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Conference Papers

Accounting for creativity: British producers, British screens. A two-day conference reassessing the creative role of the producer 19-20 April 2011, Arnolfini, Bristol.

'No ordinary showmen: a study of the contrasting ways in which Michael Balcon in the 1930s-1950s, and David Puttnam in the 1980s, confronted the problems posed by the British film industry'.
Janet Moat, former head of BFI Special Collections, 1992-2008
    'He was the perfect example of a man who, while remaining completely loyal to his commercial obligations, made it his business to produce ideas, and personally to see his ideas and ideals carried into effect. Here was no ordinary impressario, showman or businessman - although he possessed in generous measure the qualities of all three - but a sincere craftsman who made films - and made them well'
Michael Balcon wrote these words in an appreciation of Irving Thalberg, for World Film News, on Thalberg's tragically early death in 1936. It could have applied equally to Balcon himself, and to another producer who admired both men - David Puttnam - half a century later. Balcon was, of course, so much more than a producer - he was a studio head, but then again he was also so much more even than that - he was a great spokesman for the industry and involved himself in everything and anything that would promote that industry, serving on countless national committees and bodies. I have described him elsewhere as a sort of 'universal chairman', tireless in this respect in fact, clearly seeing it as his duty and responsibility to lead the industry in its many battles - against monopoly, against the might of the Rank Organisation, against the threat of commercial television - to give just a few examples.

I want to begin with a comparison of the careers and personalities of these two major figures in British film history - Balcon and Puttnam - and then flesh out some of the points arising.

Both men are of Jewish parentage, from lower middle class backgrounds, Balcon began in business, Puttnam began in advertising. Balcon entered a nascent film industry, for Puttnam the industry was well over half a century old when he became interested in it. Neither man was university educated, and started his working life early. Balcon married at 28, his wife had no career of her own but supported him throughout his life. Puttnam married at 20 and his wife has selflessly supported him and put his career first. Balcon was 27 when he produced his first feature film. Puttnam was 30 when he produced his. Balcon was famously autocratic towards his staff, short-tempered, 'a benevolent despot', firm but fair. Puttnam has said 'I would like to be judged by what I've meant to others'. Balcon displayed little charm or humour in his business dealings. Puttnam is famously charismatic, witty and charming. Balcon exercised an iron control over his studios. Puttnam exercised 'a good-tempered vigilance' over his directors. Balcon made national films for an international market - so did Puttnam. Balcon ran the UK arm of a major Hollywood studio for a year, it didn't work out. Puttnam ran a major Hollywood studio for a year, it didn't work out. Both men brought on young talent, both men had and have great integrity and idealism. Balcon was knighted in 1948, aged 52. Puttnam was knighted in 1995, aged 54 (and subsequently ennobled).

Balcon was chairman of the BFI Experimental Film Fund. Puttnam was chairman of the National Film & Television School. Both men suffered ill-health and nervous collapses. Both men admired Hollywood legend Irving Thalberg, and Puttnam also admired Balcon, receiving the BAFTA
Michael Balcon Award in 1982. Balcon's strategy for dealing with Hollywood was - join 'em! Puttnam's strategy was to attack Hollywood's entrenched attitudes head-on. Balcon retired from the film industry in 1968 aged 72. Puttnam retired from the industry in the late 1990s, in his late 50s.

Balcon was sometimes accused of insularity -
Bertrand Tavernier once said he had a 'totally British talent, but was closed to the rest of the world'. Puttnam has been hailed as doing more to promote the essentially British nature of his country's films than anyone since Michael Balcon. At Ealing, Balcon put up a plaque stating that 'during a quarter of a century many films were made here that projected Britain and the British character. At Goldcrest, Puttnam was explicitly committed to making 'British films or films that reflected a British view of the world'. Balcon functioned primarily as a chief executive, a studio head rather than a producer in the creative sense of the word. Puttnam was, in Andrew Yule's words 'an irresistable force in financing a film, creating publicity, creating a sense of people losing out if they miss the bandwagon, creating the osmosis that makes everything possible'. Balcon was famously uninvolved in politics in the wider sense, Puttnam is famously involved in politics in the wider sense. Balcon once said 'a film producer is only as good as the sum total of the quality of the colleagues with whom he works, and in this respect I have been uniquely fortunate'. Puttnam believed that Balcon would not have survived in the industry of the 1970s and 1980s - 'it was too squalid, with no room for decency'.

I've chosen to talk about Balcon and Puttnam together today, not just because they both deposited archives at the BFI, but because, as I have hinted, they had much in common - and Puttnam can be seen as being Balcon's heir in many respects - but also because the worlds they moved in could not have been more different.

Balcon and cinema were of an age, they grew up together. When he is spoken of or studied at all now - and he seems an increasingly distant figure for today's film students - it is nearly always in connection with the Ealing Studios period, and the image we have of him is of a bespectacled, unsmiling middle-aged man. Yet he was only 23 when he started up in the distribution business with
Victor Saville - business being the key word here, for Balcon was a businessman first and always. There was no great body of film work to inspire or challenge him, no film culture to have imbibed throughout adolescence, no film festivals, or award ceremonies, no film education, no 24/7 media access. He was part of a developing and evolving industry, where the rules were still being written, full of people trying to make a living from it, trying to legislate for it, trying to standardise it. It was shiny and new and full of opportunities for a bright lad - which Balcon undoubtedly was. His archives do not begin until 1929, and he had already been in the business for ten years. But what a dramatic moment to start - the transition to sound at Gainsborough Studios, where, aged 33, Balcon was already head honcho. What of his management style? We know from the archives that he ran a tight ship at Islington, and later at Shepherds Bush; the daily cascade of internal memos, still carrying the aroma of a thousand cigarettes, show Balcon's attention to every aspect of production, from script to casting and from costume design to box office figures, not to mention all the admin headaches which came from running a studio. No wonder that Balcon suffered more than one nervous breakdown in his career.

He expected loyalty from his staff, and often got it -
Angus MacPhail, for example was his story supervisor for over 25 years. But writers, actors and directors did decamp to Hollywood - Alfred Hitchcock, Alexander McKendrick, Robert Stevenson, Madeleine Carroll - and Balcon was often guilty of taking this as a personal affront. He employed his older brother Chandos (or Shan), but showed no favouritism, often just the opposite. He did not suffer fools gladly, or weakness or infirmity of purpose, he was easily upset and quick to take offence, but he was usually fair and generous with praise where merited. If he drove his staff hard, he drove himself harder, struggling with often impossible workloads. He was well read and highly cultured - the archives show that he and his wife Aileen were out most evenings at the theatre, opera or ballet, though how he found the time, I don't know - he was always looking out for properties that would make good and successful films, and if he was not at the theatre, he was wining and dining with useful contacts at the Ivy. In the 1930s he helped many individuals to escape from Nazi Germany and forge new careers at his studios, like actor Conrad Veidt and independent producers Hermann Fellner and Joseph Somlo. He attracted highly talented people to work for him, and nurtured new talent, he embraced the advent of commercial TV in the 1950s, joining the board of Border Television, and explored the possibilities of pay-TV.

Throughout his life he was a great spokesman for film, the archives are full of drafts and published speeches and articles. Was he successful in forging a national cinema? It was certainly his aim. He was deeply patriotic, as the son of eastern European Jewish immigrants. He believed that for a film to be international in appeal it had first to be thoroughly national. He also knew that to be commercially successful, British films had to look abroad, both for influences and inspiration and for markets. The films he produced at Gainsborough and Gaumont British deserve more study than they usually receive. He spent those years trying to find the key to the Hollywood market, as many have done since, including Puttnam. He explored the potential for Anglo-German co-production in the 1920s and early 30s, visiting UFA studios and subsequently employing German technical and creative staff in Gainsborough productions. He was tireless in fostering contacts at the American studios, such as J
ack Warner, Louis B Mayer and David O. Selznick, as the archives attest, making many transatlantic trips to discuss possibilities for Anglo-American co-production. When his contract with Gaumont British expired in 1936, and city investment in film production ceased, he went so far as to sign with MGM to head up that studio's UK arm. As Puttnam was to find, half a century later, the Hollywood way and the British way could not co-exist, and he got out of his contract a year later, to head up yet another studio at Ealing and keep UK production afloat throughout the difficult war years - one of his greatest achievements. In the immediate postwar period, when travel restrictions were relaxed, Ealing acquired a lease on Pagewood, a studio outside Sydney, and Eric Williams was sent out to run it, sending back reports on how projects such as 'Eureka Stockade' were progressing. Africa was another exciting foreign location with another of Balcon's protege's, Hal Mason, working on 'Where no vultures fly' and its sequel, 'West of Zanzibar'.When Ealing ceased operations in 1958, he set himself up as an independent producer again - he was 63. In so many ways, Balcon's career is the history of British film. He did everything it was possible to do at the time to advance the cause of British film, both at home and abroad, a pioneer in every sense. He initiated the innovatory Group production schemes from 1951, a new financial policy designed to establish a number of independent producers under the general control of the major studio-owning organisations in such a way as to free them from financial worry.

The three holding and management companies thus created, especially Group Three under
John Grierson, are well documented in the archive. As is Balcon's relationship with the Rank organisation, with which Ealing had a production and distribution agreement for over a decade, a relationship which was far from smooth - there were many matters of dispute with managing director John Davis. For all his skills, Balcon seemed no more able to deal with this difficult man than anyone else in the industry. Balcon had many other battles to fight, the politics of the industry at this time are dominant - the fight against monopoly, the dissatisfaction with Rank domination of the British Film Producers Association which led to the founding of the Federation of British Filmmakers, the establishment of the British Film Academy, the Film Industry Defence Organisation (FIDO), created to combat the perceived threat of commercial television and its broadcasting of members' films.

For David Puttnam, the times and the opportunities were very different; he was a huge film fan when growing up, his father had been a cameraman in the Army, he studied company and copyright law at night school, worked his way up from the bottom in advertising and photographic agencies, his youth coincided with the seismic social changes of the 1960s, and the country had been at peace for a generation. Irving Thalberg and
Sergei Diaghilev had been his role models, people who didn't actually do anything themselves but who enabled and inspired others to achieve great things - the very definition of a producer. And of course, Balcon was a role model too - was 'Local Hero' Puttnam's tribute to him, an homage to the celtic whimsey of 'Whiskey Galore'? The papers he deposited at the BFI tell us very little of the man, and are nowhere near as extensive and comprehensive as Balcon's - they are merely the edited production records for the films, though occasional correspondence shows the much more informal and laid back style of dealing with business matters, and the introduction of the democratic profit sharing trust which he set up for crew members on each project. He is another man of principle and integrity - his big Oscar-winning film 'Chariots of fire' can be seen as a paean to the ideals to which he aspires. In his first production company, Goodtimes, set up with Sandy Lieberson, it was Puttnam who supplied the finance, and the impetus to not only initiate new product but also to acquire existing film libraries. Like Balcon he became a trustee for future talents as a governor of the NFTVS, a strong voice on the board of the NFFC, a profitable part of C4's TV output, and a persuasive member of Harold Wilson's Interim Action Committee on the Film Industry. The films he grew up with, and which influenced him, dealt with big issues and recognisable areas of real life, but always in an entertaining way. He always looked to the future, seeing the potential of the video cassette explosion in the early 80s, for example. He preferred to work with first time directors, who would look to him for guidance. He first left the UK for Hollywood in 1977, and felt that the practical problems of filmmaking there made him more aware of his strengths as a British producer, and convinced him of his shortcomings under the American system. 'In Hollywood now, you're not shooting movies any more, you're shooting deals'. While at Columbia he vowed to 'shift radically from pre-packaged products to in-house development'.

We get a glimpse of how he saw his role. 'You get a screenplay, and bring in a director who loves that screenplay. Then you develop that screenplay to the point where you and the director are happy. Then you cast the film'. This went completely contrary to what he found at Columbia, where a book and a star were the starting point. In his opinion the reason there are so many bad movies around is because of the corruption of the producers's role. By the mid-90s, having suffered from ME over a period of time, he threw in the towel and left the film business to concentrate on education and politics. Like Balcon, he has a very developed sense of public service.

In 1947, the year before his knighthood, the BFPA gave a dinner for Michael Balcon, in celebration of his 25 years as a producer. In the archives are the notes for his speech, which concluded by commenting on the growth of the cinema from a fairground novelty to something akin to 'religion'; he assessed its vital role in moulding public opinion, habits and character; and the social - and national - responsibility of the producer. Of all the producers who followed him over the years, I can think of only David Puttnam who might have also claimed such a role for his work.

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