was like Ariel. The next person says, he was like Caliban. That is wonderful. I made no attempt to reconcile those two. The other extraordinary thing about Portrait in addition to the interviews and the way they are used is the incredible wealth of primary sources. I can’t think of a precedent where a film historian prior to that book had gone to such lengths to dig out the documents from the Public Records Office and all that kind of thing. I hadn’t realised that. It seemed the obvious thing to do. Remember that when I started to write that book there was almost no information about Stewart McAllister available anywhere that I could find. I may as well tell you this. I shared a house with Jane Wood who was a co-director of David Naden Associates and one evening we were sitting around the kitchen table and I was talking about the sense of responsibility that the editors in our company had towards the material which wasn’t universally shared and seemed at that point to be dying out. I said I don’t know where it came from this idea that we should take a moral stand, take responsibility for what we are editing. And Jane said, you assisted me, I assisted Ian Woolf, Ian Woolf assisted Stewart McAllister, it all comes from there. And I said somebody ought to write a book about Stewart McAllister and I then got that tingling at the back of my neck. Nobody else is going to do it; it had better be me. So that is how it began. And that moment in my life, those few seconds, are really among my most important memories. Unlike many academics you had no research grants or other institutional support, so it is a real labour of love as well. How many years were you working on the project? It is difficult to say, probably about three. I started doing it just in gaps between jobs but then I’d got enough material to write about a third of it and I’d reached a point where I thought, I want to put something down on paper now otherwise I will get so confused, and that will guide me into finding what else I need to know. And at that point my mother went down with cancer and she lived up in Yorkshire. To cut a story short I spent a year up there looking after her before she died and very shortly after I first went up I thought this is going to be hell, I’ve got to do something. Oddly enough John Berger was involved in this because he happened to drop into DNA [David Naden Associates] because I had cut the Omnibus version of Pig Earth so we knew each other and he wanted to say hello. He was told that I was up there and my mother was dying so he phoned me up in Yorkshire. And I said I might take a couple of days off, go down to London and pick up my research notes and work on that book I was   12  

working on. And he said, oh you must, otherwise your mother will feel guilty. I thought, he thinks of a thing like that, which is a mark of his humanity. Most of my time was spent looking after her but I put aside three hours a day in the afternoon to work. By the time she died I’d written something like two thirds of the finished book. Do you think the Jennings and McAllister relationship was unique? Are there other director/editor relationships that merit similar investigation? There aren’t others that I know about. It is difficult to say because some of the people I know in my own working life at David Naden Associates sometimes worked for a long time with the same person. I did with Mike Dibb, Brian Moser and certainly with Melissa Llewelyn Davies. Whether that counts for that degree of creative tension, I don’t know. In the fiction department you’ve got Walter Murch and the directors he worked with. And of course there is the well-known case of Flaherty and Helen Van Dongen. I did read that he hated changing anything so he would have left a huge sprawling thing. And she would recut the thing so that it made sense but then put it back because she daren’t confront him and then gradually make a change here and a change there till she had got it to what she knew was right. I wondered if you felt there was a connection between Portrait and your later critical pieces on Odd Man Out and Jeux Interdit around the theme of negation or invisibility. I was interested in that question because it was not something I was conscious of and I started to think is that true of my fiction… I don’t know the answer. And I’m sometimes a bit cautious about inquiring too much into what my themes are. I’m not obsessive about it, but I know that once I had written a few books I thought, ah, there is a common theme here which I didn’t know was a preoccupation of mine but clearly is, which in that case was to do with loyalty, finishing a job you have started, all that sort of thing. But I don’t know, states of negation, I thought I shall think some more about this. I can’t give you an answer. Salvatore Guiliano would also fit that theme. Yes. That is a fascinating film. I remember when they invited me to do one of the film classics and they sent me a list of one’s that hadn’t been taken up I settled on Odd Man Out. I said to Edward Buscombe, I wish you were including Salvatore Guiliano in this because I think it really deserves it. And he said, yes I agree with you but it hasn’t been chosen. Portrait is a major contribution to the debates on authorship. Were there any particular essays, arguments about authorship that you were intrigued by or implicitly challenging through the book? Not specifically but I was interested in the fact that having rescued the director from oblivion the door was now closed on everybody else. That seemed a bit unfair, especially in film of all media, confining to one person. I know there is a chapter in there talking about that. So it was addressing itself to the general debates which had been going on. I used to read Screen, which was a real love-hate relationship because it was written with such a doctrinaire set of positions. Whenever it came through the door my heart used to sink, oh God I’ve got to read Screen, but I felt I ought to, these   13  

were highly intelligent people with interesting ideas, they might express themselves with a rather stilted language and a rather religious, I don’t know what the word would be, they had the moral truth and nobody else had. And it was a bit hard to stomach sometimes, and if you used the wrong word like reality you were in trouble. Nonetheless there was enough of substance in it to think that it was worth slogging through this stuff. There was a lovely book I read two or three years ago, Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film. I thought, wow, I would have liked to have written that book. It did have rather more footnotes than I would have considered acceptable but again he related it to his personal experience without in any way flying off into flights of fancy about it. How exceptional would you say you were as someone who was working in the industry, making films and engaging with this kind of material? Were some of your colleagues following Screen? It wasn’t the norm, but it wasn’t a complete denial either of the approach. It is the sort of approach that is actually quite difficult to apply when you are sitting in front of the rushes saying, how shall I cut this film? How did you come to be working on World in Action? Yes. One thing that you haven’t mentioned though I’ve thrown in a couple of references is David Naden Associates, the company formed with David Naden, Jane Wood and myself, the three of us first of all. We started in 1965 and we folded in 2005, we had forty years of existence going through various premises and various numbers. It mutated over the years, it started as being a bit more of a cooperative than it finished being but nevertheless a lot of the same people stayed around. Sheila Brady joined us a couple of years after. Martin Smith joined us within weeks as an assistant editor then became an editor. Sheila, two years later started assisting me and then became an editor. So that was the unit and again a casual contact got us in with Granada because somebody we knew had assisted me in some films I’d cut. There is a gap in the story, after I finished working with Mai Harris the first actual film editing job I got was a phone call from David who was working with Mithras Films which was John Irvin and Maurice Hatton’s company who had been taken on to do party politicals for the Labour Party. Their big break came with the party conference in 1963 in Scarborough where they hoped to do a Leacock type verite film at the conference, which wasn’t what the Labour Party asked for. They just wanted a few shots to use in party politicals, but all these people were straining at the leash, we want to make a real film. I was given the choice of continuing to cut the party politicals or the Scarborough conference film. I wanted to cut a proper film as well so I did that and it turned out to be very, very difficult and it wasn’t as observational, we didn’t use that word in those days, it wasn’t as verite a production as we hoped. But anyway we got a film which wasn’t wonderful, but I was quite pleased with it and much to the chagrin of the Labour Party it won a bronze medal at Venice. After that I cut quite a few things at Mithras that were never finished



One of the assistants that I had on one of the unfinished films, a guy called Mike Major, had been up there editing This England and I think what had happened is that it had overrun, as everything did in those days, and he had another commitment. This was when the explosion happened of 16mm work in television and Granada suddenly found that they had more work than they had cutting rooms. When we first started in ’65 we wrote to all the television companies, BBC obviously and the ITV companies, saying, we are a group of film editors and these are our services, and nobody took us up on it. But within a year Granada were calling us, we were up there all the time. The first thing I did was completing a film where again the film had overrun and the editor had gone to work on a feature, they had to find somebody and by this time they knew about DNA so they called on me. That was for Mike Newell, a film about a Gamekeeper in the This England series. What we used to do mostly for This England was to go up to Manchester, cut them in the cutting rooms there, and come home for the weekend. So we got to know all these people some of whom are still my friends. It was a very rich moment, all the creative people seemed to have congregated at Granada, partly because of Bernstein and Forman’s attitude to things. Is it possible for you to generalise on the director/editor relationship when you were working on those Granada productions or did it vary greatly depending on the individuals? It sort of varied. We all took the view, almost embarrassingly so in retrospect, that editing was the job of the editors so we all tended to be a bit cocky about making sure our – I know that Denis Mitchell on one film I worked on which was peculiarly difficult, he reached the point where he would call the director in to discuss it with him and he wouldn’t let me participate, probably because he thought I would keep complaining about everything he said. One learnt gradually to be a bit more subtle. I’ve always, with or without subtlety, tried to make sure the film was as good as possible and that had to mean as good as possible in my view which doesn’t mean that I was impervious to anything anybody else might say. In fact you learn over the years to use criticism constructively. If the Executive Producer doesn’t like it getting angry is the wrong action. It may not be for the reasons he has given but there is something that he is not getting so what have we done wrong that he is reacting like this. But on those sort of instances the director and editor were on the same side. In fact most of the time the directors and editors were on the same side. I had very few stand up rows with directors because normally you are both trying to do the same thing, get the best out of the material. A director you don’t get on with may have a different idea about what is the best and that director may not come back to you next time. But the ones that do come back to you next time even though may have argued the toss quite a lot about it obviously felt satisfied that your heart was in the right place which was obviously the case with Jennings and McAllister. They used to have terrible rows but he always went back to McAllister and McAllister always agreed to work with him so they must have thought this time it will go alright. So what happened in terms of organisation is that Granada would contact David Naden Associates. We would say, so and so is available, is that all right? And they would check with the director and say yes send them up. There was so much work up there that people weren’t being too choosy. Most of the stuff I did on World in Action it was holiday relief.



Did it require a shift in your thinking that you could see that your career would be in television rather than in the film industry? Initially it was a surprise. I think there was just relief that there was a source of work because when we started we assumed that our work would be cutting things for Oxfam, which I did, little industrial docs, that is what we thought would be our future. It was a relief to find that there would be rather more exciting stuff to be done. I was lucky to pick up some of the very good World in Actions. I did the one on the death of Che Guevara. I knew Brian Moser because I had done something way back with him and Derrick Knight. I can’t remember why the official World in Action editor wasn’t available that week but there must have been some reason and Brian said get hold of Dai to do it. Did you have a sense at that time that you were involved in a television series that was going to be remembered? Oh yes, everybody did. Everybody did. It was amazing, you had people there, they all hated each other’s guts, but when it came to the job there was quite a remarkable esprit d’corps about that place. You worked on The Demonstration, the World in Action programme on the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam protest. Did you feel working on that the programme was breaking new ground in televisual language? I don’t know that we would quite have said that but we were constantly looking for new ways to do things. And the management to be fair were on our side, they wanted it too. There was a very strange feeling in Granada. I don’t know whether you know this but Sidney Bernstein had insisted that every room in Granada should have a portrait of Barnum to remind us of what we were really about. Yet in spite of that he and Cecil too I suppose, I don’t know so much about him, and Denis Forman certainly, and by choosing Denis Forman as your managing director, they were hoping that experimental, I hate the word but you know what I mean, imaginative filmmaking might actually be popular. They didn’t see any contradiction between Denis Mitchell doing This England. The idea that you should be groundbreaking was considered a good thing; they were in favour of it. So they were a strange bunch, and I think although we didn’t realise it at the time, strange in a way that other television stations weren’t. The BBC were pretty good at that time. Huw Weldon was a good person to deal with. Denis Forman could come out with the wildest criticisms and suggestions and so could Huw Weldon but you were never nervous of going into a viewing with them because you knew they would say something stimulating. If something worked they would acknowledge it and you learnt in time you didn’t have to do what they suggested, as long as it worked they would buy it. They were good people to have in those positions. And if they came up with something with which you disagreed would you feel comfortable in challenging it? You would challenge it anyway but you would probably be told to go away and make the bloody film work, which actually is fine. I’ve never found myself in a situation



where you go back and they say, but you haven’t done what we said, or it still doesn’t work. They would see it again and say yeah, that is better. Coming on to Disappearing World you wrote in the introduction to the essays in For Documentary that much of the thinking that went into the essays in that book came out of the work you did on that programme. I’d forgotten I said that but I suppose it is true, yes and others. That was one of the earliest places where the idea of following spontaneous action was central to it. It wasn’t the only thing because Roger Graef had done things as well, I cut some of them. But one forgets in the days before Disappearing World films about other cultures had consisted of mute shots with a commentary telling you what they were thinking. Disappearing World I think, or it certainly would have made that claim, was the first serious attempt to listen to what the subject people wanted to say to you, ask them what they thought about life. So you got quite a different slant on things. That whole idea that an interview isn’t exactly an observational technique in the wider sense but in another sense it is because you are letting the subject determine the content to some extent. In Disappearing World you had the mediating figure always of the anthropologist who knew not only the culture but also those individual people and they had lived with them. So it was a very different feeling from, say, World in Action where they would say, we get off the plane and shoot, a sort of gung ho, journalistic thing which was a slightly negative side of the World in Action ethos, whereas with Disappearing World they would stay for quite a while without shooting. Of course you couldn’t do that quite to the extent in television that people like David and Judith MacDougall did because nobody cared how long they spent without shooting. But having the anthropologist there solved that problem, and if there was something you shouldn’t do for various cultural reasons, which you were unaware of, the anthropologist would say don’t do that. On the first two Maasai films Melissa [Llewelyn Davies] was the anthropologist and Chris Curling was the director then she gradually, with some difficulty, got herself into the position of being the director. First she was the anthropologist then she joined the team as researcher. But then it was ‘you’re not a director, you can’t direct a film.’ So she managed to set up this thing that only a woman could do, inside the women’s quarters with married women in Marrakech and she had to get an all woman crew. She managed to find a camerawoman and one sound recordist. She had to borrow a woman sparks from Thames I think because there were so few women electricians around. So she had a completely female crew and she chose me as the editor because I’d been working on the other two Maasai films. Just elaborating on that theme something you discuss briefly in Portrait, you say something along the lines of your appreciation of gender politics was accentuated by working as an editor. Can you elaborate on that? Well yes there is something feminine in status. You’ve got to be a little bit devious about how you get your way. And you have a sort of equality which isn’t quite an equality. There is a funny sort of relationship between a director and an editor. Anthropologists refer to a joking relationship, I don’t know if you know that phrase. It is when the rules of your society determine that I am superior to you because of X, Y and Z but you are superior to me because of A, B and C, and there is a conflict, so you   17  

make jokes. That is very much the relationship in the cutting room: the director is formally the ruling party but on the other hand they are in your room using your equipment so you have a certain status and it is your skill. I think anthropologists might agree that it is a joking relationship between a director and an editor, which it to some extent is between a husband and a wife. It may be stretching the analogy too far but there is also that issue of domestic space and the wider world because the editor is primarily inside and the director is the one who goes out. Yes that’s true. What is also interesting, Kevin MacDonald wrote a book about his grandfather Emeric Pressburger. I think he was talking about Pressburger or else quoting something Pressburger said. He said the writer is in the same relationship to the director, this feminine relationship. When I met Kevin MacDonald it happened that I’d just read that book and I mentioned that and he said I’ve just read Portrait of an Invisible Man and I was struck by the similarity as well. Following that line of thought were there particular complexities involved in editing material from societies whose cultural codes weren’t familiar to you? There were times when it was tricky. I think I mention this in one of the pieces [in For Documentary] about the Tuareg the way they lift the veil carries a huge significance. As an editor you think he is just trying to keep the sand out of his nose. There are degrees of subtlety in the social interactions and without the anthropologist there I wouldn’t have known and he was able to say, perhaps you should have him raising the veil at this point. I had to rely on the expertise. And in various other things, sometimes there would be something that wouldn’t look particularly significant to me but the anthropologist or the director who’d already imbibed the information would say actually that does matter, we’ve got to try and get that in. So you have to find some way of making it work. Where the stylistic preference was, so to speak, let the subjects speak for themselves and avoid explanatory commentary if you have something subtle that would easily be missed by viewers watching in Britain, how do you convey the significance of that? You probably can’t. I can’t remember whether in that film whether we did say anything to draw attention to it or whether it was more that we were careful not to get it wrong, which is a slightly different thing. The programmes are a sort of hybrid of the observational and the expository styles. That’s right. We wouldn’t have got away with doing the sort of thing that David MacDougall was doing. Funnily enough I’d just seen Lorang’s Way when we were cutting one of the Disappearing World’s. Jeremy Wallington was the Executive Producer at that point and I said to Jeremy, I’ve just seen this wonderful film, we should be doing something like this on Disappearing World. He gave me this funny look and said, you could never get away that, you would never be allowed to do that on television. I thought, pity, but I tried. But then years later when I met David he happened to remark, I once sent one of my films to Jeremy Wallington to see if he



was interested for Disappearing World. I realised that the funny look he gave me was because he thought I knew which I didn’t. What is your sense of the constraints and limitations of Disappearing World, that there were forms of language that wouldn’t have worked? Well they wouldn’t have worked then. But we did get much closer to it with some of the later Maasai films for the BBC and partly because by then the whole thing of observation in families and Roger Graef doing stuff in prisons had become more part of the lingua franca of documentary. You probably wouldn’t get away with it now, but twenty years ago – The Women’s Olamal was pretty close. I think it is over two hours long and there is only two and a half minutes of commentary, one of which I fought bitterly that you didn’t need it. With these films which were trying to push the boundaries of what was possible in television did you feel that television reviewers were broadly supportive? No. Now and then they pick up on something but people like Clive James was quite snooty about it, anything that bored him which was anything that didn’t have snappy witty commentary was a no no. No there was no support coming from that quarter really or if there was it was in papers I didn’t read. That must have been a matter of regret that you were working in a context that didn’t attract the criticism it deserved. Yes, it did. We sort of assumed that the audience was out there and the people we really cared about would respond. And they got quite decent ratings. Nobody ever came to us that I can recall to say, listen you’ve got to pull your socks up the ratings aren’t good enough. But of course in those days some of these things were considered to be fulfilling the public service brief so maybe they didn’t care. There was a limit to how far they would be prepared to let us make films that nobody was going to look at. Did the advent of Channel 4 change the work you were doing significantly? At first it was wonderful. Their brief was to do things that other people wouldn’t do and Jeremy Isaacs fulfilled that brief. He got a lot of stick for putting out stuff that was considered elitist. In my day elitism meant trying to keep all the best stuff for a small privileged group. But now if you want to show good stuff to a mass audience that is called elitism, but that is not what the word means. The beginning of Channel 4 was a wonderful time. The [About] Time series for Mike Dibb we did for Channel 4 and some things for Equinox. But then for some reason or other the curtain of gloom descended and they became more and more philistine. What is your assessment of documentary television now? Is there anything of value being screened? Yes, but it is in a very limited format. With the exception of the current affairs ones like Unreported World and Dispatches which are doing a terrific job in journalistic terms whilst at the same time being often quite imaginatively structured, in terms of any other documentary, unless I am overlooking something, all you have really got   19  

are experts talking to you about something, archaeology, science, the arts, which are sometimes very good. Sometimes what these people are saying is extremely interesting but that that should be the only permissible format tells you something about a society where authority is regarded as being the only structure available: where everything has to be mediated through authority figures. You can learn a lot from listening to them, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t make those programmes, and certainly the editing now is far less sloppy than it was two or three years ago. But the fact that this is the only format that is available I find very worrying. You’ve had experience of working with individuals who have pioneered visual approaches to anthropology, Melissa Llewelyn Davies and David and Judith MacDougall. Yes making the film the language in which you speak about it. I love those sort of films. There are two high points of documentary for me. One is the Jennings model and the other is the observational model which Melissa and David and Judith have formed. In The Women’s Olamal the Maasai have this thing that the women do, and also in certain circumstances the warrior grade, which is that if things aren’t going their way they freak out and start hyper-ventilating. We were under constant pressure to explain that, ‘people won’t know, they will be shocked about this and they won’t know what is going on.’ And both Melissa and I resisted this whole idea. I may be putting thoughts into her head but I think she felt what is an explanation, what do you mean by explain? That is what they do. And I was reminded of when I was a child we lived in London and my mother’s family lived in Yorkshire and she had several sisters and whenever they met they would always embrace and they would cry. As a child I could never understand, why are they crying? Aren’t they glad to see each other? And my dad would say yes that is why they are crying. And I had to learn to get used to that and I sort of thought that if we just show this film as it is and then when the moment comes when they ‘freak out’, for want of a better word, we have to have created a situation so that, as with my aunties when they met, you sort of take it for granted, you don’t ask the question what are they doing because, you know, that is what happens. And I think to an extent in that film which runs for about one hour fifty with very little commentary we got away with that. In David’s films you don’t have any commentary you’ve just got to make sure that if there is any explanation needed it is there in the dialogue, which it usually is: the weight of meaning, of comprehension is carried by the dialogue. Finally to pick up on a few things in your collection of essays For Documentary, you have serious reservations about digital imagery and the increasing introduction of digital in non-fiction work, are there instances where there are legitimate uses of it? I had in mind something like Walking with Dinosaurs. Yes that has the same status as any animation sequence I think. You don’t take it as being reality. I have nothing against that. I made those comments in ‘From Today, Cinema is Dead’ and thought that documentary would become almost a meaningless term. The funny thing is that is not what seems to have happened. I think that the lack of trust in some strange way has mutated into the fiction area. Fiction films always used to make great attempts to look like documentaries. They always used documentary styles to say, this is real, even though you know it isn’t real, to enhance your suspension of disbelief. That seems to have weakened whereas documentary   20  

seems to have ducked under the bar in some way. By using the rough and ready techniques they are managing to say this isn’t a gimmick. Obviously, it remains your responsibility to say, well I’m going to read that as a documentary, which in my view is what defines a documentary, it is how you read it. And you can of course be misled but that was always the case. But in fiction film you have got so far away, partly because more gimmickry is used in fiction films, and as you say when it is used in documentary it is so obvious. An example would be when I think back on Lord of the Rings what I remember is not moving footage, it is stills, and it is as if I am remembering a graphic novel. I know there was plenty of movement in it, quite dramatic movement but it all seemed to be movement which was trying to recapture the framing of a very well done graphic novel. So in a way the idea of a film has become lost, it is as if real life has become the equivalent of animation rather than animation trying to copy real life. I don’t know maybe that doesn’t prove anything but I did find myself one day thinking that it has gone the opposite way to what I was expecting. But I think there is an underlying loss of trust in the photograph which a lot of people think good riddance to it because it was always misguided trust anyway. But that remark that you quote abut the days of hope having gone [‘From Today, Cinema is Dead’, in For Documentary, p.192], that was a bit of a throw away remark and was deliberately provocative. It still niggles at me that there is some truth in that. That on some level, and we can dispute what the level is, that photochemical film was a valid equivalent of the world and that by manipulating it yourself or endorsing the manipulations as a viewer of those images you could create something which was meaningful as a reflection on the real world and therefore in a sense that the real world became malleable and capable of change, that whole mind set seems to have been subtly undercut. I don’t know I could be wrong. What positions did you feel yourself to be writing against? Who were you writing against? I think on the whole I was writing against a set of assumptions that I couldn’t pin down to particular individuals but that there is no real difference between documentary and fiction because both are narrative forms, both are using imagery, one image is as valid as another image. It is very easy to make a case which would demolish documentary and sometimes I have to confess that in my own life I’ve thought is this whole project a waste of time. I don’t think it was or is a waste of time but pursuing the logic of some of those writers, and again I can’t give you names but I’ve come across that attitude many, many times, would actually mean there was no point in making documentaries or, to put it another way, that any documentary reading of those films would be invalid and therefore what is the point in trying to elicit it if is going to be invalid. Documentary is a dicey sort of medium. It always was, but it did call forth a great deal of passion and loyalty from people like me, Stewart McAllister, others. Sometimes I feel the way some of my communist friends felt after the Soviet Union collapsed, what has my life been about? The other side of the thing about digital technology is what it does to the process as well as the result. One simple thing would be there is no function for an assistant, so you don’t have an assistant and nobody learns to edit by the sort of apprenticeship model of seeing how somebody else does it. Another thing that a lot of editors say is that with the older technology you make a cut, it may be revised, you may go on and recut the material, but each cut is a definite   21  

commitment and it requires an investment of labour but with digital technology, it is much more fluid, you can play around with it forever and many more people can intervene. Well that is the worst thing. I understand entirely that feeling and I remember sitting at my Avid, when I had done two or three films on the Avid, with a film where the structure seemed wrong and thinking if only I could wind those off onto separate bobbins like I would put them on the Steenbeck. And the person I was talking to said you can, you can do it electronically. And of course he was right and I had that same sort of feeling when I moved from a manual typewriter to a word processor but I wouldn’t go back to a manual typewriter now. Whether I would go back to a cutting film, I don’t know. I think I would become frustrated with the slowness of it. I think digital technology would be wonderful if it wasn’t for other people. First of all the executives know that you can do something half as quickly so they give you half the time, so you don’t really have time to think about it. There was one thing I cut which was a very complex film involving playback musicians, a film about Mendelsohn for German television and it was seventy minutes long and we had three weeks to cut it and luckily I was working with a director who knew very well what he was doing and he gave me the structure before I started editing, which worked, so we had none of the thing of, my God, moving things around, his structure worked. We obviously made some changes to it and had discussions about different parts of it but at the end of the three weeks I realised that we had viewed the film from beginning to end twice and I thought that is not enough. We are lucky it worked but three weeks is no time to struggle with trying to post-synch stuff. The other thing that editors say is that when you make manual cuts it gives you what they call thinking time. When you instantly change things at the touch of a button you don’t have the time to reflect. And also with a Steenbeck you viewed it and to get back to the start you had to rewind. So you’d rewind it fast but you would keep your eye on it and you’d see something hiccup and you’d think, there’s something wrong there. And next time through you would look carefully and sure enough there was something that raised a certain discomfort. And you wouldn’t have spotted that going at normal speed. It is like a painter looking at his work in the mirror to check the composition. The other thing is that it gives other people a chance to intervene. I remember one film we were working on we had a rather dense commissioning editor who regarded her own judgement as being divine. We showed her a rough cut and she started saying why don’t you do X, Y and Z. The director and I were getting quite bolshy. Then she made one suggestion of swapping two sequences around and I thought that sounds alright, maybe she is right about that, let’s try it. So we tried it and it looked alright. After she’d gone we ran the film through from the start and that change had completely buggered up what followed and we then had to find another solution. We couldn’t change it back after we had done it at her insistence. And that is the sort of nonsense that happens. They know that you can do it while they sit and watch you. I hated being watched. In the days of cutting on film I’d always tell the directors to wait until I’d done the rough cut. I didn’t want anybody leaning over me where I was just coming to terms with the material. After that they were welcome to try any changes they wanted to try but I liked to get my head around the material myself without   22  

anybody else being there. And I didn’t like having to view it until I’d finished the first cut. Did you have a preference for being on location during the shoot? Some editors feel that is helpful and others don’t want to see the material until it is filmed. Absolutely I believe very much that my job is to respond to what is on the screen not to what actually happened. And there is a very good example of that on one of the Disappearing Worlds, the first one we cut, Cuiva. There was a shot where they were herding some cattle over a river and we looked at the rushes and they were a bit messy but that was fine. I was mentally thinking about how it would go. At the end of the sequence Brian Moser said, well, we can junk that lot can’t we? I said, why, what is your objection to that? He said, well they didn’t go, did they? The cattle got into the water jibbed and turned round and went back again. I said, I didn’t realise that, and the reason I didn’t realise is that the cameraman either knowingly, which is a bit doubtful under the circumstances with how chaotic it was, or by sheer fluke had gone round to the other side of the cattle so they still seemed to be going the same direction. I said it is perfectly possible to make that shot work. It will be cheating, the cattle will appear to be going back up the other bank, but we used it. If I had been there on location I wouldn’t have known that that was going to work. For Documentary avoids an explicit dialogue with academic theorists of documentary do you find value in the academic theorisation of the subject? Oh yes I do. It is just that the way I approach writing about documentary the starting point is my own experience. In a way I would come back to the model of John Berger; he doesn’t really refer much to other people’s work. I know that in an academic context it is obviously the done thing to summarise other people’s views before you present your own, perhaps to diss them or not but that was never the purpose. I wasn’t entering into a discussion of that sort because I wasn’t assuming a readership who would necessarily have read other writers. It may be that by not doing that I’ve missed out on some chances to make interesting points, well, so be it, that is the stuff I write. Who do you imagine as your readership? Anybody who likes what I write. I don’t start with a target audience in mind for that or fiction or anything, just an intelligent layperson. Are you hoping that you might be speaking to other filmmakers? Oh yes I would like to think that people in the business would be interested in what I’ve said, and to a large extent they have been. I’ve had some good feedback, especially for Portrait of an Invisible Man. I don’t have any proof of the readership of those books but I suspect that they are people who have a prior interest in documentary. I’m also slightly saddened that there is this cordon sanitaire between what I’ve written about film and my fiction. There is an overlap: Moritur was about a film editor so you could say that is a contribution to film editing ethics.



Writing fiction and poetry is you and no one else whereas your work as an editor is always in a collaborative context. How do those two modes of creativity fit together for you personally? Funnily enough that has never presented itself as a problem. I don’t know to what extent my editing experience has informed the way I write fiction. It would be extraordinary if it didn’t after I had been doing it for forty years. There must be something wired into my brain that says that is how you put things together. And the fact that it is not collaborative is less of a distinction than it appears to be because when you are editing a film, yes you are working with somebody else, part of the time you may have them there, part of the time you may not, but you are still making your choices and your decisions and deciding where to cut. It may be that the director will say it would be better to do X, Y and Z, in which case you would consider that. You may think it is worth trying or you may think it is definitely a good idea. Implementing that is still part of the same process so even though somebody else is there working with you on film it is not that different when it comes to the crunch. Who are the contemporary novelists that you admire? I am very keen on Gabriel Josipovici’s writing. Again, John Berger. You come across odd books from time to time. I’m a big Virginia Woolf fan which I know is not exactly the latest fashion. You mention Dorothy Richardson as well. Oh yes I think she is terrific but I don’t really write in her style. I admire her greatly because I think she is astonishingly undervalued. I don’t understand why she is not up there with Joyce and Woolf as one of the great writers of the first half of the twentieth century. November 2010