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Submitted by Bob Keser
Original at 6 Degrees

Jack Cardiff on cinematography
by Justin Bowyer

Veteran cinematographer Jack Cardiff talked with his latest director, Paul Merton, as part of the Raindance Film Festival's State of Independence. 6degrees attended and in the first of a two-part report, followed Cardiff from his early days in show business up to his collaboration with Michael Powell

Paul Merton - Jack, your parents were in show business. What did they do?

Jack Cardiff - Well, My father lived in Watford and played football for Watford. That's why I am a bit of a fan for Watford. Pity he wasn't in the Arsenal or Man United, but there you are - he played for Watford. My mother lived in Watford and they got married. My father then decided to go into show business and he set of with my mum and he started off as a dancer. He begun with a partner called Morrin and they did what was called simultaneous dancing with a top hat and a cane. They had to be within half an inch of perfection. It went very well at the start and they had a command performance and King Edward gave my old man a cigar and told him it was the finest dancing he had ever seen in his life. So that was good advertising for them.

Then the trouble started when my father's partner begun to drink. On the stage performance he would be wandering about a bit and my father had to do the same thing. My father broke off from that and became a comic and he was very good. He was all over England, although he never hit the big time. That was my life. I was born on tour, not like Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Ernest - being born in a handbag - but I was born on tour, probably in a basket! The fact was that was my life and I never knew any other. Every week was a different home, different digs. I used to call the landlady "Aunty".

Paul Merton - So what about schooling?

Jack Cardiff - That was a paradox that was funny. I went to so many schools and learned nothing. I was always the new boy and so didn't get into any lessons. I didn't win any exams, but then I didn't lose any either. I was just a "learning eunuch". But, again to me, I didn't know any different. I didn't meet any long lasting friends like you do at school - I never had any chums and that was a strange existence. To me my whole background was the theatre. We used to travel on the Sunday and get to the new town on the Monday and start rehearsals for the new show. I was there every night watching the show and I knew all the lines.

Paul Merton - I imagine that although you were never at any one school for very long, you were probably the envy of your classmates. The fact is you were travelling around the country and you were involved in the theatre, which from the outside seems to be a very glamorous profession. What memories do you have of the backstage atmosphere?

Jack Cardiff - It was wonderful. There was this smell.

Paul Merton - It's still there!

Jack Cardiff - The smell of glue and, of course, urine. Laurence Olivier once told me that in the theatre, in the old days, the electricians, high above, didn't have the chance of coming down the ladder to go to the loo. So they used to pee in the lime vats that fed the limelights. That's incidentally where the word "limelight" for stardom comes from - from these limes, limes full of urine.

Paul Merton - That tells you quite a lot about show business - that you're bathed in luminous urine! So your dad was quite successful, but was your mum part of the act?

Jack Cardiff - At first she was in the chorus but then she used to do some dialogue scenes sometimes. Contrary to a lot of stories that one hears about childhoods - father's always drunk or beating their wife or they didn't talk to each other or whatever - I was extremely lucky because my mum and dad loved each other. They existed for each other. My father had a lot of popularity, there were always bouquets of flowers coming in, but he used to just give them straight to my mum.

Paul Merton - In between all the variety work that they had, they began doing film work, which was your first introduction to the world of film.

Jack Cardiff - Yes. When we were "resting" we used to fill in with film work, which was great fun. We used to travel out to Wharton Hall or Isleworth or somewhere like that and it was like going out on a picnic except that you got a guinea. I have to tell you this story. On Mary Queen of Scots we had this huge crowd in a field and at the end of the day we were paid off from this tiny hut where the cashier would hand out the guinea to each person that passed. What they would do is get their guinea, go along a bit, then change their hats and coats and go around again to get another guinea. Some of them made a lot of money that way!

Paul Merton - Around that time you made your first film appearance. 1918 I think it was.

Jack Cardiff - Yes. I was only four so I was probably a terrible actor, because I didn't know much about it. But I did play the lead in one film. I was a little beggar boy who had a sister that was ill. She said what she wanted was to have a flower. I was in the street begging when someone in a posh car came by and the lady inside threw out a rose and I jumped for it and was run over by a big car. So I had this dying scene after I had given this rose to my sister, she was probably called Nell - I would think, Little Nell.

I remember vividly that I am supposed to be dying and above me are the angels dancing. In a way it was very tragic because my mother and father had had a son before me, who had died when he was seven from diphtheria, and then they had to watch me die all day. Which had its grim side. Anyway I went outside the next day and saw these girls on the lawn in flowing white robes, dancing - "Come on now Mable, go faster. And one and two?" And they were the angels dancing that would then be superimposed on me dying.

Paul Merton - Does that film exist anymore?

Jack Cardiff - I wish it did. I've tried to find it. Looked in all the dustbins.

Paul Merton - I suppose that once sound came in it was felt that silent films had no more commercial value and for many years they were never preserved. But let us move forward to when you started to work in films proper. Which was when you were around 14 or 15 years old.

Jack Cardiff - It was two weeks before I was 14. My father wasn't well and had to stop work and so I had to work. It was as simple as that.

Paul Merton - So by the time you were 14 all schooling is over?

Jack Cardiff - But later I had my own education! My education came from a pornographic book. It was called 'My Life and Loves' by Frank Harris. Frank Harris was a brilliant man, the editor of the Evening News.

Paul Merton - And he knew Oscar Wilde.

Jack Cardiff - Yes, a big friend of Oscar Wilde. He offered Oscar his boat, to get out before it was too late and Oscar declined. He was a well-educated man, but not in the sense that he went to a big school. He wanted to study Goethe, for example, so he would spend a couple of years in Germany and then go to Italy or the Wild West to study something else. He was always travelling and learning. He fell on hard times whilst living in the south of France and so he decided to write a pornographic book, which was in five volumes! It was full of lovemaking, but in-between the lovemaking, he put in his real life where he met so-and-so. This was stuff I knew nothing about.

Paul Merton - The lovemaking you knew about!

Jack Cardiff - Yes - I'd seen that on stage. He was talking about famous writers, famous musicians, famous painters. I was fascinated. He told a lot of stories about royal families; he had been there and had dinners and so on. I went to Foyle's in Tottenham Court Road and in those days books were very cheap and I bought every book that was mentioned in these five volumes. That must have been about 60 books! I read the lot and each book led to something else. I would read something about the French Revolution, one time my favourite subject, and that would lead on to something else. So I had the most tremendous education by reading at this late stage.

Paul Merton - Was that where your love of painting first came from?

Jack Cardiff - No. In the early days on tour when I was about nine I went to a school one day that decided to "do art". I had never seen an oil painting in my life. We were led to this rather dingy northern gallery and here were dozens and dozens of wonderfully coloured paintings and I was absolutely aghast. It was like heaven. From that moment onwards, whenever we stopped in a new town I would make a point of going to see these local paintings. I got to learn gradually. My first love was Rembrandt and then I got to learn about Caravaggio. There was something about the simplicity of the light with someone like Caravaggio. Then I fell in love with the impressionists and that was it! It was a prelude to Technicolor in a sense. People like Gauguin would overdo it - if you see something green, paint it the brightest green you can find! People don't realise that if they are sitting on green grass on a sunny day, the sun reflects green into the shadows. Before the impressionist they didn't do that, they wouldn't paint green.

Hundreds of years ago they didn't realise that the distance became blue, but then da Vinci would begin to paint blue on his mountains. On Black Narcissus we had a problem because Michael Powell said: "We're not going to India, we are going to do the whole thing in the studio." Oh my God! What a challenge to make India in a studio! Photographic backings in colour would have been enormously expensive - thousand of pounds. So I suggested black and white and then I suggested to Alfred Junger, who was a great art director, that we rubbed a bit of blue pastel into the black and white. He had wanted to paint the backings, but that would have been wrong and so he agreed. We just put a bit of blue here and a little ochre in the foreground and it was perfect. People don't realise it was all shot in the studios. Michael showed me letters from people in India saying they knew these places.

Paul Merton - Technicolor were looking to train an English cameraman?

Jack Cardiff - Yes. I had just got home from working at Denham and my mother said, "Jack you've got to go back to the studios. There's a thing, Techni-something. Technicolor? They are looking at all the operators to find one to work with Technicolor." So I got in the car and went back. When I arrived there, those that had already been in were staggering out -"Oh, my God! The questions were so technical" - all about optics and things to do with photography. This had always been my weak point. Some people might think that I had always been interested in photography. Nothing of the kind. I never yearned to been a cameraman, but I did notice around me on the sets that the boys in the camera department went abroad a lot. I thought, "There's something here! If I can get into the camera department I can go abroad." That was how I started.

So I was a dunce with all the technical stuff. I told Technicolor that I was afraid I wasn't their man because my knowledge of these things was absolute zero. There was a shocked silence and then they asked me how I thought I was going to get on as a cameraman. I told them I studied light in painting. They asked me, "Which side of the face did Rembrandt light?" So I said, "This side" [indicating right] which was a bit of a chance! Then I added, "Except when he does etchings and then it's the other side." Clever that one, I had everything covered. So I went on drivelling all this rubbish until they said, "OK. Thank you very much." I thought that was the end of that, but then the next day I found out that they had chosen me.

Paul Merton - So then they trained you up?

Jack Cardiff - I was then an assistant to the cameraman. I started off as a sort of staff cameraman. No-one else was doing any colour work at the time, just test shots. I was the one that did second unit stuff, but I still hadn't shot any feature films. That's why Michael Powell was my Guardian Angel. He gave me my big break. He asked if I wanted to light his next film, told me we started in six weeks and then he was off! He never walked, he always bounded.

Paul Merton - A Matter of Life and Death featured colour as well as black and white sequences.

Jack Cardiff - I never dared to say to anyone that I had never photographed a black and white film in my life. Still haven't as a matter of fact. Except with you of course.

Paul Merton - Yes. It was a nightmare wasn't it?

Jack Cardiff - Yes, that's where it all went wrong!

Paul Merton - You were talking to Michael Powell about the heaven and earth sequences?

Jack Cardiff - I said to him, "I suppose heaven will be in colour and the earth in black and white." "No," he said, "The contrary." I said, "Why?" and he replied, "Because people will expect that and I want to do something different!"

One day, when we had got a little closer, I said to him, "Michael. Tell me, are you making films so that everyone in the audience will understand what you are trying to do" Or are you making films for yourself?" He said: "I'm making films for myself. If they don't understand what I'm trying to say that's their problem." That was the reverse with Hitchcock. He worked for months on the script trying to get everything just right. One interesting thing I noticed just the other night was that if he had a cast of four or five characters, he would have them all looking different from each other. I learned a lot from Hitchcock.

The second part of this report, which brings the story up to date with The Suicidal Dog (directed by Paul Merton - 2000) will appear in the December issue of 6degrees.

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