A film on the life of King Faisal 1976
At UPITN, I was introduced to Peter Hellyer. He had been brought in as a freelance writer to help out John Crossland and John Lofts with the Roving Report (UPITN’s weekly half hour news magazine) scripts. Crossland and Lofts were the editors of Roving Report which they had taken over from ITN in 1967. As a variety of films on and for Middle East countries were commissioned, Peter Hellyer would be seconded to me as a writer on a film by film basis.
Yasar Durra persisted with the Saudis to make a film on the life of King Faisal. They continued to say no until the end of January 1976. All at once, they were saying yes to a one hour film. We asked if it was to be produced in time for the anniversary of the King’s Assassination.
They said “No, we do not believe in anniversaries”.
Yasar secured a price of $225,000 for the completion of the film in three languages, Arabic, English and French. This was an incredible amount of money at that time, and was, possibly a record amount for such a film.
The money was sufficient to interest Kenneth Coyte and Dusty Rhodes, respectively Vice-president and President of UPITN Corporation, who immediately convened a meeting. I was somewhat taken aback when they asked “Who are we going to get to direct it ?”
Coyte suggested that we used Michael Weigall. He had heard of him because he had been commissioned to make the anniversary documentary celebrating 21 years of Independent Television News. That was due to be shown in September 1976.
At the time of this discussion Michael Weigall, was already four months behind in the ITN project. I pointed this out to Coyte and Rhodes and added that he had a distinct disadvantage in that he was Jewish. And that anyone arriving in Riyadh with a passport that had an Israeli entry stamp in it would be put on the next plane out.
Rhodes then came up with a gem. He said “What about Jeremy Isaacs ?” I reminded him that he, too, was Jewish. Yasar confirmed that if we had offered a Jewish producer for the film, they would have cancelled the commission.
I said that I had been directing films within the company of twelve years without complaint.
Reluctantly, Coyte and Rhodes accepted that I should produce the film. Coyte promised me a bonus if I brought the film in at a profit.
The Saudis, in typical Arab fashion, said that they wanted the film by the middle of April, co-incidentally a year after Faisal’s death, but not, they insisted, the anniversary.
It was to be a one-hour film. I immediately started to raise the production crew. Within three days, I had dispatched a crew of director Peter Smith, cameraman Tony Mander, soundman Sid Squires and assistant Mike Matthews, to Saudi Arabia with instructions to shoot all things modern: Schools, highways, industry, the oil installations, the armed forces and anything else they could think of.
I telexed to Mohammed al Fhad at the Ministry of Information in Riyadh and asked him to arrange clearance and permission for the crew to film at each location. He agreed.
The crew was away ten days and came back with a load of goodies, material I didn’t think they would be allowed to get.
Back in London, I had hired Jenny Pozzi as Librarian and film and photo researcher. Another researcher was Maurice Raine. I instructed them to go into the film libraries of the newsreels to find any reference to Faisal and Saudi Arabia. In addition there were certain specific items that would be needed that had no immediate connection with either Faisal or Saud Arabia, for example the Arab Israeli war of 1947. This would be to illustrate what confronted Faisal as Foreign Minister.
I was besieged by people within and without UPITN telling me how I should go about it, but I was pushed for time and could not get involved in any award-winning treatment which would not be appreciated either by the Saudi Ministry of Information or its audience.
I stated, right from the start, that we would edit the film in chronological order starting with Faisal’s father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.
“Beginning with the re-conquest of his family’s ancestral home city of Riyadh in 1902, Ibn Saud consolidated his control over the Nejd in 1922, conquered the Hejaz in 1925. The nation was founded and unified as Saudi Arabia in 1932. His later reign saw the discovery of petroleum in Saudi Arabia in 1938, and the beginning of large-scale exploitation of that resource after World War II.”
I first wrote a chronology of Faisal and Saudi Arabia starting in the mid 19th century when the Rashidis conquered Riyadh and dispossessed the Saudis. I put in each year and filled in, under each year, the story or stories concerning Faisal and or Saudi Arabia that took place in that year. Some years were blank, but not for long, as the researchers came up with items, these were slotted in against each year until we had a complete picture of what had happened over the whole period. There was a place for every story and photograph.
Jenny Pozzi toured the London libraries for anything connected with Faisal and Saudi Arabia. She found a good deal of material in the Pathe Library which was, then, managed by George Marshall. When she had finished her search, George said to her “I don’t know whether this is any good, but you might like to have a look at it”. He produced a four-hundred foot reel of 35mm which was labelled “Arab Prince”.
When Jenny looked at it, by now having also seen a number of still pictures of Faisal in his youth, she immediately recognised the “Prince” as being Faisal. What was extraordinary was that the pictures had never been seen since 1919.
They were shot in London in 1919 when Faisal, with other young princes from Arabia Felix, was invited to the Victory Parade after the Great war. He was then fifteen years of age. He was filmed because of his Arab robes and headdress. Apart from some posed pictures in Pathe’s studios, he was filmed visiting the surrendered U-Boats.
It was a magical find.
We traced the history of Saudi Arabia and made some use of an old feature film which depicted the Saudi raid on Riyadh which succeeded in removing the Rashidis from power and the following battles that finally secured Saudi Arabia for the Saudis.
Using the bureau facilities of UPI and UPITN, we were able to search many overseas libraries and broadcasters, including the Library of Congress in Washington, European libraries and photo libraries. In the U.K. alone, we contacted over a dozen still picture libraries. From Japan, the Broadcaster NHK, sent us film of a state visit of Faisal.
We had loads of film and Peter Smith’s contribution gave us ample material to do a thorough job.
Three years before we were commissioned to do the job, Jeremy Isaacs had produced the magnificent series “The World at War”. This was processed in Humphries Laboratories where they did a number of experiments to find the best way to incorporate material, mostly black and white, that had come from a large number of different sources.
The final answer was to transfer all material from black and white to Eastmancolor negative. Even the black and white photographs were to be filmed with colour negative. This enabled the Grader to have more control over the printing. The experiments were costly and paid for by Thames Television. I had followed their progress at the time and believed that it was the ideal answer to our, similar, problem.
So I elected to transfer everything to colour negative. It proved ideal whereas to stay with black and white would have been something of a disaster.
Like World at War, some of our material was shot at sixteen frames per second as opposed to the modern television speed of 25 frames per second. To overcome this, I had the negative “step printed” which meant that every second frame was printed twice.
Although there was still a recognition that it was old film, the conversion to 24 frames per second made it look more normal, instead of a bit funny.
In some cases, we were able to inter-cut material on the same news story but from different sources. Normally this would have been impossible because the contrast between the two sets of material would have been too difficult to handle. One example of this was a story from Palestine in 1947 (Shot by Kirby Rickard of Pathe and Kenneth Hanshaw of Movietone) where the two cameramen were separated and had different views of the same action. With the colour negative, we were able to produce pictures that appeared to be from one source.
We found film and photos of some of the early British “advisers” to Abdul Aziz, like Harry St. John Bridger Philby, father of traitor Kim, Wilfred Thesiger, who explored the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia and William Shakespeare, who was a political advisor to Abdul Aziz and was killed in a battle during the war in the Nejd..
Thesiger was still alive, having been born in 1910, he had a career that was the stuff of derring do and high adventure including being a founder member of the S.A.S. and The Long Range Desert Group with the rank of Major. We decided to interview him, not to use the interview, but to use the information he had gained during his time in the Middle East. Peter Hellyer went down to Brighton to meet him. His information was valuable.
It was during this research period that we were told that a British adviser to the Saudis had been offered the oil rights in Saudi Arabia in the nineteen thirties. He relayed this information to the British Government saying that the Saudis wanted £2,000 for the rights to commence exploration. They turned it down.
For some time, I had been using the cutting rooms of Roy Jordan for almost all of my editing requirements. Roy had decided to set up another cutting room elsewhere in London and to concentrate on his other business of hiring out editing equipment. He left behind in Great Russell Street, his former staff editors, Bob Rootes and Noel Cronin. They had decided to form a company which they called Dandelion Films.
When we received the commission from the Saudis, I went to see them and discussed my requirements for “Faisal”. I needed two cutting rooms permanently staffed and I would pay top dollar for the privilege. They were mightily relieved, having been through a lean period, and from the Faisal film alone, they were able to turn-over more than £20,000.
Over the next few weeks, they were totally occupied by me and the rest of our production crew.
We now had enough material to produce a delightful yarn of Faisal’s life and Saudi Arabia’s history. The material was a mixture of past and present that presented another problem.
Every film story that we received, from a film library or a collection, was already edited. It was edited at the time it was first issued and its style and length would have been governed by the requirements of that time. There were no unused trims to be had and we were obliged, more often than not, to use the library story as we received it.
The newsreels had their own limitations, the whole newsreel ran little more than eight minutes, in which they would have to include anything up to six stories. Thus, we were inflicted with editorial decisions that had been made anything up to fifty years before.
On the other hand, we had Peter Smith’s material from Saudi Arabia. This was virgin negative and we had total control of its editing.
The trick was to mix the two. The library material required a commentary that was quick enough to keep up with the original editing, while our original negative could be edited at a more leisurely pace with a leisurely commentary to go with it.
I made a decision concerning the commentator. I wanted two of them, one to read the commentary quickly to suit the library film, the other to commentate at a slower rate against the original negative from Peter Smith. The latter, I called the narrator because it was he who would carry the story telling throughout the film. The commentator, on the other hand, would be able to give the urgency and drama required for the short library stories.
For the Arabic version, I used Maher Othman and Majid Sirhan. Maher as commentator, Majid as narrator. Both of them worked for the B.B.C. Arabic Service out of Bush House as well as writing and translating as freelancers. They were to become great friends.
For the French version I brought in two newsreaders of ORTF (Organisation Radio Television Francaise) from Paris, who were the best in France. The commentary and narration suited the French in that it is normal for the French when telling a story that happened in the past to use the present tense. Thus, we had the commentator using the present tense method for the library stories while the narrator used French prose.
Perhaps to show the difference between the two readers, the choice for the English version was Sandy Gall as commentator and Sir Michael Redgrave as narrator. Although Redgrave lived another nine years, his oncoming Parkinson’s Disease was beginning to show itself. During rehearsals, he stumbled and stuttered, and became embarrassed. I wondered if I had made a gaffe in using him. However, when we came to the actual recording he did a magnificent job without a single error.
ITN got to know of the major production going on under their roof (It is the sort of thing Coyte would have gone out of his way to let them know). They put pressure on us to do the re-recording in their dubbing theatre.
I had the choice of the finest dubbing mixers in London and here I was being pressured to use the ITN mixer who had only ever done the recording of a Roving Report. I had no choice. Fortunately, the ITN mixer excelled himself and we finished up with a first rate sound track.
It was a significant moment in the relationship between the staff of ITN and those of UPITN. Hitherto, the ITN personnel had regarded us as amateurs. The dubbing theatre was visited by a large number of interested members of the ITN staff, curious to see what we were up to. What they saw convinced them that we knew what we were doing.
The music was composed by Ron Grainer. Kenneth Coyte, company Vice-President, always ready to share the limelight, actually succeeded in getting Grainer to compose and record the music. It seems that Ron Grainer was an acquaintance of a friend and neighbour of Coyte.
I had a meeting with Ron at which we discussed our requirements. I then sent him a 16mm one-light print of the sections over which we needed music.
After only a couple of weeks, he was back with outline music recorded from a piano. It was good and we immediately made a booking at The Music Centre in Wembley.
The recording was scheduled to be done during an evening. Ron had booked forty musicians for the session. In those days, the Musicians Union was a very powerful organisation, able to dictate exactly how a session was to be organised. The length of the session was immaterial, there was a limit of 30 minutes of recorded music however long the session. In the event, this was more than we needed and we could always lengthen the recordings by duplication recording.
The musicians all came from established orchestras, such as the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra. They were, however, session musicians, able to play from music with little or no rehearsal.
After two hours, Ron Grainer sent almost all the musicians home, having obtained his 30-minute of recording time. He stayed on and recorded more with the piano. I did not like to tell him that I never used piano recording on any of my films. I always thought it drew attention to the music to be heard from a single piano.
He had done a magnificent job and the contribution to the overall production was immense, it lifted the film to a very high standard. The total cost to us was less than $10,000.
Another point of interest concerned a still picture which showed the Saudi army advancing in line abreast bearing the Saudi flags. The composition of the picture and its content were just what we needed, but the quality of the photograph was very poor, too poor to be used. But, I had money to burn, so I engaged an artist, whose name I have forgotten, and asked him to paint a 4’ x 3’ version, in oil, of the subject.
This we submitted to the title camera and incorporated it within the film and then (on behalf of the company) I donated the painting, in an expensive frame to the Saudis. They were well pleased.
The finished version was well received by the Saudis who broadcast the film on the birthday of King Faisal, they who did not believe in anniversaries.
Copies of the film were donated to the embassies in Riyadh and to all Arab League television broadcasters with the exception of Libya.
A few months later, Yasar Durra visited the television station in Riyadh where he claimed that excess copies of the film were piled up and were being used as makeshift coffee tables. Of course, he could have been pulling my leg.
For some time afterwards, during my travels in other parts of the Middle East, I was often asked if I was the same man who had produced the first and, maybe, the last biographical film on King Faisal.
Several American companies purchased copies to be used as part of the induction of their staff who were to be sent to Saudi Arabia to work.
The production, and over a hundred copies, of the one-hour film cost $123,000 giving a profit of $102,000. Coyte had said that if I could bring the production in at a decent profit, he would pay me a bonus. I received the princely sum of $800.
While researching for links and images to augment articles we have come across an article (written in Arabic) about the UPITN produced film on the life of King Faisal written by Dr. Shobeili, who I have met.
I mention it as it is full of inaccuracies and the purpose of this update is to refute those inaccuracies.
Shobeili says that we tried to secure Sir Lawrence Olivier as a narrator, that is not true. He also says the director was Bob Smith, no – wrong again, it was Peter Smith, and he only directed the film shot in Saudi Arabia.
Shobeili forgets to mention that there was also a French and Arabic version, the narrators for the Arabic version being the highly regarded Majid Sirhan and Maher Othman.
Shobeili leaves the best for last when he says:
“The film producer, it was Kenneth Coyte, who died a few years ago, and I think I met him several times during the production process.”
Strange that they met so many times and Ken Coyte didn’t inform him once that I was, in fact, the producer of the film. Ken Coyte never produced anything. It’s also strange that Dr. Shobeili must have watched the film on several occasions but never stayed for the end credits, where it clearly lists me as producer. Don’t take my word for it, the AP Archive holds a copy of the film, you can see for yourself.
I have to wonder what other inaccuracies have been said over the years. I’ve written to the website, so they have the opportunity to correct the mistakes, but so far, no reply.
There must be some cache being connected to the Faisal film as more than one person has taken credit for my work.
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