66 Years ago: Movietone News, the first days
Saturday 1st October 2011 marks the day sixty-six years ago when I fronted up to 22 Soho Square for the first time.
In October 1945, the Movietonews building in Soho Square was impressive. On the outside, the building was lit from top to bottom by neon lights which announced that it was the home of British Movietone News and Kay (West End) Laboratories. The neon lights consisted of strips of blue, white and yellow which went from the top of the building to just above the ground floor. Also in neon were the names of Movietonews and Kay’s. It was an impressive sight.
From the outset, I knew that I belonged here. Everything was right. I loved the place. Within the first week, any thoughts about working anywhere else disappeared.
I was offered Two Pounds five shillings a week which was much more than any of my contemporaries was getting. Furthermore, there was considerable prestige attached to working for Movietonews, anyone who asked me where I worked would immediately break into song, humming or whistling the theme tune for Gaumont British News the moment I told them where I was employed.
I was set to work as the General Office clerk (office boy) under the command of Peggy Noble (Mrs. Hanshaw). Peggy Noble said she would teach me to type in three months. She did. She was an odd sort of woman who had worked at Movietone since the mid-thirties. She was about twenty-nine, tall with jet black hair. She wore bright red lipstick with which she described a shape which had no resemblance to her lips. Her eyebrows were plucked and replaced with a thin black line over each eye which gave her an appearance of one with a permanent look of surprise. She, invariably, struck a pose by which she would hold the fingers of her left hand by the fingers of her right hand. The right hand to the top.
She was, up to that time, the fastest typist I had ever seen.
Her husband was Godfrey Kenneth Hanshaw, a sometime cameraman in 1945. He was keen to be a cameraman and she was keen that he should be so. Unfortunately, at that time, the company were not so sure and some, within the company, remained unsure for another twenty years. In fact Ken, as he was known, had shot the scenes of bomb damage in London from 1944. However, his camera-work was thought to be suspect and he was prone to error. With most of the camera crews working away as War Correspondents, Ken had sometimes been the only one left to cover the London scene. He was found to be good enough, two years later, to be posted to Palestine to shoot the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Peggy was a dedicated taskmaster and gave me a hard time for a few weeks. When she realised that this was unnecessary, her attitude changed.
Everything I did was interesting. Everyone I spoke to was interesting. I could not believe that I had been so lucky.
Each day, I would walk to the Tottenham High Road where I caught a 627 Trolleybus which took me to Tottenham Court Road, from there, it was a half mile walk to Soho Square. The fare cost sixpence (2.4p) each way.
At lunch times, I used to go into what was called the “Victory” Cafe. There were lots of “Victory” Cafes at that time. It was situated in Charing Cross Road about twenty yards from the corner of Oxford Street. Here, I could get a cup of tea and two rounds of sandwiches for one shilling and threepence. So my total necessary expenses for the week came to eleven shillings and three pence. I gave my Mum a Pound for my keep leaving me with thirteen shillings and ninepence to do what I liked with.
My daily tasks were simple enough. I delivered the mail around the building, I picked it up twice a day. I delivered and collected the mail from our Library and Accounts department twice a day. They were housed in 12, D’Arblay Street on the other side of Wardour Street.
I started typing the envelopes in which the contents list of the newsreel were sent out twice a week. This is how I learnt to type. There were, at least, forty of them and, before long, I could remember them all. My typewriter was an Underwood. In fact, every machine in the company was an Underwood. They would have dated from the early thirties, but Movietone employed the services of a typewriter mechanic who serviced the machines and kept them going regardless of age. He used to regard the machines as his own and he would lecture anyone he considered had not used the machine properly.
The first news story that Movietonews issued after my arrival was “Radar”. Up to that time, the public knew nothing about Radar. Radar had already a sizeable history dating back to the early twenties. The principal inventor was Sir Robert Watson-Watt who had produced a prototype device as early as 1936. By 1941, he was developing a airborne radar system, but this was not mentioned in the Movietone story. I saw it three days before the public and I knew that I had a special job. Like everyone else, I was encouraged to go into the theatre if ever I had nothing else to do. In the Theatre, it was possible to see how the whole process of producing Movietonews worked – who did what and when. Early every Monday and Thursday, the entire staff crammed into the theatre to see the latest release. Every member of the staff had a good reason to watch it.The newsroom would be interested to see that the cameramen had done their job properly.
The make-up staff would watch to see that they had not made any mistakes.
The Library staff would watch to see the material they were about to bring into the library. They needed to know what they were indexing.
Cameramen would look in to see that they were satisfied with their own work.
The management would watch to see that the staff we’re keeping the reel up to standard.
I thought that the excitement of the job would fade in time. It never did. Every day there was something new and sometimes wonderful. History was unfolding day by day. I started to learn at a faster rate than I had ever been asked to do at school. I started to type the commentaries for Cecil Burge, the Movietonews commentary writer, who would write them in long hand. I would take them to him and he would amend them and return them to me for re-typing. This was not a chore, it was part of the process. The commentary had to be right, everything else depended on it. I learnt words that I had never heard before and I also learned how to spell them. Every time an overseas location was mentioned, I looked it up in the Atlas. I just had to know where it was. I learned about the world’s personalities, who they were and what they did to earn their fame.
The people in Movietonews were nice people, later there would be one or two that were not quite so nice, but, at that time, I had no complaints about anyone. They would all put themselves out to help or give me advice.
Each morning, I would be greeted at the door by the Commissionaire, Sid Perry, who was a uniformed member of the Corps of Commissionaires. His wife, Edith, could be found in the entry room greeting visitors. She made the tea for the inmates. Sid Perry was ex-Army and the name of his house in Aldershot was ‘Sialkot” which I always believed to be the scene of one of his postings in India, this ancient city is now part of Pakistan.
Before starting work at Movietone, I only had my school uniform to wear. My mother obtained a second-hand suit from one of the neighbours, Fred Shelford. Fred was much bigger then me and my Mum had to alter the suit to fit. It never did fit properly. No one at Movietone ever mentioned it although I must have looked a bit odd.
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