Orwell and Film

By Peter Davison

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We have previously been privileged to publish the memoirs of Professor Peter Davison, editor of the Complete Works of George Orwell. Now Professor Davison offers some reflections on his war-time work in film, and his subsequent thoughts about George Orwell’s seeming lack of interest in the same.

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I read with considerable interest Martin Stollery’s article on Orwell and film. I am reluctant to add my mote to this debate because in the matter of film and cinema – and indeed of much else – I am thoroughly out of date. I am unfamiliar with contemporary film criticism. I have on my bookshelves a copy of V.I Pudovkin’s Film Technique dated 1935, translated by Ivor Montagu. Back in 1942, when I bought it, it seemed very much the ‘in book’. And I did occasionally serve on an Association of Cine Technicians committee with Montagu, standing in for Ken Cameron, Crown Film’s chief sound recordist.

I had joined the CFU in June or July 1942. I was fifteen years of age. We then worked five-and-a-half days a week and I was paid 25s shillings a week until I was sixteen when my pay rose by five shillings. There was no question of several years training at university level as nowadays. Indeed, my training lasted all of two weeks. I was instructed in simple tasks such as joining film, filing it away, and finding it again. My instructor, John Reeve, became a very good friend. Indeed, had he not been drafted unexpectedly he would have been best man at my wedding. We both joined the Home Guard and as there was no real call for two young men trained to fire a Spigot Mortar (for which see Orwell, Complete Works, vol XII, 328-9, 339-40) we transferred to the aptly numbered 101st ‘Z’ Rocket Battery near Slough until he was called up to the army and I to the Navy.

I first worked with an editor called Gordon Hales on a ten-minute film, Letter Home, about an army recruit training in Northern Ireland. Later we started on a ninety-minute feature film, Close Quarters (initially entitled Operation Primrose) depicting the exploits of the submarine HMS Tyrant, a photograph of which hangs above my desk. Gordon became ill and a serving naval officer and film editor, First Lieutenant Russell Lloyd, took over. (He was married at that time to the film star Rosamund John.) In the final stages of production we were joined by Sid Stone, the supervising editor and worked very long hours. One task I had was laying the sound tracks of depth charges attacking the submarine – some 90 explosions if I recall correctly. The film had its premiere in the West End of London at the Regal cinema and was quite well received. It was shown with They Got Me Covered which starred Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour so attracting the headline in the Sunday Express, ‘Should the Navy play second fiddle to Bob Hope?’ (27 June 1943).

I worked on several films and stood in for colleages now and then. I was entrusted with cutting down a Canadian documentary to half its length and was given the text of a commentary which would later be recorded. I was confident (cheeky?) enough to rewrite the commentary and was required to take the rough cut and both commentaries to Senate House, University of London, where the Crown Film Unit had its headquarters – so I was privileged to visit the Ministry of Truth a little before Orwell cast his baleful light upon it. Film and my commentary were examined by John Monk and he gave both his approval.

Of more significance was an eleven-minute film on the V-1, or Flying Bomb, The Eighty Days. Much of it was made up of old library shots – I often see on tv the scared man looking out of a window and the woman rushing her children to safety. It starts with ‘Revenge Weapon’ uttered threateningly in German spoken by a Belgian Air Force sergeant whom we thought would get the gutturalness of the original language more effectively than could we.

I was called up to the Navy in December 1944 and returned to Crown, then at Beaconsfield Studios, in 1948. I did not stay long – we were overstaffed – but did work for three short periods organising a small unit on location making an educational film on the Rhondda and Wye Valleys. I was fortunate to be taken on by MGM at Borehamwood as First Assistant Editor at a higher pay rate. I worked on two films – Edward, My Son starring Spencer Tracy, and The Conspirator, starring Robert Taylor and the utterly charming Elizabeth Taylor. One of my duties was to sit with the stars when they were shown the previous day’s rushes. Miss Taylor seemed glad to chat and would bring chocolates (then rationed of course) for my wife. Unfortunately the start of the next film, the follow-up to Mrs Miniver, was delayed and many of us were laid off. That was the end of my life in film production. I offer this introduction to show the severe limitations of my expertise as compared to those who have graduated from university in recent years on film – in its production or criticism.

What strikes me most about Orwell and film is the limitations of his interest in film. His one lengthy film review – of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator – is motivated more by his interest in Chaplin than in film as such. The review of Eyes of the Navy, The Heart of Britain, and Unholy War are devoted more to lambasting ‘that dreadful B.B.C. voice’ and praising American technical skill than analysis of the two British documentaries. The Heart of Britain is not, I think, one of Jennings’s best films but Elizabeth Sussex, in her less than sycophantic study The Rise and Fall of British Documentary (1975) considers it as being one of those films (mainly associated with Jennings and McAllister) bringing ‘a new inspiration to British documentary’. This brings me to my first major issue. Given Orwell’s ground-breaking concern for the conditions in which so many people suffered in the 1930s it surprises me that Orwell never mentions Housing Problems (1935), Enough to Eat? (1936), or Coalface (1935) or such notable documentaries as Night Mail, Silent Village, and Listen to Britain. (I lived near Humphrey Jennings and he would sometimes very kindly give me a lift back home in his car. At my most naïve I once had the temerity to argue with him that Listen to Britain should conclude with Mozart not the Royal Marine band. I was wrong, of course, but his patience and kindness were exemplary.)

My second problem that I think needs exploration is Orwell’s very puzzling link with the innovative filmmaker, Len Lye (1903-80). One of the occupations that my colleagues and I would pursue when we had little work on our hands was running through a Moviola out-takes and spares of films for which there deemed no particular use. Of frequent interest were the many spares from Morning, Noon and Night, a film shot throughout the world but never assembled into a single film. The other was to run through Len Lye outtakes. These were often hand painted in a very early form of colour film. A fairly full note on Lye can be found in Seeing Things as they Are, p. 141. This is appended to an undated letter from Lye seeking Orwell’s cooperation in making an advertising film for Shell. Orwell never mentions Len Lye – but can someone dig into the archives to explore that relationship? Was Orwell interested in Lye’s unusual technique to such an extent that Lye sought his help?

Peter Davison in the film studio

A picture of those celebrating the completion of the Crown Film Close Quarters, June 1943. On the bottom row starting screen left is the Chief Petty Officer who acted his real-life role in the film. Next to him is the continuity girl and then a rigger. I can’t make out the face of the man with a mug obscuring it. Next to him is the film’s director, Jack Lee (brother of Laurie Lee). The last three in that row are Sid Stone, supervising editor (the editor was Russell Lloyd who was serving as a First Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and at that time married to the actress Rosamund John). The penultimate man is the cameraman Jonah Jones and on the extreme right the chief sound recordist, Ken Cameron. I am just above and to the left of Jack Lee and above the man whose face is obscured. I was then 16. To my right and above is the assistant sound engineer and on my right an assistant director.

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In a subsequent note, Professor Davison, in his self-deprecating fashion, wrote “It is no earth-shattering piece! However, I do think it is curious that Orwell never discusses the social privation films (which even I saw then) yet seemed to know Len Lye (whose work I also knew then). “

We are grateful to Professor Davison for his recollections. We look forward to publishing the researches of the student who goes into the archives and answers the Professor’s question: what was the relationship between George Orwell and the artist Len Lye?

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Uploaded March 31st 2019


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