The secret history of the British film industry

Adam Dawtrey dips into the archives of the completion guarantee company Film Finances.

Adam Dawtrey

Out of the archives | Web exclusive

Detail from the production progress report on Richard III

Detail from the production progress report on Richard III

The secret history of British cinema is hidden away in five closely-guarded storage units scattered around the outskirts of London. It’s a vast archive of millions of documents belonging to a company whose blandly generic name is unknown to most movie-goers, but without which the British film industry as we know it simply would not exist.

Film Finances Ltd invented the completion bond in 1950, to arrest the post-war collapse of British production. Since then, it has acted as the invisible glue holding together thousands of features, not just in the UK but around the English-speaking world. No other company has played such a central role, for so long, in the nitty-gritty of getting so many films made, not just in the UK but around the world.

The completion bond is essentially an insurance policy for investors that a film will delivered as promised – on budget, on time and with the same script they signed up for in the first place. Without such a guarantee, most independent films would simply be impossible to finance. The bond company makes a forensic analysis of every risk factor – financial, logistical, creative, medical, even psychological – and then keeps a very beady eye on progress until the day a film is delivered. If things go badly wrong, the bond has the power to take over a production and finish the film itself.

And every scrap of paper, every letter, telegram, shooting schedule, daily production report, script, storyboard and doctor’s certificate, is hoarded in case of a claim.

Now, for the first time, Film Finances, working with film historian Charles Drazin, has embarked upon the Herculean task of excavating its own archive, to discover what treasures lie within those mountains of cardboard boxes. Ultimately it plans to make the material available to the public – and some of the world’s most important film libraries, including the British Film Institute are already beating on the door.

According to Drazin: “The FF archive is priceless in terms of the unrivalled insight it gives into the history of the postwar British film industry, providing comprehensive documentation of not only the mainstream of British feature-film production, but also the most iconic titles of the period, whether Dr. No, The Servant or Don’t Look Now.”

Pre-production pencil sketches for Roman Polanski’s Macbeth

Pre-production pencil sketches for Roman Polanski’s Macbeth

Film Finances has 62 years of such booty, though for now its archivists are only cataloguing the period 1950-1980. A lucky dip into a couple of boxes produces an annotated script from Cabaret, and notes from a meeting with Roman Polanski over his plans for Macbeth, complete with sketches that Polanski himself seems to have drawn to illustrate whatever point he was trying to get across to the Film Finances executives.

Drazin has already written one book, A Bond for Bond, entirely devoted to the company’s crucial role in the making of Dr. No, the first 007 feature, which Film Finances had to rescue when it went wildly over budget.

Dr. No filmed in Jamaica. Letters from producer Harry Saltzman to Film Finances founder Robert Garrett paint a vivid picture of his daily agonies, between the feckless behaviour of local crews, the lavish expenses of his director Terence Young and the unpredictable weather.

“Basically, the biggest problem is the ‘mañana’ attitude of the local people, and they fact that they do not keep their promises,” Saltzman laments. “To put it mildly, we have been gulled and taken in due to the complacency and complete and utter inefficiency of the locals.”

But Saltzman ends on an upbeat and prescient note. “In spite of all the ulcer-making frustrating situations and invasion of a good part of our contingency fund, the stuff we have shot here is tremendously impressive and I think well worth our troubles… The picture has size, movement, excitement and no message.”

Day 11: incessant rain all day. A telegram from the production of Zulu.

Day 11: incessant rain all day. A telegram from the production of Zulu.

In the 1950s and 60s, Film Finances employed a gimlet-eyed producer named John Croydon to assess projects. Croydon’s acerbic analysis went far beyond the technical. In his essay on Zulu, he sums up the script with thinly veiled contempt: “It has the stock cowards and heroes; a leavening of disreputable christianity (sic); a feminine revulsion to war from an inarticulate virgin; massed movements by an overwhelming enemy and Technirama (sic) to give the exposition of blood and violence on the big screen,” Croydon writes. “I suppose, that from a box office point of view, it is what is known in Wardour St. as ‘infallible.’ (So long as nobody wants me to see it once it is finished!)”

Croydon recommends that the production should establish “a small hospital” on set to deal with the battle scenes. “As I know from experience, even rubber-tipped spears can cause quite some very nasty injuries, and blank ammunition can cause quite a lot of damage, even when the exercise is under strict supervision… Am I being too prophetic when I remember our dreadful experience on a film called ‘O.H.M.S.’ when one soldier, in the heat of the moment, mistook one of his companions, simulating death, for a dummy and stuck his bayonet right through his body?”

Michael Powell reports on the writing, scoring and casting of O… Rosalinda!!

Michael Powell reports on the writing, scoring and casting of O… Rosalinda!!

Michael Powell was a regular correspondent with Film Finances throughout the 1950s and 1960s, his tone, alternately pleading and combative, gives a unique flavour of the travails of being a British independent filmmaker. Amid detailed debates about his production plans, his authorial élan sometimes pokes through, such as when he describes the precise inflection of the title Oh… Rosalinda!!

“It is, as you see above, ‘Oh – Rosalinda!!’ Not ‘Oh, Rosalinda’, which is as if one said, ‘Oh, Rosalinda, whip down the street and get a pound of Stock, will you?’ Our ‘Oh –’ is meant to convey shock: the gentleman has, as it were, instinctively covered his eyes, while still, of course, peeking through his fingers. Then, his breath returning, he ejaculates “– Rosalinda!!” giving every syllable full value, lingering on the two last and topping the whole delightfully shocking experience off with (please!) two exclamation marks.”

It was easy for filmmakers to see Film Finances as the enemy, demanding a level of scrutiny, accountability and discipline, not just financially but also creatively, that they found uncomfortable. But it’s clear from Powell’s letters that he also understood just how essential an ally Film Finances was to have any hope of getting his films made.

As Drazin explains, “It brought vital financial stability to the industry, yet at the same time was much more than just a guarantor. With its unique overview of an extraordinarily wide variety of production, it offered an unrivalled source of filmmaking expertise and advice. Over the years it accumulated the experience and breadth of practical knowledge that no single production company could possibly rival.”

As a result, he adds, “No other archive comes close to matching its completeness or depth of coverage. Once public access to the material can be arranged, it  will be unquestionably the most significant treasure trove of archival material for British film historians.”

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