The 1952 Show BBC
In December last year, I received an e-mail from Philip Hart of the B.B.C. He had read my article that I had written about the Death of King George VI, which took place in February 1952, sixty years ago.
Philip said that they were planning a programme called The 1952 Show and asked if I would be interested in giving an interview to them. I was approached because I am one of a dwindling number of witnesses to the great event and one who was associated with the newsreels.
I said that I would. One of the main problems was that I live in Northern France which is a bit out of the way for a unit based in London. I said that I would consider travelling as far as Paris to do the interview. By train, my son Ian and I, could make it there and back in a day, albeit a long one. At the same time, the B.B.C. Unit could get to Paris and back from London, also in one day via Eurostar.
Ian and I had not been to Paris for thirty years. It seems so long ago that we went there to film a joint Arab/Western Conference. We were housed, wined and dined at the George V and later we dined twice at Fouquet’s. Those were the days.
This time, we took a train from Vire which took almost two and a half hours to reach Gare Montparnasse in Paris. We got in at five minutes to twelve. I was worried about whether the taxi driver would know the address. It was a small cul-de-sac on the far side of the city. I need not have worried, the taxi man was armed with the latest location finder. Even so, it took him best part of half an hour to get there.
We were welcomed at ground-floor level by the cameraman Will Fegen. They had taken over a small atelier on the top floor of the building.
There, we met Producer/Director Jago Smith and we soon got down to work. It was just after one o’clock. I had clean forgot my article which, later I realised, was a bit sparse by way of information.
Prior to coming to Paris, I had gone over in my mind the events of that day. I remembered that many of us at Movietone had chosen to go in to the office on the night before and sleep on the floor of the theatre. We did this because there was a danger that we would not be able to get to the office early with the hundreds of thousands of public mourners converging on the centre of London..
I remembered that I set off for my camera opposition around 6.30am walking through roads that ran parallel with Oxford Street and then striking south from Pall Mall to get to St. James’ Street. There I met up with cameraman Martin Gray who was located on the first floor of an office building with a view along Marlborough Road towards The Mall.
The crowds were enormous and yet there was little by way of conversation from them.
When I was walking along Great Marlborough Street, I could glance to my right as I passed over each of the roads that connected Great Marlborough Street with Oxford Street. Oxford Street resembled the approach to Wembley Stadium on Cup Final Day.
In our camera position, we were ten feet or so above the waiting crowds. They were there in their thousands and yet there was little by way of sound coming from them.
For Jago and Will, I tried to recall what I could of the day and to, somehow, recall the atmosphere and the feelings of the people. Of course, I could not speak for everyone else, but there was evidence of a genuine public sadness.
From Movietone, the B.B.C. had found the edited version of the funeral. From that I was able to point to the actual shot taken by Martin Gray. It was not very long, but it did show how the cortege moved from the Mall to Pall Mall.
Even as I watched the film, I was recalling events that I had quite forgotten.
Movietone put out seventeen camera crews that day in addition to some rota material supplied by Gaumont British and Pathe News. It had been a difficult job for the newsroom to organise the coverage of the funeral in such a short time. There would be a need to employ a number of freelance cameramen and, with all the other newsreels needing cameraman to swell their numbers, it was not easy. In addition, they had to ensure that all the cameras were in good working order.
The objective of the newsreels was to get a story on to the cinema screens in London by early evening and the balance later the same evening. This they did. By the following day, the whole story was showing right across the country.
With Big Ben showing nine-thirty, the cortege moved out into Parliament Square and along Whitelall. The gun-carriage, baring the coffin of the King was pulled by about 140 Royal Naval personnel and controlled from behind by another forty. They were from Chatham and were very impressive.
Everyone at Movietone had work to do and we did not stop until after eight in the evening.
In Paris, we worked on the interview until after four in the afternoon. When it was over, Jago came down to street level to help us find a taxi. It seemed to take a long time, but, in fact, it was probably no more than ten minutes. Ian and I set off in our taxi across the City. What seemed remarkable was that the whole place was crowded with people. There did not seem to be a road anywhere that was not packed with shoppers and sightseers.
The journey was slow and, as time went on, we moved more and more into the rush hour.
At one stage, we moved no more than a hundred yards while the taxi-meter went up by €10. We got to a major junction which had five roads in and out. There were no traffic lights, no gendarmes and no control. All the drivers were left to their own devices. There were cars, taxis, trucks and buses all coming within inches of each other as they forced their way through.
It took us 45 minutes to reach Gare Montparnasse, fortunately in good time for our train home.
The programme “The 1952 Show” was broadcast on BBC One at 09.15 on March 26th. It was one of the rare occasions where I was in front of the camera – when normally I have been behind the camera, I look forward to see how the interview was put together for the programme.
The Funeral of King George VI was the last main event that was not covered live by the B.B.C. The following year, B.B.C. Television broadcast the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II live to the nation and the newsreels were beginning to become something from the past.
My feature on Movietone and the Funeral Of King George VI was aired in the first episode of “The 1952 Show“, broadcast on Monday, 26th March, available on iPlayer.
A couple of items I should mention, the programme described my job at the time as ‘a runner’, in fact I was General Office Manager and had been in that position since 1949, I mentioned this in the interview and in clarifying points to researchers. Movietone never had any runners, the point I was making was that, on this occasion, it was all hands to the pump, everyone at Movietone assisted in any way they could on that day.
I also think it would have been nice to have seen an image of my colleague, cameraman Martin Gray, who was one of seventeen cameraman employed on the day.
All in all, though, I was pleased with the results and it was good that Movietone’s efforts on that day have been remembered and thanks to the BBC for the opportunity to talk about those events.
Anyone interested in how British Movietone News produced a newsreel, I have written an article that describes the process: British Movietonews – the process from idea to screen.
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