Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan

Anthony Havelock-Allan was born in 1904 and educated at Charterhouse.

He entered the film business as a casting director and went on to become an outstanding producer during the golden age of British films. He was made head of production at British Paramount in 1935 and brought many stars to the big screen, including Margaret Rutherford, Wendy Hiller, Alistair Sim and Vivien Leigh. He married the actress Valerie Hobson in 1939 and during the war years he worked with Noël Coward. His films include Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet and Ryan’s Daughter.

I interviewed him in 1997; he died in 2003.

Did your schooling at Charterhouse stand you in good stead for your chosen career? 

Absolutely not at all; it hardly stood me in good stead for any career. In those days education on the whole was very bad, very draconian, and during all my years there I met only two masters from whom I learned anything at all. Most of them were totally unsympathetic and not particularly interested in the subjects which inspired me – the theatre, arts and literature. I wouldn’t recommend Charterhouse to anybody. My own son went to Eton, like my father.

Was it quite acceptable for someone from your aristocratic background to work in films? I’ve always understood that to be involved in the arts was considered to be rather vulgar…was your family opposed to the idea? 

Since I had to earn my own living, my family didn’t really care much how I earned it. You’re quite right of course about certain jobs being considered vulgar. When I was a very young man after the First World War, I went to a dinner party one night in a house which is now the Italian Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I was then in my first job which was in Garrards, the crown jewellers. The young lady next to me asked what I did, so I told her. The following day the lady who asked me to the dinner party rang up, laughing, and told me that the person next to me at dinner had been horrified that she was placed next to someone who was in trade. It was a slow process historically to be in employment which was considered suitable. The first form of money-making that became acceptable socially in the purely snobbish sense was banking in the eighteenth century, and then towards the end of the nineteenth century stockbroking became respectable, but shops with counters in which you dealt with customers, even if you were selling very highly priced jewellery, were slightly embarrassing.

Are you nostalgic for those times? 

I just glimpsed something of what life was like before the First World War. I would like to have been older, I think. As it was I was only ten when the war broke out, but I had been to one or two functions – for example, I had been a page at my uncle’s marriage in the private chapel at Sandringham – and so I had some idea of what life was like. The First World War started to change things enormously, but even for the first few years after the war life was pretty much like it had been before. Girls were all presented at court, they all had coming-out balls if they came from well-to-do-families, and I went to all the debutante balls of the time, I attended the last ball ever given at Grosvenor House when it was a private house in St James’s Square. I saw some of those very grand houses where people still wore jewellery and white waistcoats and tail coats. I suppose there may be a few families left who live like that – the Duke of Devonshire at his flushest moments still probably lives rather as he would have done in his grandfather’s day, but otherwise that kind of life has almost disappeared. I think it’s right that it has, but I do remember it with great nostalgia, and I thought the period of the first few years after the war very glamorous.

You entered the film business as a casting director. We hear a great deal about the infamous casting couch…was it a myth in your day, or is it true what they say? 

It never really existed in England, but it was of course a permanent feature in America in those days. Every casting director is supposed to have some lucky chances with the thousands of young girls who came to Hollywood or the New York studios, hoping to be stars and prepared to go to any lengths in order to further that ambition. So the idea is based absolutely on fact, but the industry here was never big enough or rich enough to have so many people clamouring to get into it. Although I never had a casting couch as such, I was once given the job of finding ten lovelies for a film which took place mainly on a yacht, and that was very congenial.

You were a young bachelor in those days…one imagines there must have been a great many opportunities to meet beautiful women in the film world. 

It’s true I was a young bachelor, but I was also a rather shy bachelor, and although there were plenty of opportunities I didn’t quite take advantage as others might have done.

You became head of production at British Paramount in 1935. Was the ideology which informed British film at the time the idea of empire and Great Britain as a huge force in the world…? 

No, because in fact what was happening then was that the Americans had taken over such an enormous percentage of our screen time that they had finally been persuaded by the government to agree to the first of the quota acts. That stated that for every foot each big American company exhibited in English theatres, they would buy the same amount of footage of English film for which they would pay £1 a foot. This meant that companies like Fox and Warners had their own studios where little films of one hour and a quarter were made to play as second features. They were made at a cost of £6,100 and they had one useful function: they enabled a number of actors and actresses to have their first experience of playing in films, which were still comparatively new. Vivien Leigh starred in two of these little films – she always denied it afterwards, but the records are in the British Film Archive.

Were they what used to be called B films? 

They were less than B because they were cheap to make and we shot them in ten days using other old sets. The advantage from the point of view of the English studio was that you used studio space when it wasn’t being occupied. I myself made twenty-two of them in two years. I never stopped working, I never had any holiday, but I never had more fun in my life.

You were one of the outstanding producers during what is always called the golden age of British films. You brought people like George Sanders, Margaret Rutherford, Wendy Hiller, Alastair Sim and many others to the big screen. Was it as exciting then as it appears to us now when we look back? 

Oh, yes. For me it was the most exciting and enjoyable time. One of the best experiences in the world is to see a good actor give a great performance; it’s one of the supreme joys if you care about theatre, and the same is true of films. All those great actors had a particular quality. They appeared on a piece of celluloid, but suddenly you looked at them and you were interested in them, you wanted to hear what they were saying, you were attracted to them. In other words, they were people that you noticed. For the theatre you need personality and looks, but most of all you need acting talent; on the screen you need first of all personality, and good looks help, but talent is something that can be acquired with the help of a director. For example, somebody like Gary Cooper who was a wonderful film star wouldn’t have been any good in the theatre. What was marvellous was that the director would take those bits of his personality which he knew were very attractive and play on them with the camera. All Gary Cooper had to do was to be Gary Cooper, which meant he had to be very attractive, and he had to look good. The same applied to Clark Gable for that matter – he’d never done any real acting in the theatre, but he had qualities which directors could make effective.

You married the actress Valerie Hobson in 1939. How did that come about? 

She was brought to the studio as a possible lead in a film I wanted to make. I liked her very much and we got on very well; I thought she had great talent and potential. The film was a great success – it cost £14,000 to make and it took well over £148,000 in England alone. We were married a year later.

Many people married at the beginning of the war almost as an act of defiance in an uncertain world. Was that a factor in your case? 

In a sense it was, but we were very much in love. At the very beginning of the war all filming stopped and it looked as though the career on which we both depended for our livelihood didn’t exist any more, so we had no idea how we were going to live. I had joined the reserve officers in 1936 because I was one of those who believed that Hitler sooner or later was going to start a war, and wars had to be fought. But we decided to take the chance, marry and see how things worked out.

In the event you were not required for active service… 

No. When I had my medical they said to me, you are thirty-six years old, you are not the most robust man we’ve ever examined, and we think you would perform much more useful service if you made films. Shortly after that, we made In Which We Serve, a huge propaganda film which did a great deal to influence America.

Did you ever feel a sense of guilt that you did not take part in the war itself? 

I don’t think I would have been a very good soldier. There’s nothing very military about me, I’m afraid. My grandfather was a general and was awarded the Victoria Cross, my great grandfather was also a general, but I don’t think I was general material. If I had joined the services, I would certainly have been given a desk job because I would have been no good in the front line.

During the war years you worked with Noël Coward. What are your memories of that time? 

Noël was a very entertaining man, brilliant in his way, and bright and intelligent to work with. After we made In Which We Serve, I formed a company called Cineguild and Noël offered us his work to make into films. First of all we made This Happy Breed, and then we did Blithe Spirit followed by Brief Encounter, which was based on half-hour play. He didn’t really want to be involved all that much except as an author, because in fact he always regarded films as something of a threat to the theatre which was his great love. He thought the cinema took away actors who should have been playing in the theatre, and once they went to Hollywood they never came back.

What would you say you learned from your experience with Noël Coward? 

He taught me a kind of discipline and respect for the medium. He never really understood what a script had to be but he knew as well as anyone could know what a scene had to do, what shape it should have. He had an instinct to try and avoid all the worst things about film making – self-indulgence, extravagance, a feeling that you just spend whatever money you like. You can stop filming for a week and all you lose is money; in the theatre you can’t stop because the play has to go on. Noël had no patience with that extravagance aspect of films, and I myself began to have the same sort of feeling. There was a strong sense of guilt if something was beginning to cost more than you thought it should cost.

Your collaboration with Noël Coward on Brief Encounter produced a landmark in British films. At the time it was seen as a breakthrough in serious adult realism. Do you still have a sense of pride about that film? 

I certainly do have a sense of pride in it, but we didn’t think anything much of it at the time. Noël was away in India when we made it. We showed it to him when he came back and he thought we had done a marvellous job, but he didn’t think anyone would want to see it. Nor did we because we thought of it as a simple little film in which nothing happens. The only people we imagined might like it were the French, but they turned it down flat, largely on the grounds that no French audience would believe for one moment what happened, or rather what didn’t happen. However, it won the critics’ prize at Cannes and so they gave it another chance. It’s fifty years since it was made, and it’s still showing somewhere in the world all the time. I’m happy to say I still earn money from it.

The film showed what might be called great British values and how they were honoured at some cost in pain and suffering. Were those values something which you personally held dear or were they just useful for what you were trying to achieve in the film? 

I don’t think we ever thought in terms of values, although none of us would ever have wanted to make the kind of films that are quite common now which are full of gratuitous violence and gratuitous sex. I myself have no doubt whatever that the film business and television have done an enormous amount of harm to the fabric of society, both in America and in England, precisely because they have moved away from the example of the early films. Being a villain didn’t pay in the old films; being good, being loyal, being devoted, love conquering all – those were the principles then. But now all that is swept away, with the result that there is a very unsatisfactory moral condition in the European world today.

How important was the stiff-upper-lip mentality as a guiding principle in film making in those days? 

We didn’t think of it in that way, because it was in our blood, in our education, that as far as possible you hid your emotions. It’s an embarrassment to other people if you bust into floods of tears, or start foaming at the mouth with rage.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing, do you think? 

It’s difficult to say. Most psychologists would say it’s good to cry and to have rages, but the stiff upper lip is built into the English character, although I myself find it very moving when a man bursts into tears.

Brief Encounter, perhaps more than any other film ever made, is movingly evocative of a lost age. Is that a source of sadness to you? 

I don’t think its sadness; it’s more a matter of regret. I wish that films still made moral points, just as the plays of Ibsen or Strindberg made moral points. Today not even plays bother to make moral points. Theatre and cinema are out to attract audiences, and they have found, sadly, that what attracts audiences most of all is violence and sex at second hand. We’ve reached the point where films have gone practically as far as they can go in terms of showing every possible kind of aberration. Also there are so many violent films in which hundreds of people are blown apart by automatic weapons. The authorities are beginning to realize both here and in America that this has done incalculable damage to the young.

The year after Brief Encounter you were the executive producer on another landmark film, Great Expectations, directed by David Lean. Was it exciting to work with him? 

David was a wonderful director, a wonderful storyteller. He was a strange and interesting man, but we could never have got on completely because he was interested only in film and nothing else. He had neglected his education and there was nothing to talk to him about except film; that was his overriding and overarching interest, whereas my own interests were much broader, he was very impatient with anything that detracted from the business of film-making.

Was there a lot of pressure on your marriage when you were both working on the same film? 

Not really. We were both professionals. It would have been much more difficult if I had been the director because he’s the one who tells the actor to do it again because he doesn’t like it.

You had two sons by that marriage…what was family life like with both parents working in the film business? 

Our elder son was born in 1945 and he was a Down’s Syndrome child. It was an impossible situation since we were both working, and only by continuing to work could we look after him properly. We had nurses at first and after that he went to one of the Rudolf Steiner homes where they were wonderful with him. It was a terrible thing for my wife, and she adored him until the moment he died, aged forty-six. She devoted much of her life to him. Our younger son is a very successful barrister, I’m happy to say.

You and Valarie Hobson divorced in 1952 after fourteen years of marriage…was that a sad time? 

It obviously made a big difference, but we’ve remained great friends always and it was entirely amicable. There was nobody involved with John Profumo at that time. It was simply a case of it not working any more.

What were your own feelings when what became known as the Profumo scandal broke? Did you perhaps feel sympathy for your ex-wife? 

Oh, deep sympathy for my wife, deep sympathy. And in a sense for John Profumo too, because I think he was the victim of very bad luck. And he acted very well afterwards. I have the greatest admiration for him.

You went on to make a great many other films including Romeo and Juliet, Up the Junction and Ryan’s Daughter. Looking back, what was your most rewarding experience in production? 

After Brief Encounter it was unquestionably Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli was a marvellous director and I think it’s the best Shakespeare film that’s ever been made, and certainly the best of that play, because for the first and only time it was played by teenagers and all the actors round them were under the age of twenty-five. It was made in the 1960s and this was the period when the whole rock and drug business started to grow and these children were the equivalent of the children in Verona –nothing to do, idle, no jobs, rich enough not to work, looking for trouble. This was absolutely the right atmosphere, rebellious against parents, against restrictive people saying, you can’t do this, you mustn’t do that. The film was very successful, and it deserved to be. Zeffirelli did a beautiful job and he was a generous-hearted man.

Eroticism is a basic ingredient of film…do you think that films were more erotic in the past, when the treatment was subtle and understated? 

I believe eroticism is much more exciting than if you see the whole thing taking place. To me it is now a cliché that stimulates me to yawning, when two people who you know are in love are obliged to be seen at some point under the sheets heaving and weaving. To me that is much less erotic than if you see them give each other a look which is unmistakeable, or if you see a hand move in a particular way to the other person’s body and you don’t see it actually get there. That’s much more exciting than seeing a man feeling a woman’s breasts or whatever it may be.

Were you ever tempted by Hollywood? 

I would love to have gone to Hollywood but I don’t think any American studio would ever have believed that an Englishman with my kind of voice and my kind of background could possibly know anything about what the public wanted to see. I’m pretty sure there never was an English producer who was put under contract by an American company in America.

What is your view of the British film industry nowadays? Is it in good health? 

From the point of view of talent it’s in excellent health. There are more good directors around and more potential stars waiting to be made than at any time I can remember. But it’s difficult to make enough money out of the English market – you have to have access to America – and costs in America have gone through the roof. The average price of a film made in Hollywood today was estimated by the industry a few months ago to be $48 million a picture. It was $28 million only five years before, which means they’ve lost all control on the prices asked by directors and stars and of course everybody else as well. Some films have even been made at a cost of $150 million. This is insanity for a piece of celluloid whose value you have absolutely no way of estimating until it’s shown to an audience. In fact very successful films often fail to make enough money to pay the people who put up the money, because so much is paid to the director, to the producer, to the actors.

In 1979 you remarried, nearly thirty years after your divorce. Did you have any fears about taking the plunge again? 

I was not actually alone for thirty years. I had an adorable companion for twenty-two years, and after her death I was on my own for three and a half years. I had no fear about marrying again, none at all. I felt very lucky to be accepted.

Comments are closed.