Skip to content

Colleagues: Tommy Scales – Movietone

Thomas F. Scales was a legend in his lifetime.  In middle age, he was somewhat overweight, rotund with a double chin.   He was a testy gentleman and was known to “Hate the guts of Sir E. Gordon Craig”, Movietone’s Managing Director.  The reason for this has never been revealed.

He was born in 1887.  In 1905 he started working with Warwick Trading Company where he quickly became a cameraman and filmed the Derby of 1906.

In his own words, he talks of the period:

In 1905, when I first entered the animated picture business—as it was called then—all pictures were more or less “topical features”, and News-Reels were unknown. Everything was “a film”: street-scenes of London, accidents and so forth. Unless some special event had to be covered, a typical day would be very much as follows:

The entire staff would go out to Ealing, where we rented a field, and a rough story would be written on the spot, usually a slapstick chase comedy—one minute you would be a cyclist falling off a cycle, and the next a policeman chasing the cyclist, and then you might find yourself turning the camera handle for a change. This would go on for five or six hours, scenes being added or alterations made as we went along; and then we all went back to the dark-rooms in town where we developed and printed our “shots”, each of us employed in some technical capacity.

Events were to take place which would be the forerunner of newsreel coverage.

Edward VII relaxing at Balmoral, photographed ...

Edward VII relaxing at Balmoral, photographed by his wife, Alexandra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

King Edward VII was to make a tour of the provinces and Tommy Scales company was asked to cover the individual events and then show them the same night in the city or town where the event took place.  These location included Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.   This was a formidable task at any time, but in those days it required a good deal of ingenuity.

Tommy Scales was part of the team that were involved in this exercise.   They used two cars which were carrying portable developing and printing machines.  When required, these machines were set up anywhere they could get permission to use them.

They filmed all the parades, the laying of foundation stones and the reviews.   The negatives were then rushed to their temporary laboratory for processing.

Each night they would go to the local variety theatre to screen the film for the public.  In those days, there were no dedicated Cinemas.  To the audience, this show would have been magic.

In May 1910, Tommy Scales is credited with filming the funeral of King Edward VII, presumably still with Warwick Trading Company.  Warwick Bioscope chronicle was launched in July of 1910 and Tommy Scales was probably among its original staff.

He filmed the Coronation of King George V. He recalls one of his assignments:

“I well remember one assignment which was allotted to me in the early days. I was commissioned to make a picture with the Folkestone fishing fleet, and at dawn I sailed in a five-handed smack from the harbour. The weather was glorious, and as soon as it was light enough I got to work with the camera, recording the simple and picturesque operation of line-fishing. After a few hours a real south-wester sprang up. It blew so hard that we had to take the sails off the smack, and we rolled around like a cockle-shell. They tied me to the mast and lashed my camera to the deck, and I tried to carry on, but alas I sea-sickness was too much for me, and I slowly drooped and sagged in my lashings. The storm lasted for forty-eight hours, and we drifted for miles. It was three days before we made Folkestone, and I was carried ashore unconscious. A week later I was told to finish the picture, and I confess to dreading the next trip; but this was the only time I was ever sea-sick, and I have ploughed many thousands of miles over the seas since then, in all kinds of craft”.

Tommy Scales went off to Germany at a time when what he called the “Spy Scare” was going on.  He went to Hanover and filmed a military parade.   He was arrested and questioned.   He spoke no German.  Eventually, an English-speaking German officer interviewed him.  His paper were in order and he was released, but the Germans kept his film.

He left Warwick and joined Barker Motion Photography.   Will Barker, formerly of Warwick had started the company.

In July 1911, he filmed the Investiture of The Prince of Wales.

Shortly after, he joined Gaumont Graphic, but the following year he went to work for Pathe Animated Gazette.

Tommy Scales recalls:

I have not missed filming a Derby, except for the period of the Great War, since 1906; I have filmed more Grand Nationals than I care to remember; and all the big fights. I filmed King Edward’s funeral, King George’s coronation, and the Prince of Wales’ investiture. I have climbed the riggings of ships for unique angles, and high buildings for elevated shots. I have walked narrow scaffolding, hundreds of feet above the ground, when filming the launching of ships; I have been down in a submarine, to take under-water pictures; I have had to do dozens of other more or less venturesome things in the course of my career; but nothing can compare with my first aeroplane trip. 

It was at Hendon in 1910. Flying, in the early days, was “meat” for a cinecamera man, and I spent many days filming the planes careering around the pylons on London’s first public flying-ground. Crashes were frequent, and I got any number of good pictures. A morbid occupation, perhaps, but thrilling. I made hosts of friends while hanging about the aerodrome. Many of you will remember the early names: Graham White, Gustave Hamel, Handlcy Page, Tom Sopwith, Colonel Cody, Rolls. . . . One day I got my chance—the offer of a “flip” in a Farman biplane. I had to balance my camera on my knee. The picture, by to-day’s standards, would be thought poor enough, but then it created a sensation. Since then I have travelled in all types of ‘planes, all over the world; I have experienced forced landings and all sorts of other accidents, but have never felt so queer as I did at Hendon.

In August 1914, Tommy Scales was on holiday with his family.  When war broke out, he was immediately recalled to London.   At first he was assigned to such stories as captured German ships coming into port and the arrival of refugees.  Soon however, he was posted to Belgium.  He travelled with correspondents of The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror.

He filmed the defence of Antwerp by The British Naval Brigade.

Tommy Scales spent an exciting period in Ghent.   He had been filming successfully outside the town, so he decided to spend the night there instead of returning to Ostend.

The following morning he went to the Hotel de Ville where he expected to gather fresh information.   Upon arrival, he found that the building was occupied by a large group of German cyclists.

He immediately sought out his driver, packed his gear, and off they went.  On the road, they passed a unit of cavalry.   He did not, at first, think they were German, but when he realized that they were, he also realized that his car was showing the Union Flag.  Using his camera tripod, he managed to knock the flag off.   They were not stopped.

He was hoping to get shots of the arrival of the Germans the next morning, but he regarded himself as lucky that he got away from Ostend on one of the last fishing boats to leave.

Newsreel cameramen became severely controlled and Scales told his Editor that he should be attached to some official body.   Pathe arranged for his to work with the British Red Cross carrying his camera as “personal baggage”.

Tommy Scales tells the story:

“I had made friends with a man named Brice, a Belgian attached to the Red Cross, who said he could get me to the front line outside Nieuport Bains. This was just what I wanted—pictures of the front: a scoop.  We were then at Furnes, and our plan was to get as near the front as we could in a Service bread-wagon. We managed to smuggle ourselves to within a mile of the front line; the rest of the way we tramped with camera, tripod and film. We were received quite well by the Belgians – incidentally, we had brought cigarettes, socks, and woollen gloves. We stayed a night with them, and got plenty of pictures. When it came to getting back we had to walk; no small effort with a hundredweight of camera gear, however, all went well until we ran into a French outpost, who promptly arrested us. We were hauled before the Commanding Officer, a Captain of Artillery, and accused of being spies: which was natural enough, for in those early days almost anybody was liable to be suspected of being a spy. Remember, we had been smuggled ‘to the front in a bread-cart, and we had arrived unannounced from the direction of the German lines. It took us forty-eight hours to talk our way out of that imbroglio!”

Tommy Scales then joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. It would seem that he abandoned his camerawork to become a serviceman.  He was demobilized in December 1918.  Immediately after demob, he returned to Pathe Gazette as a newsreel cameraman.

His first post-war assignment was to return to Germany to film the Allied occupation .  He made for Cologne, claiming that he was probably the first civilian, after the Armistice, to cross the border into Germany.  Once again he fell foul of the authorities.  This time the authorities were in the form of British Military Police.   Tommy Scales was returning to his hotel after the 9pm curfew when he was stopped.   Somehow, he was able to explain himself and, reluctantly, the Military Police allowed him to go on.

He wrote:

I travelled from Cologne to Ostend by car, getting as many pictures as I could. I cannot express what I felt when standing on the historic battlefields of the Somme— Messines and Ypres—so soon after the fighting—except that I had a feeling that I was standing on sacred ground.

He was sent to Cannes in the south of France in January 1922 to cover the meeting between Lloyd George and the French Prime Minister Aristide Briand.  While there, he received a cable from his editor at Pathe Gazette telling him to get to Cairo where “some trouble has broken out “

He caught the next available train for Marseilles.   On arrival at the Port, he found that he had five minutes to get his visa and board the boat.

He wrote:

I was short of money, as none had arrived from London, so I managed to mortgage my camera with the purser, who agreed to give me passage to Port Said, where I should find money waiting. All went well until I got to Egypt, and then the Customs seized my apparatus. Forty-eight hours later I managed to clear it, and went on to Cairo. I soon discovered that life was none too easy for Englishmen in some parts of Egypt just then, so in order to get the pictures I wanted I grew a moustache and practised the gestures of a Frenchman. This enabled me to penetrate into the meaner quarters of Cairo, and I got some good results. Incidentally, while I was in Egypt I managed to get the first camera interview of King Fuad, who was then Sultan.

One has to ask: How do you obtain an interview with a silent camera ?   What did he mean ?

Later in the same year, 1922, he made two trips to America in search of material; and then, in August, he sailed in H.M.S. Hood for South America and the West Indies, where he had many interesting and novel experiences.

What a pity he did not write these experiences down.

In April 1922, he worked with Frank Bassill, Jack Cotter and Paul Wyand to film he F.A. Cup final.  Somehow, they pirated it from Topical Film Company who held the rights.

In 1928, Scales joined the new-founded British Movietone News, the sound newsreel launched in June 1929.   He had spent three months in the United States learning the new techniques required for filming with sound.

His new-found skill was soon put to use when he filmed a “talkie interview” with Ramsey MacDonald and his Labour Cabinet.   This was issued in Movietone’s release No. 4.

In August 1930 Tommy Scales appeared on camera in an item called “Don Bradman Talks to Movietone”

In writing about his adventures, written sometime in the mid to late thirties he concludes:

Recently I have had the honour of directing the operations of that energetic band of camera-men who gather the news for Movietone. Let me conclude by advising you, if you want adventure, to take up the job of a News Film operator. He goes up and down upon the face of the earth like a modern Ulysses, whose Golden Fleece may lie in half a dozen different countries in the space of a month.

In July 1935, Tommy Scales was the commentator for a story called “First Class Cricket Loses Jack Hobbs, Batsman No. 1”.

By now, Tommy Scales had retired from camera work and joined the production staff at Movietone.  He was credited with being involved in the compilation of “The Review of the Year” for both 1935 and 1936.

It was during this period that he would have teamed up with Sid Wiggins, Chief Cutter, and Cecil Burge, commentary writer.  This triumvirate would work together for around twenty years.

Each lunchtime, without fail, they would adjourn to Long’s Bar in Soho Street.  It is long gone now, but used to occupy a position half-way between Oxford Street and Soho Square on the east side.

There they would partake of a William and Humbert’s Dry Sack, or two.

Tommy Scales became, first, Assistant Editor and then Make-up Editor, a position he held until 1955.

movietone posterBefore the start of the Second World War, Tommy Scales, with Editor Gerald Sanger and Chief Sound /engineer Pat Sunderland, planned an evacuation of British Movietone News to Denham.   They were to be housed in the Laboratory that then serviced Denham Studios, later to become Rank Film Laboratories.  It was thought, at that time, that London would be blitzed and the Soho Square would be a dangerous place to operate.

In the event, the company moved to Denham but remained for the making of only sixteen issues before they packed up and returned to Soho Square.   They remained there throughout the war.

During and after the War, Tommy Scales was the Make-up Editor, deciding which stories were to be included in the reel and what length they would be.   He would give no instruction to Sid Wiggins as to how the stories should be cut.   Sid had worked with him so long, he did not need to be told.

On October 16th 1946, Tommy Scales and Paul Wyand sailed aboard the Queen Elizabeth.   Tommy Scales was going to visit top executives at Fox Movietone while Paul Wyand was filming the liner’s official maiden voyage.  Tommy Scales was struck down with Quinzy.  Called Peritonsillar Abcess, it is a complication of tonsillitis.   They were obliged to remain in New York until he recovered.

I joined Movietone News in October 1946 when I first met him.   He rarely spoke to me, there was nothing for him to say to me.

I had a couple of minor disagreements with him during the fifties.

First occurred when I arrived for work on Monday 26th June, 1950.   I arrived at my normal time of 9am.  Surprisingly, there were a number of staff in the building who, normally, would not have arrived until later.

As I entered my office, Tommy Scales was standing in the passage.   I received a gratuitous greeting.

Don’t you know there’s a War on ?”.  The implication being that I should have arrived earlier.

I said “Sorry Mr. Scales, I don’t”.

He said “North Korean invaded South Korea yesterday”.

Having made his point, he walked off.

This was all rather strange because my services on his production would not be required for several hours.

Around about 1953, a solicitor arrived at my office to ask that a senior member of the staff should go with him, immediately, to the Old Bailey to give evidence. Click on the link below to read the full article.

My Day In Court 1953

It required some company records to be taken.  It was a Wednesday and, at that time, Tommy Scales and I seemed to have been the only members of the staff in the building.

I went to his office to tell him what the man wanted, emphasising that they required a senior member of the staff to go.   He flatly refused and told me to go.  I went.

In the mid fifties, Tommy Scales was hospitalised.  He was diagnosed with Phlebitis, also known as superficial venous thrombosis.  It is an inflammation of the veins in the leg.

Tommy Scales never returned to Movietone, but in 1953 he had already reached retirement age.

There was no equivalent replacement for him, but, I believe that Gerald Sanger took over as Make-up Editor.  After a short while I think it was Sid Wiggins who took over, combining the job with that of Head Cutter.

Thomas F. Scales is one of the great names of the newsreel era during which he excelled at whatever he did.   He regretted not keeping a diary – I, too, regret that he did not keep a diary.

 © Terence Gallacher and, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles in the Colleagues series click here.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: